I have just finished an amazing book by Australian Reg Morrison. Its subject matter is a comprehensive review of the enormous damage being done to all non-human life, and to the water, air, and top soils that sustain life on this planet. He makes a very convincing case that this damage is the result of the actions and activities of 6,000 million humans.
Morrison goes on to explain that we humans are just as vulnerable to this damage as any other species of mammal. We need clean air and water, as well as a safe and adequate food supply to survive. All of which are becoming less and less available. Things might still be fixable, for a united and determined global humanity, ready to take action immediately. In Morrison’s opinion, humans are very unlikely to change their ways. So although we don’t know it yet, we are probably dead already.
In the last third of the book, Morrison attempts to explain why we humans are blind to the damage we are doing. He claims that it is our evolutionary psychology and love of mysticism that makes us blind to the damage we do.
While I agree we certainly seem blind to the consequences of our actions, I doubt the validity of his explanations for that blindness. He draws his logic and authority from the currently popular Evolutionary Psychologists. If we follow his/their logic, our blindness is a permanent condition, and perhaps one that we deserve.
Fortunately for humanity, the popular Evolutionary Psychologists greatly misunderstand both human intelligence and psychology. Humanity’s blindness is a temporary condition, that should respond to some synergic medicine. That is the subject of a book now in preparation.
Despite Morrison’s missing the mark in the last third of his book, the first two thirds more than make up for it, and should be required reading for every thinking human. Here are two more reviews:
The Spirit in the Gene
Review by Lynn Margulis
It seems I have always had my nose in a book. Classics are raised to classic status for a reason: Winnie-the-Pooh, Mark Twain´s Mysterious Stranger, Emily Dickinson´s poetry. Although I understood very little about ìaperiodic crystals,” at an extremely young age I read Schrˆdinger´s What is Life? and marveled at the fact that he could pose the question and grope for an answer. Even more bizarre was the week I spent with heavy-duty and little-known scientific detective tales: Andre Lwoff´s Morphogenesis in Ciliates, Pontecorvo´s rare masterpiece on parasexuality in fungi and Stanier and Van Neil´s book The Microbe´s Contribution to Biology. Like E. B. Wilson´s Cell in Development and Heredity and Jean Brachet´s cell monograph Biochemical Cytology, these have in common a first-person authenticity. In the one-voice science book, an author poses the question, ferrets out possible answers and bases his statements on evidence, strong inference and good taste.
Very few scientists write these one-voice books anymore. The articles and grant proposals of today´s scientific establishment seem indistinguishable from advertising copy or newspaper hype. I seek in a book new ideas and scientific propositions that may be of lasting value. Only one such new book, just published by Cornell University Press, comes to mind: Reg Morrison´s Spirit in the Gene: Humanity´s Proud Illusion and the Laws of Nature. It is exceptional. This well-illustrated book is the single best science-based original statement that I have seen in a decade. Perhaps Morrison´s observations are so keen and unfettered because he is both a professional photographer (who sees things as they are) and an Australian (who sees landscapes and niches different from those familiar to us Europeans and Americans). He claimed in a recent letter that he does not much care how his book is received. After he spent some 25 years ìfield testing my genetic-spirituality ideas,” he is well satisfied that he has come very close to ìpinning down the true nature and origin of human behavior.”
Morrison says he wrote the book to record his ideas ìin semi-permanent form.” Indeed any book is a prolonged conversation far less chatty than any telephone call or Internet message. I invite you to converse with him. He is open to criticism and suggestion. Do you want to know why some obscure, small group of East African apes, unlike other members of the genus Homo, did not become extinct? Why instead did we big-headed Africans in fewer than a million years become a ìplague mammal” some 6,000 million strong, at the expense of everyone else´s habitat? If you are curious, read Morrison´s thesis. Fully in the realm of evolutionary biology, he teaches not only to infer the behavior of our ancestors but also to ask why they (we, all of us) still act the way we do.
Lynn Margulis is Gaia hypothesis co-proponent and author of several acclaimed books, including the one that made our list (with Karlene V. Schwartz), Five Kingdoms: An Illustrated Guide to Phyla of Life on Earth
Review by Steven B. KurtzOur extraordinary usurpation of habitat, resources, and waste sinks is one clear indicator of human success as a life form on earth according to the author of this great book. Morrison, an Australian journalist, explores various attributes of humans, compares them with those of other life forms, and analyses current theories of evolutionary development on earth. He makes a strong case that our massive brainpower, linguistic abilities, and self-reflective consciousness are complemented to a great degree by an ingrained tendency to believe in mystical or supernatural phenomena. This includes our boundless faith in human potential, and our social cohesiveness entered on family, tribe, and culture. It seems as if there is a dominant genie at work encompassing our creativity, perseverance, and fulfillment.
