It will come, to begin with — in fact maybe it’s already coming — in cautious, hedging statements like Raymond Tallis’s Wall Street Journal essay assailing reductionist “biologism.” Writes Tallis:
The world of academe is currently in the grip of a strange and worrying epidemic of biologism, which has also captured the popular imagination. Scientists, philosophers and quite a few toilers in the humanities believe — and would have the rest of us believe — that nothing fundamental separates humanity from animality.
Humanities scholars find this reductionism compelling, explains Dr. Tallis, because they listen to specialists in scientific fields who think they can speak to philosophical questions.
Many in the humanities have embraced these views with astonishing fervor. New disciplines, prefixed by “neuro” or “evolutionary” or even “neuro-evolutionary,” have been invented. “Neuro-aesthetics” explains aesthetic pleasure in terms of activity in certain parts of the brain observed when people are enjoying works of art. A propensity for aesthetic brain-tingles, implanted in us by evolution, causes us to tingle to the right kinds of things, such as pictures of landscapes loaded with food.
“Neuro-economics” can explain why we buy things we don’t need or can’t afford, by identifying ancestral imbalances between the want-it center in the amygdala, deep in the cerebral hemispheres, and the wait-until-you-can-afford-it center in the prudent frontal lobes. Those toxic subprime mortgages, it appears, were in fact “neurotoxic.” Conspicuous consumption and our trillion-dollar debts are due to a desire to advertise our genetic health, analogous to a peacock virtually crippled by its meretricious tail.
The humanists are spellbound and intimidated, we might add, by the abundance of unfamiliar technical terms and ideas coming out of the scientific world and so unthinkingly assent to what they’re told: that people are basically animals without souls or free will.
Now note the way Tallis, professor of Geriatric Medicine at the University of Manchester and author of Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity, puts his assent to Darwinian principles in eloquent parentheses.
Biologism has two cardinal manifestations. One is the claim that the mind is the brain, or the activity of the brain, so that one of the most powerful ways to advance our understanding of ourselves is to look at our brains in action, using the latest scanning devices. The other is the claim that Darwinism explains not only how the organism Homo sapiens came into being (as, of course, it does) but also what motivates people and shapes their day-to-day behavior.
These beliefs are closely connected. If the brain is an evolved organ, shaped by natural selection to ensure evolutionary success (as it most surely is), and if the mind is the brain and nothing more, then the mind and all those things we are minded to do can be explained by the evolutionary imperative. The mind is a cluster of apps or modules securing the replication of the genes that are expressed in our bodies. [emphasis added]
That’s exactly how we’d put it if we wanted to criticize an idea but felt constrained from doing so by the current iron fashion. He is criticizing two manifestations of biologism while courteously indicating his acceptance of biolgism’s fountainhead.
Here’s our read: He knows what he’s saying will already upset the prevailing fashion so he needs to buy off some measure of hostile attention by the deferential use of parenthetical phrases. The “of course” and the “most surely” — not just “surely” but “most surely” — sound almost sarcastic. It is with little, formal bows to orthodoxy like that that writers under repressive regimes have long hinted at their true views.
Writers, like speakers, reveal so much of themselves without intending to do so. Even our punctuation gives us away.