Does Evolution Explain Our Behaviour?

Does evolution explain our behaviour? The short answer is: No. And you may well concur with that answer but ‘out there’ there is an increasing constituency of thinkers claiming quite otherwise. Along with the claims that the brain explains the mind and activity in one bit of brain or another corresponds to love, joy, conscience, the self, or whatever,  and that much of our behaviour is explained by a gene for this or a gene for that, is the increasingly popular notion that our behaviour has an evolutionary explanation. Indeed you can hardly open a newspaper without encountering some manifestation or other of ‘evolutionary psychology’.

Raymond Tallis’ presentation at the 2008 Autonomy, Singularity, Creativity conference.

Evolutionary psychology assumes that  human behaviour is  being shaped, indeed determined, by processes of natural selection: those modes of behaviour that favour the replication of the genome will preferentially survive. We behave as we do because we are designed to optimise the chances of our surviving long enough to replicate our genetic material. Men who sleep with a lot of women, traders who aim to maximise their returns on their investments – or at least attempt to – are simply responding to the fundamental biological imperative to make the world safe for their genes.

You may think that you chose your mate because she was kind, and witty, and shared your view of the world. Forget it: you were attracted to her because she had a waist/hip ratio (the ratio of the circumference of the waist to that of the hips) that approximated to the 0.7 – a figure which is associated with good health and fertility. As for your political or religious beliefs (if you have them), they possess you because they improve your chances of survival or that of the group to which you belong. You haven’t chosen them; they have chosen you. If you think this is somewhat tendentious, consider the  recent claim is that evolutionary psychology can explain why pink is associated with femininity and blue with masculinity. Women in prehistory were the principal gatherers of fruit and would have been sensitised to the colours of ripeness – i.e. deepening shades of pink. Men, on the other hand, would have looked for good hunting weather and sources of water – both of which are connected with blue.

Not everyone is persuaded by the terribles simplificateurs who preach the gospel of  evolutionary psychology;  and I include myself among them. The initial attractiveness of the notion that it is our genes, and not our thoughts, or our conscious agency that guide our lives is understandable. Has not Darwin demonstrated that human beings were manufactured by the same processes as gave rise to chimpanzees, sea slugs and centipedes? And are we not living now because we have bodies and behaviours that maximise our individual or collective fitness? What makes us think that human beings engaged in the manifestly biological act of choosing a mate are any different from other creatures engaged in the same activity?

Well the facts of everyday life, for a start. The enormously complex events that result in  two individuals deciding to share their lives, consisting to an important degree of a very long sequence of conversations,  has no counterpart in the pair-bonding processes even of our nearest primate kin. This seems so obvious that you may wonder why anyone gives evolutionary psychology the time of day. It is easy, however,  to persuade of the truth of this pseudo-science if we describe  animal behaviour in anthropomorphising terms and human behaviour in ‘animalomorphic’  terms. Words such as ‘mating behaviour’, ‘courtship’, and so on,  shuttle back and forth between the human world and the animal kingdom.

We can see this linguistic pincer movement closing on the gap between humans and animals at work everywhere in evolutionary psychology. Let us look at the first strategy because it is particularly effective. Indeed, we have got so used to re-describing what goes on in ordinary human life in such a way as to make it sound like what goes on in ordinary animal life, that we no longer notice ourselves doing it. Here are a couple of examples. Supposing you invite me out for a meal. Having learnt that the credit crunch has turned your house into a mound of negative equity, I choose the cheapest items on the menu and falsely declare that I am full after the main course, so as to spare you the expense of a pudding. A chimpanzee reaches out for a banana and consumes it. Evolutionary psychologists would like to say that both the chimp and I are doing similar things: we are exhibiting “feeding behaviour”. This identity of description, however, obscures huge differences between the chimp’s behaviour and mine. Here’s another example. I decide to improve my career prospects by signing up for a degree course which begins next year. I have a small child. I therefore do more baby-sitting this year in order to stockpile some tokens. Daisy the cow bumps into an electric wire and henceforth avoids that place. It could be said that both Daisy and I have been exhibiting learning behaviour. Again, I think you will agree, the difference between the two forms of behaviour is greater than the similarities.

Those who wish to obliterate the gap between humans and other beasts not only try to make human behaviour beast-like. They also describe animal behaviour anthropomorphically, making it seem to be human-like. We are all familiar with Walt Disney- like descriptions of animals that impute to them all manner of abstract or factual knowledge and institutional sentiments for which there is evidence only in human beings. This exemplifies a wider error that I have christened the Fallacy of Misplaced Explicitness that enables thinkers to speak of squids classifying the contents of the world, wasps grieving for their young and even artefacts such as thermostats making judgements.

One of the motives behind this is a feeling that, since we are animals in so many respects, unsentimental honesty requires us to say that we are just like animals in all respects. Like animals we are ejected from our mother’s bodies at birth and like animals we die of physiological failure; like animals, we eat, defaecate, copulate, fight and so on. But this is beside the point; for it does not follow that we eat, defaecate, copulate, fight. etc., like animals. It is a mistake, by the way, to look for our uniqueness solely in higher manifestations of humanity – such as religion, art, science and creativity. It concedes too much and overlooks that our uniqueness is there in every aspect of our lives: all of the biological givens are utterly transformed in us. We do not even defaecate like animals. Or not by choice, anyway. We  insist on a certain amount of privacy – often in facilities with light switches that are connected to fans driven by artifacts based in the mighty science of electromagnetism to take away the pong. And we are the only beasts who manufacture toilet paper and argue over the respective merits of different brands of it. Even human dying is profoundly different from animal dying, except at the very end, when we become more like other stricken beasts. And when it comes to mating, we are the only beasts who make love. Every seemingly animal need or appetite – for food, water, and warmth – is utterly transformed in humans. And many of our strongest appetites – for example, for acknowledgement of what we are in ourselves, for abstract knowledge and understanding – are unique to us. Only humans think about the distinctive features of their own species.

Even evolutionary psychologists can occasionally see what is in front of their noses and notice that we are a bit different. They acknowledge  that it was no mere coincidence that the organism  that saw how all organisms came about and   wrote The Origin of Species was a human being rather than, say, a chimp or a centipede. Undaunted, evolutionary psychologists look  for ways to fill the Great Ditch separate humanity from animals and human behaviour from animal behaviour. The land-fill they need to make their approach to human behaviour seem half way plausible is provided by the concept of the ‘meme’,  introduced by Richard Dawkins over thirty years ago,  but now ubiquitous, like Dawkins himself.

