Tallis’ Aping Mankind Book Review

Aping Mankind - Raymond TallisIntroduction

Aping Mankind is Tallis’ passionate critique of modern scientific attempts to understand and explain what it is to be human. He describes what he sees as a growing pessimism or anti-humanism that would prefer to see human beings as ‘nothing but’ or ‘little more than’ some kind of animal. In short, Tallis sets out to challenge those who would see us as either mechanistic neuro-cognitive machines or talking chimps.

Tallis’ attack targets two recent megatrends in science. The first mega-trend is what he calls Neuromania: the current proliferation of neurobiological studies that purport to explain the psychobiological causes related to nearly every aspect of what it is to be human – he cites studies, for example, that claim to have uncovered the neurobiological causes of love, wisdom, morality, and so on. Such studies often presume that neurobiological localization can explain the causes and meanings related to these aspects of our human nature.

The second mega-trend is what Tallis calls Darwinitis: the popularization of psychological explanations that appeal to evolutionary origins as being the ultimate causes of our human behaviors. It assumes that we can understand the meanings of our actions if we hypothesize about their adaptive utility during some earlier period in our evolutionary history. For Tallis, Neuromania and Darwinitis are often complementary. Once we believe we have localized some causal function in the brain, and assume it to be innate, we might then speculate about how it got there – this task has largely been taken up by the evolutionary psychologists.

Science and Scientism

Anticipating the critics or unbending reactionaries that would dismiss him as an anti-Darwinist or religious defender, Tallis quickly points out his commitment to evolutionary theory, to science, and to a secular humanism. Tallis is careful to explain that he is not attacking science, but rather scientism: “the mistaken belief that the natural sciences (physics, chemistry, biology and their derivatives) can or will give a complete description and even explanation of everything, including human life” (p. 15). Those who have followed this blog will recall my own grievances with scientism (here) and the dangers involved in a science that neglects philosophical reasoning (here).

Tallis describes some of the theoretical trends that have influenced this new attitude of equating the mind as nothing more than the functioning brain, including the computational theory of mind and cognitive psychology, which conjectures about how minds could work as computers. These theories eventually led to computational neuroscience – where neuroscientists assume that the brain does in fact work like a computer, while trying to map out its inputs and outputs. This ‘mechanical mind’ was also getting support by philosophers such as Daniel Dennett:

“There is only one sort of stuff, namely matter – the physical stuff of physics, chemistry, and physiology – and the mind is somehow nothing but a physical phenomenon” (Quoted by Tallis, p. 41).

I argued against this mind-is-body conceptualization myself (here), so I have no problem seeing where Tallis is preparing the reader to go. He also begins to sketch out some of the assumptions of Darwinitis. And since I lodged my own critique of evolutionary psychology (here, and here), I am comfortable with where he is preparing to go with that as well.

Consequences of the Misrepresentation of Humanity

Tallis suggests there may be dire consequences if we, as a scientific community and as a larger society, accept the assumptions of neuromania and darwinitis: that ‘our minds are our brains,’ and that ‘our brains are evolved organs designed by natural selection to maximize the replicative ability of our genes.’ He posits that these unqualified assumptions, followed to their necessary conclusions, may involve a biological determinism that necessitates a forfeiting of freedom and of personal responsibility:

“[According to these emerging views]… Everything that happens in our brains is the product of material events that impinge on them and the events that result from brain activity – notably our actions – are wired into the endless causal net, extending from the Big Bang to the Big Crunch, that is the history of the material universe. Minds and persons are embedded in the physical world. Our destiny, like that of pebbles and waterfalls, is to be predestined” (p. 51).

In this regard Tallis briefly notes the work of Benjamin Libet and other empirical scientists who have claimed to prove that free-will and self-consciousness are indeed illusions within a deterministic system of material causes. But, says Tallis, they appear to reason that they are illusions based on the grounds that you cannot find it if you look into the brain. “We could, of course, draw quite a different conclusion: that the self does exist but it is not identical with patterns of neural activity (p. 58).”

Tallis warns that if human beings are assumed to be nothing but animals, and if it is believed that we can understand this human animal in full by looking at our mechanistic brains, it may spell a death to the humanities as we know them. While this might at first glance appear to be an alarmist reaction or exaggerated claim, Tallis points to growing trends and emerging sub-fields that include neuroaesthetics and neuroarthistory, where aesthetic preferences are interpreted in light of recent brain studies or conjecture about their Pleistocence advantages. Neuroethics likewise attempts to understand morality and ‘right versus wrong’ based on the assumption that both were implanted in our brains by evolution to enhance our social cohesion and species survival. Neuro-law is also imported with greater frequency to explain personal action in terms of genetic or brain-based explanations that ultimately limit the scope of legal responsibility. In all of the above cases, alternative interpretations, involving an appreciation of modern cultural and historical influences or recognition of personal agency and life experience, are minimized or discarded in favor of brain-based or evolutionary explanations. And while philosophy ought to be the last bastion of reason, Tallis argues that they too have often given sway to the allure of neuroscience. With the advent of neurophilosophy, many philosophers appear to have given up on the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness and sided with the neuroscientists at a time, argues Tallis, when they are most in need, if we are to avoid continuing down the path of scientistic unreason.


Computational model of mindNeuromania

In one of the main chapters of the book, Tallis launches his detailed critique of neuroscience gone too far. This leads into a description of modern neuroimaging tools; Tallis reminds the reader of their limitations, including validity and reliability, and how they do not represent neural activity, so much as something indirectly correlated with neural activity – for example, blood-oxygen-level-dependent (BOLD) MRI. Tallis is certainly justified in suggesting that we often forget this point. At any rate, the most prestigious of neuroimaging techniques not only aid us in studying brain structure, but also correlates of brain function. But again there are assumptions involved in what we believe these machines actually tell us – assumptions that Tallis explores in some detail.

It is not uncommon for researchers to treat these fMRI machines as though they are capable of producing a window into the working mind. The mind is assumed to be nothing more than the working functions of the brain. But Tallis rightly surmises that if the mind and the brain were one and the same thing, we should not only see the brain at work, but also the mind at work. At first glance, this may seem like a silly point, but in involves a legitimate philosophical problem – one that is often glossed over or ignored by neuro-researchers. The reality is that fMRI scans have not gotten us any closer to our being able to read people’s minds, though this fact does not dash the hope of those believing that someday a machine will be produced that can.

Tallis questions the use of fMRI in explaining such complex human experiences as morality, wisdom, or love. He critiques for example, studies that define ‘romantic love,’ by the brain activation involved in a subject briefly looking at a picture of a loved one, after subtracting the localized activation that accompanies their looking at the picture of a friend:

“Love is not like a response to a simple stimulus such as a picture. It is not even an enduring state … It encompasses many things, including: not feeling in love at that moment; hunger; indifference; delight; wanting to be kind; wanting to impress; worrying over the logistics of meetings; lust; awe; surprise; joy; guilt; anger; jealousy; imagining conversations or events; speculating what the loved one is doing when one is not there; and so on” (p. 77).

Tallis persuasively argues that many of these experiments involve taking some complex subjective experience and breaking it down into some overly reductive stimulus. This is also his argument against those claiming free-will to be an illusion. The assessing of free-will is essentially reduced to an arbitrary act of moving ones appendage – does this act, which relies so little on the human reasoning that we typically evoke in ‘willing’ our own decisions, accurately account for or discredit the notion of free-will? Tallis does not think so; and neither will the intelligent reader. This was a new argument to me, but he also seems to have a point in questioning whether the arbitrary ‘decision’ to move one’s appendage can even be localized to the seconds just before the physical act. Tallis instead argues that we may have ‘decided’ we were going to acquiesce with the harmless experiment as a whole, when we originally reasoned about our participation in the study – he lists the various temporal stages where very real decisions may have come into play and again emphasizes the arbitrary nature of the response and how little this corresponds with our notion of free-will as commonly discussed. In short, Tallis takes the neuroscientists to task on what he sees as an epidemic of researchers utilizing overly crude empirical designs that cannot support their own grand conclusions.

