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Book Review: Aping Mankind

Aping Mankind – Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity
by Raymond Tallis (Acumen, 2011)

(The following book review is by Lindsay Wright)

Raymond Tallis, until his retirement, worked as a medical doctor and researcher specialising in clinical neurology. His recent Aping Mankind is a criticism of how neurology and evolutionary theory are misused to argue that human behaviour is basically determined by biology, whilst the role of human consciousness and social and cultural factors are at best side-lined or simply ignored.

The first thing to say is that Tallis completely upholds Darwin’s theory of evolution as the explanation for the existence of the human species (homo sapiens). What Tallis is criticising is the use of Darwin’s theory of evolution to explain human behaviour. He says,

“I do not question the biological origin of the organism H. sapiens. The truth of the theory of evolution lies beyond reasonable doubt.” (p. 239)

“My attack on Darwinitis… has nothing to do with a Bible-belt questioning of the truth of Darwin’s central notion that species, including H. sapiens, come into being through the operation of natural selection on random variation….

“Natural selection does away with the need to appeal to a designer. Nothing in the organism is designed, intelligently, super-intelligently or even stupidly. There is no need to appeal to the conscious shaping hand to explain the emergence of complex creatures.” (pp. 210-211)

Criticising the use of evolutionary theory to characterize human behaviour is vital because this evolutionary behaviourism is a pseudo-science masquerading as objective truth. The theory is used to argue that our behaviour is determined by evolution, genes and brain structures, so that “free will” (the idea that behaviour is more than an automatic response) and in the end consciousness itself are considered illusions. Such views not only neglect the role of consciousness in human behaviour, they also fail to recognize the importance of the dynamic interaction between human thinking (which itself involves the relationship between the brain and the rest of the body) and material reality “external” to the individual, including the social world in all its complexity. Instead, what we are offered is a static and flat view of human behaviour that cannot explain why conduct varies from society to society, let alone why the same person can act differently at different times.

Many exponents of evolutionary behaviourism see the basis of human actions as residing outside consciousness and being based on what was expedient tens of thousands of years ago. For example, it is argued that sexual inequality is the natural consequence of evolution. According to this theory, women are seen to have evolved to be better at childcare and housework than men in order to ensure the prospering of their genetic investment in their children, whereas men have evolved to want to replicate their genes as much as possible – hence it is argued that they have a natural propensity for non-monogamy. This is “good old-fashioned male chauvinism” and the oppression of women masquerading as scientific fact.

People who want to change the world need to engage with, and address, this issue because these arguments are scientifically wrong and are being promoted by those in power to uphold the status quo and argue that the way things are is the way they are supposed to be.

False biological explanations, claiming to be based on evolution and other scientific facts, are used to justify backward social arrangements. During the 1960s and 1970s there was increasing understanding of how social and cultural factors impacted on behaviour. These theories of social-construction were important in providing correct ammunition for those wanting to change the role of women, child socialisation and society in general. In response, those who wanted to maintain the status quo, in particular, to “keep women in their place”, welcomed a “scientific” justification as to why change is impossible, hence the growing support for pseudo-scientific evolutionary theories of behaviour. Tallis does not provide an analysis of how evolutionary psychology is misused to uphold and maintain a subordinate position for women; for further analysis of this see Wood & Eagly (2002).

The most important impact of the application of the theory of evolution to human behaviour is that it downplays any role for human consciousness and human action to change the world. Evolutionary theory is being used as the new “opiate of the people”, to borrow Karl Marx’s phrase in regard to the role of religion in the nineteenth century. Although Tallis is no revolutionary, he is an atheist and says, “It does not seem to me a very great advance to escape from the prison of false supernatural thought only to land in the prison of a naturalistic understanding”. (p. 10)

Those promoting evolutionary theories of human behaviour claim legitimacy by arguing that their theories have a scientific basis, i.e. by claiming that these theories spring from Darwin’s theory of evolution (which is about the physical evolution of our species), as well as pointing to the similarities between us and other animals, gene theories, and, more recently, developments in neuroscience. This evolutionary behaviourism is actually opposed to a real scientific understanding of reality, and Tallis’ book is about challenging this incorrect approach, particularly the inappropriate use of neuroscience to support evolutionary theories of behaviour. His criticism of the scientifically incorrect conclusions reached by sections of the neuro-scientific community is vitally important because neuroscience in recent decades has often been considered the arbitrator of what is scientifically correct and incorrect in regard to the study and analysis of thinking and behaviour. It is not necessarily the fault of neuroscientists that, in both the humanities and sciences lately, a theory is given greater weight if it can be “proved” using brain scans.