The meme is a notion designed to cope with the fact that human lives are filled with, and are shaped by and shape, cultural phenomena that have no counterparts in the natural word. It is supposed to be analogous to a gene. While the gene is a self-replicating unit by which biological characteristics are transmitted, the meme is a self-replicating unit by which cultural characteristics are transmitted. Dawkins gives as examples ‘tunes, catch phrases, clothes, ways of making pots or building arches’. The enormously influential philosopher Daniel Dennett believes that human consciousness is a huge complex of memes.  The key feature of memes for evolutionary psychologists is that they replicate by occupying human minds, which accept them as passively as does a brain invaded by a virus. We do not choose our memes; our memes choose us. They are advantageous to themselves but not necessarily to us; for their whole raison d’être – not only the reason  for their existence but the reason that they exist at all – is that they are able to find minds in which to replicate.

This is a desperate attempt to ‘save the appearances’ in the face of a theory – the notion that evolution determines our behaviour – that has difficulty accommodating them. Just how desperate is manifested in some of Dennett’s examples of memes: the SALT agreement, faith,  and tolerance for free speech. It is difficult to think of ‘tolerance for free speech’ as something that infests my passive mind as a unit. On the contrary, it is a principle that is argued over within and between people, and whose scope is likewise debated. It requires active, conscious assent on each occasion. Even the simpler memes – such as a tune in one’s head – are often discretionary: I bet the tunes in my head and the tunes in yours are not the same; or the same in my head from day to day or hour to hour. And many so-called memes – ideas for example –  far from being passively acquired, indeed inescapable and   unchosen as genes are, require hard work.

Meme theory, which sidelines human agency – and pictures the human mind as something between a junk yard and a lumber room – is the reduction to absurdity of evolutionary psychology. It is an example of what happens when science gives way to scientism; when evolutionary theory spawns evolutionary psychology. It is not Darwinism but Darwinitis or Darwinosis that leads us to believe that our behaviour is determined by evolution.

16 comments to Does Evolution Explain Our Behaviour?

  • While one can enjoy this spirited attack on reductionism and “Dawkinism”, we should be wary of throwing out the baby of evolutionary thought with the bathwater of reductionism. I can’t see anywhere in Raymond Tallis’s account a proviso in this sense. Evolutionary thought, rightly understood, is attentive to emergent phenomena, such as language and the complexities of human culture, and will not try to reduce them to either memes or genes or primate behaviour in the savanna. But one thing it will do— trying to trace both the process of emergence and the foundations that made it possible for these phenomena to emerge. I can see that Tallis’s contribution is interested in preserving the specificity of human behaviour. But I would insist that a historical sense of the human, when seen in the wider perspective, cannot help but tie up with the evolutionary development of the species. Bring in history, semiotics, science, cultural anthropology and all the disciplines which help describe the complexity of the human phenomenon. They also have a history and a development, by the way. But do not stop at merely registering the complexity of humans: we should also try to understand how did it came to be in the first place. If Tallis’s critique of some simplistic trends in evolutionary psychology helps to bring the real issues into focus, so much the better.

  • Tallis shoots himself in the foot by calling evolutionary psychology a pseudoscience. He is right to criticise the way its findings have been exaggerated, misunderstood and over-simplified – but it is still a science, based on testing theories by experiment.

    And as for “conscious agency” this really is a fascinating topic with much research now undermining cherished notions of the nature of self, human agency and what it means to act. Instead of taking such research seriously and allowing it to guide him into deeper thought about what it might mean for our lives, Tallis throws off a comment about the “attractiveness of the notion that it is our genes, and not our thoughts, or our conscious agency that guide our lives”. But is this idea really so attractive? Among the hundreds of emails I get about this topic far more express dismay at the notion than are attracted to it.

    Then he comes to memes and again distorts the facts horribly in trying to make his black and white case against evolutionary theory. He says that human minds “accept them as passively as does a brain invaded by a virus. We do not choose our memes; our memes choose us.”

    Of course human minds are not passive. We struggle with the massive overload of memes that bombard us every day and try to choose among them. They compete to get us to choose them and the result can be to our advantage or our detriment. And yes, it’s all very complicated. Yes, we argue and debate and fall in love and have conversations and work hard to understand our world and ourselves. Tallis seems to imply that either you believe that everything we do is determined by our genes and memes or you realise that human life is complex, and full of subtlety.

    By so crassly misdescribing what evolutionary psychologists or memeticists actually think he has made a nonsense of what should be an interesting discussion.

  • David Herman

    Explanation without Reductionism: A Response to Raymond Tallis’s “Does Evolution Explain Our Behaviour?”

    I admire the witty, vivid moments in Raymond Tallis’s “Does Evolution Explain Our Behaviour?” Further, I can see the merits of what I take to be one of his central claims: namely, that we should maintain healthy scepticism toward explanatory schemes that, in attempting to bring a range of phenomena under a single, all-powerful principle of explanation, in the process minimize or even eliminate attested differences among the phenomena at issue. After all, explanatory reductionism of this sort is the hallmark of conspiracy theories, not to mention racial prejudice and other forms of bigotry.

    That said, however, I am troubled by the semantic slippage in Tallis’s argument–slippage that can be detected whenever the issue of “explanation” itself surfaces. There are stronger and weaker interpretations of the term _explain_ (and cognate terms, such as _determine_), and it seems to me that Tallis is engaging in something of a straw-person argument by pretending that evolutionary theorists in general, and evolutionary psychologists in particular, are all equally committed to the strongest possible reading of _explain_ in this context.

    On the strong reading, claiming that evolution explains human behavior is tantamount to claiming that the world as we know it–the world in which we interact with others, experience feelings of romantic love, and debate the nuances of Wittgenstein’s philosophy–is merely epiphenomenal. This world is so much window-dressing on evolutionary processes based on random mutation and selective adaptation; those processes are what account for why our brains and our bodies, and everything that we have built with our brains and our bodies, have the structure that they do. Note here that, despite Tallis’s suggestions to the contrary, even this strong understanding of explanation-via-evolution need not entail any kneejerk equation between human and non-human animals. The proponent of this super-strong view is committed only to the fundamental explanatory status of the evolutionary process and the forces that drive it–not to the view that all the organisms that are subject to this process will arrive at the same end-state (e.g., have the same morphological characteristics, cognitive abilities, or qualitative experiences). But in any case, the hard-core positions that Tallis sketches out (and seeks to refute) at various points in his essay would have to be attributed to a theorist with super-strong commitments of this sort. Only an extreme theorist of this kind could be imagined as claiming that all aspects of human behavior can and should, in all contexts of description and explanation, be reduced to their ultimate basis in evolutionary processes; that every dimension of human conduct should, again in all contexts of inquiry, be reduced to an account of how people “are simply responding to the fundamental biological imperative to make the world safe for their genes”; that said genes, and not our thoughts or conscious agency, guide our lives–in short, that “our behaviour is _determined_ by evolution” (my emphasis).

