Pondering the Fate of Humanity over the Easter Weekend

Easter Music – Passions, Lamentations, Responsories and Lessons of Darkness

Centuries of Easter music have produced many worthy companions to ponder the pathos of our species. No need of course to mention the Bach Passions (on occasion I have felt they may be the closest that western civilisation came to atone for the wretched human condition).

One could choose Charpentier’s ominously called “Leçons des Ténèbres”, but these might be too worldly & pleasing for the ear to produce in the soul the requisite ”holy and salutary sadness” (as a 17th C Parisian priest complained).

One may also have qualms, for very different reasons, about seeking musical redemption in the Holy Week Responsoria / Tenebrae by Carlo Gesualdo (1560-1613), a ruthless prince and unpunished murderer. Unless it would take a vicious murderer (penitent & guilt-ridden, one hopes) to lament and pray with the  rawness of the blood & nails of an imminent crucifixion?

Anyway, perhaps better entrust one’s musical meditations to the Spanish composer, Tomàs Luis de Victoria (1548-1611),who reaches in his lamentations an exalted pitch of intensity and mysticism, without being devoid of the serenity appropriate for a later resurrection. And isn’t that what the Easter pathos is about - a tragic but ultimately hopeful story of a son of god fully sharing our human misery ; a god betrayed, humiliated, ignominiously dying – all to redeem our sins; and then resurrecting.

Evolutionary Theory - “Genetics of Original Sin“

The evolutionary account of the human lot offers, alas, no such divine redemption for our sins. But it does confirm the religious intuition of an original, fatal flaw in human nature. The culprit is natural selection itself, this most powerful process for maximising short term selfishness.

This is brilliantly argued in the book ““Genetics of Original Sin” (1) by Christian de Duve, a biochimist. With the calm authority and unswerving logic of a Nobel-prize winning scientist (medicine/biology), hallowed to boot by the wisdom of a very advanced age, de Duve first exposes the history and natural mechanisms of ‘life on earth’, to then explain how, if nothing is done, humanity is “headed for disaster”:

• “Natural selection has indiscriminately privileged all the personal qualities that contribute to the immediate success of individuals” [...]“[Apart from] intelligence, inventiveness, skilfulness, resourcefulness, and ability to communicate [...] the selected traits have also included selfishness, greed, cunning, aggressiveness, and any other property that ensured immediate personal gain, regardless of later cost to oneself or others”

• “Natural selection has not privileged the foresight and wisdom needed for sacrificing immediate benefits for the sake of the future”

• “Taking advantage of the powers of their brains, humans have proliferated beyond all measure and exploited a major part of the planet’s resources for their own benefit”

• “If it continues in the same direction, humankind is headed for frightful ordeals, if not its own extinction” (think of climate change, pollution, resource depletion, think of over-population and ferocious competition (i.e. wars) for ever scarcer resources, etc)

In short: if nothing is done, we’ll fall victim, not of an external menace, but of our own adaptive success. De Duve does not mention capitalism explicitly, but that has of course been the system that, by exalting greed, avarice and acquisitiveness as powerful motivations for entrepreneurship , has served us so well in exploiting scientific progress and natural resources to raise material standards of living for increasing numbers of people. And which will also contribute to our ultimate downfall as long as it does not put a limit on greed. (And Economics? Economics is merely a hand-maiden, priding itself on its amoral teaching of efficiency, the optimal use of scarce resources. (2))

“The only possibility of redemption from the genetic original sin lies in the unique human ability to act against natural selection”

de Duve coolly points out that humanity’s survival as a species is at risk if we do not manage to “act against natural selection” by controlling or adjusting deeply ingrained traits (such as greed, aggressiveness, acquisitiveness - traits that have served our ancestors so well in their struggle for life but that in the present conditions, amplified by technology and by the sheer number of humans, have become destructive.) As George C. Williams puts it:

