Beyond Biological Reductionism: Raymond Tallis
Can people’s behavior really be explained by neuroscience and our evolutionary needs as hunter-gatherers — or is this just a popular fad? Does understanding the brain really solve the mysteries of being human?
Neurologist Dr. Raymond Tallis, philosopher, Academy of Medical Sciences Fellow, and author of Why the Mind is Not a Computer and Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity, exposes the bad science and faulty logic behind pop obsessions with the brain and evolutionary psychology.
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I really loved this interview for so many reasons. I worked in cognitive neuroscience for 5 years and when choosing a research project, I remember being told “We don’t believe in the unconscious.” and so on. I had a professor in cognitive psychology repeatedly tell me not to bring up other fields of psych because “we don’t talk about that in here.” I am a lover of cognitive neuroscience as well as reading Jung. And of philosophy and many other things. I was happy to hear someone combine all of these things together.
I also liked the comments on how social darwinism is “bad biology”. Every time it is brought up I think of Kropotkin and his talk of “mutual aid” vs “mutual struggle” and how the former was more common in species who could survive the elements. I believe you mentioned another person who discussed cooperation but I could not make it out in the audio.
My main issue with it, and one I did not expect to have, was how… reductive the speaker and interviewer were when speaking about other animals. It seemed to counter Tallis’ points about our own existence when he seemed to refer to other animals, such as chimpanzees, as organisms, while referring to humans as something much more than that.
Granted, humans are different from other animals. But we are animals, and we are apes. We are apes who build airplanes and get food from all areas of the world instead of around our homes. But isn’t assuming the level of thought and experience of other animals as being “organisms” that are all in one group separate from humans making the same mistake that many neuroscientists and others have made in studying them? Yes we bring our food from all corners of the world but I do not know how to build an airplane, and if I had no access to the technology, I would bring my food from my back yard like any other animal. That is not to say it’s the same, but our differences from other animals are far more complicated than we are complex and they are all just organisms.
Tallis talks about looking at what is in front of his nose. I do as well. In hanging around dogs, rats, cats, chickens, pigs, cows, turkeys, and so on, each species as well as each individual animal leads a different rich life, with different reactions, thoughts, and experiences. Preferring different “wall to wall” things such as food and social structure. Just as we do. So while humans are different, animals are not all biological organisms that can be reduced to just that.
How can we talk about how rich the lives and experiences are of humans and then reduce all other animals to being less than that simply because they do not do what we do? Other animals have countless differences from each other in experience, social groups, behavior, etc both within and across different species.
Perhaps I misheard or misunderstood what Tallis meant in some of his comments on other animals. I would love to hear more about this.
Thanks again for the interview. I’ll be buying the book. Looking forward to more.
I agree with your point here about animals. What I think happens is that this discussion gets cast in black and white terms too easily. I would say that animals do have consciousness and culture and even language. So biological reductionism or simple neuroscience or evolutionary “survival” equations don’t work for animals //either.// Some of the discoveries about elephants, for example, is amazing.
At the same time, even if we do agree that animals have complex consciousness and rich inner lives, that doesn’t mean that humans and animals are now just the same. Clearly, and I think Ray would agree, human language and culture is absolutely unique and unlike anything we’ve encountered in the animal realm. The problem here is when biologists and neuroscientists say, Ok humans are animals, and animals work by survival and instinct and fitness, therefore humans can be reduced to survival and instinct and fitness. Double oversimplification there.
So yes to your point that animals are much more complicated and conscious than simple reductionism can address, and at the same time also yes to the idea that humans and animals are vastly different.