    But not every theorist for whom evolutionary processes carry some kind of explanatory force would take the hard line that Tallis attributes across the board to researchers working in this large, quite diverse area of inquiry. Theorists committed to a less deterministic understanding of explanation-via-evolution might hold that, in some contexts of inquiry, investigations of human behavior might profitably foreground factors related to the evolutionary process, whereas in other contexts those factors need not be foregrounded to the same degree. This moderate theorist might hold that our evolution-shaped brains account at some level for the minds that we now have, but stop short of reducing all aspects of our mental lives to evolved physiological mechanisms and processes. Whereas reduction schemes of this sort are appropriate in, say, cognitive anthropology, or the study of how the artifactual record reflects apparent differences in humans’ mental capacities along the evolutionary time-line, they are less relevant in fields such social psychology or criminal profiling. But the more general issue here is that, just as it seems counterproductive to reduce all aspects of human experience, in every instance, to evolutionary processes and their outcomes, lumping together into one category hard-core and moderate evolutionary theorists seems equally reductive–and moreover seems to leave no logical space for bonafide appeals to evolution as an explanation for anything. If it is unproductive to say that the qualitative character of love or joy has absolutely no place in explanations of human experience and human conduct, because it is parasitic on more fundamental evolutionary factors and processes, it is no more productive to posit a rigid, impermeable boundary between what we are now and what we have been in the past.

    A similarly reductionist anti-reductionism, if I may put it that way, underlies Tallis’s account of what he calls the Fallacy of Misplaced Explicitness. To say that the appeals to evolutionary processes do not always provide the last word in accounts of human behavior does not rule out that there is a continuum between non-human and human animals’ strategies for navigating the world. Or to put the same point another way, one can repudiate Disney-style anthropomorphizations without denying that non-human animals have complex experiences and intelligent ways of engaging with one another–and with us. If anything, the practices bound up with factory farming and agribusiness reveal a fallacy that is the exact opposite of the one Tallis describes. It is the fallacy that we are wholly distinct from–and innately superior to–the environment that we inhabit, our exceptionalism giving us not just the ability but the right to make invidious comparisons between ourselves and creatures such as squids and wasps. And if attentiveness to evolutionary processes and their bearing on human endeavors can make inroads against _that_ fallacy, then the benefits of adopting an evolutionary perspective outweigh the risks of reductionism–risks to which any explanatory model, including Tallis’s, is subject.

  • I am delighted that my short piece has provoked such rich responses. There is nothing more dispiriting than pushing against an open door.

    My position is a little more complex than I could set out in the small space permitted to me. I entirely agree with Jose Angel’s observation that ‘evolutionary thought, rightly attentive to emergent phenomena such as language and the complexities of human culture and will not try to reduce them to memes or genes or primate behaviour in the savanna’. My disagreement is not with such thought but with evolutionary psychology which attempts precisely to do that; with supposedly evolutionary thought that treats us as if we have not evolved beyond ‘primate behaviour in the savanna’. My account of the ways in which humans differ from animals and how they came to be so different is set out in pitiless detail in a 1,000 page, 500,000 word trilogy published by Edinburgh University Press: The Hand. A Philosophical Inquiry into Human Being (2003); I Am. A Philosophical Inquiry into First-Person Being (2004); and The Knowing Animal. A Philosophical Inquiry into Knowledge and Truth (2005). In this trilogy, I think I manage to retain the baby of evolutionary thought (Darwinism) while consigning the bathwater of biologism (Darwinitis) to the plug hole where it belongs.

    In separating Darwinism from Darwinitis, one needs to distinguish the biological roots of H sapiens and those biological characteristics that enabled humans to distance themselves from biology, from the cultural leaves that have resulted. The biological characteristics that started the process by which we drifted into a different cognitive space from all other living creatures include the usual suspects include the particular features of the hand, the upright position, and the distinctive nature of human seeing. There are other secondary consequences of this, including modes of joining attention (notably pointing, which I discuss in my latest book Michelangelo’s Finger (Atlantic, 2010)), which have widened the gap between us and beasts. I am also impressed by the case that Sarah Hrdy makes in an earlier NHC exchange for a key role of allocentric care in making us creatures who have a unique sense of others.

    The result of these biological differences, is that we have become uniquely explicit, self- and other-conscious animals: we are not mere organisms in an environment but embodied subjects participating in a public sphere, a shared world, a community of minds. This latter has been built up over 100,000s of years. It is here, not in the natural world of chimps and centipedes, that we find the basis of our behaviour: the norms, the rules, the reasons, the technologies, the ‘social facts’ that fill and shape our lives. To explain our behaviour by referring to what is seen in beasts is to overlook the huge gap between us and our nearest biological kin, a gap that has grown over a very long time, as a result of the efforts of millions of humans.

    Professor Blackmore’s response surprises me somewhat. Her notion of the mind as a meme machine seems to marginalise the role of agency in our lives and yet she says that ‘human minds are not passive’ . I can only assume that it is an imposter writing under the name ‘Susan Blackmore’ who asserts that ‘our minds are fashioned by memes just as our bodies are fashioned by genes’ (The Meme Machine); that ‘we are meme machines created by and for the selfish replicators. The only true freedom comes not when we rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators but when we realise that there is no-one to rebel’ (‘The Evolution of Meme Machines’); and that memes ‘replicate themselves from brain to brain like a virus’ (Blackmore, passim). She does hedge her bets a little when she says that memes ‘compete to get us to choose them’ as if, after all, we have a bit of a say in the matter; but this does strike me as a little odd, when one thinks of the kinds of quasi-entities that are supposed to compete in this beauty contest. Daniel Dennett – an extreme memophile – lists ‘the SALT agreement, faith, and tolerance for free speech’.

    David Herman makes a valid distinction between evolutionary explanations of the processes by which we came to be what we (humans) are and evolutionary reduction of what we are to what beasts are; between the evolutionary drivers to our present unique state and that to which we have evolved. I think, however, he concedes too much when he suggests that evolutionary reductionism is appropriate in some areas – e.g. cognitive anthropology. There may be a place for ‘moderate evolutionary’ theories – though that place is not easy to circumscribe – but the boundary between them and ‘hard-core’ theories is not clear. David Herman is also concerned that, if we emphasise the difference between us and beasts, we might be more inclined to treat the latter badly. Like him, I loathe factory farming and I find cruelty to animals moral outrageous. This is not, however, because I regard them as fellow citizens but simply because they are capable of suffering and we should not abuse our power over them.

  • Michael Grant

    The arguments presented by Ray Tallis in opposition to the contemporary misapplication of Darwin’s ideas are, as one would expect of him, witty, lucid and persuasive; they are also incontrovertible. He does not take the positions put forward by post-Darwinians, such as Dawkins and Dennett, to be wrong: he takes them to be misconceived, nonsensical. In evolutionary psychology, for instance, there is what he calls ‘a linguistic pincer movement’; that is, human behaviour is described in terms appropriate to that of animals and animal behaviour in terms appropriate to the human. To those bewitched by the picture evoked by this use of language, the methods, arguments and conclusions of evolutionary psychology come to seem natural, and the assumptions underpinning it beyond question: thus the damage is done, and the pertinent distinctions hopelessly blurred.

