The following article is Chapter Three of a book entitled Finishing The Rat Race. All previously uploaded chapters are available (in sequence) by following the link above or from category link in the main menu, where you will also find a table of contents and a preface on why I started writing it.
What a piece of work is a man!
— William Shakespeare 1
Almost two decades ago, as explosions lit up the night sky above Baghdad, I was at my parents’ home in Shropshire, sat on the sofa, and watching the rolling news coverage. After a few hours we were still watching the same news though for some reason the sound was now off and the music system on.
“It’s a funny thing,” I remarked, between sips of whisky, and not certain at all where my words were leading, “that humans can do this… and yet also… this.” I suppose that I was trying to firm up a feeling. A feeling that arose in response to the unsettling juxtaposition of images and music, and that involved my parents and myself in different ways, as detached spectators. But my father didn’t understand at first, and so I tried again.
“I mean how can it be,” I hesitated, “that on the one hand we are capable of making such beautiful things like music, and yet on the other, we are the engineers of such appalling acts of destruction?” Doubtless I could have gone on elaborating, but there was no need. My father understood my meaning, and the evidence of what I was trying to convey was starkly before us – human constructions of the sublime and the atrocious side-by-side.
In any case, the question, being as it is, a question of unavoidable and immediate importance to all of us, sort of hangs in the air perpetually, although as a question, it is usually considered and recast in alternative ways – something I shall return to – while mostly it remains not merely unanswered, but unspoken. We treat it instead like an embarrassing family secret, which is best forgotten. Framed hesitantly but well enough for my father to reply, his answer was predictable too: “that’s human nature”; which is the quick and easy answer although it actually misses the point entirely – a common fallacy technically known as ignoratio elenchi. For ‘human nature’ in no way provides an answer but simply opens a new question. Just what is human nature? – This is the question.
The generous humanity of music and the indiscriminate but cleverly conceived cruelty of carpet bombing are just different manifestations of what human beings are capable of, and thus of human nature. If you point to both and say “this is human nature”, well yes –and obviously there’s a great deal else besides – whereas if you reserve the term only for occasions when you feel disapproval, revulsion or outright horror – as many do – then your condemnation is simply another feature of “human nature”. In fact, why do we judge ourselves at all?
So this chapter represents an extremely modest attempt to grapple with what is arguably the most complex and involved question of all questions. Easy answers are good when they cut to the bone of a difficult problem, however to explain man’s inhumanity to man as well as to his other fellow creatures, surely deserves a better and fuller account than that man is by nature inhumane – if for no other reason than that the very word ‘human’ owes its origins to the earlier form ‘humane’! Upon this etymological root is there really nothing else but vainglorious self-deception and wishful thinking? I trust that language is in truth less consciously contrived.
The real question then is surely this: When man becomes inhumane, why on this occasion or in this situation, but not on all occasions and under all circumstances? And how come we still use the term ‘inhumane’ at all, if being inhumane is so hard-wired into our human nature? The lessons to be learned by tackling such questions can hardly be overstated; lessons that might well prove crucial in securing the future survival of our societies, our species, and perhaps of the whole planet.
I Monkey business
“There are one hundred and ninety-three living species of monkeys and apes. One hundred and ninety-two of them are covered with hair.”
— Desmond Morris 2
The scene: just before sunrise about one million years BC, a troop of hominids are waking up and about to discover a strange, rectangular, black monolith that has materialised from nowhere. As the initial excitement and fear of this strange new object wears off, the hominids move closer to investigate. Attracted perhaps by its remarkable geometry, its precise and unnatural blackness, they reach out tentatively to touch it and then begin to stroke it.
As a direct, though unexplained consequence of this communion, one of the ape-men has a dawning realisation. Sat amongst the skeletal remains of a dead animal, he picks up one of the sun-bleached thigh bones and begins to swing it about. Aimless at first, his flailing attempts simply scatter the other bones of the skeleton. In time, however, he gains control and his blows increase in ferocity, until at last, with one almighty thwack, he manages to shatter the skull to pieces. It is a literally epoch-making moment of discovery.
The following day, mingling beside a water-hole, a fight breaks out. His new weapon in hand, our hero deals a fatal blow against the alpha male of a rival troop. Previously at the mercy of predators and reliant on scavenging to find their food, the tribe can now be freed from fear and hunger too. Triumphant, he is the ape-man Prometheus, and in ecstatic celebration of this achievement, he tosses the bone high into the air, whereupon, spinning up and up, higher and higher into the sky, the scene cuts from spinning bone into an orbiting space-craft…
Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A space odyssey is enigmatic and elusive. Told in a sequence of related if highly differentiated parts, it repeatedly confounds the viewer’s expectations – the scene sketched above is only the opening act to Kubrick’s seminal science-fiction epic.
Kubrick said “you are free to speculate as you wish about the philosophical and allegorical meaning of the film” 3 So taking Kubrick at his word, I shall do just that – although not for every aspect of the film, but specifically for his first scene, up to and including that most revered and celebrated ‘match cut’ in cinema history, and its relationship to Kubrick’s mesmerising and seemingly bewildering climax: moments of transformation, when reality per se is re-imagined. Although on one level, at least, all of the ideas conveyed in this opening as well as the more mysterious closing scenes (more below) are abundantly clear. For Kubrick’s exoteric message involves the familiar Darwinian interplay between the foxes and the rabbits and their perpetual battle for survival, which is the fundamental driving force behind the evolutionary development of natural species.
Not that Darwin’s conception should to be misunderstood as war in the everyday sense, however, although this is a very popular interpretation; for one thing the adversaries in these Darwinian arm races, most often predator and prey, in general remain wholly unaware of any escalation in armaments and armour. Snakes, for example, have never sought to strengthen their venom, any more than their potential victims, most spectacularly the opossums that evolved to prey on them, made any conscious attempts to hone their blood-clotting agents. Today’s snake-eating opossums have extraordinary immunity to the venom of their prey purely because natural selection strongly favoured opossums with heightened immunity.
Of course, the case is quite different when we come to humankind. For it is humans alone who deliberately escalate their methods of attack and response and do so by means of technology. To talk of an “arms race” between species is therefore a somewhat clumsy metaphor for what actually occurs in nature – although Darwin is accurately reporting what he finds.
And there is another crucial difference between the Darwinian ‘arms race’ and the human variant. Competition between species is not always as direct as between predator and prey, and frequently looks nothing like a war at all. Indeed, it is more often analogous to the competitiveness of two hungry adventurers lost in a forest. For it may well be that both of our adventurers are completely unaware that somewhere in the midst of the forest there is a hamburger left on a picnic table. While neither adventurer may be aware of the presence of the other, yet they are – at least in a strict Darwinian sense – in competition, since if either one stumbles accidentally upon the hamburger, it happens that, and merely by process of elimination, the other has lost his chance of a meal. As competitors then, the faster walker, or the one with keener eyes, or the one with greatest stamina, will gain a very slight but significant advantage on the other. Thus, perpetual competition between individuals need never amount to war, or even to battles, and this is how Darwin’s ideas are properly understood.
In any case, such contests of adaptation, whether between predators and prey, or sapling trees racing towards the sunlight, can never actually be won. The rabbits may get quicker but the foxes must get quicker too, since if either species fails to adapt then it will not survive long. So it’s actually a perpetual if dynamic stalemate, with species trapped like the Red Queen in Alice Through the Looking-Glass, always having to keep moving ahead just to hold their ground – a paradox that evolutionary biologists indeed refer to as “the red queen hypothesis” 4.
We might still judge that both sides are advancing, since there is, undeniably, a kind of evolutionary progress, with the foxes growing craftier as the rabbits get smarter too, and so we might conclude that such an evolutionary ‘arms race’ is the royal road to all natural progress – although Darwin noted that other evolutionary pressures including, most notably sexual selection, has tremendous influence as well. We might even go further by extending the principle in order to admit our own steady technological empowerment, viewed objectively as being a by-product of our own rather more deliberate arms race. Progress thus assured by the constant and seemingly inexorable fight for survival against hunger and the elements, and no less significantly, by the constant squabbling of our warring tribes over land and resources.
Space Odyssey draws deep from the science of Darwinism, and spins a tale of our future. From bony proto-tool, slowly but inexorably, we come to the mastery of space travel. From terrestrial infants, to cosmically-free adults – this is the overarching story of 2001. But wait, there’s more to that first scene than immediately meets the eye. That space-craft which Kubrick cuts to; it isn’t just any old space-craft…
Look quite closely and you might see that it’s actually one of four space-craft, similar in design, which form the components of an orbiting nuclear missile base, and though in the film this is not as clear as in Arthur C. Clarke’s parallel version of the story (the novel and film were co-creations written side-by-side), the missiles are there if you peer hard enough.
So Space Odyssey is, at least on one level, the depiction of technological development, which, though superficially from first tool to more magnificent uber-tool (i.e., the spacecraft), is also – and explicitly in the novel – a development from the first weapon to what is, up to now, the ultimate weapon, and thus from the first hominid-cide to the potential annihilation of the entire human population. 5
Yet 2001, the year in the title, also magically heralds a new dawn for mankind: a dawn that, as with every other dawn, bursts from the darkest hours. The meaning therefore, as far as I judge it, is that we, as parts of nature, are born to be both creators and destroyers; agents of light and darkness. That our innate but unassailable evolutionary drive, dark as it can be, also has the potential to lead us to the film’s weirdly antiseptic yet quasi-mystical conclusion, and the inevitability of our grandest awakening – a cosmic renaissance as we follow our destiny towards the stars.
Asked in an interview whether he agreed with some critics who had described 2001 as a profoundly religious film, Kubrick replied:
“I will say that the God concept is at the heart of 2001—but not any traditional, anthropomorphic image of God. I don’t believe in any of Earth’s monotheistic religions, but I do believe that one can construct an intriguing scientific definition of God, once you accept the fact that there are approximately 100 billion stars in our galaxy alone, that its star is a life-giving sun and that there are approximately 100 billion galaxies in just the visible universe.”
“When you think of the giant technological strides that man has made in a few millennia—less than a microsecond in the cosmology of the universe—can you imagine the evolutionary development that much older life forms have taken? They may have progressed from biological species, which are fragile shells for the mind at best, into immortal machine entities—and then, over innumerable eons, they could emerge from the chrysalis of matter transformed into beings of pure energy and spirit. Their potentialities would be limitless and their intelligence ungraspable by humans.”
When the interviewer pressed further, inquiring what this envisioned cosmic evolutionary path has to do with the nature of God, Kubrick added:
“Everything—because these beings would be gods to the billions of less advanced races in the universe, just as man would appear a god to an ant that somehow comprehended man’s existence. They would possess the twin attributes of all deities—omniscience and omnipotence… They would be incomprehensible to us except as gods; and if the tendrils of their consciousness ever brushed men’s minds, it is only the hand of God we could grasp as an explanation.” 6
Kubrick was an atheist although unlike many atheists he acknowledged the religious impulse is an instinctual drive no less irrepressible than our hungers to eat and to procreate. This is so because at the irreducible heart of religion lies pure transcendence: the climbing up and beyond ordinary states of being. This desire to transcend whether by shamanic communion with the ancestors and animalistic spirits, monastic practices of meditation and devotion, or by brute technological means is something common to all cultures.
Thus the overarching message in 2001 is firstly that human nature is nature, for good and ill, and secondly that our innate capacity for reason will inexorably propel us to transcendence of our terrestrial origins. In short, it is the theory of Darwinian evolution writ large. Darwinism appropriated and repackaged as an updated creation story – a new mythology and surrogate religion that lends an alternative meaning of life. We will cease to worship nature or humanity, which is nature, it says, and if we continue to worship anything at all, our new icons will be representative only of Progress (capital P). Thus, evolution usurps god! Of course, the symbolism of 2001 can be given esoteric meaning too – indeed, there can never be a final exhaustive analysis of 2001 because like all masterpieces the full meaning is open to an infinitude of interpretations – and this I leave entirely for others to speculate upon.
In 1997, Arthur C. Clarke was invited by the BBC to appear on a special edition of the documentary series ‘Seven Wonders of the World’ (Season 2):
I have returned to Darwin just because his vision of reality has become the accepted one. And by acknowledging that human nature is indeed another natural outgrowth, it is always tempting to look to Darwin for answers. However, as I touched upon in the previous chapter, though Darwinism as biological mechanism is extremely well-established science, interpretations that follow from those established evolutionary principles differ, and this is especially the case when we try to make sense of patterns of animal behaviour: how much stress to place on our own innate biological drives remains an even more hotly contested matter. But if we are to adjudicate fairly on this point then it is worthwhile first to consider how Darwin’s own ideas had originated and developed.
In fact, as with all great scientific discoveries, we can trace a number of precursors including the nascent theory of his grandfather Erasmus, a founder member of the Lunar Society, who wrote lyrically in his seminal work Zoonomia:
“Would it be too bold to imagine, that in the great length of time, since the earth began to exist, perhaps millions of ages before the commencement of the history of mankind, would it be too bold to imagine, that all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament, which THE GREAT FIRST CAUSE endued with animality, with the power of acquiring new parts, attended with new propensities, directed by irritations, sensations, volitions, and associations; and thus possessing the faculty of continuing to improve by its own inherent activity, and of delivering down those improvements by generation to its posterity, world without end!” 7
So doubtless Erasmus sowed the seeds for the Darwinian revolution, although his influence alone does not account for Charles Darwin’s central tenet that it is “the struggle for existence” which provides, as indeed it does, one plausible and vitally important mechanism in the process of natural selection, and thus, a key component in his complete explanation for the existence of such an abundant diversity of species. But again, what caused Charles Darwin to suspect that “the struggle for existence” necessarily involved such “a war of all against all” to begin with?
In fact, Darwin had borrowed this idea of “the struggle for existence”, a phrase that he uses as his title heading chapter three of The Origin of Species, directly from Thomas Malthus 8. And interestingly, Alfred Russell Wallace, the less remembered co-discoverer of evolutionary natural selection, who had reached his own conclusions entirely independently of Darwin’s work, was also inspired in part by thoughts of this same concept, which though ancient in origin was already widely attributed to Malthus.
However, the notion of “a war of all against all” traces back still further, at least as far back as the English Civil War, and to the writings of highly influential political philosopher, Thomas Hobbes. 9
So it is indirectly from the writings of these two redoubtable Thomases that much our modern thinking about Nature and therefore, by extension, about human nature, has drawn upon. It is instructive therefore to examine the original context from which the formation and development of Hobbes and Malthus’s own ideas occurred; contributions that have been crucial to the evolution not only of evolutionary thinking, but foundational to the development of post-enlightenment western civilisation. To avoid too much of a digression, I have decided to leave further discussion of Malthus and his continuing legacy for the addendum below, and to focus attention here solely on the thoughts and influence of Hobbes. But to get to Hobbes, who first devoted his attention to the study of the natural sciences and optics in particular, I’d like to begin with a brief diversion by way of my own subject, Physics.
The title of Thomas Pynchon’s most celebrated novel Gravity’s Rainbow published in 1973 darkly alludes to the ballistic flight path of Germany’s V2 rockets that fell over London during the last days of the Second World War. Pynchon was able to conjure up this provocative metaphor because by the time of the late twentieth century everyone knew perfectly well and seemingly from their own direct experience, that projectiles follow a symmetrical and parabolic arc. It is strange to think, therefore, that for well over a millennium people in the western world, including the most scholarly among them, had falsely believed that motion followed a set of quite different laws, presuming the trajectory of a thrown object, rather than following any sweeping arc, must be understood instead as comprised of two quite distinct phases.
Firstly, impelled upwards by a force the object was presumed to enter a stage of “unnatural motion” as it climbed away from the earth’s surface – its natural resting place – before eventually running out of steam, and then abruptly falling back to earth under “natural motion”. This is indeed a common sense view of motion – the view that every child can instantly recognise and immediately comprehend – although as with many common sense views of the physical world, it is absolutely wrong.
As a rather striking illustration of scientific progress, this shift in modern understanding was brought to my attention by a university professor who had worked it into an unforgettable demonstration that kicked off his lecture on error analysis. On the blackboard he first sketched out the two competing hypotheses: a beautifully smooth arc captioned ‘Galileo’ and then to the left of it, a pair of disconnected arrows indicating diagonally up and then vertically down labelled ‘Aristotle’. Obviously Galileo was about to win, but then came the punchline as he pulled out a balloon, slapped it at an approximate angle of forty-five degrees before we all watched it drift back to earth just as Aristotle would have predicted! With tremendous glee he then chalked an emphatic cross to dismiss Galileo’s model, before spelling out the message (if you didn’t understand) that above and beyond all the other considerations, it is essential to design your experiment and carry out observations with due care! 10
Now, legend tells us that Newton was sitting under an apple tree in his garden, unable to fathom what force could maintain the earth in its orbit around the sun, when all of a sudden an apple fell and hit him on the head. And if this is a faithful account of Newton’s Eureka moment, then the accidentally symbolism is striking. I might even venture to suggest that by implication it was this fall of Newton’s apple that redeemed humanity; snapping Newton and by extension all humanity spontaneously out of darkness and into an Age of Reason. For if expulsion from Eden involved eating an apple, symbolically at least, Newton’s apple paved the way for a new golden age. Or, as poet Alexander Pope wrote so exuberantly: “Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night: God said, Let Newton be! and all was light.” 11
Of course Newton’s journey into light had not been a solo venture, and as he said himself, “if I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” 12
These predecessors and contemporaries whom Newton implicitly pays homage to would include Descartes, Huygens, and Kepler, although the name that stands tallest today is Galileo of course. For it was Galileo’s observations and insights that led more or less ineluctably to what today are called Newton’s Laws, and in particular Newton’s First Law, which states (in various formulations) that objects remain in uniform motion or at rest unless acted upon by a force.
This deceptively simple law has many surprising consequences. For instance, it means that when we see an object moving faster and faster or else slower and slower or – and this is an important point – changing its direction of motion, then we can deduce there must be a force impelling it. It also follows that there is a requirement for a force to arc the path of the earth about the sun, and, likewise, one causing the moon to revolve about the earth; hence gravity. Conversely, if an object is at rest (or moving in a straight line at constant speed – the law makes no distinction) then we know the forces acting on it must be balanced in such a way as to cancel to zero. Thus, we can tell purely from any object’s motion whether the forces acting on it are ‘in equilibrium’ or not.
An alternative way of thinking about Newton’s First Law requires the introduction of a related idea called ‘inertia’. This is the ‘reluctance’ of every object to change its motion, and, it transpires that the more massive the object, the greater its inertia – so here I am paraphrasing Newton’s Second Law. Given a situation in which there are no forces acting (so no resistive forces like friction or drag) then according to this law the object must travel continually with unchanging velocity. This completely counterintuitive discovery was arguably Galileo’s finest achievement and it is the principle that permits modern hyperloop technology – high speed maglev trains that run without friction through vacuum tunnels. It also permitted Galileo’s understanding of how the earth could revolve indefinitely around the sun and oddly without us ever noticing.
Where others had falsely presumed that the birds would get left behind if the earth was in motion, Galileo saw that the earth’s moving platform was no different in principle from a travelling ship, and that, just like onboard a ship, nothing will be left behind as it travels forward – this is easier to envisage if you imagine sitting on a train and recall how it feels at constant speed if the rails are smooth, such that you sometimes cannot even tell whether the train you are on or the one on the other platform is moving.
Of course, when Galileo insisted on a heliocentric reality, he was directly challenging papal authority and paid the inevitable price for his impertinence. Moreover, when he implored his opponents merely to look through his own telescope and see for themselves, they simply declined his honest invitation. Which is simply the nature of belief – not just religious variants but all forms – for such ‘confirmation bias’ lies deep within our nature, causing most of us to have little desire to make new discoveries or learn new facts if ever these threaten to disrupt our hard-won opinions on matters of central concern.
So finally the Inquisition in Rome tried him, and naturally enough they found him guilty, sentencing Galileo to lifelong house arrest with a strict ban on publishing his ideas. Given the age, this was comparatively lenient; two decades earlier the Dominican friar and philosopher Giordano Bruno, who amongst other blasphemies had dared to suggest the universe had no centre and that the stars were just other suns surrounded by planets of their own, was burned at the stake.
Today, our temptation is to regard the Vatican’s hostility to Galileo’s new science as a straightforward attempt to deny the reality purely because it devalues the Biblical story which places not just earth, but the holy city of Jerusalem at the centre of the cosmos. However, Galileo’s heresy actually strikes a more fundamental blow, since it challenges not only papal infallibility but the entire millennium-long Scholastic tradition – the tripartite dialectical synergy of Aristotle, Neoplatonism and Christianity – and by extension, the whole hierarchical establishment of the late medieval period and much more.
