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The Great Debate: Being Human

Steven Rose: The philosophical neuroscientist
by David Large

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Introduction: Darwinism - Too much of a good thing

Steven Rose, neuroscientist and biologist, has spent over 40 years studying the brain and how it works. After a double first in biochemistry at Cambridge, he pursued his studies at the Institute of Psychiatry in London, then as a Fellow of New College, Oxford, and subsequently at Imperial College, London. In 1969, he was appointed Professor of Biology at the Open University.

Rose’s scientific views converge with his politics. These views are shared with his wife, the sociologist Hilary Rose. Together they offer forceful critiques of their scientific peers, believing that reductionist theories, ascribing human behaviour primarily to our genes, are inadequate to explain human life. In particular, Hilary and Steven stand against 'ultra-Darwinians' such as Pinker, Dawkins and Dennett. The hard question for the Roses is whether this is a mere intellectual debate, or whether there is a vital and urgent lesson for us all in the description of humanity, the direction of science and the use, misuse or disgraceful waste of billions of dollars of scarce resources. Steven Rose discusses this misuse of resources at some length in The 21st Century Brain, Cape, 2005.

Brain science

Since going up to Cambridge in the 1950s Rose has been involved with scientific experimentation. In particular he focussed on examining the brain, and has developed a lifelong commitment to the study of the brain. He was researching this area before many others had realised that, after the discovery of the structure of DNA, the next big area for scientific exploration was to be consciousness. For this precocity he was sent to the Institute of Psychiatry, “a gloomy, red-brick, down-market place in south London”. But at least he was studying the brain.

From a philosophical point of view, what makes Rose interesting is that while he holds impeccable credentials within the world of brain science he has adamantly resisted the temptation to say that our knowledge about the human brain accounts for the human mind. Indeed, he has gone out of his way to insist that the brain cannot be used to account for mind, consciousness and other mental items.

Thoughts and electrochemical processes

Neuroscientists usually hold that thoughts, including propositional attitudes such as beliefs, are a matter of chemicals and electrical impulses in the brain. For Rose and others, there is a sense that everything we do is encoded in the chemical pathways and the history of our bodies. However, unlike many neuroscientists, Rose holds that you can't account for the mind and concepts like consciousness or Belief solely by reference to a set of chemicals. Our mental items reflect human agency, our experience, and present a different sort of discourse. He says,

“In talking about your beliefs, am I engaging with your brain or with your personality and your history? Well, both at the same time. I mean, your brain and my brain and the communication between us is encoded in all sorts of complicated biophysical changes. At the same time, we're having a conversation which is expressive of your and my past history and our experience and our interchange. And you can't trap that simply in the molecules. The molecules might be encoding almost any sorts of things.” From Belief, BBC Radio 3, 2004.

The Species Gap: Humanity and chickenity

As a scientist in a white coat, Rose opens up and examines brains. Very often they are the brains of chickens. Now, you may wonder how the brain of a chicken can tell you anything about the brain of a human. Well, according to Rose, if you were to take an electron microscope picture of the nerve cells in the brain of a chicken and the nerve cells in the brain of a human and present them to the most experienced neuroscientist in the world, they would not be able to tell the difference between them. In other words, the fundamental biochemistry of the electrophysiology of the way the brain works, is identical in chickens, in mice, in humans, and even in seemingly very different animals such as octopuses or flies. Where the brains of different species differ is in their organisation, i.e. the way the brain of that species is wired up and connected.

A good illustration of this is Rose’s ongoing work on possible treatments for Alzheimer's disease. The protein involved in Alzheimer's disease in humans and the same protein in a chicken is actually 95% identical. For Rose this is an example of the enormous conservation present in evolution.

Nevertheless, Rose insists that there is something uniquely human about being human. Indeed, he says there is something unique about any species being that species. The proof of this is the fact that we don't do things that chickens do, and we do do things that chickens don't do. The uniqueness of a species, especially human beings, is something that Rose implores us to consider as extraordinary. For instance, the uniqueness of humans is that we can have a conversation, that we have technology, that we have written records that transform our lives. This is a clear difference from other species where every generation, e.g. chickens, starts from scratch. In contrast, each generation of human beings starts with a cumulative culture that goes back through the 200,000 years or so of homo sapiens. (Please note that this fact does not imply that the doctrines of evolutionary psychology must be true.)


