Agents of Change? Darwinian Thought and Theories of Human Nature
Darwinism without Darwinitis
by Raymond Tallis
Text and slides from a talk given at the
Agents of Change
workshop held in Newcastle upon Tyne,
October 2008 as part of The Great
Debate 10th Anniversary.
Click here for video of
discussion that followed this talk
Next year, as no-one in this room needs reminding, will see the
150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species.
Much airtime and column inches will be devoted to celebrating
this great book, one of a handful that has utterly transformed
human self-understanding. More than any of its peers, Darwin’s
great treatise is not only a mighty work of science, as important
as those attaching to the names of Galileo, Newton, Faraday,
Einstein, and Planck: it also impinges rather directly on our
vision of human nature.
This seems therefore an appropriate
time to rescue Darwin from Darwinitis; to remove from Darwinism the
Darwinitic accretions that threaten to conceal his mighty and
incontrovertible achievement under claims about humanity that
do not follow from the Theory of Evolution and threaten to give
the latter a bad name. And this is the purpose of this afternoon’s talk.
Before I proceed with my critique of Darwinitis, let me first of
all make something very clear. I am a good Darwinian. I am
utterly persuaded of Darwin’s account of our origins; that
at the biological level, we, like all other living creatures,
are the products of the same processes: namely the operation
of natural selection upon living tissue undergoing spontaneous
variation. The preferential survival of genetic replicators whose
phenotypical expression shows an enhanced fitness for survival explains
the variety of species, their current structure, the emergence of
complex organs and organisms and, finally, our hominid ancestors.
Ultimately, these processes are driven by the laws of physics. We
did not arrive by some separate or parallel process. We did not fall
from the sky. What is more, I do not believe in intelligent design –
an idea so stupid as by itself to make one doubt the existence of the
putative intelligent designer – or any kind of creationism. We owe our
origins to processes as natural as those that gave rise to chimps,
octopuses, and bacteria. And, finally, I have no religious agenda.
While, as will become apparent, I am opposed to naturalistic accounts
of human beings, that try to explain everyday human life in entirely
biological terms, I am equally opposed to supernatural explanations
of human difference, if only because they do not seem to explain anything,
unless one accepts without question certain assumptions for which, it seems
to me, there is no evidence and which, in many instances, actually seem
incoherent. Humans are unique in many respects, most importantly that
they are explicit animals, but that uniqueness was not implanted by some
I hope these preliminaries statements of ‘where I am coming from’
will reassure you that I am a good Darwinian, indeed a regular guy;
but I feel that being a good Darwinian means not succumbing to
Darwinitis; just as good science stops when we succumb to a scientism
that seems to imagine that it is able to explain everything. Darwinitis
is potentially dangerous, as I will discuss; but it is most certainly
boring, first because it is wrong and secondly because it grotesquely
simplifies humanity. I ought also to warn you that story I want to
tell this evening is not stand-alone: it is part of a much wider
exploration of human consciousness from a philosophical standpoint.
The fruits of this exercise in philosophical anthropology are described
in a trilogy of books I have published between 2003 and 2005 with the
Edinburgh University Press. In just under 1,000 pages and a mere half a
million words, I have attempted
to make the distinctive character of human, as opposed to animal,
consciousness both visible and explicable. You will be glad to learn
that I will spare you most of
this today. It might be of interest for you to know that the trilogy
is a recent product of a 45 year quarrel with myself - or, to be more
precise, with the Darwinitis I embraced when I was 15. At that time,
I was a hard-line evolutionary psychologist avant la letter
and neural Darwinist who believed that we were hard-wired into our
environment in order to ensure replication of our genome. This was
not how I put it then but this was what it boiled down to. This was at
first liberating; and then it seemed less so, as it became clear that
it offered no basis for freedom, for purpose or even for self-respect.
Which is the grounds for my present hostility to Darwinitis – that,
and the fact that it is untrue.
If it were upsetting but true, I would have to accept it; but
the problem is that it is upsetting (or, more often, plain irritating)
To be honest, I never really believed that we humans were entirely
embedded in the material world. Everyday experience of human life
seemed to be against it. Nevertheless, I found it difficult to justify the
assumption that we were somehow
set apart from nature. In pursuing my quarrel with myself in this trilogy,
therefore, I have tried to put my finger on the unique character
of human beings, and to explain their profound and obvious differences
from all other sentient creatures. I shall touch on that uniqueness in
my talk, as it is central to my argument, but anyone who wants to
pursue my arguments further should look at the trilogy.
