The New Terrapin Gazette

Number 290
22 January, 2013

Amid the fog of denial, remorse, and confusion over the Kennedy assassination, an informal strategic response developed that would serve the purposes of the burgeoning New Left as well as assuage the consciences of liberals generally: transform Kennedy into an all-purpose martyr for causes he didn’t take up and for a politics he didn’t subscribe to….

Book Review

Aping Mankind; Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity by Raymond Tallis. Acumen, 2012. ISBN 978-1-84465-273-0.

Overview

The author is a British physician who retired from practice to write on a variety of topics. In this challenging yet graceful volume, he mounts a brilliant attack on practitioners of “scientism”, beginning with mechanist-reductionist “neuromaniacs” in thrall to the charms of overweening neurological technology, and then moving on to the “Darwinitics”, believers in “Darwinitis”, an overzealous, distorted extension of Darwin’s seminal insights. It is a rout.

You might have heard that some amazing devices have allowed scientists to pinpoint the anatomical locations of love, hate, aggression and even awareness itself in the heads of living humans. When functional magnetic resonance imaging (which the Brits abbreviate as fMRI) is employed, increases and decreases in the electromagnetic activity of various areas of the brain can be detected. The hubristic, unwarranted conclusion transgresses science: the observed activity in the brain is the thought, emotion, or intent under study. Tallis then explains in detail why this leap of faith is irrational.

Having discovered the locations of many of the activities of the brain, neuromaniacs assume they have defined consciousness. Mind and brain are one, they claim, and they insist that infra-human primates as well as virtually all other animals possess consciousness that is the same as human consciousness, but simpler. The result is that people are considered to be complex animals and non-human animals are understood to be rather like dim-witted people.

Taking out this rubbish is a huge task, for it is extremely common to think of the human brain as a computer (which it is not) and genuine language as a means of communication (which is its least important function). The debunking of these irrational assumptions is not new; it was practiced in earnest in the 1930’s and earlier by some. As the years passed, the baneful behaviorist grip on psychology eased, but the impulse to oversimplify reality and turn to a presumptively omniscient but cultic mock science continued. (Unfortunately this narrow, ideology-prone mania is seductive, ensorcelling all manner of polemicists and reformer-activists; it is notably active in the pseudoscience that has conjured up anthropogenic global warming).

The scientistic process follows a pattern: when some information is gleaned through the use of new technology or the unfolding of innovative speculation, complex phenomena suddenly become explicable. That’s an intoxicating and addictive experience for the faithful.

The brain = mind poppycock is bad enough, but it can be surpassed by Tallis’s second target, Darwinitis, a fawning act of fealty directed at the genius of the amateur naturalist.

Now Darwin’s concept of natural selection (which probably should be thought of as differential reproduction that alters the gene pool rather than as “selection”) claims that the human genetic endowment must necessarily be adaptive. That is based on the tacit understanding that the human organism’s prime imperative is to transmit its genetic material to the next generation, thereby insuring the survival of the species.

This formulation immediately leads to two terribly unfortunate questions that are usually answered with accordingly terrible “explanations”. The first question: what, exactly, seeks to survive — the man or the gene? The second question is, if the creation of better-adapted and therefore hardier offspring is the ambition of evolution, what human attribute lies outside the purview of evolution?

Tallis makes clear that the answers all too often are, respectively, stubborn genes/chromosomes, and absolutely none. Both answers are bad.

Because Darwin’s insight was comprehensible — available to virtually all levels of intelligence — it was widely adopted as the rationale supporting biological, anatomical, cultural and political teachings, doctrines, systems, canons, and schools of thought.

If the brain is the mind and if man is a product of biological evolution that has crafted the brain, there are implications. Chief among them is a loss of freedom: as science presses on, it finds more evidence to prove that humans do what they must, not what they will, and that society is shaped and governed not by intellect, intent and hope, but by pure mechanistic biology. That might seem like a bit of a leap, but Tallis is at pains to explain why it is entirely too easy for the Neuromaniacs and Darwinitics of scientism to make it.

Though Langer declared in 1941 that the presumed transition from a hugely complex telephone switchboard to the human mind was impossible, the prevailing trend in psychology and neurology was to deal with consciousness as a matter of degree rather than kind. Some researchers simply looked away; in 1997, in an otherwise useful book (that refuted some of Chomsky’s major claims), Deacon portrayed the human use of symbols as a kind of doubled-up computer processing. That explained nothing.

