October 11, 2011


Raymond Tallis Takes Out the 'Neurotrash' (Marc Parry, 10/10/11, The Chronicle Review)

In 2006, Tallis gave up hospital-ward rounds for a full-time writing life that unfolds in morning and afternoon rounds of two local pubs. In these "offices," the atheist-humanist nurses his animosity toward thinkers who reduce human beings to animals "acting out a biological script inscribed in our brains by evolutionary forces." He takes aim at their exaggerated claims in a new book, Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis, and the Misrepresentation of Humanity (McGill-Queen's University Press).

"We live in deeply pessimistic times," says Kenan Malik, a London-based historian of ideas. "There's a tendency to look at humans as being prisoners either of culture or of nature. Much of his argument runs against the grain of the received wisdom in contemporary culture."

Flamboyantly so. In a cheerful voice, turned out in a magenta tie and a blue boating blazer with broad white stripes, Tallis informs 60 people gathered in a Kent lecture hall that his talk will demolish two "pillars of unwisdom." The first, "neuromania," is the notion that to understand people you must peer into the "intracranial darkness" of their skulls with brain-scanning technology. The second, "Darwinitis," is the idea that Charles Darwin's evolutionary theory can explain not just the origin of the human species--a claim Tallis enthusiastically accepts--but also the nature of human behavior and institutions.

Those trends, as Tallis sees them, are like "intellectual illnesses" metastasizing from academic labs into popular culture. He sees the symptoms in neuro-economic thinkers who explain our susceptibility to subprime mortgages by describing how our brains evolved to favor short-term rewards. He sees them in philosophers who claim that our primate minds admire paintings of landscapes that would have supported hunting and gathering. He sees it in neurotheologians who preach that "God is a tingle in the 'God spot' in the brain."

So what's wrong with all that?

Many, many things, says Tallis, but the most basic problem with neuromania he illustrates by cuing up a slide of a fuzzy gray brain with some yellow bits lit up. This image represents love. At least that's the claim of two researchers, Andreas Bartels and Semir Zeki, who investigated the neural activity associated with romantic love by using fMRI scans to observe how subjects' brains reacted when they were shown pictures of loved ones. To Tallis, headline-grabbing studies like that--Aping Mankind skewers countless examples--are "crude enough to make a Martian laugh."

"Love is not like a response to a single stimulus, such as a picture," says Tallis, 65, who relishes his "robust" 38-year marriage to Terry Tallis, 64, a mostly retired social worker. "It's not even a single enduring state, like being cold. It is a many-splendored and many-miseried thing," which includes hope, jealousy, kindness, lust, guilt, delight, and moments of not feeling in love at all.

The backlash against neuroscience isn't new--one controversial paper in 2009 accused social neuroscientists of making "voodoo correlations" between brain regions and emotions--but the crowd delights in Tallis's hyperbolic version of it. The response from some philosophers and scientists has been less kind. That's because Tallis's beef is not just with crude methodologies. In detail so pitiless it threatens to be unreadable in parts, Aping Mankind argues that neuroscientific approaches to things like love, wisdom, and beauty are flawed because you can't reduce the mind to brain activity alone. And, like a school bully, Tallis taunts philosophers whose views he opposes, like Patricia S. Churchland (he calls her the "Queen of Neuromania"), John Gray (author of "misanthropic ravings"), and Daniel C. Dennett ("neuroscience groupie"). [...]

Aping Mankind sprang more than anything from Tallis's outrage at one of the most fashionable of British thinkers, John Gray, a former professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science who has been called "the philosopher of pessimism." In 2002, Gray produced Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals, a book that relieved Tallis of any need to set up a straw man. It posited that a human being is "an exceptionally rapacious primate." What's more, Gray wrote, "If Darwin's theory of natural selection is true ... the human mind serves evolutionary success, not truth. To think otherwise is to resurrect the pre-Darwinian error that humans are different from all other animals." In reality, "our lives are more like fragmentary dreams than the enactments of conscious selves." Our natural condition is illusion. Our faith in progress is a fantasy. Will Self, a novelist and admirer of Gray's, wrote that a better title for Straw Dogs might have been "How to Contemplate the Inevitable Destruction of the Majority of Humanity With Total Equanimity."

Tallis contemplated Straw Dogs with disgruntlement. Especially so because it won a rapturous reception among British highbrows. What appalled him was the conclusion he took away from Gray's writing: that because Darwin showed we are animals, we are doomed never to improve our lot.

"That's fine to be pessimistic about the future of humanity if you're a nice, comfortable professor in a tenured chair at the London School of Economics," Tallis tells me. "If you're a bloody child grubbing in the dirt, and you knew those buggers over there were saying, 'There's nothing we can do about the world,' while they're drinking their claret, it wouldn't give you much hope in the dirt, would it?"

That disgust at Darwin-inspired pessimism is straightforward, but what about the mind-brain distinction? Here his arguments get more elusive. But the basic dilemma is clear enough. It is what some philosophers call the "hard problem" of consciousness.

Tallis explains it using the example of himself, sitting on a plum couch in the Athenaeum's smoking room. How is it that he perceives the glass of water on the table? How is it that he feels a sense of self over time? How is it that he can remember a patient he saw in 1973, and then cast his mind forward to his impending visit to the zoo? There are serious problems with trying to reduce such things to impulses in the brain, he argues. We can explain "how the light gets in," he says, but not "how the gaze looks out."

And isn't it astonishing, he adds, that much neural activity seems to have no link to consciousness? Instead, it's associated with things like controlling automatic movements and regulating blood pressure. Sure, we need the brain for consciousness: "Chop my head off, and my IQ descends." But it's not the whole story. There is more to perceptions, memories, and beliefs than neural impulses can explain. The human sphere encompasses a "community of minds," Tallis has written, "woven out of a trillion cognitive handshakes of shared attention, within which our freedom operates and our narrated lives are led."

Those views on perception and memory anchor his attack on "neurobollocks." Because if you can't get the basics right, he says, then it's premature to look to neuroscience for clues to complex things like love.

The problem being that it is the Darwinian basics that aren't right, whether or not he can accept that it is them he is refuting.

Posted by at October 11, 2011 5:26 AM

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