This is the 9th blog in the series which began with The Brainless Bible and the Mindless Illusion of Self and is exploring ideas about free will, the mind, the brain and the self. The previous blog is Consciousness: Mind over Matter? (Tallis). In this series we are reflecting on the works of two scientists who are concerned with recent claims from neuroscience: Michael S. Gazzaniga’s WHO’S IN CHARGE?: FREE WILL AND THE SCIENCE OF THE BRAIN and Raymond Tallis’ APING MANKIND:NEUROMANIA, DARWINITIS AND THE MISREPRESENTATION OF HUMANITY.
While some neo-atheists believe that neuroscience is proving that there is nothing more to the universe than matter and that consciousness/free will are illusions created by the biochemistry of the brain, some scientists have reacted against these claims. Gazzaniga and Tallis are two scientists who recently published books defending the existence of consciousness and defending the uniqueness of humans in the evolutionary process. Not only have humans emerged with individual consciousness but humans have used their conscious awareness to create a shared conscious space, known as society. This is seen as a further development in human evolution.
“…what could account for the vast differences between our species and other animals. He pointed out that one of the possible consequences of social behavior, which triggered so many changes, was becoming sedentary and abandoning the nomadic lifestyle. Between 10,500 and 8,500 B.C., many things that had been accumulating over the past thousands of years came together and made a major change in lifestyle possible. There was the end of the last glacial period; there was control of fire and more effective hunting; the dog had been domesticated (the social world really took off, now that man had a best friend!); there was an increased consumption of fish and a greater reliance on storable cereal grains. Festinger concluded that sedentary existence was the fundamental change that irreversibly altered the course of human evolution. A sedentary lifestyle allowed humans to reproduce more successfully (owing to a reduction of miscarriages and a reduction of spacing between children), and group size quickly increased to around 150. Although the environment and natural resources normally temper the population increases caused by the endogenous drive to reproduce, this was not so for humans. They were able, sooner or later, to find or invent solutions to problems and markedly change their environment while they were evolving. So as sedentary groups formed, their populations increased; around 7,000 B.C. someone had a big idea, and agriculture came on the scene.
This was followed by increasing specialization from 6,000 to 4,500 B.C., which required more interdependence in communities, which in turn created a greater potential for status and power differences. Meanwhile, there was the development of natural and religious technologies, social rules, gossip, and moral stance to control and organize these communities of people.” (Gazzaniga, Kindle Loc. 2397-2410)
The rise of consciousness in humans resulted in the creation of societies – spaces which each individual consciousness share with all others. This changed everything for humans, for no longer were they simply being determined by nature or the genes, now they were making decisions that began to effect nature itself and furthered their own intellectual and conscious development.
The continued and on-going social and technological development of humanity as a result of consciousness has meant as Tallis noted several times in his book that humans lead their lives, they don’t simply live them as other animals do.
“It is only because individually (and in the case of science collectively) we transcend the matter of which we are made that we are able to develop immensely powerful accounts of matter. It is because we are able to stand outside matter, to reflect on it, to have it as an object of thought, through the collective consciousness developed through our various modes of discourse, that we have a science of it.” (Tallis, p 341)
The very existence of science for Tallis is evidence of human consciousness and self will. Some of the neo-atheists however have attempted to show that everything about culture is simply rooted in materialistic biochemistry. In keeping with their purely materialist views, they have embrace the notion of the “memes” which are units of cultural transmission. It is a way of reducing human culture and memory to information which is simply stored in the brain’s biochemistry. By such reductionism, they can try to re-image the human as nothing more than materialistic activity. Tallis rejects the use being made of “memes”, units of cultural transmission that are nothing more than brain impulses:
“Indeed, it is difficult to see how meme-possession could offer anything other than the image of the mind as a lumber room or junkyard full of cognitive or cultural bric-a-brac. This would hardly correspond either to the reality of experience or, more importantly, to the reality of the way we navigate through, and interact with, the world of daily life, never mind how we project ourselves into a complex, timetabled future, on the basis of a complex past composed of singularities. Memes, passively acquired and stitching themselves together in clusters or “meme-plexes”, hardly answer this. . . . So Darwinitics talk about ‘social evolution’ or ‘institutional evolution’ as if they were the same as organic evolution; in other words as if they were unconscious processes, requiring no effort on anyone’s part or sense of direction even at a micro-scale. In reality, evolution as it applies to technologies or social institutions, while it is indeed a gradual process that has no final goal in view, involves much deliberation and has many explicit intermediate goals. . . . The extension of evolution from genes to memes propos up this exaggerated assessment of the scope of Darwin’s great theory. Memes fill the gap between man the organism and human beings who are persons, conscious agents, genuine individuals, actively leading their own lives with something that has the passivity and automaticity of Darwinian natural selection, marginalizing individuality, the self and agency. ” (Tallis, pp 167-169)
Evolution ceased being a purely unconscious process for humans – the rise of consciousness meant humans could and did interact with and shape their own history and continued development. While Tallis accepts evolution, he rejects the use being made of it by extending it to all things which exist. He sees this as reductionist and not true to the facts we can scientifically observe about humans. Though he himself is an atheist, he outlines very well the exact problems theists face when watching the neo-atheists push to have Darwinism explain everything in the world. Tallis, the scientist sees the need for the existence of consciousness and self, and sees the scientific evidence as supporting the existence of these immaterial manifestations in the empirical world.