Foundations: No.62 Spring 2012

Book review

Stephen Clark, Minister of Freeschool Court Evangelical Church, Bridgend, UK, member of the Affinity Theological Team and Chair of the Affinity Theological Study Conference

Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity, Raymond Tallis, London: Acumen Publishing, 2011, 400pp, £25.00

‘What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculties! in form and moving, how express and admirable! in action, how like an angel! in apprehension, how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me – no, nor woman neither…’

Shakespeare’s Hamlet may have been given to hyperbole, and yet there is something profoundly biblical about his description of humanity: on the one hand, he glories in the grandeur of man made in God’s image (‘in apprehension, how like a god’) but at the same time he knows that we are dust; we share much with the animal kingdom and yet we are ‘the paragon of animals’. And, just for good measure, again and again Shakespeare portrays, with frightening clarity, the depths of depravity to which this god-like being, formed of dust, can sink: ‘But man, proud man, dress’d in a little brief authority, most ignorant of what he’s most assur’d, his glassy essence, like an angry ape, plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven as makes the angels weep…’

Things have moved on (or seriously backwards, depending on your point of view) since Shakespeare’s day. Man has been drastically cut down to size: since Darwin’s time he has been portrayed by Desmond Morris as ‘the naked ape’ (or, not much better, by Sir Solly Zuckerman as ‘the trousered primate’), while more recently his mental activity has been reduced to, and identified with, neuronal activity in the brain, and this, in turn, has been explicated by invoking the model of the computer and information technology. A myriad pop science books have popularised this idea of humanity. If Nietzsche proclaimed ‘the death of God’ in the nineteenth century, it is hardly surprising if we have witnessed the death of man (made in God’s image) in the twentieth and twenty first century. Thus B.F. Skinner: ‘To man qua man we readily say good riddance.’

All of which is supremely important for the Christian in general, and for the Christian evangelist and apologist in particular: for not only does this kind of thinking come into head-on collision with the biblical description of humanity, it also has serious implications for the presentation of the Christian gospel. If we are nothing but an evolved animal with a highly sophisticated kind of computer – that is to say, if we and our behaviour are to be reduced to, and explained, by the way that our brains have evolved – then this strips away both our dignity and our uniqueness. It also, at the very least, raises questions as to whether the concept of responsibility is really that meaningful: machines, after all, lack moral capacity. With a wave of the neurobiologist’s wand the idea of humanity in sin disappears: for human beings are not so human, after all, and sin ceases to be meaningful.

Enter Raymond Tallis. Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity is a tour de force which demonstrates the inadequate scientific basis for this popular view of what it means to be human, as well as identifying the philosophical confusions which abound when consciousness is reduced to, or identified with, neuronal activity in the brain. Tallis is well qualified to write such a book. Formerly Professor of Geriatric Medicine at Manchester University, with a special interest and expertise in treating stroke victims and those suffering from epilepsy, he is fully conversant with what MRI can do, as well as with what it cannot do. He gives a most illuminating and helpful introduction to certain aspects of neuroscience and to what MRI does. He demonstrates that the explosion of neuro prefixed studies (some professors of literature even seeking to explain and account for the poetry of John Donne in terms of neuronal activity) is a silly fad, pursued by those who have been seduced by pop pseudo-science into thinking they are saying something very profound when, in reality, Tallis demonstrates that they do not know what they are talking about.

But it is not only the uninformed whom Tallis excoriates: academics, distinguished neuroscientists, as well as distinguished biologists and neuroscientists who write at the popular level (such as John Gray [Straw Dogs], Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker) come somewhat limp out of Tallis’s grip. His exposure of the sleight of hand practised by some writers who take the term ‘information’, in the sense of that which conveys meaning, and then employ it in the way in which it is used in computer science, is quite masterly. Part of the reason for the effectiveness of Tallis’s critique of what he calls ‘neuromania’ is that, in addition to being expert in the area of neuroscience, Tallis is fully at home in the world of philosophy. He pinpoints the category errors and the confusion of thought which abound when those who should know better confuse ‘the self’ with its brain. There is a fascinating thought experiment in which Tallis shows that it is, quite simply, illogical to equate, identify, or reduce consciousness to neuronal activity in the brain. Small wonder, then, that the ‘blurb’ carries high commendation not only from a leading neuroscientist but also from philosopher Roger Scruton. Tallis is a true polymath.

In addition to the intellectual disease, which he denotes by the term ‘neuromania’, he also identifies another disease that is damaging the minds (yes, that’s the right word: according to Tallis, we have a mind) of many: Darwinitis. To try to explain why John falls madly in love with Jane, chooses to live in a certain suburb and travel to work each day by car, in terms of an evolutionary past and the way that this has ‘hardwired’ our brains, is, according to Tallis, just plain silly, and he has no difficulty in proving why this is so.

You may think that Tallis is a conservative Christian or, at the very least, some kind of Cartesian dualist who is critical of Darwinism. But you would be mistaken. He is, in fact, a confessed atheist, and proud of the fact; he believes in the theory of evolution; and he is not a Cartesian dualist. But this is what makes his book such fascinating reading. Here is an evolutionist who is critical of the way in which many of the advocates of that theory invoke it as the explanation for everything about us. Here is an atheist who appears to be embarrassed at the way that some of his fellow atheists advance their cause. Here is someone who is not a Cartesian dualist but who provides a powerful critique of the way in which many today would reduce us to the level of a machine. As such, Tallis joins the ranks of a distinguished line of writers who, while not professing Christian faith or even any religious faith, have been critical of the way in which some have, under the respectable cloak of science, sought to advance philosophical positions which have no real foundation in science: one thinks of the Nobel Prize winning neuroscientist, the late Sir John Eccles, and of his philosophical mentor, the late Sir Karl Popper, and of Oxford mathematician, Professor Roger Penrose.

The Israelites sometimes plundered their enemies and the enemies of the Lord. The apostle Paul could quote pagan poets who, because of common grace, had valid insights into the nature of God and humanity. Of course this does not mean that he agreed with everything that they said. So with Tallis’s book; there will be things with which an evangelical Christian is bound to disagree. Tallis, after all, is a confessed humanist; and the basis upon which he argues for the uniqueness of humanity and the value of human culture does not take account of that which truly distinguishes us from other animals and the most sophisticated machines, viz., that we have been created in God’s image. He does, nevertheless, present a powerful critique of the idea that is being drip-fed by pop science into the popular consciousness, namely that there is nothing that is unique about human beings. As Nehemiah had to clear away rubbish and rubble before the rebuilding of the wall could be completed, so, in the work of evangelism, faced, as we sometimes are, with people who have been brain-washed into believing what pop science tells them, there is great need and can be great value, before presenting the gospel, in clearing away the intellectual rubbish and rubble that gets in the way of people hearing the message. Tallis’s book is, at points, an ally in this work. In his memorable British Evangelical Council address, The State of the Nation, the late Dr Lloyd-Jones pressed John Eccles’s philosophical work Facing Reality into service in this way. We, in another generation, could do a lot worse than do the same with this masterly work by Ray Tallis. It is highly recommended reading.