Yesterday I heard on the radio a discussion by neuroscientist turned philosopher Raymond Tallis, who was arguing that humans are not just animals, and that consciousness is not just what happens in the brain. He went on at length about “Darwinitis”, a disease of intellectuals who wish to explain everything in terms of Darwinism. It was a masterpiece of rhetoric, and I gather his books make similar claims. It struck me as quite wrong headed. I’d like to explain why. But first, go listen to the discussion on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s website.
Why do I think Tallis is merely making a rhetorical argument here? Let’s first begin with what we agree upon. Tallis says that consciousness is not merely what happens in the brain, but also the body. This has to be right. We are an integrated biological system, and the brain is effectively a component of that system, not the executive power or the final endpoint of sensory data. It is, in effect, prima inter pares, first among equals. As Tallis says, you have to have a normally functioning brain to be conscious, but that is merely a necessary, and not sufficient, condition for consciousness. Second, he says that human consciousness is relational, that we gain consciousness from our interactions with others in social and cultural ways. This was an argument first put so far as I know by the English idealist philosopher F. H. Bradley in his essay “My station and its duties” in his 1876 book Ethical Studies.
Recently, philosopher Kim Sterelny has made a similar argument, from, as it happens, a very Darwinian perspective. In his award winning book Thought in a Hostile World: The Evolution of Human Cognition, in 2003, Sterelny argues that cognition requires scaffolding from others. He offers a cultural, Darwinian, evolutionary account of how our cultural cognition evolves.
Third, Tallis rightly says that we cannot presume that neuroscience is in any way close to identifying the underlying causes of social behaviours like voting for a political party or being a criminal. Functional MRI (fMRI) has shown us where the brain is active when it does certain tasks, but this is a mile away from being able to say that this or that part of the brain causes the behaviours. Voting conservative is not a natural fact about the world, nor is being a criminal as both are normative social kinds, not natural kinds.
So, given that I agree with this and am a Darwinian, what is the problem? Tallis says that humans are special and not just animals. A lot of weight is put in that four letter
Anglo-Saxon word “just”. What can he mean? Are humans special and thus apart from animals? The evolutionary view of human capacities is that they have precursors in ancestral traits, and these precursors can be found in other animals. Dogs, corvids, cetaceans, primates, and a host of other animals display moral, cognitive and conscious behaviour. Humans are special indeed in their capacities. But, and this is what what Tallis overlooks, so are all other animals. The word “special” is merely the adjectival form of “species”. To be a species is to be special. Sure, humans are special in their own way. So is a cat, a mole or a mouse. If the target of your explanation was a mouse, then you would explain it having its abilities and social behaviours in terms of evolved dispositions inherited from ancestors. You may as well say a mouse is special in ways other animals (including humans) are not. Otherwise we couldn’t even tell it was a member of a species, by definition. Unless there are properties that mark it out from other species, it would be folded into other species.
So too with humans. If we were not different in our traits from other primate species like chimps, then we would be chimps. But we have our own special traits, and so we and chimps are distinct species. So the argument is a kind of fallacy (affirming the consequent). Humans can be special and yet be animals, just like every other animal species.
But, Tallis argues, we have our special traits, especially our own moral and social traits. Yes we do. This doesn’t mean that a Darwinian account is somehow illicit. The research program of finding out the biological aspects of what had previously been explained as sui generis properties of humans based either on divine creation or the Enlightenment view of humans as self-standing rational agents is not only effective and progressive, but also fully in line with a Darwinian account. What Tallis is reacting to is not Darwinism, but the Mind-Brain Identity theory of analytic philosophy, and even in philosophy of mind that view is no longer held to be the whole story.
A passing comment about fMRI. In this, researchers study the activity of awake individuals as they do cognitive or emotive tasks in an MRI scanner. This process looks as molecular activity in the brain during those tasks. In effect it “sees” the molecular activity as a raised “temperature”. But fMRI is like trying to reverse engineer the functional behaviour of the internet by measuring the temperature of the network exchanges: at best it tells you which parts of the brain are being used the most. It doesn’t tell you where or how in the brain things are being used, only where the most neural traffic is. Since signals in the brain pass through some regions from one neural network to another, they will light up, but it doesn’t follow that the active region is where the crucial processing is being done, any more than the network exchanges are where you are writing your emails.
So the question “Are humans just animals?” is deeply misleading. Of course we are animals. We are “just” animals, but we do our stuff by being cultural, embodied conscious organisms of a particular kind. The problem is not “Darwinitis” but a fear of Darwinian explanations by those who wish to, as Dennett once said, erect a white picket fence around the human species.