Skip to main content

Brain research and the social self in a technological culture


The paper does not claim to be a novel contribution to any field. It simply opposes claims by philosophers of consciousness—I take Daniel Dennett as an example (though no more than that) that non-conscious robot-like neurons (Dennett’s phrase) can, taken together, add up to an explanation of (even the illusion of) consciousness. To this I oppose G. H. Mead’s so-called social behaviorism. My argument, such as it is, proceeds in well-defined stages: 1. I first introduce the history of anti-reductionism among philosophers, including those of the analytical persuasion, especially among North American philosophers; 2. the “new archaeology” of hominid prehistory is then introduced to show how some eminent archeologists oppose the reductionist view that large brains—deduced from finds of larger and larger skulls—constitute the best explanation we have for the advent of Homo sapiens; 3. the heart of my paper is then a reference to—not a proper summary of—Terence Deacon’s masterful book, The Symbolic Species: The Co-Evolution of Language and the Brain—where the idea of co-evolution of human communication and brain development (along with other physiological traits such as a proper voice box) is put forward as a better—as co-evolutionary—explanation of human symbolic behavior than the standard ones (including Dennett’s); 4. I then make equally brief summaries of confirming evidence of such co-evolution; 5. this is followed by similar summaries of the alleged science of historical linguistics—none of it explaining the beginning, but only the development of human languages in non-reductionist terms; 6. I then introduce Berger and Luckmann’s Social Construction of Reality to make a central claim: that even reductionist science—whether genetic reductionism or brain-studies-based reductionism—is and must be socially constructed; and 7. I conclude with a preference for a Meadian (similar to a Deweyan) social responsibility activism. One note relative to item number 1: I make no claim here to discuss Merleau-Ponty or any other well-known anti-reductionist; this is in answer to one referee of the paper.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


  • Berger PL, Luckmann T (1966) The social construction of reality: a treatise in the sociology of knowledge. Doubleday, New York

    Google Scholar 

  • Cavalli-Sforza LL (2000) Genes, peoples, and languages. North Point

  • Cochran G, Harpending H (2009) The 10,000 year explosion: how civilization accelerated human evolution. Basic books, New York

    Google Scholar 

  • Da Silva Carreira F (2011) G. H. Mead: a reader. Polity Press, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

  • Deacon TW (1997) The symbolic species: the co-evolution of language and the brain. Norton, New York

    Google Scholar 

  • Dennett D (1993) Consciousness explained. Back Bay Books

  • Deutscher G (2005) The unfolding of language. Henry Holt, New York

    MATH  Google Scholar 

  • Dunbar R, Gamble C, Gowlett J (2014) Thinking big: how the evolution of social life shaped the human mind. Thames and Hudson, London

    Google Scholar 

  • Fagan B (2012) Beyond the blue horizon: how the earliest mariners unlocked the secrets of the oceans. Bloomsbury, London

    Google Scholar 

  • Gamble C (2007) Origins and revolutions: human identity in earliest prehistory. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Marcus G, Freeman J (2015) Essays by the world’s leading neuroscientists. Princeton University Press, New Jersey

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • McWhorter J (2001) The power of Babel: a natural history of language. University of Chicago Press, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

  • Mead GH (1932) The philosophy of the present. Open Court, Chicago

    Google Scholar 

  • Mead GH (1964) Scientific method and the individual thinker. In: Reck A (ed) Selected writings. University of Chicago Press, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

  • Nagel E (1961) The structure of science: problems in the logic of scientific explanation. Routledge and Kegan Paul, London

    Google Scholar 

  • Nagel T (2012) Mind and cosmos: why the materialist Neo-Darwinian conception of nature is almost certainly false. Oxford University Press, Oxford

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Ostler N (2005) Empires of the word: a language history of the world. Harper Collins, New york

    Google Scholar 

  • Schneider S (2007) Daniel Dennett on the nature of consciousness. In: Max V, Susan S (eds) The Blackwell companion to consciousness. Blackwell, New Jersey

    Google Scholar 

  • Schroedinger E (1944) What is life? Macmillan

  • Wade N (2006) Before the dawn: recovering the lost history of our ancestors. Penguin, London

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Paul T. Durbin.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Durbin, P.T. Brain research and the social self in a technological culture. AI & Soc 32, 253–260 (2017).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:


  • Brain research
  • Mead
  • Social self
  • Technology
  • Culture