The second volume of the trilogy -
Am. A Philosophical Inquiry into First-Person Being
- examines the folded and complex
and comparatively free selves that humans have. The third volume -
Knowing Animal. A Philosophical Inquiry into Knowledge and Truth -
looks at the nature and origin of knowledge, and at emergence of
explicit truth and falsehood, and of the reason- based behaviour that
is central to our individual
and collective freedom and underpins the great achievements of humanity.
In the first volume
Hand. A Philosophical Inquiry into Human Being,
I try to explain how we embarked on this unique path along which we are
travelling at an ever-accelerating rate. How is it that we humans are so
different from all other creatures: how did the processes
described in the other two volumes get started?
These are themes for other talks, or even, perhaps, for discussion time today. My
position, however, is easily summarised: while we humans, or our bodies, are
indeed pieces of nature, and we have something of the carnal machine
about us, we have (by entirely natural means) transcended nature so that
our possibilities are not to be defined by the constraints we see operating
in the natural world.
The truth of Darwinism is to see how we are natural in our origins;
the error of Darwinitis is to imagine that we are defined by our origins;
in short to confuse our biological roots with our cultural leaves. The
consequences of Darwinitis are, insofar as anyone takes it seriously,
quite dire. Darwin’s liberating theory becomes, to use that Master of
Darwinitis’ Daniel Dennett phrase, a ‘universal acid’ that eats away at
everything we hold to be distinct about human beings.
Biological reductionism, seemingly licensed by Darwinism, takes many
forms. An early form was sociobiology, associated particularly with the
name of E.O. Wilson, argued that individual behavior and even social
institutions were expressions of genes. Social institutions belonged to
the extended phenotype, to use Richard Dawkins’ phrase; they were comparable
to evolved organs. The implicit, largely unconscious or nonnegotiable,
principles that inform gene-determined human behavior are rooted in their
survival value; and the entity whose survival is assured is not the
conscious organism but the genome itself. Ethical principles are not
what they appear: they are merely post hoc rationalization of genetic
imperatives, serving inclusive fitness. Since the actual reasons for our
actions are beyond our ken, they are not truly voluntary.
These rather dismal conclusions are reinforced by a collusive pairing with
neuroscientism – what I have called neuromythology. This assumes that mental
activity is entirely explained in terms of the activity of the stand-alone
brain, itself the product of an evolutionary process, so that it is entirely
subordinated to the requirements of survival. The merging of sociobiology,
with neuroscientism, as well as the elaboration of the notion of the meme,
to which I will return, converges in Evolutionary Psychology, which will be
my main target, for reasons I will explain presently.
First let me look at the consequences.
According to Darwinitis, even higher-level awareness is embedded in the
self-serving properties of living matter. With the barrier between
living and non-living matter broken down, the gap between humans and
non-human animals narrowed and the identification of the human mind with
the functioning of the organic brain, the assumption of a fundamental
difference between human actions and other events in the material world -
between deliberately chosen, reason-led, behavior and materially caused
material effects – between say, your coming to this lecture and the
chemotaxis of a single-celled organism towards nutrients or the fall of
stone – seems shaky. The impersonal, unbreakable laws of the physical world –
the blind watchmakers that Dawkins identified correctly as the drivers to the
evolutionary process – encroach upon, engulf, and digest humanity.
Few follow Darwinitis to its natural conclusion, though many are prone to take it
far enough to ensure self-contradiction, by undermining the truth status of their
John Gray, for example, Professor of European Thought at the London
School of Economics, Slide 10 has spoken for many thinkers when he
asserts in his massively popular and widely cited Straw Dogs. Thoughts
on Humans and Other Animals
that ‘the humanist sense of a gulf between ourselves and other animals is
an aberration’ and that ‘The Internet is as natural as a spider’s web’.
If that is so, and we are not particularly special, then we should not
perhaps value ourselves over-much. For Gray the animal nature of man leads
him to the chilling conclusion that ‘human life has no more meaning than the
life of slime mould’. Man (whom he re-names Homo rapiens) ‘is only one of
many species and not obviously worth preserving.’ He then concludes that, as
‘the human mind serves evolutionary success, not truth,’ humankind cannot
know the truth, least of all through science. Which makes his invocation of
Darwinism – one of the most magisterial and ambitious manifestations of
science – in support of his arguments a supreme example of self-contradiction.
If we accept the truths of science, it appears, then we must conclude that
science has no truths to offer us.
This reminds us of the profound paradox at the heart of "biologism":
its naturalistic view of humanity is itself a highly developed expression
of a distinctively human culture. After all, nothing could be less animal-like
than to arrive at a opinion, collectively argued and collectively agreed upon,
about one's own nature. There is clearly something very special, indeed unnatural,
about a living creature that has a theory of living creatures; an animal, in
short, that is capable of formulating and propagating ideas of the kind such as
Darwin first advanced in The Origin of Species.If we have woken up to the
evolutionary process, we must in some sense have woken out of it.
