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Transform Your Life And Save The World: Through Living In Support Of The Biological Truth About The Human Condition Kindle Edition
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The truth is that I agree with much of what Griffith says and I’ve always felt that there is something in his theory which is essential to addressing humanity’s most serious problems. On the other hand, I think he is wrong in many ways. If he presented his theory as a theory to be assessed like any other, I would give his books five stars, because they are a passionate and original exploration of very deep issues. But he doesn’t present it as a theory. He claims that he is presenting the holy grail of liberating knowledge which all humanity has been striving towards since the dawn of human consciousness. Anyone who has dipped into his books or even read the blurbs on the back covers will know what I mean when I say he goes the hard sell. And he sometimes gets carried away when expressing his disagreement with others. He has labelled fellow biologist Edward O. Wilson “the anti-christ” and described the rejection of one of his articles by Scientific American : “…the most serious crime that could possibly be committed in the whole of humanity’s 2-million-year journey to enlightenment…” This kind of behaviour may lead many people to view Griffith as some random nut-case, but there are those for whom the combination of the self-hype and the fact that Griffith genuinely delves deep and acknowledges aspects of human psychology most of us would be more comfortable denying leads to an unwavering commitment to these ideas. So I value his writings as a catalyst for my own thinking, but have to rate his works with a single star because I believe that, while he has the best of intentions, the way he presents his ideas is wrong and dangerous.
If you want to know what his central theory is you are better off reading it here than trying to wade your way through his massive tome Freedom : The End of the Human Condition to which this booklet is intended to be an introduction.
The basic concept is that we have a genetic orientation to selfless behaviour which is what we experience as our conscience. Most other animals are genetically selfish. The change in our genetic orientation from selfish to selfless occurred through a process called “love indoctrination” whereby the mothers of our proto-human ancestors nurtured their infants for genetically selfish reasons, but to the infants it seemed like selflessness. Thus they were “indoctrinated” into the idea that selflessness is the meaning of life. Over many generations this orientation to selflessness became encoded in our genes. But, as our conscious mind developed, it needed to experiment with self-management, rather than blindly follow the guidance of the selfless instincts. When this led to us acting in ways which our instincts interpreted as selfish, they criticised us. Our conscious mind became insecure in the face of this criticism - we became angry (against the criticism), egotistical (always needing to assert our worth in the face of our instincts condemnation of us) and alienated (blocking out any aspects of reality which might seem to support the criticisms coming from our conscience.) Thus we had a loving cooperative beginning as a species (which we mostly retain an orientation to in our genes) and our dark side since then has been a psychological byproduct of the emergence of consciousness.
I’m willing to believe we had a cooperative beginning as a species and I definitely believe that our propensity for selfishness, competition and aggression is a psychological phenomenon. I also believe that the critical nature of idealism is the root cause of the psychological insecurity (or neurosis) which drives our dark side.
Where I disagree with Griffith is on the source of idealism. He sees it as something genetic, whereas I see it as a social phenomenon - a product of the conscious mind, not the instincts.
A clear distinction has to be made here between idealism and love. I don’t feel that Griffith makes this distinction and thus he goes very far wrong. He identifies our conscience with this genetic orientation, but at the same time he says that this genetic orientation is the source of our capacity for love and cooperativeness. The conscience is something which tries to control our behaviour by making us feel bad if we go against it. Love on the other hand cannot be forced. If it is not freely given then it isn’t love. Cooperation in a superficial sense can be forced. People can be made to cooperate. But this isn’t cooperation in the fullest sense of the word - to work with - they may be with us physically, but if there is compulsion then they will not be with us in the relational sense.
I have no problem with the idea that we have a genetic orientation to being loving and cooperative. We see these qualities in young children and we can often see the evidence that emotional disturbance of one kind or another lies behind deviation from such a nature. But, unlike the conscience, love is not dictatorial. In it’s purest form it is all-accepting and all-forgiving. The conscience is certainly not that.
It seems clear to me that the conscience is a part of the ego - the conscious thinking self - in which we store our learned moral principles. How else do we explain that what makes us feel guilty differs from person to person and culture to culture? If our conscience were genetic we would see no such diversity. Guilt can be understood as the sense of psychological pain which accompanies the withdrawal of self-acceptance.