    Tallis gives short shrift to another such fundamental—and pernicious—confusion: the claim that mental states, events and processes are neural events, states and processes, that the mental and the neural are in reality one. This claim, basic to ontological materialism, is also addressed by M.R. Bennett and P.M.S. Hacker, in a recent book that provides Tallis with powerful support. For Bennett and Hacker, as for Tallis, any proposal to the effect that human beings are identical with what they are made of, or with a specially privileged organ, the brain, is incoherent. Just as it is nonsense to say that the attributes we possess (physical, personal, social, and so on) are attributes of our brains, so it is nonsense to say that the attributes our brains possess are our attributes.

    Some years ago, Tallis exposed the failures and pretensions of post-modernist philosophy, exemplified by the notion that human subjectivity is no more than an after-effect of the language system. However, contemporary pseudo-science (whether biological or electronic) is likely to prove destructive on a scale far exceeding that earlier manifestation of what Ludwig Wittgenstein called ‘the darkness of our times’, and Alain Badiou our present ‘devastation’. Tallis has again responded decisively to what is a far-reaching intellectual catastrophe.

  • Howard Robinson

    The question is whether evolutionary psychology is a legitimate application of evolutionary principles or, like social Darwinism, an inappropriate analogical application of Darwinian ideas.
    The evolutionary psychologists Ray Tallis is criticizing seem to subscribe to two principles. The first might be called the pervasiveness of evolution. This could be expressed as

    (1) Any – or almost any – trait that survives must do so because of its evolutionary contribution.

    But there is a further principle seemingly present in Ray’s examples, which seem to suggest that what humans do now is still under the control of the impulse which led the pre-human ape to do it. (They were really interested in hip size, so so are we.) This might be called the persistence of original motivation, as follows:

    (2) If the behaviour of a later species S evolves from the behaviour of an earlier species S’ , then the explanation of the behaviour of the later species will be the same as the explanation of the behaviour of the earlier.

    Both (1) and (2) are false. (2) would lead to absurdity. It also shows a complete misunderstanding of evolution. It leads to absurdity because what is true of us in relation to our ape ancestors, is, by the same principle, true of their relation to their predecessors, and so on. The consequence, if taken seriously, would be that everything we do can be understood as driven by the same motivation as the original protazoae.

    The misunderstanding of evolution is that, in a way completely consistent with naturalism and physicalism, evolution is an emergentist theory. What I mean by this is that random mutation creates something wholly new, and not just a re-arrangement of the previous parts. What is new does not have to be understood as secretly following the ends of what went before it.

    (1) is false because what survives, according to evolution, may be a bye-product of something useful to evolution, provided that it is not too damaging to reproductive prospects. It need not be directly useful itself.

    Why might a Darwinian be tempted by (1) and (2)? It might be because of a misplaced application of reductionism. Even if strong ‘Nagelian’ reductionism is false, nevertheless all physical phenomena must in some way be understood as the expression of the fundamental entities described by physics. By analogy, it might be thought, evolution is the driving engine of biology, so everything that happens to living things must be understood as expressions of evolution. But the analogy is mistaken. Evolution does not constitute the subject matter of biology, it only explains certain fundamental changes within biology: it is crucial, but it is not all-pervasive.

    Ray Tallis is, as usual, right in denouncing the fads and fashions of our intellectual life.

  • Nancy Easterlin

    “Evolutionary psychology” currently admits of two definitions: 1) the modular, Swiss Army knife, Santa Barbara School model of the mind associated with Cosmides, Tooby, Pinker and others, and 2) other research programs that hold that the mind is an evolved phenomenon. Raymond Tallis’s version of EP is derived from the tabloid version of the former, because only there do we encounter the rudimentary misconception that genes determine behavior, or that there might be genes for complex traits. It is textbook Darwinisn that organisms and environments are interdependent, and that behavioral outcomes are produced in specific and highly complex environmental circumstances.

    The latter sort of evolutionary psychology includes the work of cognitive psychologists like Merlin Donald, who theorizes in great detail the evolutionary emergence of extended mind and consciousness, and thus the distinction between human mind and primate episodic mind. Likewise, Steven Mithen’s cognitive archaeology, and his theory of the emergence of cognitive flexibility, provide a great deal of insight into how human culture has emerged within an evolutionary framework. As Laland and Brown point out, none of this domain-general approach to EP is incompatible with the domain-specific model, and Tallis might find it interesting, if he would read it. But he is doing the fashionable thing, picking only one or two of the most trendy and controversial items (memetics, waist-hip ratios), and not taking a serious look at the overall picture.

  • William Kornahrens

    I think that Raymond Tallis brings up several good points on how humans may be considered unique from animals, and therefore not dictated by the same concepts of natural selection in the same way as animals. However, I believe that this is also, potentially, one of the weakest parts of his argument. It is true that people are generally capable of using logic and complex reasoning for the decisions they make (such as mating, eating, and so on) and that they are self-aware. However, this definition of what it means to be a true person falters when we consider humans who are mentally or physically disabled. Such humans might be incapable of the desires, features of decision making, and consciousness that Tallis implies are part of being a person who is not ruled by natural selection; yet, we still perceive such humans as persons, with all the rights that a person would have if they still possessed such abilities. If we are truly being objective, how can we say that animals are not on roughly the same level as humans if they lack certain skills that disabled persons also lack?

    I also think it is worth noting that Darwinism does not necessarily discount human singularity altogether, as Tallis seems to imply. It is true that many people believe that Darwinism and natural selection account for actions that are important for survival and reproductive success. The main point is that the choices that influence our survival and passing on of our genes are easily perceived as being a result of Darwinism. However, we are not limited by these influences, or at least not completely. We can make choices, and therefore we are people. There are two potential problems with this claim. The first problem is that Darwinism can explain our choices merely because they have direct influence on our survival. Then you may ask, what about the choices that are not influencing survival? Darwinism does not deal with these choices because these choices do not directly affect our capability to survive and reproduce. We can choose not to sleep with someone, but this decision does not necessarily go against the spread of genes, since there is always a later time that we can participate in sexual reproduction with someone else. We can choose to risk our lives, but we are still doing our best to survive while we rescue someone else out of a burning building.

    The second potential problem with free will as a distinct feature of humans is that we do not always make decisions for the reasons we use to explain our choices. In 2006, Johansson and others used “choice blindness” in a study that asked people to pick the photo of the female face that was more attractive to them, and then they were asked why they chose that photo. For three out of the twelve times this was done for each person, the questioner used slight of hand to show the person the photo that they did not pick, and he asked the participants why they chose that photo. Only 26% of them were able to tell they had been shown the wrong photo. For the people unable to perceive the deception, there was no evidence that the people had difficulty coming up with reasons for a decision they didn’t make. So the ability to choose does not necessarily mean that we are as aware of the reasons for the decisions as we think we are. This example serves to illustrate how Tallis over-estimates the amount of control humans typically exert over themselves.

