t h e h u m a n f a c t o r natural selection contains nothing that can satisfy the hunger for meaning. Yet once again, evolution has become a secular religion. ‘By any conceivable standard,’ Wilson intones, ‘humanity is far and away life’s greatest achievement. We are the mind of the biosphere, the solar system, and – who can say? – perhaps the galaxy.’ It is a declaration reminiscent of Teilhard de Chardin’s proclamation of the Omega Point, the end-state of maximum complexity and consciousness to which the Jesuit thinker believed the cosmos was evolving. However, unlike Wilson, the Harvard founder of sociobiology, the renegade man of the cloth understood that he was promoting not science but a heterodox brand of mysticism.
When people look to religion for the meaning of life, they eventually find mystery. When they look to science for meaning they end up in mere incoherence. Memes – the conceptual units that in some popular accounts drive what is described as cultural evolution – are no more actually existing things than was phlogiston. But there are surely tropes that recurrently distort thinking, and the notion that evolution can be our guide in ethics and politics is one of them. Spanning the emergence of social cooperation in insects (where Wilson draws on his vast expertise as an entomologist), through to the development of human codes of honour, The Social Conquest of Earth is one of the supreme examples of evolutionist writing. In chapters on tribalism as a basic human trait and what he calls ‘war as humanity’s hereditary curse’, Wilson confronts the most intractable human evils. He does so in beautifully clear and graceful prose. But the historically complex varieties of human conflict and belonging are not greatly illuminated by his fascinating account of insect development, any more than the tragic collisions of duties and values in ethics can be clarified by talk of multilevel selection. The lucidity of Wilson’s writing masks a fundamental confusion in thinking.
A good first step toward the liberation of humanity from the oppressive forms of tribalism would be to repudiate, respectfully, the claims of those in power who say they speak for God, are a special representative of God, or have exclusive knowledge of God’s divine will.
Scepticism towards religious authorities may be a useful turn of mind. But what of those who speak for humanity, who represent themselves as the special representatives of the species and claim the authority of science for their pronouncements regarding the human good? Wilson wants to emancipate humanity from irrational belief, which for him means anything that cannot be justified in scientific terms. Science and religion, he tells us repeatedly, are irreconcilably at odds. He has not noticed that his belief that science can deliver the world from unreason is equally at odds with his account of humans as deluded, tribal, war-mongering animals. Wilson looks forward hopefully to a possible future in which the species lives sustainably on the planet. To his credit, Wilson acknowledges that this prospect has little basis in reason: ‘I will confess my own blind faith. Earth, by the twenty-second century, can be turned, if we so wish, into a permanent paradise for human beings, or at least the strong beginnings of one.’ But like so many others in the murmuring congregations of evolutionists, he seems not to realise that he is basing his hopes on a transmutation in human nature that in strictly scientific terms can only be described as a miracle. To order this book for £15.19, see the Literary Review bookshop on page 38
a dam z eman
Only Connect onnectome: How the Brain’s Wiring Makes Us Who We Are
By Sebastian Seung (Allen Lane/The Penguin Press 359pp £20)
Forest, jungle, labyrinth, maze – the human brain attracts dizzying analogies, and with good reason: our brains contain around one hundred thousand million nerve cells (neurons), linked by ‘millions of miles of gossamer neurites’ permitting around one thousand million million interconnections (synapses), the points at which cells exchange information with one another. It has long been thought that these interconnections provide a key to human nature: while the broad pattern of connections between brain regions is similar in every healthy human brain, their details – their number, size and strength – are thought to underpin our individuality, as synapses are ‘plastic’, shaped by experience. This shaping process obeys the ‘Hebbian rule’, named after the influential Canadian psychologist Donald Hebb, which dictates that ‘cells that fire together wire together’. It is the consistent coactivation of brain cells representing your kitchen or your beloved, for example, and the resulting synaptic changes in your brain, that allow you to summon them up in your mind’s eye without, I would imagine, too much trouble. The sum total of the connections within your brain, your ‘wiring diagram’, constitutes your ‘connectome’. In Sebastian Seung’s view, argued provocatively here, ‘you are your connectome’.
His book is an engaging introduction to the study of the human wiring diagram. This project has been given fresh impetus by some recent techniques facilitating the tracing of neuronal interconnections. These range from methods working at very fine scales, examining individual synapses in slices of brain under huge magnifications, to an imaging technique – diffusion tensor imaging – that makes it possible to visualise the major pathways of interconnection in the living human brain. My favourite chapter in Connectome – ‘Seeing Is Believing’ – underlines the key role of such technical advances in fathoming the structure of the brain, and highlights the delicious problem they pose to computational neuroscientists such as Seung: the generation of colossal quantities of data that must somehow be stored, analysed and integrated. He believes the future of his subject lies in ‘automatic image analysis’ and writes interestingly about the reasons why this has proved so much harder to
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