I see no need for the theory of “love indoctrination”. Nature at base is integrative - competition occurs within a cooperative framework. The motivation for we animals is the pleasure principle - to seek that which makes us feel good and try to avoid what makes us feel bad. (In humans this gets very complicated because of our ability to make decisions based on predictions about the future, our psychological needs and our metaphysical belief systems.) For animals, good and bad feelings are the messengers for the genes. An animal which experiences maximised pleasure when mating with a healthy member of his species and is willing to compete for that pleasure may prove more fit in the process of natural selection. And a female member of a species who feels enough discomfort at the prospect of losing her infant to fight to protect it will also be likely to have an advantage. And where there is not enough food for everyone, those who are most motivated to compete will pass on their genes. But these animals compete when there is an advantage, in terms of achieving pleasure or avoiding suffering, in competing.
Griffith places a lot of emphasis on the bonobos as an example of what our cooperative past may have been like. Bonobos are peaceful, cooperative and matriarchal, while chimpanzees are more aggressive, competitive and patriarchal. The chimpanzees developed in an ecosystem where food was less plentiful. The bonobos spend a lot of their time rubbing genitals with each other fairly indiscriminately. Why would the bonobos not be cooperative and peaceful? Everyone has enough food. Living cooperatively means living in a peaceful supportive community and spending much of your time rubbing genitals. Where is the pleasure advantage in competition?
As for our ancestors, if they lived in an environment where there was plenty of food to go around, then the only source of competition would be mating. But would competing for mates in such an environment confer a significant evolutionary advantage? It would in a more hostile environment with a high infant mortality rate. There it would be a numbers game. But if most infants grew to adulthood, then environmental advantage would go to those who were best nurtured and thus healthiest. In this kind of ecological niche, genetic advantage would favour nurturing as it does with the bonobos. And there would be no genetic drive to compete which needed to be “indoctrinated” out of us. All that was needed was a space where competition was not advantageous. Maybe the chimpanzees too would like to be living cooperatively and spending their time rubbing genitals, but if there isn’t enough food to go around they have to stick with their less pleasant lifestyle.
So how did it all go wrong? I think Griffith is right that a conflict arose between the instincts and the intellect, but not in the way he thinks. If our instincts are to be loving and cooperative then they would have to be forgiving and uncritical. Forgiveness is essential to love and necessary if ongoing cooperation is to be facilitated. Idealism on the other hand is unforgiving and is a divisive influence. Idealism encourages us to judge ourselves or others against a standard which is, by definition unreachable. Ideality and reality are opposites, thus ideals can never be achieved in the real world. The ideals produce just the kind of response in the insecure ego that Griffith attributes to them. But they originate in the conscious mind, not in the instincts. They are a product of the conscious mind’s attempt to understand the world and manage it’s own behaviour.
How did we arrive at the concept of idealism? To have an idea of good and evil we would need something with which to contrast our loving cooperative behaviour. The behaviour of predatory animals would have provided that contrast. The role of protecting the tribe against them would have fallen to men as women needed to concentrate on nurturing the infants. In hunting against them we would have had to cultivate our own competitive and aggressive potential. While necessary, this would have had a disruptive effect on the group, something which the women would have had to try to control. So we have behaviour labelled “bad” and other behaviour labelled “good” and social pressure to restrain the former and cultivate the latter. A moral system. In time individuals would have begun second-guessing criticism. They would have internalised the moral system. They would have gained a conscience.
Of course this was necessary, but the problem is that idealism has a tendency to undermine self-acceptance. We end up feeling guilty about our transgressions and the resultant insecurity makes it harder for us to open up to our deeper loving nature. Our wounded ego becomes a bigger and bigger barrier to improving our behaviour. We become, as Griffith says, angry, egocentric and alienated.