For both the Roses, freewill implies the need for a strong sense of social justice. The concept of freewill is at heart of the debate between the Roses and the evolutionary psychologists. This relates to the issue of whether we have freewill or not. Recently, debates around freewill and the key issues have become far more subtle. Currently, much hangs on the question of whether what you believe to be freewill is really freewill, and if it is then just what does this mean, what does it actually come to?

Like many experimental scientists, Rose has always found freewill to be dodgy concept. This is because it seems to “confound all sorts of things not very satisfactorily”. Both Stephen Pinker and Richard Dawkins, who are (in this respect at least) genetic determinists, would say that everything is shaped by our genes. Dawkins says at the end of 'The Selfish Gene', “only we can rebel against the tyranny of our selfish replicators”. And yet, if we're the product of our replicators, Rose asks, who is this 'we' who is doing the rebelling? Pinker puts it more idiomatically saying “if my genes don't like what I do, they can go jump in the lake!” (see Alas Poor Darwin, Vintage, 2001).

But this isn’t a clear refutation of genetic determinism? Or does it just mean that they haven't thought very clearly about what is going on here? Both Dawkins and Pinker want to rescue the possibility of human freedom. As things turn out, Rose says, “they do this by having freewill coming like the American cavalry over the hill to rescue us from the tyranny of our genes, which they otherwise laud and magnify”. Somehow, freewill, indeed all freedom, is something they need to, and can only, evoke like this.

Rose argues differently. In his book 'Lifelines' and elsewhere, he argues that human freedom comes out of the nature of being a living organism. That is, that we construct our own futures, though (as Marx says) in circumstances not of our own choosing. It is the very nature of being a biological organism that makes us free in this way. The future is radically indeterminate. We live at the interface of multiple determinisms, in particular those given by our biology, and those given by the social context in which we live. We construct our future out of all of those things and, importantly, this means that there is nothing fixed in our future by our present biological state.

It is within the nature of being a living organism in a complicated system that gives us the ability to influence our future and guarantees that our future is not fixed in advance by our genes or any other single factor. Human beings are complicated systems inside, in terms of our own biology, and outside, in terms of our relationship with the environment, the social world and so on. It is this essential complexity with attendant complications that provides the freedom within which we operate (see Lifelines, Penguin, 1997).

Interestingly, but perhaps predictably, as a respected neuroscientist Rose qualifies this neo-enlightenment view with an experimentalists’ perspective,
“If you say that freedom is not mappable onto the properties of brain cells or the properties of genes or the properties of the immune system or the social context in which we're operating, then that's obviously ridiculous. It does map onto that, but the indeterminism is built into the system.” From Belief, BBC Radio 3, 2004.

Determinism and Ultra-Darwinism

In discussing freewill Rose talks about the future being completely unpredictable and therefore not something that we can shape. But surely this does not mean that we cannot see that the beliefs we hold today have grown out of the experiences we've had in the past? Rose agrees. The future is not unpredictable in that sense. The future is, rather, shaped by our history. The evolutionary biologist, Theodocius Dobshansky, said, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”. Similarly Rose says,

“Nothing in the understanding of humans makes sense except in the light of evolution, of our development, that is, our biological development, and our social, cultural and historical contexts. We're historically shaped. And of course, there are things which are predictable, there are levels of determination that we actually have to deal with. It depends where we actually search for them.” From Belief, BBC Radio 3, 2004.

So, if we want to know why someone has Alzheimer's disease, then we search inside the brain. But equally, if we want to know why the war in Iraq occurred, there's no point in looking for disturbances in the neurotransmitter metabolism in the brains of George Bush or Tony Blair.