    Discussion and video of the Johansson study can be found elsewhere on the OTH Forum:

  • It is often difficult to know quite how to respond to Raymond Tallis’s writings, especially when he chooses the polemical mode. I wouldn’t want to post another message telling him he is simplifying things (especially as he admits as much in his own reply), nor do I quite want to praise him for being witty and concise, when so many interesting questions may get swept away in the process. Thus I agree with the comments above and note firstly, that Ray points out a distinct danger in the wide-spread use of evolutionary explanations for human behaviour and cultural products, but also secondly, that his argumentative tactics seem, especially in the context of this forum, unnecessarily dismissive of evolutionary thinking in its largest sense.
    I suppose my own perspective would be that examining the cognitive evolution of human beings is valuable in terms of giving contextual information, just as (as a literary scholar) I would find knowledge of the author’s historical situation to be potentially valuable in contextualising a literary work. Neither needs to lead to explanatory reductivism: biographical information does not need to lead to biographist readings, just as understanding of evolutionary history does not need to lead to ”Darwinitis”. The fact that the line between valid and reductivist explanations is difficult to draw is surely no reason for abandoning the discussion altogether. Thankfully, Ray is not planning to do that either, and I’m very much looking forward to the Michelangelo volume for an extended (and perhaps less acerbic) rendition of his thoughts.

  • Robert Grant

    Ray Tallis’s attack on EP (at least, on naive EP) is part of his decades-long attack on reductionism and determinism generally, whether physical, biological, environmental, social, instinctual, economic or linguistic. Some reductionism is justified and genuinely enlightening, when it explains things at a deeper, more microscopic level without manifestly falsifying them (say by ignoring crucial features). An example would be the reduction of Mendelian genetics to molecular biology, which both (a) explains why Mendel was right and (b) does so without explaining anything *away*.

    It is when things, particularly mental or cultural things (rather than variant pea shapes), are explained *away* that we suspect intellectual legerdemain and an underlying (though often quite conscious) ideological motivation. Something familiar and (characteristically) valued, such as altruism, love, friendship, art, beauty or our appreciation of these things, is alleged to be ‘really’ something else, usually something either ‘worse’ (lust, self-interest, greed, status hunger, sexual display) or, as in physicalism, purely mechanical, outside the realm of value altogether. Let us take psycho-physicalism as the simplest, least invidious illustration. Here the phenomena of self-consciousness are reduced to something not only not conscious, but purely physical, e.g. the mind to the brain, or thoughts to neural processes.

    This seems impossible. You cannot *experience* your self-consciousness *as* the neurone- or brain-states which (undoubtedly) accompany it and (allegedly) generate it. The one is mental, and, to exist at all, *must* be subjectively experienced; the others are physical, exist independently of our attention, and can *only* be observed from the outside. Moreover, the causal sequence is not exclusively, and perhaps not even, from the physical to the mental. My mental acts, even though they have simultaneous electro-chemical correlates, set in train, or *cause* – which is to say, I myself cause – further events both mental and physical, so there is no reason to regard physical states as somehow ‘prior’ (except as being a *sine qua non*).

    If brain-events, being physical, are determined, that does not mean that the corresponding mental events are not ‘free’. They are *experienced as* free; and that is all that self-consciousness and free will *mean*, inhabiting and generating as they do a whole interdependent, self-subsistent categorical world of phenomenal experience (morality, law, responsibility, culture, value, etc.) which is not plausibly reducible to anything outside itself, even though it may depend on it. It seems as though self-consciousness, since it can never *grasp itself* in terms of its own (notionally causal) explanations, were somehow logically destined always to overshoot them, and to revert to the inexplicable, uncaused autonomy of the first person case.

    Less extreme kinds of reduction, such as EP, invite the same general critique. I don’t think, with Howard Robinson, that EP explanations necessarily lead us down a slippery slope to protozoan behaviour, though they might if they began from apes. Tallis is surely right that, despite the obvious continuities (which permit and encourage inter-species sympathy), there is also a fundamental, unbridgeable and essentially logical gulf between humans and other animals, even the other primates, and that it is due to our uniquely human attribute of *self*-consciousness (as opposed to simple consciousness). But we are not so genetically distant (or even very distant in time) from hunter-gatherer *homo sapiens* as not to see that, for what little it may be worth, men’s (on average) superior strength and hand-eye co-ordination or women’s superior multi-tasking skills and olfactory memory (which makes them the best wine-tasters) may derive from traits originally advantageous to survival on the savannah, and further developed there. On the other hand, we may be so close to primitive *homo sapiens* that our similarities, though interesting, may not even fall within the scope of EP, strictly construed.

    Some peripheral points: traditional Judaeo-Christian religion regards us at at once created (i.e. determined) by God and as self-determined (endowed by him with free will, and thus morally accountable). Even Richard Dawkins sees our deliberative choice (i.e. free will) as a distinctive genetic endowment, which marks us off from the other animals, and so to speak ‘hard-wires’ us for freedom. (Another zoologist, Aristotle, said much the same.)

    Tallis is right that outward resemblances between human and animal behaviours may be utterly misleading. A lapwing’s enticing a predator away from its nest and a mother’s self-sacrifice for her children may look near-identical, but they are not, even though they have a similar function. The lapwing neither knows what it is doing nor can help doing it.

    Finally, most reductionism, particularly of the ‘unmasking’ sort, is vulnerable to its own brand of reduction. Marxism can be seen as a gigantic myth of legitimation on the part, not of those who hold power, but of those who seek it. The unconscious roots (if any) of psychoanalysis, with its mechanical, organ-grinding view of sex, will not be flattering to that discipline. Nietzsche’s quasi-biological fantasy-ideal of the *Übermensch* is just what might be expected of a lonely invalid professor in a Swiss boarding-house. With that said, however, it would surely be preposterous to see Dawkins’s beautifully written works as a means to the survival of his own genes, though their sales will no doubt have helped out with the school fees. On the other hand, to judge by its virus-like spread, what is the theory of memes, not to say neo-Darwinism as a whole, but a mega-meme?

    *Pace* Susan Blackmore, I don’t think Tallis has shot himself in the foot. He has shot EP and related explanations in the head, where (to say the least) it hurts.

  • I was amused when Professor Easterlin described my views as ‘tabloid’ and suggested that I should read around my subject a little more, when I would find that Evolutionary Psychology is not as simple as I imagine. She even goes so far as to hint at a reading list, including the writings of the admirable Steven Mithen with whose work I am entirely familiar. Alas, one has to be a little more tabloid in the space of 1,500 words than I was in the space of 500,000 words that I devoted to human nature and our differences from all other beasts in my comparatively recent trilogy. (Modesty forbids my reiterating the titles of the three books.) Professor Easterlin ought to be obliged to read my work before commenting on my ignorance but I feel that would be a disproportionate punishment for what is a crime that usually attracts only a caution. Her comments, however, are interesting for other reasons.