Griffith likes to use his theory as a way of explaining the myth of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, but there are some aspects of that story which can be explained by what I have just said which he does not attempt to explain. Eve was the first to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and she was tempted to do so by a snake. If predatory animals were what led us to the origin of idealism, then that explains the snake. If women were the first ones to insist on a moral system, that explains how Eve ate first. And it was not simply the Tree of Knowledge (as Griffith often says in support of his theory that conscious thought in general was the key factor), but the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (i.e. knowledge of morality or idealism). We can quite safely use our minds to explore and experiment wherever we don’t arrive at hurtful self-criticism. It was not the search for knowledge which corrupted us, as Griffith claims, but the idealism which we played with along the way.
Griffith’s placing of idealism in the genes leads him to this absurdity : “…but we have never before been able to ‘heal our soul’, to truthfully explain to our original instinctive self or soul that our fully conscious, thinking self is good and not bad…” If our instinctive self resides in our genes, then how can we explain anything to it? How can genes listen and understand? But if the split is one which idealism has caused within our conscious mind, then a healing integrity of understanding is possible.
I could go on and on analysing and criticising Griffith’s attempt to explain the human condition, and I have done that elsewhere, but here I just wanted to deal with the central issue as all other failings proceed from there.
I care about Jeremy Griffith and his followers and I care what happens to the human race. My motivation is the pleasure principle. It would be pleasant for me to see the members of the World Transformation Movement liberated from the impasse caused by their support of a faulty theory. And it would be pleasant to live in a world where the human race has a chance to survive, whether they are a part of making that possible or not.
So let’s unpack Griffith’s analysis and see if it stands up to detailed critical analysis. Griffith’s main thesis is that increased nurturing of infants is the main driver in human evolution. He claims this is the “truth” that orthodox science has denied offering alternative explanations such as the invention of tools or language. Griffith seems to be on track here – although it is incorrect to say science has not acknowledged this fact. The most widely accepted theory in human evolutionary studies at the moment assumes that an intensification of parental care relative to other primates is central to the human emergence. For a detailed analysis of this literature I refer the reader to ‘The Evolution of Human Life History’ edited by Kirsten Hawkes which analyses the notion that an intensification of parental care is what drove human evolution. Also Robert Martin, who has been promoting the idea that our uniqueness resides in changes in parenting structures since the 1970s is worth reading. He has outlined his theories in a recent popular publication entitled ‘How We Do it: The Evolution and Future of Human Reproduction.’ In this sense Griffith is both wrong and right. He is right that nurturing is the ‘prime mover’ in human evolution – but wrong in his belief that science has systematically denied this fact – a fact which has now been revealed by his denial exposing masterpiece.
This leads us to the other major flaw in Griffith’s work. He rightly argues that nurturing is important in human evolution – but he then makes the leap that nurturing in early infancy is what creates our adult personality. And why is science in denial about the role of nurturing in human evolution? Simple – scientists have damaged souls because they received inadequate nurturing and therefore they have institutionalised the denial of the role of nurturing into science itself. There are two problems here. The first is the assumption that infancy determines variation in adulthood personality. The second is that lack of nurturing in the background of scientists has produced the systematic denial of nurturing in studies of human evolution – which as I have suggested does not exist, with the role of intensified parenting being at the heart of contemporary human evolutionary studies.
Griffith believes the lack of nurturing in our background is the core problem at the heart of the human condition. He also argues that our personality is indelibly grafted into us during the first few years of life and that this is something that is determined and which we have little hope of changing or overcoming – that is by the time we reach childhood and adolescence the die is cast so to speak by the degree of early nurturing we receive. And it is the degree of nurturing that we receive that determines our ability to think clearly about the human condition. As he writes: ‘nurturing played..[an]immensely important role in the formation of our character’ (240) elsewhere commenting that ‘lack of nurturing in infancy and early childhood…makes self-confrontation during the thoughtful early adolescent stage overwhelmingly depressing’(124). And again: ‘…the role and importance nurturing played in the maturation of our lives, have been unbearable for upset humans to admit’ (61).
