Being Human: Resisting the Claims of Scientific Reductionism (FT 25-26/6/11)
Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity, by Raymond Tallis, Acumen Publishing, RRP£25, 400 pages
Naked Genes: Reinventing the Human in the Molecular Age, by Helga Nowotny and Giuseppe Testa, MIT Press, RRP£18.95, 192 pages
The Most Human Human: A Defence of Humanity in the Age of the Computer, by Brian Christian, Viking, RRP£18.99, 320 pages
What is human nature? A biologist might see it like this: humans are animals and, like all animals, consist mostly of a digestive tract into which they relentlessly stuff other organisms – whether animal or vegetable, pot-roasted or raw – in order to fuel their attempts to reproduce yet more such insatiable, self-replicating omnivores. The fundamentals of human nature, therefore, are the pursuit of food and sex.
But that, the biologist would add, is only half the story. What makes human nature distinctive is the particular attribute that Homo sapiens uses to hunt down prey and attract potential mates. Tigers have strength, cheetahs have speed – that, if you like, is tiger nature and cheetah nature. Humans have something less obviously useful: freakishly large brains. This has made them terrifyingly inventive in acquiring other organisms to consume – and, indeed, in preparing them (what other animal serves up its prey cordon bleu?) – if also more roundabout in their reproductive strategies (composing sonnets, for example, or breakdancing).
Human nature – the predilection for politics and war, industry and art – is, therefore, just the particularly brainy way that humans have evolved to solve the problems of eating and reproducing. Thus biologists believe that once they understand the human brain and the evolutionary history behind it, they will know all they need to about this ubiquitous brand of ape.
Viewing ourselves in this way, stripped back to the biological bones, is a form of “reductionism”, as it reduces the intricacies of human consciousness and society to the workings of genes and brain cells. It would once have seemed incredible, obviously wrong, not to say blasphemous. To reduce religious wonder, poetic sensibility and the richness of social life to mere animal instincts seems a travesty. Yet exactly this is the dominant account of what it is to be human in the early 21st century.
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Thus newspapers today are filled with stories of genes for this and neurons for that. Recent examples range from “The Love-Cheat Gene: One in Four Born to be Unfaithful” to “Scientists Reveal Brain Cells Devoted to Jennifer Aniston”. Partly, the reductionist worldview is gaining in prevalence because many of its claims are true: evolutionary theory is now firmly established, our genome is being deciphered and there are indisputable correlations between consciousness and brain activity. But a problem arises when scientists, policymakers or the media adopt this biological perspective in the search for simple solutions to complex problems, blaming the credit crunch, for example, on short-termism inherited from our primate ancestors. Some thinkers are, therefore, rebelling against the reductionist consensus.
Of course, those with a strongly religious perspective often reject it outright. But even secular thinkers are increasingly resisting its claim to be the whole truth. Although some go too far in their attacks – arguing wrongly, for example, that we have next to nothing to learn about ourselves from our evolutionary history – such critics are, nonetheless, right to point out that in accepting the reductionist view, we risk doing ourselves a dangerous disservice.
One of the most vocal is Raymond Tallis, philosopher, former professor of geriatric medicine and prolific writer. His latest book, Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity, is an all-out assault on the exaggerated claims made on behalf of the biological sciences.
“Neuromania” is Tallis’s term for reducing all aspects of mind and behaviour to the firings of microscopic brain cells, whereas “Darwinitis” refers to the other strand of biological reductionism: explaining all aspects of our behaviour in terms of our evolutionary history and/or the genes that encode it. His attack on them both is two-fold: first, he criticises many of the specific experiments and hypotheses as hopelessly crude and, second, he argues that the reductionist project is anyway philosophically flawed.
His criticisms of reductionism in practice are frequently justified: one researcher, for example, claimed to have identified the brain centre for romantic love by showing subjects first a picture of “someone with whom they were in love”, then a picture of a mere friend and recording the difference in neural activity. This does seem naive – what it means to be besotted is not summed up by which neurons fire when we look at a photo. Indeed, when I look at a picture of my beloved I am more likely to wonder what she wants for dinner than to call to mind the fullness of our love.
But such experiments are lapped up by the media and are influential throughout the humanities, where evolutionary explanations for everything from free speech to fine art are increasingly fashionable. Tallis, who is at pains to point out that he agrees with Darwinism – he is not a closet creationist – is on strong ground when he argues that the crude application of biological reductionism will shed little light on how to reform the health service or how to read James Joyce’s Ulysses.
