domingo, 19 de fevereiro de 2012
"Disseminated Primatemaia" - John Gray's Straw Dogs - Part 1 - The Human
SCIENCE VERSUS HUMANISM
Most people today think they belong to a species that can be master of its destiny. This is faith, not science. We do not speak of a time when whales or gorillas will be masters of their destinies. Why then humans?
We do not need Darwin to see that we belong with other animals. A little observation of our lives soon leads to the same conclusion. Still, since science has today an authority that common experience cannot rival, let us note that Darwin teaches that species are only assemblies of genes, interacting at random with each other and their shifting environments. Species cannot control their fates. Species do not exist. This applies equally to humans. Yet it is forgotten whenever people talk of 'the progress of mankind'. They have put their faith in an abstraction that no one would think of taking seriously if it were not formed from cast-off Christian hopes.
If Darwin's discovery had been made in a Taoist or Shinto, Hindu or animist culture it would very likely have become just one more strand in its intertwining mythologies. In these faiths humans and other animals are kin. By contrast, arising among Christians who set humans beyond all other living things, it triggered a bitter controversy that rages . on to this day. In Victorian times this was a conflict between Christians and unbelievers. Today it is waged between humanists and the few who understand that humans can no more be masters of their destiny than any other animal.
Humanism can mean many things, but for us it means belief in progress. To believe in progress is to believe that, by using the new powers given us by growing scientific knowledge, humans can free themselves from the limits that frame the lives of other animals. This is the hope of nearly every¬body nowadays, but it is groundless. For though human knowledge will very likely continue to grow and with it human power, the human animal will stay the same: a highly inventive species that is also one of the most predatory and destructive.
Darwin showed that humans are like other animals, humanists claim they are not. Humanists insist that by using our knowledge we can control our environment and flourish as never before. In affirming this, they renew one of Christianity's most dubious promises - that salvation is open to all. The humanist belief in progress is only a secular version of this Christian faith.
In the world shown us by Darwin, there is nothing that can be called progress. To anyone reared on humanist hopes this is intolerable. As a result, Darwin's teaching has been stood on its head, and Christianity's cardinal error - that humans are different from all other animals - has been given a new lease on life.
THE MIRAGE OF CONSCIOUS EVOLUTION
Humans are the most adventitious of creatures - a result of blind evolutionary drift. Yet, with the power of genetic engineering, we need no longer be ruled by chance. Humankind - so we are told - can shape its own future. .
According to E.O. Wilson, conscious control of human evolution is not only possible but inevitable:
... genetic evolution is about to become conscious and volitional, and usher in a new epoch in the history of life. ... The prospect of this 'volitional evolution' - a species deciding what to do about its own heredity - will present the most profound intellectual and ethical choices humanity has ever faced... humanity will be positioned godlike to take control of its own ultimate fate. It can, if it chooses, alter not just the anatomy and intelligence of the species but also the emotions and creative drive that compose the very core of human nature.
The author of this passage is the greatest contemporary Darwinian. He has been attacked by biologists and social scientists who believe that the human species is not governed by the same laws as other animals. In that war Wilson is undoubtedly on the side of truth. Yet the prospect of conscious human evolution he invokes is a mirage.
The idea of humanity taking charge of its destiny makes sense only if we ascribe consciousness and purpose to the species; but Darwin's discovery was that species are only currents in the drift of 'genes. The idea that humanity can shape its future assumes that it is exempt from this truth.
It seems feasible that over the corning century human nature will be scientifically remodelled. If so, it will be done haphazardly, as an upshot of struggles in the murky realm where big business, organised crime, and the hidden parts of government vie for control.
If the human species is re-engineered it will not be the result of humanity assuming a godlike control of its destiny. It will be another twist in man's fate.
James Lovelock has written:
Humans on the Earth behave in some ways like a pathogenic organism, or like the cells of a tumour or neoplasm. We have grown in numbers and disturbance to Gaia, to the point where our presence is perceptibly disturbing... the human species is now so numerous as to constitute a serious planetary malady. Gaia is suffering from Disseminated Primatemaia, a plague of people.
Around 65 million years ago the dinosaurs and three quarters of all other species suddenly perished. The cause is disputed, but many scientists believe the mass extinction was the result of a meteorite colliding with the Earth. Today species are dis-appearing at a rate that is set to surpass that last great extinction. The cause is not any cosmic catastrophe. As Lovelock says, it is a plague of people.
