From chronicle.com, on "Raymond Tallis Takes Out the 'Neurotrash,'" by Marc Parry (The Chronicle Review, October 14):
I may not be a member of the liberal "establishment," but I'm liberal, and I'm very happy to have Tallis doing what he's doing. This garbage neuroscience is far too often used to stereotype and label individuals who should be judged by their actions, not their brain characteristics.
It does bother me that Tallis names cynicism and loss of hope among the main problems he sees with recent brain studies. It does sound like he's got a big philosophical agenda that is driving his conclusions. If we are indeed "doomed" by our physiology, we may as well know it.
But I think he's absolutely right that neuroscientific studies—and, of course, even more, the popular media that report on them—often recklessly grasp for conclusions far beyond what the current evidence warrants. This new "common knowledge" has the potential to cause great harm to many individuals.
Thank God (pun intended) that there are still respected intellectuals out there who expose evolutionary metanarratives for what they are. Douglas Adams would be proud.
Five hundred years ago Tallis would have been a flat-earther. Neuroscience and evolution have a lot to say about human nature. You can bury your head in the sand for only so long.
Sure, neuromania and Darwinitis "have a lot to say" about human nature. The trouble is that most of it is wrong. These theoretical frameworks are manifestly inadequate to "save the phenomena." Kudos to Raymond Tallis for pointing this out.
As for the positive picture of human nature that must eventually replace neuromania and Darwinitis: Well, we don't know yet, though a number of thinkers (Stuart Kauffman, Alva Noe, Lenny Moss, Mary Jane West-Eberhard, Eva Jablonka, Mae-Wan Ho, to name a few) are working on it. But one thing we do know. An adequate account of human nature (and indeed of life, generally) will have to expand the conceptual tool kit of present-day reductionist science to better fit the phenomena.
Neuromania and Darwinitis are forms of Procrustean science; that is, they whittle down the phenomena of human nature to fit the presently available crude theories and technologies. The problem with the Procrustean approach to the world is apparent from the history of science. Take Patricia Churchland's example of light: Yes, we eventually explained it, but not by deforming the phenomena to fit Newtonian theory. Similarly, we will never adequately explain either life or mind with the conceptual tools of present-day neuroscience and evolutionary biology, because they are clearly not up to the task.
Neuroscience is a closer approximation of the description of mind than what has come before—no more or no less. If a more plausible model were to come along with experimental evidence to support it, it would stand on its own and would be supported. It is neither positive nor negative—it simply is. The experiments, data, and interpretation are open to criticism and alternative interpretations.
The tremendous error being made is that many of those commenting don't have a clue about how neuroscience is done, what exactly the "tools" are. Since we're in the business of denigrating areas of valid and valuable research with terms like "neurotrash," I'll suggest another label for drive-by neuroscience bashers: "neuroamateurs."
From the perspective of a nonphilosopher (I'm a neuroscientist), it seems to me that there is plenty of room for compromise between these extreme opinions expressed here. I think humanistic perspectives (art, literature, philosophy) contribute greatly, along with neuroscience, to a rich understanding of human nature. We definitely can't explain the human mind completely with the current state-of-the-art neuroscience. Those "romantic love" fMRI studies, for example, contain a lot to criticize. But neither do we have to throw the baby out with the bath water. Can't we acknowledge the power that natural selection and neuroscience have to help us understand the human mind, while also acknowledging their (current, at least) limitations?
For example: I haven't read John Gray, but I don't see how he goes from: "The human mind serves evolutionary success, not truth" (a statement I completely agree with) to: "We are doomed never to improve our lot" (a statement I do not agree with). Yes, the brain evolved to do different things than, say, reduce global poverty. That doesn't mean at all that we can't apply the skills and abilities our brains evolved (empathy, abstract reasoning, etc.) to solving world problems and advancing the lot of all of humanity.