Thereby, we have the extraordinary situation of neuro-scientific “evidence” being used in the arts to explain the impact of paintings, music and literature by examining the neural pathways that are stimulated. It is argued that our aesthetic preferences were forged in the Pleistocene era (which ended 10,000 years ago) rather than emerging out of current social and cultural influences. In this view, art criticism should become a branch of the neuro-sciences. However, if art and literature appreciation were simply a matter of stimulating neurones, then, as Tallis points out, why don’t we all respond in the same way to individual pieces of art or literature?

Such a stance fails to see humans as having consciousness that can determine behaviour, which is one of Tallis’ central critiques of this pseudo-neuroscience. This has become a notable trend among writers about human behaviour. As he puts it, neuroscience “is often given authority where it has none. This is reflected in the assumption that what neuroscience cannot find in the brain isn’t really real…” (p. 244) Tallis correctly argues that neuroscience cannot capture everything that happens in the human social world by looking inside an individual’s brain. He says, “Only the prior assumption that neuroscience speaks the last word on what we are could force us to deny the existence of the self on the grounds that it cannot be detected by electrodes or scanners”. (p. 58) In contrast, the central argument of Aping Mankind is that consciousness, the self and our personalities do exist but that they are not identical with hard-wired (pre-determined) patterns of neural activity. Tallis states, “the phrase ‘from the brain, and from the brain only’ is at the root of the notion, to which this book is opposed: that the brain is not only a necessary but also a sufficient condition of conscious experiences” (p. 30, emphasis in original)

In Aping Mankind, Tallis is specifically trying to criticise what he calls “neuromania” (the idea that the mind is nothing but a collection of synapses that are predetermined to fire in a certain way, and that our consciousness, identity, thinking and behaviour are identical with that) and “Darwinitis” (that because the mind is an evolved organ, behaviour and thinking are determined by the historical workings of the processes of natural selection and by what was adaptive to ensure replication of the genes in ancestral environments tens of thousands of years ago). This kind of evolutionary psychology claims to be able to explain all our everyday choices on the basis of evolution, reducing human life to a chain of programmed responses, thereby overlooking the role of conscious deliberation and the impact of social and cultural factors.

Tallis’ examples of this kind of thinking include, for example, that of investment traders who, according to some evolutionary behaviourists, are merely trying to make the world a safer place for their genes, and men who sleep with many women are simply trying to replicate their genes as many times as possible. The implication is that current oppressive relations between men and women are immutable and eternal, a claim not verified by historical and other real scientific evidence. In fact, what would (and usually does) follow from this is the idea that human relations and society itself are a function of our genetic inheritance – so that any attempt to bring about fundamental social change (including in the ways that human beings relate to each other) is doomed (“unnatural”) and bound to produce disaster.

Just to take a small but devastating counter-argument, some of these theorists argue that women like pink because their ancestors were responsible for collecting berries for food; whereas men are attracted to blue because their ancestors were hunters, and blue is related to blue skies when hunting animals and blue water when fishing. Yet, as Tallis points out, in the Victorian era, pink was the colour for boys and blue the colour for girls, so rather than colour preferences being determined by evolution rooted in the Pleistocene epoch, they are historically and culturally (not biologically) determined.

Tallis’ highlights that there is increasing evidence to show that rather than brain function being localised, it is the brain’s ability to function as an integral unit that is most critical to its functions. He provides an in-depth criticism of the currently popular computational theory of mind.

He also details some of the conceptual, methodological and statistical problems in the research (which is often simplistic and far removed from real world situations), and he outlines some of the limitations of neurological and evolutionary theory in explaining human behaviour and consciousness. He argues that a correlation on a brain scan does not prove causation nor does it prove that neural activity and consciousness are identical; neural activity is necessary for human consciousness but not sufficient to explain it. He argues that the neuromaniacs fail to explain human intentionality, our ability to perceive without action, to contemplate the world, to make plans and to postpone actions, our ability to operate in tenses (past, current and future) and memory – if human behaviour were purely down to how are our brains are wired at birth these things would not be possible. Tallis notes that the same neurones are activated whether remembering a past event or seeing a current event, so that neuroscience is unable to differentiate these two events when looking at brain scans; yet humans are able to differentiate between them.

