John Gray thinks Steven Pinker’s thesis in his new book—in which Pinker argues that the world is progressing toward an ever less violent future—is deluded. In the Jacob-wrestle between Enlightenment rationality and our evolution-formed imperatives, Gray is betting that our evolution-formed imperatives will continue, by and large, to dominate:
Shaped by imperatives of survival, the human mind will not normally function as an organ for seeking out the truth. If science is the pursuit of truth—an assumption that begs some tricky questions—it doesn’t follow that anything similar is possible in other areas of human life. The idea that humans can shape their lives by the use of reason is an inheritance from rationalist philosophy that does not fit easily with what we know of the evolution of our mammalian brain. The end result of scientific inquiry may well be that irrational beliefs are humanly indispensable.
In other words, the great tension in contemporary history is between Enlightenment style critical thinking (human beings’ effort to get at the truth of matters as objectively as possible) vs. their long-conditioned evolutionary survival imperatives. Gray is positing that there are things about irrationality that will always convey greater advantages to our species than rationality does. Gray doesn’t elaborate on an exact list, but I can speculate that they include things such as the following:
- a bias toward optimism to keep people energized to go on living;
- in-group thinking (feeding tribal survival via racism, nationalism, and war);
- social conformity for group cohesion (as opposed to intellectual independence, which can impede group functioning);
- religion as a tribal identification marker.
I think Gray is being too pessimistic here, and I side with Steven Pinker for the following reasons:
- A bias toward optimism is not necessarily out-of-keeping with objectivity because optimistic people tend to bring a more focused and energized mind to critical thinking tasks and are less aversive to facing undesired results. An optimistic person is inclined to say of whatever comes, “I’ll handle it.”
- In-group thinking can be overcome by imaginatively expanding our circle of inclusion. Enlightenment concepts like humanity and equality really can function as memes that trigger the better angels of our nature.
- Intellectual independence can be rewarded in society, and often is. Laws can steer progress in this direction (as the Bill of Rights in the United States attests to).
- Religion can expand or contract tribal identification; loving people tend to universalize religion and hateful people tend to tribalize religion. In a world demographically moving toward cities, global trade, and internet usage, religion’s capacity for encouraging universal identification (“All men are brothers”) probably kicks in more, not less.
An example that brings these counter-points to Gray’s pessimism together is the greater religious acceptance of gay people over the past decade. Even if a lot of people don’t like it much, ever greater numbers tend to think the institution of marriage can handle gay inclusion. This can be attributed to the open internet presence of gay individuals: it’s hard to hate or fear people who are among your Facebook friends. And there’s a reason Facebook is not called Hatebook: people generally want to make ever greater networks of friends, not enemies. Most of us are not sharks, but more like bonobos. Our default desire is to activate the pro-social parts of our brains, not the hostile parts. Technology, trade, and accelerating urbanization foster these and show no signs of abating.
Anyway, this is my take. The world, over time, is likely to get better and more rational; less like The Sopranos and more like The Partridge Family.
Why? Because we’re all learning that there’s nothing better than being together (when we’re singing and in dialog). Our great universities around the world, and their cooperation with one another, attest to this. They’re the model. Come on John Gray, get happy.