This is where the fatal flaw exists in Griffith’s work. The major studies in human behavioural genetics undertaken by people such as Robert Plomin and Judith Rich Harris indicate that early nurturing explains very little of the differences in adult personality. Most of that variation – that is why my personality might be different to yours – is explained by heritable variation in addition to environmental influences outside the home that occur after infancy – that is amongst peers within the broader culture during childhood and adolescence. In this sense Griffith’s grand scheme of nurturing explaining variation in adult personality is not supported by current data. And what is his strategy in making his case – claiming in circular fashion that people who reject his thesis are in denial. This is not how science works. Griffith offers no data sets which can be used to replicate his findings. He merely piles on quote after quote from ‘authorities’ supporting his view without quoting any evidence against his view. This is Griffith’s primary method – what is called confirmation bias – one of the hallmarks of non-falsifiable theories.
Upon this flawed foundation, for which no robust scientific data exists, Griffith constructs an entire system – in fact an entire model of how we are to construct a future civilisation. Because he believes that our character is indelibly grafted into us during infancy and early childhood he makes the further point that our ability to think clearly and honestly is determined by the degree of nurturing we received in our infancy. He also claims that our world should be ordered according to the quality of nurturing we have received in infancy for it is our degree of nurturing that determines the nature of our adult character and therefore our ability to think soundly. Consequently, it will only be those of us who have a sound character as a result of early nurturing who will be free of insecurity and consequently able to develop a more truthful and honest understating of human nature and therefore help develop a new more psychologically healthy society.
When you actually begin to seriously investigate what Griffith is arguing the unscientific nature of his thinking becomes apparent and consequently the entire edifice of his theory begins to crumble. The most significant issue here is that there is very little evidence that differences between our individual characters are the result of nurturing in early infancy. Abuse and neglect outside the range of what is considered normal parenting can result in life long psychological problems that require significant therapeutic interventions. However, most of the variation that we see in human character is not the result of the degree of early nurturing we have received. Differences between individuals, based on the data of behavioural genetics, seem to be attributable to environmental effects outside the home (that is the broader culture and peer group) combined with hereditary influences. The most robust evidence in support of this view has come from twin studies.
These studies have shown that identical twins separated at birth and raised in different homes have quite similar characters. Most significantly they are more similar to one another than they are to their respective siblings in the adoptive home. This should not occur if parenting style and nurturing in the home determine adult character. This research is based upon a whole battery of psychological measures such as susceptibility to depression, schizophrenia and psychoses, as well as character traits such as degrees of happiness, timidity, confidence, introversion and extraversion. The only way to explain this phenomenon is that similarity in character evident in identical twins is due to hereditary factors. If nurturing did determine character, as Griffith claims, then identical twins separated at birth would show greater affinities to their siblings in their adoptive homes. The fact that they do not, and that they resemble one another more than their adoptive siblings, means that something else is involved in the formation of human character in addition to the influence of early nurturing. Given that identical twins share the same DNA, the only way to explain their similar characters is by invoking hereditary factors. These studies directly undermine one of the major foundation stones of Griffith’s theory, his consequent view of the world and how we should develop a future society. Once we realise that foundation stone is without any empirical support major aspects of his apparently liberating intellectual edifice begin to crumble.
For those who are interested I suggest Judith-Rich Harris’ The Nurture Assumption as well as her No Two Alike which both detail the vast body of data against the notion that differences in adult character result from different parenting styles. The essential point here is that no matter how you alter the early parental environmental important aspects of character will not be affected. In other words genetic factors ‘push against’ and resist environmental influence, remaining invariant when environmental variables alter. Given that much of the variation in human biology – which includes height, body shape and hair colour – are based on genetic differences, it stands to reason that aspects of brain function underpinning human character vary in human populations. If this were not so then humans would be an evolutionary anomaly – that is a species with a nervous system that lacks genetic diversity. To assert such a position is anti-evolutionary. This is because for evolution or natural selection to operate there must be genetic diversity within the population. It is unlikely that the human brain is the sole exception to this universal fact of organic life on earth.
Griffith takes no account of these studies but merely makes emotive assertions that his view is correct – with the caveat that anyone who does not accept his theory is being evasive of the truth. This kind of circular reasoning, presented in the absence of robust longitudinal data sets, is not how science works. Consequently, Griffith’s theory is non-falsifiable or not open to experimental refutation – which is a polite way of saying his work is pseudoscience. Therefore until he can produce a longitudinal data set indicating correlations between parenting styles, the degree of nurturing we receive in early infancy and variation in adult character, his work can only be described as pseudo-science. If Griffith is incorrect on this issue then it seems he is misleading and deceiving his readers and those individuals who believe he has discovered the indubitable truth about human nature. It should be added that I do not believe Griffith is deceiving people intentionally – in fact I believe he is a decent man with honourable intentions. However, honourable intentions do not necessarily produce robust, experimentally verifiable science.
