A short thematic review involving three books
I thought these three books would have no relationship to each other. But I was wrong:
1. Katherine Boo’s behind the beautiful forevers, life, death and hope in a Mumbai undercity (Random House Trade paperback, 2014)
2. Robert Wright’s The Moral Animal, The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology (Pantheon Books, 1994)
3. Victor J. Stenger’s God and the Folly of Faith, The Incompatibility of Science and Religion (Prometheus Books, 2012)
I looked online for other’s reviews of these books and was bowled over by the lavish praise for Boo’s book. All the things they say about its masterful use of language are true enough, but to me that was not the point. I walked away from this book feeling rather hopeless for the poor people born into undercities everywhere. The book subtitle mentions hope, but it offered none except to say that corruption undoes whatever progress may be promised by the government’s (half-hearted?) efforts to raise people out of poverty.
Walking directly from Boo’s book into Wright’s classic from 1994 gave me a chill: a lot of the evolutionarily inherited behaviors such as family and tribal loyalty trumping larger scale loyalties and overriding concern for the well-being of others outside ones kinship or tribal domain (read religion into tribal if you will) described by Wright is something I had just read about in the very disturbing actions described in Boo’s book. Boo's book is an unwitting case illustration for Wright's.
Then I jumped from Wright into Stenger. To my surprise, Stenger carries some of Wright’s conclusions a step further and makes explicit what Wright makes strongly implicit: no God is needed to explain the origin of the best in human behavior, our goodness is in our genetic code. As is our not so goodness, so there is no need for a devil either, both are in us, both are us.
Wright jumps on the opportunity to make the case for society/family/environment to overcome some of the more primitive encoded tendencies we have inherent in our genes. Our gene mandates are not always good (or evil) but can be managed, fought if you will, to allow us to create who we are in spite of our genetic encoding. Steven Pinker, psychologist, has some criticisms of Wright’s book, if you want to read these criticisms go ahead and click here. I though Pinker was being unnecessarily nitpicky and I did not appreciate his criticisms, but the reason I mention this critical review by Pinker is because I have read a book by Pinker and liked it a lot, so I was surprised at his criticisms of Wright. I thought Pinker would be a Wright cheerleader, but maybe they are competing for recognition and for standing in the same field of science? Yes! That competition is something our human DNA encourages according to Wright!
Stenger cites Sam Harris citing Pinker approvingly in one instance where he is discussing the subject of Wright’s book even if he does not mention the book itself. The subject is evolutionary psychology. But the citation is a caricature (p. 258 of Stenger):
"If conforming to the dictates of evolution were the foundation of subjective well-being, most men would discover no higher calling than to make daily contributions to their local sperm bank."
If I were going to be as nit-picky as Pinker was about Wright, about this statement from Pinker, I would say something snotty like “this is missing the equally well-mandated genetic need for men to select and claim exclusivity from the person in whom he is investing his genetic code. A sperm bank won’t do what a man is programmed to do, and what society strongly discourages him from doing, which is to sow his seed into multiple faithful partners as in polygyny. Polygyny fulfills the genetic encoding, as does serial monogamy whereby a man can dominate the fertile years of a series of ever younger (than him) women. Wright describes these phenomena well and ties them to the evolutionary inheritance. Sperm banks? A caricature that misses the point.
Boo’s book left me feeling rather hopeless in terms of the prospects of a very poor person ever coming into a more rewarding and less punishing life in their own lifetime. Life is brutal, and short, for the very poorest.
Wright’s book left me understanding that some of the primitive behaviors seen at all levels of a very stratified society, as illustrated in Boo’s work, are explainable by looking at the history of our human ancestors in the range of societies in which the DNA encoding and brain development were happening to create the type of complex human being we now are and know. Wright’s book also gave me some hope that the better behaviors we see among us at all organizational levels are there in spite of our DNA encoding, we are endowed with the mental capacity to overcome and deny some of this programming to create more fair and more just homes and local and even national societies. Of course current events take away some of that hope.
Reading Stenger’s book was very pleasurable. I enjoyed his stomping thoughtfully but relentlessly all over religious claims to having a revealed basis for a factual truth that trumps science. He stomps these claims into dust and blows them away. I especially liked his doing the same thing to the new-age version of physics, using the physics of a few decades ago to support all sorts of spooky spiritual claims. Attacking these misinterpretations of physics is something I have also tried to do, albeit less coherently and certainly less authoritatively, on this website.
I did not like him doing it very specifically at the little “out” I had left myself to allow some spooky spiritual stuff to exist or happen in the unobservably tiny dimensions that exist toward the Planck minimum distance scale (figure borrowed from University of New South Wales website):
Alas, Stenger smashes this 'out’ of mine, the unobservable space of at least eight orders of magnitude of very small dimensions into which I was trying to cram the collective unconscious, one of my favorite Jungian concepts that makes synchronicity/serendipity work in pretty convincing terms. Stenger convincingly states, with some good backup arguments, that there are no energy-waves without particles, matter and energy are linked phenomona. So I am left agreeing with Stenger: when it comes to accepting scientific truth, faith -in the common religious sense of the word- has no place. The two ways of “knowing,” are science and faith. Science is made up of constructs based on observable or interpretable reality. Faith is made up of constructs based on imagination, no matter how ancient its sources. These two ways of knowing truth are fundamentally incompatible.
But do I give up on my pet theory that easy? Have I not experienced synchronicity in otherwise inexplicable ways? Some of the non-fiction stories I tell about my own experiences on this website would support there being a collective unconscious which can cause a person with a sufficiently strong subconscious need to attract someone with information that at least in part addresses that need. I have experienced that. Several instances come to mind. Some very strong and meaningful even now, many years later. And it still happens. So there.
And that is the point, I think. Spooky good things still happen to us even when we chop to pieces the theory we have concocted to "explain" a mechanism that allows or conducts the energy between ourselves and others that is needed to set up these serendipitous events. Perhaps the theory bites the dust, but there is still magic in these experiences. There is magic in just realizing we are alive in this vast, mostly "dead," universe. Just the experience of being aware of being a living being in this universe is miraculous and magical! Big Bangs, DNA, and the evolutionary pathway do not explain this miracle, they only show the roads our particular organism has traveled to be here, in the ephemeral now, and to be self-aware.
Stenger and Wright both make a point of our soul, our essential idea of our self, being strictly a brain phenomenon. If the brain goes dead so do all our notions and thoughts. We are irreversibly gone when the last synapse has fired for the last time.
Somehow this seems strangely comforting, the madness invented by humans that supposedly carries both love and vengeance into a next world is all just fantasy. All the good and all the evil in the world is home-made. The hopeful flip-side of this coin is that the power is within us, individually and collectively, to change our societies to bring more opportunities for happiness to more people. This is quite possible and within our power as human beings, but it is a rebellious act to seek to create such an egalitarian society, it is rebelling against the selfishness and clannishness encoded into our genes. the very selfishness and clannishness documented in Boo's book as the corruption that is stealing opportunity from many people for the personal gain of a few and that seeks to share rewards with persons of one's clan/tribe/religious affiliation and actively deny them to "others." That is our DNA at work, according to Wright, it is "natural." To create a just society on a larger scale, that programming must be overruled and overcome. Religion, as discussed by both Wright and Stenger, has some primitive components that reflect and amplify our genetic coding and at the same time contain more enlightened teachings that challenge that same coding and seek to spread love and justice beyond family and tribal boundaries. Let us consciously reject the former and choose the latter.