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Tallis in Wonderland

Fifty Shades of Black

Raymond Tallis berates the malign pessimism of John Gray.

Just over twenty years ago, I published Enemies of Hope, a critique of the anti-humanist trends that were increasingly being espoused by academics in the humanities. Two dimensions of anti-humanism particularly exercised me. The first was its denial of the very idea of a human subject capable of true agency. The second was disbelief in the reality or even the possibility of human progress through well-intentioned rational action.

Just how little impact Enemies of Hope made on fashionable pessimism was revealed five years later by the runaway success of a polemic by political philosopher John Gray. The book was Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (2002). This volume, and its successors singing the same dirge, such as Heresies (2004) and Gray’s Anatomy (2009), made Gray famous. He has been described by many non-philosophers as the most important English-speaking philosopher of our time.

Straw Dogs was a triple-barrelled assault on ‘liberal humanism’ and on the humanist belief that there is a gulf between ourselves and other animals. Darwin, so Gray argued, had shown us that Homo rapiens (sic) is no different from other species except in respect of its limitless predatory and destructive power. Man is not “obviously worth preserving” and “has no more meaning than a slime mould.” Science has shown that “we cannot be other than irrational” and neuroscience that “we cannot be the authors of our acts.” Our lives are “fragmentary dreams”, and we are therefore powerless to alter our individual and collective destiny. Human history has consequently been “a succession of catastrophes” with “occasional lapses into peace and civilization.” Hubristic attempts at progress have brought us only more misery from murderous tyrants.

Given that the author of these ideas once had the grandiose title of Professor of European Thought, his habit of self-refutation is shocking. If human life really were a ‘fragmentary dream’, how could the human John Gray be sufficiently awake to be aware of this cognitive purgatory, even less to be able to extend that awareness to his entire species (over 7,000,000,000 at the present count)? And if Darwin really had shown that “the mind serves evolutionary success not truth”, why should we believe a product of the mind such as Darwin’s theory? And what credence should we give to neuroscience, since its practitioners, being humans, are irrational robots? And what is the standing of the assertions – of vast scope – that Gray makes about our history being universally woeful?

Not noticing that he had sawn off the epistemic branch on which he was sitting, Gray reserved particular scorn for the humanist conceit – described by him as a “pre-Darwinian error” – that “humans are different from all other animals.” His wilful failure to see the vast difference between human and animal consciousness and ways of life stung me into writing Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis, and the Misrepresentation of Humanity (2011). But it was Gray’s denial of the possibility of making life better for our fellows, and his high-handed dismissal of the hope of progress as childish vanity, that enraged me most. Which brings me to the reason for returning to Straw Dogs.

Better Than You Think

I have just been reading Hans Rosling’s Factfulness: Ten Reasons We Are Wrong About the World (2018). It is one of the most important, truthful, and insightful books I have read in many years. Although there is no sign that Rosling is aware of Gray’s evidence-free assertions, it is an implicit, and decisive, riposte to the latter’s overwhelming anti-humanism, and especially to Gray’s contempt for the idea of progress. Factfulness is rich with stories, but its backbone is facts – big facts about human existence – presented in the most user-friendly manner. There are facts about global life expectancy (rising), income (rising), extreme poverty (falling), deaths from natural disasters (falling), deaths in battle (falling), immunization rates (rising), literacy rates (rising), education of females (rising), access to electricity and clean water (rising), and population trends (reassuring).

On each of these matters, the views of the many, often highly intelligent, audiences to whom Rosling lectured over the years were seriously adrift. Here are a couple of examples. In the last twenty years, the proportion of the world population living in extreme poverty has dropped from 29% to 9%. Ninety-three per cent of a typical audience thought it had either remained steady or doubled. Or, the proportion of girls who finished primary school in lowest income countries is 60%, while most guessed it was 20%. In summary, most people performed worse on his multiple choice questions about the state of humanity than if they had chosen their answers at random.

Just as extraordinary as the level of development is the speed of change. The race to end extreme poverty began only two hundred years ago, an eye-blink in the history of our species. Rosling cites his own native Sweden. The markers of poverty – life expectancy, malnutrition, and child mortality – were the same in that country in his grandfather’s childhood as they are today in the world’s most impoverished countries. Worldwide, extreme poverty has fallen in the last twenty years from 29% to less than a third of that figure; and infant mortality has declined from 15% in 1950, to 3% in 2016. Moreover, Rosling presents compelling evidence and arguments for believing that these trends will continue, and that extreme poverty and lives blighted by hunger and cut short by unnecessary death will be increasingly rare.

Rosling characterizes the story he tells as “a secret silent miracle of human progress”: “step-by-step, year-by-year, the world is improving”. Not in every respect, but in crucial respects – in those aspects that provide the ground floor for human flourishing. Not everywhere, but overall – and most dramatically in those countries where poverty is extreme.

