Sunday, March 01, 2009

The Hubris of Humankind

These few posts these days are my reflections on reading that wonderful little modern classic Straw Dogs by that wonderfully provocative philosopher John Gray.  Of course, we all love provocateurs because they are able to shake us out of our reverie and out of our complacency.  And John Gray is a philosophe provocateur supreme.  Chapter one is called simply The Human and is subdivided into twelve short subdivisions, each hammering home a specific point.

Section 1: Science versus Humanism:  Under this head Gray defines humanism succinctly:  “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…” (Op.cit., 4)  His main contention is that humankind has vastly overrated itself.  Again and again Gray reminds us that we are human animals, and indeed we need this frequent reminder.  From Biblical times, we have all been overwhelmed, if not inundated, with the belief that we humans are the veritable summit of creation, set there by a powerful Creator God, and from that summit we could and can lord it over all the other animals.  For sure, the Jewish religion, followed by the other monotheistic world religions, Christianity and Islam have always taught us that we are the stewards, rather than the lords of creation.  Whatever about these theological and moral tenets, humankind has always abused its power over all of creation, over our fellow creatures (always deemed to be lesser creatures – what’s now called specism – on a par, indeed, if you think about it, with racism).  Anyway, here I have described the religious myth of humanity.  This myth, then, saw humankind as going its own way, having sinfully  rejected the innocence of Eden for the sinful world of experience.  Again, within this myth, he had to work his way through sweat and pain to gain some release from his sin until the coming of the Messiah or anointed one who would redeem humankind from its great sin of rebellion against a loving God through the very death of that Messiah.  This was and is the theology of redemption/salvation.  This in a nutshell is the Myth of Religion.  For Gray, Humanism has an equal and an unacknowledged myth, packaged as scientific truth, namely the myth of indefinite or linear progress.  It is, of course, acknowledged as a truth of almost axiomatic standing.  However, it is also unacknowledged as a myth equal in standing to the religious one. Let us listen to Gray’s succinct, direct and clear words:

Most people today think that they belong to a species that can be master of its destiny.  This is faith not science… ibid., 3

Species cannot control their fates… 3

In Victorian times there was [a bitter controversy] between Christians and believers.  Today it is waged between humanists and the few that understand that humans can no more be masters of their destiny than any other animal… 4  (Needless to say Gray falls among the latter number.)

The human animal will stay the same: a highly inventive species that is also one of the most predatory and destructive… 4

Darwin showed that humans are like other animals, humanists claim they are not… 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… 4

Christianity’s cardinal error – that human’s are different to other animals – has been given a new lease of life. [that is, in humanist belief]. … 4. 

Section 2: The Mirage of Conscious Evolution: In this section John Gray quotes one learned  contemporary Darwinian who believes that conscious control of human evolution is not only possible but also inevitable.  This scientist he quotes is E.O. Wilson, and the piece he quotes from this learned man reads like a piece of religious writing of the evangelical variety.  However, Gray is not too impressed with Wilson’s evangelism:

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.  (Ibid., 5-6)

Section 3: Disseminated Primatemaia: This marvellously imaginative disease was one created by James Lovelock, that amazing scientist scientist, author, researcher, environmentalist, and futurist who lives in Devon, in the south west of England. He is known for proposing the Gaia hypothesis, in which he postulates that the Earth functions as a kind of superorganism, and he proposes that  Gaia or Mother Earth is suffering from a plague of people, hence the above interesting heading:  Disseminated Primatemaia.  I note here that James Lovelock will be 90 this JulyThis maverick scientist even uses the term “human plague” in an effort to wake us up to over-population and to the havoc we as a species are wreaking on the earth and all the other species of animals.  Let’s listen here to Gray’s magic prose:

The destruction of the natural world is not the result of global capitalism, industrialization, ‘Western civilisation’ or any flaw in human institutions.  It is the consequence of an exceptionally rapacious primate.  Throughout all history and prehistory, human advance has coincided with ecological devastation.  (Ibid., 7)

Now humans are rather like any other plague animal – say rabbits or rats.  However, they cannot destroy the earth, but they will definitely wreck the environment that sustains them.

To be continued.

Above I have uploaded a picture I took of the sky at sunset over Portrane, County Dublin, February, 2009

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