Beware the Fausts of Neuroscience

Neuroscientists attempt to reduce the greatest aspects of human behaviour and existence to material Darwinism. We should be sceptical about their overblown claims

Critique Science
Theatre of dreams: The results of an fMRI scan (Wellcome Collection)

“I rejoice to concur with the common reader; for by the common sense of readers, uncorrupted by scientific prejudices, after all the refinements of subtility and the dogmatism of learning, must be finally decided all claim to honours.” 

Dr Johnson didn’t say “scientific” (he said “literary”), and the word “poetical” came before “honours”, yet his message still applies. Today there is a common reader of science. The trouble is that even when popularised its “refinements of subtility” can place it further beyond reach than those of literature. 

As a minister for science I was acutely aware of this. Had I been able to rely on scientists themselves for rational and detached advice — what else are they for? — things would have been simpler, but my impressions of those I met convinced me of two things: their awesome intelligence and real achievements, but in some cases an equally awesome propensity to overweening ambition and incurable condescension towards the common man.

I arrived with my own prejudices. As a diplomatic specialist in Communism, in China and the Soviet Union I had witnessed at first hand the biggest live experiment in history, as more than a billion human beings, caged in their own countries like laboratory mice, were subjected to the parascientific creed of dialectical materialism and Marxism-Leninism. (The term parascience, nicely evocative of paranormal and la pataphysique, I borrow from Absence of Mind, essays on science and religion by Marilynne Robinson, Yale 2010.) Of the outcome — some hundred million dead, three million in China during 1966-69 the years I was there — there is little more to be said, except to recall how many Western scientists, some eminent, went along with the experiment in the face of the scepticism of Johnson’s common reader. 

One example. Professor J.D. Bernal, a first-rank scientist, helped lay the foundations of molecular biology. Inspired by Nikolai Bukharin’s lecture on the Marxist roots of Newton, he had earlier endorsed the “proletarian science” of Trofim Lysenko, whose theory of plant genetics Stalin backed because it suggested that the acquired characteristics of the communist New Man could be transmitted in perpetuity. Bukharin was later shot in the show trials of 1938 after torture extracted a confession; Bernal survived till 1971, when he died peacefully, proud of his Stalin Prize, and with no confession. 

As we contemplate the utopian claims of some branches of scientific inquiry today, the damage he and a generation of sympathisers and fellow travellers (including Joseph Needham, and to a lesser extent C.P. Snow) did to the reputation of science itself should not be forgotten. 

All this comes to mind as I try to keep abreast of neuroscience. I am not saying this is the new Marxism, merely that experiments and theories that claim to revolutionise our understanding of ourselves deserve the common reader’s vigilance. Remarkable research is under way, but some in the neuroscience fraternity are not content with reinterpreting the world: they want to change it. “The return of political scientism, particularly of a biological variety,” Raymond Tallis has written, “should strike a chill to the heart.” It does to mine. Today Orwell’s Animal Farm would feature a cold-eyed, white-coated meerkat loading troublesome creatures into a brain scanner, before prescribing the necessary treatment.

A new and precocious discipline, functional magnetic resonance imaging, fMRI, is a mere two decades old. Some of its triumphs, such as the ability to communicate with paralysed, “locked-in” patients, are impressive, and more will come. But to judge by highly-qualified critics like Tallis a Johnsonian bottom of common sense can be rare in the field.

The problem is that many neuroscientists are materialists and reductionists for whom it is axiomatic that man is no more than an animal with a more evolved brain: mind, consciousness and religion are figments of his intemperate imagination. The brain is the man and that is that — which handily shuts off competing explanations. Soon, we are told, we shall be able to read our own thoughts, motives, sexual desires or social behaviour so accurately, and to prescribe remedies so radical, that we can look forward to “a millennial future, perhaps only a few decades away”. (Law and the Brain, by Semir Zeki and Oliver Goodenough, OUP, 2006.)

So, another millennium, another blissful dawn. How do we get there this time? No problem: human brains in all their fallibility will analyse the brains of others by means of fallible machinery and produce fallible theories, to be implemented by those same fallible brains. The time to watch for is when neuroscientists claim they can tinker with our heads to make us more creative, rectify harmful thinking or “cure” homosexuals (machines are not of the Left or Right), such improvements in our condition to be overseen, as with Lysenko, by scientised bureaucrats. 

Paranoid? Only mildly. Remember we have been there already: the dark “science of eugenics” was practised in Sweden as well as the US well before the Führer took a more active interest. And ask yourself what use Stalin or Mao might have made of machines capable of identifying and eliminating what the Chinese called “black thoughts”.

Meanwhile the neuro industry will grow and grow, together with its claim for investment and state subsidies. Particle physics, I was assured when I visited CERN in Geneva armed with a programme of budget cuts, is the ne plus ultra of understanding the universe, but not any more: the existence or otherwise of the Higgs Boson particle is presumably a percept of the human brain, whose study must logically be awarded a prior claim to cash. 