Prior to Galileo, as my professor illustrated so expertly with his hilarious balloon demonstration, the view had endured that all objects obeyed laws according to their inherent nature. Thus, rocks fell to earth because they were by nature ‘earthly’, whereas the sun and moon remained high above us because they were made of altogether more heavenly stuff. In short, things back then knew their place.
By contrast, Galileo’s explanation is startlingly egalitarian. Since according to his radical reinterpretation, not only do all things obey common laws – ones that apply no less resolutely to the great celestial bodies as to everyday sticks and stones. But longer impelled by their inherent nature – a living essence – everything is instead directed always and absolutely by blind external forces.
At a stroke the universe was reduced to base mechanics; the deepest intricacies of the stars and the planets (once gods) entirely akin to elaborate mechanisms. At a stroke, it is fair to say not only that Galileo had levelled all stuff, but in the process he effectively killed the cosmos; all stuff being compelled to obey the same laws because all stuff is inherently inert.
Now if Newton’s apple is a reworking of the Fall of Man as humanity’s redemption through scientific progress, then the best-known fable of Galileo (since the tale itself is again wholly apocryphal), is how he had once instructed an assistant to drop cannon balls of differing sizes from the Leaning Tower of Pisa in order to test how objects fell to earth, observing that they landed together simultaneously on the grass below.
In fact, this experiment was recreated by Apollo astronauts up on the moon’s surface where without the hindrance of any atmosphere, it was indeed observed that objects as remarkably different as a hammer and a feather will truly accelerate at the same rate, landing in the dust at precisely the same instant. This same experiment is also one I have also repeated in class, stood on a desk and surrounded by bemused students, who unfamiliar with the principle, are reliably astonished; since intuitively we all believe that the heavier weights must fall faster.
But digressions aside, the important point is this: Galileo’s thought experiment invokes a different Biblical reference. It is in fact a parable of sorts, reminding us all not to jump to unscientific assumptions and instead always “to do the maths”. And in common with Newton’s apple it recalls a myth from Genesis; in this case the Tower of Babel story, which was an architectural endeavour supposedly conceived at a time when the people of the world had been united and wished to build a short-cut to heaven. Afterwards, God decided to punish us all (as he likes to do) with a divide and conquer strategy; our divided nations additionally confused by the introduction of a multiplicity of languages. But then along came Galileo to unite us once more with his own gift, the universal application of a universal language called mathematics. For as he wrote:
Philosophy is written in this grand book, which stands continually open before our eyes (I say the ‘Universe’), but cannot be understood without first learning to comprehend the language and know the characters as it is written. It is written in mathematical language, and its characters are triangles, circles and other geometric figures, without which it is impossible to humanly understand a word; without these one is wandering in a dark labyrinth. 13
Thomas Hobbes was very well studied in the works of Galileo, and on his travels around Europe in the mid 1630s he may very well have visited the great man in Florence. 14 In any case, Hobbes fully adopts Galileo’s mechanistic conception of the universe and draws what he sees as its logical conclusion, interpolating from what is true for external nature and determining that this must also be true of human nature – a step Galileo never ventured.
All human actions, Hobbes posits, whether voluntary or involuntary, are the direct outcomes of physical bodily processes occurring inside our organs and muscles. 15 Of the precise mechanisms, he ascribes the origins to “insensible” actions that he calls “endeavours”; something he leaves for physiologists to study and comprehend. 16
Fleshing out this bio-mechanical model, Hobbes next explains how all human motivations – which he calls ‘passions’ – must necessarily function likewise on the basis of these material processes, are thereby similarly reducible to forces of attraction and repulsion; in his own terms ‘appetites’ and ‘aversions’. 17
In the manner of elaborate machines, Hobbes says, humans operate in accordance with responses that entail either the automatic avoidance of pain or the increase of pleasure; the manifestation of apparent ‘will’ being nothing more than our overarching ‘passion’ of all these lesser ‘appetites’. Concerned solely with improving his lot, Man, he concludes, is inherently ‘selfish’.
Having presented his strikingly modern conception of life as a whole and human nature more particularly, Hobbes next considers what he calls “the natural condition of mankind” (or ‘state of nature’) and this in turn leads him to consider why “there is always war of everyone against everyone”:
Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of War, where every man is Enemy to every man; the same is consequent to the time, wherein men live without other security, than what their own strength, and their own invention shall furnish them withall. In such condition, there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. 18
According to Hobbes, this ‘state of nature’ becomes inevitable whenever our laws and social conventions cease to function and no longer protect us from our otherwise fundamentally rapacious selves. Once civilisation gives way to anarchy, then anarchy, according to Hobbes, is inevitable hell because our automatic drive to improve our own situation comes into immediate conflict with every other individual. To validate this claim, Hobbes then reminds us of the fastidious counter measures everyone takes to defend against their fellows:
It may seem strange to some man, that has not well weighed these things; that Nature should thus dissociate, and render men apt to invade, and destroy one another: and he may therefore, not trusting to this Inference, made from the Passions, desire perhaps to have the same confirmed by Experience. Let him therefore consider with himself, when taking a journey, he arms himself, and seeks to go well accompanied; when going to sleep, he locks his doors; when even in his house he locks his chests; and this when he knows there be Laws, and public Officers, armed, to revenge all injuries shall be done him; what opinion he has of his fellow subjects, when he rides armed; of his fellow Citizens, when he locks his doors; and of his children, and servants, when he locks his chests. Does he not there as much accuse mankind by his actions, as I do by my words? 19
Hobbes is not making any moral judgment here, since he regards all nature, drawing no special distinctions for human nature, as equally compelled by these self-same ‘passions’ and so in his conceived ongoing war of all on all, objectively the world he sees is value neutral. As he continues:
But neither of us accuse mans nature in it. The Desires, and other Passions of man, are in themselves no Sin. No more are the Actions, that proceed from those Passions, till they know a Law that forbids them; which till Laws be made they cannot know: nor can any Law be made, till they have agreed upon the Person that shall make it. 20
We might conclude indeed that all’s fair in love and war because fairness isn’t the point, at least according to Hobbes. What matters here are the consequences of actions, and so Hobbes’ stance is surprisingly modern.
Nevertheless, Hobbes wishes to ameliorate the flaws he perceives in human nature, in particular those born of selfishness, by constraining behaviour to accord with what he deduces to be ‘laws of nature’: precepts and general rules found out by reason. This, says Hobbes, is the only way to overcome what is otherwise man’s sorry state of existence in which a perpetual war of all against all otherwise ensures everyone’s life is “nasty, brutish and short”. Thus to save us from a dreadful ‘state of nature’ he demands conformity to more reasoned ‘laws of nature’ – in spite of the seeming contradiction!
In short, not only does Hobbes’ prognosis speak to the urgency of securing a social contract, but his whole thesis heralds our bio-mechanical conception of life and of the evolution of life. Indeed, following from the tremendous successes of the physical sciences, Hobbes’ radical faith in materialism, which must have been extremely shocking to his contemporaries, has gradually come to seem commonsensical; so much so that its overlooked presumptions led philosopher Karl Popper to coin the phrase “promissory materialism”: adherents to the physicalist view casually relegating concerns about gaps in understanding as problems to be worked out in future – just as Hobbes does, of course, when he delegates the task of comprehending all human actions and ‘endeavours’ to the physiologists.
But is it really is the case, as Hobbes concludes, that individuals can be restrained from barbarism only by laws and social contracts? If so, then we might immediately wonder why acts of indiscriminate murder and rape are comparatively rare crimes given how these are amongst the toughest crimes of all to foil or to solve. By contrast, most people, most of the time, appear to prefer not to commit everyday atrocities, and it would be odd to suppose that they refrain purely because they fear arrest and punishment. Everyday experience tells us instead that most people don’t really have much inclination for committing violence or other acts of grievous criminal intent.
Moreover, if we look for supporting evidence of Hobbes’ conjecture then we can actually find an abundance that also refutes him. We know for instance that the appalling loss of life during the last world war would have been far greater still if it were not for a very deliberate lack of aim amongst the combatants. A lack of zeal for killing even during the heat of battle turns out to be the norm as US General S. L. A. Marshall learned from firsthand accounts gathered at the end of the war when he debriefed thousands of returning GIs in efforts to learn more about their combat experiences. 21 What he heard was almost too incredible: not only had three-quarters of combatants never actually fired at the enemy – not even when coming under direct fire themselves – but amongst those who did shoot a tiny two-percent had trained their weapons to kill the enemy.
Nor is this lack of bloodlust a modern phenomenon. At the end of Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War, the Union Army collected up the tens of thousands of weapons and discovered that the vast majority were still fully loaded. Indeed, more than half of the rifles had multiple loads – one had an incredible 23 loads packed all the way up the barrel. 22 Many of these soldiers had never actually pulled the trigger; the majority preferring to feign combat rather literally than fire off shots.
It transpires that contrary to the depictions of battles in Hollywood movies, by far the majority of servicemen take no pleasure at all in killing one another. Modern military training from Vietnam onwards has even developed methods to compensate for the ordinary lack of ruthlessness: heads are shaven, identities stripped, and conscripts are otherwise desensitised, turning men into better machines for war.
But then, if there is one day in history more glorious than any other surely it has to be the Christmas Armistice of 1914. The war-weary and muddied troops huddling for warmth in no-man’s land, sharing food, singing carols together, before playing the most beautiful games of football ever played: such outpourings of sanity in the face of lunacy that no movie screenplay could reinvent. Indeed, it takes artistic genius even to render such scenes of universal comradeship and brotherhood as anything other than sentimental and clichéd, and yet they happened nonetheless.
In his autobiography Hobbes relates that his mother’s shock on hearing the news of the approaching Spanish Armada had induced his premature birth, famously saying: “my mother gave birth to twins: myself and fear.” Doing his utmost to avoid getting caught up in the tribulations of the English Civil War, Hobbes lived through exceptionally fearful times, and doubtless this accounts for why his political theory reads like a reaction and an intellectual response to fear. But fear produces monsters and Hobbes’ solution to societal crisis involves an inbuilt tolerance for tyranny. In fact Hobbes understood perfectly well that the power to protect is derived from the power to terrify; indeed to kill.
In response, Hobbes manages to conceive of a system of government whose authority is sanctioned – indeed sanctified – through terrifying its subjects to consent to their own subjugation. On this same Hobbesian basis, if a highwayman demands “your money or your life?” by agreeing you are likewise entered into a contract! In short, this is government by way of protection racket; Hobbes’ keenness for an overarching unassailable but (hopefully) benign dictatorship perhaps best captured by the absolute power he grants the State right down to the foundational level of determining morality as such:
I observe the Diseases of a Common-wealth, that proceed from the poison of seditious doctrines; whereof one is, “That every private man is Judge of Good and Evil actions.” This is true in the condition of mere Nature, where there are no Civil Laws; and also under Civil Government, in such cases as are not determined by the Law. But otherwise, it is manifest, that the measure of Good and Evil actions, is the Civil Law… 23
Keeping in mind that for Hobbes every action proceeds from a mechanistic cause, it follows that the very concept of ‘freedom’ actually struck him as a logical fallacy. Indeed, as someone who professed to be able to square the circle 24 – which led to a notoriously bitter mathematical dispute with Oxford professor John Wallis – Hobbes explicit dismissal of ‘freedom’ is suitably fitting:
[W]ords whereby we conceive nothing but the sound, are those we call Absurd, insignificant, and Non-sense. And therefore if a man should talk to me of a Round Quadrangle; or Accidents Of Bread In Cheese; or Immaterial Substances; or of A Free Subject; A Free Will; or any Free, but free from being hindred by opposition, I should not say he were in an Error; but that his words were without meaning; that is to say, Absurd. 25
According to Hobbes then, freedom reduces absurdity – or to ‘a round quadrangle’! – a perspective that understandably opens the way for totalitarian rule: and perhaps no other thinker was ever so willing as Hobbes to trade freedom for the sake of security. But finally, Hobbes is mistaken, as a famous experiment carried out originally by psychologist Stanley Milgram – and since repeated many times – amply illustrates.
For those unfamiliar with Milgram’s experiment, here is the set up:
Volunteers are invited to what they are told is a scientific trial investigating the effects of punishment on learning. Having been separated into groups, they are then assigned the roles either of teachers and learners. At this point, the learner is strapped into a chair and fitted with electrodes before in an adjacent room the teacher is given control of apparatus that enables him or her to deliver electric shocks. In advance of this, the teachers are given a low voltage sample shock just to give them a taste of the punishment they are about to inflict.
The experiment then proceeds with the teacher administering electric shocks of increasing voltage which he or she must incrementally adjust to punish wrong answers. As the scale on the generator approaches 400V, a marker reads “Danger Severe Shock” and beneath the final switches there is simply XXX. Proceeding beyond this level evidently runs the risk of delivering a fatal shock, but in the experiment participants are encouraged to proceed nonetheless.
How, you may reasonably wonder, could such an experiment have been ethically sanctioned? Well, it’s a deception. All of the learners are actors, and their increasingly desperate pleading is as scripted as their ultimate screams. Importantly, however, the true participants (who are all assigned as ‘teachers’) are led to believe the experiment and the shocks are for real.
The results – repeatable ones, as I say – are certainly alarming: two-thirds of the subjects will go on to deliver what they are told are potentially fatal shocks. In fact, the experiment is continued until a teacher has administered three shocks at 450V level, by which time the actor playing the learner has stopped screaming and must therefore be presumed either unconscious or dead.
“The chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation”, Milgram wrote later, is that:
Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority. 26
Milgram’s experiment has occasionally been misrepresented as some kind of proof of our innate human capacity for cruelty and for doing evil. But this was neither the object of the study nor the conclusion Milgram makes. The evidence instead led him to conclude that the vast majority take no pleasure in inflicting suffering, but that surprising numbers will carry on nevertheless when they have been placed under a certain kind of duress and especially when an authority figure is instructing them to do so:
Many of the people were in some sense against what they did to the learner, and many protested even while they obeyed. Some were totally convinced of the wrongness of their actions but could not bring themselves to make an open break with authority. They often derived satisfaction from their thoughts and felt that – within themselves, at least – they had been on the side of the angels. They tried to reduce strain by obeying the experimenter but “only slightly,” encouraging the learner, touching the generator switches gingerly. When interviewed, such a subject would stress that he “asserted my humanity” by administering the briefest shock possible. Handling the conflict in this manner was easier than defiance. 27
Milgram thought that it is this observed tendency for compliance amongst ordinary people that had enabled the Nazis to carry out their crimes and that led to the Holocaust. But his study might also account for why those WWI soldiers, even after sharing food and songs with the enemy, returned ready to fight on in the hours, days, weeks and years that followed the Christmas Armistice. While disobedience was severely punished, often with the ignominy of court martial and the terror of a firing squad, it is likely that authority alone would be persuasive enough to ensure compliance for many of those stuck in the trenches. Most people will follow orders no matter how horrific the consequences – this is Milgram’s abiding message.
In short, what Milgram’s study shows is that Hobbes’ solution is, at best, deeply misguided, because it is authoritarianism (his proposed remedy) that mostly leads ordinary humans to commit the worst atrocities. So Milgram offers us a way of considering Hobbes from a top down perspective: addressing the issue of how obedience to authority influences human behaviour.
But what about the bottom up view? After all, this was Hobbes’ favoured approach, since he very firmly believed (albeit incorrectly) that his own philosophy was solidly underpinned by pure mathematics – his grandest ambition had been to derive an entire philosophy that follows logically and is directly derived from the theorems of Euclid. Thus, according to Hobbes’ derived but ‘promissory materialism’, which sees Nature as wholly mechanistic and reduces actions to impulse, all animal behaviours – including human ones – are fully accountable and ultimately determined by, to apply a modern phrase, ‘basic instincts’. But again, is this actually true? What does biology have to say on the matter, and most specifically, what are the findings of those who most closely study real animal behaviour?
This chapter is concerned with words rather than birds…
So writes pioneering British ornithologist David Lack who devoted much of his life to the study of bird behaviour, conducting field work for four years while he also taught at Dartington Hall School in Devon; his spare-time spent observing populations of local robins; his findings delightfully written up in a seminal work titled straightforwardly The Life of the Robin. The passage I am about to quote follows on from the start of chapter fifteen in which he presents a thoughtful aside under the heading “A digression upon instinct”. It goes on:
A friend asked me how swallows found their way to Africa, to which I answered, ‘Oh, by instinct,’ and he departed satisfied. Yet the most that my statement could mean was that the direction finding of migratory birds is part of the inherited make-up of the species and is not the result of intelligence. It says nothing about the direction-finding process, which remains a mystery. But man, being always uneasy in the presence of the unknown, has to explain it, so when scientists abolish the gods of the earth, of lightning, and of love, they create instead gravity, electricity and instinct. Deification is replaced by reification, which is only a little less dangerous and far less picturesque.
Frustrated by the types of misunderstanding generated and perpetuated by misuse of the term ‘instinct’, Lack then ventures at length into the variety of ambiguities and mistakes that accompany it both in casual conversation or academic contexts; considerations that lead him to a striking conclusion:
The term instinct should be abandoned… Bird behaviour can be described and analysed without reference to instinct, and not only is the word unnecessary, but it is dangerous because it is confusing and misleading. Animal psychology is filled with terms which, like instinct, are meaningless, because so many different meanings have been attached to them, or because they refer to unobservables or because, starting as analogies, they have grown into entities. 28
When I first read Lack’s book I quickly fell under the spell of his lucid and nimble prose and marvelled at how the love for his subject was infectious. As ordinary as they may seem to us, robins live surprisingly complicated lives, and all of this was richly told, but what stood out most was Lack’s view on instinct: if its pervasive stink throws us off the scent in our attempts to study bird behaviour, then how much more alert must we be to its bearing on perceived truths about human psychology? Lack ends his own brief digression with a germane quote from philosopher Francis Bacon that neatly considers both:
“It is strange how men, like owls, see sharply in the darkness of their own notions, but in the daylight of experience wink and are blinded.” 29
The wolves of childhood were creatures of nightmares. One tale told of a big, bad wolf blowing your house down to eat you! Another reported a wolf sneakily dressing up as an elderly relative and climbing into bed. Just close enough to eat you! Still less fortunate was the poor duck in Prokofiev’s enchanting children’s suite Peter and the Wolf, swallowed alive and heard in a climatic diminuendo quaking from inside his belly. When I’d grown a little older, I also came to hear about stories of werewolves that sent still icier dread coursing down my spine…
I could go on and on with similar examples because wolves are invariably portrayed as rapacious and villainous throughout folkloric traditions across the civilised world of Eurasia, which is actually quite curious when you stop to think about it. Curious because wolves are not especially threatening to humans and wolf attacks are comparatively rare occurrences – while other large animals including bears, all of the big cats, sharks, crocodiles, and even large herbivores like elephants and hippos, pose a far greater threat to us. To draw an obvious comparison, polar bears habitually stalk humans, and yet rather than being terrifying we are taught to see them as cuddly. Evidently, our attitudes towards the wolf have been shaped, therefore, by factors other than the observed behaviour of wolves themselves.
So now let us consider the rather extraordinary relationship our species actually has with another large carnivore: man’s best friend and cousin of the wolf, the dog – and incidentally, dogs kill (and likely have always killed) a lot more people than wolves.
The close association between humans and dogs is incredibly ancient. Dogs are very possibly the first animal humans ever domesticated, becoming so ubiquitous that no society on earth exists that hasn’t adopted them. This adoption took place so long ago in prehistory that conceivably it may have played a direct role in the evolutionary development of our species; and since frankly we will never know the answers here, I feel free to speculate a little. So here is my own brief tale about the wolf…
One night a tribe was sat around the campsite finishing off the last of their meal as a hungry wolf secretly watched on. A lone wolf, and being a lone wolf, she was barely able to survive. Enduring hardship and eking out a precarious existence, this wolf was also longing for company. Drawn to the smell of the food and the warmth of the fire, this wolf tentatively entered the encampment and for once wasn’t beaten back with sticks or chased away. Instead one of the elders at the gathering tossed her a bone to chew on. The next night the wolf returned, and the next, and the next, until soon she was welcomed permanently as one of the tribe: the wolf at the door finding a new home as the wolf by the hearth.
