Is our behaviour determined by our evolution?
Sunday 2 November, 12.45pm until 1.45pm, Seminar Space Lunchtime Debates

Evolutionary explanations of human behaviour are increasingly popular today, challenging long-cherished notions of free will and subjectivity. Even religious faith is said to have its basis in the evolution of the brain: earlier this year researchers at Oxford University began a two million pound study into the evolutionary basis for belief in God. Other studies have claimed to find a genetic basis for political beliefs and behaviour – apparently liberals can be picked out by the activity of their anterior cingulate cortex, and voter turnout is correlated to particular alleles of the gene MAOA.

Critics argue that such thinking wrongly belittles the importance of human agency. Indeed, 30 years ago works like EO Wilson’s Sociobiology, which suggested a biological basis for social behaviour, were greeted with anger, derision, and accusations of closet fascism. Is the renewed interest in the evolutionary, genetic and psychological basis of human behaviour inspired by new evidence, or a diminished view of the human condition? Are social and cultural phenomena beyond the proper scope of natural science, or have we just become less hysterical about turning the microscope on ourselves?

Professor Raymond Tallis
fellow, Academy of Medical Sciences; author, philosopher, critic and poet; recent books include NHS SOS and Aping Mankind; chair, Healthcare Professionals for Assisted Dying
Professor Dominic Johnson
lecturer in International Relations, University of Edinburgh; author Failing to Win: Perceptions of Victory and Defeat in International Politics
Dr Jesse Bering
director, Institute of Cognition and Culture, Queen's University Belfast; lead investigator for the European Commission project Explaining Religion.
Mark Henderson
head of communications, Wellcome Trust; author, The Geek Manifesto: why science matters
Robin Walsh
graduate medical student; co-founder, Sheffield Salon

 Produced by
Robin Walsh graduate medical student; co-founder, Sheffield Salon

 Battles in Print
The dubious science of evolutionary psychology, Carl Ratner

 Recommended readings
Why did you choose your mate? No, it's not all in your genes

Darwin’s theory is being stretched to absurdity by those who overlook the obvious differences between Man and animals

Raymond Tallis, The Times, 29 October 2008

Why men like porn

Evolutionary psychologists can explain all kinds of behaviours by delving into our past, even why we prefer older, taller and leaner women during a crisis

Mark Henderson, The TImes, 25 October 2008

Why blame me? It was all my brain’s fault

The legal profession in America is taking an increasing interest in neuroscience. There is a flourishing academic discipline of “neurolaw” and neurolawyers are penetrating the legal system.

Raymond Tallis, The Times, 24 October 2007

Hand of God, mind of man: punishment and cognition in the evolution of cooperation

The evolution of human cooperation remains a puzzle because cooperation persists even in conditions that rule out mainstream explanations.

Dominic Johnson & Jesse Bering, Evolutionary Psychology, 21 March 2006

The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature

"Reading Pinker is one of the biggest favours I've ever done my brain" Richard Dawkins.

Steven Pinker, Penguin Books Ltd, 5 June 2003

Man, Beast and Zombie: What Science Can and Cannot Tell Us About Human Nature

Are humans unique? Can animals think as we do? Will machines ever be conscious? What is free will?

Kenan Malik, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 12 October 2000

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