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The Great Debate: Minds, Genes and Consciousness

What Decides? - Themes

by David Large

The Question

In debates about the relationship between nature, nurture and culture, between genes, the physical and the mental, and between body, mind and consciousness, what is it that gives each account its explanatory force? Where does the semantic weight rest? In other words, what decides?

1) Reason

The Claims of Reason

Reason alone cannot guarantee to explain our place in the world and to account for our presence in it. We should be wary of resting too much weight on the faculty of Reason and its related abilities.

First and Third Person

Which description delivers the correct account? Is it the first person subjective description or the third person objective description? Does one reduce to the other? In particular, does the first person reduce to, or admit of, a more correct third person description, or is it irreducible, sui generis?

2) Causation

One way to resolve our problems is to make reference to something that underlies all the competing views, something that explains both the rules of subjective reason and the laws of objective physics. Is there any such thing? Is the answer to our problems the notion of Causation?

Determinism and Causal Explanation

A major consequence of thinking in terms of causation is the commitment to a position on what it is that the causal explanation brings about, and how the causal explanation determines what it brings about - its effects. It is tempting to think that

if everything has a causal explanation, and
if causal explanation delivers the underlying, or 'real', explanation, then
a complete set of causal explanations determines the way everything must 'really' be.

This conclusion implies that there is no alternative to nor escape from causal, determined explanation.

A) Science

The hallmarks of a scientific account are that it is third person, objective in the way described, fits an accurate model, and as such is both universal and necessary. Given these attributes, scientific accounts are supposed, with some self-evident justification, to provide proper, true descriptions of the way things really are. But actual science isn't anything like this.

Popular Science

What scientists actually do is generally assumed to be above the understanding of the common person. There is, however, the phenomenon of popular science wherein authoritative figures, often eminent scientists, present a version of their science that is accessible to the non-specialist. Such works may achieve best-seller status and are considerable money spinners for those involved. There is, then, the question of how accurately they account for the science represented and, even with the best will in the world, it is easily possible to see how readers of such works may end up being deceived as to the real achievements of the science in question and as to the actual nature of science in general.

The Redundant Meme

Dawkins has not considered any of the concepts and arguments usually used when discussing common ideas, widespread notions, and social phenomena, in other words, all the things that memes are supposed to explain. That he has ignored consideration of the disciplines connected with these topics means that there is no work for the notion of the meme to do. It attempts to explain in its own terms what has already been explained in terms of proper discourse within the relevant disciplines. In this sense the notion of the meme is redundant.

Popular Genetics

The question is not 'what is the genetic explanation of mind and consciousness?', but rather 'how can there possibly be a genetic explanation of mind and consciousness?' At best genetics seems only to say that consciousness is here and that this genetic mechanism is here and that, in the absence of any further explanation, this genetic mechanism must be the mechanism that explains consciousness.

Hard, Text Book Science

With respect to mind, genes and consciousness, if popular science is something of a false start then what about real, hard, text book science. Perhaps only this, the proper scientific discipline, can tell us what mind, genes and consciousness are really all about?

Equations and Explanations

If an account is not shown to conform with the existing relevant equations, or to produce fresh equations that either do conform or show why they do not so conform, then that account has not made itself scientifically viable and is not worth considering.

Genetic Psychology

It seems that the idea of explaining minds and consciousness in terms of genetics requires nothing less than the development of a genetic psychology. Two issues that arise here are those of

the nature of a genetic or genetic-based psychology, and
the viability of psychologism in general.

There appears to be no settled agreement on either issue, though the notion of a thoroughgoing genetic psychology looks particularly problematic.

B) Narrative

Alongside the input from science, the discourse about minds, genes and consciousness has a distinctively narrative character, found as part of all discursive explanations.

A Plea for Modesty

It is not that science is wrong, nor that explanations about mental phenomena are essentially muddled or have to be woolly. It is that there are no easy answers. There are no clear boundaries between what's the right and what's the wrong way to go about finding answer to the question of the proper relationship between minds, genes and consciousness. What is required from scientists, philosophers, and others alike is not just debate but the right sort of debate, and not just claims but modesty in claims and interim conclusions.


Christopher Badcock, Evolutionary Psychology, Polity, 2000
Rita Carter, Mapping the Mind, W&N, 1999
Denise Cummins and Colin Allen (eds), The Evolution of Mind, OUP, 1998
Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (New Edition), OUP, 1989
Daniel Dennett, Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Penguin, 1994
Jurgen Habermas, Knowledge and Human Interests, Polity, 1984
Kenan Malik, Man, Beast, Zombie, W&N, 2000
Mark Ridley (ed) - Evolution, OUP, 1997
John Maynard Smith, Evolutionary Genetics (2nd Edition), OUP, 1998
Stephen Stearns and Rolf Hoekstra, Evolution: An Introduction, OUP, 2000

Order Knowledge and Human Interests from Amazon

Order these books from Amazon
Evolutionary Psychology: A Critical Introduction Mapping the Mind The Evolution of Mind The Origin of Species The Selfish Gene
Darwin's Dangerous Idea Man, Beast and Zombie Evolution Evolutionary Genetics Evolution: An Introduction

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