Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity

Willem Drees considers a passionate argument that humans are driven by more than mere survival

June 30, 2011

"You are your brain." "It is all in your genes." Claims of this kind are reshaping our self-understanding - but should we accept this shift? Raymond Tallis doesn't think so. A medical doctor and clinical researcher, he has nothing against the sciences. Nor is he a dualist who ascribes to each human a separate soul. But he is angry at those who pretend that this scientific description tells the whole story about humanity. And he is deeply concerned about such scientism, as the apparent message ("we are animals") could all too easily slip into the misanthropic view that we are no more valuable than insects or slime moulds.

If we deny that humans are different from animals, we might as well deny that we can work together to improve the conditions of our existence. Accepting the neuro-evolutionary view could be used to justify the greed of Wall Street and the violence of the Second World War by arguing that we have been "selected" for such behaviour. And certainly, biological scientism works against the disabled and other groups traditionally deemed even lower in animality than the rest of us. Such interpretations of science inevitably present culture as a war of groups against groups, rather than supporting the struggle for democracy and the rule of law. If the claim that human thinking and culture evolved only to serve survival were true, we would have to accept just such a dim view of humanity - but in this passionately argued book, Tallis contends that this picture simply isn't true.

Tallis is tireless in pointing out the inconsistencies in the argument that we are driven by evolutionary self-interest. If our actions merely aim at the survival of our genes, and not at truth, why would anyone take the scientific picture seriously as a sobering truth about humanity? Moreover, experiments that "prove" that our decisions are made before consciousness kicks in require an enormous amount of conscious preparation, not least the intention on the part of the subject to participate. As with catching a ball in a sports match, an action may be immediate and automatic rather than the fruit of lengthy deliberation, but that very immediacy is the fruit of training and commitment, and thus of intentional choices made by the individual.

In writing about the neurosciences, Tallis praises their achievements, and says he does not doubt that Darwinian evolution is the "ever more impressively complete account of how the organism H. sapiens came into being". But he places more emphasis on the fact that we are vastly different from the rest of nature, as evidenced by our language, culture and technology, and by the world of tools, cities and social interactions that we inhabit. Somewhere in the past, something crucial happened. Tallis believes this may have been the upright posture adopted when our ancestors left the forest for the savannah, together with the development of a flexible hand that was both a tool and something that provided the context for advanced tools. It is a hand that can point out to others; it can also point to the body of which it is a part, thereby evoking the beginning of a sense of self.

Somewhere in this process, there was the first flickering of self-consciousness; of a first-person perspective alongside a second- and third-person perspective. Community gave rise to minds, and a mind is not to be confused with a brain; minds arise only in a community of minds, developed over hundreds of thousands of years.

Tallis argues at length about why the brain by itself, or its network of neurons, cannot be identified with the mind. Too much would be missing from the picture - colour and other qualia; the unity and diversity we see when we note both individual leaves and a whole tree; the integration over time of intentions and actions; and above all consciousness. In these sections, I find some of his arguments less easy to follow, and also somewhat risky. The arguments that seek to support a more categorical difference between brains and minds, and between animals and humans, are in my view the more important ones.

In his discussion of the evolutionary approach to humanity, Tallis takes aim at the concept of memes, units of ideas that multiply and spread more widely when they are successful. Memes have been introduced to fill in an evolutionary narrative - "the great ditch between animals and humans who live their lives actively". But there are no such "units". And unlike the role of genes or viruses that infect a "passive" organism, the mind works actively with memes, accepting or rejecting them. In the theory of memes, the distinction between the genotype and the phenotype, in other words the one that exists between the recipe (genes) and the complete organism, is simply not there.

Inevitably in the interpretation of neurological and evolutionary insights, we are bewitched by language. We tend to ascribe properties to the object "out there", forgetting the person who is a key to the description. A clock does not tell the time. A word processor does not process words. Nerve cells are not signalling devices. When we want to understand what it is to be human, we should consider not only the brain and the body but also the human who seeks to understand human nature. Tallis agrees with Richard Dawkins that evolution is the product of blind processes, as if made by a blind watchmaker. Tallis, too, calls himself an atheist, but he stresses that through those processes, "sighted watchmakers" have arisen; beings who have the ability of foresight, of communication and of self-awareness in ways not previously present in the process.

Those newly acquired abilities do not go against nature, just as flying in aircraft does not go against the law of gravity. Rather, we human beings have learned to use the tricks of nature, and thereby show new possibilities within reality. And we have learned to make things explicit in language; creating a collective semiosphere, a world of meanings, facts and possibilities, and a world with teaching and government. Here, Tallis sides with Aristotle: humans are political, symbol-using animals.

Towards the end of the book, Tallis considers the humanities, and various examples of neuro-aesthetics and neuro-evolutionary literary criticisms are finely dissected. But he concludes that "once the glamour of high science is removed", such studies tell us very little. The humanities are better off when they are done as humanities, he argues, rather than bowing too deeply to the scientistic overstatement of our time.

While Aping Mankind is a pleasure to read, it suffers on occasion from the failing that Tallis ascribes to his opponents: overstatement. In seeking to ensure that humans are not degraded to the level of animals, he emphasises the distance that separates us from animals - other animals, one might say, although Tallis avoids such degrading terminology. One might argue that an explanatory relationship in itself does not decide on issues of value. Thus it is possible to decouple the fight over moral and political issues from the outcome of the controversy over the possibility of a neuro-evolutionary understanding of consciousness.

And why would insight into our own animality be a justification for despair? It might just as easily enhance our admiration for our fellow living beings, and also increase our appreciation of sociality among apes. Tallis is fighting for a good cause, but surely there is still potential for gain in cooperation between the humanities and neuro-cognitive and evolutionary studies.


Raymond Tallis trained as a doctor at the University of Oxford and at St Thomas' Hospital, London, and says he found medicine "utterly engrossing".

In 2006, the same year he received the Founder's Medal of the British Geriatrics Society, he retired from the profession to become a full-time writer.

Tallis wrote scores of unpublished manuscripts in the 1970s and 1980s, until in 1988, after 135 rejections, his first book, Not Saussure: A Critique of Post-Saussurean Literary Theory, was published.

It was conceived on a long train journey from New Orleans to Atlanta as Tallis read Jacques Derrida's Of Grammatology "with mounting anger at the extraordinary sloppiness of his writing".

Tallis' hobbies are "togethering with my family" and music. "I am besotted by classical music and get the shakes if I do not go to a concert at least once a week."

However, he adds, "the nearest anyone in our house got to playing a musical instrument was one Christmas when a candle set fire to our piano".

Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity

By Raymond Tallis

Acumen, 400pp, £25.00

ISBN 97818446523

Published 30 June 2011

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