As a story, it sounds plausible enough that something like it may have happened countless times perhaps and in many locations. Having enjoyed the company of the wolf, the people of the tribe later adopting her cubs (or perhaps it all began with cubs). In any case, as the wolves became domesticated they changed, and within just a few generations of selective breeding, had been fully transformed into dogs.
The rest of the story is more or less obvious too. With dogs, our ancestors enjoyed better protection and could hunt more efficiently. Dogs run faster, have far greater endurance, keener hearing and smell. Soon they became our fetchers and carriers too; our dogsbodies. Speculating a little further, our symbiotic relationship might also have opened up the possibility for evolutionary development at a physiological level. Like cave creatures that lose pigmentation and in which eyesight atrophies to favour greater tactile sense or sonar 30, we likewise might have reduced acuity in those senses we needed less, as the dogs compensated for our loss, which might then have reset our brains to other tasks. Did losses in our faculties of smell and hearing enable more advanced dexterity and language skills? Did we perhaps also lose our own snarls to replace them with smiles?
I shan’t say much more about wolves, except that we know from our close bond with dogs that they are affectionate and loyal creatures. So why did we vilify them as the “big, bad wolf”? My hunch is that they represent symbolically, something we have lost, or perhaps more pertinently, that we have repressed in the process of our own domestication. In a deeper sense, this psychological severance involved our alienation from all of nature. It has caused us to believe, like Hobbes, that all of nature is nothing but rapacious appetite, red in tooth and claw, and that morality must therefore be imposed upon it by something other; that other being human rationality.
Our scientific understanding of wolf behaviour has been radically overturned. Previously accepted beliefs that wolves compete for dominance by becoming alpha males or females turn out to be largely untrue. Or at least this happens only if unrelated wolves are kept in captivity. In all cases where wolves are studied in their natural environment, the so-called ‘alpha’ wolves are just the parents – in other words, wolves form families just like we do:
One school views morality as a cultural innovation achieved by our species alone. This school does not see moral tendencies as part and parcel of human nature. Our ancestors, it claims, became moral by choice. The second school, in contrast, views morality as growing out of the social instincts that we share with many other animals. In this view, morality is neither unique to us nor a conscious decision taken at a specific point in time: it is the product of gradual social evolution. The first standpoint assumes that deep down we are not truly moral. It views morality as a cultural overlay, a thin veneer hiding an otherwise selfish and brutish nature. Perfectibility is what we should strive for. Until recently, this was the dominant view within evolutionary biology as well as among science writers popularizing this field. 31
These are the words of Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal, who became one of the world’s leading experts in chimpanzee behaviour. Based on his studies, de Waal applied the term “Machiavellian intelligence” to describe the variety of cunning and deceptive social strategies used by chimps. A few years later, however, de Waal came across their and our pygmy cousins the bonobos that were also captive in a zoo in Holland, and says they had an immediate effect on him:
“[T]hey’re totally different. The sense you get looking them in the eyes is that they’re more sensitive, more sensual, not necessarily more intelligent, but there’s a high emotional awareness, so to speak, of each other and also of people who look at them.” 32
Sharing a common ancestor with bonobos and chimps, humans are in fact equally closely-related to both species, and interestingly when de Waal was asked do you think we’re more like bonobo or chimp he replied:
“I would say there are people in this world who like hierarchies, they like to keep people in their place, they like law enforcement, and they probably have a lot in common, let’s say, with the chimpanzee. And then you have other people in this world who root for the underdog, they give to the poor, they feel the need to be good, and they maybe have more of this kinder bonobo side to them. Our societies are constructed around the interface between those two, so we need both actually.” 33
De Waals and others who have studied primates are often astonished by the kinship with our own species. When we look deep into the eyes of chimps, gorillas, or even those of our dogs, we find ourselves reflected in every way. It’s not hard to fathom where morality came from, and the ‘veneer theory’ of Hobbes reeks of a certain kind of religiosity, infused with a deep insecurity born of the hardship and terrors of civil strife.
New scientific studies are proving that primates, elephants, and other mammals including dogs also show empathy, cooperation, fairness and reciprocity. That morality is an aspect of nature. Here Frans de Waal shares some surprising videos of behavioral tests that show how many of these moral traits all of us share:
II Between two worlds
I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds
— Wallace Stevens 35
Of all the creatures on earth, apart from a few curiosities like the kangaroo and giant pangolin, or some species of long-since extinct dinosaurs, only the birds share our bipedality. The adaptive advantage of flight is so self-evident that there’s no need to ponder why the forelimbs of birds morphed into wings, but the case for humans is more curious. Why it was that about four million years ago, a branch of hominids chose to stand on two legs rather than four, enabling them to move quite differently from our closest living relatives (bonobos and chimps) with all of the physiological modifications this involved, still remains a mystery. But what is abundantly clear and beyond all speculation is that this single evolutionary change freed up our hands for purposes no longer restricted by their formative locomotive demands, and that having liberated our hands, not only did we become supreme manipulators of tools, but this sparked a parallel growth in intelligence, causing us to become supreme manipulators per se – the very etymological root of the word coming from ‘man-’ meaning ‘hand’ of course.
With our evolution as manual apes, humans also became constructors, and curiously here is another trait that we have in common with many species of birds. That birds are able to build elaborate structures to live in is indeed a remarkable fact, and that they necessarily achieve this by organising and arranging the materials using only their beaks is surely more remarkable again. Storks with their ungainly bills somehow manage to arrange large piles twigs so carefully that their nests often overhang impossibly small platforms like the tips of telegraph poles. House martins construct wonderfully symmetrical domes just by patiently gluing together globules of mud. Weaver birds, a range of species similar to finches, build the most elaborate nests of all, and quite literally weave their homes from blades of grass. How they acquired this ability remains another mystery, for though recent studies have found that there is a degree of learning involved in the styles and manner of construction, this general ability of birds to construct nests is an innate one. According to that throwaway term, they do it ‘by instinct’. By contrast, in one way or another, all human builders must be trained. As with so much about us, all our constructions are therefore cultural artefacts.
With very few exceptions, owls have yellow eyes. Cormorants instead have green eyes. Moorhens and coots have red eyes. The otherwise unspectacular satin bowerbird has violet eyes. Jackdaws sometimes have blue eyes. Blackbirds have extremely dark eyes – darker even than their feathers – jet black pearls set within a slim orange annulus which neatly matches their strikingly orange beaks. While eye colour is common to birds within each species, the case is clearly different amongst humans, where eye colour is one of a multitude of variable physical characteristics including natural hair and skin colour, facial characteristics, and height. Nonetheless, as with birds and other animals where there is significant uniformity, most of these colourings and other identifying features are physical expressions of the individual’s genetic make-up or genotype; an outward expression of genetic inheritance known technically as the phenotype.
Interestingly, for a wide diversity of species, there is an inheritance not only of morphology and physiology but also of behaviour. Some of these behavioural traits may then act in turn to shape the creature’s immediate environment – so the full phenotypic expression is often observed to operate outside and far beyond the body of the creature. These ‘extended phenotypes’ as Dawkins calls them are discovered within such wondrous but everyday structures as spider’s webs, delicate tube-like homes formed by caddis fly larvae, the larger scale constructions of beaver’s dams and of course bird’s nests. It is reasonable therefore to speculate on whether the same evolutionary principle applies to our human world.
What, for instance, of our own houses, cars, roads, bridges, dams, fortresses, cathedrals, systems of knowledge, economies, music and other works of art, languages…? Once we have correctly located our species as just one of amongst many, existing at a different tip of an otherwise unremarkable branch of our undifferentiated evolutionary tree of life, why wouldn’t we judge our own designs as similarly latent expressions of human genes interacting with their environment? Indeed, Dawkins addresses this point directly and points out that tempting as it may be, such broadening of the concept of phenotype stretches his ideas too far, since, to offer his own example, scientific justification must then be sought for genetic differences between the architects of different styles of buildings! 36
In fact, the distinction here is clear: artefacts of human conception which can be as wildly diverse as Japanese Noh theatre, Neil Armstrong’s footprints on the moon, Dadaist poetry, recipes for Christmas pudding, TV footage of Geoff Hurst scoring a World Cup hat-trick, and as mundane as flush toilets, or rarefied as Einstein’s thought experiments, are all categorically different from such animal artefacts as spider’s webs and beaver’s dams. They are patterns of culture not nature. Likewise, all human behaviour right down to the most ephemeral including gestures, articulations and tics, is profoundly patterned by culture and not fully shaped only by pre-existing and underlying patterns within our human genotypes.
Vocabulary – another human artefact – makes this plain. We all know that eggs are ‘natural’ whereas Easter eggs are distinguishable as ‘artificial’, and that the eye is ‘natural’ while cameras are ‘technological’ with both of our antonyms deriving roots in words for ‘art’. Which means that while ‘nature’ is a strangely slippery noun that in English points to a whole host of interrelated objects and ideas, it is found nonetheless that throughout other languages equivalent words do exist to distinguish our manufactured worlds – of arts and artifice – from the surrounding physical world comprised solely of animals, plants and landscapes. A reinvention of this same word-concept that occurs for a simple yet important reason: the difference it labels is inescapable.
As a species, we are incorrigibly anthropomorphising; constantly imbuing the world with our own attributes and mores. Which brings up a related point: what animal besides the human is capable of reimagining things in order to make them conform to any preconceived notion of any kind? Dogs may mistake us as other dogs – although I doubt this – but still we are their partners within surrogate packs, and thus, in a sense, surrogate dogs. But from what I know of dogs, their world is altogether more direct. Put simply it is… stick chasing… crap taking… sleep sleeping… or (best of all) going for a walk, which again is more straightforwardly being present on an outdoor exploration! In short, dogs live so close to the passing moment, because they have nowhere else to live. Yet humans mostly cannot. Instead we drift in and out of our past or in anticipation of our future. Recollections and goals fill our thoughts repeatedly and it is exceedingly difficult to attend fully to the present.
Moreover, for us the world is nothing much without other humans. Without culture, any world worthy of the name is barely conceivable at all, since humans are primarily creatures of culture. Yes, there would still be the wondrous works of nature, but no art beyond, and no music except for the occasional bird-song and the wind in the trees: nothing but nothing beyond the things-in-themselves that surround us, and without other humans, no need to communicate our feelings about any of this. In fact, there could be no means to communicate at all, since no language could ever form in such isolation. Instead, we would float through a wordless existence, which might be blissful or grindingly dull, but either way our sense impressions and emotions would remain unnamed.
So it is extremely hard to imagine any kind of world without words, although such a world quite certainly exists. It exists for animals and it exists in exceptional circumstances for humans too. The abandoned children who have been nurtured by wild animals (very often wolves) provide an uneasy insight into this world beyond words. So too, for different reasons, do a few of the profound and congenitally deaf. On very rare occasions, these children have gone on to learn how to communicate, and when this happens, what they tell us is just how important language is.
In his book Seeing Voices, neurologist Oliver Sacks, describes the awakening of a number of remarkable individuals. One such was Jean Massieu. Almost without language until the age of fourteen, Massieu had become a pupil at Roch-Ambroise Cucurron Sicard’s pioneering school for the deaf. Astonishingly, he went on to become eloquent in both sign language and written French.
Based on Sicard’s original account, Sacks examines Massieu’s steep learning curve, and sees close similarities to his own experience with a deaf child. By attaching names to objects in the pictures Massieu would draw, Sicard was able to open the young man’s eyes. Labels that, to begin with, left his pupil “utterly mystified” were then abruptly understood as Massieu had “got it”. And here Sacks emphasises how Massieu understood not just an abstract connection between the pencil lines of his own drawing and the seemingly incongruous additional strokes of his tutor’s labels, but, almost instantaneously, he also recognised the value of such a tool: “… from that moment on, the drawing was banished, we replaced it with writing.”
The most magical part of Sacks’ retelling comes in the description of Massieu and Sicard’s walks together through the woods. “He didn’t have enough tablets and pencils for all the names with which I filled his dictionary, and his soul seemed to expand and grow with these innumerable denominations…” Sicard later wrote.
Massieu’s epiphany brings to mind the story of Adam who was set the task of naming of all the animals in Eden, and Sacks tells us:
“With the acquisition of names, of words for everything, Sicard felt, there was a radical change in Massieu’s relation to the world – he had become like Adam: ‘This newcomer to earth was a stranger on his own estates, which were restored to him as he learned their names.’” 37
This gift for language quite obviously sets us most apart from other creatures. Not that humans invented language from scratch, of course, since it grew up both with us and within us: one part phenotype and one part culture. It evolved within other species too, but for reasons unclear, we excelled, and as a consequence became adapted to live in two worlds, or as Aldous Huxley preferred to put it: we have become “amphibian”, in that we simultaneously occupy “the given and the home-made, the world of matter, life and consciousness and the world of symbols.” 38
Words and symbols enable us to relate the present to the past. We reconstruct it or perhaps reinvent it. Likewise with language we can envisage a future. This moves us outside Time. So it helps us to heal past wounds and to prepare for future events. Indeed, it anchors the world and our place within it, but, and correspondingly, it also detaches us from the immediate present.
For whereas many living organisms exist entirely within their immediate physical reality, human beings occupy a parallel ideational space where we are almost wholly embedded in language. Now think about that for a moment… no really do!
Stop reading this.
Completely ignore this page of letters, and silence your mind.
Okay, close your eyes and turn your attention to absolutely anything you like and then continue reading…
So here’s my question: when you were engaged in your thoughts, whatever you thought about, did you use words at all? Very likely you literally “heard” them: your inner voice filling the silence in its busy, if generally unobtrusive and familiar way. Pause again and now contemplate the everyday noise of being oneself.
Notice how exceedingly difficult it is to exist if only for a moment without any recourse to language.
Perhaps what Descartes really meant to say was: I am therefore I think!
For as the ‘monkey mind’ goes wandering off, instantly the words have crept back into our mind, and with our words comes this detachment from the present. Every spiritual teacher knows this, of course, recognising that we cannot be wholly present to the here and now while our mind darts off to visit memories, wishes, opinions, descriptions, concepts and plans: the same memories, wishes, opinions, descriptions, concepts and plans that gave us an evolutionary advantage over our fellow creatures. The sage also understands how the true art of meditation cannot involve any direct effort to silence our excitable thoughts, but only to ignore them. Negation of thought is not thinking no thought; it is not thinking at all: no words!
It is evident therefore how in this essential way we are indeed oddly akin to amphibious beings since we occupy and move between two distinct habitats. Put differently, our sensuous, tangible outside world of thinginess (philosophers sometimes call this ‘sense data’) is totally immersed within the inner realms of language and symbolism. So when we see a blob with eight thin appendages we very likely observe something spider-like. If we hate spiders then we are very likely to recoil from it. If we have a stronger aversion then we will recoil even after we are completely sure that it’s just a picture of a spider or, in extreme cases, a tomato stalk. On such occasions, our feelings of fear or disgust arise not as the result of failing to distinguish the likeness of a spider from a real spider, but from the power of our own imagination: we literally jump at the thought of a spider.
Moreover, words are sticky. They coagulate together in streams of association and these mould our future ideas. Religion = goodness. Religion = stupidity. If we hold the first opinion then crosses and pictures of saints will automatically generate a different affect than if we hold the latter. Or how about replacing the word ‘religion’ with say ‘patriotism’: obviously our perception of the world alters in a different way. In fact, just as the pheromones in the animal kingdom cause the direct transmission of behavioural effects between members of a species, the language secreted by humans is likewise capable of directly impacting the behaviour of others.
It has become our modern tendency to suppose automatically that the arrow which connects these strikingly different domains points unerringly in one direction: that language primarily describes the world, whereas the world as such is relatively unmoved by our descriptions of it. This is basically the presumed scientific arrangement. By contrast, any kind of magical reinterpretation of reality involves a deliberate reversal of the direction of the arrow such that all symbols and language are treated as potent agents that might actively cause change within the material realm. Scientific opinion holds that this is false, and yet, on a deeply personal level, language and symbolism not only comprise the living world, but do quite literally shape and transform it. As Aldous Huxley writes:
“Without language we should merely be hairless chimpanzees Indeed, we should be something much worse. Possessed of a high IQ but no language, we should be like the Yahoos of Gulliver’s Travels—creatures too clever to be guided by instinct, too self-centred to live in a state of animal grace, and therefore condemned to remain forever, frustrated and malignant, between contented apehood and aspiring humanity. It was language that made possible the accumulation of knowledge and the broadcasting of information. It was language that permitted the expression of religious insight, the formulation of ethical ideals, the codification of laws. It was language, in a word, that turned us into human beings and gave birth to civilization.” 39
As I look outside my window I see a blackbird sitting on the TV aerial of a neighbouring rooftop. This is what I see, but what does the blackbird see? Obviously I cannot know for certain though merely in terms of what he senses, we know that his world is remarkably different from ours. For one thing, birds have four types of cone cells in the retinas of their eyes while we have only three. Our cone cells collect photons centred on red, green and blue frequencies and different combinations generate a range of colours that can be graphically mapped as a continuously varying two-dimensional plain of colours, however if we add another colour receptor then the same mapping requires an additional axis that extends above the plain. For this reason we might justifiably say that the bird sees colours in ways that differ not merely by virtue of the extent of the detectable range of frequencies, but that a bird’s vision involves a range of colour combinations of a literally higher dimension.
Beyond these immediate differences in sense data, there is another way in which a bird’s perceptions – or more strictly speaking its apperceptions – are utterly different from our own, for though the blackbird evidently sees the aerial, it does not recognise it as such. Presumably it sees nothing beyond a convenient metal branch to perch upon decked with unusually regular twigs. For even the most intelligent of all blackbirds is incapable of knowing more, since this is all any bird can ever understand about the aerial.
No species besides our own is capable of discovering why the aerial was actually put there, or how it is connected to an elaborate apparatus that turns the invisible signals it captures into pictures and patterns of sounds, leave aside gathering the knowledge of how metal can be manufactured by smelting rocks or the still more abstruse science of electromagnetism.
My point here is not to disparage the blackbird’s inferior intellect, since it very possibly understands things that we cannot; but to stress how we are unknowingly constrained in ways we very likely share with the bird. As Hamlet cheeks his friend: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
Some of these things – and especially the non-things! – may slip us by forever as unknown unknowns purely by virtue of their inherently undetectable nature. Others may be right under our nose and yet, just like the oblivious bird perched on its metal branch who can never consider reasons for why it is there, we too may lack any capacity even to understand that there is any puzzle at all.
I opened the chapter with a familiar Darwinian account of human beings as apex predators struggling for survival on an ecological battlefield; perpetually fighting over scraps, and otherwise competing over a meagre share of strictly limited resources. It is a vision of reality founded upon our collective belief in scientific materialism, and although a rather depressing vision, it has become today’s prevailing orthodoxy – the Weltanschauung of our times – albeit seldom expressed so antiseptically as it might be.
Indeed, to boil this down further, as doctrinaire materialist hardliners really ought to insist, we might best comprehend ourselves as biological robots. Why robots? Because according to this shared doctrine humans are genetically coded not to experience life, or even purely for survival, but for reproductive success. This is our function – we consume, compete and procreate – and we are evolved to function for just such time as to fulfil this sole objective. Our death is indeed as inconsequential as it is inevitable.
Accordingly, propagation of every species goes on blindly until such time as a whole the species inevitably becomes extinct. If this process is extended by technological means beyond even the death of the earth and solar system, then it will end when the entire universe succumbs to its own overarching and insignificant end. No amount of space colonisation can finally save us from such a fate.
More nakedly told, it is not merely that, as Nietzsche famously lamented, “God is dead”, which has some upsides, but, that while richly animated, there is nothing going on whatsoever besides machine process, anywhere in this universe or the next. In fact, this reduction of the cosmos to machine process is Hobbes’ vision in a nutshell too.
In common with the old religions, the boundaries of this new mechanistic belief system extend boundless and absolute and thereby encompass whatever remnants of any god or gods we might try to salvage. There exists no location for any god within, or even the apparatus to exercise free will. Virtue, compassion and love are all epiphenomenal illusions. Remission comes in the form only of a compensatory genetic subroutine enabling us to carry on regardless of the painful irrelevance of our human situation.
