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New Left Review 33, May-June 2005

Jacob Stevens on Steven Rose, The 21st-Century Brain. Complexity and plasticity of synaptic interaction, in a materialist challenge to neo-Darwinist models. Is it possible to account for the evolutionary heritage of the brain without compromising the autonomy of the social?



At the frontiers of science and social theory, arguments about the nature of the human mind are a persistent territorial flashpoint. The struggle to construct a viable materialist account of the mind is reworked for each age: Hume’s empiricist opposition to Berkeley’s idealism, Nietszche’s genealogy against Kant’s noumenal soul, Marx turning Hegel on his head. The twentieth century saw the rise of psychoanalytic theory and existentialism, both competing and combining with advances in the physical sciences. Over the last few decades, the image of the brain as an information-processing computer has given way to swirling strands of dna, vast neural nets and the biochemical dance of hormones, neurotransmitters and receptors. Ever-louder claims to have uncovered the physical basis for fundamental human drives have commanded widespread media attention: an evolutionary story, passed down from Mendel and Darwin to Dawkins and Pinker, offers one popular version of the new materialist account of mind. There may well be ‘a grandeur in this view of life’—human beings as the honed result of aeons of the survival of the fittest—but how can it explain the development of an organ as powerful as the brain, capable of feats that far exceed dodging predators, hunting food and finding a mate? Steven Rose adapts Emily Dickinson, ‘the mind—is wider than the brain’, and cites Augustine’s Confessions, ‘in it are the sky, the earth and the sea . . . It is awe-inspiring in its profound and incalculable mystery’, to give his sense of the scale of the problem.

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Jacob Stevens, ‘Somatic Mind’, NLR 33: £3

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