'Darwin's dice have rolled badly for Earth,' Wilson points out. The lucky throw that brought the human species to its present power has meant ruin for countless other life forms. When humans arrived in the New World around twelve thou-sand years ago, the continent abounded in mammoths, mastodons, camels, giant ground sloths and dozens of similar species. Most of these indigenous species were hunted to extinction. North America lost over 70 per cent and South America 80 per cent of its large mammals, according to Diamond.
The destruction of the natural world is not the result of global capitalism, industrialisation, 'Western civilisation' or any flaw in human institutions. It is a consequence of the evolutionary, success of an exceptionally rapacious primate. Throughout all of history and prehistory, human advance has coincided with ecological devastation.
It is true that a few traditional peoples lived in balance with the Earth for long periods. The Inuit and the Bushmen stumbled into ways of life in which their footprint was slight. We cannot tread the Earth so lightly. Homo rapiens has become too numerous.
The study of population is not a very exact science. No one forecast the population collapse that is occurring in post-communist European Russia, or the scale of the fall in fertility that is under way in much of the world. The margin of error in calculations of fertility and life expectancy is large. Even so, a further large increase is inevitable.
As Morrison observes, 'Even if we assume a declining birth rate due to social factors and a rising death rate due to starvation, disease and genocide, the present global population of over 6 billion will grow by at.least 1.2 billion by the year 2050.'
A human population of approaching 8 billion can be maintained only by desolating the Earth. If wild habitat is given over to human cultivation and habitation, if rainforests can be turned into green deserts, if genetic engineering enables ever-higher yields to be extorted from the thinning soils - then humans will have created for themselves a new geological era, the Eremozoic, the Era of Solitude, in which little remains on the Earth but themselves and the prosthetic environment that keeps them alive.
It is a hideous vision, but it is only a nightmare. Either the Earth's self-regulating mechanisms will make the planet less habitable for humans or the side effects of their own activities will cut short the current growth in their numbers.
Lovelock suggests four possible outcomes of disseminated pri-matemaia: 'destruction of the invading disease organisms; chronic infection; destruction of the host; or symbiosis - a lasting relationship of mutual benefit to the host and invader'.
Of the four outcomes, the last is the least likely. Humanity will never initiate a symbiosis with the Earth.
Even so, it will not destroy its planetary host, Lovelock's third possible outcome. The biosphere is older and stronger than they will ever be. As Margulis writes, 'No human culture, despite its inventiveness, can kill life on this planet, were it even to try.'
Nor can humans chronically infect their host. True, human activity is already altering the planetary balance. The production of greenhouse gases has changed global ecosystems irreversibly. With worldwide industrialisation, such changes can only accelerate.
In a worst-case scenario that some scientists are taking seriously, climate change could wipe out populous coastal countries. such as Bangladesh and trigger agricultural failure in other parts of the world, spelling disaster for billions of people, before the end of the present century.
The scale of the change afoot cannot be known with certainty. In a chaotic system even the. near future cannot be predicted accurately.
Yet it seems likely that the conditions of life are shifting for much of humankind, with large segments of it facing much less hospitable climates. As Lovelock has suggested, climate change may be a mechanism through which the planet eases its human burden.
As a side effect of climate change, new patterns of disease could trim the human population. Our bodies are bacterial communities, linked indissolubly with a largely bacterial biosphere. Epidemiology and microbiology are better guides to our future than any of our hopes or plans.
War could have a major impact. Writing at the turn of the nineteenth century, Thomas Malthus named war as being one of the ways — along with recurrent famines - in which population and resources were kept in balance. Malthus's argument was satirised in the twentieth century by Leonard G. Lewin:
Man, like all other animals, is subject to the continuing process of adapting to the limitations of his environment. But the principal mechanism he has utilised for this purpose is unique among living creatures.
To forestall the inevitable historical cycles of inadequate food supply, post-Neolithic man destroys surplus members of his own species by organised warfare.
The irony is misplaced. War has rarely resulted in any long-term reduction of human numbers. Yet today its impact could be considerable. It is not only that weapons of mass destruction - notably biological and (soon) genetic weapons — are more fearsome than before. More, their impact on the life-support systems of human society is likely to be greater. A globalised world is a delicate construction. A vastly greater population than hitherto is dependent on far-flung supply networks, and any war on the scale of the larger conflicts of the twentieth century could have the effect of culling the population in the way Malthus described.
In 1600 the human population was about half a billion. In the 1990s it increased by the same amount. People who are now over forty have lived through a doubling of the world's human population. It is natural for them to think that these numbers will be maintained. Natural, but - unless humans really are different from all other animals — mistaken.