This goes to the heart of evolutionary psychology and every other doctrine that implies some form of genetic determinism of our behaviour. If, in the terms of journalists rather than the evolutionary psychologists, there is a gene for violence, a gene for crime, a gene for homosexuality, and so on we are completely trapped, and therefore social justice does not even make it on to the ultra-darwinian or evolutionary psychologists’ agenda.

Genetic determinism holds that we go to war because we're genetically programmed to go to war. Human beings, as independent, thinking animals, resent this assertion. Rose resents it as a biologist too, because it's an absurd way of trying to talk about certain sorts of things. Roses enlarges on this by saying that, the concept of homosexuality is not the same today as it was in Victorian England or in Plato's Greece. In fact, it's not a thing, it's a process.

Similarly for aggression and violence, Rose objects to the reifying of social complexity by giving it a general name and treating it as a universal. He asks, “is aggression the same thing that happens when a rat kills a mouse in a cage, which is the way it's measured in the laboratory, or when a man beats his wife, or when there's a pub brawl, or when there's a pilot dropping a smart bomb on a bunker in Baghdad?” For him these are not the same processes. They are socially different, and to call them all the same is, therefore, misleading. At best, it suggests there is, if not a single then, a unified mechanism for them. But the same act under different circumstances is sometimes called a crime of violence and sometimes called a person acting in terms of social duty and responsibility. A soldier picking up a gun and shooting someone may be court-martialled, or may be regarded as a hero, but the biology of picking up the gun and shooting is identical. So to talk about aggression or violence as somehow encoded in the brain, as if it is the same thing i.e. the same object, ignores the social context in which we label these things. It is this sort of crude reductionism, embraced by evolutionary psychology and ultra-darwinism that the Roses object to.

But Rose does not object to this by producing a new notion of freewill or an environmental or social explanation, or even a political objection. He gets upset when those who take the other side accuse the anti-ultra-darwinians of being political. As human beings, we are all political in that sense because we are shaped by the world in which we live and by our expectations. But Rose’s argument is about how to understand freewill, determinism and similar phenomena as a neuroscientist.


Rose would not be interested as passionately as he is in these scientific questions if he didn't have a framework of understanding and Belief about the world. That framework shapes both the science he does and the way in which he regards the world and the political part of the world. Just as one has to act on the world in order to understand it scientifically, it would be shameful to abdicate one's responsibility for speaking out against injustice when one sees it.

Rose views science as, is in some sense, objective, and political commitment as, in some sense, subjective. Of course, it's more complicated than that. Political commitment is a way of understanding the world. It belongs at the level of beliefs, actions, and engagement with the outside world. The sciences are ways of understanding the world, ways of trying to experiment on and predict the way the world is going to go. They are about trying to interpret our complex world in the simplest terms as we can. So politics and science are two very different activities.

Nonetheless, the sorts of science we do, the questions we ask about the world, indeed the things that Rose’s chickens do that he thinks are important - which he interprets out of “the blooming, buzzing confusion and complexity of being a living organism” - those questions and those understandings of what's important, come out of Belief. They come out of an ideology, out of a way of thinking about what is important and what we need to understand, and what makes a proper explanation, be it a scientific explanation, a political explanation, or another type of explanation. Science does not explain it all, nor will beliefs suffice on their own. Life is more complex than that.

Human Beliefs

Rose holds to two things that Karl Marx said about religion and belief. Firstly that it is the opium of the people, but secondly that it is man's cry of pain in an unjust world. One of the crucial things about humans, unlike other animals, is that we do have knowledge of our own death. We do have, the possibility of prediction, of looking back, and therefore a need to make some sort of understanding of our place in the universe, which other animals, we suppose, take for granted. That has been a crucial feature of what it is to be human. This is what you see in the artefacts, the cave paintings and the decorated skulls from earliest human times. The need to make sense of our place in the universe in a pre-scientific world produces the need for magic to control the world, or for religion to provide a place and an understanding of the world. Now, we no longer need either magic or religion because the explanations given by the sciences in the very broadest sense provide that for us.