“Compared to other primates we were seriously underendowed except in one respect – our brain. But the close collaboration that eventually developed between human language and our so-called spirituality not only compensated for our physical shortcomings but also became an evolutionary asset…that would turn this disinherited, endangered primate into a superior survivor…that would one day manage to meddle with the evolutionary process itself.” (p. 257)
According to Morrison, we share with all mammals the living of a “double life.” Sensory experiences and a “complex pastiche of memories, fears, and expectations” make up what he calls “an invisible landscape.” Phenomenologists, a school of philosophy including Edmund Husserl and M. Merleau-Ponty, examined experienced reality as a composite abstraction reported from experiences. The process is rather like detailed introspection, and is of course language dependent. Morrison believes that most of our important decisions (one could argue all) occur in the inner landscape, connected by our animal instincts and perceptions to the world.
This is not mind-body dualism in the traditional sense. It is the belief that subjectivity and hard wiring jointly play a dominant role in human life. Subject-object dualism is more to the point. Morrison adds that humans err in believing that their decisions are mainly “cortical and rational.” Our communication, planning, and teamwork skills combined with our instinct and emotional makeup made homo-erectus “an imaginative, resourceful adventurer.”
Although not a primary focus, the issue of free will versus determinism is woven through the book:
“Animals cannot help but sing, dance, mate, and fight in obedience to their genetically directed notions of territorial proprietorship and sexuality. And we are no exception….All our literature, music, art, drama, history, law, and legend has been wholly founded on our genetically engineered misperceptions.” (p.258)
Nature, of which we are a part, undergoes periods of lesser and greater change, sometimes referred to as punctuated equilibrium. There are responses to changes at all levels in earth´s partially open planetary system. Solar and other forms of radiation enter our atmosphere, as do asteroids containing ice, minerals, and perhaps the basis for life itself. Gravitational energy influences tides and is said to affect biological cycles. Daylight periods and climate do not obey human commands. Human freedoms are in reality constrained by innumerable factors, and perhaps limited in scope. Yet, in life, we can experience existential angst engendered by our perception of freedom as overwhelming.
I agree with Morrison that uncertainty about the unknown, causal linkages, the future, reciprocal love, personal health and security combine with the human emotional makeup to engender to some aspects of our experience and imagination a ‘value endowment´ of extraordinary, supernatural qualities. The highly valued and greatly feared attain this special status. Evolution selected this behavior, as it is estimated that 80% or more humans currently affirm a sphere of a supernatural. It must, therefore, have served our forefathers well, or the trait would have become vestigial or counterproductive and have been de-selected. Morrison claims that it served (and serves) us too well. It has become our Achilles heel, and is related to thinking with our loins – another naturally selected trait.
The long term upshot of this selection for “significance, spirituality, and the supernatural” is, according to Morrison, the basis for our coming decline if not demise. We wrote many religious and social codes; one in particular commanded us to subdue nature and to multiply our kind. We have been all too obedient in following our own rules; we are the most successful mammal on earth. Bio-diversity and habitat health, prerequisites for human sustainability, are being undermined by our success. Local civilizations have failed in the past from overexpansion, but with globalization and interdependence we might all fail at once.
Now that I´ve spoiled your day, you might ask why this review is appearing in The Innovation Journal. Three reasons I offer are 1. the excellent analysis of innovative success in a nearly empty, prehistoric human world, 2. the current challenge to override some of our (vestigial?) hard wiring with new forms of innovation, and 3. Morrison sees artistic creativity, aesthetic appreciation, love and lust, as dominated by the mystical, emotional realm – perhaps innovation and problem solving straddle the rational and the mystical.
Whether necessity, inspiration, the need for ego gratification, or other drivers are key to the creative process, our hard wiring lurks as a precondition. Human history is marked by countless innovative successes from the wheel, through the harnessing of various energy sources, shipbuilding, agricultural development, water and waste system development, mechanization, medical technology, communication technology, computers, etc. Mortality rates declined rapidly during the past century, and lifespans have greatly increased in many areas of the globe. Now, in Morrison´s and my view humans are challenged to somehow innovate sustainable shrinkage. The information exists to optimize our future; our hard wiring has so far provided massive interference to successful implementation.
Morrison says he wouldn´t want to live without the mystical aspects of life. But he can´t see the requisite rebalancing of our psyches occurring in time to prevent a crash. Frankly, neither can I. But to all you innovators out there, I shout a wake-up call. Here´s the greatest challenge man has ever faced. There is no greater calling if your genes are to perpetuate.
Steven B. Kurtz, a philosophy graduate of New York University, is a member of the Canadian Association for the Club of Rome. He was an Assistant Director of Merrill Lynch International Bank during a twenty-five year career in financial derivatives. After nine years organic gardening in New Hampshire, he now does research and volunteer work in ecological economics and sustainable futures with several organizations.
The Spirit in the Gene is available online at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and good book stores everywhere.