Fortunately, powerful critics are lining up to deflate the worst neuro-pretensions, including Tallis, Robinson and Bryan Appleyard, the Sunday Times writer. As well as being in different degrees scientifically literate all are highly cultivated folk. Listen to Tallis, himself a neuroscientist, Darwinian and atheist, in his remarkable book Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity (Acumen, 2011):

Even if we accepted (which I do not) that brain activity is a complete explanation of ground-floor phenomena such as sensations, neuroscience cannot capture what happens to the human world created by the joint activity of hundreds of millions of brains created over tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of years.

An obvious area of interest for the new utopians is criminality, and Tallis has fun with the advocates of biological justice. The idea that criminals are in thrall to their amygdala (the seat of aggression, it seems) is no more, he says, than a materialist updating of demonic possession. And instead of justice taking an understanding view of offenders, logically they should be given longer sentences, because nothing can change them. When Zeno whipped him, a thieving slave protested: “But I was fated to steal.” “Yes, and be whipped for it too,” the philosopher replied. Getting a moral grip on oneself is possible, Tallis believes, but that cannot be the view of those who insist there is no “self” to grip, or do the gripping. 

Inevitably the discipline has spawned the new science — or parascience — of neuroaesthetics. Art will yield its mysteries as every aspect of creation and perception is explained by activity in different areas of the brain, with no artistic consciousness or self-awareness involved, since the brain subsumes both. On the means by which beauty is perceived doubts have long existed, though not for Professor Semir Zeki of University College, London: “The artist in a sense is a neuroscientist, exploring the potential and capacities of the brain, though with different tools. How such creations can arouse aesthetic experiences can only be fully understood in neural terms. Such an understanding is now well within our reach.” 

Like Tallis, Marilynne Robinson warns against the reductionism all this can involve, the “stripping away” of culture and consciousness and the “crusade” to debunk religion. For me the word “stripping” has a particular resonance. For many years my wife has restored Old Masters, often struggling to repair damage wreaked by past scientistic theories of restoration, when “objectivity” was all, subjectivity a dirty word, and the past something to be adjusted to meet the demands of the present. Again the effect was simplifying and reductive (removal of complex glazes, flattening of perspective, louder colours, synthetic varnishes). God knows what new injuries restorers bursting with neuroaesthetic conceits could inflict on a Renaissance canvas. 

Ironically, a few decades ago it was the postmodernist fashion, laid down by Michel Foucault, Richard Rorty and others, to question the truth of science itself. Now neuroscience is said, sometimes by the same folk, to reveal the raw facts about humanity and its works. In literary criticism, forget the jargon of semiotics and prepare yourself to discover how axons and neurons help in the reading of a text. 

It is not the first time scientific concepts or discoveries have influenced literature. A century or so ago many writers were fascinated by the idea of entropy (the second law of thermodynamics) as a metaphor for the dissolution of energy and subsequent chaos. Mirror neurons, currently fashionable in the arts community, carry a perkier, optimistic message. The excitement comes from the notion that because mirror neurons are activated by seeing someone doing something and doing it ourselves, human empathy is built into the brain. “It is ethics made easy,”  says Tallis. That mirror neurons were first located in monkeys and have yet to be conclusively shown to work in humans, and that a mirror is not conscious of the image it hosts, have done nothing to still the excitement. 

As in contemporary art, critics of a certain age, aching to keep up, can be the first to hop aboard. A.S. Byatt is among those Tallis admonishes for being dazzled by neuro-lit crit. Mirror neurons, she has suggested, help explain the appeal of John Donne’s erotic poem “On His Mistress Going To Bed”. Here she is in a radio interview on the same theme:

If Shakespeare had met a mirror neuron he would have loved it…Because of the word mirror, partly because you can take that out of a quite other vocabulary: “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?” And you can put it together with little blobs of brain matter which are in most people’s idea formless, and you find form moving around in the brain and the eye and the mirror and — oh, he would have loved it!

A danger of neuroaesthetics will be the vaporous artspeak it can induce. This is not to say that mirror neurons or other discoveries cannot fire the artistic imagination or inspire a passing critical insight. But it is mirrors as a source of empathy that appeal to the social idealist or Utopian dreamer, which is why they make an appearance in the neuro-Arcadia evoked by the Cambridge neuroscientist Simon Baron-Cohen in his Zero Degrees of Empathy (Penguin, 2011). “Empathy circuits”, he claims to have established (others disagree), exist in the brain. Terms like “evil” should therefore be abolished in favour of degrees of positive or negative empathy, and cultivating positive empathy could solve many of our problems, including the Arab-Israel dispute. Once again the human animal is destined to graze peaceably on the sunny uplands, this time through the development of the brain’s intrinsic capacity for fellow feeling. 

