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Jeremy Taylor

Jeremy Taylor
Jeremy Taylor is a science documentary television producer and director who has recently turned to writing science books. Many of his films, in a career in television spanning nearly thirty years, including many for BBC TV’s science flagship series “Horizon”, deal with biology and evolution and go to the heart of what it is that makes us human. These include “Nice Guys Finish First” which explored, with Richard Dawkins, how altruism can arise in a “selfish gene” world; “Playing With Madness” which suggested that bipolar illness and schizophrenia are the side-products of the rapid, recent and dramatic evolution of the human brain; “Born That Way?”, with gay neuroscientist Simon leVay, which looked at the biological roots of homosexuality; “Women: The Inside Story”, which dealt with female infidelity as a driver of sperm competition among human males; and “Mindreaders” which explained our unique ability for “theory of mind” by which we infer the mental states that drive ourselves and other individuals and use those insights to empathize or deceive.

His first book, Not A Chimp: The Hunt To Find The Genes That Make Us Human was published in hardback by Oxford University Press in 2009 and was recently released in paperback. In it, he examines the prospects of success for those myriad genome scientists who are trying to define “humanness” by virtue of the genetic changes that have occurred throughout the human genome over the last six million years, through direct comparison of our genome with that of the chimpanzee and the other great apes. Most importantly, he argues that many scientists, conservationists and the science media have an unfortunate tendency to hopelessly over-egg the apparent similarity of humans and chimps with respect to their genetics and to many shared aspects of their cognition, like empathy, symbolic communication, learning and imitation, and tool manufacture and use.

Jeremy Taylor was on the panel of the debate: Are we masters of our own destiny? as part of The Green Phoenix festival debate programme on 20 August 2010.

Are we masters of our own destiny?: Review by Jeremy Taylor

Jeremy says:

'Since the publication of Not A Chimp I have been very active around the country giving talks to branches of Cafe Scientifique and the Leeds and Manchester members of the Salon movement. The main focus of these talks has been to attack organisations like the Great Ape Project, who argue that apes should be granted a form of human rights to expedite safeguarding their future in the wild and to prevent their abuse and exploitation in captivity.

'These campaigners maintain that we should extend rights to apes because of their extreme proximity to humans in terms of genes and cognition. However, I argue that the best available scientific evidence we have so far suggests that these claims amount to little more than narcissistic anthropomorphism masquerading as science. Can, and should, apes be re-branded as persons? Are they moral entities? In what sense could an ape appreciate that it has rights? How could it defend them? And how could it understand that rights come with duties and obligations? That they are part of a social contract?

'The concept of personhood is unique to humans and has benefited heavily from recent work in genetics and neuroscience that is beginning to provide us with important clues to the nature of human consciousness, language, morality, and sense of self and others by uncovering a number of subtle changes to our genomes and brains that separate the haves - us, from the have-nots - the rest of the animal kingdom. I believe these changes have provided us with a flawed, but by-and-large workable, illusion that we are independent actors with free will and in control of our own destinies. But, in reality, our brains have “made up their minds” before we know it, and processes of self-deception may have evolved the better to allow us to deceive others.'

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Books by Jeremy Taylor

Not a Chimp: The hunt to find the genes that make us human
Not a Chimp: The hunt to find the genes that make us human 
by Jeremy Taylor

Are we just dressed up chimps? Are chimps so like humans that they should be granted human rights? Chimpanzees are our closest genetic cousins. But that frequently quoted difference of 1.6% in our genes is misleading, says Jeremy Taylor. Drawing on the latest research Taylor shows that the picture is proving more complicated than we imagined. Chimps are smart, but so are crows. Yes, we should protect chimps, like all wildlife. But let’s not pretend that with a bit of training they can use language, or that they can think as much as we do. They may be our nearest relations, but chimps aren’t us.

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