But his position becomes much shakier when it moves to the broader philosophy. He argues at length, for example, that the mind cannot even in principle be reduced to the workings of our brains alone. This is a respectable position, though one held by a minority of those paid to think about these questions. Most philosophers and scientists believe the opposite: that mind is just the product of certain brain activity, even if we do not currently know quite how. Tallis, therefore, does both the reader and these thinkers an injustice by describing his opponents’ position as “obviously” wrong and accusing them of “elementary” mistakes. His own inability to provide a convincing alternative account of the mind shows that this is a subject on which reasonable people can differ without stooping to insults.
But although much of the theoretical content of Aping Mankind is unconvincing – to which might be added that the book is twice as long as it needs to be and unpleasantly boorish in tone – it is, nonetheless, an important work. Tallis is right to point out that a fundamental shift in our self-perception is under way and frequently going too far. It is, however, possible to question these developments in a more measured way, as shown by Naked Genes: Reinventing the Human in the Molecular Age by Helga Nowotny, a leading sociologist of science, and the biologist Giuseppe Testa. Their book is a subtle and sophisticated analysis of how the life sciences are shifting our view of ourselves and the challenges this is posing.
The title stems from a simple but telling observation: that it is the role of the sciences to “make things visible that could not previously be seen”. Until very recently, we had no idea how heredity worked. Now, our genes are laid bare before us. When technology first makes some process visible, scientists attempt to isolate what they see, extracting it from its context so as to understand its nature better. The result, argue Nowotny and Testa, is that they tend initially to ascribe too much importance to these processes and underestimate other factors – in other words, reductionism.
This seems a perfect explanation of Tallis’s “Darwinitis” and “Neuromania”. Just as our genes are being laid bare, new technology is enabling us for the first time to peer inside the living brain. But in an attempt to understand what they are seeing, scientists give disproportional weight to these fuzzy images. In time, however, a counter-movement will argue for seeing the newly revealed entities – genes or brain cells – in a broader context. Indeed, Tallis’s polemic in Aping Mankind can be seen as that counter-movement in action.
Nowotny and Testa explore various case studies where the revelations of biology are challenging our self-image: for example, in the debate around doping in sport. They argue that the distinction between the natural (the genes we are born with, good food and hard training) and the artificial (drugs, genetic engineering and prostheses) is a fiction, and unsustainable. Indeed, the idea of a “level playing field” for competitors is itself a fiction: some people are born with genes that make them better athletes. What is “level” about that? Genetic engineering, a technology frequently perceived as “unnatural”, could in theory level out just such an inequality.
But Nowotny and Testa do not offer answers to these questions – they simply explore them, exposing underlying tensions and ironies. Their main conclusion is that we need institutions that are flexible enough to cope both with further insights into our nature and also diverse and evolving public attitudes (citing the UK’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority as an example). Such institutions should support citizens in making autonomous choices, they argue, in which case they are optimistic that new developments in science and technology can “empower the creative individual”.
Which is a view shared by Brian Christian in his excellent first book The Most Human Human: A Defence of Humanity in the Age of the Computer. The reductionist viewpoint suggests we are merely biological machines; if this is so, then all and any of our capacities should be achievable by other kinds of machine, such as computers. This is the opinion of many in the science and technology community, and a good number are setting out to prove it in the race to build the first truly intelligent machine.
The conventional test of whether a computer can think like a human is known as the Turing Test after the English computing pioneer Alan Turing, who created it in the 1950s. It is simply this: an assessor converses separately, usually via a remote terminal, with a human and with a machine. If the assessor can’t tell which is which, the machine has passed the test – something that has never yet happened. One annual setting of the Turing Test is called the Loebner Prize, after its sponsor, Hugh Loebner, and it provides the brilliant conceit for Christian’s book.
The set-up is this: Christian takes part in the Loebner Prize as one of the humans who will go up against the machines. If an assessor is fooled into believing that one of the computers is the human, this is tantamount to saying that the computer is more human-like than Christian himself. This is not a challenge that the author takes lying down: indeed, it is the launch pad for a fascinating explanation of what it means to be human and how Christian, in the face of stiff competition from the world’s best artificial intelligence, can prove that he is the genuine article.
Along the way, he explores ideas of authenticity, humour, spontaneity and originality. In one particularly insightful section, he notes that we can only be replaced by machines if we have first allowed ourselves to become like them. Once, for example, we have abandoned local contacts in favour of distant and homogenous call centres, staffed by workers given no room for responsibility or creativity, then it is only a matter of time before those workers, who are trained to act like robots, will be replaced by them.
All three books, different as they are, point to the same conclusion: that we need not allow ourselves to be reduced by these powerful new disciplines of genetics, neuroscience and computing. Instead, we can learn from them and assimilate them into a broader understanding of ourselves. We can, in fact, use them to become better at being human.
Stephen Cave is a writer and philosopher based in Berlin. His book, ‘Immortality’, is published next year by Random