Jim Coughenour's Reviews > Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity

Aping Mankind by Raymond Tallis
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's review
Aug 29, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: essaysforautodidacts
Read on August 29, 2011

I've enjoyed the Tallis style of fisticuffs ever since I first read his barbed assault on post-structuralism in Not Saussure. In the last 15 years, I've bought far more of his books than I've finished, but I did make through this one – despite his penchant for logic-chopping points into bosons and inventing neologisms like "neuromania" and "Darwinitis." If you're the type of skeptic entertained by Frederick Crews on Freud or Paul Feyerabend on scientific method, then you'll find Tallis a treat.

Tallis is an atheistic humanist whose humanism is as vigorous as his atheism, which makes for fine polemics. Here his double-barrels are aimed at thinkers who reduce the mind to the brain (which seems to include almost everyone who's written on the subject). He makes great sport with our current credulity toward functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) – the observation that some specific activity "lights up" some part of the brain can apparently convince of us of anything. For much of the book he marches us through the perils of neurological naïveté, with its "risible simplication of human behaviour" – to the point that I now regard a brain scan ("that fast-acting solvent of critical faculties") as suspect in the hands of a physical philosopher as the photographs of the Cottingley Fairies.*

He saves the fun stuff for the end, savaging the "neuromanic" reduction as it manifests in art and literary criticism, law, ethics, economics and (remarkably for an atheist) theology. Here, for example, is his comment on A. S. Byatt's application of neurological findings to the poetry of John Donne:

By adopting a neurophysiological approach, Byatt loses a rather large number of distinctions: between reading one poem by Donne and another; between successive readings of a particular poem; between reading Donne and another metaphysical poet; between reading the metaphysical poets and reading William Carlos Williams; between reading great literature and trash; between reading and many other activities... That is an impressive number of distinctions for a literary critic to lose.

At the heart of the entire discussion is the mystery of consciousness, and Tallis freely admits he cannot clarify the conundrum – at best we end up with ontological agnosticism: "the failure to find a neuroscientific basis or correlative of the self is evidence not that the 'I' is an illusion, but that neuroscience is limited in what it has to say about us."

*For the bemused, I should probably mention that Tallis is a gerontologist specializing in the treatment of epilepsy and stroke, in which fMRI plays an critical diagnostic role.
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message 1: by Nika (new) - added it

Nika Maglaperidze Those neologisms are nothing more than a way of making light of his opponents - that's perfectly excusable I think.

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