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Are we really this repugnant?
on 26 August 2016
John Gray is an excellent writer, erudite, a skilled wordsmith and very well read. Yet his books are, for me, spoiled by a deep misanthropy and cynicism about our species. To Gray we are braggarts ‘bigging ourselves up’ whilst shamelessly exploiting other humans and animals. We kid ourselves about being secular ‘humanists’ and unbiased by dogma, whilst our very thoughts and language are suffused with mythic and Socratic self deceptions.
The book starts with a withering reminder of human folly, cruelty and beastliness. In the Silence of Animals, as with his earlier ‘Straw Dogs’ we must deal with the most brutalising elements taken from both real history and creative writing. Sometimes these are merged, as if Winston Smith (Orwell’s broken hero from 1984) was as real as the brute facts of Auschwitz or the Gulag. This is a perilous technique to employ in a serious study but a powerful one, nonetheless.
What do we learn from Orwell’s novel? That Smith’s interrogators wished not merely to torture him into telling the truth but insisted that he should also willingly accept their perverse world view as ‘true’.
We then discuss the forces which might make us turn to cannibalism by studying the characteristics of Russian prisoners who survived Nazi prison camps. Next, Norman Lewis’s memoir of the amorality of post liberation Naples in 1943 is used to illustrate the shedding of any veneer of morality. We witness a zone of desperate need which led brothers to pimp-out their sisters in exchange for basic essentials. Humans do not ‘progress’ in Gray’s world, they merely lurch from feast to famine. In the latter state they have no more morality than a hungry lioness. This is grim reading.
The awful cruelties of the inquisition during which religious dogma was brutally enforced, have been replaced in the modern post-enlightenment world by a ubiquitous conformity to an inviolable ‘secular humanism’ which is crude, self congratulatory and misinformed. Gray correctly notes that Sigmund Freud’s atheism was more radical than most readers can acknowledge. Likewise, Gray restores Fritz Mauthner’s proper position in philosophy of language. Gray rates him as being every bit as significant as Wittgenstein. This part of the book is first rate.
But as the book proceeds I became aware that the passages of quotation (long borrowings from his sources dominate this text) were mostly from quite old writings in poetry and animal behaviour (Llewlyn Powys, J.A Baker). This gives the erroneous impression that modern science has ignored the questions that Gray poses. Gray might have a significant lacuna in his immense knowledge. He seems unaware that modern evolutionary biology, behavioural science, social psychology and neuroscience have recently made great progress in studying such complex interactions in the animal world that try to explain helping behaviours, altruism, cooperation, friendship, and even kindness.
His most recent citation from social psychology is Leon Festinger’s 1956 study, ‘When Prophecy Fails’. Gray was twelve when this was written, he is now retired. If he has read research in recent journals there is little evidence here. One important line of 21st century research, and a classic in the field, is the work of Ernest Fehr and Urs Fischbacher, “The Nature of Human Altruism”, (Nature, 425, 23 October 2003). This article demonstrates that a less despairing account of human social behaviour can be constructed within the constraints of scientific rigour. Gray taught at the LSE and a few years ago that institution used to run the ‘Darwin Seminars’. He would have been there while they were on. Yet the material discussed in those excellent and exciting meetings seems not to have reached Gray; at least he does not acknowledge it.
Studies of altruism, from both behavioural observation and MRI scans alike, show that for every sadist torturing a political opponent or ethnic enemy to death (Gray’s obsession) there are others queuing to give blood, offering their kidneys to unknown recipients, volunteering to help others or to tidy their communities. People value these acts, and those who perform them are celebrated and considered decent people.
Sadly, Gray’s clever arguments allow no space to celebrate such mundane acts of kindness.