Meanwhile two developments were eroding the prevailing nonsense. One was the slow collapse of behaviorism, devastatingly and hilariously chronicled by Koestler, and the other was von Bertalanffy’s emphasis on symbols and systems. Man is not a robot with a computer for a brain, von Bertalanffy insisted, and a reductionist analysis of behavior is doomed. Gradually more and more researchers and scholars came to see that breaking things down and showing how the fundamentals operate is a destructive rather than descriptive process.

Of course the temptation survives. This reviewer once asked a psychologist what he thought of Rhine’s claims for ESP, and the response came as a shock: every nerve cell, the psychologist said, can only be in a state of positive or negative charge. With that he ended his answer. There was no discussion of Rhine’s fallacious assumption that a correct guess meant ESP was operating. The idea was — and for many today, remains — to reduce whatever phenomenon to its most primal components and activity, thereby “explaining” it. Reductionism, von Bertalanffy might say, is both the conceit and the enemy of reason.

Interestingly, Tallis proclaims his atheism (about which, more anon) and unshakable belief in biological evolution’s dependence on natural selection, though he fails to note the flaw in the claim for the utter randomness of mutation (he does not mention epigenetics). He parts company with those philosophers who claim that animals cannot suffer, and rejects utterly the Cartesian concept of a ghost in a machine. What irk Tallis are, first, the identification of neural activity as the equal of consciousness (“If consciousness were simply brain processes, it would not be able so to distance itself from brain processes to discover, or imagine that it has discovered, that it is brain processes”) and second, the harebrained idea that somehow human consciousness evolved in the same way as and along with the human body.

Now recall that it was mentioned above that “non-human animals are understood to be something rather like dim-witted people”, and consider whether animals are human-like. Can a gorilla be taught to use language, as has been claimed? The subject has been muddled over the years, but some sense can be made of it. Anyone who has ever had a dog knows that one can have a conversation with his pet (TV’s The Dog Whisperer is a wonderful program). This has softened more than one human head, even to the point where some folks claim that because communication with gorillas is possible (an utterly unsurprising fact), the great apes are capable of language. They are not. To dispute that is little short of madness.

When someone produces an ape that can understand and meet a request to give an account of how he felt about an event in the past, then specify how many days ago it happened, and follow that with an outline of his contingent plans for next week, a reconsideration will have to be undertaken.

The adoptions of permutations of the talking animal fable are appalling. Unfortunately — and perhaps predictably — Jane Goodall has emotionally plunged overboard, only to be followed by other distaff researchers (which raises questions that can be delved into another time!) who claim that the monkey does indeed have an uncle. How far can this naive sentimentality take science?

There is evidence of primates that were virtually human in anatomy, but remained apes. The notion of a non-human, erect, bipedal, binocular creature with opposable thumbs might be a challenge, but there it is. The fossil record (not cited by Tallis) suggests strongly that these animals could not speak, though of course they communicated by making sounds (many animals do that) and they formed social groups (ditto). They even displayed genuine concern for the sick members of their bands — that much is known. But speech, language? No. Can those creatures have been conscious in the sense modern man is? Aware, yes, as snakes and ants and sheep are aware. Conscious, no.

The huge qualitative gap between ape and man provides a basis for Tallis to argue powerfully that consciousness is the creation of mankind. The logic is irresistible: if minds are not brains, and consciousness did not evolve, then ethics, art, music and literature also do not owe their presence to their survival value. Yet as Tallis reminds us, the reductionist/scientistic myth explains them all as necessary products of biological evolution. The result makes a mockery of freedom, and Tallis unflinchingly drives that point home, meanwhile proving that the humanities are valid. Once again, Tallis is correct, and your reading of his reasoning will show you why.

Parenthetically, note that speculation about genetics and evolution and the mind can be both irritating and amusing. One of the picaresque creations of recent years is the meme. It is, as Tallis explains, a dodge that has been employed to support Darwinitis: “…I can no more imagine cathedrals being built out of brain tingles than I can see a gene product requiring a Thirty Years War to defend (them). That is why (Darwinitics) appeal to ‘memes’ in a desperate attempt to bridge the great gap….” Ultimately, “…meme theory must denigrate itself as a mere meme”. A cheer is called for, even though that might annoy others who are meditating nearby.

