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I’ve always been interested in the question of nature vs. nurture — whether humans are basically biological or cultural (or even spiritual) beings.

The nature argument — i.e., that human beings should basically be understood as another kind of animal — has never really been a majority view. It’s mainly people trained in biology, who support it. Scholars in the humanities and social sciences are usually against it. And I doubt that it’s widespread in the general population, even in the secular West (look, for example, how anti-evolutionist thinking dominates American culture). And it’s certainly not a majority view among the global population.

So, given the low number of adherents of a biological understanding of humankind, why is it so important for someone like Raymond Tallis to launch a crusade against it? See for example the abstract of an evening talk titled “Against Biologism: Neuromania and Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Mankind” which he gave last week in the Café Culture in Durham:

Increasingly, it is assumed that human beings are best understood in biological terms. That, notwithstanding the apparent differences between humans and their nearest animal kin, people are, at bottom, organisms; that people are their brains, and that societies are best understood as collections of brains. We are also told we should look to evolutionary theory to understand what we are now; that our biological roots explain our cultural leaves.

Raymond Tallis will argue that we are not just our brains; rather we belong to a community of minds that has grown up over the hundreds of thousands of years since we parted company from the other primates. He will argue that the gap between our nearest animal kin and ourselves is too wide to read across from the one to the other.

Really? Where does Tallis find this “increasing assumption” that human beings are best understood in biological terms and that “societies are best understood as collections of brains”? In my humble experience, there are pretty few ‘biologistic’ thinkers around, and they have very little influence on academic and popular discourse. The humanities and social sciences are still replete with non- or outspoken anti-biologistic thinking, theories, concepts and empirical practices.

If by “increasing” he means a 100% increase from 1% to 2% of scholarly articles in the last decade he may be right. But otherwise the threatening increase is probably only fostered in his own imagination.

Thomas Söderqvist

Author Thomas Söderqvist

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