Friday, 23 September 2011

Cretin of the Week: John Gray

It is ironic that the subjects I detested most at school – Latin, Mathematics and Modern Languages – are those I’d now find most useful had I mastered them. Of the three, it was for Latin that I reserved the most highly refined species of loathing, distilled drop-by-drop from the deep fractionating column of my hatred. I literally burned my books the day I was permitted, aged 14, to drop it.

It’s all PO’s fault. PO was my first Latin teacher. Were he still alive I should think he’d be about 130 but I suspect the world contains one fewer tyrants than it did in his too-long lifetime. PO was driven into a puericidal rage by anyone incapable of declining Latin verbs to order. Since I tended to lose my way after amo, amas… I was on the receiving end of at least half of each lesson’s quota of sarcasm.

‘You little cretin!’ was PO’s favourite insult and he invested the two syllables of the final word in that sentence with more venom than a tobacco-chewing cobra could spit. Why a word that caused me so much childhood trauma has become my own insult of choice is mysterious but its deployment is up there with orgasm and the first glass of red wine of an evening in my personal hierarchy of stress-busting devices. Since sex and booze are off the menu for now, I make no apology for abusing the C-word on Alphatuosity, a blog that owes its existence to a superabundance of CRETINS and a dearth of cretin-hunters.

There, I feel better already.

John Gray: Cretin of the Week

Many religionists hold their beliefs sacred. That is to say, criticism of their religious beliefs is felt not intellectually but viscerally. What is more, a propensity to sacralize objects, totems and beliefs is a human universal and, probably an adaptation. This is why blasphemy, which ought to be a concept as antiquated as alchemy, was illegal in England and Wales until 2008 and remains a crime in Scotland. And also why referring to Muslims as goat-fuckers got Theo van Gogh murdered (by a goat-fucker).

John Gray doesn't understand this and so he thinks that beliefs don’t matter much to theists and that, in attacking the foundations of those beliefs, atheists are not just fighting on the wrong front, they are fighting in the wrong war (see here). Had he said that the war cannot be won, I’d have reluctantly agreed with him (because it is futile to try to reason someone out of a belief he was not reasoned into). But Gray's current preoccupation is with showing that atheism (which he seems to equate with humanism) is just another religion, science just another myth and myth just another prop, holding open the echoing spaces in our animal minds. His modus operandi involves stringing together a series of half-truths, apparently in the hope that enough of them will make a whole truth. But Gray's series departs further from sense with every term he adds.
'We tend to assume that religion is a question of what we believe or don't believe. It's an assumption with a long history in western philosophy...'
'When they attack religion [atheists] are assuming that religion is what this Western tradition says it is - a body of beliefs that needs to be given a rational justification.
'In most religions...belief has never been particularly important. Practice - ritual, meditation, a way of life - is what counts.'
'Myths [are] stories that tell us something about ourselves that can't be captured in scientific theories.'
'Myths can't be verified or falsified in the way theories can be.'
'I've no doubt that some of the ancient myths we inherit from religion are far more truthful than the stories the modern world tells about itself.'
'The idea that science can enable us to live without myths is one of these silly modern stories.'
'If Darwin's theory of evolution is even roughly right, humans aren't built to understand how the universe works.'
'Science has given us many vital benefits, so many that they would be hard to sum up. But it can't save the human species from itself.'
'Unbelievers in religion who think science can save the world are possessed by a fantasy that's far more childish than any myth.'
'[It's] only religious fundamentalists and ignorant rationalists who think the myths we live by are literal truths.'
'Evangelical atheists who want to convert the world to unbelief are copying religion at its dogmatic worst.'
'We'd all be better off if we stopped believing in belief.'
'What we believe doesn't in the end matter very much. What matters is how we live.'
Res ipsa loquitur, as PO might have said. I rest my case.

John Gray's ideas first came to my attention when I bought a copy of his book Straw Dogs, an analysis of the human condition that makes Schopenhauer's seem all coyly optimistic. I bought the book because I’d read a review by Will Self, in which he described Gray as possibly the cleverest man in the world. Like many reviews, this one turned out to say more about its author than its subject (see below). The article from which the statements above are taken is essentially a summary of Straw Dogs and to see why Gray deserves my inaugural Cretin of the Week award it is necessary to look more closely at the argument in that book.