Scientifically-minded readers will have no trouble grasping Tallis’ main arguments about the limitations of specific experiments. However I believe his most important contributions are to be made in his exploration of the larger and more complex philosophical arguments involving our use of neuroscience as a method to understanding the various aspects of our human nature. The reading gets a bit heavier here. Tallis first tackles the issue of the subjective experiences of the mind and the objective mechanisms of the brain – they are often seen as two aspects of the same item (e.g. double-aspect theory). But Tallis argues that the different aspects of the mind – having an experiential part and a materialistic part (i.e. brain activation), are not in any way the same, as for example, the different aspects of a house – that is, it having a front and a back. The different sides of a house are not in any way comparable to the difference that exists between a discharge of neural impulses and the conscious experience of the color yellow (Tallis, p. 86).

“… the notion of the two aspects of a house presupposes observers who see the house from different angles. The house does not, in or of itself, have two aspects or indeed any aspects. … we cannot invoke (implicitly conscious) observers to generate the two aspects of the events detected by neuroimaging – the neural activity and the experience – in order to explain how (material) neural activity is also (conscious) experience” (p. 86).”

In short, Tallis suggests that to invoke double-aspects involves cheating: “it smuggles consciousness in to explain how it is that neural activity, which does not look like experience, actually is such experience” (p. 86). Tallis shows himself to be more than capable of entering philosophical territory, as he dismantles John Searle’s argument that: ‘water is to H2O’ as ‘conscious experience is to neural activity.’ It falls apart for similar reasons. Moreover, if nerve impulses are presumed to be the cause of neural activity, as is often claimed, it seems incompatible with the notion that they are the same thing:

“We cannot say that A is the same as B and that A causes B, because cause and effect are, by definition, different items; and so, too, are the molecular and macroscopic appearances of water, respectfully. … Nor can we see one aspect of an object causing another aspect: they are present, simultaneously, side by side, so one cannot be the product of another. The inside of a house cannot be caused by the outside any more than the latter can be caused by the former. Both, of course, require another cause: observers who see the house from different angles” (p. 87).

Tallis further demonstrates his awareness of arguments within the philosophy of mind as he discusses the work by Putnam, Fodor, Nagel, and others. He reminds the reader of the difference between necessary and sufficient conditions (e.g. the brain is necessary for our experience of human consciousness, but likely insufficient) and gives detailed explanations as to why that must be the case. Tallis likewise talks about semantic externalization of human meanings in the sense that he alludes to the notion of an ‘extended mind.’

“Yes, we are located in this world in virtue of being embodied and we access it through our brains … but it makes sense to us, as a world, not solely on account of its physical properties but as a network of significances upheld by the community of minds of which we individually are only a part” (p. 93).

This leads to challenging discussions about qualia, subjective-objective distinctions, intentionality, direction of causality, temporal self-awareness, and problems of neural localization. I found these discussions very rewarding. For example, Tallis explores representational theories of mind, which are quite common and are by no means controversial – I have myself taught introductory neuroscience courses and have often alluded to conscious representation (e.g. that neural firing is ‘representative’ of some mental activity). But I surprisingly found myself challenged by what Tallis had to say about the assumptions inherent in even the idea representation. After fighting my initial reaction to dismiss him, I engaged in a brief literature search and found that there are indeed many logical problems and philosophical debates around neural representation. How does neural activity represent conscious activity? Does it have to do with neural location? Pattern of firing? Temporality of firing? What assumptions do we make when we talk about representation? Tallis ultimately suggests that if we cannot understand simple qualia or ideas of representation in neural terms, then we have little hope in making sense of the rest:

“Neuromania has to look for consciousness in material events (neural activity), located in a material object (the brain), while holding that the final truth of material events and material objects is captured in the laws of physics. The trouble with physical science, however, is that it is committed to seeing the world in the absence of consciousness … indeed, at its heart is the disappearance of appearance” (p. 138).