Why is this miracle not better known? Media bias is an obvious reason. Bad news is news, while good news is not. Sudden change is headline-worthy, but incremental improvement is not. And perhaps it seems bad taste, a certain Panglossian heartlessness, to celebrate progress when there are still people left behind. But whether you look at undernourishment, access to clean water, poverty, immunization, child mortality, child labour, education, literacy, suffrage, legal slavery, deaths from natural disasters, plane crash deaths, the story is the same: vast, and accelerating, improvements.

Factfulness was published just after Rosling’s death. It was seen through to publication by his son and daughter-in-law, a doctor and a global health physician, who had been his able lieutenants in his lifelong activism, helping to propagate the news about progress. It is in a sense his last will and testament. He wrote it because he was concerned that the consequences of negativity are themselves negative:

“When people believe that nothing is improving, they may conclude that nothing we have tried so far is working and lose confidence in measures that actually work…Or, they may become radicals, supporting drastic measures that are counter-productive when, in fact, the methods we are already using to improve our world are working just fine.”

This is important because we are far from mission accomplished, with, as I mentioned, 9% of our fellow humans still in extreme poverty.

Realistic Optimism

Which brings us back to the Emeritus Professor of European Thought whose apocalyptic nihilism has brought him so much fame and has prompted activist Tim Black to dub him “the poster boy for misanthropy.” Why was the erroneous tale he tells in Straw Dogs and its successors given such a warm welcome?

Jakarta slum home
Jakarta slums by Jonathan McIntosh. cc by 2.0

The assumption that ‘there is nothing to be done’ to improve the lot of our fellows means that we’re spared having to do things that are often hard work, repetitive, and sometimes unpleasant and stressful. Instead, we can sit on our bottoms, spare ourselves the effort of thinking how to do good better, shake our heads at the tragedy of human life and the foolishness of those who try to ameliorate it, and change channels on the telly or reach for the decanter at the high table. Contempt for fellow humans trying to make the world a better place may also be welcomed by some humanist academics who might have an uneasy feeling that their own work – adding another paper to the 25,000 that have been written about Wordsworth – may not increase the sum of human happiness. But there are perhaps deeper reasons.

Philosophical pessimism has a profound and not entirely dishonourable history. There is a justifiable suspicion of the kind of utopian dreams that are fuelled by a crass, enraged, ruthless utilitarianism. Such utopianism had catastrophic consequences in the twentieth century, brilliantly captured in Albert Camus’ phrase “slave camps under the flag of freedom”. But this hardly applies to the Popperian ‘piece-meal social engineering’ that lies behind the progress described by Rosling. It has, however, been noticed that material advances have not always brought happiness, or even well-being. Primo Levi, in If This Be a Man, his 1947 account of life in Auschwitz, spoke of how lesser pains and griefs hide behind the greater, “according to a definite law of perspective”, such that “if the most immediate cause of distress comes to an end, you are grievously amazed to see that another one lies behind; and in reality, a whole series of others.” What’s more, increasing affluence above subsistence levels is not necessarily associated with moral advance. And, finally, however much life chances are improved, and life expectancy increased, this does not alter the fundamental tragedy of our condition: we are destined to lose everything, including, finally, ourselves.

The moral logic connecting these observations about the universals of human life with an entirely relaxed attitude towards children dying of hunger or adults trapped in lives passed in the ultimately hopeless search for the means to subsistence is not clear. Given that we would not wish such poverty for ourselves or our loved ones, what justification can we have for dismissing the progress that has been made to lift our fellow humans above utter immiseration? But it is easy to be philosophical about others’ suffering when we ourselves are warm, well-fed, educated, and affluent.

My opposition to Gray, re-ignited by Rosling’s wonderful book, is not therefore just an example of shooting the messenger, but of outrage at a message which is untrue, and at the promotion of an ill-informed pessimism that could be self-fulfilling. Besides, there is something profoundly unattractive about a man who in his own life has been in receipt of all the benefits of social and scientific advance, mocking progress and describing his fellow humans as “not obviously worth preserving”.

I ended Enemies of Hope with a quote from Peter Medawar’s The Hope of Progress (1972): “To deny the hope of progress is the ultimate fatuity, the last word in poverty of spirit and meanness of mind.” I recommend Rosling’s Factfulness as a cure for such meanness of mind. As for Gray, I am sure his life does have more meaning than that of a slime mould, if only in virtue of the potentially damaging effect of his ill-informed and confused jeremiads.

© Prof. Raymond Tallis 2018

Raymond Tallis’ new book, Logos: The Mystery of How We Make Sense of the World is just out, published by Agenda.

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