Despite this obvious point, Darwinitis is protean in its manifestations in
academe and, more broadly in intellectual and popular culture. Hardly a day
passes in which we are not offered explanations of marital infidelity, choice
of mate, economic decision making, altruistic behaviour in terms of the
influence of selfish genes either directly or indirectly through their cultural
proxies memes – a notion itself ripe for demolition, as I will attempt later
in this talk.
In my defence of Darwin against Darwinitis, I want to focus on evolutionary
psychology, because it is the most extensively developed and disseminated
versions of Darwinitis.
Essentially, it explains human behaviour as being shaped, indeed
determined, by processes of natural selection: those modes of behaviour
that favour the replication of the genome will preferentially survive.
Our behaviour, whether we know it or not, is driven by this force. This
hypothesis has been massively elaborated. The most popular, though by no
means uncontroversial, version It is particularly associated with the
names of John Tooby and Leda Cosmides, and has several fundamental tenets:
The brain is a computer designed by natural selection to extract
information from the environment.
Individual brain behaviour is generated by this evolved computer in
response to information it extracts from the environment.
The cognitive programs of the human brain are adaptations. They exist
because they produce behaviours in our ancestors that enabled them to
survive and reproduce.
The cognitive programs of the human brain may not be adaptive now;
they were adaptive in ancestral environments.
Describing the evolved computational architecture of our brains “allows
a systematic understanding of cultural and social phenomena”. This
architecture consists of a myriad of modules, such as cheat detection
modules, snake-fear detection modules, and waist/hip ratio detection modules.
I will set aside for the present the computational theory of mind,
and the reference to programmes. Noting only that this theory of mind is
entirely flawed and I have devoted a book to setting out why this is the case, named unsurprisingly
the Mind Is Not a Computer. The important point for the
present is that evolutionary psychology
sees us as the unwitting playthings of an immensely complex organ –
the brain - that stops us even from seeing what time it is, so that we
operate in ways that may have been adaptive in
ancestral environments – where ancestral environments may be as
passé as pre-agricultural habitats of hunting and gathering
human beings or hominids scarcely evolved from chimps – but are
often at odds with modern life. This is true even, or especially,
when we are making what we think are deeply personal,
existentially crucial decisions such as choosing a lifelong partner.
One of the all-time hits of evolutionary psychology is a paper
reporting a study by Singh and colleagues, who asked men to rank
women according to their sexual attractiveness. Males choose women
on the basis of a suite of modules, one of the most important of
which is the waist/hip detection module. When shown a series of
pictures, men – and this appears to be a cultural universal –
prefer women with waist/hip ratios closest to 0.7. This ratio is
associated with optimal fertility, and this is consistent with the
fact that the selfish gene that wants only more of itself, will
get its way if it programmes the unwitting male to make this choice.
The example is worth dwelling on because it illustrates the absurdities
into which Darwinitis can lead us.
The findings are relevant to the claims of evolutionary psychology
only if it can be assumed that one can extrapolate from a preference
to one picture over another to choosing one life companion over another.
It overlooks innumerable other factors than immediate appearance.
The three F’s – fancying, fertility and sexual behavior are not the
whole story, as everyone in this room would testify to. Conversation,
common interests, shared tastes, deep sympathy for the other person
and a multitude of other things play a part in the choice of marriage
partner. Marriage is not just about mating and it is not a response to
a stimulus. The central role of language – conversation, identification
of overlapping needs, interests in common, and a future-orientated sense
of a life together rooted in remembered past experience – is overlooked.
There is no straight line from waist/hip ratios (or, come to that,
pheromones) to the complex ceremonies and commitments and rituals of
the wedding. Our lives are narrated – to ourselves and to each other –
never more so than when we are making choices such as whom to marry,
what job to take on, whether to have children, and so on.
The reduction of human life to a succession of programmed responses
to external stimuli and a series of tropisms overlooks the complexity
of everyday life and the singularity of the situations we find ourselves
in. The use of seemingly sophisticated – but in fact almost laughably
simple – notions such as those of a ‘mental module’ – does not alter,
only disguises, this fact.
It should not seem necessary to point out that there is a fundamental
difference between all other animals generated by the processes of
evolution and the one animal that wrote The Origin of Species.
Darwin himself emphasized this in his discussion of the expression
of human emotions. While “every true or inherited movement of
expression seems to have had some natural and independent origin”,
once acquired “such movements may be voluntarily and consciously
employed as a means of communication”. We take the biological givens
and subordinate them to distinctively human ends.