Unsurprisingly, we seldom reflect on the deep existential ramifications of our given materialist mythos, which is, for the most part, unconsciously inculcated; and pretty much no-one lives a life in strict nihilistic accord. Instead, we mostly bump along trying to be good people (a religious hangover perhaps), with an outlook that approximates to the one most succinctly expressed by Morty Smith: “Nobody exists on purpose, nobody belongs anywhere, everybody’s gonna die. Come watch TV.” 39a
This is our modern story and we’re stuck with it. Unless, of course, we can dream up a better one…
III Blinded by history
“All history is nothing but a continuous transformation of human nature”
— Karl Marx 40
History, someone once joked, is just one damn thing after another! A neat one-liner, since disassembling history by such vulgar reductio ad absurdum is amusing. And glanced at, whether by highlighting a few isolated and sporadic peculiarities or skipping across centuries in search of repetitions, the sequences of too-often terrible events may appear to follow with little to no apparent connection or purpose; the rise and fall of civilisations happening without rhyme nor reason and scarcely more intent than the random walk of a drunkard. Advancement may be admitted in both cases, of course, for in spite of deficiencies in one’s sense of direction the inebriated still generally make it back home!
Unfortunately, such disjointed views of history are actually rather hard to avoid. For one thing, there’s an awful lot of history out there and comparatively little time to learn about it. Nevertheless, any sort of ‘one damn thing after another’ approach, irrespective of the earth-shattering relevance of the facts in themselves, represents a kind of freeze-dried version; our human world shrivelled up to the most desiccated of husks, and completely devoid of the life that made it.
In fact, why bother studying it at all when it is so detached from reality and makes so little sense? To paraphrase Henry Ford, history thus reduced truly is bunk, although traditionally and especially at school, history has often been taught in this fashion: as one damned thing after another… all significant dates to be learned by rote.
By contrast, real historians are primarily interested in connecting the dots. Their goal is to reconstruct the past much as palaeontologists reconstruct dinosaurs by attempting to put plausible flesh back on to the real bones from excavations. Difficulties of similar kinds have to be confronted and overcome by experts in both fields. When you are working entirely from bones, all of the muscle, skin, fur, patterns of behaviour is added on the basis of what you know about living, or at least, less extinct creatures. If there is a close living relative then the task may be comparatively easy, less so when it’s a stegosaurus or t. rex. Likewise, it is obviously far easier to understand the motives and behaviour of people in societies anthropologically similar to our own. Once we venture into prehistory – something I am coming back to consider – this complication is massively compounded.
As a child, I learnt about an enormously long, herbivorous monster called the brontosaurus, although it transpires that no such creature ever walked the Earth… at least not quite such a creature. Its discoverer, Othniel Charles Marsh, in his rush to establish a new species, accidentally got some bones jumbled up. Worse than this, Marsh, having excavated a nearly complete skeleton – lacking only the skull – had creatively added a composite head constructed with finds from other locations. The brontosaurus he thought he’d discovered was in fact an adult specimen of an already classified group, the apatosaurus.
While palaeontologists depend on fossil records, of course, historians work from the surviving remnants of a quite different kind: books, documents, diaries, and during more recent times, photographs and audio-visual recordings. For interpretations beyond living memory (which is rather short) the historian is obliged to rely on such documentary sources. The difficulty faced is thereby magnified, since, unlike bones and rocks, human records can and do frequently distort the truth (both accidentally and wilfully – and human memory is extremely flaky).
How, then, does a scrupulous historian know which records to trust when faced with contradictory evidence? How to ascribe greater reliability to some sources above others? Or determine whether a freshly unearthed primary source is reliable or unreliable; authentic or a hoax? Well basically they turn detective and begin performing cross-checks, just as a good police detective or criminal lawyer will cross-examine witnesses to corroborate evidence and ascertain the truth. Although there remains an ineluctable circularity here – something palaeontologists do not encounter – since new records are commonly informed or founded on the basis of previous ones, and so updated accounts are generally preformed by the older stories.
In 1983, when the Hitler Diaries turned up out of the blue, they were quickly authenticated by three different expert historians, Hugh Trevor-Roper, Eberhard Jäckel and Gerhard Weinberg. Of course the diaries were shortly afterwards proven to be forgeries, and soon after that totally discredited by processes of direct forensic analysis. Handwriting turned out to be the biggest immediate give-away. This embarrassing episode is mostly forgotten today, although it remains instructive. Hitler had only been dead for half a century, well within living memory, and there were ample surviving handwritten documents to compare against. Such unassailable forensic evidence is the exception rather than the rule for the greatest tracts of history.
So historians have their work cut out, since if history is to be a living subject then even beyond the reliable facts surrounding its central events care must be taken to nurture the warm, moist uncertainty of the real lives that not just made it but lived it. On the one hand, history is a sketchbook, while on the other, as archaeologist and historian John Romer once elegantly put it: “History is only myth: stories trying to make sense of reality” 41
Two decades ago, I embarked an adventure to the USA. Travelling with Neil, a friend and post-graduate colleague, to the International Conference on Asteroids, Comets and Meteors in Flagstaff, Arizona, we were wined and dined and given tours of the Grand Canyon and Meteor Crater. It was a most splendid jolly!
After the conference, we took a tour to explore a little further into the great continent. We hired a car and headed west on Route 66, only reaching our final destination, San Francisco, after a solid week of driving. Along the way, we stopped to admire the great Hoover Dam, Las Vegas, Death Valley, Los Angeles, the giant redwoods and the towering rocks of Monument Valley which form such a spectacular backdrop to so many Westerns. En route we had also encountered the occasional roadside stalls where the Native Americans who sold trinkets would try to entice passing trade with off-road signs and promises of dinosaur footprints.
On one of these excursions in Arizona we had visited perhaps the most famous of all petrified forests (known straightforwardly as Petrified Forest National Park) with fossilised trees laid strewn like ancient bronze-casts, and nearby, where we also wandered the ruined remains of human settlements. The ruins had signs too, ones that told us the houses were built some six hundred years ago, or, as the notes put it: “prehistoric”. Well that had made us laugh, although we shouldn’t have. The idea that a mere six hundred years old could be designated “prehistoric” was not another fine example of dumbass American thinking, but a straightforward fact that two ignorant Europeans misunderstood: history, as I said above, is a discipline that arises purely out of documentation. Automatically, therefore, we – meaning all modern people – have, to put matters mildly, an historical bias.
At the risk of sounding worthy (or, in more current parlance ‘woke’), I’d like to draw attention to a few related misconceptions. First, Christopher Columbus did not discover America. Today most people are well aware of this indisputable fact and academics once marginalised simply for reminding us of this and other more painful truths are fully vindicated.
For one thing, literally millions of people were already living in North America prior to that fateful date of fourteen hundred and ninety-two: a forgotten civilisation. Today, having lost their land to settlers, most descendants remain on reservations, where they may earn a few bucks, lured from passing tourists with those promises of dinosaur footprints.
For one thing, literally millions of people were already living in North America: a forgotten civilisation. Today, having lost their land to settlers, most descendants remain on reservations, where they may earn a few bucks, lured from passing tourists with promises of dinosaur footprints.
But more than this, Columbus wasn’t the first European to sail to the ‘New World’. Again, as many people know today, the real honour goes to Erik Thorvaldsson – better known as Erik the Red – the Viking explorer credited in the Icelandic sagas with founding the first settlement in Greenland. Nor was Columbus the first European ever to set foot on continental American soil. The plaudits here go instead to Thorvaldsson’s son, Lief Erikson, who according to the sagas established a Norse settlement in Vinland, now called Newfoundland. All of this took place an astonishing five centuries before the voyage of Genoese pretender Columbus.
So, if not discovery, what did Columbus’ arrival really bring to this story? Well, the answer can be found and understood simply by reading between the lines of his captain’s log. Here, for instance, is what he writes about the ship’s first encounter with the Arawak Indians who inhabited the archipelago known today as the Bahamas:
They go as naked as when their mothers bore them, and so do the women, although I did not see more than one young girl. All I saw were youths, none more than thirty years of age. They are very well made, with very handsome bodies, and very good countenances… They neither carry nor know anything of arms, for I showed them swords, and they took them by the blade and cut themselves through ignorance… They should be good servants and intelligent, for I observed that they quickly took in what was said to them, and I believe they would easily be made Christians, as it appeared to me that they had no religion.
On the very next day, Columbus writes:
I was attentive, and took trouble to ascertain if there was gold. I saw that some of them had a small piece fastened in a hole they have in the nose, and by signs I was able to make out that to the south, or going from an island to the south, there was a king who had great cups full, and who possessed a great quantity.
The following day, a Sunday, Columbus decided to explore the other side of the island, and once again was welcomed by the villagers. He writes:
I saw a piece of land which appeared like an island, although it is not one, and on it there were six houses. It might be converted into an island in two days, though I do not see that it would be necessary, for these people are very simple as regards the use of arms, as your Highnesses will see from the seven that I caused to be taken, to bring home and learn our language and return; unless your Highnesses should order them all to be brought to Castile, or to be kept as captives on the same island; for with fifty men they can all be subjugated and made to do what is required of them. 42
Having failed in his original quest for gold, Columbus’ subsequent expeditions sought out a different cargo to bring back to Spain. In 1495, they corralled 1,500 Arawak men, women and children in pens and selected the fittest five hundred specimens for transportation. Two hundred died onboard the ships and the survivors were all sold in slavery. Unfortunately for Columbus, however, and by turns for the native people of the Caribbean, this trade in humans was insufficiently profitable to pay back his investors, and so Columbus adopted a different strategy and intensified his search for gold again.
In Haiti, where he believed the precious metal lay in greatest abundance, Columbus soon demanded that everyone over the age of fourteen must find and exchange a quarterly tribute for a copper token. Failure to comply was severely punished by the amputation of limbs; the victim left to bleed to death, and those who tried out of desperation to escape would be hunted down with dogs and then summarily executed.
Bartolome de las Casas, a young priest who had arrived to participate in the conquest and was indeed for a time a plantation owner, afterwards became an outspoken critic and reported on the many atrocities he witnessed. 43 In his own three-volume chronicle, History of the Indies, las Casas later wrote:
The Indians were totally deprived of their freedom and were put into the harshest, fiercest, most horrible servitude and captivity which no one who has not seen it can understand. Even beasts enjoy more freedom when they are allowed to graze in the field. 44
Napoleon has been attributed with the utterance that “History is written by the winners” or alternatively, “What is History but a fable agreed upon” 45, and for one with such a prodigious record both of winning and “making history”, who doubts that he knew whereof he spoke.
Strange, therefore, how little attention is generally paid to Napoleon’s straight-talking, no-nonsense maxim. How instead we eagerly absorb the authorised versions of our histories, trusting that by virtue of scholastic diligence and impartiality, these reconstructions of the past represent a close facsimile to the actuality of the real events.
Of course, when it comes to the centuries-long fractious infighting between the European monarchies, we are at least privy to the accounts of both adversaries. So in general we have – at minimum – two sides to each story of every conflict, plus competing and alternative versions to reports of criminal acts and in the case of many other scandals. In stark contrast, however, when the British and the other European powers sailed off to unconquered lands soon after to be known collectively as “the colonies”, only one side of the story remains extant.
For during the period of the last five hundred years or so, the era when western records have been most replete, a world once teeming with a diversity of alternative cultures, was slowly wiped away: the inhabitants of these forgotten worlds either annihilated or wholly assimilated by the great European powers. Thus, an increasingly homogeneous culture, by the terror of cannons and on other occasions by the softer coercions of the sermons of missionaries, has steadily erased and replaced the heterogeneous confusion very nearly as swiftly as it was encountered. Defeated cultures, if not entire indigenous populations, not just swept aside and defeated, but utterly and irreversibly deleted.
Oral traditions leave little if anything by way of an historical trace, and so back in the fifteenth century, America was indeed “prehistoric”; its history having been established only after the alien invaders first stepped ashore (and Europeans must surely have appeared to the wide eyes of the native peoples they were about to overwhelm, literally as creatures from another world). And as in the Americas, so too in Australia and the other ‘new worlds’, where, of the novelties we brought along, arguably the most significant was History itself.
Bear in mind, therefore, that throughout most regions of the world and most of human time, people didn’t have history at all, because history per se begins with writing; another largely Eurasian preoccupation. Thus history in most parts of the world starts with our arrival: its origins, an indirect consequence of conquest, oppression, exploitation and enslavement.
Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, author and activist Chris Hedges discusses the teaching of history as a form of indoctrination with Professor James W. Loewen, author of ‘Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong’:
At this juncture, it is tempting to set out a comprehensive list of all the barbarisms of history (one damned thing after another), although to do justice I would certainly need to double the length of the current chapter. Instead, just a few examples more than serve my purpose of illustrating the point…
Invasions from the north took the dreadful shape of Viking longboats, their crews remembered today for rape and pillage; from the east, came the marauding Huns and then the Mongol horde, later followed by the butchery of tyrants such as Vlad the Impaler; in the Mediterranean south, entertainment was once provided by the sadistic spectaculars of the Roman circuses, and afterwards came the more ideologically entrenched, atrocities of the Spanish Inquisition. When the first Europeans had explored the lands of the west, the ruthless conquistadors came face to face with the blood-curdling atrocities of the Aztec and Mayan empires in which human sacrificial victims were regularly slaughtered in the hundreds and thousands. Which was the more fearsome and savage?
In former times, the Christians marched whole continents to slay innocents in the name of the Prince of Peace, and, in astonishingly recent times, other Christians dispatched heathens and heretics by drowning, burning and lynching, especially at the height of the witch craze that swept Europe and America well into the Enlightenment period.
Muslims, by comparison, have generally preferred to kill their enemies in the name of Jihad and Fatwa, or else to inflict judicial cruelties by means of stoning, flagellation, amputation and decapitation, all in strict accordance to their holy Sharia Law. But then the irreligious are no less diabolical, whether we consider Hitler and the Nazi death camps, or the Soviet gulags, or the killing fields of Cambodia, and Mao Tse-tung’s “Cultural Revolution” in China. Given how little time has passed since the decline of religion, the sheer number of victims tortured and murdered by these surrogate atheistic (or perhaps neo-pagan in the case of the Nazis) regimes is as gut-wrenching as it is perplexing.
Few have spoken with more forceful eloquence or erudition on the evils of religion than ardent atheist Christopher Hitchens. Sadly it was this same hatred of religion that in the end led Hitchens to join in the chorus calling for the neo-imperialist ‘war on terror’ and finally arguing the case for the ‘shock and awe’ bombing and subsequent invasion of Iraq at the cost of more than a million innocent lives in a 2003 collection of essays entitled A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq. One of Hitchens’ prime examples of religious authority making good people behave in morally repugnant ways is the barbarous practice of infant genital mutilation:
Britain itself witnessed centuries of religious intolerance, brutal repression and outright thuggery. Henry VIII, one of the most celebrated monsters in history, is chiefly remembered for his penchant for uxoricide, not to mention the land-grabbing and bloodletting of the English Reformation that followed from the convenience of his divorce from Catherine of Aragon. And like father, like daughter: a radical transformation of the sectarian landscape under Henry was partially undone by Bloody Mary’s reign of terror and her ultimately failed restoration of Catholicism (had she been more successful, doubtless her epithet would not now be “Bloody”).
Meanwhile, the sudden rise and spread of the British and other European empires meant such commonplace domestic atrocities could, during the next four hundred years, be committed as far afield as Africa, North and South America, India, China, and Australia. All of this facilitated by, and, in turn facilitating and encouraging, the international trade in human slaves. Of course, the European place in world history has been a repeatedly shameful one, but then man’s inhumanity to man can be legitimised and justified for a hundred other reasons beneath dozens of alternative flags. According to historical records then, human nature is infernally bad, and incurably so.
Cruel, bellicose, sneaky, and selfish; according to the historic record we ought to plead guilty on all counts. But then the historical record is a limited one, as outlined above – the meek have been disinherited from the world. Almost systematically so.
The French writer Voltaire is nowadays best remembered for his marvelous satire, Candide (1759), which he subtitled with characteristic irony: “or the Optimist”. A savage critique of the unenlightened politics and obscurantist metaphysics of his time, Candide is an historical fantasy, with many episodes in the book cleverly interwoven with factual events of the period. It is rightly celebrated, and I reference its central theme in the addendum below. A decade earlier, however, Voltaire had road-tested similar ideas, choosing not an historical backdrop, but one that we might today describe as science fiction. A forgotten classic, Voltaire’s Micromegas (1750) is a story about the adventures of two philosophical aliens. Here is a brief synopsis.
Micromegas, the eponymous hero, is a gigantic inhabitant of the star Sirius, who ventures to Earth, stopping off at Saturn along the way. Being many miles tall, the Saturnians who are themselves as tall as small hills, nevertheless appear to Micromegas as pigmies, and so his initial response is to deride them: “accustomed as he was at the sight of novelties, he could not for his life repress that supercilious and conceited smile which often escapes the wisest philosopher, when he [first] perceived the smallness of that globe, and the diminutive size of the inhabitants”. Eventually, however, and once the Saturnians ceased to be amazed by his gigantic presence, he befriends the secretary of the Academy of Saturn. Having discussed the comparative differences between their two worlds, Micromegas and the Saturnian resolve to set off on a grand tour of the Solar System. Shortly afterwards they arrive on Earth.
Upon landing, they decide to search around for evidence of intelligence but discover no signs of life at all except, eventually, for a whale, which the Saturnian catches between his fingers and shows to Micromegas, “who laughed heartily at the excessive smallness peculiar to the inhabitants of our globe”. As luck would have it, however, a ship of philosophers happens to be returning from a polar expedition, and aboard this ship, as the aliens soon encounter “a creature very different from the whale”.
Having established contact with the “intelligent atoms” aboard the ship, the alien philosophers are curious to learn about a life so “unencumbered with matter, and, to all appearance, little else than soul” conjecturing that such tiny earthlings must spend their lives “in the delights of love and reflection, which are the true enjoyments of the perfect spirit”. Of course, they are very quickly disabused of such idealist illusions by those on-board:
“We have matter enough,” said [one of the philosophers], “to do abundance of mischief, if mischief comes of matter; and too much understanding, if evil flows from understanding. You must know, for example, that at this very moment, while I am speaking, there are one hundred thousand animals of our own species, covered in hats, slaying an equal number of fellow-creatures who wear turbans; or else are slain by them; and this hath been nearly the case all over the earth from time immemorial…”
“The dispute is about a mud-heap, no bigger than your heal,” continued the philosopher. “It is not that any one of those millions who cut one another’s throats pretends to have the least claim to that clod; the question is to know, whether it shall belong to a certain person who is known by the name of Sultan, or to another whom (for what reason I know not) they dignify with the appellation Caesar. Neither the one nor the other has ever seen, or ever will see, the pitiful corner in question; and scarcely one of those wretches who slay one another hath ever beheld the animal on whose account they are mutually slain!”
Sadly, little has changed since Voltaire wrote his story more than two hundred and fifty years ago. 46
But now a related question: why did the Europe become such a dominant force in the first place? This, arguably, is the greatest, most important question in all of our History, though one that until contemporary times was met with the most hubristic of lame answers:
The white race is the most versatile, has the most initiative, a greater facility for organization, and a more practical outlook in life. This has led to its mastery of the material side of living, urged it to invention and discovery, and to the development of industry, commerce and science.
So begins an explication outlined under an horrifically racist heading “why is the white race dominant?” as quoted from a pre-war children’s ‘book of facts’ entitled How Much do You Know?; a copy of which I happen to own. The author’s deep-seated yet unconscious white supremacist mindset presumes such an excruciating air of colonial haughtiness, that immediately after the book summaries the other “races” as follows:
The black race, enervated by the heat of the tropics, has never shown great capacity for sustained or combined effort. The brown race, also found in hot climates, has produced the world’s main religions, and is excelled in artistic handicrafts. The yellow race is said still to have a slave mentality: the individual matters nothing, the community all. 47
When I showed this passage to my father he was rightly outraged. Those opinions were outdated and unacceptable when I was at school, he told me. But then my father went to school a full decade after the book’s publication. A world war had since been and gone. Perceptions and attitudes had evidently changed – greatly for the better.
And yet, if we hold our nose to the overwhelming stench of casual racism, there is within the same passage, one idea that might – if expressed more sensitively – resonate with a somewhat permissible and rather commonly held opinion that still abounds today:
It [the white race – Europeans] has had the advantage also of living for the most part in temperate climates, where the struggle for existence has been neither too difficult nor too easy.
In a sense, it was this very assumption that Jared Diamond attempted not so much to dispel, as to correct in his best-selling book, Guns, Germs and Steel. In pursuit of that end, he dedicated thirty years of life on the road, trying to understand precisely why Europe did come to dominate the world, and he makes the intriguing and largely convincing case that the roots to present global inequality were basically an outcome of freak circumstances and happenstance. Not simply “the advantage also of living for the most part in temperate climates”, although, according to Diamond at least, climate has had a vital part to play in the ascent of the West, but also due to other advantages conferred by location and historical timing.