“The evolutionary process is immensely powerful and oppressive, but, [...] it is abysmally stupid. It can reliably maximize current selfishness at the level of the gene, but it is blind to future macroscopic consequences of current action.” (3)(4)

Scientific thoroughness obliging, de Duve explores several options to ‘save humanity’ . He comes up with the usual answers such as ‘Protect the Environment’ and ‘Control Population’ (both already requiring quite some self-control over innate selfish urges), there’s the intriguingly formulated option ‘Give Women a Chance’ (because ‘several unfavourable human traits singled out by natural selection are largely associated with maleness ’, e.g. aggressiveness ).

Some other options he proposes are worthy of much speculative pondering: ‘Improve Our Genes’ (highly controversial - who will be the ultimate arbiter, what would be the population to experiment with ?) , ‘Rewire The Brain’ (education & brainwashing to teach us better manners) and ....

‘Call On Religions’ ! : not as an act of faith in divine powers, but rather to use them as a means to an end: i.e. call upon whatever moral authority or capacity for inspiration they have left, to assist in the improving of our manners .

But so, in order to save humanity, there we are back to what religions and ethical systems have tried to do for ages: teaching us charity (within the own group at least) and restraining our boundless greed and avarice.

“Evolution and Ethics”

de Duve’s book is a straightforward, utilitarian discourse, rationally appealing to our medium and long-term interests as a species. And when he mentions “morals” or “ethics”, it is to enlist them as means to ensure humanity’s long term survival. So it’s all about human self-interest, albeit within an extended timeframe and also with an enlarged mentality, trying to minimise pain and suffering.

The 19th century biologist & philosopher T.H. Huxley, too, thought that humanity’s only hope was to “rebel against the cosmic process”, by individual restraint and also by social and technological initiative. But his awareness of the workings of natural selection and of the ensuing “fatal flaw” in human nature found a much more anguished, almost poetic, expression in his lectures about Evolution and Ethics.(5)

His call for rebellion was inspired by sheer moral indignation, “repudiating the gladiatorial theory of existence”: “brought before the tribunal of ethics, the cosmos might well stand condemned. The conscience of man revolted against the moral indifference of nature” .

Cherishing a humanist concept of human dignity, he refused to give any moral authority to the principle of evolution (such as social Darwinism did). Huxley did fully recognize that moral man was a product of nature, and that also the ‘good’ moral ‘instincts’ such as sympathy and altruism had “incidentally” emerged from natural selection mechanisms (e.g. nepotism or self-seeking deals with others). (6)

But he adamantly maintained that “while cosmic evolution may teach us how the good and the evil tendencies of man have come about”, Nature is not the arbiter of what is good and what is evil. And, quite movingly, Huxley associated human notions of the good with an aesthetic faculty, which by intuition distinguishes what is beautiful from what is ugly.

So here we have both a 20th/21st Century biochemist and a 19th century biologist/philosopher inciting us to rebel against our own genes, “a biological absurdity .... no more possible than the natural selection of the unfit.” (7) How can there be such a gap between Ethics and Nature, if humans (including their morality) are a product of nature?

George C. Williams: “I can think of no more fitting response than Huxley’s to this same challenge: “If the conclusion that [the natural and the ethical] are antagonistic is logically absurd, I am sorry for logic, because, as we have seen, the fact is so” (5)

Honing our ethic and aesthetic faculties ( for instance in the Procopius bookshop in Louvain)

So here’s our absurd mission: blithely combating our genes to save humanity. Obviously, we’ll need all the help we can find.

There is indeed religion, that great promoter & instigator of ethic and aesthetic values, but religions have alas a long history of promoting violence against presumed heretics and infidel tribes. Secular humanism then, for all its reverence for our ethic and aesthetic faculties, has not avoided any of the 20th century disasters. And yet, entrusting relentless scientific & technological progress to humans ruled by Palaeolithic emotions seems more than ever a recipe for disaster.