The human population growth that has taken place over the past few hundred years resembles nothing so much as the spikes that occur in the numbers of rabbits, house mice and plague rats. Like them, it can only be short-lived. Already fertility is falling throughout much of the world. As Morrison observes, humans are like other animals in responding to stress.
They react to scarcity and overcrowding by tuning down the reproductive urge:
Many other animals seem to have a hormone-regulated response to environmental stress that switches their metabolism into a more economical mode whenever resources become scarce. Inevitably, the energy-hungry processes of reproduction are the first to be targeted.... The telltale hormonal signature of this process . . . has been identified in captive lowland gorillas, and in women.
In responding to environmental stress by ceasing to breed, humans are no different from other mammals.
The current spike in human numbers may come to an end for any number of reasons — climate change, new patterns of disease, the side effects of war, a downward spiral in the birth rate, or a mix of these and other, unknown factors. Whatever brings about its end, it is an aberration:
... if the human plague is really as normal as it looks, then the collapse curve should mirror the population growth curve. This means that the bulk of the collapse will not take much more than one hundred years, and by the year 2150 the biosphere should be safely back to its preplague population of Homo sapiens - somewhere between 0.5 and 1 billion.
Humans are like any other plague animal. They cannot destroy the Earthy but they can easily wreck the environment that sustains them. The most likely of Lovelock's four outcomes is a version of the first, in which disseminated primatemaia is cured by a large-scale decline in human numbers.
WHY HUMANITY WILL NEVER MASTER TECHNOLOGY
'Humanity' does not exist. There are only humans, driven by conflicting needs and illusions, and subject to every kind of infirmity of will and judgement.
At present there are nearly two hundred sovereign states in the world. Most are unstable, oscillating between weak democracy and weak tyranny; many are rusted through with corruption, or controlled by organised crime; whole regions of the world - much of Africa, southern Asia, Russia, the Balkans and the Caucasus, and parts of South America - are strewn with corroded or collapsed states.
At the same time, the world's most powerful states - the United States, China and Japan - will not accept any fundamental limitation on their sovereignty. They are jealous of their freedom of action, if only because they have been enemies in the past and know they may become so again in the future.
Yet it is not the number of sovereign states that makes technology ungovernable. It is technology itself. The ability to design new viruses for use in genocidal weapons does not require enormous resources of money, plant or equipment. New technologies of mass destruction are cheap; the knowledge they embody is free. It is impossible to prevent them becoming ever more easily available.
Bill Joy, one of the pioneers of the new information technologies, has written thus:
The 21st century technologies - genetics, nanotechnologies and robotics - are so powerful that they can spawn whole new classes of accidents
and abuses. Most dangerously, for the first time, these accidents and abuses are widely within the reach of individuals or small groups. They will not require large facilities or rare raw materials. Knowledge alone will enable the use of them. Thus we have the possibility not just of weapons of mass destruction but of knowledge-enabled mass destruction (KMD), this destructiveness hugely amplified by the power of self-replication.
In part, governments have created this situation. By ceding so much control over new technology to the marketplace they have colluded in their own powerlessness. Nevertheless, the proliferation of new weapons of mass destruction is not in the end a result of errors in policy. It is a consequence of the diffusion of knowledge.
Controls on technology cannot be enforced. The genetic modification of crops, animals or humans may be forbidden in some countries, but it will go ahead in others. The world's powers can pledge that genetic engineering will have only benign uses, but it can be only a matter of time before it is used for purposes of war.
Perhaps the world's most unstable states can be prevented from acquiring nuclear capability. But how can biological weapons be kept out of the hands of forces no government controls?
If anything about the present century is certain, it is that the power conferred on 'humanity' by new technologies will be used to commit atrocious crimes against it. If it becomes possible to clone human beings, soldiers will be bred in whom normal human emotions are stunted or absent. Genetic engineering may enable age-old diseases to be eradicated. At the same time, it is likely to be the technology of choice in future genocides.
Those who ignore the destructive potential of new technologies can do so only because they ignore history. Pogroms are as old as Christendom; but without railways, the telegraph and poison gas there could have been no Holocaust. There have always been tyrannies; but without modern means of transport and communication, Stalin and Mao could not have built their gulags. Humanity's worst crimes were made possible only by modern technology.
There is a deeper reason why 'humanity' will never control technology. Technology is not something that humankind can control. It is an event that has befallen the world.
