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.

Rose is a neuroscientist, whose primary field of research is the physical basis of memory. The son of a Jewish political activist in London’s East End, he met his wife, Hilary Rose, the feminist sociologist, at a New Left Review meeting in 1960. Recent newspaper headlines have been generated by the Association of University Teachers’ brief academic boycott of two Israeli universities, initiated by the Roses (amongst others) in protest against their co-operation with the Occupation—but overturned after a proctracted and heated debate. Often collaborating with Hilary Rose, he has edited many compilations of essays, including Against Biological Determinism and Not In Our Genes in the 1980s, and Alas Poor Darwin and The New Brain Sciences early this century. He first offered his own summary of the stage that the brain sciences had reached in 1976, with The Conscious Brain, and in the 1990s The Making of Memory and Lifelines fleshed out his account of memory and proposed an evolutionary alternative to biological determinism. The driving force of his later intellectual career has been opposition to neo-Darwinism in all its forms, from biological determinism and sociobiology to evolutionary psychology. The 21st Century Brain, in an echo of The Conscious Brain, is his account of the whole discipline of neuroscience; it also extends his critique of evolutionary psychology to research into brain chemistry and its pharmaceutical applications.

The initial success of evolutionary psychology needs little in the way of explanation: it provided dynamic, publicity-friendly figureheads, based at the world’s leading research institutions; an elegant explanatory simplicity, reaching across disciplines; and, perhaps vitally, an apparent fit with the prevailing political and economic dogma of neoliberalism. Prominent opposition no doubt raised its profile: Richard Dawkins’ exchanges with Stephen Jay Gould in the New York Review of Books, and his public debates on religion; Jerry Fodor’s arguments with Stephen Pinker in the London Review of Books; and the cross-disciplinary critique partly orchestrated by the Roses in a number of books and articles. For a period in the 1990s, broadsheets and magazines fed the Western public with a constant diet of social explanations and political policy recommendations, apparently scientifically grounded in the study of human evolution during the Pleistocene Era.

The heyday of evolutionary psychology, like that of its predecessor sociobiology, is surely over. As Hilary Rose argued in Alas Poor Darwin, a theory that purports to explain everything explains nothing: human society and culture cannot be reduced to the struggle for reproductive success. The set of mutually affirming assumptions that lay at its core—combining a simplified version of evolutionary adaptation with an account of tribal life on the African savannah, and notes on the modular nature of the human mind—became too amorphous to serve much further political or journalistic purpose. Reactionary elements could cite The Bell Curve and The Natural History of Rape to justify old prejudices, whilst the Left searched for evidence of adaptive forms of co-operative or altruistic behaviour, and Peter Singer talked of a ‘Darwinian Left’. On the academic front, the publication of Gould’s Structure of Evolutionary Theory—a systematic account of his life’s work—did much to put Dawkins’ neo-Darwinism in its proper context. The sustained critique of Pinker and Daniel Dennett, notably by the Roses and Fodor, cast further doubts on Pinker’s model of The Way the Mind Works.

On the surface, it seems as though the zeitgeist moved from consensus about the supposed fixity of human nature to great excitement about its plasticity: advances in contemporary knowledge of dna, biochemistry and neuroscience now herald a future in which it will be possible to mend, manipulate and improve the mind. Part of the intent of The 21st Century Brain is to show some of the continuities underlying this apparent shift. The new scientific ingenuity, according to many pundits, will allow society to help the maladapted and—either collectively or selectively—leapfrog the gradual process of evolutionary change. The completion of the Human Genome Project and further discoveries regarding the brain’s structure and chemistry offer fertile new terrain. As Rose documents, many drugs have been ‘repurposed’ in the service of prevailing models of how the mind works, to allow new brands to be prescribed for increasingly widely diagnosed conditions. Psychotropic drugs for children are amongst the most common, with one in ten us schoolchildren taking Ritalin. No society has fed so large a proportion of its minors with mind-altering substances. Rose’s criticism of the use and abuse of these drugs follows from his analysis of the models of the mind upon which such diagnoses and prescriptions rest. The similarities between these accounts and their predecessors in evolutionary psychology also resonate in a larger, common field: life as a competitive struggle, for economic or reproductive success, with genetic and chemical manipulation as a new set of tools for social stratification. As an alternative, Rose’s book proposes a developmental and dynamic basis for neuroscientific research. This less reductionist approach—were it to become the basis of public consultation, and regulation of the industry—would entail greater caution in diagnosis and prescription. Rose also argues that his less determinist account of the mind provides more room for human agency: the plasticity of human society follows from that of the mind.

The 21st Century Brain devotes the first four of its twelve chapters to the evolution and development of the human brain, with three subsequent chapters on human nature and the mind. The final third of the book explores the pharmaceutical applications of, and future possibilities for, neuroscience as a whole. In explicit contrast with the tradition of evolutionary psychology, Rose’s evolutionary account is framed as developmental systems theory, or autopoesis: ‘organisms are not merely the passive products of selection; in a very real sense they create their own environments’. This marks it out from theories such as that offered by Richard Dawkins in the Selfish Gene. The gene, in Rose’s view, is not the key unit for natural selection; along with Gould, he argues that it is the organism as a whole. The environment in which genes operate is maintained by the organism as it develops, and natural selection will also favour co-operation within and between organisms. Rose stresses the interactions of hormones within the whole body to caution against a command-and-control model that overly prioritizes the brain or identifies cognition as the height of human evolutionary ‘achievement’. He argues that the dichotomies of nature versus nurture, or genes and environment, are myths: the developing foetus ‘is always both 100% a product of its dna and 100% a product of the environment of that dna’. The challenge, for a developmental account of the brain, is to explain both its seeming invariance within a fluctuating environment—its ‘specificity’—and the variations that it can develop as adaptations to environmental contingencies: its ‘plasticity’.

The central claim of evolutionary psychology is that the major universal human traits (or differences from other evolved species) originated in an ‘environment of evolutionary adaptation’ during the Pleistocene, between 600,000 and 100,000 years ago. In one version, climatic variations in Africa posed serious survival problems, leading to the selection of the mental skills required to withstand them. Steven Pinker argues that the ‘architecture’ of our minds is a selective adaptation to achieve optimal replication of the genes of individual humans and close relatives. His model is not tied, however, to actual biological structures at either the level of the brain—conceptual modules do not correspond to specific cerebral regions—or that of the gene. Evolutionary psychology can distinguish its position from behavioural genetics, or from genetic determinism, by maintaining that there is not a one-to-one match between gene sequences and evolved behaviours. Rather, the claim is that genetic mechanisms, ultimately encoded in the genotype, create minds whose architecture will, ‘on average’, lead to certain behaviour patterns. The evolution of altruistic traits can be explained by either ‘kin selection’ of similar genes, or ‘reciprocal altruism’: a tit-for-tat strategy derived from economic game theory. This ostensibly materialist framework, as Rose notes, deals at one level with speculative accounts of hunter-gatherer lifestyle, and at another with functional accounts of the mind that have been ‘reverse engineered’ from questionable statistical studies of current human traits.