The central claim of Straw Dogs is that humans are 'just' animals and that therefore belief in either progress or in our ability to manage our species' inevitable exit from life's stage represents not so much hubris as a hilarious category error. The book was widely reviewed and much praised. It was nominated as book of the year by J.G. Ballard, George Walden, Will Self, Joan Bakewell, Jason Cowley, David Marquand, Andrew Marr, Hugh Lawson Tancred, Richard Holloway and Sue Cook. 

What fascinates me about this is that, by implication, it came as news to these critics that humans are 'just' animals. Why else would an insight that has been blindingly obvious for 150 years to anyone with a passing acquaintance with evolutionary biology be heralded as revolutionary? What really pissed me off about the book and its fawning fans, though, is that he gets Darwin almost completely wrong. A self-confessed bookish man, Gray has clearly read The Origin of Species but, like the Nietzche-reading imbecile played by Kevin Kline in A Fish Called Wanda, he hasn't understood it. 
'Darwin teaches that species are only assemblies of genes, interacting at random with each other and their shifting environments.'
No he doesn't. Darwin had no knowledge of genes and famously made a dog's breakfast of attempting to rescue his theory of natural selection from the apparently fatal flaw of blending inheritance. Species are not 'assemblies of genes'. Species are notoriously difficult to define in a way that captures every example of the concept because 'species' is not a natural category. The units of which they are comprised, however, are organisms, not genes. Genes do not interact at random; in fact almost nothing (save creationism) could be further from the truth. Genes that get copied do so because they are exquisitely adapted to their environment, which consists mainly in other genes, with which they interact in a highly restricted fashion that has been shaped by eons of co-evolution. As an example of alphatuosity, this sentence is probably unbeatable. Except by the next three.
'Species cannot control their fates. Species do not exist. This applies equally to humans.'
Complete bollocks, to be blunt. Having (wrongly) informed us a few paragraphs earlier that species are assemblies of genes, Gray now says that they don't exist. This statement suits his argument but it is nonsense. The reason that 'species' is not a natural category is that lineages of organisms split, fragment and merge over time. A river delta is a more apt metaphor than a tree (which Darwin used) in picturing evolutionary history. The trouble is that where we draw the lines that demarcate a species is a matter of taste not biology. That is not at all to say, however, that species do not exist. It is a very unusual human being who is sexually attracted to chimpanzees and vice-versa. Some cichlid fish literally have eyes only for other members of the same species, which preserves distinct lineages ('species') until the lakes in which cichlids live become too murky for the fish to discriminate (here).

What Gray probably means is that natural selection does not act for the good of the species (naive group selection is still a common misunderstanding of Darwinism). The entity that is selected in natural selection is the gene. It is genes - not individuals, populations or species - that persist through generations and wax and wane in relative abundance. Because it is only in special circumstances, in highly social, intelligent animals that genes 'for' identifying with conspecifics can spread, Gray is right to argue that most species do not control their fates. Humans, of course, manifestly do influence the fate of the groups with which they identify, including all members of their own species.

Admittedly I have picked two particularly stupid excerpts from Straw Dogs to analyse but they illustrate that you'd be unwise to take seriously anything its author has to say on the consequences of Darwinism. In fact, as a result of his misreading of Darwinism, the whole of Gray's thesis is grounded in a non-sequitur. Not unlike the last Pope, Gray has woken up to the fact that humans are animals and he has broken this alarming news to the rest of the intelligentsia. In his excitement he has gone on to conclude, falsely, that fluctuating gene frequencies - aka evolution - somehow rule out the possibility of 'progress', a concept that itself is coherent only by reference to evolved human values. For good measure he declares culture incapable of altering the trajectory of its own evolution.

Bizarrely, having declared that the reification of species is a philosophical error, Gray has embraced the reification of a genuine myth: Gaia. I think it may be his enthusiasm for Gaia that has earned him the adoration of the chattering classes. Consider the following from Self's review of Straw Dogs.
'Gray doesn't provide a blow-by-blow account of how exactly Gaia will shrug our troublesome species off of her broad back, but shrug he certainly believes she will...'
Oh, well that's alright then. If the professor believes that Gaia will shrug us off, it must be true.

If all philosophical lives are a journey then Gray is a Wandering Albatross, drifting the oceans of thought, alighting occasionally on a speck of idealogically solid ground but never for long. For this, at least, I admire him. The inability to change one’s mind in light of new evidence is perhaps the greatest obstacle – bar stupidity – to attaining wisdom with which our evolved psychologies burden us. You’d have thought, however, that having moved from leftist to Thatcherite to Blairite to anti-capitalist to Gaian in about thirty years he’d have a healthy disregard for the value of his own opinion by now.

No comments: