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Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity Paperback – 20 Jun 2014
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"Despite its mischievous title, Aping Mankind is a very serious book, and represents the author's current location in his decades-long stream of multifaceted thinking. Tallis has been called a polymath ― he is a physician, philosopher, public speaker, and a prolific writer … Much of his speaking and writing over the past several decades has been deliberately controversial and engagingly argumentative, and Aping Mankind is no exception … The breadth of Tallis's familiarity and facility with the positions of others both in his own field and in others (such as the arts) is impressive throughout the book … The reader will find it richly rewarding, packed with thoughts worth sharing and ideas worth considering, and quite a lot of fun. For what more could we reasonably ask?" – Metapsychology Online
"This is an immensely valuable book because it makes us think hard about what we are and 'if any ideas are important, then ideas about the kind of creatures we are must be of supreme importance'. My bottom line is buy it and read it and then read it again and again and again … A landmark book." – Network Review
"A triumph of rational thought over the Darwinian afflictions that the author argues against in such an eloquent fashion" – The Quarterly Review of Biology
"A terrific book, though readers must be prepared to read it at least twice, not because it is in any sense obscure, but fully to appreciate the richness and subtlety of Tallis’s novel insights, with all their implications for our understanding of humanity’s precious attributes of freedom, intentionality and moral responsibility." – James Le Fanu, The Tablet
"A trenchant, lucid and witty attack on the reductive materialism of many scientific accounts of consciousness – not from a religious point of view, but that of an atheist humanist with a distinguished record in medicine and neuroscience." – David Lodge, The Guardian’s Books of the Year 2011
"Neuroscience, we are implausibly informed by white-coated Simon Baron-Cohen, will help dispense with evil. Who better to debunk its pretensions while instructing us in its uses than wise, literate Raymond Tallis, a neuroscientist himself, in his entertaining Aping Mankind." – George Walden, Evening Standard’s Best Books of the Year
"With erudition, wit and rigour, Tallis reveals that much of our current wisdom is as silly as bumps-on-the-head phrenology." – Jane O’Grady, The Observer
"Impassioned and intensely erudite." – Dominic Lawson, Sunday Times
"Brilliantly written . . . renowned polymath Raymond Tallis puts the picture back into much clearer perspective in his scathing exposé of neuroscientific narcissism." – Human Givens
"A pleasure to read. . . Tallis is fighting for a good cause." – Willem B. Drees, Times Higher
"This kind of personhood – the capacity, in fact the compulsion, to bring things together into some kind of coherent narrative, without which experience is not just senseless, but almost impossible, is what Tallis believes science cannot now explain. Anyone tempted to suppose that science has explained it even in principle – and that means almost all of us – should read him, and realise we’re wrong." – Andrew Brown, The Guardian
"an all-out assault on the exaggerated claims made on behalf of the biological sciences . . . an important work. Tallis is right to point out that a fundamental shift in our self-perception is under way and frequently going too far." – Stephen Cave, Financial Times
". . . a relentless assertion of common sense against a delusive but entrenched academic orthodoxy. Few books evince their authors’ complete mastery of his subject like Aping Mankind." – The New English Review
"A provocative, fascinating, and deeply paradoxical book. . . Tallis displays a wit and a turn of phrase which often made me howl with laughter." – Allan Chapman, Church Times
"A major and erudite statement of a position that is intellectually, morally and spiritually of the first importance to us living now." – Roger Scruton
"A splendid book. Tallis is right to say that current attempts to explain major elements of human life by brain-talk are fearfully misguided. He is exceptional in having both the philosophical grasp to understand what is wrong here and the scientific knowledge to expose it fully. He documents the gravity of this menace with real fire, venom and humour." – Mary Midgley
"A wonderful book and an important book, one that all neuroscientists should read. Tallis’s fearless criticism of the work of some distinguished contemporary academics and scientists and the rather ludicrous experimental paradigms of fMRI work needs to be made." – Simon Shorvon, UCL Institute of Neurology
"I strongly recommend this work to existential therapists and indeed to anyone who has ever asked the question of what it is to be human...Tallis writes eloquently and argues brilliantly" – Existential Analysis
About the Author
Raymond Tallis trained as a doctor before going on to become Professor of Geriatric Medicine at the University of Manchester. He was elected Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences for his research in clinical neuroscience. He retired from medicine in 2006 to become a full-time writer. He has written over a dozen books of cultural criticism, philosophy of mind and philosophical anthropology including, most recently, the acclaimed The Kingdom of Infinite Space. In 2009, The Economist's Intelligent Life magazine named him as one of the top living polymaths in the world.
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I think that Tallis as a humanist is desperate to distance humanity from biological determinism (which also undermines the whole concept of the existence of rationality and science therefore) and the bleak philosophies that flow from that. He wants Art for Art's sake and not as an adaptive survival mechanism! He wants to retain a sense of humanity's (and his own - there is a sense that he protests very loudly) wonderful difference from the animal realm, yet as an atheist who cannot bring himself to deny his neo-Darwinian faith, he rejects the classic dualism of religious thought. Yet his own (admittedly very truncated presentation thereof in this book) theory still has matter pulling itself up by its own boot straps to create consciousness. It has to do with hand/eye coordination mixed with social interaction leading to a sense of self in relation to others and the ensuing nexus of shared memory/ideas/values so that finally true consciousness escapes the bonds of the brain to exist in the social space. That probably faulty and simplistic explanation will not have done his magisterial theory any justice l'm sure! It seems to be disguised by the classic sleight of hand of 'with many small steps we climbed Mount Improbable' which is an illusory path because the many steps lack any direction towards anything as they rely upon purely random events, such as mutation, for anything to change. Major things about consciousness are that it is analytic, purposeful and directive. The very antithesis of chance acting under natural law. It rules over matter and its laws; it isn't subject to them but utterly disassociated from them. How did that magic materialise - the immaterial from the material? It is so very different from cause and effect matter. It also either is or isn't present as a whole. It is irreducibly complex to coin a phrase!