Darwinism to Darwinitis

DNA BrainThe second main focus of the book challenges some of the assumptions of supposed evolutionary origins to some of our most complex human behaviors. While scientists stressing our similarity with other animals often appeal to genetic overlap – for example, our sharing 98% of our genes with chimpanzees, Tallis reminds the reader that we share 50% of our genes with a banana and if we compare not genes but whole chromosomes, the percentage shared with chimpanzees is zero. The obvious point is that we must consider the unit of comparison.

Tallis admits that we are like other animals in so many respects: we are birthed from a motherly womb and will eventually die of physical failure; we also eat, sleep, defecate, copulate, fight, and so on. But he argues that being similar in so many respects does not mean that we are similar in all respects: “It does not follow from this that I am ‘just an animal’ any more than I am ‘just a piece of matter’” (p. 149). He then goes on to explain how even in those respects that we seem most similar, we are still profoundly different – even in something as basic as eating and having sex.

“We don’t even defecate like animals, or not by choice anyway. Not only do we insist on a certain amount of privacy – and in recent times in rooms with light switches that are connected to fans based in the mighty science of electromagnetism to take away the pong – but we are the only beasts who manufacture toilet paper and argue over the respective merits of different brands of it” (p. 149).

Again Tallis emphasizes our uniquely human capacities, including our subjective awareness, our explicit intentionality, and our ability to influence action or inhibit instinct based on subjective reasons. This world of human reasons is also connected to a shared history of symbolic meanings that transform the human animal into something else entirely, or at least raises it to a level that is beyond comparison within the animal kingdom. To say that we are ‘nothing but’ an animal is to minimize or to deny these unique capacities.

Tallis also critiques comparative studies that assume that human behaviors have evolved for the same reasons as animal behaviors. These conclusions, according to Tallis, are often based on the following line of reasoning:

“If the behavior of a later species S2 (say H. sapiens) has evolved from the behavior of the earlier species S1 (say a common primate ancestor), then the explanation of the behavior of S2 remains essentially the same as the behavior of S1. Behind this is another assumption that if two sets of behavior – say eating – have a common ultimate origin, then they are the same now” (p. 153).

Tallis correctly points out the fallacious assumption that if two evolving creatures have a common origin, then their expressive traits must have followed the same evolutionary path under similar forces of influence. This of course makes little sense, and Tallis uses illustrative examples to refute such conclusions – including a detailed examination of how his reaching for a can of beans in a grocery store is so dramatically different from a chimpanzee reaching for a banana. I found these kinds of examples to be full of wit, humor, and insight; they should be rewarding to the reader.

Tallis then describes what he believes to be a fundamental ‘pincer movement’ leading toward Darwinitis: that is, our tendencies toward humanizing animals and our animalizing humans. We animalize humans, for example, in our short-sighted minimalistic explanations of human behaviors as being caused by the same reflexive causes involved in animal behavior. We humanize animals through our anthropomorphizing their behavior and in our assuming that their actions are motivated by the same reasons as our own. Tallis carefully scrutinizes, for example, research studies that have claimed to find tool use and sign language in Chimpanzees. He convincingly shows that both claims have been grossly exaggerated in the scientific conclusions and popular press. Tool use implies intentionality, planning, and flexibility in intended purpose or possible use – all of which is either entirely absent or near absent in other animals. Tallis argues that purported illustrations of ‘tool use’ are thus far, unconvincing. He cites, for example, a case where researchers have observed chimps in the savannah using sharpened sticks to poke holes into trees to stab bushbabies to death prior to eating them. Tallis suggests that examples such as these are poor, since the purported ‘tool’ is essentially a one-trick pony:

“The chimp does not use the tool for any other purpose – for example to throw at a prey at a distance – and it does not make other tools on the basis of the principles seemingly expressed in this one. The animal does not grasp any underlying principles. The sharpened stick is not a case of primitive technology, for the latter is rooted in explicitness … in no case is the use of the tool a local expression of a global sense of personal possibility” (p. 159).