We are, to repeat, explicit animals who do things deliberately.
Uniquely we entertain theories about our own nature and about the world;
systematically inquire into the order of things and the patterns of
causation and physical laws that seem to underpin that order;
create cities, laws, institutions; frame our individual lives within a
shared history; guide, justify, and excuse our behaviour according to
general and abstract principles; and so on and so forth. The desire to
minimise human uniqueness has prompted exaggerated claims about animal
tool use, about their range and mode of communication and their sense
of each other, about their putative beliefs and other modes of thought.
The monuments of collective endeavour seen in the animal kingdom – for
example the heaps created by termites – are the result not of conscious
deliberation but of dovetailing automaticities. Beavers and humans make
dams but the beaver’s dam is a standardised species-wide imperative;
human dams are the product of argument, effort, imagination, domination,
evolving technology, ingenuity and so on. The Hoover Dam was legislated
into place; beaver dams require no such instruments to bring them about.
What is more, there is compelling evidence now that even our nearest kin,
the chimpanzees, have not attained our ‘folk metaphysics’ (to use
Daniel Povinelli’s phrase): an ontology of material objects independent
of experiences; the sense of a causal interaction between the items
in the surrounding world, that drives us to find ever more indirect
and powerful ways of manipulating those items; the notion that there
are hidden laws regulating what happens; and even the notions that other
animals have a consciousness like their own. These are all ill-developed,
if at all, in non-human animals.
At the heart of the difference between ourselves and other sentient
creatures is the fact that in man, the one product of evolution that
has a theory of its own origins, ‘nature opens her eyes and sees that
she exists’, as the great German philosopher Schelling put it.
The example illustrates how evolutionary psychology – in common with other
manifestations of Darwinitis – by-passes most of what is central to
humanity, reducing human lives that are actively, consciously led
to organic existences that are merely lived, denying that we are
explicit animals that make conscious decisions. When this is pointed
out, it is often argued that the sense of making a decision is illusory:
the path chosen is determined biologically, by the vehicle tuned to respond
to the replicative imperatives of the selfish gene. The sense of agency is
merely an illusion that itself has adaptive value. The reason that this
claim does not hold up is that our most of our actions in daily life,
however concrete, typically make sense only with respect to frameworks,
of which we are conscious, which incorporate many layers of abstraction.
Think - really think - of all the steps you took to get to this talk this
afternoon, beginning with the moment perhaps a few weeks ago, when you saw
today’s programme. Or think even of the elements that make up something as
utterly commonplace as shopping. It would require the whole of the remainder
of my talk to unpack the innumerable implicit frames of reference that make
sense of the seemingly simple act of buying a can of beans. None of these
frames of reference has any counterpart in the life of beasts.
Evolutionary psychology, in common with other modes of Darwinitis,
denies that we make explicit choices but that we are at heart, or at
bottom, automatons, inwardly hard-wired so that we can interact with
our environments in such a way as to secure the continuation of
phenotypes and hence the replication of the genetic material they carry.
Any appearance of voluntary choice is a delusion, or indeed a post hoc
rationalization – although why we should be programmed to rationalize our
actions is not entirely clear. If we seem to exercise our intelligence,
this is simply a means to couple ourselves more tightly to the material
world around us so that we optimize the transfer of energy that will
ensure the persistence of the organism.
Put like this, it seems as daft as it is; but this is what it boils
down to. It ignores the fact that we operate in a human world that
is rooted in material and biological reality but is remote from it.
Most of our ordinary actions – for example coming to this lecture –
could not take place without being actively willed, explicitly intended
in relation to an explicit goal, and transilluminated by that explicit
goal which itself organizes a vast number of secondary, intermediate and
constituent goals to its own end. Modules whose activity is triggered off
by salient stimuli could no more deliver attendance at a lecture, or a
shopping expedition, or a morning’s work, or the preparation of a meal,
or the interdigitated activities of an ordinary multi-tasking day than
could a chain of instincts, tropisms, or conditioned or unconditioned
This is pretty obvious and yet evolutionary psychology has not been
laughed out of court. There are many reasons for this. The first is
that, even those who are not in the grip of Darwinitis, might feel that,
since we are animals in so many respects, it seems a kind of unsentimental
honesty to say that we are just like animals in all respects. Like animals
we are ejected from our mother's bodies at birth and like animals we die of
physiological failure; like animals, we eat, defaecate, copulate, fight and
so on. But this is beside the point; for it does not follow that we eat,
defaecate, copulate, fight etc like animals. We don't even defaecate like
animals. Or not by choice, anyway. Not only do we insist on a certain
amount of privacy but we are the only beasts who manufacture toilet paper
and argue over the respective merits of different brands of it. Even human
dying is profoundly different from animal dying, except at the very end,
when we become more like other stricken beasts. And when it comes to mating,
we are the only beasts who make love. Every seemingly animal need or appetite -
for food, water, warmth - is utterly transformed in humans. And many of our
strongest appetites - for example, for acknowledgement of what we are in
ourselves, for abstract knowledge and understanding - are unique to us.
