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Neuroscience re-examined

Caring involves a lot of waiting. Silver lining: it affords time to read. When a copy of Robert Newman’s Neuropolis fell into my lap, I was pleased. I fell under Newman’s spell in 2015 when his Entirely Accurate Encyclopaedia of Evolution was aired on Radio 4. I bought the book and sent Newman a fan email. I had no idea he was famous. I’d missed last century’s Newman and Baddiel arena-comedy incarnation (I was living abroad, OK?). Never mind. Maybe this one’s better?

Reading the book –a quirky, unconventional polemic against a certain strand of pop-neuroscience Newman calls bro-science– I was so enamoured of what he wrote that I resolved to, to, dammit, to meet him. There is a small element of the stalker in every fan, I think.

So another fan-mail was composed and dispatched.  This one did not hold back, it was long and ended with the request –erm, offer, I mean– to interview him. (Natty trick, eh?) I had armed myself with the agreement of an author-interview website that if I had a Newman interview, they would publish it.  On that site, Newman would be in the company of literary luminaries including Salman Rushdie, Iain Banks, Toby Litt, Martin Amis, Chris Fowler, Gore Vidal, John Mortimer and many others.

I don’t know what swung it – my beautiful blue emails, or the chance to be featured on the luminaries’ website? Because he agreed! I was thrilled, and started to prepare.

I needed to hone my questions: The science you decry – it seems really far-fetched. Authors saying things such as smiling evolved from snarling (Swaab); that the world is an odourless, soundless, colourless place (Eagleman); that in the scheme of things “The human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet” (that’s Stephen Hawking, apparently); and that in due course our consciousness will be up-loadable onto a computer, as Brian Cox (that’s Professor Brian Cox) said in a newspaper interview: “There is nothing special about human brains. With a sufficiently complex computer, I don’t see why you shouldn’t build AI.” Is Newman just choosing some extreme outliers to have a go at, or are these mainstream views he is attacking?  Besides, does Newman’s own political agenda negate his refutations as much as these scientists’ macho nihilism negates their pronouncements?

Off I took myself at the appointed time and got my interview with Newman! He has his own very particular way of expressing himself, but it rewards the careful listener – he got his answers across. The bro-science he is targeting is the popular philosophy du jour. We are not machines, we’re animals who are first and foremost emotional beings – no machine has ever been that. And there is no such thing as agenda-free human endeavour. Where “values” end and “facts” begin is blurred.

The interview went up online and is proving very popular. I’m overjoyed.

Then, last week, The Brain was rebroadcast on the BBC, and there was Eagleman propounding the idea of the odourless, colourless world – I watched the rest of the programme avidly. And I came to slow the conclusion that the notion was merely a provocative thought experiment. Nowhere did Eagleman actually suggest he believed the world was colourless! I was thrown into doubt.  Was my hero traducing his sources?

I’m still awaiting Newman’s reply, but I recall his point that not even the authors themselves really believe the pessimistic denigration they spout. It’s a willy-waving pose they adopt to be fashionable. And it’s that deeply unscientific fashion that is such a malign influence on public conversation.

Poppy’s interview with Robert Newman is available here: http://thebookspodcast.com/

Look for Neuropolis on http://www.thebookbag.co.uk for her review of the book

AM Poppy
About AM Poppy (9 Articles)
Formerly avid environmental and social justice campaigner in Barnet, Poppy is now ready to settle down. She is working towards becoming an English teacher. Twitter: @PoppyinFinchley; poppy@ampoppy.co.uk