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Natural selection and a mistaken view of neuroscience - a frustrated rant!

brainI am utterly frustrated by those who either suggest directly, or imply that the self is nothing other than neural activity.  My frustration comes from the fact that such views go against the most fundamental features of natural selection and almost suggest (although those propounding them would be horrified to hear it) some sort of deus ex machina who, for reasons best known to himself, chose to increase the capacity of the human brain.

Communication and social interaction, with the development of signs and of language, provided – and continue to provide – the context in which natural selection favours the development of mental capacity.  It is because those better able to communicate and identify one another, make decisions about social action and so on, were able to survive in a competitive world, that the brain capacity which favoured such sophistication was increased. 

To suggest otherwise requires belief in some external force that appears to have determined that hominids should have larger and larger brains. Sorry, but – if natural selection is a valid way of looking at evolution – it just doesn’t work that way.  Change requires context and competition, and in terms of the development of those aspects of the brain that control thought and language, that context is personal and social.  It is because we flourish as individuals and as a species if we think and communicate, that brains develop over time.

It is, of course, an iterative process. Brain size enables more sophisticated communication, and the success of that communication enables brains to increase – gradually, of course, over many generations.  But, if any additional evidence for this is needed, we need only reflect on the way in which neuroscience has shown how parts of the brain enlarge to accommodate particular stimulus and experience.  The brain is plastic, not fixed; it grows and will change over evolutionary time.  But it does so as a response, not as a cause.

Hence, to say that you are ‘nothing but’ neural activity – as though the whole personal and social fabric of life were but some epiphenomenon of the firing of neurons – is sheer nonsense. What happens in the brain is, obviously, intimately and necessarily linked to each and every personal and social action and trait; just as muscular and skeletal activity is linked to every movement of the body. But that absolutely does NOT imply that the brain is the prior or only reality, and all else but a popular or conventional way of describing brain activity; quite the opposite.  What happens in the brain mirrors and continues to make possible what happens to us as persons and as social agents.

This popular and ‘reductive’ misconception of neuroscience is not just a matter of putting the cart before the horse, its having a cart with no horse at all – and that is a recipe for going nowhere, and for having no explanation for how the cart arrived in its present position!  Let Darwin come to the rescue of commonsense on this one!