His book begins by reminding us how the very origins of human civilisation in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East depended upon the accidental occurrence of arable crops and animals suitable for domestication. These two factors opened the way to a land of plenty. For given that the rise of agriculture was inevitable, Diamond says, then since its origins so happened to occupy a central geographical location in the Eurasian landmass, which has the fortuitous geographical orientation in so much as this super-continent spreads out east and west, thus providing similar lengths of day, and of seasons and climates, then it was comparatively easy for these new modes of agriculture to propagate as the people slowly migrated. A led to B led to C if only because the rise of A, B and C was so perfectly compatible.
Thanks to the development of agriculture, the population enjoyed a surplus, and this in turn brought about the rise of trade, and no less importantly, of free-time. So the people in the new settlements would spend extended periods preoccupied with otherwise unproductive activities, such as making stylistic improvements to their houses and other amenities, rather than, as in former times, gathering nuts or trapping pigs. This new freedom resulted in the rise of new technologies which, with time to spare, could also then be refined – undoubtedly the most significant of which was the production of metals and development of metal-working skills. Plough shears that were later turned into swords.
Trade routes lead to the transmission of new ideas, and once the discovery of gunpowder in China reached the shores of the Middle East, then its military use was quickly perfected. It was thanks to the early invention of writing – which arose on a very few occasions worldwide, and just once outside of the super-continent of Eurasia with the development of Mayan Script in Mexico – that this steady transmission of ideas and innovations thereafter accelerated.
As a consequence, the Eurasian civilisations had everything in place to begin their takeover, and also a secret weapon in reserve which they weren’t even aware of – germs. Our 10,000 years of domestication of so many species had inadvertently equipped these Eurasian invaders with an arsenal of new biological agents: diseases they themselves had considerable immunity to: smallpox from cattle, chicken-pox and influenza from poultry, to name but three examples. Whereas in North and South America, many people did not live in such close proximity to domesticated animals, and so had neither immunity nor exotic infections of their own to spread. Conquests by war were thus very often followed by pandemics more devastating than even our swords and cannons – although more recently, once the genocidal effect of disease had been better understood, the contamination of Native Americans became chillingly deliberate. The rest is history… our history.
Following on the vanguard of conquerors and explorers, a variety of enterprising European settlers made land grabs for King and Country, and as the empires grew, so a few European superpowers came to dominance. According to Diamond’s version then, it was by virtue of the happenstance of circumstance, the stars very firmly in our favour, that these new kingdoms of the West were first won and then overrun.
The rise of agriculture, a fluke, and the inventions of the printing press and the gun, lucky but likely consequences, Diamond presents us with a timeline of evidence to show how European dominance had nothing to do with superior intelligence, or, even that less racist presupposition, superior ideology. We would have won with or without the Protestant work-ethic, and with or without the self-righteous and assertive arrogance that often comes with worship of a One True God; a god who permits unlimited belligerence for holy ends.
In reaching this conclusion, however, Diamond is surely being too much the professor of geography, the scientist, and the archaeologist, and not sufficiently the historian, because even his own evidence doesn’t entirely lend support to such an overarching claim. For when it came to Europe’s seizure of Africa, the tables were to some extent turned, the European settlers now highly susceptible to the ravages of tropical disease, and our advantages, including, of course, the superiority of our weaponry, more than ever buttressed by an unshakeable ideology: that pseudo-religio-scientific notion of racial superiority so imprinted on the minds of the colonisers. It is the European mindset that finally retilts the balance. For the natives needed “civilising”, and despite the ever-present dangers of famine and disease, more than enough Europeans were driven by the profit motive and a deep-seated belief in the virtue of “carrying the white man’s burden”.
Bruce Parry is an indigenous rights advocate, author, explorer and filmmaker. He has lived with some of the most isolated tribes in the world, learning from how they interact with each other and the planet. After much exploration, one of the things that has truly inspired Bruce is the idea of egalitarian living. In August 2019, Ross Ashcroft, host of RT’s ‘Renegade Inc.’ caught up with him to hear his ideas on how to we can rethink our leadership structures and muster the courage to look within so we are able to change the modern western narrative:
All of the stories we tell fall within two broad categories. First there are our quotidian tales of the everyday. What happened when and to whom. Loosely we might say that all of these are our ‘histories’ whether biographical, personal, anecdotal, or traditional histories that define nations, and where it may be noted the words ‘story’ and ‘history’ are synonymous in many languages. 48 But there are also stories of a second, more fundamental kind: those of fairytale, myth and allegory that sometimes arise as if spontaneously, and though deviating from the strict if mundane ‘truth of accountants’, are able to penetrate and bring to light otherwise occluded insights and wisdom.
Stories of the second kind have sprung forth in all cultures, often sharing common themes and characters. These include stories of creation; of apocalypse; of the wantonness of gods; of murder and revenge; of cosmic love and of battles between superheroes. Interestingly, the songlines of Australian aboriginals map their own stories of origin directly to the land. Less fantastical and wondrous, in the civilised world too, there are nationalistic versions of what might also be more loosely considered ‘songlines’. In England, for instance, we might trace the nation’s genealogy via Stonehenge, Runnymede, Sherwood Forest, Hastings, Agincourt, the white cliffs of Dover and Avalon (today called Glastonbury). Accordingly, Stonehenge tells us we are an ancient people; Runnymede that we are not slaves; Sherwood Forest that we are rebellious and cheer for the underdog; Hastings, Agincourt and the white cliffs of Dover that we are a warrior nation seldom defeated, in part because our isle is all but impregnable; while Avalon, to steal from Shakespeare, makes ours a “blessed plot”:
This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of Majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise;
This fortress built by Nature for herself,
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands;
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England… 49
So here we find history and myth entwined as unavoidably as if they were stories of a single kind. But then what is the past when it is not fully-fleshed and retold in stories? Unlike the rest of the extinct world, it cannot be preserved in jars of formaldehyde and afterwards pinned out on a dissecting table. To paraphrase George Orwell, the stories of our past are not just informed by the present, they are in part reconstituted from it, and thereafter those same stories ineluctably propel us into the future. Not that there is some future already fixed and inescapable, since we have no reason to presume it is, but that what unfolds is already prefigured in our stories, which then guide it like strange attractors, just as today’s world was prefigured by stories told yesterday. If things were otherwise, history would indeed be bunk – nothing more or less than a quaint curiosity. Instead it is an active creator, and all the more dangerous for that. 50
In 1971, Monty Python appeared in an hour-long May Day special showcasing the best of European TV variety. Python’s contribution was a six-minute piece describing traditional May Day celebrations in England, including the magnificent Lowestoft fish-slapping dance [at 2:30 mins]. It also featured as part of BBC2’s “Python Night” broadcast in 1999:
IV Mostly Harmless
“Human nature is not of itself vicious”
— Thomas Paine 51
In the eyes of many today, it follows that since our evil acts far exceed our good deeds, and indisputably so given the innumerable massacres, pogroms, genocides and other atrocities that make up so much of our collective history, the verdict on ‘human nature’ is clear and unequivocal. With the evidence piled so precipitously against us as a species, we ought to plead guilty in the hope of leniency. However, and even though at first glance the case does indeed appear an open-and-shut one, this is not a full account of human nature. There is also the better half to being human, although our virtues are undoubtedly harder to appraise than our faults.
Firstly, we must deal with what might be called ‘the calculus of goodness’. I’ve already hinted at this but let me now be more explicit: Whenever a person is kind and considerate, the problem with ‘the calculus’ is how those acts of kindness are to be counted against prior acts of indifference or malevolence? Or to broaden this: how is any number of saints to make up for the actions of so many devils? Can the accumulation of lesser acts of everyday kindness in aggregation, ever fully compensate for a single instance of rape, torture or cold-blooded murder? Or, to raise the same issue on the larger stage again, how did the smallpox and polio vaccines, which undoubtedly saved a great deal of suffering and the lives of millions, compensate against the bombings of Guernica, Coventry, Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki? For aside from the moral dubiousness of all such utilitarian calculations, the reality is that inflicting harm and causing misery is on the whole so much easier than manufacturing any equivalence of good.
And this imbalance is partly an unfortunate fact of life; a fact that new technologies can and will only exacerbate. So here is a terrible problem that the universe has foisted upon us. For destruction is, as a rule, always a much more likely outcome than creation. It happens all of the time. As things erode, decay, go wonky and simply give up the ghost. If you drop a vase onto a hard floor, then your vase will reliably shatter into a pile of shards, and yet, if you toss those same hundred shards back into the air they will never reform into a vase again. Or, as Creationists like to point out (entirely missing the bigger point that evolution is not a purely random process) no hurricane could ever blow the parts from a scrapyard together again to reform a Jumbo Jet. Destruction then – i.e., the turning of order into chaos – turns out to be the way our universe prefers to unwind. And it’s tough to fight against this.
The random forces of extreme weather, earthquakes, and fires, are inherently destructive, just because they are erratic and haphazard. So if destruction is our wish, the universe bends rather easily to our will; and this is the diabolical asymmetry underlying the human condition.
In short, it will always be far easier to kill a man than to raise a child to become a man. Killing requires nothing else than the sudden slash of a blade, or the momentary pull on a trigger; the sheer randomness of the bullet’s tumbling wound being more than enough to destroy life. As technology advances, the push of a button increases that same potentiality and enables us to flatten entire cities, nations, civilisations. Today we enjoy the means for mega-destruction, and what was unimaginable in Voltaire’s day becomes another option forever “on the table”, in part, as I say, because destruction is an easy opinion, comparatively speaking – comparative to creation, that is.
Nevertheless, our modern weapons of mass destruction have all been willfully conceived, and at great expense in terms both of time and resources, when we might instead have chosen to put such time and resources to a wholly profitable use, protecting ourselves from the hazards of nature, or else thoroughly ridding the world of hunger and disease, or by more generally helping to redress the natural though diabolical asymmetry of life. 52
Here then is a partial explanation for malevolent excesses of human behaviour, although I concede, an ultimately unsatisfactory one. For however easily we are enabled to harm others with soft bodies given that we live in such a world beset by sharp objects and less visible perils, we do nevertheless have the freedom to choose not to do so. To live and let live and to commit ourselves to the Golden Rule that we “do unto others as we would have others do unto us”. So my principle objection to any wholesale condemnation of our species will have little to do with the estranging and intractable universal laws of nature, however harshly those laws may punish our human condition; instead, it entails a defence founded on anthropocentric considerations.
For if human nature is indeed so fundamentally rotten, then what ought we to make of our indisputable virtues? Of friendship and love; to select a pair of shining examples. And what of the great social reformers and the peacemakers like Gandhi and Martin Luther King? What too of our most beautiful constructions in poetry, art and music? Just what are we to make of this better half to our human nature? And why did human beings formulate the Golden Rule in the first instance?
Of course, even apparent acts of generosity and kindness can, and frequently do have, unspoken selfish motivations, so the most cynical adherents of the ‘dark soul hypothesis’ go further again, reaching the conclusion that all human action is either directly or indirectly self-serving. That friendship, love, poetry and music, along with every act of philanthropy (which literally means “love of man”), are all in one way or another products of the same innate selfishness. According to such surprisingly widespread opinion, even at our finest and most gallant the underlying motivation is always reducible to “you scratch my back…”
Needless to say, all of human behaviour really can, if we choose, be costed in such a one-dimensional utilitarian terms. Every action evaluated on the basis of outcomes and measured in terms of personal gain, whether actual or perceived. Indeed, given the mountains of irrefutable evidence that people are all-too-often greedy, shallow, petty-minded and cruel, it is not irrational to believe that humans are invariably and unalterably out for themselves. It follows that kindness only ever is selfishness dressed up in mischievous disguise, and challenging such cynicism is far from easy and can feel like shouting over a gale. The abrupt answer here is that not all personal gain ought to be judged equivalently. Since even if our every whim were, in some ultimate sense, inseparable from, contingent upon, and determined by self-interest, then who is this “self” in which our interests are so heavily vested?
Does the interest of the self include the wants and needs of our family and friends, or even, in special circumstances, the needs of complete strangers, and if so, then do we still call it ‘selfish’? If we love only because it means we receive love in return, or for the love of God (whatever this means), or simply for the pleasure of loving, and if in every case this is deemed selfish, then by definition all acts have become selfish. The meaning of selfishness is thus reduced to nothing more than “done for the self”, which misses the point entirely that selfishness implies a deficiency in the consideration of others. Thus, if we claim that all human action is born of selfishness, as some do, we basically redefine and reduce the meaning of ‘selfish’.
Having said this, I certainly do not wish, however tempting it may be, to paint a false smile where the mouth is secretly snarling. There is nothing to be usefully gained by naivety or sentimentality when it comes to gauging estimates of human nature. Nonetheless, there is an important reason to make a case in defence of our species, even if our defence must be limited to a few special cases. For if there is nothing at all defensible about ‘human nature’ it is hard to see past a paradox, which goes as follows: if human beings are innately and thus irredeemably bad (in accordance with our own estimation obviously), then how can our societies, with structures that are unavoidably and unalterably human, be anywise superior to the ‘human nature’ that designs them, and thus inherently and unalterably bad also. After all, ex nihilo nihil fit – nothing comes from nothing. This is, if you like, the Hobbesian Paradox. (And I shall return to it shortly.)
There have been many occasions when writing this book has felt to me a little like feeling around in the dark. Just what is it that I am so urgently trying to say? That feeling has never been more pronounced than when working on this chapter and the one ensuing. For human nature is a subject that leads into ever more divergent avenues and into deeper and finer complexities. What does it even mean to delve into questions about ‘human nature’? Already this presumes some general innate propensity that exists and provides a common explanation for all human behaviour. But immediately, this apparently simple issue brings forth a shifting maze of complications.
Firstly, there is the vital but unresolved debate over free will as opposed to determinism, which at one level is the oldest and most impenetrable of all philosophical problems. All attempts to address this must already presuppose sound concepts of the nature of Nature and of being. However, once we step down to the next level, as we must, we find no certain answers are provided by our physical sciences, which basically posit determinism from the outset in order to proceed.
Then there is a related issue of whether as biological organisms, humans are predominantly shaped by ‘nature or nurture’. In fact, it has become increasingly clear that the question itself is subtly altering, since it becomes evident that the dichotomy is a false one. What can be said with certainty is that inherited traits are encouraged, amplified, altered and sometimes prohibited by virtue of our environment due to processes occurring both at biological and social levels. Beyond this, nature and nurture cannot be so easily disentangled.
The tree grows and develops in accordance not merely with biochemical instructions encoded within its seed but in response to the place where that seed germinates, whether under full sunlight or deep shade, whether its roots penetrate rich or impoverished soil, and in accordance with temporal variations in wind and rainfall. We too are shaped not only as the flukes of genealogy, but by adapting moment by moment to environmental changes from the very instant our father’s sperm penetrated and merged with our mother’s egg. We are no more reducible to Dawkins’ ‘lumbering robots’, those vehicles “blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes” 53 that bloodlessly echo Hobbes, than we are to the ‘tabula rasa’ of Aristotle, Locke, Rousseau and Sartre. Yet somehow this argument lurches on, at least in the public consciousness, always demanding some kind of binary answer as though this remains a possibility.
As for the question of free will or determinism at a cosmic level, my personal belief is the one already presented in the book’s introduction, although to make matters absolutely unequivocal allow me to proffer my equivalent to Pascal’s famous wager: that one ought to live without hesitation as though free will exists, because in the case you are right, you gain everything, whereas if you lose, you lose nothing. Moreover, the view that we are without agency and altogether incapable of shaping our future involves a shallow pretence that also seeks to deny personal responsibility; it robs us of our dignity and self-respect, and disowns the god that dwells within.
As for proof of this faculty, I have none, and the best supporting evidence is that on occasions when I have most compellingly perceived myself as a thoroughly free agent in the world, there has spontaneously arisen a corresponding anxiety: the sense that given one’s possession of such an extravagant gift involves the acknowledgment of the sheer enormity of one’s responsibility. An overwhelming feeling that freedom comes with an excessively heavy price attached.
Indeed, my preferred interpretation of the myth of Eve’s temptation in the Garden of Eden follows from this: that the eating of “the apple” – i.e., the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil – miraculously and instantly gave birth to free will and conscience as one, with each sustaining the other (like the other snake, Ouroboros, perpetually eating its own tail). It follows that The Fall is nothing besides our human awakening to the contradistinction of good and evil actions, and thus interpreted, this apprehension of morality is simply the contingent upshot of becoming free in a fully conscious sense. 54
Indeed, we might justifiably wonder upon what grounds the most dismal critiques of human nature are founded, if not for the prior existence of a full awareness of moral failings that is itself another component aspect and expression of that same nature. Or, as French writer La Rochefoucauld put it in one of his most famous and eloquent maxims: “Hypocrisy is the homage which vice renders to virtue.” 55 That is, whenever the hypocrite says one thing then does another, he does it because he recognises his own iniquity but then feigns a moral conscience to hide his shame. Less succinctly, it might be restated that acting with good conscience is hard-wired and for most people (sociopaths presumably excluded) doing otherwise automatically involves us in compensatory acts of dissemblance, denial and in self-delusion also.
We have no reason to say humans are wholly exceptional in possessing a conscience, of course, although it seems that we are uncommonly sensitive when it comes to detecting injustice, and the reason is perhaps because (admittedly, this a hunch) we are uniquely gifted empathisers. Unfortunately, such prodigious talent for getting into the minds of others is one that also makes our species uniquely dangerous.
James Hillman was an American psychologist, who studied at, and then guided studies for, the C.G. Jung Institute in Zurich. In the following interview he speaks about how we have lost our connection to the cosmos and consequently our feelings for the beauty in the world and with it our love for life:
The Enlightenment struck many blows, one of which effectively killed God (or at least certain kinds of Theism). In the process, it more inadvertently toppled the pedestal upon which humanity had earlier placed itself, as Darwinianism slowly but inevitably brought us all back down to earth with a bump. No longer the lords of creations, still the shibboleth of anthropocentrism is much harder to shake.
Hobbes convinced us that ‘human nature’ is dangerous because it is Nature. Rousseau then took the opposing view arguing that our real problems actually stem from not behaving naturally enough. His famous declaration that “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains” forms the opening sentence of his seminal work The Social Contract; the spark that had helped to ignite revolutions across Europe. 56 Less than a century later, Marx and Engels concluded The Communist Manifesto, echoing Rousseau with the no less famous imperative often paraphrased: “Workers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains” 57
In the place of freedom and perhaps out of a desperate sense of loss, we soon recreated ourselves as gods instead and then set about constructing new pedestals based on fascist and Soviet designs. But finally, the truth was out. Humans make terrible gods. And as we tore down the past, remembering in horror the death camps and the gulags, we also invented new stories about ourselves.
In the process, the post-Hobbesian myth of ‘human nature’ took another stride. Rather than being on a level with the rest of creation and mechanically compelled to lust for power and material sustenance like all animals, our species was recast once again as sui generis in a different way. Beyond the ability to wield tools, and to manipulate the world through language and indeed by virtue of culture more generally, we came to the conclusion that the one truly exceptional feature of humans – the really big thing that differentiates ‘human nature’ from the whole of the rest of nature – was our species outstanding tendency to be rapacious and cruel. Thanks to our peculiar desire for self-aggrandisement, this has become the latest way we flatter ourselves.
It is sometimes said, for instance, that humans are the only creatures that take amusement from in cruelty. Indeed, at first glance this sounds like a perfectly fair accusation, but then just a little consideration finds it to be false. Take the example of the well-fed cat that is stalking the bird: does it not find amusement of a feline kind in its hunt? When it toys with a cornered mouse, meting out a slow death from the multiple blows of its retractable claws, is it not enjoying itself? And what other reason can explain why that killer whales will often toss a baby seal from mouth to mouth – shouldn’t they just put it out of its misery?
Ah yes, comes the rejoinder, but still we are the only creatures to engage in full-scale warfare. Well, again, yes and no. The social insects go to war too. Chemical weapons are deployed as one colony defends itself from the raids of an aggressor. When this is granted, here’s the next comeback: ah, but we bring malice aforethought. The social insects are merely acting in response to chemical stimuli. They have pheromones for war, but no savage intent.
This brings us a little closer to home – too close perhaps – since it is well documented that chimpanzees gang up to fight against a rival neighbouring troop. How is this to be differentiated from our own outbreaks of tribal and sectarian violence?
