Book Week Day 4 – Aping Mankind

This fierce, thorough, and immensely readable book is Raymond Tallis’ challenge to the contemporary trend of explaining everything about human beings either in terms of neuroscience or evolutionary psychology.

Explanations based on neuroscience in particular have become the accepted mark of serious grounding in many fields, even where the science is tenuous or is being used sloppily or inappropriately. These days it’s possible to give a veneer of scientific respectability to just about any subject by prefixing it with neuro-. And so we have neuro-leadership and neuro-coaching and neuro-justice and neuro-aesthetics. And in many cases huge claims are made about the nature of human beings and, from there, rules inferred about how to treat others and ourselves, from momentary glimpses of brain activity in an fMRI scanner.

Tallis, a scientist and physician himself, has much to say about the careless ways in which neuroscience – a field that has so much to offer in understanding the brain – is misused to justify claims in fields as diverse as law, social policy, management and education. But he has more to say about a bigger and more important topic – how peering into the brain can tell us little about what it is to be the uniquely social kind of beings that we are. We form worlds, layered with meaning and practice, which we inhabit together. And the understanding which gives rise to our actions, he argues, arises between us and can’t be found in the firing of neurons in the intracranial darkness. Another way of saying this: brains are clearly necessary to be human but are insufficient to account for the whole story of human life.

This book is important because of the way it challenges the cultural trend of misusing science in order to give a diminished, reductionist account of human beings. Hence the subtitle: Neuromania, Darwinitis, and the Misrepresentation of Humanity.

This is a book determined to preserve the dignity and possibility of the human world by showing how we are much more than glorified apes and much more than clever computers made of neurons. It’s a fabulous read for anyone interested in the question ‘what is a human being?’ and for anyone concerned about how neuroscience is being misused to sell to us, manipulate, or to produce public and private policy that fails to take the dignity and humanity of human beings into account.

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