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John Gray doesn’t think much of evolutionary psychologist Steve Pinker’s “better angels”

The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and Its Causes

In “Delusions of peace” (Prospect, 21st September 2011) John Gray tells us, “Stephen Pinker argues that we are becoming less violent. Nonsense, says commentator John Gray.” (More on Pinker here.)

Of course it’s nonsense, and Gray points out – a fact we may miss if we only ever scan headlines – the conditions that make for peace in some places can spell war in others. First world countries have been known to get involved in third world conflicts to conserve their own interests, making the conflicts much worse – and then pontificate about “all the violence over there.” Also, in many places, “peace”simply means that all violence is in government hands, so whatever is happening is, by definition, peace, even if it is mass murder of ethnic groups that the government distrusts.

Interestingly, Gray notes,

Evolutionary psychology is in its infancy, and much of what passes for knowledge in the subject is not much more than speculation—or worse. There have been countless attempts to apply evolutionary theory to social life but, since there is no mechanism in society comparable to natural selection in biology, they have produced only a succession of misleading metaphors, in which social systems are mistakenly viewed as living organisms. Indeed, if there is anything of substance to be derived from an evolutionary view of the human mind, it must be the persistence of unreason.

As the related discipline of behavioural finance has shown in some detail with regard to decision-making under conditions of risk and uncertainty, human thought and perception are riddled with bias, inconsistency and self-deception. Since our minds are animal minds—as Darwin argued in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872)—things could hardly be otherwise. Shaped by imperatives of survival, the human mind will not normally function as an organ for seeking out the truth. If science is the pursuit of truth—an assumption that begs some tricky questions—it doesn’t follow that anything similar is possible in other areas of human life. The idea that humans can shape their lives by the use of reason is an inheritance from rationalist philosophy that does not fit easily with what we know of the evolution of our mammalian brain. The end result of scientific inquiry may well be that irrational beliefs are humanly indispensable.

Here, Gray loses many of us. Much that passes for “unreason” is simply pursuit of goals not approved or not understood by opinion leaders.

Anyone who lives in a nanny state or theocracy will be familiar with this problem: Some goals are merely classified as unreasonable, without discussion. The old lady who spends a part of her meagre pension on lottery tickets can be shown to be making an “unreasonable”choice – if you leave out of account that she is shopping her winnings in her dreams, and the dreams are of more use to her than the stuff would ever be. Even the drug addict is making a rational choice if the worldview espoused by both Gray and Pinker – materialist atheism – is correct. Ultimately, both thinkers’ view is self-defeating, but at least Gray is not afflicted by as much sheerly crackpot theory as Pinker – and there is something to be said for that.

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