Vinoth Ramachandra

Aping Humanity

Posted on: August 10, 2012

Perhaps the most stimulating book I have read in recent months is Raymond Tallis’s Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity (2011).

Tallis is one of those rare polymaths- a neuroscientist, psychologist and philosopher; and one who writes with sparkling wit as well as erudition. He brings his formidable skills to bear on the principal target of this volume: scientific reductionism, specifically in the widespread use of neurological science and evolutionary theory to reduce human beings to “mere animals” and the latter to machines.

He labels “neuromania” the assumption that “what neuroscience cannot find in the brain isn’t really real, since the sum total of what we are is the sum total of what is in our brains.” The errors of muddling correlation with causation, necessary condition with sufficient causation, and sufficient causation with identity lie at the heart of the neuromaniac’s basic assumption that consciousness and nerve impulses are one and the same, and that (to echo a commonly held formulation) “the mind is the creation of the brain.”

Tallis labels “Darwinitis” the tendency to ignore or minimize all that is distinctively human (consciousness, selfhood, free-will, that collective space that we call the human world) and to forget all that has happened in the millions of years since we and chimps journeyed in different directions: “the slow-moving journey of gene-based evolution in the chimps’ case; and a much-faster-moving hominid journey, in which initial biological promoters of difference- the upright position, hands, a special kind of gaze-were increasingly overshadowed by cultural promoters such as tools, language and the creation of public spaces and a shared consciousness. Those who overlook this journey are fixing their gaze on the launch pad in the expectation of seeing the rocket that has long since gone into space.”

Our consciousness cannot be found solely in the stand-alone brain; or even just in a brain in a body; or even in a brain interacting with other brains in bodies. It participates in, and is part of, a community of minds built up by conscious human beings over hundreds of thousands of years. “This cognitive community is an expression of the collectivization of our experiences through a trillion acts of joint and shared attention. Even those who believe that the human mind began as the activity of the brain of Homo sapiens, must, I shall argue, have to accept that we have gone far beyond brain activity a long time ago.”

Those in the academy and the popular media who propagate the notion that there is no significant gap between man and beast are propagating views whose consequences are not merely intellectually dishonest but dangerous. “It is a bitter irony,” notes Tallis, “that two of our greatest intellectual achievements- the theory of evolution and neuroscience- should be used to prop up a picture of humanity that is not only wrong but degrading.” And such views are making steady headway beyond science departments in universities. We now have new fields such as neuroaesthetics, neuroeconomics and neurocriminology, all attempting to “explain” everything from why we appreciate a Rembrandt painting or trade in subprime mortgages in terms of electro-chemical activity in bits of our brains.

Tallis himself is an atheist, and this fact adds further potency to his searching critique. Nobody can dismiss his defence of human uniqueness as an attempt to smuggle in theism through the backdoor. What he is attacking are shoddy science and naive philosophy.

He summons philosophers to wake up from their slumbers and to reassume their fundamental duty: namely, to look critically at the framework and presuppositions within which contemporary thought operates. “To accept science as the last word on the mind is to overlook that which made science possible: the mind itself… There is at present nothing in matter as understood through natural sciences- no, not even in the wildest reaches of quantum mechanics- that would lead one to expect matter to assume forms in which it would become conscious, self-conscious and knowing, so that it might be able to formulate universal laws that encompass its own existence.”

This is thought at its most refreshing and invigorating. His arguments against naturalism are more penetrating than much of what is found in Christian apologetics. The most disappointing aspects of the book are his sarcastic asides on religion. Tallis declares that he gave up religion at the age of twelve. And his understanding of religion, or at least of Christian language about creation, remains clearly at that early adolescent stage. Creation is assumed to entail the denial of the evolutionary story, and is identified with six-day creationism or intelligent design.

Thus a dialogue between Raymond Tallis and Christian philosophers of science would be mutually challenging, as well as profoundly enriching for the Christian Church. What a pity that so much effort has been devoted to lambasting the polemics of Dawkins and Harris, when Christians should be reading thoughtful humanists like Tallis.

12 Responses to "Aping Humanity"

this post is so interesting, when i find some free time i will read all the others.

this post was really awesome, congratulations and thank you very much for sharing it with us.

This sounds like a valuable book – thanks, Vinoth. From the excerpts you quote, it sounds as though it serves as a sensible critique of materialism. I’d like to know whether it really rebuffs naturalism in the broad sense, however. Does Tallis still imply that all of life might be explained in terms of phenomena resulting from language, use of tools, sociality, etc? Or does he seem genuinely committed to a non-reductionistic philosophy? Ultimately, I suppose that anyone who doesn’t know the Source of reality who manifests Himself from outside the creation will have to look for explanatory principles within the creation. But perhaps Tallis is genuinely agnostic here?

He obviously doesn’t invoke any “transcendence” as an explanatory principle, but admits human ignorance before the “mystery” of consciousness, let alone of human self-consciousness. What he is rejecting are the evolutionary (naturalist) explanations of much of what is distinctively human, because they tend to “explain away” rather than explain.

Tallis is also rescuing first-person knowledge of the world from the scientistic attitude that only third-person knowledge (the “view from nowhere”) is valid knowledge. One does not need to be a theist to support his debunking of the myth that everything can be explained by matter/energy and natural laws. Nor should theists rush in with a “god of the gaps”.

[…] our Asian friend Vinoth Ramachandra, who clearly believes in evolutionary creation himself, and reviews a book from Raymond Tallis, an atheist himself, against ‘darwinitis and neuromania’, that looks quite interesting […]

Reblogged this on Extreme Abstraction and commented:
The assumption that humanity and all the values that are part of it is the mere result of a purely biological process, is in itself a form of circular reasoning.

For how can we trust our own thought processes, which are in turn the random products of an unintelligent biological process?

Very nicely put!

While it may be worthwhile for some to read Tallis in order to understand the thinking of those outside the Christian faith, it is hard to fathom how reading someone who partially understands a truth that is obvious to the youngest Christian would be profoundly enriching.

Richard Polt writes on this topic as well in the NYT:

Similar ideas, though it seems to leave the reader with only 2 options: reductionism and ’emergentism’, a sort of evolution of all beings, and if I’m reading him right, he applies it to the Creator as well.

These are not “obvious” and if you think they are, it is probably because you don’t understand what the issues are.

I don’t read non-Christians like Tallis to understand how they think. Rather, how I ought to think- and not think- about scientific and philosophical matters.


Having not read Tallis’ book, I cannot speak to everything in it. Your comments, however, do repeat points that I have made in discussions with atheists for decades. Points that were obvious to me when, as I new follower of Jesus, I began to examine some of the thinking of non-Christians.

As to the value of reading non-Christians, it should be noted that Tallis is wrong about the most fundamental question in life. Therefore, it is difficult to place much value in anything that he says. Not that everything he writes is incorrect – “even a blind squirrel finds a nut every once in awhile”.

Also, it should be noted that there was a qualifier as to whom these issues would be obvious.

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August 2012
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