So after all, could not a wizened secular humanism, one disabused of its former grand illusions, fit the bill to offer an “ethics without [fundamentalist] doctrine” ? And while art will not save the world, could not some of its concomitant habits (of reflection, of understanding & imagination, of empathy and not least, of taste) help us to ‘enlarge our mentality’, help us to hone disinterested moral intuitions?

In 1943, Johan Huizinga ( the great historian renowned for his “Autumn of The Middle Ages / Herfsttij der Middeleeuwen”) wrote a book “Mutilated World” ( “Geschonden Wereld” – posthumously published after the war). Despairing of the then prevailing barbarism, he “reflects on the chances of repairing our civilisation”. In these reflections « he continues the defence of disinterested [cultural] exercises, of ennobling forms , without which the world perhaps loses both its meaning and its value”. (8)

I heard of this out-of-print Huizinga book only last week, while reading a collection of essays by the art historian André Chastel, whose own books now seem largely out of favour too. But judging by the few Chastel-books I already managed to find, he may well have been a prime example of that wise and disabused humanism we are looking for. (9)

Now for anyone looking for a fine selection of books to hone his or her ethic and aesthetic faculties, it is warmly recommended to spend some time in the Procopius bookshop in Louvain. It is a very selective kind of second hand bookshop, not at all crammed full with stacks of books. Its collection betrays a wayward kind of selectivity – offering a choice assortment of some of the finest writings (not limited to the usual famous landmark books, but with unexpected finds of unjustly forgotten gems).

It’s the kind of bookshop where you will find for instance this huge, beautifully illustrated, book by André Chastel on the Age of Humanism (the book as such could already serve as a bulwark against barbarism). You’ll find there too a fine selection of books on Evolution (both the de Duve book (this year) and the Huxley book (last year) I found there). And it is only there that, with great astonishment, one can discern, just on the shelf above the one with the Evolution books, the Huizinga-essay “Geschonden Wereld” about whose existence one had learnt only a week earlier...

(Praise also to the handy location of Procopius, less than 1.5 km from the Louvain-station, well within roaming range of even a crutch-assisted, train-travelling flâneur)

Fateful Credits & Notes  

(1) Genetics of Original Sin – The Impact of natural Selection on the Future of Humanity 
Christian de Duve   (with Neil Patterson )

(2) But how about Technology: is it a potential redeemer of the human condition or rather humanity’s Nemesis? Science and technology have obviously immensely eased the harshest aspects of the struggle for life. But they have also greatly increased the impact of humans - some speak of a new epoch with humans able to change the planet: the Anthropocene  . Humanity being a species notorious for its inability to properly discount the long-term consequences of its actions, this is rather worrisome. However, perhaps we have reached a point where it is only further progress in science and technology that can solve the problems we have created. But to use technological progress well, we’d need a more responsible and forward-looking human species.

(3) George C. Williams, an evolutionary biologist, in an essay accompanying the re-edition of T.H. Huxley’s “Evolution and Ethics”

(4) A frivolous non-expert speculation: the selfish gene is bent on its perpetuation, requiring not only its current carrier to survive and to procreate but also its current carrier’s offspring to be able to go on reproducing. So the selfish gene might well have a longer term perspective on survival than its individual carrier who is finite anyhow. Hence genetic coding for caring for one’s offspring and perhaps even for a concern to leave a viable world to later generations...

(5) Thomas Henry Huxley  : T.H. Huxley’s Evolution and Ethics (1894)- 1989 edition expanded with New Essays on Its Victorian and Sociobiological Context, by James Paradis and George C. Williams

(6) Those entertaining the romantic notion of a “noble savage”, a pristine state of nature characterized by love & cooperation , would shudder of present biological explanations of all seemingly altruist or social behaviour in nature - Loving care for off-spring? : ‘determined by coefficient of relationship, so an investment by the donor in its own genes’ ; Altruist behaviour without benefit for donor or its kin? : ‘provoked by deception and exploitation by a manipulator’; Rendering services to one another: ‘a calculation of reciprocity’ ; Gregariousness: ‘hide among companions so that evil will befall a companion instead of oneself’

(7) Gunter S Stent: “ the idea of any organism, including man, transcending its genes is a biological absurdity [..] transcendence of genes is no more possible than natural selection of the unfit.” – as quoted by George C. Williams.

