Neuromania and Darwinitis

In a cheerful voice, turned out in a magenta tie and a blue boating blazer with broad white stripes, Tallis informs 60 people gathered in a Kent lecture hall that his talk will demolish two “pillars of unwisdom.” The first, “neuromania,” is the notion that to understand people you must peer into the “intracranial darkness” of their skulls with brain-scanning technology. The second, “Darwinitis,” is the idea that Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory can explain not just the origin of the human species—a claim Tallis enthusiastically accepts—but also the nature of human behavior and institutions.

The rest of the article here.

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4 thoughts on “Neuromania and Darwinitis

  1. Travis

    Thanks for posting this, Dr. Huenemann.

    As it appears in this article, Tallis’s attack is intellectually flat and lazy, so much so that I’m tempted to think that the review has misrepresented Tallis’s ideas – I can’t believe that Tallis thinks that Darwin’s idea doesn’t help explain “the nature of human behavior and institutions.” Is there a serious scholar who doubts that the theory of evolution by natural selection helps explain human behavior (and subsequently, institutions)?

    Just consider this example question: what explains the differences between male and female psychology on questions of sex, courting, mating and marriage? The only viable explanations on this front rest on Darwin’s idea, albeit newly branded as evolutionary psychology. (While EP is not perfect, it has made more ground on sexual and moral psychology in ~30 years than the rest of psychology could do in more than a century – if you want to understand the psychological differences between males and females, and their attendant roots in our evolutionary history, you’ll do little good reading Freud or Jung, try Trivers.)

    There is nothing new about Tallis’s critique either (from the article, Tallis sounds like he’s rehashing complaints about science and sociobiology from scholars like Marshall Sahlins, Clifford Geertz, Stephen Jay Gould or Richard Lewontin).

    As for neuroscience, while it is far from perfect, it has nonetheless made breathtaking advances on the proximate causes of human behavior. Tallis’s jab to the materialism of mind – “Chop my head off, and my IQ descends” – is worse than a caricature. The fact remains that a myriad of psychological propensities can be altered by trauma or pathology. We can not only get IQ to descend; we can also get the ability to recognize faces or one’s own limbs to descend; we can get civility and kindness to descend; we can get the phenomenon of “confabulation” – where one is impelled to produce false memories (this happens with Korsakov’s syndrome), and on it goes. Everything we know about the brain suggests that our mental lives depend on the structure and functioning of our neural tissue. This is not to say that neuroscience is sufficient to explain our mental lives, but it’s certainly part of the puzzle.

    Sure, biologists and neuroscientists can overstep their bounds or get “greedy” in their reductionism (especially so when it comes to the problem of consciousness). And they can be flat wrong. But acting like these disciplines haven’t been highly productive on the topic of human behavior is plain naïve.

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  2. Huenemann Post author

    Thanks, Travis. Yes, Tallis’s conclusions are surprising, especially since all things considered he’s an advocate of science, and an atheistic humanist medical doctor to boot. I’m reading a couple of his books now to get a better sense of the source of his concerns. So far my guess is that his complaint is that all sorts of claims are being made on behalf of neuroscience and darwinism with pretty slim evidence. (Note: the claims might be made mostly by over-enthusiastic nonspecialists.)

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  3. Sandi

    Travis I think you are right, these disciplines have been extremely productive and have forced us to ask new questions, which is always productive! I think some of Tallis’ reticense comes from how much people WANT science to be “right”. Wanting concrete answers in itself seems to be a limiting factor to any real understanding of the way things are. I think.

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