Once a technology enters human life - whether it be fire, the wheel, the automobile, radio, television or the internet - it changes it in ways we can never fully understand. Cars may have been invented to make moving about easier; but they soon came to be embodiments of forbidden desires. According to Illich, 'The model American puts in 1,600 hours to get 7,500 miles: less than five miles an hour' - not much more than he could travel on his own feet. Which is more important today: the use of cars as means of transportation, or their use as expressions of our unconscious yearnings for personal freedom, sexual release and the final liberation of sudden death?
Nothing is more commonplace than to lament that moral progress has failed to keep pace with scientific knowledge. If only we were more intelligent or more moral, we could use technology only for benign ends. The fault is not in our tools, we say, but in ourselves.
In one sense this is true. Technical progress leaves only one problem unsolved: the frailty of human nature. Unfortunately that problem is insoluble.
Green thinkers understand that humans can never be masters of the Earth. Yet in their Luddite struggle against technology they renew the illusion that the world can be made the instrument of human purposes. Whatever they say, most Green thinkers offer yet another version of humanism, not an alter-native to it.
Technology is not a human artefact: it is as old as life on Earth. As Brian J. Ford notes, it is found in the kingdom of insects:
The industry undertaken by some leaf-cutter ants is close to farming. They excavate large underground nests which the colony inhabits. Workers go out foraging for leaves which they cut with their jaws and bring back to the nest.
These leaves are used to grow colonies of fungi, enzymes from which can digest the cellulose cell . walls of the leaves and render them suitable for eating by the colony. . . . The garden is vital for the ants' survival; without the continuous farming and feeding of the fungal colonies, the ant colony is doomed. These ants are indulging in an agricultural enterprise which they systematically maintain.
Cities are no more artificial than the hives of bees. The Internet is as natural as a spider's web. As Margulis and Sagan have written, we are ourselves technological devices, invented by ancient bacterial communities as means of genetic survival: 'We are a part of an intricate network that comes from the original bacterial takeover of the Earth. Our powers and intelligence do not belong specifically to us but to all life.'
Thinking of our bodies as natural and of our technologies as artificial gives too much importance to the accident of our origins. If we are replaced by machines, it will be in an evolutionary shift no different from that when bacteria combined to create our earliest ancestors.
Humanism is a doctrine of salvation — the belief that humankind can take charge of its destiny. Among Greens, this has become the ideal of humanity becoming the wise steward of the planet's resources. But for anyone whose hopes are not centred on their own species the notion that human action can save themselves or the planet must be absurd. They know the upshot is not in human hands. They act as they do not out of the belief that they can succeed, but from an ancient instinct.
For much of their history and all of prehistory, humans did not see themselves as being any different from the other animals among which they lived. Hunter-gatherers saw their prey as equals, if not superiors, and animals were worshipped as divinities in many traditional cultures. The humanist sense of a gulf between ourselves and other animals is an aberration. It is the animist feeling of belonging with the rest of nature that is normal.
Feeble as it may be today, the feeling of sharing a common destiny with other living things is embedded in the human psyche. Those who struggle to conserve what is left of the environment are moved by the love of living things, biophilia, the frail bond of feeling that ties humankind to the Earth.
The mass of mankind is ruled not by its intermittent moral sensations, still less by self-interest, but by the needs of the moment. It seems fated to wreck the balance of life on Earth — and thereby to be the agent of its own destruction. What could be more hopeless than placing the Earth in the charge of this exceptionally destructive species? It is not of becoming the planet's wise stewards that Earth-lovers dream, but of a time when humans have ceased to matter.
AGAINST FUNDAMENTALISM - RELIGIOUS AND SCIENTIFIC
Religious fundamentalists see the power of science as the chief source of modern disenchantment. Science has sup¬planted religion as the chief source of authority, but at the cost of making human life accidental and insignificant. If our lives are to have any meaning, the power of science must be overthrown, and faith re-established. But science cannot be removed from our lives by an act of will. Its power flows from technology, which is changing the way we live regardless of what we will.
Religious fundamentalists see themselves as having remedies for the maladies of the modern world. In reality . they are symptoms of the disease they pretend to cure. They hope to recover the unreflective faith of traditional cultures, but this is a peculiarly modern fantasy. We cannot believe as we please; our beliefs are traces left by our unchosen lives. A view of the world is not something that can be conjured up as and when we please.