    Firstly, there is the claim that I have misrepresented EP. Well, I began by describing how it has been received within academe and, in particular, its popular reception – one, incidentally, in which many biologists and others who should know better, collude. The suggestion that I should have set aside the brand of EP (Swiss army knife model) that Professor Easterlin does not approve of is unacceptably choosy. And I think Professor Blackmore (see her earlier response) would be justifiably upset at the implication that her detailed (if wrong-headed) work on memes were dismissed as ‘trendy and controversial’ and as not echt EP. But this response does illustrate an experience that one often has when one opposes a particular intellectual fashion. Those who attack Marxism are told that they are attacking a misrepresentation of Marxism. Ditto Freudianism. Ditto post-Structuralism, as I know from personal experience. Michael Grant, in his very generous and welcome response to my piece, referred to my critique of Post-Saussurean literary theory and the encroachment of Derrida and Lacan on the humanities. This critique (set out in two books) went unanswered except where individuals denied that Lacan and Derrida had ever said the very things that had provoked such interest in their work in the first place. I therefore wrote a third book (Theorrhoea and After) which looked critically at the claim that ‘He [Lacan, Derrida et al] ‘never said that’. Of course, he did say that. And so have many Evolutionary Psychologists been saying the things that I attribute to them. That is why their work has aroused such interest outside of their own discipline. Memes and genes are widely discussed in EP. And, by the way, the idea that there could be a ‘gene for’ complex behaviours is a belief that still lives on despite its bankruptcy, as Matt Ridley brilliantly discusses in Nature via Nurture. Or have I been dreaming that people have suggested that a single gene mutation FOXP2 may have had an important role in the emergence of language and culture?

    More importantly, Professor Easterlin’s response illustrates the need to distinguish between three activities:

    The first is work supporting the claim that our humanity has biological roots. This is standard Darwinian business: examining the evolutionary path to H. sapiens etc. It acknowledges that we are organisms as well as people and the properties of the former are appropriate subjects for evolutionary thought. I (of course) have no quarrel with this. I am a doctor and a biomedical scientist after all!
    The second activity is to think about the profound differences between ourselves and all other living creatures. This perfectly legitimate work has two aspects.
    One is what we might call philosophical anthropology: an attempt to capture at the deepest and most general level what it is that sets us off from other beasts, a difference that goes deeper than, say, the difference between one mammal and another. In The Explicit Animal. A Defence of Human Consciousness (1991, 1999) I identified explicitness – that underpins rules, norms, languages, institutions and the various other features of the landscape of the human world – as the key difference. More recently, in the trilogy published 2003-2005, I focussed on what I have called ‘propositional awareness’, which encompasses both the Existential Intuition (‘That I am…’) and the sense ‘That x [is the case]’. For example, all animals feel warm; only one animal feels ‘I am warm’ and ‘That it is warm’. The animal in question is the human animal. ‘Thatter’ is as important as matter in the human world. It has no place in the non-human biosphere.
    ii) The other is an attempt to construct an evidence-based account of how we came to be different in this profound way. I say ‘evidence-based’ because we are all averse to Just So stories (including, in my case, Kipling’s originals!). There is some excellent work in this area, such as the kind of ‘cognitive archaeology’ that Professor Easterlin referred to. It must, however, be rooted in an understanding of the profound and global nature of our differences from other living creatures – and this will make us aware of the difficulty of the task. EP consistently under-estimates the scale and depth of our differences and hence over-estimates the relevance of biology to explaining much of our behaviour.

    The third activity is the one that I object to and which, pace Professor Easterlin’s protests to the contrary, is a major strand in EP and has had a huge influence elsewhere – witness the plague of neuro-evolutionary ‘disciplines’ that have increasingly encroached on the territory of the humanities; for example, literary criticism, aesthetics, the law, economics, history, social science, theology etc etc etc. This activity is based on the premise that, although we have moved on from our biological roots, we haven’t really left them behind, they are the true explanation of what we do, so that a biology-based evolutionary approach to our behaviour is appropriate.
    The fallacy behind this way of thinking is beautifully exposed by Howard Robinson in his contribution: the idea that if the behaviour of a later species S2 evolves from that of an earlier species S1, then the explanation of the behaviour of S2 will be the same as the explanation of the behaviour of S1. The fallacy is even more evident when the species in question are ‘emotionally modern’ (to use Sara Hrdy’s phrase) hominids such as ourselves, since our behaviour takes places in a sphere – a world, a place of collectivised consciousness – that is not matched elsewhere in nature. To try to understand human history or politics or literature or even the minutiae of everyday individual life in terms of the behaviour of our biological ancestors is rather like applying a stethoscope to an individual seed or a heap of seeds and hoping to hear the wind rustling through the leaves.

    William Kornarhens raises interesting points about the ethical consequences of defining what is unique about human beings. If to be human is to have such and such capacities, then an individual who lacks them would not seem to be human. Professor Kornarhens is concerned that by setting out the entry criteria for the human club in this way, might justify denying personhood, and even rights, to someone who is biologically H. sapiens. This is no mere theoretical worry, as the history of 20th century tells us. My own view is that someone who is biologically human but lacks many of the characteristics that distinguish the human race – for example my future self when severely demented or when in coma – should be treated as a human being because his/her predicament is one that I or my loved ones might face at any time; and that devaluing individuals who are not quite like ourselves but belong to our species, devalues all of us.

    Professor Kornarhens’ other point, that we are sometimes not entirely aware of the reasons we do things, or we may be deceived as to the reasons for our actions, demonstrates only that we are usually rational in our behaviour but not always so. The fact remains that pretty well everything I will do today, I will do for the reason I state to myself. For example, I do all the very many things that it is necessary for me to board a train to London for the advertised reason – to get to London. The fact that I sometimes rationalise my actions – that is to say find a better, more reasonable, more altruistic reason for them than the one that actually motivates my action – is itself a testimony to the extent to which we mobilise reasons to make sense of our lives. No other form of living matter does this.

    What is more, even our most irrational actions require a good deal of applied reason for us to enact them. When I practised medicine, many patients came to me with irrational fears of illnesses of various sorts. In order to get to me, at the right place and the right time, required multiple chains of reason-based actions: going to their family doctor in the first place, arranging for child care to cover their appointment, making sure the car had petrol etc. In short, even the arias of irrationality drew upon a background recitative of rational behaviour. Or, to take a larger-scale example, wars require quartermasters as well as front-line troops, pay slips as well as machine guns, being busy packing rucksacks as well as engaging in blood-curdling charges. Our human lives are woven out of wall-to-wall propositional awareness informing rational and irrational actions. They are utterly unlike the lives of animals.

  • I think my response to Nancy Easterlin covers Merja Polivnen’s worry that I might be ‘dismissive of evolutionary thinking in its largest sense’. In fact, I have found the entire exchange very useful for helping me to clarify in my own mind the dividing line between legitimate (genuinely scientific) and illegitimate (pseudo-scientific) uses of Darwinian insights. In short, I have been prodded into a more precise understanding of what is wrong with EP!

