Raymond Tallis, Lecture at the Royal Institution, 7th July, 2011: ‘Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity’

In the hallowed lecture hall of the Royal Institution, people gathered to hear Raymond Tallis’s lecture, which takes the same title as his newly published book, Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity.

Tallis, Aping Mankind

In this lecture, Tallis argued that biologism has become too culturally dominant as a means of explaining humanity. He believes that such biologism is supported by what he calls “the two pillars of unwisdom” which are ‘Darwinitis’ and ‘Neuromania’. Most of my comments here will focus on ‘Neuromania’, although ‘Darwinitis’ was criticised with equal vigour and for similar reasons.

Tallis defines neuromania as the belief that the brain explains every aspect of human behaviour and awareness. He believes that the fundamental error of neuromania is that it posits that because there is a relationship between neural activity and consciousness, it must follow that neural activity is consciousness. Such materialist, reductionist thought, he argues, is widespread, and newspaper articles reporting the localisation through neuroscience of ‘love’ or ‘God’ often go relatively unchallenged.

He does not reject neuroscience intrinsically, rather he sees it as immensely valuable and important, simply feeling that it has become over-emphasised within our society, often being called upon as causal or explanatory in ways that he believes it cannot be.

Tallis believes that this over-emphasis has caused ‘neuromania’ to infiltrate the humanities and also become dominant within the arts. He is highly surprised by what he perceives as the open welcome the humanities have given to ‘neuromania’ and ‘darwinitis’, citing the field of ‘neuroaesthetics’ as an example. However, he fails to note that the picture is not always this clear, and that it is not the case that all practitioners within the humanities are embracing such ‘pillars of unwisdom’ with open arms, uncritically ascribing neurological and evolutionary causes for aesthetic developments. Tallis sees the humanities as a place where such ‘pillars of unwisdom’ should be rejected, but fails to note that they also already are. However, his criticism that ‘neuromania’ has become culturally dominant in a wider sense holds, in my opinion, un-doubtable weight and truth.

Tallis criticises two neuroscientific studies in particular, seeing them as guilty of propagating neuromania. One is by Seki et al about the neural foundations of love, and the other by Libet et al which seemingly neurally undermines the notion of free will. Both, Tallis argues, are too simplistic because they do not take into account the human world which the subjects of the experiments exist within. He believes that such studies do not take into account that the self relates to what he calls a ‘community of minds’. A neuralistic view of love reduces it to a simple stimulus, whereas in fact it is much more than that and is something which is greatly socially and biographically informed.

Tallis believes that because neurological experiments do not take into account the ‘community of minds’ then they remove ‘the self’ from the equation. Tallis argues that human intentionality challenges the conception of a purely material world, and that intentionality is the centre of the ‘I’. He believes that physical science is limited because it squeezes out consciousness. He argues that physical science replaces phenomenal appearances with measurements, and that therefore the physical sciences must be limited as all experiences happen from viewpoints of people existing within the world.

Tallis believes that we are ‘co-conscious’, meaning that we are constantly conscious of many things at any one time. It is, importantly, narrative itself which links all these moments together into coherence. Narrative is tensed. Tallis argues that there are no tenses in physical science. And furthermore that there is no neurological explanation of the binding of co-consciosuness, no neurological explanation of the work that narrative does. This lack of tenses is what Tallis thinks accounts for the failure of neurophysiological accounts of memory.

Tallis beleives that the problems come from using language – eg metaphors of anthropomorphism – carelessly. He thinks that neuromania is caused by linguistic habits such as personifying the brain.

He believes that biology must not be confused with culture and that biology as the key to human nature is one of our cultures biggest assumptions. He thinks that this means that the humanities are therefore seen as underdeveloped human sciences. This, I think, may be important considering what he argues is the cultural dominance of biologism and the current struggle the humanities are undergoing within academia.

Tallis explains that he is not religious, but thinks that biologism is as unsatisfactory as an explanation of humanity as the supernatural. He calls himself a humanist, but admits he does not know what the answer is, or where the key to humanity lies. He sees his job as simply pointing out that it must not be taken as a given that it exists in the biological or natural sciences. However, he is certain about one thing. This is, as he states, that the brain must be left behind when discussing social phenomena which are created by the ‘community of minds’, and which exist beyond simply biological explanation of neural phenomena.

Tallis’s lecture proved extremely controversial, with audience questions being abundant and the debate being fervent and diverse. It is clear that he has touched upon a highly important issue for our culture today, raising more questions than answers but taking a bold step in a direction which seems promising.

“Obamapoetics”: an example on why democracy needs the humanities.

Just before Christmas break, I was among the mixed academic and lay citizens audience lucky enough to have booked a seat enough in advance to be able to listen to one of the rare appearances of  Martha Nussbaum in the UK. Invited by the British Academy in London, Professor Nussbaum made her case for the necessity of humanities in education.  In a moment of drastic funding cuts in the humanities, Nussbaum argued that the inclusion of liberal arts and humanities in all stages of education is the only way to provide pupils and students with the capacity to become future democratic citizens of their countries and of the world. Nussbaum was also critical of the UK’s proposed Research Excellence Framework, i.e the recently introduced system to measure quality research in this country based principally on their economic impact.

How does Obama and his “poetics” enter into this discussion? To my mind, it does so in at least two ways, almost at the opposing poles. On the one hand, as Nussbaum was not only critical of the UK framework to assess research excellence, but also very critical towards the US system and her president. In particular she was referring to a speech delivered by Barack Obama in March 2009, where he praised China and Singapore for assigning a privileged status to the education of the subjects “which count”. The allusion to technical and scientific subjects being those which count, unlike the humanities, was quite obvious.

On the other hand, I was recently recommended -which I do to you all too-  this wonderful website called “Poetry off the shelf” , where you can download for free (and legally!) the podcasts of the homonymous poetry radio show. On a Sunday afternoon I came across this  podcast called “Obamapoetics”. I won’t spoil you the surprise -and pleasure- of listening to it yourself, but only tell you that it will give you insights you may have only suspected so far on the extent to which poetry (and literature) are embedded in Obama’s discourses and rhetoric.

The words we choose to use are important, as one of my favorite Italian movies ever by Nanni Moretti, titled “Bianca” -you can have a look at this memorable clip, though I am afraid it is in Italian   – and are able to influence actions. If they are the words of the president of the United States, even more. And, they come from poetry! To me, it represents a perfect case for why democracy needs the humanities today. And, isn’t that something marvelous?

Those interested in knowing more about Martha Nussbaum making the case for the humanities could read her last book “Not for profit” or listen to the recording of her talk at the British Academy in London.

Post-scriptum

I started writing this post thinking I would write about the role and importance of medical humanities today, but it quite took my hand in a different direction as you may have noticed. My apologies for that. More on the humanities and medicine soon!

XXXXXXXXXX and Health?

We have kept remarkably silent on the proposed funding cuts for the humanities and the proposed changes in higher education funding, both of which are likely to impact directly on our area of interest. There are so many reasons why Humanities are important, and so many reasons why higher education should be funded and supported publicly rather than privately, however, that I don’t even know where to start. Luckily there is such a thing as division of labour: the following essay does a superb job both of exposing the fallacies in the higher education funding proposal, and of demonstrating why humanities are important: historical awareness and coherent reasoning both belong in the humanities, and judged by both their presence in this article and their absence in the funding proposal, Britain needs to teach MORE humanities, rather than less.