But where or how exactly does the metamorphosis into real consciousness happen from the instinctual and rudimentary self-recognition of apes? We are very, very different from all animals. Even in such basic similar functions as defaecation as Tallis enjoys telling (Dr's humour no doubt!) not just in the Arts and Philosophy. How did Consciousness escape the dull sleep of lumpitiousness? Existential agonising from sodium ion fluctuation? Unlikely. The multiplication of computational power thro a bigger or more intricately wired brain for him is just more of the same. A bigger lump. The biological binary of fluctuating neuronal action potentials just don't cut it. AI is dead in the water for similar reasons. The Turing test inadequate.
At last I think he admits that it is still a Mystery. His beliefs lead him to scornfully reject the religious explanation that we are different because we are made that way. He certainly doesn't align with any belief in Divine agency and is embarrassed his book may be used by Creationists. Silly people when he has disproved the existence of God as illogical. Gosh, that's it then, no more debate needed!
There seems to be evidence tho' that consciousness is something extra-material; Tallis says so though he locates it predominantly in the social space, even though intimately connected to the brain - well, he has to doesn't he? Why should it not be derived from a greater original Consciousness? Why shouldn't that Consciousness be more fundamental than matter? What is unreasonable about that? Why shouldn't that ultimate Consciousness have shaped a place for other consciousnesses to exist? Why not souls therefore? Surely the reasonable evidence is between our own ears (or wherever!) present in the existence of our thoughts? There is much evidence presented here that a purely material explanation is inadequate. Seems more reasonable that matter derived from Mind than the other way round.
Tallis has done us the favour of displaying the vacuousness of the neuromaniac and hyper-Darwinitic view of mankind with great learning and attention to detailed rebuttal. Important when all we hear is the litany of 'we're not special; we're just animals'. Well, we are (special) it seems though that is blindingly obvious.
I found the book a real education though no doubt some may say I need more education yet.
Tallis has no patience with scientism, the 'mistaken belief that the natural sciences can or will give a complete description and even explanation of everything, including human life'. He takes aim at the orthodox view of the brain, promoted aggressively by Daniel Dennett among others, that every mental phenomenon can be accounted for in terms of matter - the physical stuff of physics, chemistry, and physiology. Human behaviour and decision-making can't be reduced to what is going on in our brains, any more than it can be explained in terms of evolutionary adaptation, he thinks. Far from being chained to our evolutionary past, human consciousness has developed to the point that we have the ability to recognize and subvert the unconscious impulses that are supposed to drive us.
There are no punches pulled here. The idea underlying modern neuroscience, that nerve impulses can journey towards a place where they become consciousness, is plain 'barmy', Tallis thinks. He is scathing about Daniel Dennett's attempt to explain away intentionality by arguing that the inner life we ascribe to others is merely an 'interpretative device' and that nothing in reality corresponds to it. On the contrary, he argues, 'it is not out of mere interpretative convenience that we ascribe all sorts of intentional phenomena - perceptions, feelings, thoughts - to people; it is because the intentional phenomena are real, as we know from our own case.' These questions are easy to lose sight of, Tallis suggests, especially if one 'is a neuromaniac and has a vested interest in concealing it'.
Tallis is especially scornful about the way academics in the humanities - until recently sceptical of the claims of science - have rushed to embrace what he calls 'Neuromania', developing a whole new line in gobbledygook with which to impress and baffle their readers. He points out that fMRI scanning technology is actually quite a blunt instrument, that misses at least as much neuronal activity as it reveals - and doesn't justify the claims being based on it. The design of the studies used to reveal what's going on in the brain when, for instance, we feel romantic love or go on a shopping binge are 'laughably crude' and actually don't explain very much at all.
What gives the polemic force is the fact that Tallis knows his stuff, as a medical doctor who has also engaged in neuroscientific research. He gives a very detailed picture of what is known about the workings of the brain, and the assumptions that are currently being made about it, before going on to demonstrate what he considers to be gross flaws in the orthodox approaches.
Once I'd grasped how completely Tallis rejects current thinking I was all agog to know what he - a knowledgeable neuroscientist and 'proud atheist' - would propose in its place. He briefly sketches three alternatives: that consciousness is to be understood in terms of human relations as much as in biology (a view apparently now being promoted by the MIT, once the capital of mind-brain identity theory); that the solution will be found in quantum mechanics (which he forcefully dismisses); or that we should seriously moot the possibility of panpsychism, that consciousness is present throughout the entire universe (which, like David Chalmers and Galen Strawson, he considers has a certain logic). However since none of these really appeal, he is content to remain an 'ontological agnostic'.
Aping Mankind is erudite, passionate, witty and humane, although the humour will probably be lost on readers who find their assumptions being mocked. There will be at least some support for the attack on the media's uncritical fascination with neuroscience - this is a bubble just waiting to be pricked. But I can't see the arguments against consciousness being a product solely of brain functions gaining much traction with an establishment so wedded to materialist dogmas. That someone taking the minority view should express himself so forcefully will be considered poor taste.
However for those of us who consider the orthodox view of mind to be scientifically and philosophically incoherent - and richly in need of debunking - his book is a wonderfully stimulating read.
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