Aping Mankind: A review

MARK ANTHONY SIGNORELLI

A devastating critique of biologism and its misrepresentation of human life.

I can recall very clearly the moment at which the spread of Darwinian ideology became a matter of concern for me. Previously, I had been acquainted with such ideology, and recognized it as but one more strain of fashionable cant, promoted by a set of persons quite obviously unfamiliar with elementary philosophical reasoning. Having attended college in the late twentieth century, I, like many of my generation, simply became accustomed to dwelling in an intellectual atmosphere poisoned by noxious dogmas, whether deconstructionist, multi-cultural, or what have you; Darwinism was evidently just such another doctrine, and so I took no great alarm at its prevalence. That changed one evening when, surfing idly across the internet, I came across the late Denis Dutton's article on "Aesthetics and Evolutionary Psychology" in the Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics, an article which proposed the advantages of applying evolutionary theory to our inquiries regarding the arts and literature. This was the first time I had encountered Darwinism in such a context, and when I looked into the matter subsequently, I found that Dutton was by no means alone in his project; quite a body of literature had amassed by that point, purporting to offer evolutionary accounts of poetry, dance, and painting, among other things. Now I became alarmed, and greatly so. Literature (understood in the broad sense of learning, or letters) has been everything to me, the source of all my consolation, and all my self-understanding. To see it threatened by this dirty little creed, with its invariable tendency to degrade whatever comes under its purview, was deeply worrying to me. So I began writing against it, with that same defensive urgency that motivates a man to fight for kin and country.

This is why I felt such an immediate appreciation for Raymond Tallis' new book Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis, and the Misrepresentation of Humanity, because Tallis narrates a similar history in his introduction.  Having already written against materialism for years, Tallis tells us that by the time he discovered the humanities being invaded by neuroscience and evolutionary theory, his frustration reached dangerous proportions:

I discovered to my astonishment that evolutionary and neurological approaches to literary criticism were now the Coming Thing in academic circles. Further research led me to a rapidly expanding, bullish, "neuroaesthetic" discourse purporting to explain the impact of paintings, music, and other arts by examining the neural pathways they stimulated. Wherever I looked, I saw the humanities being taken over by neuro-evolutionary pseudoscience: musicology, the law, ethical theory, and theology all sought a grounding in biology.

As he goes on to write, "The time had come for more considered action. This book is that considered action."  The fruit of Tallis' exasperation is probably the most compendious, most closely-reasoned, most knowledgeable refutation of contemporary academic materialism that has yet appeared. Aping Mankind is the book to read for anyone who has suspected something ludicrous in all those scientific "discoveries" which now seem to fly off the newspaper page on a weekly basis, whether the "discovery" that little girls' preference for pink is a result of early hominid foraging patterns, or the "discovery" that Shakespeare's poetry is so affecting because it stimulates certain neurons in the brain. Tallis demonstrates that our intuition of the silliness of this sort of thing is correct, that in fact neurology and evolutionary theory cannot tell us anything significant about even mundane activities like buying a can of beans at the store, and therefore grand projects of "Darwinian literary criticism" or "Darwinian theology" are, as he puts it, "rubbish." Over and over again, Tallis shows us that the portrait of human life presented by materialism – of things like romantic love, or economic deliberation – bears absolutely no resemblance to human life as it is really lived and experienced by every one of us. It is that experience – the realm of conscious desire, belief, and action – which Tallis insists is the realm of human reality; his book is essentially one long relentless assertion of common sense against a delusive but entrenched academic orthodoxy.


To say this is by no means to claim that his is a simple book. A practicing physician, with much clinical experience in neurology, as well as an impressively erudite philosopher, Tallis displays a command of all the empirical and conceptual issues involved in his topic. Few books evince their authors' complete mastery of his subject like Aping Mankind. The reader who picks it up must be prepared for the challenge of keeping pace with its author. One of the chief merits of the book is also one of its chief faults; Tallis' case is so thorough, he throws up so many objections to "neuromania" and "Darwinitis," that it often becomes difficult to keep track of them all, to figure out where one argument ends and another begins. Also problematic is the long background (almost fifty pages) to the present state of materialist thought with which Tallis begins; since I cannot imagine anyone reading this book who was not already interested in, and at least passingly familiar with, this subject matter, its hard to see how such a prolegomena is anything but superfluous. These are small quibbles, though, and the books' demerits are nothing in comparison with its finer points.