Tallis argues that, “humans, through getting our heads together, have transcended our biology… running with the biological givens, we have transformed them into something profoundly different”. (p. 6) He states that a key element in evolving human consciousness is the role of the collective process (“we shall not find the evolution of the community of minds in the growth or restructuring evident in individual brains” – p. 225), but sadly he does not expand sufficiently on this very interesting proposition.

Further, although he mentions the role of the collective, as well as pointing out that evolutionary theory cannot explain the huge variations in human behaviour between cultures and within cultures, he appears to take insufficient account of how social and cultural factors impact on individual behaviour. He criticises “experiments that remove selves from their worlds and focus on elements of behaviour that are uprooted from the contexts that make sense of actions” (p. 247), but Tallis does not quote any of the research looking at the determining influence of social and cultural factors on human behaviour. People’s consciousness does not derive from itself, but it develops in a dynamic relationship to their world, their experiences, the dominant social relations and ideas, and other factors that are external to their consciousness, and their thinking can react back on all that.

Tallis criticises the neurological experiments for reducing human life to “responses to stimuli or to making trivial, often dichotomous, choices”, which isolates “an action from an entire field of action, from the flux of life” (p. 282) The experiments become tautological: “If you reduce human life to responses to stimuli, then you will seem to be justified in seeing us as biological devices programmed to respond to stimuli”. (p. 283) This in turn “links with one of the master-assumptions behind neuro-evolutionary pseudo-disciplines: that we are so devised that everything we do directly or indirectly serves the project of gene replication.” (p. 283)

Tallis describes his book as a “one-stop shop for anyone wishing to question the wild and often ludicrous claims that are made on behalf of biologism”. Although Aping Mankind is the most in-depth critique I have read on the role of neuroscience in the roller-coaster of biological determinism, his arguments in places feel weak and, he focuses far too much on the differences between animals and humans as the basis of his arguments as to why biological determinism and evolutionary psychology are wrong.

The distinction between humans and other species is crucially important in regard to the evolution of behaviour. For instance, as Friedrich Engels remarked, spiders may make webs as beautiful as any cathedral, but unlike human beings, spiders are not carrying out a conscious plan to implement a vision of what they want to construct. But at the same time, in understanding human thinking and acting, it is useful to analyse the role of learning and consciousness in higher animals.

For example, the toads in my garden used to behave in a way that could be considered as being consistent with evolution, that is they would stand completely still in the face of danger (me). Within two years they realised that to continue in this way would result in them continuing to be (accidentally) stood on and in rainy weather becoming my skateboard down the garden path. Now when they see me coming they move off the path and stand still again. I have no illusions, I don’t believe that by their 50th birthdays they will have learnt do the weeding but they clearly have an ability to learn and perhaps some level of consciousness.

Likewise, cows learn to go to the milking shed at the appropriate time for milking. This is a very new phenomenon in their long evolutionary history and shows some ability to change patterns, with whatever that might imply about consciousness. Tallis is just far too caught up with his belief that the best way to undermine the misapplication of evolutionary theory to behaviour is to prove the differences between human and animal consciousness.

Another criticism I have of Aping Mankind is the very limited coverage given to the brain’s plasticity (the ability of different parts of the brain to grow and change in response to the demands of human activity and experience). I see brain plasticity as one of the essential pillars for dealing with biological determinism. It is very clear that our brains are not permanently hard-wired at birth, as would be expected if biology and evolution were key to determining behaviour. Tallis gives this topic only sparse coverage. He uses the example of changes in the brain when someone learns to play the violin. I believe that there are stronger examples in the fight against the dominance of biological determinism. I will present here what I consider to be two better examples of brain plasticity, from books that aren’t even focussed on evolution or neuroscience.

