Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity

Written by Raymond Tallis Reviewed By Grant Horner

It is a commonplace in orthodox Christianity that postlapsarian man is, above all else, to a great extent deceived about his own nature. Nearly all errors, it might be said in consequence, have their root in anthropological errors. If you are wrong about yourself, what then will you get right?

Since Lucretius wrote his first-century B.C. Latin dactylic hexameter poem De rerum natura it has been widely thought by some that man (along with everything else) is mere matter. This Epicurean/Democritean atomistic view of man is at the heart of what Raymond Tallis is arguing against two millennia later: a reductive, scientistic, anti-humanist, mechanical view of humanity. Lucretius knew back then that strict materialism had what neuroscientist David Chalmers now calls the “Hard Problem.” That problem is consciousness. How can stuff know that it is? According to Tallis, the neuroscientists and philosophers with strict materialist positions must engage in continual linguistic shell games and logical chicanery to evade the substantial evidence that man is more than a machine. Descartes called man res cogitans—a thinking thing. Tallis refers to those who think consciousness is an electrochemical process as “neuromaniacs”—thinking things that think wrongly about themselves. “There is at present nothing in matter as understood through natural sciences—no, not even in the wildest reaches of quantum mechanics—that would lead one to expect matter to assume forms in which it would become conscious, self-conscious and knowing, so that it might be able to formulate universal laws that encompass its own existence” (p. 356). And as Hamlet said while contemplating ending his own existence: there’s the rub.

Raymond Tallis cuts an impressive figure: a medical doctor, professor, neuroscientist, philosopher, poet, novelist, critic . . . and an outspoken atheist. A true polymath and widely-praised Oxonian with a variety and staggering number of publications, he is also a confident and vigorous prose stylist. His turns of phrase are often charming—declaring weak arguments as “barmy” and “dodgy”; a straw man argument is actually a “straw homunculus” (a sly neuroscience in-joke); and one position he rejects is euphemistically termed a “tide of CMTP,” dryly decoded by him as “colonic material of a taurine provenance.” One never wonders what Tallis’s opinion is!

A dense 361 pages, the book is rich with strong-handed prose and no-holds-barred attacks on (and in some cases hilarious mockery of) the brand of materialism he styles “Neuromania” and “Darwinitis”—the idea that all human experience is reducible to evolutionary biologism, and thus chemistry and physics. While sometimes technical, Tallis is always clear. Everywhere the author’s polymathy comes through: a typical page might feature knowledgeable and persuasive references to Hume, gene expression in mammals, John Searle, the physics of light perception, how a Bach concerto feels to the listener, Francis Bacon’s critique of Aristotelianism, the problem of qualia, why the computational theory of consciousness leads to panpsychism, our subjective experience of time, and even OT monotheism. Tallis is not pretentious: he is thorough, and has thought deeply on his subject.

This book is useful for Christian apologists simply as a catalogue of deeply problematic materialist assertions. Tallis’s work is heavily documented, crisply argued, and surprisingly entertaining. There is no fluff. He raises questions of the highest order in metaphysics, evolutionary theory, aesthetics, logic, and the phenomenal experience of self-perception. Yet he is eminently readable. Just when I felt left behind, a vibrant illustration or stunning logical turn brought lightning-bolt clarity to my muddled mind. Ultimately his questions are—as all great questions must be—theological ones. His penultimate assertion, that humans are not their brains, has implications ranging from high philosophy and neuroscience to how you hug your children when putting them to bed.

As with all humans, Tallis can be quite blind to his own errors. (I suspect this even happens to me occasionally.) He is not religious, and in fact tells us about how he shook off his earlier religious convictions, which he calls a “prison” (p. 10). He is an evolutionist but insists there is more to being man than being matter. Tallis confesses his argument is almost entirely negative. He shows how everyone else tends towards error regarding human nature, but offers no concrete alternative. For this brick wall he makes no apologies. He suggests returning to Philosophy, particularly epistemology. Neuromaniacs suffer from hubris, he argues: thinking they can know things in ways they cannot—not without smuggling in all their assumptions beforehand. We are all addicted to petitio principia—begging the question as often as we draw breath.

This wonderful book is in some ways the inevitable result of an intelligentsia that never solved the problems raised in C. P. Snow’s classic 1959 essay “The Two Cultures.” Of course the problem with reaching the truth about ourselves via philosophy is the problem identified by the Apostle Paul when writing to the Romans and to the Corinthians: we desperately use our reasoning to hide the truth about ourselves from ourselves. The title of the book, with its richly layered ironies, ironically recapitulates the simultaneous blindness and brilliance of its author. For Tallis himself apes mankind in his own way, assuming he can reach ultimate truths apart from God. The best books do not attempt to answer all questions at hand, but leave us pondering the most important ones. So what is man, then, that Tallis should be mindful of him?

Grant Horner

Grant Horner
The Master’s College
Santa Clarita, California, USA

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