    Dr Polivnen’s analogy between evolutionary and historical understanding does not seem to me to hold up. It is least persuasive in her own area of literary studies. Whereas Irish history may help one to understand A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and the catastrophe of WWI may cast light on the difference approaches of Mrs Gaskell and Virginia Woolf to the novel, I do not think the events of 5,000,000 years ago or even of 10,000 years ago would help us to engage better with the works of Joyce, Gaskell or Woolf. And even history would cast very little light on the utterly singular progression of Joyce from A Portrait to Finnegan’s Wake. To generalise (and perhaps illustrate the polemic mode that Dr Polivnen has reservations over!), the application of evolutionary theory to literature (and art in generalise) fails to make helpful distinctions between one work of art and another or to fasten our attention on the unique characteristics of the work, wherein its genius lies. Evolutionary explanation takes a sledgehammer to miss a nut; or looks at works of art through the ultimate wrong-ended telescope. Someone once declared that the great poet and thinker Paul Valéry was ‘just another petit-bourgeois intellectual’ and received the response that not every petit bourgeois was like Paul Valéry. An analogous point could be made about evolutionary categorisations of artists, their works of art, and their consumers.

    I am very grateful to Professor Grant for his wide-ranging response, though I am not too sure that he and I would agree about Nietzsche! Where we are in total agreement is over his central point; namely that we need to see EP in a broader context of physicalism. The idea that ‘You are (at bottom) an animal’ is indissolubly connected with the notion that ‘You are your brain’: Darwinitis and Brain Rot go together. The link is made through the fact that, since your brain is an organ that evolved to serve certain biological purposes, you too must be in thrall to the needs that shaped the brain and so fashioned your drives, motives etc. This is the logic that waves through on the nod the reduction of those familiar and valued things that Robert talks about to ‘something else, usually something either “worse”…or purely mechanical, outside the realm of value altogether’.

    The case against mind-brain or self-brain identity theories is compelling (I have set it out in Tallis passim) but the arguments have a hard time making headway for the reason that Wittgenstein pointed out: ‘A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably’ – an observation that may connect with Robert’s suggestion that meme theory itself may be a meme. I am not too sure that I would accept that – because it has none of the characteristics of a meme apart from a widespread tendency to be adopted – though Professor Blackmore’s theory does raise unanswerable questions about its own epistemological status.

    One final point. Professor Grant observes, correctly, that ‘outward resemblances between human and animal behaviours may be utterly misleading’. There is a general principle here, set out very clearly by the primatologist Daniel Povinelli – a brilliant scourge of Disneyfication of beasts – in his Folk Physics for Apes. I would recommend all EP-philes to read Chapter 2, ‘Escaping the argument by analogy’. Here Povinelli exposes ‘the logical weakness in assuming that the similarity in the natural behaviour of humans and chimpanzees implies a comparable similarity in the mental states that attend and generate that behaviour’ . Part of the difficulty of escaping analogical thinking is that there has been a prior Disneyfication of the behaviour in question. Only by describing a lapwing’s behaviour as ‘enticing a predator away from its nest’ could e begin to imagine that it is analogous to the self-sacrifice of a mother who perhaps passes up on treats for herself in order to save up for a Christmas present for her children. The whole process of linguistic gap-closing becomes particularly effective because it is iterative: think of the way the word ‘courtship’ shuttles back and forth between humans and non-human animals. No wonder some people are persuaded that a person slaving over a poem addressed to the loved one is like a beast prowling round a potential mate prior to the ‘ten second jump-and-shriek’ of chimp sex.

  • Will the REAL Evolutionary Psychology Stand Up?

    My initial reaction to Prof. Tallis’s post was one of bemused sympathy. I was bemused because the evolutionary psychology he attacked struck me as being somewhat of a strawman creation born out of the requirements of polemic, albeit elegant polemic. And I was sympathetic because, when it comes to understanding something like literature or music, it’s not clear to me that the Real and True evolutionary psychology has so far done much better than the strawman. As far as I can tell, to the extent that so-called literary Darwinism has been able to address the analysis of individual texts, it owes more to literary criticism than to evolutionary psychology, which it deploys as a sophisticated alternative to folk psychological accounts of the actions and motives of literary characters.

    But I don’t want to pursue that line of polemic here and now, I’ve done enough of that both here (in the discussion of Joseph Carroll’s piece), over at The Valve in various posts, and in a long-essay review of The Literary Animal.

    I want to make some remarks prompted by Prof. Easterlin’s desire to rescue EP from being identified with the Cosmides to Tooby to Pinker Swiss Army knife school. Of course. Still, it’s my impression that that’s the school that, for better or worse, put the term “evolutionary psychology” on the map. And I’ve always wondered what was so “evolutionary” about that school since its phylogenetic depth and breadth is limited to the recent emergence of a single species, us. What about the traditional study comparative psychology or of comparative neuroanatomy and physiology? For example, Paul MacLean’s work in those areas goes back to the middle of the 20th century and has even given pop psychology the notion of one’s “lizard brain.”

    In a different direction, we’ve got Eric Lenneberg’s 1967 classic, The Biological Foundations of Language, a synthesizing review with chapters on experimental and observational evidence, morphology and physiology of the speech organs, neuropsychology, ontogeny, and phylogeny. All that stuff back in the ancient times! Two years after that John Bowlby published Attachment, the first of three volumes on the relationship between infants and mothers. As Prof. Easterlin knows, Bowlby was trained as a psychoanalyst who looked to avian and primate ethology and to the “systems” psychology of Miller, Galanter, and Pribram (Plans the the Structure of Behavior, 1960) and others in reformulating psychoanalytic object relations theory on more contemporary intellectual grounds. Bowlby also gave us the notion of the environment of evolutionary adaptedness (EEA).

    And so forth and so on.

    Interest in the biological foundations of human behavior has been around for a long time, earlier than my examples, which are themselves earlier than Cosmides and Tooby and, for that matter, E.O. Wilson’s Sociobiology. And, sure, we can easily add Steven Mithen and Donald Merlin into the mix if we wish. We can make “evolutionary psychology” a rather grand catch-all term for a lot of work that emerged in various intellectual genealogies.

    But we might also want to ask just why the phrase “evolutionary psychology” – the EP meme? – took off when it did and why it is associated with particularly reductive attempts understand human behavior. Yes, perhaps some suggestive new ideas or models here and there. But we might also want to think about intellectual branding and marketing both within in the academy and in the popular arena. There we encounter the desire for easy answers to difficult questions. And that puts an end to inquiry.