The first example is from Walter (2010) who reviews various research that demonstrates how behaviour and experience can actually change biological make-up, including the size of anatomical structures in the brain. Her most impressive example is research looking at the posterior hippocampus part of the brain in London cab (taxi) drivers. This research found that the posterior hippocampus was larger in cab drivers with over two years’ experience than in controls. Further, the greater the number of years of taxi driving, “the bigger the posterior hippocampus, so that as they went on adding detail to their knowledge of the city, their grey matter grew. Since the volume of grey matter in this part of the brain correlated with the amount of time spent as a taxi driver, this suggests that the human brain can change physically in response to the environment, even during adulthood.” This is a very important example, as women are often said to lack map reading skills, which is usually put down to hard-wired brain differences between men and women. However, this example from Walter convincingly suggests that rather than biology being responsible for the differences seen between men’s and women’s brains, these differences could be better explained by differences in upbringing, behaviour and experience. Walter also examines research exposing how expectations, power differences and culture can determine behaviour.

A second example is from a book on substance abuse. Childress (2006) describes research on monkeys that found that changes in the environment could determine the number of dopamine D2 receptors, which in turn determined the likelihood of enjoying cocaine. When “alpha male” monkeys were moved from individual to group housing, those monkeys that achieved dominance showed a significant increase in dopamine D2 receptors and a disinterest in cocaine; whereas the subordinate monkeys were found to have a significantly lower number of D2 receptors and avidly self-administered cocaine. So in this example it was not a hard-wired brain at birth that determined the number of dopamine receptors but rather environmental factors.

Likewise, Avakian (2007) notes that what is claimed to be “human nature” is actually a reflection of the:

“economic structure and culture conditioned thereby. It is not innate in human beings, it is not ‘in their genes’, people are not ‘hard wired’ for this… All history is nothing but a continuous transformation of human nature… [O]ne of the defining characteristics of the ‘nature’ of human beings is precisely the great ‘plasticity’ that they have – the ability to respond in a variety of ways to things, and the ability to change how they see and respond to things when they change their conditions and change themselves in dialectical relation with that.

“In short, ‘human nature’, to the degree that we can speak of such a thing, is very flexible and changes with changes in human society.”

A further criticism I have is that Tallis is very dismissive of the role of gene theory saying, “Most thoughtful writers, even those inclined to biologism, know that the ‘gene-for’ notion, when applied to human behaviour, has had its day.” (p. 330.) However, I could not disagree with him more. I believe that gene theories of behaviour and temperament are very much alive and well. To give just one example, from the counselling world, the June 2011 issue of Therapy Today, leads with an article entitled, “Happiness gene discovered”, explaining how whether or not we tend to be naturally happy or sad is dependant on our genetic make-up rather than our life experience. (Further, different people undergoing similar experiences may have very different interpretations and evaluations of them, which speaks to the role of consciousness in emotional reactions.) This is just one very tiny example of how gene theory is being used to underpin explanations of behaviour, temperament and mental health. For more criticism of gene theory as applied to behaviour, particularly the methodological flaws in the twin research, see Joseph (2003).

Tallis’ book is a fairly easy read in that he puts his arguments across simply but he assumes his reader has the vocabulary of a neuroscientist. A glossary of the main terms specific to neuroscience and evolutionary theory would have made this book much easier to read on the train without access to a dictionary.

In conclusion, I believe that Aping Mankind is a useful addition for those who are already well-versed in the arguments of the evolutionary behaviourists, and who want to develop their arguments against the supremacy of this pseudo-science. However, I think that, although Tallis writes in a simple clear way, his book will be of limited use to those who are looking for an introductory text critically examining the arguments of those who claim that human thought and behaviour are little more than genes, brain synapses and evolution.

Avakian, B. (2007) “Making Revolution, Emancipating Humanity”, Revolution, no. 105, 21 October 2007.

Childress, A.R. (2006) “What Can Human Brain Imaging Tell Us About Vulnerability to Addiction & to Relapse?” in Miller, W.R. and Carroll, K.M. Rethinking Substance Abuse, The Guilford Press, New York.

Joseph, J. (2003) The Gene Illusion – Genetic Research in Psychiatry and Psychology Under the Microscope, published by PCCS books.

Walter, N. (2010) Living Dolls, Published by Virago, London.

Wood, W. & Eagly, A.H. (2002) “A Cross-cultural Analysis of the Behaviour of Women and Men: Implications for the Origins of Sex Differences”, Psychology Bulletin, Volume 128(5), pp. 699-727.

August 3, 2012 Posted by | articles | 2 Comments