Thursday 1 September 2011

Review: Aping Mankind (2011)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXXIV No. 2 Autumn 2011

and plenty of misrepresentation of humanity too
By Martin Cohen

Aping Mankind* is in many ways a timely book, but too long, and too complicated. It seems unlikely to make much impact on contemporary debates. That is doubly unfortunate, as it is in many ways this is also an 'important' book, in the way that few books are. Indeed, Tallis, admits at the outset, in a bizarre introduction entitled 'The Strange Case of Professor Grey and Other Provocations', that he is hoping here to digest the fruits of a whole lifetime of writing and cogitating on the question of the true nature of Man, into one comprehensive account that would then receive the kind of media attention and indeed public interest that books putting the opposite point of view, like The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins, have done. At the very least, he hopes to rival books like Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals by the Professor John Grey. But in this sense, it seems more likely that Professor Grey will have the last laugh.

Aping Mankind, Tallis says openly, indeed, one might say, shamelessly, 'owes its origin it many moments of exasperation but Straw Dogs was probably decisive'. Tallis calls the work of his academic rival 'self-indulgent and lazily fragmentary'. How often do we find the right words to insult others from unconscious knowledge of our own weaknesses! And so it is the case here. This introduction should have been consigned to the waste-bin by a competent editor, and so should about half of this near four hundred page tome. We don't need summaries of Tallis' earlier books. We don't really need endless witty asides, nor lecturer-style 'repetition for effect'. And if all this could have been stripped out, what then would have been left? But indeed there is a lot, I venture to say there is a great deal more in this book than in those two just mentioned. Tallis correctly identifies not only issues in evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology, but in social science and above all philosophy. For time and time again Tallis ends up on philosophical turf, debating, competently and stimulatingly, philosophical issues about the nature of consciousness, self, and the mind.

However, let's start with the social dimensions. Tallis is appalled by what he calls the 'Darwinization of our understanding of humanity' as well as 'neuromania', which he defines as the almost ubiquitous use of what is offered as the latest, cutting-edge brain science to supposedly reveal how our minds work. The stakes are high too, he warns. 'The Twentieth century demonstrated how quickly social polices based on pseudo-science, which bypassed the individual as an independent centre of action and judgement but simply saw humanity as a substrate to be shaped by appropriate technologies, led to catastrophe.'

However, the' central theme of the book is that there is a difference between 'brain activity' and consciousness. Tallis says that he started arguing this point as a medical student, and has been struggling to explain it ever since. Several earlier books on the theme have been optimistically written and then left widely unread and neglected. In this, personally I am not at all surprised, having seen that 'neuromania' is indeed, as he complains, completely dominant in academia - not only in the supposed sciences but in philosophy, social science and even aesthetics and literary criticism too. (My own small effort to combat neuromania, the book Mind Games was just recently cruelly lambasted by a kind of brain scientist as having no useful 'facts' (let alone brain scans) in it at all about how the brain worked - merely tangential illustrations and metaphors.)

It seems that books arguing that consciousness remains a mystery are not the flavor of the day. Nonetheless, newsworthy or not, I very much enjoyed Tallis' romp through some of the idiocies of the neuromaniacs.

First of all, he briefly and competently explains that the brain simply cannot be reduced to a computer, impressive though indeed today's computers are. 'The seemingly unlimited power of computers to do things - 'detect' events, 'calculate', 'control' outputs, [make] it superficially attractive to think of the mind-brain as a computer, and an enormously powerful one.' But the mind is non-linear and 'also unified' - computers are linear and necessarily modular - fragmented. Nor indeed is it any more persuasive to make the computer out of to a vast array of molecules, as Francis Crick imagined when he wrote:
You, your joys and sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, our sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. 
Yet for most academics, it seems, from this it is but a small step to assume, that the 'mind is a system of organs of computation designed by natural selection to solve the problems faced by our evolutionary ancestors', as Stephen Pinker has put it.