(8) André Chastel, « l’image dans le miroir - chroniques artistiques - historiens et critiques, Johan Huizinga (1946) »: “Son livre posthume, Geschonden Wereld, Le Monde Mutilé (1945), poursuit [...] la défense des exercices désintéressés, des formes ennoblissantes, sans lesquels le monde perd peut-être à la fois son sens et son prix »

(9) André Chastel – an non-classifiable, in-between art historian (which may be why I find him so appealing): he’s neither one of those great humanist art historians still comforted in their idea of a glorious progression of the spirit in western art history, but nor is he amongst the joyless, destructive post-modernists cynically relegating the history of art to the exploitative activities of the rich & the powerful. Chastel fully acknowledged that the post-modern suspicions vàv the « world of art and its smugness” could be justified “by the naïvetés and the hypocrisies of academic discourse, by the imposture of hero-fications and glorifications”, but at the same time he continued to insist on the value of the aesthetic experience, on the dignity of artistic forms.

« On comprend bien que cette suspicion à l’égard du « monde de l’art » et des complaisances qui l’accompagnent se justifie par rapport aux naïvetés – et aux hypocrisies – des discours académiques, aux impostures de l’héroïsation, de la glorification, de la simplification idéaliste. Oui, mais au terme de la dénonciation, on ne fait que renouveler, au nom d’une critique plus ou moins politique, la condamnation platonicienne. Elle reste malencontreuse, puisqu’elle transporte définitivement la conscience à l’extérieur de phénomènes dont l’intérêt n’est que saisissable qu’à travers l’expérience qui en réactive les ressources émotives et sensibles. » « […][aujourd’hui] la démarche artistique […] est mieux représentée par le commentaire que par le résultat provisoire d’un objet »

(10) André Chastel - The Age of Humanism - Europe 1480-1530 (Published under the auspices of the council of cultural co-operation following teh 1st art exhibition of the Council of Europe “Humanist Europe” organized in 1954 in Brussels by the Belgian Government)


Roxana said...

wonderful and thought-provoking post, dear fff!

i agreed with de Duve on almost anything, except that call back to religions, and i was so relieved to read your own conclusion, about the "wise and disabused humanism" we need, these are exactly my thoughts. though it is more than worrisome to see that the actual state of affairs is very far from this: what we have nowadays is either religious fanaticism, in parts of the world, and in others the sheer cynicism of blind individualism. the wise disabused humanists don't count at all, in the big picture :-(

Swann Ffflaneur said...

thanks for your careful reading, dear R.! you sum up our plight quite nicely: either religious fanaticism, in parts of the world, and in others the sheer cynicism of blind individualism

billoo said...

This was a great piece of writing, f! I love the way you started from 'the world' and moved down a fear gears to your own world, the bookshop.

Isn't there some recent work on how altruism etc. can be explained by evolution (Bateson, I think)?

Hmm. Lots to ponder here.

Keep well,


Swann Ffflaneur said...

thanks b. Will check out that Bateson. I suppose that within a group-context, individuals displaying kindness & co-operativeness & generosity indeed should thrive.

don't ponder too much though!

leenhuet said...

Fijn om te weten dat je Procopius kunt bereiken en er parels aantreft, Flâneur. Al jarenlang mijn favoriete antiquaar in Leuven. Dank voor deze boeiende paasbespiegeling.

Swann Ffflaneur said...

en nogmaals dank voor de tip, Leen!