That chimpanzees are capable of malice aforethought has long been known too. Indeed, they have observed on occasions to bring a weapon to the scene of the attack. But then, you might expect our immediate evolutionary cousins to share a few of our vices! However, in the 1970s, primatologist Jane Goodall was still more dismayed when she saw how the wild chimps she was studying literally descended into a kind of civil war: systematically killing a group of ‘separatists’ one-by-one and apparently planning their campaign in advance. 57a So yes, without any doubt, humans are best able of all creatures to act with malice aforethought, yet even in this we are apparently not alone.
Okay then… and here is the current fashion in humanity’s self-abasement… we are the only creatures that deliberately destroy their own environment. But again, what does this really mean? When rabbits first landed in Australia (admitted introduced by humans), did they settle down for a fair share of what was available? When domestic cats first appeared in New Zealand (and sorry to pick on cats again), did they negotiate terms with the flightless birds? And what of the crown of thorns starfish that devours the coral reefs, or of the voracious Humboldt squid swarming in some parts of our oceans and consuming every living thing in sight? Or consider this: when the continents of North and South America first collided and a land bridge allowed the Old World creatures of the North to encounter the New World creatures of the South, the migration of the former caused mass extinction of the latter. The Old World creatures being better adapted to the new circumstances simply ate the competition. There was not a man in sight.
In short, Nature’s balance is not maintained thanks to the generosity and co-operation between species: this is a human conceit. Her ways are all-too often cruel. Foxes eat rabbits and in consequence their populations grow and shrink reciprocally. Where there is an abundance of prey the predators thrive, but once numbers reach a critical point that feast becomes a famine, which restores the original balance. This is how ‘Nature’s balance’ is usually maintained – just as Malthus correctly describes (more below). But modern humans have escaped this desperate battle for survival, and by means of clever artificial methods, enable our own populations to avoid both predation and famine; an unprecedented situation that really does finally set us apart from all of our fellow species.
When Donald, son of psychologists, Winthrop and Luella Kellogg, turned ten-months old, his parents took the extraordinary decision of adopting Gua, a seven and a half-month female chimp to bring up in their home as a surrogate sibling. It was the 1930s and this would be a pioneering experiment in primate behaviour; a comparative study that caused some deal of dismay in academia and amongst the public. But irrespective of questions of ethics and oblivious to charges of sensationalism, the Kelloggs proceeded and Donald and Gua finally lived together for nine months.
They soon developed a close bond. Although younger, Gua was actually more mature than Donald both intellectually and emotionally. Being protective, she would often hug him to cheer him up. Her development was remarkably swift, and she quickly learned how to eat with a spoon and to drink from a glass. She also learned to walk and to skip – obviously not natural behaviours for a chimp – as well as to comprehend basic words; all of this before Donald had caught up.
This comparative developmental study had to be cut short, however, because by the age of two, Donald’s behaviour was becoming disconcertingly apelike. For one thing, he was regressing back to crawling. He had also learned to carry things in his mouth, picking up crumbs with his lips and one day chewing up a shoe, and far more than ordinary toddlers, he took delight in climbing the furniture and trees. Worse still, his language skills were seriously delayed and by eighteen-months he knew just three words, so that instead of talking he would frequently just grunt or make chimp-like gesticulations instead. The story ends tragically, of course, as all of the concerns over ethics became confirmed. Gua died of pneumonia less than a year after the study was curtailed and she had been abandoned by the Kelloggs family. Donald committed suicide later in life when he was 43 years old.
This is a sad story and by retelling it I am in no way endorsing the treatment of Donald and Gua. No such experiment should ever have been conducted, but it was, and the results are absolutely startling nonetheless. Instead of “humanizing the ape”, as the Kelloggs hoped to achieve, the reverse had been occurring. What they had proved inadvertently is that humans are simply more malleable than chimps, or for that matter any other creature on earth. It is humans that learn best by aping and not the other way around.
However much we may try to refine our search for answers, it is actual difficult to get beyond the most rudimentary formulation which ponders upon whether ‘human nature’ is for the most part good or bad. Rephrased, as it often is, this same inquiry generally receives one of four responses that can be summarised as follows: –
i) that human nature is mostly good but corruptible;
ii) that human nature is mostly bad but can be corrected;
iii) that human nature is mostly bad but with flaws that can be ameliorated – rather than made good; or,
iv) most misanthropically, that human nature is atrocious, and irredeemably so, but that’s life.
The first is the Romanticism of Rousseau, whereas the third and fourth hinge around the cynicism of Hobbes. Whereas Hobbes had regarded the ‘state of nature’ as the ultimate threat, Rousseau implores us instead to return to a primitive state of authentic innocence. And it is these extremes of Hobbes and Rousseau that still prevail, informing the nuclear-armed policy of Mutual Assured Destruction on the one hand, and the counterculture of The New Age on the other. Curiously, both peer back distantly to Eden and reassess The Fall from different vantages too. Although deeply unreligious, Hobbes holds the more strictly Christian orthodox view. As undertaker and poet Thomas Lynch laid it out:
[T]he facts of the matter of human nature – we want, we hurt and hunger, we thirst and crave, we weep and laugh, dance and desire more and more and more. We only do these things because we die. We only die because we do these things. The fruit of the tree in the middle of Eden, being forbidden, is sexy and tempting, tasty and fatal.
The fall of Man and Free Market Capitalism, no less the doctrines of Redemptive Suffering and Supply and Demand are based on the notion that enough is never enough… A world of carnal bounty and commercial indifference, where men and women have no private parts, nor shame nor guilt nor fear of death, would never evolve into a place that Darwin and Bill Gates and the Dalai Lama could be proud of. They bit the apple and were banished from it. 58
Forever in the grip of the passions, our ‘appetites’ and ‘aversions’, these conjoined and irrepressible Hobbesian forces of attraction and repulsion continually incite us. In our desperation to escape we flee blindly from our fears, yet remaining hopeful always of entirely satisfying our desires. It’s pain and pleasure all the way: sex and death! And I imagine if you had asked Hobbes whether without the apple “we’d still be blissfully wandering about naked in paradise”, as Dudley Moore put it to Peter Cook’s Devil in the marvelous Faustian spoof Bedazzled, you’d very likely get a similar reply to the one Cook gave him: “they [Adam and Eve] were pig ignorant!” 59
However, the Genesis myth although a short story, in fact takes place as two very distinct acts: and only the first part is concerned with temptation, whereas the denouement is centred on shame. So let’s consider shame for a moment, because shame appears to be unique as an emotion, and though we habitually confuse it with guilt – since both are involved in reactions to conscience – shame has an inescapable social quality. To summarise this, guilt involves what you do, while shame is intrinsically bound up with your sense of self. So guilt leads us to make apologies, a healthy response for wrongdoing, whereas you cannot apologise for being bad.
Detail from ‘The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden’ (Italian: Cacciata dei progenitori dall’Eden), a fresco by the Italian Early Renaissance artist Masaccio, ca. 1427. Based on image from Wikimedia Commons.
The American academic Brené Brown describes shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging” 60 and says imagine how you would feel if you were in a room with all the people you most loved but when you walked out you began to hear the worst things imaginable about yourself; so bad that you don’t think you’ll ever be able to walk back into the room to face everyone again.
In fact, shame is ultimately tied up with fears of being unworthy, unloveable, and of abandonment that we learn to feel as infants, when isolation and rejection are actual existential threats. So it triggers instinctual responses that humans probably evolved in order to avoid being rejected and ostracised by the group, when this again involved an actual existential threat. Shame is an overwhelming feeling accompanied by lots of physiological sensations such as blushing, the tightening of the chest, feelings of not being able to breathe, and a horrible doubt that also runs to the pit in your stomach. It is really no exaggeration to say that shame feels like death. While guilt leads us to make apologies, which is a healthy response for wrongdoing, you cannot usefully apologise just for straightforwardly being bad.
Moreover, and unlike our other emotions, shame can be a response to just about anything: our appearance, our own attention-seeking, when we get too boisterous, too over-excited, talking too much (especially about oneself); or when we retreat into isolation, feeling shy and avoidant; or feeling inauthentic, fake; or for being taken advantage of; or conversely being unable to drop our armour, and being judgmental and quick to anger; or just for a lack of ability, skills, or creativity; our failure to communicate properly, including being able to speak up or speak honestly; or when we are lazy, or weak, with low energy or lack of motivation, perhaps sexually; or finally – not that my list is in anyway exhaustive – shame can be triggered by anxiety, nervousness, defensiveness, when we display our weakness by blushing or showing other visual signs of nervousness or shame. Note the circularity.
Strangely, we can even feel shame without recognising the symptoms, and this may again generate escalating confusion and a terrifying sense of spiralling: a fear that we won’t survive the feeling itself. In fact, shame and fear have a co-existent relationship such that we can alternate between both, and both may leave terrible psychological scars; some of parts of us becoming repressed; others forming a mask – becoming conscious and unconscious aspects (a topic I return to consider in the next chapter).
Interestingly, Jean-Paul Sartre is often paraphrased saying “hell is other people”, which is then widely misinterpreted to mean that our relationships with others are invariably poisoned. In fact, what Sartre had meant is closer to the idea that hell is the judgment of our own existence in the eyes of other people, so then again, perhaps what he finally intended to say is “hell is our sense of rejection in the eyes of others”. If so, then he was surely right. 61
Seen in this way, the Rousseauian standpoint becomes intriguing. Is it possible that the root cause of all human depravity is finally shame? And if we could get beyond our shame, would this return to innocence throw open the gates to paradise once more?
In this chapter I have already tried to expose some of the chinks in our rather well-worn armour of Hobbesianism, because for the reasons expounded upon above, it has been collectively weighing us down. Hobbes’ adamancy that human nature is rotten to the core with its corollary that there is little that can be done about it, is actually rather difficult to refute; the measure of human cruelty vastly exceeding all real or apparent acts of generosity and kindness. But Hobbes’ account is lacking and what it lacks in abundance is any kind of empathy. Our capacity for empathy is, Brené Brown points out, obstructed primarily by shame. Why? Because empathy can only flourish where there is vulnerability and this is precisely what shame crushes.
So yes, we must concede that the little boy who pulls the legs off flies greatly amuses himself. There can be a thrill to malice, if of a rather shallow and sordid kind. But more happiness is frequently to found in acts of creation than in destruction; more fulfillment to helping than hindering; and there is far more comfort in loving than in hating. Even Hobbes, though ‘twinned with fear’, deep down must have known this too.
Brené Brown has spent many decades researching shame, which she believes is an unspoken epidemic and the secret behind many forms of disruptive behaviour. An earlier TED talk on vulnerability became a viral hit. Here she explores what can happen when people confront their shame head-on:
On the whole, we are not very much into the essence of things these days. Essentialism is out and various forms of relativism are greatly in vogue. That goes for all things except perhaps our ‘human nature’, for which such an essence is very commonly presumed. Yet it seems to me that the closer one peers, the blurrier any picture of our human nature actually becomes; and the harder one tries to grasp its essence, the less tangible it is. In any case, each of the various philosophies that inform our modern ideas of ‘human nature’ are intrinsically tainted by prior, and in general, hidden assumptions, which arise from vestigial religious and/or political dogma.
For instance, if we take our cue from Science (most especially from Natural History and Biology) by seeking answers in the light of Darwin’s discoveries, then we automatically inherit a view of human nature sketched out by Malthus and Hobbes. Malthus who proceeded directly from (his own version of) God at the outset, and Hobbes, who in desperately trying to circumvent the divine, finished up constructing an entire political philosophy based on a notion barely distinguishable from Augustine’s doctrine of Original Sin. Meanwhile almost all of the histories that commonly inform our opinions about human nature are those written about and in service of the battle-hardened conquerors of empires.
But why suppose that there really is anything deserving the title ‘human nature’ in the first place, especially given what is most assuredly known about our odd species: that we are supremely adaptable and very much more malleable and less instinctive than all our fellow creatures. Indeed the composite words strike me as rather curious, once I can step back a little. After all, ‘human’ and ‘nature’ are not in general very comfortable bedfellows. ‘Human’ meaning ‘artificial’ and ‘nature’ meaning, well… ‘natural’… and bursting with wholesome goodness! Or else, alternatively, ‘human’ translating as humane and civilised, leaving ‘nature’ to supply synonyms for wild, primitive and untamed… and, by virtue of this, red in tooth and claw.
In short, the very term ‘human nature’ is surely an oxymoron, doubly so as we see above. The falsehood of ‘human nature’ concealing the more fascinating if unsettling truth that in so many respects humans conjure up their nature in accordance with how we believe ourselves to be, which rests in turn on what limits are set by our family, our acquaintances and the wider culture. Human nature and human culture are inextricable, giving birth to one another like the paradoxical chicken and egg. As Huxley writes:
‘Existence is prior to essence.’ Unlike most metaphysical propositions, this slogan of the existentialists can actually be verified. ‘Wolf children,’ adopted by animal mothers and brought up in animal surroundings, have the form of human beings, but are not human. The essence of humanity, it is evident, is not something we are born with; it is something we make or grow into. We learn to speak, we accumulate conceptualized knowledge and pseudo-knowledge, we imitate our elders, we build up fixed patterns of thought and feeling and behaviour, and in the process we become human, we turn into persons. 62
Alternatively, we might give a nod to Aristotle who famously declared “man is by nature a political animal”, an assessment seemingly bound up in contradictions while yet abundantly true, and which he then expounds upon saying:
“And why man is a political animal in a greater measure than any bee or any gregarious animal is clear. For nature, as we declare, does nothing without purpose; and man alone of the animals possesses speech. The mere voice, it is true, can indicate pain and pleasure, and therefore is possessed by the other animals as well (for their nature has been developed so far as to have sensations of what is painful and pleasant and to indicate those sensations to one another), but speech is designed to indicate the advantageous and the harmful, and therefore also the right and the wrong; for it is the special property of man in distinction from the other animals that he alone has perception of good and bad and right and wrong and the other moral qualities, and it is partnership in these things that makes a household and a city-state.” 63
Two millennia later and half a millennium after the Aristotelian star had finally waned, Benjamin Disraeli reflected on the latest developments in science and specifically the new theory of evolution, saying:
“The question is this— Is man an ape or an angel? My Lord, I am on the side of the angels.” 63a
To end, therefore, I propose a secular update to Pascal’s wager, which goes as follows: if, and in direct contradiction to Hobbes, we trust in our ‘human nature’ and promote its more virtuous side, then we stand to gain amply in the circumstance that we are right to do so and at little cost, for if it turns out we were mistaken and ‘human nature’ is indeed intrinsically rotten to our bestial cores, our lot as a species is inescapably dreadful whatever we wish to achieve. For in the long run, as new technologies supply ever more creative potential for cruelty and destruction (including self-annihilation), what chance do we have to survive at all if we are so unwilling to place just a little trust in ourselves to do a whole lot better?
Addendum: the Malthusian population bomb scare
Thomas Malthus was a man of many talents. A student of Cambridge University, where he had excelled in English, Latin, Greek and Mathematics, he later became a Professor of History and Political Economy and a Fellow of the Royal Society. There is, however, chiefly one subject above all others that Malthus remains closely associated with, and that is the subject of demography – human populations – a rather single-minded preoccupation that during his tenure as professor is supposed to have earned him the nickname “Pop” Malthus.
Malthus big idea was precisely this: that whereas human population increases geometrically, food production, upon which the growing population inevitably depends, can only increase in an arithmetic fashion. He outlines his position as follows:
I think I may fairly make two postulata. First, That food is necessary to the existence of man. Secondly, That the passion between the sexes is necessary and will remain nearly in its present state. These two laws, ever since we have had any knowledge of mankind, appear to have been fixed laws of our nature, and, as we have not hitherto seen any alteration in them, we have no right to conclude that they will ever cease to be what they now are… 64
Given that populations always grow exponentially whereas food production must inevitably be arithmetically limited, Malthus concludes that the depressing, but unassailable consequence is a final limit not simply to human population but to human progress and “the perfectibility of the mass of mankind”:
This natural inequality of the two powers of population and of production in the earth, and that great law of our nature which must constantly keep their effects equal, form the great difficulty that to me appears insurmountable in the way to the perfectibility of society. All other arguments are of slight and subordinate consideration in comparison of this. I see no way by which man can escape from the weight of this law which pervades all animated nature. No fancied equality, no agrarian regulations in their utmost extent, could remove the pressure of it even for a single century. And it appears, therefore, to be decisive against the possible existence of a society, all the members of which should live in ease, happiness, and comparative leisure; and feel no anxiety about providing the means of subsistence for themselves and families. 65
It’s a truly grim message, although in fairness to Malthus, the gloom is delivered in a lively and frequently entertaining style. That said, however, Malthus was wrong. Terribly wrong.
Firstly, he was wrong in terms of specifics, since he wildly over-estimated the rate of population growth 66, thereby exaggerating the number of future mouths needing to fed and, by extension, the amount of food needed to fill them. Obviously what Malthus was lacking here was actual available statistics, and it is perhaps not surprising therefore, that he later became one of the founder members of the Statistical Society in London 67: the first organisation in Britain dedicated to the collection and collation of national statistics. Charles Babbage, who is nowadays best remembered as the inventor of early calculating machines, known as “difference engines” – machines that helped to lead the way to modern computing – was another founder member of the group, and obviously took statistics very seriously indeed. He even once corrected the poet Alfred Tennyson in a letter as follows:
In your otherwise beautiful poem, one verse reads, ‘Every moment dies a man,/ Every moment one is born’: I need hardly point out to you that this calculation would tend to keep the sum total of the world’s population in a state of perpetual equipoise whereas it is a well-known fact that the said sum total is constantly on the increase. I would therefore take the liberty of suggesting that in the next edition of your excellent poem the erroneous calculation to which I refer should be corrected as follows: ‘Every moment dies a man / And one and a sixteenth is born.’ I may add that the exact figures are 1.167, but something must, of course, be conceded to the laws of metre. 68
It may be noted then, that such a rate of increase (presumably based on real statistics), although still exponential, is far below the presumed rates of growth in Malthus’s essay. But then Malthus’s estimate may be fairly excused; his famous essay having been first published about four decades before any statistics would have been available. Malthus was, however, also more fundamentally wrong in his thesis; for such catastrophic oscillations as he envisaged through cycles of overpopulation and famine are not the order of our times, and less so now than even during his own times of relatively small populations. In fact contrary to Malthus’ prophesies of doom, we have a great plenty of food to go around (lacking merely the political and economic will to distribute it fairly) 69, with official UN estimates indicating that we shall continue to have such abundance for the foreseeable future. 70
I can still recall when, as a sixth-former, I’d first heard about Malthus’ theory of population, and how it had sounded like altogether the daftest, most simplistic theory I’d ever come across – an opinion that remained for at least a few months before I’d heard about Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” which I then considered still dafter and more simplistic again. In both cases, it was clear to me that supposition and conjecture is being presented as quasi-scientific fact. In Maslow’s case, with his hierarchical stacking of physical and psychological needs, it was also self-evident that no such ascending pyramid really existed anywhere outside of Maslow’s own imaginings. That you might just as well construct a dodecahedron of pleasures, or a chocolate cheesecake of motivational aspirations, as make-up any kind of pyramid of human needs.
I was judging his ideas unfairly, however, and in hindsight see I was prejudiced by my scientific training. As a student of Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics, I’d become accustomed to rigorously grounded theories in which predictions can and must be made and tested against actual data. But Maslow’s theory is not a theory of this kind. It is inherently nonrigorous, and yet it may still be valuable in another way. As a psychologist he had diverged from the contemporary practice of expanding the field purely on the basis of neuroses and complexes, and he sought instead, a more humanistic approach to analysing what he thought constituted healthy-mindedness. His main concern was how people might achieve “self actualization”. So his ‘theory’ is better understood and judged within this context, and the same goes for other nonrigorous formulations. 71
With Malthus, however, my irritation was coloured differently. His theory may have been simply an educated and carefully considered hunch, but it did at least present us with outcomes that could be scientifically reviewed. Plainly, however, all the available facts confounded his case absolutely.
After all, it had been two centuries since Malthus first conjectured on the imminence of food shortages, yet here we were, hurtling towards the end of the twentieth century, still putting too many leftovers in our bins. And though people living in the third world (as it was then called) were desperately poor and undernourished – as remains the case – this was already the consequence of our adopted modes of distribution rather than any consequence of insufficient production of food as such. Indeed, as a member of the EEC, the United Kingdom was responsible for its part in the storage of vast quantities of food and drink that would never be consumed: the enormous ‘mountains of cheese’ and the ‘lakes of milk and wine’ being such prominent features of the politico-economic landscape of my adolescence.