A small step but one too far for Tallis, though, who writes:
You would have to be pretty resistant to the overwhelming body of evidence to deny that the human brain is an evolved organ, fashioned by the processes of natural selection acting on spontaneous variation. It does not follow from this that the mind is unless you believe that the mind is identical with brain activity. 
 Instead, Tallis refreshingly puts the contrary argument that the human brain is 'an unimaginably complex nexus of neural circuits responding individually or sometimes collectively, or en masse, in highly specific ways to stimuli of various sort, and to complexes of stimuli' - read 'non-linear', unpredictable, chaotic, even. Add to which, 'What is now realised is that the way the neurons are wired together can be dramatically changed as a result of experience'.

Neuromaniacs, assume - because they have to- that there is some central controller of these neurons, an 'homunculus', or little man, inside the big man - something akin to the program that runs in a digital computer. This conceit goes back a long way, and can be seen in Descartes or, as Tallis recommends, in the writings of the physiologist, Albrecht von Haller (1708-77) who wrote that there must be a 'principle part' of the brain in which sense date is processed and 'motions' are initiated.

And this fine myth has been given much apparent substance by new technology in recent years - notably by Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI).
It is fMRI, more than anything else, that has taken the analysis of brain function beyond the laboratory into the wider world of popular science, to the point where it is now almost impossible to pick up a newspaper without encountering an image of the brain, showing the location of love, or hatred, or wisdom. 
Wheel out Colin Blakemore, for example. Giving a series of Reith lectures on the BBC, he expounded the view at leisure to a doubtless highly impressed middle class listening audience.
The human brain is a machine which alone accounts for all out actions, our most private thoughts, our beliefs. All our actions are products of the activity of our brains. It makes no sense (in scientific terms) to try to distinguish sharply between acts that result from conscious attentions and those that result from our reflexes or are caused by disease or damage to the brian. 
Indeed, a series of experiments by the neurophysiologist Benjamin Libet in the 1980s (repeated many times since, invariably to much media admiration) 'seems to show that our brain takes decisions to act before our conscious mind is aware of them'. Could it be then, that our decisions are not really 'our 'decisions!?

Astonishing implications and indeed astonishing research money follow such theories. One recipient was Alfred Mele, who in 2010 was awarded the princely sum of $4.4 million by the Templeton Foundation to look at the implications of all this for human free will.
Libet's interpretation of this own experiments was that they demonstrated that we do not have free will: the brain 'decides' to move, the brain 'initiates' movement. As Libet put it in a recent paper, "if the 'act now' process is initiated unconsciously, then the conscious free will is not doing it". This is presented as a pure philosophical argument, of course. IF something IS unconscious THEN it is NOT conscious. Ker-ching! $4 million please. Tallis will get no money for his own thoughts though, which are much more interesting. 
Think about it: there is a sensory input, triggering peripheral never impulses, which in turn trigger central nerve impulses that trigger motor activity or other outputs. Yes, there are many intermediate layers of activity between the input and the output, but they consist only of other never impulses and these are not qualitatively different from those more immediately related to inputs and outputs. The hierarchical vision of the nervous system 'does not help'. This sequence does not have a beginning, a point of origin, a point of departure, that would correspond to the initiation of an action. We have a loop of activity passing through the nervous system, without an obvious point where anything could be started. Tallis continues to explain that, after all:
...the circuitry of the brain is causally connected with its immediate surroundings, and these are in turn simply part of a boundless causal nexus extending backwards in time to the beginning of the universe. The inescapable consequence of seeing ourselves identified a material object - the brain - must be to conclude that we are wired in the material word: subject to the same laws that hold sway over it. And so the arguments of neuroscience must lead not only to the end of 'freewill' but also to the end of the individual 'self', the 'I'. The individual self is revealed as a mere piece of propaganda, that has no ultimate reality.
Of course, this is an old argument in Western Philosophy too, Tallis recalls. Hume wrote:
For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I can never catch myself at an time without a perception, and can never observe anything but the perception. For Hume, the human is nothing but a 'bundle.. of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement.'
But back to the technology. Tallis is a medical man, and he points out rather revealingly that fMRI is not all that it made out to be. It measures brain activity only indirectly by detecting the additional blood flow prompted by the need for additional oxygen by busy neurons. 'Given that neuronal activity lasts milliseconds, while detected changes in blood flow lag by 2-10 seconds' there is indeed some imprecision in the method - notably 'blood flow changes maybe producing oxygen to more than one set of neuron discharges'. What is more, Tallis explains, many millions of neurons have to be activated in order to discern a change in blood flow. Not here the pinpointing of particular thoughts placed in minds by the social scientists.