Only humans come to lectures on the distinctive features of being human.
Another reason for the survival of evolutionary psychology in the teeth of its own
daftness is the use of a massive fudge implicit In the notion of the ‘meme’.
It is perfectly obvious, even to those who are in the grip of the most severe
Darwinitis, that the reality within which we live our lives is somewhat at a
distance from the natural environment that encloses all non-human animals. The
notion of the gene, and the products of genes, such as a brain adapted to react
in a certain way to natural stimuli, is therefore supplemented, supplemented by
that of the meme, the unit of cultural transmission. ‘Meme’ is a term, a concept,
an explain-all, that has itself behaved as memes are supposed to behave, spreading
like a highly infectious virus through the brains of many who think about our
Memes were introduced to the world by Richard Dawkins in his
surpassingly brilliant The Selfish Gene whose image you
do not see on this slide for the reason given. All life evolves by
the differential survival of replicating entities. It is obvious that
human life evolves independently of genes and, indeed, the pace of this
evolution leaves genes panting far behind. Darwinitis demands that we
invoke something analogous to genes: memes that are units of cultural
transmission, and are smallest elements that replicate themselves with
reliability and fecundity: the biosphere has to be complemented with the
Dawkins’ examples include:
Daniel Dennett, who is only a prophet in the True Church of Darwinitis
and so may be represented in graven images lists ‘returnable bottles,
Moby Dick, the SALT agreement, faith and tolerance for free speech’
[see Consciousness Explained, 1992.] These are cultural traits
that are advantageous not to us but to themselves, so that they
replicate. They replicate by occupying human minds; as Dennett
says ‘The haven all memes depend on reaching is the human mind..’
– or, as Dawkins said, ‘if an idea catches on, it can be said to
propagate itself, spreading from brain to brain’; indeed ‘human
minds are themselves to a very great degree the creation of memes’
‘Human consciousness is itself a huge complex of memes (or more
exactly meme-effects in brains)’.
We will give the idea – reminiscent of the wilder shores of
scholasticism (how many memes can dance in the head of an evolutionary
psychologist – the courtesy of critique. First, it is supposed to be
a unit; but in what sense is ‘faith’ or ‘tolerance of free speech’
or even the SALT agreement a unit? These quasi-entities are
gathered up in nouns or noun-phrases but it is the grossest literalism
to imagine that for all nouns, even abstract nouns, there corresponds
a bounded object, or an object that comes with its own boundaries.
How many memes were acting through me on my train journey to Newcastle
today? If I were to give you a complete transcript of my train journey –
which I shall spare you – the memophiles would have to invoke not merely
many thousands but actually an indefinite number. The decision to get on
to the train, the decisions that got me on to the train, the way I comported
myself to my fellow passengers, the work that I did and all that it meant,
and so on and so forth,could not be boiled down to the expression of a
finite number of memes. Secondly, ideas, and idea-complexes do not
invade our passive minds: we have to think, comprehend, acquire them,
often with a great deal of conscious effort. Thirdly, and connected
with this, is the fact that we may assent to or dissent from ideas:
we may even resist a tune in our head. Try doing that with a gene or
a virus. Encounter does not guarantee consent. Most importantly, meme
theory has to try to knit together the fabric of everyday understanding
out of memes that are themselves transmitted as discrete units. It is
difficult to see how meme-possession could offer anything other than
the notion of the mind as a lumber room or junk yard full of cognitive
knick knacks. This would hardly correspond either to the reality of
experience, or more importantly, to the reality of the way we navigate
through, and interact with, the world of daily life, never mind project
ourselves into a complex, time-tabled future, on the basis of a complex
past composed of singularities. Just to stick with the example, I have used:
my being here today – at this place, at this time, talking about this topic,
about a year after Caspar first floated the idea – expresses a long-range
internal connectedness that is necessary for any of us to be an ordinarily
effective agent in our hugely complex world, a world whose complexities
are not those of the natural world, but of the world of conscious and
self-conscious human beings. My delivering on this commitment knits
together a multi-dimensional network of world-moments infused by my
explicit consciousness – for example those in which I discussed this
talk with Caspar, those in which we corresponded about its content,
those in which I rang up in a panic when I realized I couldn’t talk this
morning because I was talking in London last night and I couldn’t trust
the trains to deliver me on time. And all of these moments were held
together in the face of millions of other preoccupations that engage
any busy person, all maintained in a continuous rain interruptions,
distractions and sense data. None of this would be possible without
a sustained sense of purpose – or indeed of the multiplicity of purposes,
relating to our tasks, duties, and immediate and distant goals –
transilluminating the whole journey. Memes stitched together in
clusters or plexes hardly answer to this. Finally, meme theory undermines
its own claims to truth: like other ideas, it must simply be a mind
infestation that has only its own welfare at heart.