Baron-Cohen must have been fortunate in his schooling. In the state sector empathy rather than facts, feeling as distinct from knowledge, have been at the core of educational theory for decades, with the results we have seen. When professors like him climb into the pulpit to preach a new science of feelings, a brave new godless world in which no one is responsible for  anything and all we need is to teach folk to be nicer to one another, it’s time to take cover. My own empathy with humanity recedes each time I am promised a new edition of the New Man.

Baron-Cohen’s Panglossian tone invites yet more scepticism: empathy is an under-utilised resource…Empathy is a universal solvent. Any problem immersed in empathy becomes soluble…I hope you have been persuaded that this resource is a better way to resolve problems than the alternative, such as guns, laws or religion.”

We ought not to smile, yet it is easy to imagine a film starring his cousin Sacha as a crazed scientist with a fetching grin. Essentially his is a sentimental vision, reminiscent of H.G. Wells’s childlike Eloi in The Time Machine, and for discriminating reviewers like Andrew Scull in the Times Literary Supplement the book is indeed “all a bit of scientific magic”. Yet quite a few critics rather liked it — why argue against empathy? — which suggests that the market for neuroscientific self-improvement is there. It won’t include Marilynne Robinson, who prefers to see us as something more than an “optimised ape”, albeit a feelie one.

The proliferation of pop neuroscience in the media has encouraged the belief that here is a cornucopia of panaceas in the making, and a fresh source of science-based omniscience is not without its attractions to political theorists — or worse still, politicians. The potential in economics hardly bears thinking about, but some have, like the neuro-economist George Loewenstein: 

Our emotions are like programmes that evolved to make important and recurring decisions in the distant past. They are not always well suited to the decisions we make in modern life. It’s important to know how our emotions lead us astray so that we can design incentives and programmes to help compensate for our irrational biases.

Correcting human irrationality, like the pursuit of empathy, is a worthy project. So why does it give rise to instinctive suspicions? Maybe because a century ago utopian theories could hold a spring-like promise, whereas today they carry a whiff of the grave. 

The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature by Steven Pinker (Penguin, 2002), another of my common reader texts, pleased me at first by its insistence that there is such a thing as human nature, and denial that our minds were virgin white. (“On a blank sheet of paper free from any mark, the freshest and most beautiful pictures can be painted,” Mao claimed, and guess who would wield the brush?) But then Pinker seems to me to have nudged his account of the evolution of the brain towards his own political and philosophical preferences. Some we might support, but that is not the issue. Bestseller though he is, he is one in an increasingly crowded field, and others are free to invent a different human trajectory leading to a different politics, and to call it science.

Bryan Appleyard’s book The Brain is Wider than the Sky: Why Simple Solutions Don’t Work in a Complex World (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2011) reminds us that there are sober folk in neuroscience who recognise the immaturity of their discipline, and while excited by its potential make no extravagant claims. Yet as the title suggests it is also about the dangers of reductionism, and the assault on the self. His most telling demonstration comes when he subjects himself to a scan, in the course of which he recalls his father’s early death. His account of his own incarceration inside the fMRI machine, a physically stressful business during which he volunteered to recall painful memories, seems to me a vivid metaphor for its potential as a punitive form of parascience, as well as a means to enlighten humanity and promote cures for terrible diseases. At its worst it begins to feel as if the ultimate purpose of the giant machine were to crush the self out of us. The scientists Appleyard dealt with were people of great ability, integrity and considerateness, yet we feel that, in other hands, the potential for some new form of Inquisition is there.

The results of his scan, he suggests, show “a science in its infancy”:

So what were these blotches and streaks on the pictures of my brain? Were they the cause of consciousness or its effect? Or did they just indicate that something was happening in the brain without giving any clear indication of what? Either one day science will answer these questions or they are unanswerable, and the one thing the self-conscious mind cannot know is itself.

His neuroscientist agrees on the infancy of his discipline, while Colin Blakemore, a highly distinguished professor of neuroscience I recall meeting as a minister, tells him that its equipment is still at the stage of the telescope used by Galileo. And that is the point. If important figures in the field make the claims they do in its early years, what bulldozing of the human spirit will they attempt when it is more advanced? As for whether or not science will provide answers, for an entire generation of scientists, led in Britain by Richard Dawkins, that is no longer the question. For them the unanswerable does not exist, or has long been answered, and their public appears to be growing. 

On one level it is pointless to complain. The explorations of science and prudent implementation of the results are one way we advance. Or regress, when the science turns out to be phony. In the West free debate can put a brake on Faustian ambition, though it cannot entirely thwart it. A democratic, science-based consensus can sometimes be damaging too: it is enough to examine the role of the cognitive sciences in British education. As Appleyard suggests, good science should make us cautious, if only because it tends to throw up ever more complexity.

The part of the brain that is the seat of arrogance, I imagine, is the amygdala (the source of aggressivity). That for scepticism and doubt is presumably the frontal lobe, alongside self-control, conscience and so on. When we reach the stage of neuro-engineering can anything be done to diminish the first and reinforce the second?