To mention another rewarding aspect of Tallis’s book, it is felicitous to see the silly E. O. Wilson, a poster boy for faddish meta-babble, draw little more than a glance as Tallis strides past.

The charm, challenge and value of his book lie in the way Tallis convinces the reader. This is good philosophy, powerful and evocative. Bravo.

Importance

Why does any of this matter? The implications of the mindset that Tallis dismantles are a smattering of nonsense and a great many evasive generalizations. That might sound harmless, but…the Darwinitic’s misunderstanding of evolution, along with reductionism in philosophy and science, are close relatives of the politician’s promises of a coming Utopia. No threat more lethal than the Utopian fantasy exists.

The claim that evolution is the omnipotent instrument of all human change, somatic and intellectual, removes man from the position of subject and makes him an object. Whatever his efforts, he is ultimately passive, being moved rather than moving. His consciousness, as the inevitable product of evolutionary biological processes, is not his doing any more than is the function of leaves or the boiling point of water. History is not a chronicle, but an agenda that reaches into the future. Society, in all its complexity, is preordained by the irresistible inevitabilities of nature; the significance of the human individual vanishes.

In such a setting, freedom is a hoax and whatever tyranny arises must be considered appropriate because of its evolutionary status: it is adaptive, and therefore will exist until it falls as a consequence of its own eventual failure to adapt. There is neither excuse nor need for the citizen to oppose his government, however vile it might be — at most, he can only slightly hasten the inevitable, and there is no hope of overturning any fully-adapted regime before it enters the final stage of its evolution.

Preaching this perverted Darwinian nonsense, or believing in it, are the most effective ways to subvert man’s noblest endeavors. Of course rascals will take advantage of the misconception of the forces of nature, justifying their hunger for power as wisdom. Their claims to have understood the hidden workings of nature will, if believed, give them the ability to control and enslave. Preaching the inadequacy of “negative” constitutional guarantees of safety from tyranny, they will work to increase the dependency of the individual, thereby draining his power to determine his fate.

This is the threat posed by collectivism: it claims to be riding the tide of history, leading humanity into a Utopia that must not, can not, be refused.

The threat begins with an error of science that places the evolution of the mind totally in the care of omnipotent evolutionary natural selection.

Darwin’s speculations enhanced the authority and attractiveness of both the confused predictions of Marx and Engels and the mechanistic, simple-minded and inhumane fables that distort the modern perception of man. Communists/socialists as well as many extraordinarily influential biologists, geneticists, anthropologists and economists often begin with undisclosed assumptions rooted in Darwinian fundamentals and descend into egregious error. So pervasive and influential have simple, credible abstracts of Darwin’s mode of thinking and explanation become that modernity without Darwin is virtually inconceivable.

Further, very few who today endorse or even approach Marxist historical analysis do so equipped with more Hegelian assumptions than Darwinian concepts, though Marx and Engels formed their dogma before Darwin published. When Marx became aware of Darwin’s overall theme, he realized that communist historical analysis and goals had an unintentional ally that gave scientific credence to his Hegel-inspired lunacy.

Marx declared the process of history both inevitable and predictable. He was also Darwinian in his assertion that behind patterns of change, laws of nature were acting out necessary sequences of causes and effects. For both Marx and Darwin, man was not in charge; he was a creature, not a creator. That view exemplifies Darwinitics, who, like Marx, view all culture (including art and religion) as crafted not by human imagination and choice, but by the unseen hand of evolution/change. (To paraphrase Obama, The One, only slightly, “Because they are economic failures, the denizens of the USA’s Flyover Country cling to guns and religion; they don’t understand why, but we, their ruling elite, do.”) For Tallis, those confabulations are absurdly fraudulent.

In destroying Darwinitis and Neuromania, Aping Mankind elucidates and celebrates freedom.

Tallis notes that he, an atheist, has been accused of giving faith in supernatural beings an opportunity to set reason aside. When people who have understood Tallis reaffirm their theism, that is not to refute Tallis, but to complete his work; one can agree with everything Tallis says about Darwinitis and scientism and Neuromania, and disagree with his atheism.