In short, we need to remind ourselves that while human action is often based on reasoning, planning, and intentionality, animal behavior is in this way limited. While we may see animal behaviors that ‘look as if’ they are doing what we do ourselves, it might just as well be explained by animal instinct or operant conditioning. Tallis goes on to dedicate an entire chapter on our flawed assumptions unconsciously buried in our use of language – where we ascribe agency and intentionality, not only to animals, but also to machines:

“… we are told that a camera ‘sees’ a scene; radar ‘searches’ for the enemy, a ‘smart’ bomb ‘hunts down’ its target; a photoelectric cell ‘detects’ the background luminance and ‘instructs’ the camera shutter to open up or close; an electronic probe ‘reports’ the presence of something or other. (p. 185)”

While Tallis acknowledges that none of us actually ascribe these intentional mental capacities to objects that are not being operated by a conscious human being – we nonetheless use this language as a kind of shorthand. But it may have unintended effects – where we begin to assume that computers actually ‘process’ information (rather than it being a prosthetic aid to assist the processing of conscious human beings). This leads into additional philosophical discussions involving Searle’s famous Chinese box and about our inconsistent and ambiguous use of the word ‘information.’ Tallis again reminds us of how we tend to smuggle consciousness and human meaning into our arguments equating humans with animals and machines – that is, our forgetting that our arguments in many cases originated with, and are dependent on, a conscious human being. And so with some help from Tallis, the reader will begin to understand how we can so easily misinterpret the brain as a kind of machine, and how our projecting our own conscious minds into the machine, and our animal cousins, can lead us to grossly incorrect conclusions about the larger picture.


Re-affirming and Defending our Humanity

In his chapter titled ‘The Sighted Watchmaker,’ Tallis explains the importance of acknowledging ourselves as not only a product of unconscious evolutionary forces, or operant conditioning, but that we are also the product of conscious and deliberate action; that we often inhibit or re-direct reflexive instinct, and that we may rationally determine the course of our lives in profoundly important ways. We are not just the product of a blind watchmaker of evolutionary forces. We cover the surface of the earth with our historical artifacts, symbols, myths, theories, and technological advancements – including watches. Tallis reminds us that strict Darwinism leaves something unaccounted for: the emergence of human creatures that are undoubtedly sighted watchmakers.

“If there are no sighted watchmakers in nature and yet humans are sighted watchmakers, in the narrower sense of making artefacts whose purpose they envisage in advance, and in the wider sense of consciously aiming at stated goals, then humans are not part of nature: or not entirely so. … [Darwin’s Origin of Species] leaves us with the task of explaining the origin of the one species that is indeed a designer” (p. 212).

Tallis briefly sketches his own hypothesis as to how human beings emerged as self-conscious creatures – arguably one of the most important things that separates us from other animals. Most of this discussion is too complex to get into in this brief review, and even in Tallis’ book, he often refers the reader to his trilogy of books where he explains his thesis in full: The Hand, I Am, and The Knowing Animal. I can attest that what he does have to say is truly insightful and fits nicely with what I have read from Terrence Deacon’s Symbolic Species, and what Jacob Bronowski had sketched out in his classic, The Ascent of Man.

Tallis wraps up his book with a few more warnings about the themes implicit in what he has labelled neuromania and darwinitis, followed by his siding with those who would see a more holistic and non-reducible human being. Tallis gives credit to the less popularized approaches to understanding the human mind: those that appreciate an embodied, embedded, or extended mind, with an appreciation that if consciousness is dependent on brains, this dependence involves a pluralistic symphony of brains and that the events in this ‘community of minds’ cannot be reduced to electrical discharges in an isolated brain.