The idea, then is daft, so it must have other attractions than plausibility. First of all memes are gobbets of the cultural world that fill the gap between man the organism and human beings who are persons, conscious agents, genuine individuals, actively leading their own lives. Secondly, it fills this gap with the passivity, automaticity, of Darwinism – marginalising the individuality, the self, and agency. From the point of view of those who wish to deny or conceal or underplay our special nature, they have the virtue of being replicators that use us as mere vehicles to ensure their transmission. The biological story of our unconsciousness, lack of explicitness, passivity, and indeed helplessness is upheld. We replay culture as acquired nature. My belief in such and such a religion or economic theory, my love of a particular kind of music or literature, my tendency to give money to beggars in the street, the anger I feel about the way Robert Mugabe has destroyed his nothing to do with me as an individual – or even the truth about the world and everything to do with the survival of the grpu to which I belong: human minds in a certain culture will be hospitable to those memes – or more precisely susceptible to invasion by those memes (or memeplexes) – which will favour the survival of that group and hence the survival of the memes themselves.
In short, memes are an attempt to defend the notion of passivity,
automaticity and ignorance in the teeth of the evidence in everyday
human life that it is utterly different from the reflex-, tropism-,
instinct-driven life of animals, though of course we rely on
reflexes to perform our voluntary actions, may be in part guided by
tropisms and have a general direction influenced remotely by instincts.
An ordinary shopping expedition, a day at the factory, sitting up all
ight with a feverish child, building up a stamp collection – these are
not the kind of things that can be automated, pre-programmed: they need
to be led by an informing awareness or self awareness that has its goal
explicitly in view.
How can Darwinitis attract so many adherents, despite its having to
deny what is in front of our nose every moment of every day? That is
easier to explain than it might seem at first sight: As
Ludwig Wittgenstein said, a picture held us captive and we could
not get out of it for it lay in our language and language seemed
to repeat it to us inexorably. The bewitchment by language
has two aspects, allowing a semantic pincer movement on the gap between
humans and animals. We describe human behaviour in animalomorphic terms
and animal behavior in anthropomorphic terms.
A similar twin strategy, by the way, applies to computational models
of the mind. What happens in computers is described in anthropomorphic
terms – so that computers are accredited with remembering, interrogating,
calculating, instructing etc. And what happens in the mind – or brain mind -
is described in machinomorphic terms, so that conscious, and indeed
self-conscious, experience is described as ‘information processing’ and
information is understood in terms of the kind of bit-processing that
goes on in computers. At any rate, Darwinitics have got so used to
re-describing what goes on in ordinary human life in such a way as to make
it sound like what goes on in ordinary animal life, that they no longer
notice themselves doing it.
Here's a couple of examples. Supposing you invite me out for a meal.
Having learnt that you have just taken on a big loan for a house,
I choose the cheapest items on the menu and falsely declare that I am
full after the main course, so as to spare you the expense of a pudding.
A chimpanzee reaches out for a banana and consumes it. Evolutionary
psychologists would like to say that both the chimp and I are doing
similar things: we are exhibiting "feeding behaviour". This identity of
description, however, obscures huge differences between the chimp's
behaviour and mine. Anyone who is acquainted with the most ordinary
dinner table – the products of a vast number of deliberate actions
on the part of those sitting round it – will be on their guard when
they hear the phrase ‘feeding behaviour’ applied to both humans and
beasts. an ordinary meal is the endpoint of a long journey away from
Cooking, eating regulated by the clock and the calendar, the complex
structure of meals and the grammar of what goes with what, the
ritualistic and celebratory aspects of eating, the multitude of items
of tableware that have come from near and far, the journeys taken by
the food to the table, the journeys undertaken by those who gather
round the table, and the use of money as the all-purpose commodity to
purchase food – these are but a few of the ways in which human dining is
distanced from animal eating. These are all, increasingly sophisticated
aspects of Man, the animal who does things explicitly and whose natural
medium is a community of minds extending geographically across the
globe and historically into the accumulated consciousness of the race.
