Australian biologist Jeremy Griffith has attracted a fair bit of attention over the years with what he claims to be a liberating first principle biological explanation for the human condition, i.e. our species' capacity for good and evil.
For a time I was a supporter of Griffith's theories. Why would I not be attracted to the idea that some great riddle had been cracked which would lead to an end to all of humanity's problems - a reconciliation between the left wing and right wing in politics, between science and religion, between men and women - an end to war, poverty, mental illness? With his first book - "Free : The End of the Human Condition" - Griffith really laid on the hard sell, but the book was genuinely deep and full of references to the fossil record and primate behaviour. Back then I was prone to depression. Reading that book hurt like hell. They say that the truth hurts, so this seemed to be in its favour.
If you want a brief, concise and well-presented introduction to Griffith's theory and what he thinks it means for humanity, this second book - "Beyond the Human Condition" - is the one to read.
The first thing to acknowledge is that Griffith spends little of his time in the book arguing from reason. Much of the text consists of quotes from some of his favourite writers, most notably Laurens van der Post, as well as the Bible. He also paraphrases from popular songs the lyrics of which he wasn't able to obtain the rights to quote. This is not a scientific approach. The fact that Bruce Springsteen once said something in a song does not constitute evidence.
"As the quotes in this book reveal, all I have been able to add to the perception/soundness of Jesus Christ and Sir Laurens van der Post is the biological reason for the repression of our soul."
So how credible is this biological explanation for the human condition? Let's first summarise its essence.
Most animals compete for food or mating opportunities. Because our proto-human ancestors lived in the fertile environment of the Rift Valley in Africa their nurturing period grew longer. The mothers were nurturing their infants for genetically selfish reasons, because they contained their own genes. But to the infants this seemed like selfless behaviour. Not knowing anything about genetics, they thought their mothers' cared more about them than about themselves. And so they learned that this was the way to be - they became "love-indoctrinated". This led to the flowering of our ability to reason about the world, because we could think holistically rather than have our view of the world fractured by the us and them duality inherent in competition. It was also the origin of our soul or conscience, our instinctive sense of what was right, because learned behaviour over many generations becomes encoded in the genes.
So now we had a rational mind and a genetic orientation towards selfless behaviour. But the rational mind needed to experiment. Some of these experiments would have led to behaviour which contravened the genetic conscience, which would give the message that we were doing something wrong. Unable to explain our need to experiment with self-management, we became frustrated and eventually angry with this genetic conscience. This led to anger at anything which reminded us of it, such as nature or, if we were men, women. This was the origin of our dark side. And yet we were not villains, we were the greatest of heroes for defying the oppression of our idealistic instincts and taking on self-corruption in order to find understanding of ourselves, which eventually would lead to the understanding of how we became "upset" in the first place, and with that understanding would come liberation from our condition.
I'm no scientist, but I can see two problems with this theory on a level which can be examined through observation of behaviour and through introspection.
If our conscience was learned through being exposed to the nurturing behaviour of mothers, then it should share the qualities of that nurturing behaviour. Griffith gives the analogy that our conscience is like the genetically-encoded flight path of a bird. Such a flight path is presumably rigidly dictatorial as it remains the same year after year. But the loving behaviour of a mother is anything but rigid or dictatorial, it is flexible and improvisational. She is engaged in a dynamic relationship with her offspring which is tolerant of most behaviour as long as it is not dangerous for them. So how does the infant develop from this a rigid, dictatorial and unforgiving genetic blueprint for behaviour?
Is it really credible that our conscience is stored in our genes? Why is it that what makes us feel guilty varies from person to person and culture to culture? Why do some people appear to have no conscience? Is it not more likely that the conscience is learned, that it is a part of our ego, the part where we store our expectations about ourselves?
Griffith aligns love and idealism. But are these not contradictory phenomena? We say that the purest form of love is unconditional love, and what is idealism but the placing of conditions on our acceptance of ourselves or our acceptance of others? Idealism can all too easily consist in hatred of all that is not viewed as ideal.
He is right to identify idealism as something oppressive, but he does not go far enough.
He has said that his first book "grew out of my desperate need to reconcile my extreme idealism with reality." He views much of "upset" human behaviour as "an attack on innocence", including consensual sex. He believes that recreational, as opposed to reproductive sex, began during the time of Homo Erectus when men, angry at women's criticism of their lack of ideality, began raping them, something which was later civilised into something which could be considered an act of love between men and women. He doesn't seem to give any acknowledgement that orgasms feel good in and of themselves, hence masturbation. This in spite of the fact that he often points to bonobos, who spend a large part of their time rubbing genitals with members of both genders, as an indication of what our Australopithecine ancestors might have been like.
Griffith views himself as an innocent. He says that the rest of us want to attack innocence. He says this has been necessary because innocence is oppressive, and that we are heroes for having taken on the job of fighting back against that oppressiveness. Would it be unfair to describe this as an appeasement strategy?
I think that idealism is the heart of the problem, the root of all evil. This is kind of what Griffith is saying, but not quite. He thinks idealism was the problem only as long as we didn't understand ourselves, and now he thinks he has made such an understanding possible, thus making idealism no longer a problem.
I think idealism is a kind of conceptual virus which has plagued humanity. Now this doesn't mean that we are wrong to want peace and togetherness and kindness and to want to be less selfish. This is the insidious nature of the negative feedback loop that is idealism. It advertises itself as the road to Heaven when it is actually the road to Hell. The harder we strive for the ideals, the further they recede.