The main reason I believe his ideas are deceptive, misleading and potentially harmful is that people may actually attribute various character dispositions they have to the degree and quality of nurturing they received in early infancy. Not only is this a scientifically untenable view but it may also lead individuals to make inaccurate interpretations of their own character and the character of other individuals, that far from being therapeutically beneficial, may actually cause more problems than they solve. If we wish to solve our psychological problems we need to know what their causes are. And attributing them to the wrong cause may result in years of pointless navel gazing and hashing over ones infancy and childhood – without any positive therapeutic outcome.
There are also problems with Griffith’s anthropological writings on the !Kung bushman and Australian Aboriginal people. I have dealt with these issues at length in my Amazon reviews of his previous works ‘A Species in Denial’ and ‘Beyond the Human Condition.’ I have also reviewed his theories in this area in an article I wrote for The Sydney Morning Herald entitled “Biologist Jeremy Griffith examines where the human race is headed” which is available online. Significantly, Griffith has argued that these cultures have low levels of violence because individuals are well nurtured as children. While !Kung child rearing practices are delightfully indulgent their society has high rates of sexually fuelled homicide – which raises problems for such a putative correlation. There are also problems with Griffith’s claim of a casual relation between child rearing practices and the supposed cooperative nature of Aboriginal society that I deal with in my ‘A Species in Denial’ review.
There is another unusual aspect to Griffith’s nurturing hypothesis that circuitously ties in with his politics. Griffith claims that Left wing political analysis is oppressive, hindering liberty and the search for knowledge - and that the political Right is at the vanguard of intellectual freedom and exploration, fulfilling our two million year search for knowledge. He extolls the virtues of leaders such as John Howard and Margaret Thatcher and her belief in liberty and other forms of neo-conservative ideology that developed during the 80s and 90s. This is legitimate as an ideological preference and there is – or was prior to the Global Financial Crisis in 2008 – evidence that neoliberal free market ideology did deliver economic and social benefits as a result of opening up markets and reducing the power of unions. Thatcher was a big fan of F.A. Hayek who argued in ‘The Road to Serfdom’ that government regulation of markets would continually produce economic collapse.
What this means is that neoliberalism is not about any concept of abstract freedom – it is explicitly a model of how societies should be organised economically in order to create healthy and stable populations. In other words it was based on a moral assertion that neoliberalism is the best means of creating societies that are prosperous and that benefit all. This was based on the notion that increased profits will trickle down the social and economic hierarchy, raising the living standards of all and lifting people out of poverty. Since the 2008 crash this has been shown to be a fallacy – the waves of boom and bust resulting from the financialisation of markets eventually becoming a tsunami that has produced a global economic crisis, with the banks being bailed out, absolved of any responsibility and their mistakes foisted onto the general populace who are suffering under unjust and economically disastrous austerity measures. This is widely acknowledged by the world’s leading economic analysts – such as Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz both of whom are Nobel laureates. In other words neoliberalism failed to deliver on its promises and is now considered a failed economic model that is responsible for the current state of social disintegration in Europe and America.
The point is much of Griffith’s polemic about “freedom” seems already dated and mostly a product of Cold War ideological battles and political developments that occurred in the 80s and 90s. At the moment those who are in denial of reality and who are supressing freedom and the search for knowledge are recalcitrant neoliberals who refuse to register the fact that their ideological preferences and economic models have failed to deliver on their promises. Real knowledge and insight is coming from people who are willing to abandon neoliberal dogma – which is currently eating away at the social fabric of our civilisation and the intellectual and political freedoms that should be at the heart of our democratic institutions. Griffith’s thinking and polemical attempt to ground his ideological preferences in biology seem dated and mired in pre-2008 economic debates. Recent history has basically shown his thinking to be redundant. I suggest Yanas Varoufaukis’ ‘The Global Minotaur: America, Europe and the Future of the Global Economy’ if readers want a more serious and considered analysis of neo-liberalism that does not seek to naturalise it or somehow ground its supposed virtues biology.
