Does Evolutionary Psychology Explain Mind? - Raymond Tallis

Raymond Tallis - Philosophy

Raymond Tallis

Raymond C. Tallis is a a retired physician and neuroscientist from Great Britain. His resume boasts titles like philosopher, poet and novelist. He is also a member of the Academy of Medical Sciences, the Royal College of Physicians and Royal Society of Arts.

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Raymond
Tallis

Philosopher, Essayist, Medical doctor

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Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Ray, in trying to understand the human mind, evolutionary psychology has become more and more prominent in looking at evolutionary history, and seeing how, because of the selection effect, various characteristics of the mind have developed. Some people think this is a complete theory of the mind. How do you analyze that?

Raymond Tallis:

I think it's complete pseudoscience, and you can see that most clearly when you look at one particular strand of evolutionary psychology, which is one that relies a lot on the notion of the meme. Even evolutionary psychologists can sometimes notice what's in front of their noses, and what they notice, when they look in front of their noses, they can see there's a huge difference between an hour in the office on the one hand, and an hour in the jungle on the other, between human life and animal life. So how are they going to fill the ditch between us and the beasts with something that looks a bit sort of evolutionoid, shall we say? So, they come up with the notion of the meme.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Define a meme.

Raymond Tallis:

A meme is a unit of cultural transmission, analogous to the gene, which is a unit of biological transmission. So, memes are things that replicate themselves, like selfish genes, and they replicate themselves by entering the minds of human beings. And so, you have self-replicating memes, and the notion of the mind is actually being a sort of lumber room, made up of a whole pile of these things. And the examples that memeophiles give are things like styles of architecture, or a tolerance of free speech, or design of milk bottles.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Certainly, religion is a big meme that has many self-reinforcing aspects.

Raymond Tallis:

Indeed, religion is seen as a meme complex. It's a complex of memes that sort of hang together. They survive even better if they hold together. Say, if you have bishops in garters and incense, and church with steeples, they'll all do better together than they will do apart. Then what's wrong with the meme theory? Well, first of all, what are these units? Take free speech. Is it a unit? Well, it's a noun phrase, but only the most literal-minded person could imagine there could be a unit corresponding to a noun phrase like free speech, even less a unit that could then replicate itself or land unchallenged in the mind. I mean, I believe in free speech sometimes, and sometimes I don't. The second thing is memes have to be acquiesced to, or agreed with, or created deliberately. You know, you try acquiescing to, or disagreeing with your genes. You know, there's not much room for maneuver there, as far as I know. Thirdly, as far as I can see, they seem to confuse the equivalent of the genotype and the phenotype, that basically, I'm not too clear whether meme theory really does make that fundamental biological distinction.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Well, it's an analogy, and people look for that, the analogy, to help understand it. It's not a total, complete explanation, but it certainly does seem that there are cultural aspects of, to humanity that get reinforced. The example of religion, as you said, different things coming together, self-reinforce each other. I mean, that, that begins to seem like a good sociological explanation for the growth of religion.

Raymond Tallis:

I mean, why not cut out the middle man? Why invent this thing called a meme, which is like phlogiston, really, to explain what's going on? We have all sorts of reasons why people feel obliged to accept the beliefs that are going around at the time, why they may, why there may be fashions and things, and so on. There are plenty of reasons without invoking these strange abstractions that are supposed to replicate themselves and be selfish like genes.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

One of the benefits would be, is to try to explain how these characteristics of human mentality, of the mind, whether it's expressed internally, subjectively, or culturally, has developed, and it uses the concept of natural selection. The ones that are the fittest, defined in this cultural sense, the one that gets more people associated with [unintelligible], for whatever reason, and then gets transmitted among people and believed, it's an analogy, but it's sort of a nice one, because it uses the, how you get different traits to become stronger, because those are the ones that are most fit in preserving itself within the population, with the genetic analogy.

Raymond Tallis:

Suppose we chuck the meme out and just said that tolerance for free speech, for example, which is the kind of meme that Dennett gives, just turned out to be pretty good. We actually felt this was a rather good thing, but we still had to argue for it, and some people would argue against it, and some people will apply it in certain circumstances and not in others. Now, think of the meme that's being argued for and against, and applied in certain circumstances, not in others. What meme, what the meme theory is trying to do is remove the element of deliberative human consciousness from human interactions. And I think that's why it's so attractive. So, in other words, you have this monster replicating of its own accord, to its own benefit, I hasten to add, and not to the benefit of any individual who's a carrier, see, has the selfish gene.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Okay. I can follow that the, that the ability to have deliberative discussions of these things are a critical part of the process, but isn't that just another part of the survival mechanism?

Raymond Tallis:

Well, is it a mechanism when you've got deliberative process? If I think of a mechanism as my processes by which my kidney, you know, secretes urine. That's a good biological mechanism. Do you really think that's the same as all sitting around the table and saying, look, should we have a constitution which actually acknowledges the appropriateness for people to express their views? I think, if you close the difference between those two things, then you've lost massive differences, which seems to me a very poor way of doing anthropology, psychology and sociology, which is actually seen more clearly, rather than less clearly, what is specifically going on in a particular circumstance.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

From your criticism of meme theory, what then follows from the evolutionary psychology of the mind?

Raymond Tallis:

I think the evolutionary psychology of the mind is in great trouble anyway. It's based on the notion that the mind is basically identical with brain activity, and the brain, being an evolved organ, it means the mind must be an evolved organ, or a collection of evolved organs. I don't buy that fundamental premise. So, I'm quite happy to chuck out evolutionary theory, when it comes to talking about the community of minds within which we live. I think it's a false paradigm.