Once gone, traditional ways of life cannot be retrieved. Whatever we contrive in their wake merely adds to the clamour of incessant novelty. However much they may wish it, people whose lives are veined through with science cannot return to a pre-scientific outlook.
Scientific fundamentalists claim that science is the disinterested pursuit of truth. But representing science in this way is to disregard the human needs science serves. Among us, science serves two needs: for hope and censorship. Today, only science supports the myth of progress.
If people cling to the hope of progress, it is not so much from genuine belief as from fear of what may come if they give it up. The political projects of the twentieth century have failed, or achieved much less than they promised. At the same time, progress in science is a daily experience, confirmed whenever we buy a new electronic gadget, or take a new drug. Science gives us a sense of progress that ethical and political life cannot.
Again, science alone has the power to silence heretics. Today it is the only institution that can claim authority. Like the Church in the past, it has the power to destroy, or marginalise, independent thinkers.
(Think how orthodox medicine reacted to Freud, and orthodox Darwinians to Lovelock.) In fact, science does not yield any fixed picture of things, but by censoring thinkers who stray too far from cur¬rent orthodoxies it preserves the comforting illusion of a single established worldview. From the standpoint of anyone who values freedom of thought, this may be unfortunate, but it is undoubtedly the chief source of science's appeal. For us, science is a refuge from uncertainty, promising — and in some measure delivering — the miracle of freedom from thought; while churches have become sanctuaries for doubt.
Bertrand Russell - a defender of science wiser than its ideologues today — had this to say:
When I speak of the importance of scientific method in regard to the conduct of human life, I am thinking of scientific method in its mundane forms. Not that I would undervalue science as a metaphysic, but the value of science as metaphysic belongs in another sphere. It belongs with religion and art and love, with the pursuit of the beatific vision, with the Promethean madness that leads the greatest men to strive to become gods. Perhaps the only ultimate value of human life is to be found in this Promethean madness. But it is a value that is religious, not political, or even moral.
The authority of science comes from the power it gives humans over their environment. Now and then, perhaps, science can cut loose from our practical needs, and serve the pursuit of truth. But to think that it can ever embody that quest is pre-scientific - it is to detach science from human needs, and make of it something that is not natural but transcendental. To think of science as the search for truth is to renew a mystical faith, the faith of Plato and Augustine, that truth rules the world, that truth is divine.
SCIENCE'S IRRATIONAL ORIGINS
As portrayed by its fundamentalists, science is the supreme expression of reason. They tell us that if it rules our lives today, it is only after a long struggle in which it was ceaselessly opposed by the Church, the state and every kind of irrational belief. Having arisen in the struggle against superstition, science — they say — has become the embodiment of rational inquiry.
This fairy tale conceals a more interesting history. The origins of science are not in rational inquiry but in faith, magic and trickery. Modern science triumphed over its adversaries not through its superior rationality but because its late-medieval and early-modern founders were more skilful than them in the use of rhetoric and the arts of politics.
Galileo did not win in his campaign for Copernican astronomy because he conformed to any precept of 'scientific method'. As Feyerabend argued, he prevailed because of his persuasive skill — and because he wrote in Italian. By writing in Italian rather than Latin, Galileo was able to identify resistance to Copernican astronomy with the bankrupt scholasticism of his time, and so gain support from people opposed to older traditions of learning:
'Copernicus now stands for progress in other areas as well, he is a symbol for the ideals of a new class that looks back to the classical times of Plato and Cicero and forward to a free and pluralistic society.'
Galileo won out not because he had the best arguments but because he was able to represent the new astronomy as part of a coming trend in society. His success illustrates a crucial truth. To limit the practice of science by rules of method would slow the growth of knowledge, or even halt it:
The difference between science and methodology which is such an obvious fact of history . . . indicates a weakness in the latter, and perhaps of the 'laws of reason' as well. . . . Without 'chaos', no knowledge. Without a frequent dismissal of reason, no progress. Ideas which today form the very basis of science exist because there were such things as prejudice, conceit, passion; because these things opposed reason; and because they were permitted to have their way.
According to the most influential twentieth-century philosopher of science, Karl Popper, a theory is scientific only in so far as it is falsifiable, and should be given up as soon as it has been falsified. By this standard, the theories of Darwin and Einstein should never have been accepted. When they were first advanced, each of them was at odds with some available evidence; only later did evidence become available that gave them crucial support. Applying Popper's account of scientific method would have killed these theories at birth.
The greatest scientists have never been bound by what are now regarded as the rules of scientific method.
