The Evolution Will Not Be Scientized
by Michael N. Nagler
The outbreak of democratic aspirations in Egypt, which was relatively nonviolent — and successful — was something of a triumph of the human spirit. We could use the boost. The human spirit is under attack not just in despotic regimes from Burma to Bahrain but right here in our own society. Our way of doing it may be subtler, but it’s no less dangerous for that reason. Possibly more so. Think of last year’s 5-4 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court (Citizens United v. FEC) that granted corporations the status of human persons.
We should be very glad that citizens’ groups are organizing to reverse this decision, like the Environmental and Social Rights Amendment, now before the House of Representatives as House Res. 156. But that decision did not come from nowhere (any more than the Egyptian uprising, for that matter). It was the logical, inevitable outcome of a deep cultural trend that has been pushing its way into our consciousness and taking over our worldview at least since the industrial revolution.
As my colleague Carolyn Merchant makes clear in her important book, The Death of Nature, in order to clear the way for industrialization, people, by some unconscious consensus, pushed aside a millennia-old worldview in which the Earth was a living being. In effect, they desacralized nature in order to exploit her (or it). The leaders of this trend later hailed Darwinism, which seemed to ‘liberate’ them from the idea that life was driven by some meaningful purpose, that there might be a higher consciousness behind the apparently random play of matter and energy that makes up our visible world. We have had almost four hundred years now of a ‘science’ that reduces everything meaningful about us to genes and hormones, or to neurons: as one popularizing neuroscientist, V. S. Ramachandran, recently interpreted some of the latest findings for us, “If all this seems dehumanizing, you haven’t seem anything yet.”
Even more potent than ‘science’ in this gleeful destruction of our image is popular culture itself. We are exposed to between three and five thousand commercial messages a day, each one telling us that happiness comes from outside us and we are doomed to compete for diminishing resources in order to find it. Recently four very young boys, the oldest of them fourteen, broke into a school and vandalized it, taking the children’s pet hamster and torturing it to death. When they were asked why they did all this they could not come up with a reason, because the real reason is the all-pervasive violent imagery of the TV, movies, and video games that soaks through their consciousness without their knowledge. According to a massive study recently reported in the New York Times, narcissism, depression, and anger in the lyrics of popular songs have “increased significantly in the past three decades.”
Orwell had it almost right: an attack on human dignity has come to characterize our age, but it is not out in the open like the paralyzing image he leaves us with in 1984: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.” Rather, it has become a quiet part of the woodwork of our mentalities, leading us to stand by while lawyers provide cunning justifications for torture and judges transfer the sanctity of human life to profit-making corporations. During the Cold War, I pointed out that we were doing a similar misallocation of reality: cities full of real people became ‘counter-value targets’ while inanimate bombs were named ‘fat man’ and ‘little boy.’ I used the word ‘blasphemy,’ for I did not think then and do not think now that it’s too strong a word for that process.
Some may wish to dismiss all this as a philosophical, or even theological issue, but it has inescapable political consequences. Dr. Ramachandran’s breezy acceptance of dehumanization should send a chill and sound a serious warning, not only because this is manifestly bad science but because dehumanization is both the enabling condition and the final effect of all violence. You cannot build a world in which human rights matter if you have a worldview in which human beings don’t really matter, when we are collections of particles acted upon by chance — when, as another scientist put it, “we are bags of genes.” It is no coincidence that it was Martin Luther King who said, “we must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ civilization to a ‘person-oriented’ civilization.”
My latest encounter with dehumanizing science was, of all places, in a progressive journal. The big ‘news’ in this article was that trust, love, and sex-drive are now “known” to be the result of certain brain chemicals. The journal in question is called Positive News (no. 6, Winter 2011, pp. 1 & 9). Personally, I think this is the most negative news imaginable, not just for progressives, who are seriously undermining their own programs by perpetuating this dismal worldview, but for every one of us.
There are signs that this depressing image is losing its grip, that people are looking around in growing desperation for something nobler to hold onto. A growing number of scientists, for example, are saying no: consciousness, free will, faith, love, are all potent realities. If science can’t account for them it is not because they don’t exist but because we don’t have the right kind of science — or the right frame of reference to interpret what science tells us.
Anyone who wants to help this great change should realize that it cannot be brought about only by political or legal arrangements. A humane world, a world of justice and freedom, will not be ushered in by a wave of the political wand. It will come into view when we become aware of the implications of our deeper beliefs and are courageous enough to stand up for a noble — and ultimately realistic — vision of the human being.
Michael N. Nagler, Ph.D., is Professor emeritus of Classics and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley where he co-founded the Peace and Conflict Studies Program. He is the founder of the Metta Center for Nonviolence, serves as co-Chair of the Peace and Justice Studies Association, and is a Contributing Author for New Clear Vision. Among his many publications in the field of nonviolence, Dr. Nagler is the author of The Search for a Nonviolent Future: A Promise of Peace for Ourselves, Our Families, and Our World (New World Library), winner of the 2002 American Book Award.