This is because the good things we want can only grow out of love, and the foundation of love is unconditional self-acceptance. Throughout our lives our self-acceptance is being undermined by criticism, rejection and by the condemnation implied by those apparently unreachable ideals. The oppression of our conscience, of those ideals we find so hard to meet, or, if we are religious, that perfect God who makes us feel like pathetic worms for our lack of perfection, all of these things can build up a seething pit of resentment in us towards those who seem to be more in tune with the ideals than ourselves. Sometimes, unable to acknowledge this well of darkness in ourselves, we project it onto others, going into battle against the terrible other.
If love is the answer, then what is love? Love is a mode of communication characterised by openness, honesty, spontaneity and generosity. Fear, of others and of the darkness within us, causes us to become rigid, to adopt character armour, which is the barrier to love. All we need to open up to the love which will bring us the peace and togetherness and freedom from our ego-prisons that we desire, is to feel safe enough to put aside our armour. Our armour is our egotism. And it is our alienation, that which blocks us from experiencing the world as it really is and from thinking honestly about ourselves and that world.
It is true that we have always needed a way to love the dark side of our psyche. But love is not appeasement. Love doesn't bolster our ego by saying, "You're a hero." Love releases us from our enslavement to that ego, by saying, "You are forgiven now, and you will be forgiven always." This was the essence of Jesus' message. If God is a mythological figure representing the creative principle of the universe, which in human affairs takes the form of love, then every time we realise we have made a mistake, as long as we are honest about it, God is there to forgive us. This is not some supernatural assurance. The creative principle of the universe works through evolution. Deviations from the norm are what lead to new and wonderful things. Nature is no dictator, insisting on some kind of perfection. And all human discord can be healed by love, which does not judge. At the moment our self-acceptance is conditional and therefore our love for others is conditional too. But in time the barriers to unconditional love will melt away, and then all is forgiven. Love is the sea that refuses no river.
Griffith is a major critic of what he terms "pseudo-idealistic" movements - environmentalism, socialism, the New Age Movement, "political correctness", etc. He sees them as superficial and escapist, because they don't address the deeper psychological issues. This is fair enough up to a point. But he sees them as being so powerful in the world now and so dogmatic that they might shut down the search for understanding altogether. He quotes George Orwell :
"If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face [freedom] - for ever." 1984.
To emphasise the danger he also quotes from the Bible (with his own extrapolations) :
"'He [the self-deception that accompanies superficiality] will invade the kingdom [of honesty] when its people feel secure [when superficiality becomes popular enough], and he will seize it [the kingdom of honesty] through intrigue...Then they [those pushing self-deception] will set up the abomination that causes desolation [the superficiality that leads to oblivion]. With flattery he will corrupt those who have violated the covenant [self-deluding superficiality will seduce the exhausted], but the people who know their God will firmly resist him [the less exhausted will not be deceived].'"
Daniel, 11:21, 31, 32.
"'So when you see the 'abomination that causes desolation' (spoken of through the prophet Daniel) standing where it does not belong [claiming to know the way to the new age] let the reader understand... For then there will be great distress [mindless superficiality and its consequences], unequalled from the beginning of the world until now - and never to be equalled again. If those days had not been cut short [by the arrival of the truth], no-one would survive.'"
Matthew 24 and Mark 13
These passages, and the emphasis and interpretation Griffith puts on them, deserve closer examination. Sometimes we see in our enemies a reflexion of a truth we are hiding from ourselves.
"He [an extreme idealist] will invade the kingdom [the establishment] when its people feel secure, and he will seize it through intrigue [disguising his insistence on the ideals with a cloak of pretend science]... Then they will set up the abomination that causes desolation [idealism]. With flattery [by telling us we are heroes] he will corrupt those who have violated the covenant [technically, those who have broken from the agreement to follow the precepts of the gospel, but probably more broadly those who have been dishonest, judgemental or unloving], but the people who know their God [those who understand the true nature of love] will firmly resist him."
Now lets look at the passages from Matthew and Mark. In Mark it says "...standing where it does not belong..." but in Matthew it is more specific saying "...standing in the holy place...". If "the abomination that causes desolation" is idealism, then in what way might it have been put "in the holy place"? "Holy" means "whole" or "of the whole". Griffith identifies idealism with holism. He puts idealism in the place of holism. Idealism, being founded on a dualistic split between good and evil, cannot be reconciled with holism. Holism is necessarily pragmatic.
So why the talk about "great distress, unequalled from the beginning of the world until now - and never to be equalled again"? Certainly we live in very troubled times. How is this related to the presentation of a theory that we are genetically idealistic?
If idealism has been the poison virus contaminating the human race throughout its history (ever since it arose in the experimenting mind of one of our ancestors), then to nail it down to our very bodies themselves is the final straw. No escape, no defence. The enemy is within!
Just after that in Matthew 24:19, Jesus says : "How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers!"
Griffith believes that infants are born with an instinctive expectation of an ideal world, thus they will be damaged by their mother's lack of ideality.
"In every generation, individual women had a very brief life in innocence before being soul-destroyed through sex. They then had to try to nurture a new generation, all the time trying to conceal the destruction that was all around and within them. Mothers tried to hide their alienation from their children, but the fact is if a mother knew about reality/upset her children would know about it and would psychologically adapt to it."
I'm sure that being a mother is a tough job to begin with without this kind of unfounded pressure. I don't believe infants are born expecting anything particular, and what they most need is a relaxed mother. If love is open, honest, spontaneous and generous communication, it will be impeded by feelings of anxiety or guilt. And being sexually repressed won't help either.
You might say, "But how can this bring great tribulation to the world when hardly anyone has actually read it?" Every book written is in some way an articulation of a broader and deeper social current. We could look at Griffith's books not so much as a wind blowing us off course as a weather vane in which the direction of that wind is indicated. They are a crystallisation of the pathology of idealism which has plagued us down the centuries. Job's prayer was : "Oh, that my enemy had written a book!" Through Jeremy Griffith, idealism has done just that.