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The reader could be excused if they thought from the title of Le Fanu's book that he has new scientific information which throws light on our existence: why we are here and if our story has a plot. But, alas, no. Le Fanu's point is that science has set out to explain human life and its origins but has in fact failed in that quest and has succeeded only in emphasizing that life is indeed a mystery and we a mystery to ourselves. This, in turn, leaves us free to wonder at the astounding marvels of creation and, above all, at what a piece of work we humans are.
From the end of the Second World War to the start of the new millennium, with one discovery after another, it looked like science, as a discipline would sweep all before it. With the human genome project, it seemed we had reached the final frontier and we would unlock the crucial chromosomes that make us truly human and show why we differ from our primate cousins. On top of this scientists had also developed the technology to peer inside the human brain and record its activity. The mystery of the human mind, too, would be laid bare.
"Both the Human Genome Project and the Decade of the Brain (1991-2001) have transformed beyond measure , our understanding of ourselves -- but in a way quite contrary to that anticipated", says Le Fanu. (p14)
What the Human Genome Project discovered, among other things, was "the human genome is virtually interchangeable with that of our fellow vertebrates such as the mouse and the chimpanzee -- to the tune of 98% or more. There is nothing to account for those very special attributes that so readily distinguish us from our primate cousins -- our upright stance, our powers of reason and imagination, and the faculty of language". (p15) Le Fanu says these findings were not just unexpected: they undermine the central premise of biology that the near-infinite diversity of form and attribute that so definitively distinguish living things one from the other must 'lie in the genes'. (p16)
And, with the Decade of the Brain, we are no nearer finding out how the electric firing of the brain's billions of nerves translate into our perception of the sights and sounds of the world around us, our thoughts and emotions and the rich inner landscape of personal memories. All that it has succeeded in doing, according to Le Fanu, is demonstrate how infinitely complex the human brain actually is.
Le Fanu initially chose to concentrate on the The Double Helix and the human brain because they represent the two forces that impose order on the world. The Double Helix imposes "the order of form on living things and the human brain and its mind imposing the order of understanding. (p71) Moreover, like Newton's theory of gravity, these two explanations are non-materialist and fail the test of scientific knowability which holds that everything must be explicable in terms of material properties alone. According to Le Fanu it is biological science in general that has misled us into believing it can explain human life and its mysteries and Darwin in particular who offered an apparently all-encompassing and exclusive materialist explanation for the phenomena of life.
These are the two central planks Le Fanu wishes to establish upfront, because he thinks that they are crucial and have been overlooked in the general euphoria surrounding both projects. Having done this to his satisfaction, he goes on to make further objections to scientific materialism in the form of Darwinism which are more familiar, as they are still the matter of some contention.
For instance, he cannot see how evolution is a gradual process as Darwin and many of his latter day followers maintain, when the slow development of our enlarged brain and upright stance would put humans at a serious disadvantage in the survival stakes.
The 'puzzle of perfection' -- where something, for example, the eye has to have all it parts fit for purpose all at once or not at all -- and the failure of the fossil record to record the continuity of life -- again cast doubt on this part of Darwin's theory.
His aim is to demonstrate that what passes for established fact in Darwinism is still at the stage of hypothesis.
He is especially critical of the New Synthesis of Darwinism and Mendelism, with genetic mutation as a vehicle for natural selection and gradual change. He characterizes The Descent of Man as The Fall of Man, saying with the New Synthesis he is "no more than the plaything of his genes" and goes on to say that "the source of all this mischief lies in the necessity to portray man not as he is but as he has to be in order to incorporate him into an evolutionary theory that requires him to be different 'only in degree not in kind' from his primate cousins. We need, in short, a fuller, more rounded view that acknowledges the core reality of the human experience which sets us apart -- the sense of the autonomous, independent 'self' ...". (p175)
Although, it is, at times, hard to follow the thread of his argument, his final goal is to promote a Cartesian separation of reality into material and non-material realms, with the contention that humans uniquely inhabit both. And this he says can be established from the findings of the latest brain research. He shows how scientists between 1861 and 1950 mapped out all the significant areas of the brain and from then to 1980, conceived of the brain as an information processing machine at the time when computers where dominating the conceptual landscape. But from 1980 onwards the development of the PET scanner changed all that.
The PET scanner found with regard to the act of seeing, for instance, that "at every stage the information received and interpreted by the retina and transmitted down the highways of the optic nerves to the visual cortex is less than sufficient to capture the world 'out there'. " (p205) This must mean that the brain somehow actively constructs a visual image.
But we have no idea how the brain first deconstructs and then reconstructs the electrical patterns of activity generated by the miniscule forces of energy impacting on our senses: no idea how they are integrated together into a clear, coherent, instantaneous sense of being in the world and no idea of the physical basis in the brain of every simple fleeting moment of our life.
He says that the imaging studies illuminated the most significant attribute of the human mind namely 'the freedom to choose', otherwise known as 'the problem of mental causation'. The simple act of paying attention shows different area of the brain lighting up on the PET scanner according to what is being attended to -- sights, sounds, smells -- and the electrical activity of adjacent areas are turned down. But just thinking about one's thoughts can alter the neuronal circuits of the brain as happens in cognitive therapy where negative beliefs can be replaced by positive ones, with a resulting change in behavior. So our non-material thoughts can have physical effects. Therefore, argues Le Fanu, we are free to choose and with choice comes personal, moral responsibility.
Le Fanu goes on to outline the five cardinal mysteries of the mind which he says "the (unanticipated) legacy of the Decade of the Brain has brought to our attention...that taken together offer the profoundest insights into our understanding of ourselves." (p225) The mysteries are subjective awareness, free will, memory, reason and imagination, and self, which he says are the properties contained by the traditional notion of the soul. "And that soul, freed of its theological connotations, is no mere construction of the human imagination, but rather a resilient entity that changes over time yet remains the same..." (p227)
Whilst Le Fanu's arguments are well-constructed, they are colored by the particular school of thought in the ascendancy for the last fifty years that has come to redefine Darwinism in an exclusively reductionist way. He calls for a new paradigm but unfortunately because of its subjective and individualistic approach his paradigm would be just as lopsided.
But Darwin's theory is not a single entity but a heterogeneous collection of ideas. In fact, as it is today, Darwinism has turned into a broad scientific movement embracing a variety of interpretations, because from its peculiar blend of fact and hypothesis, it can absorb new findings, and still maintain its general thrust.
A candidate for such integration is the idea of symbiosis, touched on by Le Fanu, but not pursued, and now being considered seriously by biologists. With its emphasis on mutual advantage and cooperation, it could explain the sudden emergence of new species in the fossil record. It might also account for our socially contrived progress as a species and that greatest of all collaborative endeavors, the social construction of the human mind.
But as we debate these issues in our little corner of the cosmos, the larger Darwinian question remains unaddressed: Is homo sapiens wise enough to survive as a species?
© 2009 Chris Vaughan
Chris Vaughan writes about himself: I live in Birmingham, England. I am now retired after a career in the pharma industry and am very much involved in community activities. I am a board member of the Birmingham Environmental Partnership and chair a local patient network. I have written a book on the British Health Service and I currently write for a health website. I am very interested in the mind-body conundrum.