Note also that Tallis is infuriated by the reduction of religious belief to a “hard wired” genetic advantage in evolution, saying, “How mighty are the works of man and how much more impressive when they are founded on an idea to which nothing corresponds!”

Tallis has no solution to the puzzle of mind, consciousness, and the full meaning of what a human is. He introduces some current attempts to approach the task, and indicates his hope that someone might be able to work with the concept of intentionality and unravel a bit more of the baffling truth. This might be a subtle hint that one should watch for his next book.

For some readers, the natural escape from puzzlement over consciousness will be to a belief or faith in supernatural forces. It is relevant to observe that, like Sam Harris, Tallis contemplates the usefulness of spirituality that does not surrender to theocratic fables or authoritarian mandates. Perhaps, in spite of Richard Dawkins, the popular misconception of atheists as stubborn nihilists will soon come under examination.

There’s Always Hope

This newsletter has expressed the view that no one should be surprised if The One, exasperated by some trenchant criticism or reversal of fortune, blurts out a vile epithet expressing Jew-hatred. One can only hope that an “open” microphone captures it, and that many Jewish voters will then realize the error of their ways. Meanwhile, there is this:

Let’s stipulate that Chuck Hagel may make an exemplary defense secretary. That possibility doesn’t alter the fact that his nomination by President Obama almost certainly raises doubts among allies and adversaries alike that Obama may not be nearly so committed to using all means necessary to prevent Iran from achieving a nuclear weapon as he pledged during his reelection campaign. If the White House does not take steps soon to correct that impression, the chances for a negotiated resolution of the Iran nuclear crisis will fall nearly to zero and the likelihood of Israeli military action will rise dramatically.

Links

Everything you know is wrong.

Delicious!

Thanks primarily to the mainstream media, Obama and Holder are getting away with scandalous, corrupt misbehavior that far surpasses the Watergate burglary that cost Nixon the presidency. The disgrace should discredit the media in general, but it remains out of the public’s consciousness because of the embargo on reporting it. Yes, it is and has been reported, which allows the press to claim objectivity and lack of bias. The claim is dishonest: stories are written, published once, and then dropped, though Obama and Holder continue to be scofflaws. Those of you who remember Watergate know how intense and repetitious the reporting of that crime and its cover-up was. Fast and Furious is a hurricane compared the the afternoon shower that was Watergate.

The estimable Roger Simon speaks: “Conservatives, I know, often speak about the depredations and bad behavior of ‘liberals’. But it has been a long time since the people whom we have called liberals were interested in freedom or liberty. What they are interested in, on the contrary, is pursuing the illiberal agenda of control.” It sounds as if Roger has been reading this newsletter, which he has not. Never mind; anyone who sees things that way deserves to be quoted here. It might make NTG look good!

Money quote: “Not only might fracking save the U.S. economy, it might also force a new maturity on the Islamic world by making its people face reality.” This is a ray of light in an otherwise gloomy period. Savor it, Pilgrims — it might be literally the only rational reason the USA can hope for a better future.

Anti-Israel bias at the NY Times is an objectively verifiable fact.

Wasn’t there something in the last issue of this, the world’s most-ignored newsletter, about this Politifact outfit? Oh, yeah — those pesky mainstream media are a caution, aren’t they? It’s sort of as if everybody had his own private version of the truth…which might be OK, if it were not for professional liars who are deadly serious about fooling everybody….

This is about “…what Washington officials say is an intensifying Iranian campaign of cyberattacks against American financial institutions.” “The hackers (sic) are using a network of tens of thousands of infected computers running corporate websites, investigators say. The attacks are considered more difficult to stop because they are coming from computers that could have legitimate reasons to communicate with the banks, said one bank official.” Source.

The biggest problem isn’t Islamic colonialism — it could be dealt with — it’s how the USA’s ruling elite responds to it.

Just like Jack the Ripper
Just like Mojo Hand
Just like Billy Sunday
In a shotgun ragtime band
Just like New York City
Just like Jericho
Pace the halls and climb the walls
Get out when they blow

The masthead includes a quote from the works of Jonah Goldberg.

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Publisher: The Eagle Wing Palace of The Queen Chinee.