Nor did the philosophies of the founders of modern science - magical and metaphysical, mystical and occult — have much in common with what is today taken to be the scientific world-view. Galileo saw himself as a defender of theology, not as an enemy of the Church. Newton's theories became the basis for a mechanistic philosophy, but in his own mind his theories were inseparable from a religious conception of the world as a divinely created order.
Newton explained apparently anomalous occurrences as traces left by God. Tycho Brahe viewed them as miracles. Johannes Kepler described anomalies in astronomy as reactions of 'the telluric soul'. As Feyerabend observes, beliefs that are today regarded as belonging to religion, myth or magic were central in the worldviews of the people who originated modern science.
As pictured by philosophers, science is a supremely rational activity. Yet the history of science shows scientists flouting the rules of scientific method. Not only the origins but the progress of science comes from acting against reason.
SCIENCE AS A REMEDY FOR ANTHROPOCENTRISM
In all its practical uses, science works to entrench anthro-pocentrism. It encourages us to believe that, unlike any other animal, we can understand the natural world, and thereby bend it to our will.
Yet, in fact, science suggests a view of things that is intensely uncomfortable to the human mind. The world as seen by physicists such as Erwin Schrodinger and Werner Heisenberg is not an orderly cosmos. It is a demi-chaos that humans can hope to understand only in part. Science cannot satisfy the human need to find order in the world. The most advanced physical sciences suggest that causality and classical logic may not be built into the nature of things. Even the most basic features of our ordinary experience may be delusive.
The passage of time is an integral part of everyday life. Yet, as Barbour points out, science suggests that time may not be part of the scheme of things. Classical logic tells us that the same event cannot happen and not happen. Yet, in 'many-worlds' interpretations of modern physics, that is precisely what does occur. It has become part of common sense to believe that the physical world is not changed by the fact that we observe it. But the alteration of the world by its observers is at the core of quantum mechanics. Like technology, science has evolved to meet human needs; again like technology, it discloses a world humans cannot control, or ever fully understand.
Science has been used to support the conceit that humans are unlike all other animals in their ability to understand the world. In fact, its supreme value may be in showing that the world humans are programmed to perceive is a chimera.
TRUTH AND CONSEQUENCES
Humanists believe that if we know the truth we will be free. In affirming this they imagine they are wiser than thinkers of earlier times. In fact they are in the grip of a forgotten religion.
The modern faith in truth is a relic of an ancient creed. Socrates founded European thought on the faith that truth makes us free. He never doubted that knowledge and the good life go together. He passed on this faith to Plato, and so to Christianity. The result is modern humanism.
Socrates was able to believe that the examined life is best because he thought the true and the good were one and the same: there is a changeless reality beyond the visible world, and it is perfect. When humans live the unexamined life they run after illusions. They spend their lives searching for pleasure or fleeing pain, both of which are bound to pass away. True fulfilment lies in changeless things. An examined life is best because it leads us into eternity.
We need not doubt the reality of truth to reject this Socratic faith. Human knowledge is one thing, human well-being another. There is no predetermined harmony between the two. The examined life may not be worth living.
The faith of Socrates in the examined life may well have been a trace of an archaic religion: he 'habitually heard and obeyed an inner voice which knew more than he did ... he called it, quite simply, "the voice of God"'. Socrates was guided by a daimon, an inner oracle, whose counsels he followed without question, even when they led him to his death. In admitting that he was guided by an inner voice, he showed the lingering power of shamanic practices, in which humans have immemorially sought communion with spirits.
If Socratic philosophy originates in shamanism, European rationalism was born in a mystical experience. Modern humanism differs from Socratic philosophy chiefly in failing to recognise its irrational origins — and in the hubris of its ambitions.
The bequest of Socrates was to tether the pursuit of truth to a mystical ideal of the good. Yet neither Socrates nor any other ancient thinker imagined that truth could make mankind free. They took for granted that freedom would always remain the privilege of a few; there was no hope for the species. By contrast, among contemporary humanists, the Greek faith that truth makes us free has been fused with one of Christianity's most dubious legacies - the belief that the hope of freedom belongs to everyone.
Modern humanism is the faith that through science humankind can know the truth — and so be free.
But if Darwin's theory of natural selection is true this is impossible. The human mind serves evolutionary success, not truth. To think otherwise is to resurrect the pre-Darwinian error that humans are different from all other animals.
An example is the theory of memes. Memes are clusters of ideas and beliefs, which are supposed to compete with one another in much the same way that genes do. In the life of the mind, as in biological evolution, there is a kind of natural selection of memes, whereby the fittest memes survive.
