Wednesday, July 11, 2007

A rather apocalyptic shade of gray

Among the many commentators on the modern state of affairs I have cause to read, John Gray is in a relatively small class: those with whom I agree on many things but who also manage to seriously challenge my thinking even--or especially--when I disagree with them. His False Dawn, for instance, is an excellent tour through the perils (and failures) of unfettered global capitalism, and his book Straw Dogs was one of the most unsettlingly powerful things I think I've ever read. Even when I disagree with him, I find it worthwhile to read (and wrestle with) what he has to say.

And that's not all that common an experience.

He has a new book coming out, Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia, and there is an interview with Gray about the book at the Guardian which makes clear not only the clarity of Gray's thinking but also his unfortunate tendency to take a good insight rather too far.

The argument sounds familiar to that discussed in his Al Qaeda and What it Means to Be Modern and the essay collection Heresies.

That is: religious thinking never disappeared from Western society but rather emerged in new and ostensibly secular forms, in particular through the notion of Progress (in all its 19th-century capitalised glory). The key theme in Straw Dogs was to question this notion (which Gray sees as still deeply embedded in most forms of scientific humanism) by emphasising the true insight from science: we humans are all animals. This naturalist truth thus makes any notion of Progress, Gray says, illusory.

So far, I think, so good, and there are some very eloquent--and even darkly poetic--passages in Straw Dogs (and other works) which argue against that all-too-human pitfall Gray condemns in his Guardian interview: hubris.

But then there come those seemingly inevitable moments where Gray recklessly drives his very good idea off the cliffs, adopting a notion of history as merely cyclical (partly via a sometimes intriguing but also sometimes questionable enthusiasm for eastern mysticism) and dismissing any possibility of positive social change.

In Gray's terms, arguments that history has brought with it many meaningful and significant improvements or that point to the possibility of significant social reform are the mark of the utopian dreamer. And, since he (rightly) points out that efforts to create utopias almost always end in tears and blood (when they're not simply farcical), today's utopian is, by implication, tomorrow's totalitarian.

Amidst all of the valuable warnings about the dangers of hubris and the reminders of our essentially animal natures, it is difficult to see any possibility even for measured, incremental improvement in our collective human condition. This is, ultimately, a problem, since, while I share a great deal of Gray's pessimism, the historical record--in many times and places--is not simply one of relentless misery.

This is so beyond the merely technological improvements (anaesthesia, antibiotics, the flush toilet, etc.) that Gray admits as a kind of progress.

Just as one example that I've spent more than a little time thinking about, there is the long-term diminution in the Western European homicide rate over several centuries. If a 20 or 40-fold decline in murder isn't a directional historical phenomenon as well as an improvement of a kind, I'm not sure what is. (Not, of course, that we should get complacent: what goes down, in this case, of course, may someday go up, especially since the underlying biological basis of who we are hasn't changed in the meantime.)

One could, of course, mention several other forms of small-p progress, from the tortuous abolition of slavery in the West or the hard-fought expansion of civil liberties. To admit that none of these has led to a new Golden Age or to be aware that human life will most likely always be plagued by insoluble problems that result from our being mammals with conflicting desires and needs does not, I think, require the claim that these achievements have been meaningless.

The problematic result of this all-or-nothing (or, rather, taking Gray's often agreeable pessimism into account, 'nothing-or-all') view of the world is that a lot of finer distinctions get lost. For instance, his continual critique of people such as Richard Dawkins, E. O. Wilson or Daniel Dennett as hopelessly utopian believers in the big-p version of Progress.

In his Guardian interview, for instance, Gray seizes on a statement he found in Dawkins's The God Delusion about the human potential to 'rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators' (i.e., our genes) as evidence of Dawkins's affirmation of 'human uniqueness' and ultimate reliance on a 'Christian world-view'.

The comment is actually one that Dawkins made some time ago, first, I think, in The Selfish Gene. In fact, it was the closing sentence to the last chapter of that book, the one on 'memes'. In the revised edition I have, Dawkins has footnoted it, leading the reader to a lengthy discussion of the negative reactions this statement raised, particularly among those who saw it as contradicting the rest of his book (which argues, you might recall, that all living things are essentially 'survival machines' created by genes).

To his critics (among them Steven Rose), Dawkins responds:

What they don't that it is perfectly possible to hold that genes exert a statistical influence on human behaviour while at the same time believing that this influence can be modified, overridden or reversed by other influences. Genes must exert a statistical influence on any behaviour pattern that evolves by natural selection. Presumably Rose and his colleagues agree that human sexual desire has evolved by natural selection, in the same sense as anything ever evolves by natural selection. They therefore must agree that there have been genes influencing sexual desire--in the same sense as genes ever influence anything. Yet they presumably have no trouble with curbing their sexual desires when it is socially necessary to do so. .... We, that is our brains, are separate and independent enough from our genes to rebel against them. As already noted, we do so in a small way every time we use contraception. There is no reason why we should not rebel in a large way too.
(The Selfish Gene, 1989 [1976], 331-32)

Now, some (maybe like Gray) might conceivably take the last sentence as a grand utopian promise.

But I humbly suggest that recognizing the limits to our abilities to be rational (a good thing to do, I think) need not lead to the conclusion that we cannot ever be so.

(Moreover, to 'rebel against' something is not necessarily to be successful: Dawkins's argument might be seen as a call to an endless struggle rather than a prediction of an easy victory, as Gray seems to interpret it. His choice of sexual urges as his main example would seem to lead to that conclusion, don't you think?)

I think it is clear from Dawkins's body of work that he is 1) aware of the significance that humans are animals and 2) rather sceptical about the possibility of revolutionary change in human nature.

The same, I'm quite sure, could be said of Dennett, Wilson and Hitchens.

Nonetheless, I'm looking forward to reading Black Mass sometime, and will probably do so with the usual mixture of vigorous nodding and occasional frustrated head-shaking that have known with his other books. (Here is a cyclical pattern if ever there was one.)

I think, in the end, that it's a perfectly reasonable (and, more importantly, fully accurate) position to say, borrowing from Norbert Elias, that there are progressions in history, but no Progress. That is, while there is nothing inevitable and foreordained about where we're going as a species (nor necessarily anything ultimately positive about that direction), the patterns that emerge from perusing our past add up to something more than merely 'one damned thing after another'.

And I think Gray would be a much greater thinker if he could admit that and refrain from creating debates where they aren't necessary.

There's too much real strife--intellectual and otherwise--out there for indulging in shadow boxing with people who, I think, are fundamentally on the same side.

But there's me being (perhaps uncharacteristically) optimistic.


Won't happen again.

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