The laid and laden table draws on four quarters of the earth and great
tracts of past and present human consciousness.
Here's another example. I decide to improve my career prospects
by signing up for a degree course which begins next year. I have
a small child. I therefore do more baby-sitting this year in order
to stockpile some tokens. Daisy the cow bumps into an electric wire
and henceforth avoids that place. It could be said that both Daisy
and I have been exhibiting learning behaviour. Again, I think you
will agree, the difference between the two forms of behaviour is
greater than the similarities.
Those who wish to obliterate the gap between humans and other beasts
not only try to make human behaviour beast-like. They also describe
animal behaviour anthropomorphically, making it seem to be human-like.
We are all familiar with Walt Disney- like descriptions of animals that
impute to them all manner of abstract or factual knowledge and institutional
sentiments for which there is evidence only in human beings. This
exemplifes a wider error that I have christened
the Fallacy of Misplaced Explicitness that enables
thinkers to speak of squids classifying the contents of the world,
wasps grieving for their young, and even artefacts such as thermostats
making judgements. It is the mirror image of
the Fallacy of Non-Explicitness as applied to humans,
which we have touched upon.
The traffic is usually two way and indeed, the semantic obliteration
of the gap between human and animal behavior has been the result of
a shuttling back and forth of descriptive terms between the former
and the latter, so that anthropomorphism and animalomorphism are like
two sides of an arch supporting one another. This is particular striking
in the case of descriptions of issues relating to sexual bonding and
child rearing. A word such as ‘courtship’, for example, is transferred
from the complex setting of the interactions between self-conscious human
beings in a community of minds to the hard-wired behaviour of animals.
This act of lexical anthropomorphism is then complemented by a reverse
movement in which the notion of ‘courtship’ reduced to hard-wired rituals
is re-applied to the human behaviour from which the term was originally
derived. Other terms such as ‘pair bonding’ to encompass human marriage
and the long- term co-habitation of ravens or ‘nest-building’ to
encompass the programmed behavior of birds and the decisions to engage
in DIY before a baby is born. It is by such means that we reinforce the
habit of locating the idea of the human in the same conceptual space
as the idea of the animal. Another one that amuses me is the use of the
word ‘grooming’ behaviour to encompass what I do when I brush my tooth
and what the cat does when it licks its arse with its tongue. The fact
that my grooming involves tooth paste, which I have remembered to buy
and pack, and which has been sold to me on the basis of its superior
ability to prevent tooth decay on the basis of what is known about
dental biology, and so on puts it at some distance from the cat’s
stomach-testing auto-attentions. The fact that the toothpaste is a
commodity, bought for money, reminds us of a ubiquitous feature of
human life: the transformation of the objects of needs into commodities
that are obtained through complex systems of exchange.
I hope I have said enough to persuade you that the gap between
humans and animals – even our nearest animal kin (another metaphor,
by the way) – is real and that any account of human beings that
diminishes or elides it is seriously deficient, traduces humanity,
and opens the path to much pernicious nonsense, not the least
questioning our nature as conscious, indeed self-conscious, agents.
It most importantly overlooks the human world which is constructed
out of the pooling of the ordinary transcendence that arises out of
the explicit sense of self of a human subject who relates to the
world not in a simply causal fashion. We utilize our bodies as
tools in the way that other animals do not, because we are explicitly
offset from the world, as subjects confronting objects. We transform
the material givens of the natural world into tools that are used for
purposes not envisaged in nature. For example, sputum may be used as
the basis of a complex insult, coughing may be manufactured as a symbol
of illness, of nervousness or of someone who is ill or nervous. Our
sense of agency, originating from a different relationship to our own
body, extends to a sense of universal causation in the world and of
laws governing that causation. We identify causes as explicit intermediate
agencies to deliver on our goals. In short, we see events as handles
by which we may explicitly shape events in a way that is governed by
general principles. We do not merely experience the world but, driven
by a sense of hidden order and hidden possibility, we inquire into it.
The fruit of our inquiries adds up to a body of knowledge that is not
just piled up sentience but belongs to a community of minds that has
limitless boundaries in space and time. The human world is a world in
which the experience of the solitary organism is made explicit and public,
a characteristic that is developed, elaborated and enfolded by the
institution of language, the most characteristic expression of
H. sapiens sapiens, the uniquely explicit animal, over
the last 40,000 to 100,000 years.