Unfortunately, memes are not genes. There is no mechanism of selection in the history of ideas akin to that of the natural selection of genetic mutations in evolution.
In any case, only someone miraculously innocent of history could believe that competition among ideas could result in the triumph of truth. Certainly ideas compete with one another, but the winners are normally those with power and human folly on their side. When the medieval Church exterminated the Cathars, did Catholic memes prevail over the memes of the heretics?
If the Final Solution had been carried to a conclusion, would that have demonstrated the inferiority of Hebrew memes?
Darwinian theory tells us that an interest in truth is not needed for survival or reproduction. More often it is a disad-vantage. Deception is common among primates and birds. As Heinrich observes, ravens pretend to hide a cache of food, while secreting it somewhere else. Evolutionary psychologists have shown that deceit is pervasive in animal communication.
Among humans the best deceivers are those who deceive themselves: 'we deceive ourselves in order to deceive others better', says Wright. A lover who promises eternal fidelity is more likely to be believed if he believes his promise himself; he is no more likely to keep the promise. In a competition for mates, a well-developed capacity for self-deception is an advantage. The same is true in politics, and many other con-texts.
If this is so, the view that clusters of false beliefs - inferior memes - will tend to be winnowed out by natural selection must be mistaken. Truth has no systematic evolutionary advantage over error. Quite to the contrary, evolution will 'select for a degree of self-deception, rendering some facts and motives unconscious so as not to betray - by the subtle signs of self-knowledge - the deception being practised'.
As Trivers points out, evolution favours useful error: 'the conventional view that natural selection favours nervous systems which produce ever more accurate images of the world must be a very naive view of mental evolution'.
In the struggle for life, a taste for truth is a luxury - or else a disability:
tormented persons want truth.
Man is like other animals, wants food and success and
women, not truth. Only if the mind
Tortured by some interior tension has despaired of
happiness: then it hates
its life-cage and seeks further.
Science will never be used chiefly to pursue truth, or to improve human life. The uses of knowledge will always be as shifting and crooked as humans are themselves. Humans use what they know to meet their most urgent needs - even if the result is ruin. History is not made in the struggle for self-preservation, as Hobbes imagined or wished to believe.
In their everyday lives humans struggle to reckon profit and loss. When times are desperate they act to protect their offspring, to revenge themselves on enemies, or simply to give vent to their feelings.
These are not flaws that can be remedied. Science cannot be used to reshape humankind in a more rational mould. Any new-model humanity will only reproduce the familiar deformities of its designers. It is a strange fancy to suppose that science can bring reason to an irrational world, when all it can ever do is give another twist to the normal madness. These are not just inferences from history. The upshot of scientific inquiry is that humans cannot be other than irrational. Curiously, this is a conclusion few rationalists have been ready to accept.
Tertullian, a theologian who lived in Carthage sometime around AD 200, wrote of Christianity: Certum est, quia impossible (it is certain because it is impossible). Humanists are less clear-minded, but their faith is just as irrational. They do not deny that history is a catalogue of unreason, but their remedy is simple: humankind must - and will - be reasonable. Without this absurd, Tertullian-like faith, the Enlightenment is a gospel of despair.
A PASCAL FOR THE ENLIGHTENMENT
Humans cannot live without illusion. For the men and women of today, an irrational faith in progress may be the only antidote to nihilism. Without the hope that the future will be better than the past, they could not go on. In that case, we may need a latter-day Pascal.
The great seventeenth-century religious thinker found many reasons for belief, but he never imagined that they could instil faith. Instead he counselled that reason be stupefied. Pascal knew that faith rests on the force of habit: 'we must make no mistake about ourselves: we are as much automaton as mind'. Only by submitting to the Church and taking Mass with believers could doubt be stilled.
By submitting to the authority of science we can hope for a similar freedom from thought. By revering scientists and partaking of their gifts of technology, we can achieve what
Pascal hoped for from prayer, incense and holy water. By seeking the company of earnest investigators and intelligent machines, we can stupefy our reason and fortify our faith in mankind.
HUMANISM VERSUS NATURALISM
For Jacques Monod, one of the founders of molecular biology, life is a fluke which cannot be deduced from the nature of things, but once it has emerged, it evolves by the natural selection of random mutations. The human species is no different from any other in being a lucky throw in the cosmic lottery.