So where precisely did Malthus go wrong? In fact, both of his purportedly axiomatic postulates are unfounded. Regarding food production being an arithmetic progression, he completely failed to factor in the staggering ingenuity of human beings. He seems curiously oblivious to how, even at the turn of the nineteenth century when his essay was written, food production was already undergoing some dramatic technological shifts, including methods of selective breeding, and with the advent of mechanised farming equipment. The more recent developments of artificial fertilisers and pesticides have enabled cultivation of far greater acreage, with crop yields boosted far in excess of any arithmetic restriction. With the latest “green technologies” permitting genetic manipulation, the amounts of food we are able to produce might be vastly increased again, if this is what we should chose to do – and I do not say that we should automatically resort to such radical and potentially hazardous new technologies, only that there are potential options to forestall our supposed Malthusian fate.
Meanwhile, on the other side of Malthus’s inequality, we see that his estimates of rates of population growth were wrong for different but perhaps related reasons. Again, he underestimates our adaptive capability as a species, but here the error is born out of an underlying presumption; one that brings me right back to the question of ‘human nature’.
Perhaps the most interesting and intriguing part of Malthus’ famous essay are not the accounts of his discredited formulas that illustrate the mismatch between population growth and food production, but the concluding pages. Here are chapters not about geometric and arithmetic progressions, nor of selected histories to convince us of the reality of our predicament, nor even of the various criticisms of progressive thinkers who he is at pains to challenge – no, by far the most interesting part (in my humble opinion) are the final chapters where he enters into discussion of his real specialism, which was theology. For Reverend Malthus was first and foremost a man of the cloth, and it turns out that his supposed axiomatic propositions have actually arisen from his thoughts about the nature of God, of Man, of the Mind, and of Matter and Spirit. 72, 73
In short, Malthus argues here that God fills us with needs and wants in order to stimulate action and develop our minds; necessity being such a constant and reliable mother of invention. And Malthus draws support from the enlightenment philosophy of empiricist and humanist John Locke:
If Locke’s idea be just, and there is great reason to think that it is, evil seems to be necessary to create exertion, and exertion seems evidently necessary to create mind.” This given, it must follow, Malthus says, that the hardships of labour required for survival are “necessary to the enjoyment and blessings of life, in order to rouse man into action, and form his mind to reason. 74
Whilst adding further that:
The sorrows and distresses of life form another class of excitements, which seem to be necessary, by a peculiar train of impressions, to soften and humanize the heart, to awaken social sympathy, to generate all the Christian virtues, and to afford scope for the ample exertion of benevolence.
The perennial theological “problem of evil” is thus surmountable, Malthus says, if one accepts “the infinite variety of forms and operations of nature”, since “evil exists in the world not to create despair, but activity.” In other words, these things are sent to try us, or rather, because Malthus is very keen to distance himself from more traditional Christian notions of reward and punishment, “not for the trial, but for the creation and formation of mind”. Without pain and distress there would be no pricks to kick against, and thus no cause to perfect ourselves. This, at least, is Malthus’ contention.
In this he echoes a theodicy already well developed by one of the true Enlightenment geniuses, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. Best remembered now as the independent discoverer of calculus, unaware of Newton’s parallel development, Leibniz also left us an astonishing intellectual legacy with published articles on almost every subject including politics, law, history and philosophy. In a collection of essays from 1710, and in making his own case for the goodness of God, it was Leibniz who first described our world as “the best of all possible worlds”. 75
Famously, Voltaire stole Leibniz’s aphorism and, by reworking it into the central motif of his marvellous satire Candide (written 1759), invested it with characteristically biting irony. In Candide’s adventures, Voltaire turns the phrase into the favourite maxim and motto of his learned companion and teacher Dr Pangloss. The Panglossian faith an unimpeachable acceptance of the divine and cosmic beneficence to be maintained in spite of every horror and irrespective of all disasters they witness and that befall them. Shipwrecks, summary executions, and even being tortured by the Inquistion; all is justifiable in this best of all possible worlds. For Malthus, although writing half a decade after Voltaire’s no-nonsense lampooning, an underpinning belief in a world that was indeed “the best of all possible worlds” remained central to his thesis; Malthus even declaring with Panglossian optimism that:
… we have every reason to think that there is no more evil in the world than what is absolutely necessary as one of the ingredients in the mighty process [of Life]. 76
So what does all of this mean for Malthus’s God? Well, God is mysterious and ultimately unfathomable, because “infinite power is so vast and incomprehensible an idea that the mind of man must necessarily be bewildered in the contemplation of it.” This accepted, Malthus then argues that we do have clues, however, for understanding God through objective analysis of his handiwork, by “reason[ing] from nature up to nature’s God and not presum[ing] to reason from God to nature.”
Yes, says Malthus, we might fancy up “myriads and myriads of existences, all free from pain and imperfection, all eminent in goodness and wisdom, all capable of the highest enjoyments, and unnumbered as the points throughout infinite space”, but these are “crude and puerile conceptions” born of the inevitable and unassailable ignorance and bewilderment we have before God. Far better then, to:
“… turn our eyes to the book of nature, where alone we can read God as he is, [to] see a constant succession of sentient beings, rising apparently from so many specks of matter, going through a long and sometimes painful process in this world, but many of them attaining, ere the termination of it, such high qualities and powers as seem to indicate their fitness for some superior state. Ought we not then to correct our crude and puerile ideas of infinite Power from the contemplation of what we actually see existing? Can we judge of the Creator but from his creation?”
So God, at least according to Rev. Malthus, is to be understood directly through Nature – an idea that is bordering on the heretical. But what of the Principle of Population? How does this actually follow from the Malthusian “God of nature” 77 ?
Here we must remind ourselves again that what nowadays are sometimes called our instinctual drives, and what Malthus describes as “those stimulants to exertion which arise from the wants of the body”, are to Malthus but necessary evils. They are evils but with a divine purpose, and this purpose alone justifies their existence. In particular, those wants of the body which Malthus coyly refers to as “the passion between the sexes” are, in this scheme, the necessary means for the human race to perpetuate itself. With sex directly equated to procreation.
On the face of it then, Malthus must have been entirely ignorant of the sorts of sexual practices that can never issue progeny. (To rework a line from Henry Ford) sex might be any flavour you like, so long as it is vanilla! More likely, however, he dismissed any such ‘contraceptive’ options not because of ignorance but on the grounds of his deep-seated Christian morality. Rum and the lash, in moderation possibly, but sodomy… we are British!
If Malthus could be brought forward to see the western world today, what he’d find would doubtless be a tremendous shock in many ways. Most surprisingly, however, he would discover a culture where ‘the passions’ are endlessly titillated and aroused, and where “the wants of the body” are very easily gratified. Quite aside from the full-frontal culture shock, Malthus would surely be even more astonished to hear that our libidinous western societies have solved his supposedly insoluble population problem; our demographics flattening off, and our numbers in a slow but annual decline.
Malthus had argued very strongly against the poor laws, calling for their eventual abolition. He firmly believed that all kinds of direct intervention only encouraged a lack of moral restraint which was the underlying root to all the problems. He earnestly believed that it would be better to let nature take care of these kinds of social diseases. Yet we can now see that one solution to his population problem has been the very thing he was fighting against. That the populations in our modern societies have stabilised precisely because of our universal social welfare and pension systems: safety nets that freed us all from total reliance upon the support of our children in old age.
We also see that as child mortality has markedly decreased, parents have little reason to raise such large families in the first instance. And that once more people – women especially – won access to a basic education, the personal freedom this affords gave them further opportunity and better reason to plan ahead and settle for smaller families. It is thanks to all of these social changes, combined with the development of the contraceptive pill, that “the passion between the sexes” has been more or less surgically detached from population growth.
Making life tougher, Malthus reasoned, would be the bluntest tool for keeping down the numbers, especially of the lower classes. Yet if he landed on Earth today, he would discover irrefutable proof that the exact opposite is the case. That where nations are poorest, populations are rising fastest. There is much that Malthus presumed to be common sense but that, in fact, turns out to be false. 78
Please note that for the purposes of ‘publishing’ here I have taken advantage of the option to incorporate hypertext links and embed videos – in order to distinguish additional commentary from the original text all newly incorporated text has been italised.
1 From Prince Hamlet’s monologue to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Hamlet Act II, Scene 2. In fuller context:
What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world. The paragon of animals. And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me. No, nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so.
3 Stanley Kubrick speaking in an interview with Eric Norden for Playboy (September 1968)
4 “It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.”
5 The original script for the 2001 also had an accompanying narration which reads:
“By the year 2001, overpopulation has replaced the problem of starvation but this is ominously offset by the absolute and utter perfection of the weapon.”
“Hundreds of giant bombs had been placed in perpetual orbit above the Earth. They were capable of incinerating the entire earth’s surface from an altitude of 100 miles.”
“Matters were further complicated by the presence of twenty-seven nations in the nuclear club.”
7 From the chapter on “Generation” from Zoonomia; or the Laws of Organic Life (1994) written by Erasmus Darwin http://www.gutenberg.org/files/15707/15707-h/15707-h.htm#sect_XXXIX
In October 1838, that is, fifteen months after I had begun my systematic inquiry, I happened to read for amusement Malthus On Population, and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long-continued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The results of this would be the formation of a new species. Here, then I had at last got a theory by which to work; but I was so anxious to avoid prejudice, that I determined not for some time to write even the briefest sketch of it.
From Charles Darwin’s autobiography (1876), pp34–35
9 Bellum omnium contra omnes, a Latin phrase meaning “the war of all against all”, is the description that Thomas Hobbes gives to human existence existing in “the state of nature” that he describes in first in De Cive (1642) and later in Leviathan (1651). The Latin phrase occurs in De Cive:
“… ostendo primo conditionem hominum extra societatem civilem, quam conditionem appellare liceat statum naturæ, aliam non esse quam bellum omnium contra omnes; atque in eo bello jus esse omnibus in omnia.”
“I demonstrate, in the first place, that the state of men without civil society (which state we may properly call the state of nature) is nothing else but a mere war of all against all; and in that war all men have equal right unto all things.”
In chapter XIII of Leviathan, Hobbes more famously expressly the same concept with these words:
Hereby it is manifest that during the time men live without a common Power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called War; and such a war as is of every man against every man.[…] In such condition there is no place for Industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continual Fear, and danger of violent death; And the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
10 The glee with which my old professor had jokingly dismissed Galileo was undisguised, and he was quick to add that he regarded Galileo’s reputation as greatly inflated. What other physicist, he inquired of us, is remembered only by their first name? With hindsight, I can’t help wondering to what he was alluding? It is mostly kings and saints (and the convergent category of popes) who we find on first-name historical terms. The implication seems to be that Galileo has been canonised as our first secular saint (after Leonardo presumably). Interestingly, and in support of this contention, Galileo’s thumb and middle fingers plus the tooth and a vertebra (removed from his corpse by admirers during the 18th century) have recently been put on display as relics in the Galileo Museum in Florence.
11 Alexander Pope (1688–1744): ‘Epitaph: Intended for Sir Isaac Newton’ (1730)
12 The famous quote comes from letter Newton sent to fellow scientist Robert Hooke, in which about two-thirds of the way down on the first page he says “if I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” It has been suggested that this remark was actually intended as a snide dig at Hooke, a rival who Newton was continually in dispute with and who was known for being rather short in physical stature.
13 From Il Saggiatore (1623) by Galileo Galilei. In the original Italian the same passage reads:
La filosofia è scritta in questo grandissimo libro, che continuamente ci sta aperto innanzi agli occhi (io dico l’Universo), ma non si può intendere, se prima non il sapere a intender la lingua, e conoscer i caratteri ne quali è scritto. Egli è scritto in lingua matematica, e i caratteri son triangoli, cerchi ed altre figure geometriche, senza i quali mezzi è impossibile intenderne umanamente parola; senza questi è un aggirarsi vanamente per un oscuro labirinto
Hobbes and the earl of Devonshire journeyed to Italy late in 1635, remaining in Italy until the spring of 1636 when they made their way back to Paris. During this tour of Italy Hobbes met Galileo, although the dates and details of the meeting are not altogether clear. In a letter to Fulgenzio Micanzio from 1 December, 1635, Galileo reports that “I have had many visits by persons from beyond the alps in the last few days, among them an English Lord who tells me that my unfortunate Dialogueis to be translated into that language, something that can only be considered to my advantage.” The “English Lord” is almost certainly Devonshire, and the projected English translation of the Dialogue is presumably the work of Dr. Joseph Webb mentioned in Hobbes’s February, 1634 letter to Newcastle. It is therefore likely that Hobbes met Galileo in December of 1635, al-though Hobbes was not otherwise known to be in Florence until April of 1636. Aubrey reports that while in Florence Hobbes “contracted a friend-ship with the famous Galileo Galileo, whom he extremely venerated and magnified; and not only as he was a prodigious witt, but for his sweetness of nature and manners”. Legend even has it that a conversation with Galileo in 1635 or 36 inspired Hobbes to pursue the goal of presenting moral and political philosophy in a rigorously geometrical method, although the evidence here is hardly compelling.
From a paper entitled Galileo, Hobbes, and the Book of Nature by Douglas M. Jesseph, published in Perspectives on Science (2004), vol. 12, no. 2 by The Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It is footnoted with the following disqualifier:
The evidence, such as it is, comes from the eighteenth century historian of mathematics Abraham Kästner, who reported “John Albert de Soria, former teacher at the university in Pisa, assures us it is known through oral tradition that when they walked togeteher at the grand-ducal summer palace Poggio Imperiale, Galileo gave Hobbes the first idea of bringing moral philosophy to mathematical certainty by treating it according to the geometrical method”. Schumann dismisses the tale as “certainly false,” basing this judgment on a variety of evidence, including the fact that Soria himself expressed skepticism about the story.
There be in Animals, two sorts of Motions peculiar to them: One called Vital; begun in generation, and continued without interruption through their whole life; such as are the Course of the Blood, the Pulse, the Breathing, the Concoctions, Nutrition, Excretion, &c; to which Motions there needs no help of Imagination: The other in Animal Motion, otherwise called Voluntary Motion; as to Go, to Speak, to Move any of our limbs, in such manner as is first fancied in our minds. That Sense is Motion in the organs and interior parts of man’s body, caused by the action of the things we See, Hear, &c
Quote from, Leviathan (1651), The First Part, Chapter 6, by Thomas Hobbes (with italics and punctuation as in the original but modern spelling). https://www.gutenberg.org/files/3207/3207-h/3207-h.htm#link2H_PART1
[A]lthough unstudied men, do not conceive any motion at all to be there, where the thing moved is invisible; or the space it is moved in, is (for the shortness of it) insensible; yet that doth not hinder, but that such Motions are. For let a space be never so little, that which is moved over a greater space, whereof that little one is part, must first be moved over that. These small beginnings of Motion, within the body of Man, before they appear in walking, speaking, striking, and other visible actions, are commonly called ENDEAVOUR.
This Endeavour, when it is toward something which causes it, is called APPETITE, or DESIRE; the later, being the general name; and the other, oftentimes restrained to signify the Desire of Food, namely Hunger and Thirst. And when the Endeavour is fromward [i.e., distant from] something, it is generally called AVERSION. These words Appetite, and Aversion we have from the Latin; and they both of them signify the motions, one of approaching, the other of retiring. […]
Of Appetites, and Aversions, some are born with men; as Appetite of food, Appetite of excretion, and exoneration, (which may also and more properly be called Aversions, from somewhat they feel in their Bodies;) and some other Appetites, not many. The rest, which are Appetites of particular things, proceed from Experience, and trial of their effects upon themselves, or other men. For of things we know not at all, or believe not to be, we can have no further Desire, than to taste and try. But Aversion we have for things, not only which we know have hurt us; but also that we do not know whether they will hurt us, or not.
18 Quote from, Leviathan (1651), The First Part, Chapter 8, by Thomas Hobbes (with italics and punctuation as in the original but modern spelling).
21 S. L. A. Marshall findings were complied in a seminal work titled Men Against Fire (1947).
In the aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg, the Confederate Army was in full retreat, forced to abandon all of its dead and most of its wounded. The Union Army and citizens of Gettysburg had an ugly cleanup task ahead of them. Along with the numerous corpses littered about the battlefield, at least 27,574 rifles (I’ve also seen 37,574 listed) were recovered. Of the recovered weapons, a staggering 24,000 were found to be loaded, either 87% or 63%, depending on which number you accept for the total number of rifles. Of the loaded rifles, 12,000 were loaded more than once and half of these (6,000 total) had been loaded between three and ten times. One poor guy had reloaded his weapon twenty-three times without firing a single shot.
From On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society (1996) by Dave Grossman
23 The same passage concludes:
Another doctrine repugnant to Civil Society, is, that “Whatsoever a man does against his Conscience, is Sin;” and it dependeth on the presumption of making himself judge of Good and Evil. For a man’s Conscience, and his Judgement is the same thing; and as the Judgement, so also the Conscience may be erroneous. Therefore, though he that is subject to no Civil Law, sinneth in all he does against his Conscience, because he has no other rule to follow but his own reason; yet it is not so with him that lives in a Common-wealth; because the Law is the public Conscience, by which he hath already undertaken to be guided.
Quote from, Leviathan (1651), The Second Part, Chapter 29, by Thomas Hobbes (with italics and punctuation as in the original but modern spelling).
24 Hobbes had actually tried to found his entire philosophy on mathematics but in characteristically contrarian fashion was also determined to prove that mathematics itself was also reducible to materialistic principles. This meant rejecting an entire tradition that began with Euclid and that continues today and which recognises the foundations of geometry lie in abstractions such as points, lines and surfaces. In response to Hobbes, John Wallis, Oxford University’s Savilian Professor of Geometry and founding member of the Royal Society, had publicly engaged with the “pseudo-geometer” in a dispute that raged from 1655 until Hobbes’s death in 1679. To illustrate the problem with Hobbes various “proofs” of unsolved problems including squaring the circle (all of which were demonstrably incorrect), Wallis had asked rhetorically: “Who ever, before you, defined a point to be a body? Who ever seriously asserted that points have any magnitude?”
You can read more about this debate in a paper published by The Royal Society titled Geometry, religion and politics: context and consequences of the Hobbes–Wallis dispute written by Douglas Jesseph, published October 10, 2018. https://doi.org/10.1098/rsnr.2018.0026
25 Quote from, Leviathan (1651), The First Part, Chapter 5, by Thomas Hobbes (with italics and punctuation as in the original but modern spelling).
28 From The Life of the Robin, Fourth Edition (1965), Chapter 15 “A Digression on Instinct” written by David Lack.
29 From Historia Vitae et Mortis by Sir Francis Bacon (‘History of Life and Death’, 1623).
30 Morphological changes such as albinism and loss of sight are common to all cave-dwelling species including invertebrates, fish and also birds. It is presumed that these changes have come about because they save energy and thus confer an evolutionary advantage although biologists find it difficult to explain loss of pigmentation since there seems to be very little energy saved in this way.
31 From a Tanner Lecture on Human Values entitled Morality and the Social Instincts: Continuity with the Other Primates delivered by Frans B. M. Waal at Princeton University on November 19–20, 2003.
The abstract begins:
The Homo homini lupus [“Man is wolf to man.”] view of our species is recognizable in an influential school of biology, founded by Thomas Henry Huxley, which holds that we are born nasty and selfish. According to this school, it is only with the greatest effort that we can hope to become moral. This view of human nature is discussed here as “Veneer Theory,” meaning that it sees morality as a thin layer barely disguising less noble tendencies. Veneer Theory is contrasted with the idea of Charles Darwin that morality is a natural outgrowth of the social instincts, hence continuous with the sociality of other animals. Veneer Theory is criticized at two levels. First, it suffers from major unanswered theoretical questions. If true, we would need to explain why humans, and humans alone, have broken with their own biology, how such a feat is at all possible, and what motivates humans all over the world to do so. The Darwinian view, in contrast, has seen a steady stream of theoretical advances since the 1960s, developed out of the theories of kin selection and reciprocal altruism, but now reaching into fairness principles, reputation building, and punishment strategies. Second, Veneer Theory remains unsupported by empirical evidence.
