Raymond Tallis, Professor of Geriatric Medicine at the University of Manchester, and a Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences, recently published an enjoyable book titled Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis, and the Misrepresentation of Humanity (Acumen, 2011). The book is a commentary on how scientism is invading the study of consciousness and how Darwinian explanations for the origin of the human mind are often weak.
After providing a lucid explanation of the cellular biology of the brain, Tallis observes that “neuromania” has led the media to continuously print stories about how some “new discovery” has finally demonstrated a purely material basis for consciousness:
Part of the attraction of Neuromania comes from the belief that it is brand new and that it has grown out of the latest discoveries in the laboratory. In fact, the assumption that there is, indeed there must be, an organ in the body where the soul or mind or consciousness is to be found goes back a very long way. It seems to have originated, like other enduring myths, in ancient Greece. … So when people tell you that scientists have “recently discovered” that the mind is in the brain, or that mental activity boils down to neural activity, just remind them that this theory was put forth several centuries before Jesus Christ was born. (p. 29)
Tallis is worried that neuromania and Darwinian thinking destroys human free will. He warns that if we “accept biologism in full: our minds are our brains; and our brains are evolved organs designed, as are all organs, by natural selection” then “We may have to jettison the notion of freedom and, consequently, of personal responsibility.” (p. 51)
Tallis criticizes the view that our mind is nothing more than firing neurons. He discusses the famous case of Phineas Gage, the railroad worker who survived a terrible accident in which a metal rod pierced his brain. Some claim that Gage’s personality changes after the accident prove we are nothing more than our brains. But Tallis believes the evidence doesn’t got that far:
All of this suggest that vision, memory, personality — everything from the most primitive buzz of sensation to the most elaborately constructed sense of self — depend crucially on the functioning of the brain. For neuromaniacs, this means that the mind or soul is housed in the brain. As we shall see, this conclusion does not follow… (p. 31)
Just as many neuroscientists overextend their arguments, Tallis believes that evolutionary psychologists do the same. Though adamantly he maintains “I have no quarrel with Darwinism” (p. 209), and even calls himself a “good Darwinian” (p. 229), he critiques those who have what he calls “Darwinitis” — the tendency to attempt to explain everything in Darwinian evolutionary terms. Tallis provides a simple example to show how Darwinitis leads evolutionary psychologists to propose explanations that seem plausible at first blush, but are completely false:
Consider the recent claim that evolutionary psychology can explain why pink is associated with femininity and blue with masculinity. Women in prehistory were the principal gatherers of fruit and would have been sensitive to the colours of ripeness: deepening shades of pink. Men, on the other hand, would have looked for good hunting weather and sources of water, both of which are connected with blue. In fact, in Victorian Britain blue was regarded as the appropriate colour for girls (being associated with the Virgin Mary) and pink for boys (being a watered down version of the “fierce” colour red). Colour preferences are therefore scarcely rooted in the properties of brain shaped in the Pleistocene epoch. They are historically, not biologically, determined; but don’t expect an evolutionary psychologist to spot that. (p. 48)
Another fallacy associated with Darwinitis is what Tallis calls “humanizing animals” or “animalizing humans.” He writes that this problem “involves characterizing humans in beastly terms and beasts in human terms.” (p. 156) He continues:
Darwinitics have become so used to re-describing what goes on in ordinary human life in such a way as to make it sound like what goes on in ordinary animal life that they no longer notice themselves doing it. …
Here are a couple examples … A chimpanzee reaches out for or begs for a banana and consumes it. Darwinitics would like to say that both the chimp and I are doing similar things: exhibiting “feeding behavior.” The identity of description, however, obscures huge differences between the chimp’s behavior and mine. …
The second [problem of] narrowing the gap between humans and beasts describes animal behavior anthropomorphically, making it seem to be human-like; talking down humans is complemented by talking up animals. This is even more productive of distortions. (pp. 156-157)
In his view, Darwinian biology lacks a good explanation for the consciousness that makes humans unique:
Recognizing the complexity of the drivers to evolution does not, in other words, give any support to the notion that matter will be inevitably be forced to go “mental” if enough pieces of living matter slaughter other pieces of other living matter: that unconscious natural selection will generate consciousness; that the bloodbath of evolution will beat matter into wakefulness — to the world and its own existence in it. If there isn’t an evolutionary explanation of consciousness then the world is more interesting than biologism would allow. (p. 181)
Since natural selection is a “blind watchmaker,” Tallis goes on to explain that the goal-directed nature of human consciousness poses a challenge for Darwinism:
Darwinism, therefore, leaves something unaccounted for: the emergence of people like you and me who are indubitably sighted watchmakers. If there are no sighted watchmakers in nature and yet humans are sighted watchmakers, in the narrower sense of making artefacts whose purpose they envisage in advance, and in the wider sense of consciously aiming at stated goals, then humans are not part of nature: or not entirely so. To put this another way, isn’t there a problem in explaining how the blind forces of physics brought about (cognitively) sighted humans who are able to see, and identify, and comment on, the “blind” forces of physics, even to notice that they are blind and deliberately utilize them to engage with nature as if from the outside, and on much more favourable terms than those that govern the lives of the animals? On the Origin of Species leaves us with the task of explaining the origin of one species that is indeed a designer. (p. 212)
Tallis is clear in saying he is an “atheist humanist” who “reject[s] the idea that evolution has a goal” and claims “[n]othing in the organism is designed.” (pp. 210-211) Thus, in the end, Tallis cannot help but attempt to explain the origin of goal-directed human conscious thinking in accidental, goal-less evolutionary terms. He attributes the evolution of the human mind largely to the development of the human hand, which he claims encouraged a mind to develop which could use our hands to build tools. But if one animal eating another provides no reason why matter should “go mental,” then why should the presence of a mere hand not do the same? In other words, Tallis seems to have succumbed to the very “Darwinitis” he claims to critique in the book.
Aping Mankind is useful because it recognizes that materialistic explanations threaten to undermine free will, and that Darwinism either diminishes human uniqueness or fails to explain it. Being a “good Darwinian,” Tallis opts to commit the latter error.
In this sense, Aping Mankind is also useful as an object lesson: Though it frames some questions about human origins quite well, the book shows what happens when a self-described “atheist humanist” fails to see that his commitment to materialistic explanations prevents him from answering those questions in the first place.