Raymond Tallis has a deeply impressive polymathic brain (if that word is possible). A poet, medical doctor, novelist, philosopher, cultural commentator, and ‘ontological atheist’, he is also a very likeable man. I know this (a) because I saw him in conversation last week at the Wellcome Foundation with Bryan Appleyard, and (b) I know someone who knows him. Aping Mankind is one of his latest books that challenges much of contemporary evolutionary thinking along with the direction neuroscience seems to be hurtling towards – a ‘neo-phrenology’ that seems to suggest (via fMRI scans) that we can map our emotional and functional life on the brain.
So, taking ‘love’ as an example – neuroscientists can show us where ‘love’ lights up in our brain when we think of, say, a loved one. But for Tallis, this is too reductive. We can’t ‘stuff pieces of humanity into the brain’ in this way – love is something far better captured by Keats or Bob Dylan for one. Such experiences of being human firmly separate us from the idea that we are all subject to unconscious forces determined by (selfish) genes. Taken to the extreme, free will becomes an illusion. Even the experiments suggesting we don’t know what we are doing until we do it (Libet etc) comes under Tallis’ passionate scrutiny – he makes a case for a greater intentional field that needs capturing for these experiments to bear any proper meaning.
For more, Andrew Brown writes in the Guardian here.