  • William Kornahrens

    In response to my previous comment, Raymond Tallis made a decent attempt at trying to clarify why we should consider giving human status to people who potentially lack the capacities of others to rationalize and be self-aware of our actions. His proposed criterion is that “someone who is biologically human but lacks many of the characteristics that distinguish the human race…should be treated as a human being because his/her predicament is one that I or my loved ones might face at any time.” In essence, he is claiming that having a human body is all that is required to be a human. It is effective in that it separates us easily from any other animal; however, this proposed distinction leaves much to be desired when attempting to look for reasons to justify it. Yes, it separates us, but the true issue is that it follows the same line of reasoning that makes slavery (by skin color, gender, etc.) a reality. What does my physical structure have to do with my rights as a person? Why are organisms that differ in these structures (but have many similar structures) not entitled to the same rights as I am? Such questions suggest that an alternative way to look at this is that we are not placing enough value on animals, rather than placing too much value on humans. The example of slavery is used to point out the obvious flaw in stating that a biological body or physical quality should be used to determine moral superiority.

    The problem is that the definition of humanity is either too crude or unjustified by morals, failing to be applied to every situation. Recall that Tallis said we should treat disabled persons as humans because they had the abilities that we do and that we could in turn lose our own abilities. Essentially, he is stating that temporal ownership of these abilities is enough to claim the distinction of “human.” Suppose someone is born in such a state that they are unable to rationalize or interpret the world around them. Unlike the situation I proposed in my last comment, the person is born without ever having the abilities that Tallis cherishes as belonging to humans only. Why can we still call such people humans? Some people would say that these people have the “potential” to be human beings, so we should treat them as such. However, this definition falls apart when considering that science will presumably become sophisticated enough that we will be able to bioengineer other animals to the point where “potential to be a human” is meaningless. Even if “potential” withstood these challenges, it is too vague to determine which qualities one would need to be human.

    We can expand on this point further with a few more theoretical examples. As we become more and more technologically advanced, we may eventually be able to make perfect clones of ourselves, with all the abilities and biological processes that Tallis sees as distinctly human. Does this clone of myself have human properties? How will I be able to distinguish him from someone who had a real mother and father? Will they have less rights because of their origin? What if I make a robot that has all of these abilities and biological functions? Is he a human as well? Until the problem of assigning the correct criteria for human singularity is solved, we will not be able to consider such questions. Any attempt to answer them must consider all possible cases, and it must be morally justified rather than appearing to be anthropocentric for reasons that fall apart under close scrutiny.

  • Robert Grant

    Many thanks to Ray Tallis for his various replies. Just to clear up a couple of points, and raise another:

    1. I should have said that, confined to its own sphere, pure physical determinism is not only unobjectionable, like the Mendel-to-molecular-biology reduction, or indeed the reduction (as appropriate) of chemistry to physics, but is obviously essential for the natural sciences to subsist at all. (Ignore the fact that at quantum level one cannot speak of determinism, only of overwhelming probability.) It’s physicalism, not physics, that is surely misconceived. There seems to be some kind of philosophical error or category mistake involved. It may well be that, in ‘the view from nowhere’ (to use Thomas Nagel’s expression), everything is ultimately reducible to physics; but we have no idea *how* that could be so, and, if my suspicion is right, in the nature of things we never can and therefore never will have any such idea. For us, the view from nowhere is applicable, and valid, only within natural science. Once our conscious selves and doings enter the field of scrutiny, we have left the world of passive objects behind, and with it strict determinism, and have entered the world of active subjects, i.e. of free will. (The unintended aggregate consequences of many individuals’ active and independent choices may qualify for ‘scientific’ study, as in economics, but we can leave all that on one side.) We necessarily adopt the view from somewhere, which is where we ourselves cannot but stand. This does not mean we can’t (or shouldn’t) *try* to be objective about human things; but it does mean we can instantly confute any would-be scientific ‘law’ concerning human behaviour, or prediction derived from such a ‘law’, by doing precisely the opposite, even if only out of sheer perversity, like the anti-hero of Dostoyevsky’s *Notes from Underground*.

    2. I did not mean, in my own person, to say anything so sweeping about Nietzsche as Ray Tallis evidently thinks I did. What I meant is that Nietzsche might be thought vulnerable to a *Nietzschean* reading of him, just as Marxism is to a Marxist and Freudianism to a Freudian (and perhaps I didn’t make those two latter points clear enough either). In no case am I saying that such an interpretation would necessarily be mine, or right (though it might in the Marxist case), not least because, like many other things, a *tu quoque* rejoinder puts all those philosophies and consequently their respective interpretative approaches in question. *If* (say) Christianity can be reduced to ‘slave morality’ (and I am not concerned with whether it can), then it doesn’t seem too unfair (though it might be mistaken) similarly to reduce the *Übermensch*, together with Nietzsche’s entire ‘health’-based ethics (or anti-ethics), to a kind of compensatory Adlerian fantasy entertained by a sick, prematurely retired academic, such as poor Nietzsche had become. Incidentally, James Joyce is implicitly satirical at Nietzsche’s expense along just these lines, in his portrait of the lonely misogynist misfit Duffy, who takes refuge in his lofty biologico-ethical superiority when faced with a stranger’s need and her subsequent suicide (‘A Painful Case’, in *Dubliners*). And, in less specific, more knockabout fashion, there is Buck Mulligan in *Ulysses*: ‘He who stealeth from the poor lendeth to the Lord. Thus spake Zarathustra.’

    3. If we are not to say ‘the lapwing is enticing a predator away from its nest’, as being too anthropomorphic (in that, as I myself suggested, the creature does not actually know what it is doing, even though it actually *is* doing that), and if, as Tallis quite rightly says, a word like ‘courtship’ is far too promiscuously applied across both human and animal behaviour, at just what point, and in what context, do we decide that a word common to both behaviours is permissible? It is either absurd or a jocular figurative usage to say ‘the lions are dining on the antelope’, but quite reasonable to speak of human beings dining on this or that (though not on a Mars bar or a bag of chips), just as it is reasonable to say ‘the lions are eating the antelope’. Whoever dines, is also eating, by definition; but it would be absurd, again, to describe a dinner party as (say) ‘eating behaviour’ or even ‘alimentation’. If a lion can be said, quite properly, to ‘eat’ (despite not ‘knowing’ that that is what it is doing), why cannot a lapwing be said to entice a predator away from its nest?

  • Michael Grant

    Many of the arguments in the foregoing debate make assumptions about what makes sense. Wittgenstein may perhaps bring us to see these matters under a diffrent aspect. To that end I cite a short dialogue from Zettel §§486-87:

    Even where the feeling that arouses joy is localised, joy is not: if for example we rejoice in the smell of a flower. – Joy is manifested in facial expression, in behaviour. (But we do not say that we are joyful in our faces.)

    “But I do have a real feeling of joy!” Yes, when you are glad you really are glad. And of course joy is not joyful behaviour, nor yet a feeling around the corners of the mouth and the eyes.

    “But surely joy designates an inward thing.” No. “Joy” designates nothing at all. Neither any inward or any outward thing.