Homo Sapiens - a Liberal’s Perspective
by John Green
Thu 24th Apr 2014
In this book, Newby straightaway takes us on a quick canter through the basics of evolution, how present day homo sapiens has evolved and how we are similar to, and differ from the rest of the animal world. He discusses the role of nature and nurture in human development and proceeds to discuss the positive and negative traits of mankind and how these are impacting on our society and on our future prospects for survival. He questions whether we will be able to solve the pressing problems we are now facing: population growth, climate crisis, wealth disparity and our own intrinsic nature.
I find myself agreeing with 99% of what he has to say, but reluctantly also find myself very critical of his approach. Newby’s subject matter is, of course, huge and many of the issues he addresses have been dealt with more eloquently and in much more depth by others.
He does though splatter his text with signposts to other, useful publications, but these do break up the flow unnecessarily (why not footnotes at the end?).
Already from its title, one can discern that this book is primarily addressed to a US-based readership and most of the author’s examples are also taken from a US context. ‘A Liberal’s perspective’ is something many of us, here in Europe, would not find an interesting or attractive proposition. Liberalism in the UK is usually associated either with the 19th century heyday of the Liberal Party or with the present day minor coalition partners of the Conservative Party, representatives of a largely right-wing ideology. Even in Germany, the tiny Liberal party is to the right of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats. What north Americans refer to as ‘Liberal’ we would normally describe as ‘progressive’. Newby, for instance, describes a whole list of progressive and democratic accomplishments in the USA as being due to ‘liberal’ action and agitation, but doesn’t mention the role played by social democrats, socialists and even communists who all had a significant impact on progressive legislation in the USA, certainly in the first half of the twentieth century, up to the end of the Second World War, but this contribuition has been written out of mainstream US history.
For someone largely unaware of the issues Newby deals with, his book could be a valuable introduction. But, to me, it reads more like a secondary school primer than a polemical and provocative thesis for adults. He does argue forcefully for evolution and rightly describes those who oppose it, as irrational, but he is addressing his words to a society steeped in obscurantism, creationism and right-wing ideology.
In Britain we don’t (yet) have such a problem with evangelical Christianity or belief in creationism. We also have our own home-grown and eloquent promotors of evolutionary theory and atheism in the form of Richard Dawkins and Steve Jones to name the most prominent. Surprisingly, neither warrants a mentioned in Newby’s book.
He describes how human co-operation has evolved to help us as a species survive and flourish and why we should be sceptical or even opposed to rampant capitalism, but doesn’t develop this idea in the context of modern day US society. I felt this with almost all of his ideas - why doesn’t he developed them more and dig beneath the epidermis.
Again in his chapter on aggression, he writes that, it has been observed that just as it is in many animals, birds, dogs, fish and mice, aggressive behavior can be selected and bred.’
What would be interesting is to examine how such behavioural traits are promoted in our societies, through the glorification of violence in films, video games and other media. How our perceptions of the opposite sex, of kindness, compassion or rational thought are moulded and stunted and how all this impacts on how our society (mal)functions.
Newby is also a keen artist and, in CP Snow tradition, encourages a combination of an artistic imagination with scientific thinking and practice. But, once again, the issue is only touched upon and is tantalisingly short. As we know, the first art arose in prehistoric societies, 20-15,000 BC. The caves of Altamira in Spain and Lascaux in France are magnificent examples of this early art. He speculates that art arose as a response to ownership - markings made on a person’s stick or stone, to denote that it belongs to them. But no evidence is presented for this theory. He makes no reference, for instance, to the classic work of the Austrian Marxist art historian, Ernst Fischer in his book The Necessity of Art, in which he forcefully argues that art arose out of human ritual and is not some optional form of entertainment, a pleasant luxury of civilised life, but an essential or constitutive part of human consciousness and social being. Art in its widest sense is rooted in the same complex that gives us language; the ability to make and understand symbols.
Art in capitalist society may appear as a discrete area of leisure or luxury, but this is exceptional for human society. Art, Fischer argued, is humanity’s attempt to control the world: art and magic were the same thing. There have been various interpretations of upper palaeolithic cave paintings, which are key to Fischer’s argument, and that these images were attempts to influence or control the outside world seems undeniable.
In his warning to us all about the probable consequences of our unthinking behaviour, he uses, as an example, the collapse and extermination of the population on Easter Island (Rapa Nui) as a result of total deforestation and lack of sustainable food production. This has been quoted many times by those warning of environmental implosion in our own times, but this scenario has been and is disputed, but he ignores this. It is not the whole story, according to Dr. Chris Stevenson, an archaeologist who has studied the island—famous for its massive stone statues—with a Rapa Nui scientist, Sonia Haoa, and Earthwatch volunteers over many years. They argue that the introduction of virulent diseases by European visitors probably played a significant role.
Newby clearly feels very strongly about the issues he tackles and is passionate about ensuring that our species and the planet have a future. He is absolutely right to emphasise that if we don’t adequately develop the rational and co-operative side of our human character, we will fail.
His final chapter, enumerates the urgent crises humanity is facing, but he fails to offer any new or innovative thinking in terms of how we can tackle these issues effectively. He only proposes a general appeal for us all to continue learning, go back to school, improve our knowledge and expand our imagination. What, though, needs addressing is the type of education we need and why our present educational system is failing us. How can education help us to think logically and critically, how should it help us question everything we are told and to examine reality carefully and analytically. That is one of the keys to ensuring that coming generations are capable of tackling these global issues.
Finally, it is rather a pity that Newby didn’t have his manuscript properly proofed - there are typos which could have been easily picked up and eliminated.
Homo Sapiens - a Liberal’s Perspective by Ron Newby