Indeed, Tallis accuses the experiments of being laughably crude and 'mind-numbingly simplistic'. 'In a typical experiment, subjects are exposed to different stimuli, or asked to imagine certain scenarios, and the change in brain activity is recorded.' Thus subjects may be shown photographs of friends on the one hand, and lovers on the other, and the 'differences' in the brain scans taken to indicate the 'unconditional-love spot'. Yet when more mundane experiments are done with subjects being asked to, for example, tap their fingers, 'the test-retest correlation ranged between 0,76 and zero'! In other words, nothing could be deduced from the brain scans about finger-tapping. How much less then can be deduced about grand emotional reactions?

Remember too that 'that most brain activity is not associated with consciousness and the small part that is associated does not look all that much different form the large amount that is not'. The point is, 'the more you think about the idea that human life can be parcelled out into discrete functions that are allocated to their own bits of the brian, the more absurd it seems.'

'Physicalist neuroscience has no problem with light getting into the brain through the eyes and triggering never impulses. The gaze looking out is another matter entirely.' And a bit later 'it is a person that looks out, not a brain.' Even neurophysiologists allow that the object that we construct is not really there, but created by the brain. But this is paradoxical - the brian is shaping the world that is it shaped by? Philosophers in particular should remember that the world is an undifferentiated mass until the mind splits it up into discrete parts.
...think of everyday consciousness as a million set of ripples in a pond created by the impact of a dense shower of hail, compounded by all sorts of internal sources of ripples... ultimately the nervous system has to allow everything to merge in the moment of present consciousness.
Tallis draws other general conclusions too.
... neuroscience does not address, even less answer the fundamental question of the relation(s) between matter and mind, body and mind, or brain and mind. If it seems to do so this, it is only the result of a confusion between, indeed a conflation of, three quite different relations: correlation, causation and identity.
 Of course, philosophers specialise at that sort of mixing things up. That is why they have useless thought experiments about martian water and brain transfer machines. Add to which their ineffectual musings on the gap between experience (sensory inputs) and perception and beliefs. Tallis identifies many things that have apparently slipped the philosophers by in their enthusiasm for the latest brain research, notably that 'the physical world does not have tensed time, in which present, past and future exist'. This is a creation of consciousness. And alongside that, the notion of 'position' is an uncomfortable one to apply to a never impulse, which is a signal that never stops moving and never arrives.

There is an interesting but I think unconvincing discussion of memory with relation to consciousness. Tallis offers the example of a broken tea cup. To its owner it can be a record of the unfortunate event that led to its breaking.
But this requires my consciousness. If you allow that the present sate of the cup can signify its past state, or the events that took it from its past to its present state, without importing consciousness, then you should be prepared to accept that the present state of anything can be a sign of all the past events that brought about its present state and that the sum total of the past can be present at every moment.
Tallis thinks this would be a mad thing to say, producing a universe made up of a 'delirium of all its present states' and adds, in characteristically lofty style: 'Fortunately such a claim is without foundation'. 'A synapse no more remembers its previous state than does a broken cup' says Tallis, a touch too easily, adding that this would be necessary 'if synaptic alteration were truly to be the stuff of memory'.

Yet the idea that each particle of the universe is interconnected in a web of cause and effect is by no means so bizarre, and it seems to me that the broken cup does signify some event in the past, even if the observer is not personally able to trace back to it. Tallis points out that 'the temporal depth created by memories, which hold open the distance between that which is here and now and that which is no longer, is not to be found in the material world' by which he means particularly that past, present and future are constructions of the human mind, with no parallel in the 'underlying' realities of physics. (As Einstein explained persuasively, two events are synchronous only to an observer who perceives them that way, and not synchronous to another observer who perceives the matter differently.) It is in this latter world (of fundamental physical particles) that neurophysiologists are heading towards when they posit that 'memories' are written into the brain by changes in the state of countless synapses.