“Trying to discover the contents of our ordinary Wednesdays in the tropisms of the evolved organism as reflected in brain activity is like applying one’s ear to a seed and expecting to hear the rustling of the woods in a breeze. The collective rustle cannot be heard in the solitary seed” (p. 237).

Tallis summarizes his progression of thought in the concluding pages where he optimistically envisions a revolution in the way we think about ourselves and what it means to be human. He anticipates that such a revolution in thinking will naturally follow the failure of materialist, or brain-based theories of consciousness, and a refocusing on the intentional nature of consciousness:

“Intentionality, which tears the seamless fabric of the causally closed material universe, could be the equivalent of black-body radiation. If we fully acknowledge its counter-causal nature – that it points in the direction opposite to causation – and if we do not pretend to ourselves that it can be assimilated to the causal transactions between living and non-living matter, then we shall see that it is incapable of being accommodated in the materialist world picture as it is currently construed. Since it is the basis of the sense of subjectivity and selfhood, of explicit possibility and generality, of agency that treats causes as handles, of tensed time in a material world that in itself is confined to what-is, and of a shared human world, made of “Thatter” [Thatter: a symbolic world of referential language and accumulation of human facts] as well as matter, that is distinct from the biosphere, it does not seem absurd to suggest that it may undermine not only Neuromania but the scientistic orthodoxy that underpins it, according to which everything consists of different configurations of matter. An enquiry that begins here could mean the beginning of a new dawn in human thought: an awakening sense of possibility that need not retreat to stale supernaturalism or warmed-over spirituality handed down from previous ages” (p. 360).

Overall Impression and Concluding Comments

I cannot imagine a more difficult topic than trying to understand human consciousness, the relationship between the mind and brain, or explaining the most complex parts of what it means to be human. It only makes sense that as scientists and philosophers, we would find such questions challenging. That said, it would seem that those on the front-lines of research are almost sure they already have the answers. But in his book, Tallis takes the experts to task by identifying the illogical trends and assumptions in their work. If the intelligent reader does not see a problem with these emerging trends in science, they must have already drunken the neuro-evolutionary Kool-Aid.

Tallis’ book is a much needed synthesis of critical thinking in an age where it seems in short supply. If these complex questions are ever going to be addressed, they will be done by those who think outside of the box and are capable of mastering multiple disciplines – in this regard Tallis is considered one of the most important polymaths on the planet. This book illustrates why – though it is not for the casual reader. I would recommend that a person have some familiarity with the philosophy of mind before they try to tackle it, because it can get a bit dense in parts.

While I agree with nearly everything Tallis has to say, I can also appreciate how his ‘tone’ can be a bit abrasive – such as when he dismisses some otherwise prominent figures for what he considers ‘sloppy thinking.’ While I think Tallis does indeed point out some logical flaws in the thinking of others, I suspect he could do so with a bit more taste. That said, it could also be argued that his tone is no more critical than those in opposing camps – Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Steven Pinker come to mind. I also suspect that Tallis’ tone may be explained by his frustration with those who are given much more limelight, but are (in my opinion) of a lower calibre of thought. This combined with his passionate commitment to humanism, and the very real dangers in our buying into problematic theories of human nature, may explain why Tallis is unwilling to pull his punches – there is too much at stake. Unfortunately, this may end up turning away those readers who are most in need of challenging.

It is important to appreciate that Tallis is taking a difficult position of straddling the metaphysical divide where he refuses to buy into an absolute ‘catch all’ explanation of human nature, such as those who seek an absolute understanding in God and those who aim to find it in an absolute objective science. If you do not understand that, you may misunderstand Tallis. While Tallis praises science, it seems to me that he also has a lucid recognizing its limits; he comes across as a person with an axe to grind, but a person of integrity and passion. I found this quite refreshing.

Overall, I give this book my unqualified endorsement. If you are interested in the mind, in consciousness, and human nature, you would do well to read it. Even if you do not agree with everything Tallis has to say, he challenges the reader in a way that is refreshing in today’s intellectual climate. As for myself, I am looking forward to going back and reading some of Tallis’ other works.


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