What is even more unusual in Griffith’s theory is how he connects his political analysis with his nurturing thesis. Who are the strong and resilient – and hence well nurtured – members of our community? Griffiths claims it is conservatives who have the strength of character to take up the fight against idealism and fulfil our destiny to find knowledge. And who are the poorly nurtured and psychologically exhausted in our community? In Griffith’s view – wait for it - left wing activists, environmentalists, homosexuals and postmodernists.
For example, Griffith claims that postmodern theory is a symptom of childhood trauma and the current degeneration of society or ‘death by dogma’ that he feels pervades contemporary political life – that is ‘non-conservative’ political life. As he writes: ‘the totally dishonest, completely alienated, definitely autistic postmodernist movement’ is a symptom of being ‘corrupted/upset/hurt/soul-damaged in…infancy and childhood.’ In this context it is worth considering one of the foundational texts of postmodern theory, Michel Foucault’s ‘History of Madness’ which is one of the twentieth century's most brilliant analyses of how we construct the mentally ill in the modern world. Interestingly this is what RD Laing – who is on Griffith’s hit-list of exceptionally sound or unevasive thinkers - had to say about "History of Madness ":
"This is quite an exceptional book of very high calibre - brilliantly written, intellectually rigorous, and with a thesis that thoroughly shakes the assumptions of traditional psychiatry."
So who are we to trust? Griffith's uninformed condemnation of Foucault as the harbinger of `death by dogma' or Laing's view that Foucault's work is a brilliant piece of scholarship that has advanced human knowledge and our understanding of mental illness? Given Griffith seems to value Laing's thought so highly, and is someone who is constantly quoted as providing support for Griffith's thesis, the question then arises as to why they differ so dramatically in their assessment of Foucault? It may be that Laing actually read Foucault and understood him whereas Griffith seems more intent on making him a scapegoat for society's ills and its unwillingness to confront the ideas articulated in his own work. Intellectually rigorous or death by dogma? I know who I would tend to side with.
The final irony here is that Foucault actually provides a powerful argument in support of Griffith's main thesis - that is the cause of the current epidemic of mental illness and depression amongst human populations is not to be found in genetic factors but in the cultural, social and economic atmosphere within which humans have to struggle. Foucault would argue that civilisation, not genetic factors, makes people ill. This work is actually one of the major advances in our understanding of the history of psychiatry and of Western cultural attitudes to the mentally ill. I do not see how it could be conceived of as a dogma leading to collective spiritual death as Griffith claims. My concern is by promulgating such opinions Griffith seems to promote in his readers the sense that they understand these ideas and their supposed inherently malevolent nature. The problem is this kind of view is based on ignorance and misunderstanding of the very ideas Griffith dogmatically rejects.
So what are we left with? A writer with conservative ideological sympathies and with a deep antipathy to postmodern thought and any critical analysis of the conservative world view. And somehow conservatives have been all along at the vanguard of human knowledge, fulfilling the two million year struggle to find knowledge. This is not really a serious scientific hypothesis but an ideological preference dressed up as objective biology. Griffith is entitled to his preference – but it definitely does not make for good science. Interestingly, his work seems to have attracted a significant number of neolibs who seem to have found a scientific validation of their world view in Griffith’s work.
I believe Griffith’s book is a thoughtful and sensitive work with noble motivations and aspirations at its core. It warrants thoughtful – yet critical analysis. Given the current vexed state of humankind any contribution as to how we are to get out of the mess we are in as a species is welcome. However, I do not believe he is offering robust and verifiable science. In this sense his work – and the grandiose claims of being the final word on the human condition – can be quite misleading particularly to those without a background in science. Hopefully this review and the others I have written will assist readers in critically assessing his work.
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It brings about a much needed optimistic view for humanity by explaining why we...Read more
This little book is a great entry point to the enormous new paradigm of thinking that Griffith is introducing on human behaviour.Read more
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