35 The second stanza of Wallace Steven’s poem Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.
36 As he explained in an interview published in the Royal Society of Biology journal The Biologist Vol 60(1) p16-20. https://www.rsb.org.uk/biologist-interviews/richard-dawkins
37 Extracts taken from Chapter 2, pp 45-48, “Seeing Voices” by Oliver Sacks, first published 1989, Picador.
38 Aldous Huxley in the Foreword of ‘The First and Last Freedom’ by Jiddu Krishnamurti.
In his collection of essays Adonis and the Alphabet (1956), the first chapter titled “The Education of an Amphibian” begins as follows:
Every human being is an amphibian— or, to be more accurate, every human being is five or six amphibians rolled into one. Simultaneously or alternately, we inhabit many different and even incommensurable universes. To begin with, man is an embodied spirit. As such, he finds himself infesting this particular planet, while being free at the same time to explore the whole spaceless, timeless world of universal Mind. This is bad enough; but it is only the beginning of our troubles. For, besides being an embodied spirit, each of us is also a highly self-conscious and self-centred member of a sociable species. We live in and for ourselves; but at the same time we live in and, somewhat reluctantly, for the social group surrounding us. Again, we are both the products of evolution and a race of self-made men. In other words, we are simultaneously the subjects of Nature and the citizens of a strictly human republic, which may be anything from what St Paul called ‘no mean city’ to the most squalid of material and moral slums.
39 Also from the first chapter titled “The Education of an Amphibian” of Aldous Huxley’s collection of essays Adonis and the Alphabet (1956).
39a Quote taken from “Rixty Minutes”, Episode 8, Season 1, of adult cartoon Rick and Morty first broadcast by the Cartoon Network on March 17, 2014.
40 The quote is directly addressed to political philosopher and anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon in Chapter 2: “The Metaphysics of Political Economy”; Part 3: “Competition and Monopoly” of Karl Marx’s The Poverty of Philosophy, a critique of the economic and philosophical doctrine of Proudhon, first published in 1847. In full the quote reads:
“M. Proudhon does not know that all history is nothing but a continuous transformation of human nature.”
41 Quote taken from Episode 3 of Romer’s Egypt first broadcast on BBC TV in 1982.
43 The following are separate entries:
“With my own eyes I saw Spaniards cut off the nose and ears of Indians, male and female, without provocation, merely because it pleased them to do it. …Likewise, I saw how they summoned the caciques and the chief rulers to come, assuring them safety, and when they peacefully came, they were taken captive and burned.”
“They laid bets as to who, with one stroke of the sword, could split a man in two or could cut off his head or spill out his entrails with a single stroke of the pike.”
“They took infants from their mothers’ breasts, snatching them by the legs and pitching them headfirst against the crags or snatched them by the arms and threw them into the rivers, roaring with laughter and saying as the babies fell into the water, ‘Boil there, you offspring of the devil!’”
“They attacked the towns and spared neither the children nor the aged nor pregnant women nor women in childbed, not only stabbing them and dismembering them but cutting them to pieces as if dealing with sheep in the slaughter house.”
“They made some low wide gallows on which the hanged victim’s feet almost touched the ground, stringing up their victims in lots of thirteen, in memory of Our Redeemer and His twelve Apostles, then set burning wood at their feet and thus burned them alive.”
From the History of the Indies (1561) by Bartolome de las Casas.
45 As with many of the best known quotes, the first appears to be misattributed and the second is very possibly the reworking of an utterance by Voltaire. While it is true that Napolean is reported as once saying in conversation: “What then is, generally speaking, the truth of history? A fable agreed upon,” the phrase certainly predates him. The first quote “History is written by the winners” can however be traced to the pen of George Orwell from one of a series of articles published by the Tribune under the title “As I please”, in which he wrote:
During part of 1941 and 1942, when the Luftwaffe was busy in Russia, the German radio regaled its home audience with stories of devastating air raids on London. Now, we are aware that those raids did not happen. But what use would our knowledge be if the Germans conquered Britain? For the purpose of a future historian, did those raids happen, or didn’t they? The answer is: If Hitler survives, they happened, and if he falls they didn’t happen. So with innumerable other events of the past ten or twenty years. Is the Protocols of the Elders of Zion a genuine document? Did Trotsky plot with the Nazis? How many German aeroplanes were shot down in the Battle of Britain? Does Europe welcome the New Order? In no case do you get one answer which is universally accepted because it is true: in each case you get a number of totally incompatible answers, one of which is finally adopted as the result of a physical struggle. History is written by the winners. [bold emphasis added]
46 All excerpts taken from Candide and Other Tales written by Voltaire, translated by T. Smollett, revised by James Thornton, published by J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd, London , first published 1937. Incidentally, my own personal copy of this book was saved from the flames of my parent’s wood-burning stove after I discovered it hidden amongst hundreds of old textbooks and destined to become fuel for their central heating system.
47 All excerpts taken from How Much do You Know? (p. 215) Published by Odhams Press Limited, Long Acre, London. WC2 Date of publication unknown but definitely pre-WWII on basis of, for example, the question “what territory did Germany lose after the World War?” (on p. 164)
48 For instance, in German, Geschichte, in Russian история, and in French histoire.
49 Quote from William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of King Richard the Second, Act II, Scene 1, spoken by John of Gaunt.
50 In their book Trump and the Puritans (published in 2020), authors James Roberts and Martyn Whittock point to the remarkable coincidence that on almost precisely the 400th anniversary of the landing of the Mayflower at Plymouth Rock, if Donald Trump is to be re-elected it in 2020, then it will be thanks to not only to his strong base amongst Christian Right but down to a more of pervasive and enduring belief in Manifest Destiny, American exceptionalism, the making of the New Jerusalem and “the city on the hill” that can be traced all the way back to the Pilgrim Fathers.
Speaking with host Afshin Rattansi on RT’s Going Underground, Martyn Whittock outlined this thesis, which offers a convincing account for why so many American Christians support Trump despite his non-religious character traits, and also why there is greater support for Israel amongst Christian evangelicals than American Jews:
51 The quote is taken from Chapter 4: “Of Constitutions”; Part 2 of Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man, a defence of the French Revolution against charges made by Edmund Burke in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). Rights of Man was first published in two parts in 1791 and 1792 respectively.
In fuller context, Paine writes:
Man will not be brought up with the savage idea of considering his species as his enemy, because the accident of birth gave the individuals existence in countries distinguished by different names; and as constitutions have always some relation to external as well as to domestic circumstances, the means of benefitting by every change, foreign or domestic, should be a part of every constitution. We already see an alteration in the national disposition of England and France towards each other, which, when we look back to only a few years, is itself a Revolution. Who could have foreseen, or who could have believed, that a French National Assembly would ever have been a popular toast in England, or that a friendly alliance of the two nations should become the wish of either? It shows that man, were he not corrupted by governments, is naturally the friend of man, and that human nature is not of itself vicious.
52 The Second Law of Thermodynamics can be stated in a variety of different ways but is probably best known as follows: “ that the total entropy of any isolated macroscopic system must always decrease.” Where entropy is the precise measure of something that can be loosely described as the total microscopic disorder within the system. The second law has many implications. Firstly, there is insistence upon a direction whenever any system changes, with order changing into increasingly to disorder. This itself implies an irreversibility to events and suggests a propelling “arrow of time”. The Second Law also prohibits the possibility for any kind of perpetual motion, which by extension, sets a limit to the duration of the universe as a whole, since the universe can also be considered as an isolated thermodynamic system, and is therefore, and as a whole, subject to the Second Law. For this reason the universe is now expected to end in a cosmic whimper, known in Physics as “the heat death of the universe” – with all parts having reached a very chilly thermodynamic equilibrium. It almost seems then that the Second Law of Thermodynamics might be the physical axis about which the diabolical asymmetry of destruction over creation is strung. Just how any universe of intricate complexity could ever have formed in the first instance is mysterious enough, and though the Second Law of Thermodynamics does not prohibit all orderly formation, so long as the pockets of order are counterbalanced by regions of increasing chaos, the law does maintain that the overall tendency is always towards disorder. Form it did, of course, which perhaps implies the existence of an as yet undiscovered but profoundly forceful creative principle – something that may prove to be nothing more or less than another law of thermodynamics.
Here is physicist Richard Feynman wondering about the physical cause of irreversibility and what it tells us about the past:
We are survival machines – robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes. This is a truth which still fills me with astonishment.
From The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins.
54 This variant on the myth, with its rather Buddhist overtones, does at least account for God’s rage and instant reaction. For according to Genesis, God thereafter says, to no-one in particular: “… the man is become as one of us [sic], to know good from evil.” Our expulsion from the Garden of Eden is not simply His punishment for our disobedience (which is, of course, the doctrine the church authorities are keen to play up), but a safeguard to protect and secure His own divine monopoly. God fearing that left alone in paradise we might now, and as the same passage goes on to elucidate, “take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever.”
Extracts taken from Genesis 3:22. The full verse is as follows: “And the Lord God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever:”
55 “L’hypocrisie est un hommage que le vice rend à la vertu.” – François de La Rochefoucauld, Maximes (1665–1678), 218.
Alternative translation: “Hypocrisy is a tribute vice pays to virtue.”
L’homme est né libre, et partout il est dans les fers. Tel se croit le maître des autres, qui ne laisse pas d’être plus esclave qu’eux.
Translated by G. D. H. Cole (1913) as: “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains. One thinks himself the master of others, and still remains a greater slave than they.”
From Part I, Chapter 1 of Du contrat social ou Principes du droit politique [trans: Of The Social Contract, Or Principles of Political Right ] (1762) by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. is a book in which Rousseau theorized about the best way to establish a political community.
57 Translated by Samuel Moore in cooperation with Frederick Engels (1888):
The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Working Men of All Countries, Unite!
From Section 4, paragraph 11 of Das Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei [trans: The Communist Manifesto] (1848) by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels
57a This was first observed by primatologist Jane Goodall when she observed what happened after the splintering of a community of chimpanzees in Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania. Over the next four years the adult males of the separatists were systematically killed one-by-one by members of the remaining original group. Jane Goodall was profoundly disturbed by this revelation and wrote in her memoir Through a Window: My Thirty Years with the Chimpanzees of Gombe:
For several years I struggled to come to terms with this new knowledge. Often when I woke in the night, horrific pictures sprang unbidden to my mind—Satan [one of the apes], cupping his hand below Sniff’s chin to drink the blood that welled from a great wound on his face; old Rodolf, usually so benign, standing upright to hurl a four-pound rock at Godi’s prostrate body; Jomeo tearing a strip of skin from Dé’s thigh; Figan, charging and hitting, again and again, the stricken, quivering body of Goliath, one of his childhood heroes.
58 From “Bible Studies” published in Thomas Lynch’s collection of essays titled Bodies in Motion and At Rest (2011).
Stanley Moon [Dudley Moore]: If it hadn’t been for you… we’d still be blissfully wandering about naked in paradise.
George Spiggott aka The Devil [Peter Cook]: You’re welcome, mate. The Garden of Eden was a boggy swamp just south of Croydon. You can see it over there.
Stanley Moon: Adam and Eve were happy enough.
The Devil: I’ll tell you why… they were pig ignorant.
From the 1967 British comedy Bedazzled, directed and produced by Stanley Donen, screenplay by Peter Cook.
Transcript is available here: https://www.scripts.com/script.php?id=bedazzled_3792&p=11
60 From an article titled “shame v. guilt’ by Brené Brown, published on her own website on January 14, 2013. https://brenebrown.com/blog/2013/01/14/shame-v-guilt/
61 The quote comes from Sartre’s play No Exit [French: Huis clos] first performed in 1944. Three characters find themselves trapped and forever waiting in a mysterious room which depicts the afterlife. The famous phrase “L’enfer, c’est les autres” or “Hell is other people” is a reference to Sartre’s idea that seeing oneself as apprehended by and thus the object of another person’s view of conscious awareness involves a perpetual ontological struggle.
It seems that Sartre offered his own clarification, saying:
“Hell is other people” has always been misunderstood. It has been thought that what I meant by that was that our relations with other people are always poisoned, that they are invariably hellish relations. But what I really mean is something totally different. I mean that if relations with someone else are twisted, vitiated, then that other person can only be hell. Why? Because … when we think about ourselves, when we try to know ourselves … we use the knowledge of us which other people already have. We judge ourselves with the means other people have and have given us for judging ourselves.
The quote above is from a talk that preceded a recording of the play issued in 1965. http://rickontheater.blogspot.com/2010/07/most-famous-thing-jean-paul-sartre.html
62 Quote from the Aldous Huxley’s collection of essays Adonis and the Alphabet (1956), Chapter 2 titled “Knowledge and Understanding”.
63 Aristotle, Politics, Book 1, section 1253a
63a From a speech made to the Oxford Diocesan Conference (25 November 1864), quoted in William Flavelle Monypenny and George Earle Buckle in The Life of Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield. Volume II. 1860–1881 (1929), p. 108.
64 From “An Essay on the Principle of Population: as it affects the future improvement of society with remarks on the speculations of Mr. Godwin, M. Condorcet, and other writers” by Thomas Robert Malthus (1798), chapter 1.
66 “Taking the population of the world at any number, a thousand millions, for instance, the human species would increase in the ratio of — 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, etc. and subsistence as — 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, etc. In two centuries and a quarter, the population would be to the means of subsistence as 512 to 10: in three centuries as 4096 to 13, and in two thousand years the difference would be almost incalculable, though the produce in that time would have increased to an immense extent.” is a prediction taken from chapter 2 of “An Essay on the Principle of Population…” by T. Malthus (1798). Okay then, here’s the maths: Malthus is assuming a population exponentially doubling in 25 years (every generation). In two and a quarter centuries this would allow 9 generations, so 2 to the power of 9 increase, which represents a 512-fold increase as he correctly claims. Well, what actually happened? At the time of Thomas Malthus, Britain also conducted its first census recording in 1801 a population of 8,308,000 (which is thought likely to have been an under-estimate). Meanwhile, the world population is estimated to have just reached around 1 billion (precisely as Malthus estimates). So then, according to Malthus calculations, the population of Britain should now be more than 4 billion! (which is approaching close to the current global population) Taking the same approach, the population of the world should now have exploded past half a trillion! This is at the extreme upper limit of estimates for the Earth’s carrying capacity: “The estimates of the Earth’s carrying capacity range from under 1 billion to more than 1,000 billion persons. Not only is there an enormous range of values, but there is no tendency of the values to converge over time; indeed, the estimates made since 1950 exhibit greater variability than those made earlier.” from UN World Population Report 2001, p.30.
67 Now known as The Royal Statistic Society (after receiving Royal Charter in 1887)
68 Letter sent to Tennyson in response to his poem “Vision of Sin” published 1842. The exact details of this letter seem to vary according to sources. In another version he signs off saying, “Strictly speaking, the actual figure is so long I cannot get it into a line, but I believe the figure 1 1/16 will be sufficiently accurate for poetry.”
After 30 years of rapid growth in agricultural production, the world can produce enough food to provide every person with more than 2 700 Calories per day level which is normally sufficient to ensure that all have access to adequate food, provided distribution is not too unequal.
From report of World Food Summit of FAO (Rome 13-17 November 1996), entitled Food for All.
“[However,] the slowdown [of worldwide agricultural production] has occurred not because of shortages of land or water but rather because demand for agricultural products has also slowed. This is mainly because world population growth rates have been declining since the late 1960s, and fairly high levels of food consumption per person are now being reached in many countries, beyond which further rises will be limited.” – “This study suggests that world agricultural production can grow in line with demand, provided that the necessary national and international policies to promote agriculture are put in place. Global shortages are unlikely, but serious problems already exist at national and local levels and may worsen unless focused efforts are made.” – “Agricultural production could probably meet expected demand over the period to 2030 even without major advances in modern biotechnology.”
Extracts from the Executive Summary of the FAO summary report World agriculture: towards 2015/2030, published in 2002.
71 Maslow’s ideas have fallen by the wayside, which is a pity because his study of human need was a worthwhile project. Maslow’s reductionism is wrong, but perhaps by considering a more intricate and dynamic interconnectedness between human needs, his theory can be usefully revised. The trouble with Maslow is any insistence on hierarchy, something that other academics, and especially those working in the social sciences, are inclined to mistake as a kind of verified truth. Just calling an idea, ‘a theory’, doesn’t make it so, certainly not in any rigorous sense, but those not trained in the hard sciences are often inclined to treat speculative formulations as though they are fully-fledged theories. This is grave and recurring error infuriates many people, myself included, and especially those who have received specialist scientific training.
72 All subsequent passages and quotations in this chapter are also taken from “An Essay on the Principle of Population: as it affects the future improvement of society with remarks on the speculations of Mr. Godwin, M. Condorcet, and other writers” by Thomas Robert Malthus (1798), chapters 18 and 19.
73 His ideas on these daunting topics are rather cleverly-conceived, unusual if not wholly original, and tread a line that is unorthodox and close to being heretical. So it’s really in these closing chapters that Malthus is most engaging and most at ease. Here, for example, is the Malthusian take on mind and matter:
It could answer no good purpose to enter into the question whether mind be a distinct substance from matter, or only a finer form of it. The question is, perhaps, after all, a question merely of words. Mind is as essentially mind, whether formed from matter or any other substance. We know from experience that soul and body are most intimately united, and every appearance seems to indicate that they grow from infancy together… As we shall all be disposed to agree that God is the creator of mind as well as of body, and as they both seem to be forming and unfolding themselves at the same time, it cannot appear inconsistent either with reason or revelation, if it appear to be consistent with phenomena of nature, to suppose that God is constantly occupied in forming mind out of matter and that the various impressions that man receives through life is the process for that purpose. The employment is surely worthy of the highest attributes of the Deity.
Having safely negotiated the potential minefield of Cartesian dualism, Malthus now applies himself to the tricky problem of evil, and its relationship to “the wants of the body”:
The first great awakeners of the mind seem to be the wants of the body… The savage would slumber for ever under his tree unless he were roused from his torpor by the cravings of hunger or the pinchings of cold, and the exertions that he makes to avoid these evils, by procuring food, and building himself a covering, are the exercises which form and keep in motion his faculties, which otherwise would sink into listless inactivity. From all that experience has taught us concerning the structure of the human mind, if those stimulants to exertion which arise from the wants of the body were removed from the mass of mankind, we have much more reason to think that they would be sunk to the level of brutes, from a deficiency of excitements, than that they would be raised to the rank of philosophers by the possession of leisure.
74 Malthus, aware of the dangers of over-generalisation, adds a little later that:
There are undoubtedly many minds, and there ought to be many, according to the chances out of so great a mass, that, having been vivified early by a peculiar course of excitements, would not need the constant action of narrow motives to continue them in activity.” Saying later again that: “Leisure is, without doubt, highly valuable to man, but taking man as he is, the probability seems to be that in the greater number of instances it will produce evil rather than good.
75 “Essais de Théodicée sur la bonté de Dieu, la liberté de l’homme et l’origine du mal ” (more simply known as Théodicée) which translates from French as “Essays of theodicy on the goodness of God, the freedom of man and the origin of evil”.
76 Malthus also offers us reasons to be cheerful and indeed grateful for our world of apparent imperfection:
Uniform, undiversified perfection could not possess the same awakening powers. When we endeavour then to contemplate the system of the universe, when we think of the stars as the suns of other systems scattered throughout infinite space, when we reflect that we do not probably see a millionth part of those bright orbs that are beaming light and life to unnumbered worlds, when our minds, unable to grasp the immeasurable conception, sink, lost and confounded, in admiration at the mighty incomprehensible power of the Creator, let us not querulously complain that all climates are not equally genial, that perpetual spring does not reign throughout the year, that all God’s creatures do not possess the same advantages, that clouds and tempests sometimes darken the natural world and vice and misery the moral world, and that all the works of the creation are not formed with equal perfection. Both reason and experience seem to indicate to us that the infinite variety of nature (and variety cannot exist without inferior parts, or apparent blemishes) is admirably adapted to further the high purpose of the creation and to produce the greatest possible quantity of good.
This view of the state of man on earth will not seem to be unattended with probability, if, judging from the little experience we have of the nature of mind, it shall appear upon investigation that the phenomena around us, and the various events of human life, seem peculiarly calculated to promote this great end, and especially if, upon this supposition, we can account, even to our own narrow understandings, for many of those roughnesses and inequalities in life which querulous man too frequently makes the subject of his complaint against the God of nature.
Taken from Chapter 18. Ibid.
78 There are of course modern reinventions of the Malthusian message, which are still play a significant role in our current political debate. These depend on extending Malthus’ idea into considerations of resource shortages of other kinds such as energy (and after all, food is the primary form of energy for human beings) and water. This however is an area that I wish to save for future writing.