Rose points to our unjust, unfair and unkind world. There is the pain of individual existence - that we live and that we die - and the fact of the inevitable pains of life, illness and death. People want to make sense of these things. But we all know that we have a finite existence associated with us. And that is a problem that we all have to face. Unless they are particularly stoical, people faced with that have a need to find other ways of thinking about the world. And that, for Rose, is where the need for religion emerges.

Religion is not an explanation of the world at all. It is, rather, a set of beliefs which more or less help people with guidance through life, and a way of being. But none of this provides an acceptable understanding of the way the world is, and why the world is.

As a neuroscientist, Rose has seen the life and death of non-human animals. As an individual, he has seen the life and death of his parents and of people who've been close to him. The end of life is death, and Rose quotes Woody Allen saying, 'I don't really want to be there while I'm dying, but apart from that I’ve no problem with it!’.

For Rose, there’s no life after death and no concept of any form of survival, not even in chemical terms. Only the things he has written, the laboratory findings that he’s made, and maybe the therapeutic advances that he made in the lab, will ‘live’ after him. He would like to believe that he has had an influence on the lives of his children, grandchildren and the wider world, but knows that that will fade. But they must speak about that for themselves.

Steven Rose: scientist and human being

From a philosophical point of view, Steven Rose is a thorough-going materialist. For him, the findings of modern science, are not 100% accurate, are always open to revision, are always doubtful and uncertain, and are always shaped by patterns of society and the expectations that we have. The findings of science are, however, more in accord with the reality of the world than any other form of explanation.

As well as this intellectual position, Rose is a human being and political animal. Given his privileged position he feels obliged to speak out. Among other things he rails against the commercialisation of the human brain, and the gross violence done to this most precious part of out bodies for the sake of profit by, for example, drugs such as thalidomide, prozac and ritalin (see The 21st Century Brain, Cape, 2005).


H Rose and S Rose (editors) - Alas Poor Darwin, Vintage, 2001.
S Rose - Molecules and Minds, Open UP, 1987.
S Rose - Lifelines, Penguin, 1997.
S Rose (editor) - From Brains to Consciousness, Penguin, 1998.
S Rose - Belief, BBC Radio 3, Broadcast 23 December 2004, Click here for script.
S Rose - ‘Still crazy after all these years’, Review of G. Claxton, The Wayward Mind, The Guardian, Review Section, 15 January 2005.
S. Rose – The 21st Century Brain, Cape, 2005.
S Rose, L Kamin and R Lewontin - Not in Our Genes, Penguin, 1984.

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Article     Books

Steven Rose

Amazon.co.uk: books by Steven Rose

The Third Culture: Steven Rose

Biography of Steven Rose

Playing God by Hilary and Steven Rose, The Guardian, Thursday July 3, 2003

The political scientist : The Guardian profile of Steven Rose, Dec 2001

Profile of Steven Rose, the Moral Maze, BBC radio 4

God’s Organism? The chick as a model system for memory studies by Steven P R Rose

The measure of a man (June 2002), Steven Rose pays tribute to the life and work of Stephen Jay Gould

Lifelines, Biology, Freedom, Determinism, 1997

A Conversation with Steven Rose (pdf file), EMBL Annual Report 2001/2002

Biology, Freedom, Determinism from Lifelines : Biology Beyond Determinism, human-nature.com

Darwin, Genes and Determinism Steven Rose on BBC Evolution Website

Steven Rose puts the organism back into biology (1998)

Don't mess with human nature... Francis Fukuyama fears that biotechnology will make monsters of us. Steven Rose weighs the evidence, June 1, 2002, The Guardian

Terms of endowment Steven Rose finds out a thousand more things about men than he ever imagined asking in Steve Jones's Y: The Descent of Man Saturday September 14, 2002, The Guardian

No Way To Treat The Mind by Steven Rose

The Descent of Man - The Voices

Palestine: Information with Provenance

Wars of the Roses by Helen Jacobus, The Jewish Chronicle (UK), January 31, 2003

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Buy these books from Amazon
The 21st Century Brain: Explaining, Mending and Manipulating the Mind Alas Poor Darwin The Making of Memory: From Molecules to Mind Lifelines Not in Our Genes: Biology, Ideology, and Human Nature

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