Aping Mankind
by Raymond Tallis

In answer to the unrestrained enthusiasm for recent neurological research, and the apparently invincible conviction that such research holds the key to human consciousness, Tallis insists that physical brain function is merely a necessary, and not a sufficient, condition of mental life. What this means is that no account of brain function, however detailed and accurate, can offer us a complete, or even satisfactory, explanation of consciousness generally, let alone specific states of consciousness like wanting, planning, remembering, and so on. "Neuromania" rests on the assumption that a complete physical picture of the brain during this or that activity is a complete causal explanation of this or that activity, and this assumption in turn rests on the prior belief that science itself presents us with an exhaustive account of reality – that when science has pronounced its last word on a phenomena, there is nothing more to say. One of the boldest, and most encouraging, positions which Tallis defends is his denial of this basic materialist tenet, dismissing it as a "capitulation to scientism." He even concludes his book with a call to rethink the nature of matter, in a form that is more complete than what is on offer from modern physics. He is certainly correct about the need for such a project, but the radicalness of the proposal – which flies in the face of about four centuries of Western thought  – cannot be overstated.

Considerable portions of Aping Mankind are devoted to explaining the empirical shortcomings of recent neurological "research." Tallis describes the significant limitations of MRI scans, the favorite evidentiary talisman of the neuromaniac. He also points out the absurdly reductionist nature of some widely trumpeted experiments, in which a subject is asked to answer a simple yes or no question, or perform some simple gesture, while their brain activity is being measured. Such experiments are interpreted in a way that isolates the results from the remainder of the subject's life, that takes no account of the subject's history or beliefs. But as Tallis notes, such actions bear no resemblance to the sorts of actions we routinely carry out in our day to day lives, which all emerge from a vast context of intentions, experience, and aspirations. Omit that context, and it is quite easy to construe behavior as materially caused: "their crude experimental design…treats individuals as passive respondents to stimuli and then discovers that they are passive respondents to stimuli." The experiments, devised on materialist presuppositions, are guaranteed to render materialist conclusions.


What Tallis is really eager to display to his reader, however, are the conceptual and logical shortcomings of neurological materialism. He has several broad arguments towards this end, each of which he pursues with conclusive thoroughness. For one, he argues, conscious experience of objects (so called "qualia") are nothing like the chemical activity occurring at the synapses in correlation with such experience: "The color yellow, or more precisely the experience of the color yellow, and neural activity in the relevant part of the visual cortex…look not in the slightest bit similar. There is nothing yellow about the nerve impulses and nothing nerve-impulse-like about yellow." As he goes on to say, "surely it is not too much to expect that something should look like itself." Nor does it make any sense to say that the neurological activity and the phenomenological experience are two "aspects" of the same thing, because the term "aspect" implies a point of view – which is to say, consciousness. But consciousness is the thing that is supposed to be being explained, so this is merely begging the question.

Over and over again, Tallis shows us that the portrait of human life presented by materialism – of things like romantic love, or economic deliberation – bears absolutely no resemblance to human life as it is really lived and experienced by every one of us.

Mind-brain identity theories are unworkable for these reasons. Materialists persist nonetheless, claiming not that brain activity is consciousness, but that it causes consciousness (though as Tallis points out, some theorists seem to claim simultaneously that brain activity is both identical with, and the cause of, consciousness, a logical howler which bespeaks their desperation quite dramatically). Any notion of a cause of consciousness, however, runs up against the fact of mental intentionality, the fact that our perceptions and thoughts are about the world. This awareness actually runs in the opposite direction of causal chain of material events which is supposed to account for it:

My awareness, that is to say, is of or about an entity that is located causally upstream from those events in virtue of which I am aware of the hat. The causal chain points in one direction, from the hat to my cerebral cortex, with the light being translated into electrochemical events as the key step; but the aboutness of my experience points in another direction, from my cerebral cortex back to the hat.

The result is that "the brain, which is supposed to be the passive recipient of energy from an outside world, now suddenly becomes something that actually constructs that outside world rather actively." It cannot need stating that science can do nothing to explain such a phenomenon, because scientific explanations always follow the causal sequence, so to speak. And since, as Tallis rightly emphasizes, intentionality is the fundamental feature of conscious experience, science would seem to offer us very little to say about consciousness and all its fruits. No wonder, then, that materialists waste so much ink trying to deny the reality of intentionality. But in denying this reality, they are denying the most basic experience of human life in deference to an ideological imperative – hence, the "mania" in neuromania.