Tallis looks at some of the philosophical literature on this, and finds, some confirmation of his theories, he thinks, in Bergson and indeed in the classics of Plato, Descartes and Galileo - but philosophers are good at talking impressively on generalities and falling down on the actualité. Explanations of causation and time are not their strong suits.

Closer to the heart of this book though is the argument about the differences between humans and animals, which the rather misleading title tends to highlight - 'Aping Mankind'. Tallis offers that:
..a great gulf separates us from our nearest animal kin. There are, however, many thinkers who do see these differences but insist that they are not real or, if real, not fundamental. Under the surface differences, they tell us, there is a deep similarity or even identity. The life of a person in the office is essentially shaped by, and driven by, the programmes, instincts, tropism, motivations, imperatives and so on that guide the life of an ape in the jungle - to replicate their genetic material through individual survival or through their contribution to group survival. It is this that has shaped their brains, the consciousness supported by their brains and the behaviour that flows from that consciousness. 
As to that Tallis offers a whole jungle of arguments that really make up the least compelling or persuasive part of the book. He says we do many things that animals do not do, and that we do them for complex, socially defined or aesthetical reasons. 'Consider something as commonplace and seemingly simple as buying a can of beans in a supermarket', he starts unpromisingly, before concluding:
The implicit frames of reference that make sense of this seemingly simple act are endless and none have any counterpart in the life of any beasts.
At least, it can be allowed to his credit that Tallis has opted for a practical example, rather than, as he puts it, dwell on those more grand 'human achievements' such as 'writing sonnets or composing symphonies or investigating the laws of nature of believing in God'. He explains that to argue for human differences to animalkind on the basis of such marginal activities is to play into 'the hands of the Darwinitics [sic]' because it suggests that our differences are themselves only marginal.

Even on his own account, the fact is the differences are in many ways marginal. The lives of humans and Chimpanzees probably looked very similar a few hundred thousand years ago - no tins of beans or supermarkets then, let alone those sonnets and symphonies. Unless we developed our mysterious minds in an evolutionary blink (and Tallis accepts that the 'mind' evolved as per all the other organs) then we must have had pretty much the same kind of 'consciousness' then. That is why Tallis is obliged to spend so much space attempting to prop up his thesis with tangential attempts to reduce the complexity and sophistication of animal lives and deny animals conscious thought. Much of this effort. looks amateurish and inappropriate in a book that seeks to debunk orthodox opinions elsewhere. (Jean Kazez's recent book, Animalkind, is a fine antidote to this kind of thinking.)

On the other hand, Tallis is nearer the mark when he says that what is distinctive about humanity is the social environment - bound together by language and tool use, 'artefacts, institutions, mores, laws, norms, expectations, narratives, education, training,' all utterly different from the world that animals exist within. And it is interesting to be reminded that although we share, as every pundit likes to say, 98% of our genes with chimpanzees, we share precisely zero per cent of our chromosomes with them, and it is the chromosomes that actually do things.

Writing in Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Daniel Dennett, speaks for many philosophers today when he says:
If I were to given an award for the best single idea anyone has ever had, I'd give it to Darwin ahead of Newton and einstein and everyone else. in a single stroke, the idea of evolution by natural selection unifies the realm of life, meaning and purpose with the realm of space and time, cause and effect, mechanism and physical law.
This, of course is absolute nonsense, but popular nonsense. Tallis provides a public service here in attempting to put the record straight.

*This being a review article for: Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity by Raymond Tallis, Acumen. June 2011. ISBN 978-1-84465-272-3

No comments:

Post a Comment

Our authors very much value feedback from readers. Unfortunately, there is so much spam on the internet now that we now have to moderate posts on the older articles. Please accept our apologies for any extra time this may require of you.