All of this is missed by Darwinitis, even when it supplements
a genetic basis for behavior with a mimetic one. Darwinitis
overlooks the community of conscious, self-conscious, deliberating,
minds, the explicitness of the explicit animal most clearly but not
exclusively manifested in language and, indeed, pretty well everything
of interest that has taken place over the last many thousands of years.
While quite correctly asserting, as good Darwinian theory would require
of us, that the processes that gave rise to the human species were
mindless – the watchmaker making the exquisitely complex organisms
that we are was the blind laws of physics – it is mistaken in trying
to extend that mindlessness to human life. We human beings are sighted
watchmakers – at least in respect of many things that we do.
The processes – trail and error, vision and revision, hope and
disappointment, the sense of possibility informed by general
principles – that led to the formation of a pocket watch are quite
different from those that gave rise to the human body. The blind laws
of physics have given rise to creatures – ourselves – who see the
laws of physics and that they are blind. In us nature has opened her
eyes and seen not only that she exists but what kind of general
properties she has. In us the evolutionary process has reached
a point of self-consciousness, risen above itself to develop a
theory of its own nature.
We must not deny these facts or their essential nature or their
true significance out of an unfounded fear of betraying Darwin
or of shrinking from the consequences of ‘Darwin’s Dangerous Idea’.
The danger arises only if Darwin’s idea is developed into, say,
Daniel Dennett’s daft idea. It is entirely possible to offer a
biological explanation of how we escaped from biology, as I
demonstrated in the trilogy I referred to, and hence from the
kind of lives lived, rather than led, by animals. We do not
have to invoke supernatural explanations to justify claiming
human’s exceptional nature, assigning us a separate day of creation.
The challenge, therefore, is to find a middle position -
Darwin without Darwinitis - between on the one hand the notion
that evolutionary theory explains nothing of importance about us
and on the other that it explains everything of importance about us.
Yes, our animal heritage is present in much of what we currently are -
essentially in the physiology of our bodies and in the mechanisms
that support our lives and actions. At the same time, biology is
present only at the origin of quite a few of the other things that
characterise what we humans currently are. To put it succinctly:
biology made possible our partial but progressive liberation from
biology. This is how we came to be at once part of nature but also
at a distance from it and consequently enabled to manipulate nature
as if from the outside.
I think that Darwin himself would have approved of that position.
Let me remind you again what he said about facial expression.
Inspired by the neurologist Duchenne’s photographs of the
activation of facial muscles with electrodes, he published
The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872),
arguing that ‘With mankind some expressions, such as the bristling
of the hair under the influence of extreme terror, or the uncovering
of the teeth under that of furious rage, can hardly be understood
except on the belief that man once existed in a much lower and
animal-like condition’. But then added that while “every true
or inherited movement of expression seems to have had some natural
and independent origin”, once acquired “such movements may be
voluntarily and consciously employed as a means of communication”.
In short, ladies and gentlemen, we take the biological givens and
subordinate them to distinctively human ends that make no sense in
purely biological terms. We are explicit animals that do things
deliberately. Uniquely we entertain theories about our own nature
and about the world; systematically inquire into the order of
things and the patterns of causation and physical laws that seem
to underpin that order; create cities, laws, institutions;
frame our individual lives within a shared history; guide, justify,
and excuse our behaviour according to general and abstract principles;
and so on and so forth. The desire to minimise human uniqueness has
prompted exaggerated claims about animal tool use, about their range
and mode of communication and their sense of each other, about their
putative beliefs and other modes of thought. The monuments of
collective endeavour seen in the animal kingdom – for example
the heaps created by termites – are the result not of conscious
deliberation but of dovetailing automaticities.
I have laboured this because the elision of the gap between man
and animals matters. Firstly, it is plainly, and therefore boringly,
wrong. It should not seem necessary to point out that there is
a fundamental difference between all other animals generated by
the processes of evolution and the one animal that wrote
The Origin of Species. But secondly it may take us
down a path of thought that will be harmful for our future.
Let me remind you of John Gray’s Darwinitic conclusion:
that we are just animals and, if that is so,
and we are not particularly special, and we should not
perhaps value ourselves over-much. For Gray the animal
nature of man leads him to the chilling conclusion that
‘human life has no more meaning than the life of slime mould’.
Man (whom he re-names Homo rapiens)
‘is only one of many species and not obviously worth preserving.’
I won’t insult your intelligence by telling you where that leads.
Darwinitis might seem a harmless idiocy but harmless idiocies
have a habit, as the 20th century told us,
of turning from fluffy little puppies into Rotweilers
with sharpened teeth that may shred their owners to death.
Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for your attention.
© Raymond Tallis, 2008
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discussion that followed this talk
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