Tallis further notes the incapacity of neurology to offer a coherent account of memory. This cannot be surprising, since neurology is purportedly rooted in physics, in the operations of matter. But "there are no tenses in the material world;" the past is "an extraordinarily elaborated and structured realm. It is layered; it is both personal (memory) and collective (history)…it is accessed through facts, through vague impressions, through images steeped in nostalgia. This realm has no place in the physical world." In short, a notion of the past as past (or the present as present, or the future as future) relies on the world appearing to consciousness in a certain way. And this points for Tallis to the real reason why science can never hope to say anything significant about mental life at all, because the whole tendency and purpose of scientific inquiry is to make appearance disappear:

As the scientific gaze goes beyond ordinary objects, perceived in the ordinary way, to their underlying material reality, so it progresses from things that have qualities to things that are characterized by numbers. It is not by accident that atoms are colorless, odorless, and so on, and are defined by numbers that capture their size, speed, and quantities; that experiences and experienced phenomena are replaced by numbers, patterns, and laws; that the progress of physical science is characterized by a progressive disappearance of appearance.

Since "consciousness is, at the basic level, appearances or appearings-to," its disappearance under the scientific gaze is absolutely fatal to the materialist project. Neurology has not merely failed to provide an adequate account of consciousness up to this point; it is conceptually impossible that it will ever provide such an account.

He maintains that analogies between animals' "environment" and humans' "culture" do not hold up, because "the overwhelmingly influential human environment – woven out of artefacts, institutions, mores, laws, norms, expectations, narratives, education, training, self-education, and self-training – is utterly different from any conceivable animal environment."

This, of course, does nothing to shake materialists out of their impervious dogma. They will have the brain be the same thing as the mind, and that is that. And once one accepts that premise, the next stop on the journey into insanity is clear enough – Darwinitis: "People say that we are our brains; our brains are evolved organs designed like other organs in all other living creatures to promote survival; the theory of evolution should therefore have the last word on human nature. And if you want to understand human beings, look to biology: thus the grand synthesis of Neuromania and Darwinitis." I would go further than Tallis here; theories of mind-brain identity are not merely compatible with evolutionary theory, they are positively demanded by it. The theory of natural selection purports to be an explanation of an entirely physical process; if consciousness is to be subsumed under such explanations, then it clearly must be conceived of in some physicalist manner. Once Darwinism became the favored "theory of final explanation" in the twentieth century, materialist theories of human mentality followed from an iron logical necessity. This may be a minor point, but I think it illustrates the levels of doctrinaire prejudice at work here.

Tallis nicely explodes some of the common tropes of evolutionary theory, pointing out the "lexical shuttle" whereby "the semantic obliteration of the gap between human and animal behavior has been the result of a shuttling back and forth of descriptive terms between the former and the latter." He skewers the worthless concept of "memes." He maintains that analogies between animals' "environment" and humans' "culture" do not hold up, because "the overwhelmingly influential human environment – woven out of artefacts, institutions, mores, laws, norms, expectations, narratives, education, training, self-education, and self-training – is utterly different from any conceivable animal environment." And he reminds us that our lives commonly proceed with a rich mental awareness that transforms even those biological activities, such as eating or dying, which we do in common with non-human animals:

We are explicit creatures who do things deliberately…This transforms every aspect of our lives. It lies at the root of so many things: that we guide, justify, and excuse our behavior according to general and abstract principles; create cities, laws, institutions; frame our individual lives within a shared history; and systematically enquire into the order of things and the patterns of causation and physical laws that seem to underpin that order.


Still, Tallis does not push his critique of Darwinism nearly far enough. He declares that he has no quarrel with Darwin himself or his theory, or with "the more recent gene-centered way of thinking about biological evolution," implying that he objects only to an abuse of an otherwise sound scientific theory. Of course, such declarations must be made these days to verify one's place among the right-thinking, but it ignores the extent to which Darwin himself suffered from a severe case of Darwinitis. His Descent of Man is filled with repeated denials of any "fundamental difference" between man and the non-human animals (its not too much to say that is the thesis of the book), a denial which Tallis himself identifies as one of the prime symptoms of disease. Modern assays at "evolutionary ethics," which Tallis rightly descries, were prefigured for the first time in that volume. And Tallis must realize that statements like "humans are not part of nature, or not entirely so," which he is fond of making, contradict the spirit of Darwin's work as perfectly as could be imagined. Moreover, those "recent gene-centered" versions of Darwin's theory, such as what is found in Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene (a book that Tallis singles out for praise) are grounded on nonsensical ideas like "we simply expect that second cousins should be 1/16 as likely to receive altruism as offspring or siblings." What could more effectively illustrate Tallis' warning about science's inevitable and catastrophic tendency to leave behind the world of mental reality for abstract representation? Nor are such freaks mere excresencies on an otherwise sound theory; they are the ideas at the very heart of the theory. The fact is that the rot of modern evolutionary theory goes down far deeper than one would comprehend just from reading Tallis' book.

