Tallis - The Sighted Watchmaker: Preliminary Thoughts on How We Got to be so Different


Additional Information

Category Lecture
Speakers Tallis, Raymond
Year 2015

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Many thinkers argue that human beings are essentially animals and that human uniqueness is a matter of degree rather than kind. To do so is to overlook what would be evident to an unprejudiced gaze: the wall-to-wall differences between human lives and those of even our nearest primate kin. The motivation for minimising the gap between human persons and animal organisms is a misplaced anxiety that to acknowledge its width would be contrary to Darwinian thought.

This is to conflate a true Darwinism, that accounts for the emergence of the organism H. sapiens in evolutionary terms, with a false 'Darwinitis' which holds, specifically, that natural selection is the key to understanding human persons and, more generally, that human beings are best understood in biological terms. Critics of Darwinitis need, however, to meet a particular challenge: that of explaining how humans came to be so different; more specifically of presenting a plausible account of the biological means by which humans came to transcend their biology.

I will focus on the status of humans as conscious agents and examine the possible role of the hand, of the upright position, and of the hegemony of sight among the senses, in transforming the primate organism into an embodied subject. While I will not claim that this provides anything like an adequate story of how we humans came to be so different it supports my claim that acknowledging the profound gap between ourselves and our primate ancestors does not conflict with Darwinian thought. One can be a good Darwinian without succumbing to Darwinitis.

RAYMOND TALLIS is a philosopher, poet, novelist and cultural critic, and a retired physician and clinical neuroscientist. He trained in medicine at Oxford University and at St Thomas' in London before going on to become Professor of Geriatric Medicine at the University of Manchester and a consultant physician. He was an editor and major contributor to two key textbooks, The Clinical Neurology of Old Age and Textbook of Geriatric Medicine and Gerontology. In 2000, he was elected Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences in recognition of his contribution to medical research. Among many prizes, he has been awarded the Lord Cohen Gold Medal for Research into Ageing. He played a key part in developing guidelines for the care of stroke patients in the UK. From 2011- 14 he was Chair, Healthcare Professionals for Assisted Dying (HPAD). Tallis retired from medicine in 2006 to become a full‐time writer. He has published extensively outside of medicine, including fiction, poetry, and over 20 books on the philosophy of mind, philosophical anthropology, literary and cultural criticism. In 2009, the Economist Intelligent Life Magazine listed him as one of the world’s leading polymaths. His most recent publication is The Black Mirror. Fragments of an Obituary for Life (Atlantic Books and Yale University Press, 2015). He has the honorary degrees of DLitt (Hull), LittD (Manchester) and DSc (London).