Gray on Pink(er): Because of Our Evolution, the Irrational We’ll Always Have With Us

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.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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5 Responses to Gray on Pink(er): Because of Our Evolution, the Irrational We’ll Always Have With Us

  1. Paradigm says:

    You could argue that the Academia is a tribe of upper middle class liberals. So if you guys get along that may be a result of thinking alike, and of social conformity, an argument for Gray. This modern way of denying evolution is not as stupid as the creationist denial but it is still a way to ignore reality when it contradicts your values. Look at Eastern Europe with all the multi-ethnic countries of former Yugoslavia that all reemerged along ethnic lines. As did Czechoslovakia. And Belgium may well split in half, Scotland leave the UK. Is this in the all-men-are-brothers direction?

    Better to accept human nature and work on mitigating its negative consequences.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Paradigm,

      I certainly don’t think our Herderian nationalist/tribal impulses are going away any time soon. They constitute a real and powerful force in the world, and they will have victories. But Gray’s argument is that these impulses will not abate over time; that evolution has made us violent, nasty, brutish, and irrational—and that’s just the way it is.

      Some things will never change.

      I’m not buying it. There are very, very powerful cultural and demographic trends bringing us, globally, toward an “all men are brothers” model of humanity, and a greater rationality and prosperity. These trends may not win—nothing is inevitable—but they are objectively (and mostly quietly) winning.

      The broken wheels are those squeaking loudest (fanatic Islamism, etc). But underneath those broken wheels is a solid and inclining road unmistakably climbing toward a peak properly called Progress.

  2. Santi Tafarella says:

    Paradigm,

    A quick prediction: barring a nuclear catastrophe or plague, 50 yrs. from now the global population will be, on average, far better educated, at least twice as rich as it is today, mostly living in cities, and linked by smart phones with apps that would dumbfound you and I (and make us smile).

    Think, for example, of the boon to humanity to have an assistant app in your phone that can literally call up any information you ask of it in a flash—and effortlessly organize your chosen projects. Virtually every human being on the planet, 50 years from now, will have just such a magic mirror with them all the time.

    “Magic mirror in my palm, read to me the 23rd Psalm.” “Magic mirror in my palm, project on the wall the last round of Ali’s famous fight with George Foreman.”

    This is far from a pipe dream, but what any economist, demographer, or technology expert is likely to tell you is coming.

    How is this not progress? What’s not to like about such a prospect?

    —Santi

  3. Astral says:

    As you say an optimist may approach problems with an attitude of “I’ll handle it” to whatever is the result of addressing them. But if optimistic expectations are repeatedly not met, isn’t it reasonable to suppose optimism will be tempered, and may turn to rational pessimism? If so, we can suppose a pessimist is no less capable of looking at the world with an “I’ll handle it” approach, just with greater expectation of disappointment. There may also be optimism of the kind that will refuse to admit evidence that conflicts with the optimist’s beliefs and expectations. Karl Popper had much to say on that kind of optimism in respect of historicist philosophy.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      You make good points, but I do think the historical dial has a slight bias toward being more optimistic than Gray is. “The arc is long, but it bends toward justice.” And peace and cooperation. Against the Dionysian forces all around us and in us, all we really have is each other and our uneven abilities to love and reason.

      Maybe, however, our electronic screens are deluding us. They largely have deluded us in the past. From radio and television to computers, these have functioned as escapes from pain and dealing with things directly. They don’t have a good track record. Maybe when you turn off all the screens, the world is awful and getting worse–and too awful to face. Like Oedipus, maybe without our screens we would pluck out our eyes.

      –Santi

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