This does not prevent him from laying the wood to all those fraudulent academics in the erstwhile "humanities" (now "animalities") departments, who have signed up for the new pseudo-disciplines of evolutionary aesthetics, evolutionary literary criticism, evolutionary ethical philosophy, or evolutionary theology. In what is easily the most satisfying chapter in the book – sixty pages of unrestrained, supremely righteous indignation – Tallis excoriates the pusillanimous, and oftentimes careerist, professors who have prostrated themselves before the invasion of their arrogant scientific colleagues. This is the new, and most unforgivable, treason of the clerks

So it is particularly sickening that the humanities, traditionally a bulwark against the encroaching tides of scientism, have proved so willing to collaborate with the invaders.

If the imperialist ambitions of Neuromania and Darwinitis were fully realized, they would swallow the image of humanity in the science of biology. Our distinctive nature, our freedom, our selfhood and even human society would be reduced to the properties of living matter, and this in turn would be ripe to be reduced, via molecular biology, to matter period. So it is particularly sickening that the humanities, traditionally a bulwark against the encroaching tides of scientism, have proved so willing to collaborate with the invaders.

Tallis calls on humanist scholars, and the philosophers in particular, to "reassert the autonomy of their disciplines," and begin fixing the gross distortion of human nature that has been perpetrated by the materialists, an appeal which cannot be sounded urgently enough.

So what Aping Mankind presents is a comprehensive and compelling case for the falsity of nearly every one of the pillars of fashionable materialist opinion; at the very least, it ought to force Neuromaniacs and sufferers of Darwinitis to reconsider the rational foundation of their positions. But the soundness of Tallis' argument is, paradoxically, what makes reading his book a rather dispiriting endeavor, because, of course, the materialists of the world will not be the least bit discomfited by the onslaught, and will obviously do no such thing as reconsider their positions. In an introduction which wavers between a tone of whimsy and remorse, Tallis candidly admits that books he had written previously to stem the momentum of materialist philosophy proved utterly ineffectual to do so; it is hard to believe that Aping Mankind will be that much more effective. Indeed, it is hard to believe that it will be more effective than other polemics which have appeared in recent years, making a similar case.

For it must be said that whatever other virtues mark Aping Mankind (and I think I have fairly indicated its many virtues), it cannot be called an original book. Just about all of the major objections which Tallis raises against the materialist creed have been raised already, many of them being customary or "stock" arguments referred to again and again. For instance, the basic intractability of mental intentionality to scientific, physicalist explanations, has been known for quite a while; here is C.S. Lewis describing the problem in The Discarded Image:

No model yet devised has made a satisfactory unity between our actual experience of sensation or thought or emotion and any available account of the corporeal processes which they are held to involve. We experience, say, a chain of reasoning; thoughts, which are ‘about' or ‘refer to' something other than themselves, are linked together by the logical relation of grounds and consequents. Physiology resolves this into a sequence of cerebral events. But physical events, as such, cannot in any intelligible sense be said to be ‘about' or to ‘refer to' anything.

Or compare Tallis' argument that scientific inquiry aims at a "progressive disappearance of appearance" with the following passage from Thomas Nagle's landmark article, "What is it Like to be a Bat?":

We appear to be faced with a general difficulty about psychophysical reduction. In other areas the process of reduction is a move in the direction of greater objectivity, toward a more, accurate view of the real nature of things…The less it depends on a specifically human viewpoint, the more objective is our description…Experience itself however, does not seem to fit the pattern. The idea of moving from appearance to reality seems to make no sense here…Certainly it appears unlikely that we will get closer to the real nature of human experience by leaving behind the particularity of our human point of view and striving for a description in terms accessible to beings that could not imagine what it was like to be us. If the subjective character of experience is fully comprehensible only from one point of view, then any shift to greater objectivity – that is, less attachment to a specific viewpoint – does not take us nearer to the real nature of the phenomenon: it takes us farther away from it.

If there is a great difference between these two arguments, I am unable to spot it. Authors as well known as John Searle, David Chalmers, and Daniel Robinson have already hammered away at the same falsehoods as Tallis. It hasn't mattered. The unavoidable truth is that neuro-trash and evolutionary lunacy have exploded in popularity even while the most basic premises of these ideologies have been discredited repeatedly as garbage. And what this suggests is that the fad for materialism is being driven by something profoundly irrational in the minds of both its proponents and its disciples. 

