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"This magazine is flush with tight smart writing."
Washington Post

A C Grayling
The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World
By Iain McGilchrist (Yale University Press 597pp 25)

There is something magnificent about the ambition of Iain McGilchrist's book. It offers nothing less than an account of human nature and Western civilisation as outcomes of the competition between the human brain's asymmetrical halves. Thus baldly described, the endeavour doubtless seems implausible at least.

Before jumping to that conclusion, though, you should know that this is a beautifully written, erudite, fascinating and adventurous book. It embraces a prodigious range of enquiry, from neurology to psychology, from philosophy to primatology, from myth to history to literature. It goes from the microstructure of the brain to great epochs of Western civilisation, confidently and readably. One turns its five hundred pages - a further hundred are dense with notes and references in tiny print - as if it were an adventure story. And in one good sense it is. All the way through there is a single recurrent theme like a drumbeat, a theme McGilchrist thinks we urgently need to understand and do something about. It is that once we understand the structure and function of the brain, we see that the wrong half of it is in charge of our civilisation.

Now to return to that matter of jumping to the conclusion that what McGilchrist's book seeks to do is, at very least, implausible. Alas, it is. The chief reason is that far too much is made to turn on the suppositious and slender state of knowledge in brain science. Although a great deal of intensely interesting work has been done and is being done in that field (McGilchrist tells us about the rapidly evolving technologies and experimental work in fascinating and lucid detail), nevertheless it simply does not permit such claims as that 'the right hemisphere underpins our sense of justice', 'only the right hemisphere understands metaphor', 'the left hemisphere closes most routes to reality', and the overarching claim for which McGilchrist argues, namely that the narrow, fragmenting, thing-based, mechanical, overly self-confident, black-and-white, unempathetic, even zombie-like left hemisphere is dominating our civilisation to its cost.

As this characterisation of the left hemisphere implies, the right hemisphere is McGilchrist's favourite. Chapter after chapter is devoted to explaining and exploring the contrast between the two hemispheres, chiefly to the right hemisphere's credit. It is more in touch with reality and life; it is global and integrating in its activity, creating a holistic view of the world; it recognises individuals, and is the seat of most forms of attention; it is the home of emotion and therefore of empathy and its offspring morality. To it belong music, art, religion and social connectedness. It is or should be the master hemisphere, but its quondam servant, the left hemisphere, whose job should be the instrumental and subordinate one of focusing on details and applying rational calculation when needed, has usurped it - principally because the left hemisphere's chief interest, says McGilchrist, is power: it wants to divide and rule, and by underpinning the emergence of the analytic philosophy, science and bureaucratic organisation of the Western world in the last half dozen centuries, has succeeded in doing so.

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And as this further implies, McGilchrist wishes us to return to a right-hemispheric way of being. That means getting in renewed touch with our emotional and empathic sides, and allowing instinct and religion back onto centre stage. He thinks that modern art is an example of the left hemisphere's attrition of the values that the right hemisphere would prefer us to live by, including the beautiful art of the past, the legends and myths, the metaphors and larger openness of feeling and belief - the inclusive and numinous vaguenesses, one might say - that characterised life in most of our civilisation's earlier history.

On reading McGilchrist's prescription for reasserting the right hemisphere's influence on our lives I found myself, no doubt because I am quite considerably a left-hemispheric creature, shuddering. At the end of his book he gives a detailed picture of what an entirely left-hemispheric world would be like, an unappetising portrait of a kind of utilitarian, even emotionally fascist, wasteland which is as narrow as it is bleak and desiccated. He does not offer a right-hemispheric world portrait, but he obviously intends us to assume that it would be a much gentler and happier place, more realistic and therefore more connected with others and with nature. Unfortunately, if one accepts the logic of his argument that our Western civilisation has declined from a right-hemisphere to a left-hemisphere dispensation, we do not have to imagine what the former would be like, because history itself tells us: in it most of us would be superstitious and ignorant peasants working a strip farm that we would never leave from cradle to grave, under the thumb of slightly more left-hemispheric bullies in the form of the local baron and priest.

I do not mean to caricature McGilchrist's argument, but it does indeed come down to the straightforward claim that the left hemisphere of the human brain has become damagingly over-powerful in the affairs of Western civilisation. His argument might have been framed in quite different terms, closer to the standard counter-Enlightenment tropes that promote the authority of emotion, art, religion, ethnic feeling and the like over the supposed reductive barrenness of reason. But McGilchrist is not anti-reason or anti-science - far from it: his book is an exercise in applying both by the bucketload - and he is at pains to insist that human life needs both the brain's hemispheres, and that both are anyway engaged in all aspects of mental life. Early in the book he insists that claims to the effect that the left hemisphere is the specific home of language and logic while the right hemisphere is the specific home of spatial ability and emotion are mere popular misconceptions. But then he proceeds to go much further than this in assigning whole rafts of highly complex functions and capacities to one or other side of the head, building the pictures just sketched of the two different worlds that the respective hemispheres generate for us, with the radically different value implications of each.

The fact is that the findings of brain science are nowhere near fine-grained enough yet to support the large psychological and cultural conclusions Iain McGilchrist draws from them. Absorbing and fascinating though the book is, it does not persuade one that returning our Western civilisation to the government of such supposed right-hemisphere possessions as religion and instinct would be anywhere near a good thing.

A C Grayling's latest book is 'To Set Prometheus Free' (Oberon Books), published last month.