This is a hard truth for us to accept. As Monod writes, 'The liberal societies of the West still pay lip-service to, and present as a basis for morality, a disgusting farrago of Judeo-Christian religiosity, scientistic progressism, belief in the "natural" rights of man and utilitarian pragmatism.'
Man must set these errors aside and accept that his/her existence is entirely accidental. He 'must at last awake out of his millenary dream and discover his total solitude, his fundamental isolation. He must realise that, like a gypsy, he lives on the boundary of an alien world; a world that is deaf to his music and as indifferent to his hopes as it is to his suffering and his crimes'.
Monod is right that it is hard to accept the fact that humans are no different from other animals. He does not accept it himself. He rightly scorns the modern worldview, but his own philosophy is another version of the same sordid mishmash. For Monod, humanity is a uniquely privileged species. It alone knows that its existence is an accident, and it alone can take charge of its destiny. Like the Christians, Monod believes humankind finds itself in an alien world, and insists that it must make a choice between good and evil: 'The kingdom above or the darkness below: it is for him to choose.' In this fantasy, mankind in future will be different not only from any other animal but also from anything it has ever been. The Christians who resisted Darwin's theory feared that it left humanity looking insignificant.
They need not have worried. Darwinism has been used to put humankind back on its pedestal.
Like- many others, Monod runs together two irreconcilable philosophies — humanism and naturalism. Darwin's theory shows the truth of naturalism: we are animals like any other; our fate and that of the rest of life on Earth are the same. Yet, in an irony all the more exquisite because no one has noticed it, Darwinism is now the central prop of the humanist faith that we can transcend our animal natures and rule the Earth.
Humanism is a secular religion thrown together from decaying scraps of Christian myth. In contrast, the Gaia hypothesis - the theory that the Earth is a self-regulating system whose behaviour resembles in some ways that of an organism — embodies the most rigorous scientific naturalism.
In James Lovelock's model of Daisyworld, a planet containing only black and white daisies becomes one in which global temperature is self-regulating. Daisyworld is lit by a sun that grows hotter over time. White daisies reflect the sun's heat, thereby cooling the surface of the planet, while black daisies absorb the heat, so warming the surface.
Without any element of purpose, these daisies interact to cool their world despite the warming sun.
All that is required to bring a self-regulating biosphere into existence are mechanistic and stochastic processes, which can be modelled in a computer simulation. Joel de Rosnay explains:
The simulation . . . starts with a low temperature. The black daisies, which absorb the heat of the sun better, survive, develop and occupy a large area. As a result, the temperature of the soil increases, becoming more favourable to life. The black daisies reproduce at a high rate but cover too much area, and temperature increases above a critical point;
the black daisies die off en masse. But the white ones adapt, develop, and colonize large areas, reflecting the heat and cooling the planet again. The temperature drops - too much. The white daisies die and the black ones return in profusion. After a certain number of fluctuations, a 'mosaic' of black and white areas begins to coexist and coevolve on the planet's surface.
Individual daisies are born and die, but the two populations, through successive heating and cooling, maintain an average temperature favourable to the life of both species, and this temperature fluctuates around an optimal balance. No one set the temperature, it simply emerged — the result of the daisies' behaviour and their co-evolution.
Daisyworld arises from chance and necessity.
As the Daisyworld model shows, the Gaia hypothesis is consistent with the narrowest scientific orthodoxy. Even so, the hostility of scientific fundamentalists to it is well founded. At bottom the conflict between Gaia theory and current orthodoxy is not a scientific controversy. It is a collision of myths — one formed by Christianity, the other by a much older faith.
Gaia theory re-establishes the link between humans and the rest of nature which was affirmed in mankind's primordial religion, animism. In monotheistic faiths God is the final guarantee of meaning in human life. For Gaia, human life has no more meaning than the life of slime mould.
Lovelock has written that Gaia was named after the ancient Greek goddess of the Earth at the suggestion of his friend the novelist William Golding. But the idea of Gaia is anticipated most clearly in a line from the Tao Te Ching, the oldest Taoist scripture.
In ancient Chinese rituals, straw dogs were used as offerings to the gods. During the ritual they were treated with the utmost reverence.
When it was over and they were no longer needed they were trampled on and tossed aside: 'Heaven and earth are ruthless, and treat the myriad creatures as straw dogs.' If humans disturb the balance of the Earth they will be trampled on and tossed aside. Critics of Gaia theory say they reject it because it is unscientific. The truth is that they fear and hate it because it means that humans can never be other than straw dogs.
John Gray. Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals. London, Granta books, 2002, p. 1-34.