That something is atheism. Here is the great blind spot in Tallis' treatment of these questions. A self-described "atheist-humanist," Tallis repeatedly insists that his atheism in no way entails evolutionary or neuro-scientific theories of behavior, that it is consistent with a non-materialist conception of human nature. In this, he is clearly right (as a matter of fact, most of the prominent adversaries of evolutionary-mania have been atheists, figures like Jerry Fodor, Mary Midgley, and the late David Stove). But while a theory of human nature derived from a real acknowledgment of consciousness is consistent with an atheistic cosmology, it is just as obviously consistent with a theistic cosmology as well. Tallis even remarks that "in defending the humanities, the arts, the laws, ethics, economics, politics, and even religious belief against neuro-evolutionary reductionism, atheist humanists and theists have a common cause, and in reductive naturalism, a common adversary: scientism." I sympathize with the sentiment, but it will never do for the modern-day materialist, whose desire to forestall any arguments for theistic belief constitutes his primary psychological motive to adopt materialism in the first place. He is not a materialist because the arguments lead him there rationally; they emphatically do not. He is a materialist because materialism seems to best support his atheism, and it is atheism that is his most cherished prejudice. Surely, it cannot be a coincidence that the leading figures of the so-called New Atheism movement, figures like Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris, have also been leading figures in the promotion of "Neuromania" and "Darwinitis." Surely it cannot be insignificant that the two doctrines of materialism and atheism walk hand in hand through the present age. Nor can it be ignored that neuro-evolutionary theorists are generally quite eager to point out the atheistic conclusions towards which they believe their research points. Consider the following passage from Dutton's Art Instinct:

Much of the appeal of Darwin's theory of evolution – and the horror of it for some theists – is that it expunges from biology the concept of purpose, thereby converting biology into a mechanistic science. In this respect, the author of On the Origin of Species may be said to be the combined Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler of biology. Just as these astronomers gave us a view of the heavens in which no angels were required to propel the planets in their orbs and the earth was no longer the center of the celestial system, so Darwin showed that no God was needed to design the spider's intricate web and that man is in truth but another animal.

Civil persons do not seriously debate whether they possess some form of moral agency, or whether they are any different from the other animals. It will be a bright day for the west, then, not when materialism has been refuted – it has already been refuted, many times – but when it is ignored. 

Why write such a thing, in a book purportedly devoted to aesthetic questions? Why else, but to reveal to the reader the real thesis that is to be inferred from every materialist explanation of every human phenomena – that theological explanations are not needed here. This is the subconscious imperative that is driving the whole materialist mania, the hidden impulse that has led an extraordinarily large portion of today's "intellectuals" to suppose a theory of humanity that is repellant, dangerous, and dehumanizing in the last extreme. As I have written before at NER, "Determined to prove himself the enemy of God, the Darwinian has inexorably become the enemy of man."

By failing to acknowledge the dogmatic motives impelling the materialist movement, we condemn ourselves to the sterile ritual of repeating the same arguments over and over, insisting over and over again on the reality of things (like qualia and intentionality) that no sane person ever doubted. Once we understand materialism as the academic posture of a generation of pseudo-scholars who will say and espouse anything at all to defend the atheism on which they pride themselves, we can begin to give it the sort of treatment it deserves – not constructing elaborate arguments for its demolition, but making it the object of our contemptuous indifference.  After all, while there is something depressing about a book that argues for the complete non-differentiation between men and animals, there is something only slightly less depressing about a book that argues against such a position. Arguments in favor of absurd positions are intellectually stultifying; arguments against absurd positions only slightly less so (I say this as someone who has spent much time writing such arguments). Modern materialism is one of the most intellectually stultifying movements that has ever appeared, not only because of its own vacuity, but because of the way its popularity has compelled so many talented minds to demonstrate its vacuity, rather than pursuing more fruitful paths of inquiry. For the gift of reason was not given to us to affirm that we are different from other animals, but to extend the chasm of that difference; not to prove that we possess free will, but to find out the proper use of that freedom; not to deny that human behavior is merely mechanical, but to search out the grandest purposes towards which our lives might be directed. This is the great work of the mind, but it can never proceed so long as the retarding forces of materialism hold the field. A civil society is characterized as much by the questions it refuses to entertain, as by those it does entertain. Civil persons do not seriously debate whether they possess some form of moral agency, or whether they are any different from the other animals. It will be a bright day for the west, then, not when materialism has been refuted – it has already been refuted, many times – but when it is ignored. 

 

 



ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Mark Anthony Signorell. "Aping Mankind: A review." The New English Review (September, 2011).

Reprinted with permission of The New English Review. , Leonard Franchi.

THE AUTHOR

Mark Anthony Signorelli is a poet, playwright, and essayist, whose work is dedicated to the preservation of the best features of our western traditions.  He is currently at work on a book-length critique of contemporary philosophical materialism. His New English Review contributions are archived here.

Copyright © 2011 The New English Review




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