Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Book Write-Up: Freedom, by Jeremy Griffith

Jeremy Griffith.  Freedom: The End of the Human Condition.  Sydney, Australia: WTM Publishing, 2016.  See here to buy the book.

Jeremy Griffith is an Australian biologist.  This book and his treatise have been recommended by a number of academics.  Harry Prosen, a professor of Psychiatry and former President of the Canadian Psychiatric Association, wrote the introduction to this book.  And yet, as Griffith points out throughout this book, Griffith’s ideas have been controversial and rejected by a number of academics.  But Griffith contends that many people have found spiritual healing as a result of his ideas.

This book is about why humans are the way that they are, and how they can find healing from their alienated condition.  Understanding how everything Griffith says fits together was rather difficult for me.  Griffith would have done well to have provided a lucid, concise summary at the end of the book of what exactly he is proposing.  I have to confess, though, that I did not watch the online videos that Griffith says are helpful for people wanting to understand the book.  Plus, Griffith says that a rereading of the book could make a profound difference.

What are some of Griffith’s points?  I will try to explain them, as I understand them.

Griffith is arguing against the idea that humans are naturally selfish and violent.  For Griffith, the opposite is the case: we are naturally loving and peaceful.  That is our instinct.  Griffith appeals to at least three considerations to support this argument.  First of all, Griffith points to the behavior of bonobos, apes who are very closely related to human beings.  Griffith has studied bonobos, and he contends that they are peaceful and loving.  Second, Griffith maintains that mythology contains a remembrance of how the ancestors of humans used to be.  Hesiod, Plato, and Genesis 2-3 present a sort of Golden Age in the past when humans were peaceful towards one another.  Third, Griffith appeals to archeology and the fossil record, which he believes indicate that certain ancestors of humans were peaceful.

At the same time, Griffith appears to believe that nurture played a role in how humans became instinctively peaceful.  Griffith seemed to acknowledge that there is a genetic tendency in many animals towards selfishness: a competitive desire to survive and pass on their genes.  But he argues that, at some point, ancestors of humans developed benevolence.  They did this by nurturing their children with unconditional love.  This taught their children the value of unconditional love and gave them the inner security they needed to love others.  According to Griffith, the conditions were right in certain areas for this to develop: there was material plenty, for example, and that lessened the need to compete for resources.

But Griffith maintains that there was a Fall, and that this Fall related to knowledge, as Genesis 3 says.  Consciousness and intelligence emerged.  Humans could feel free to go against their instincts in favor of pursuing their own desires.  And yet, consciousness and intelligence brought something else, according to Griffith, and that is defensiveness and self-justification: humans want to contend that they are right, against the belief that they are violent and flawed.

Griffith believes that his insights about nurturing are controversial because people do not want to admit that they are bad parents.  At the same time, Griffith’s solution is not for people to feel guilty and beat up on themselves.  His solution seems to be for people to realize that their nature is to be peaceful and loving: to become reconciled with who they truly are.

I am giving this book four stars because I did enjoy it.  As a Christian who believes in evolution, I wonder how Genesis 1-3 and evolutionary scenarios of history can hold together, and this book is helpful in that regard.  (This is not to imply that Griffith is a Christian, in a traditional sense, for he seems to have non-traditional ideas about God.)  I do not have the background in biology to evaluate Griffith’s arguments, but his arguments and his interaction with scholarship struck me as scholarly.  Griffith’s quotations of literature and pop culture also made this book interesting and relevant.  I particularly liked Griffith’s discussion of the Simpsons and how Homer Simpson had a legitimate problem with Ned Flander’s religiosity, even if Homer couldn’t articulate what that problem was.

In terms of criticisms, like I said, Griffith could have been clearer, and he could have pulled together what he was saying a lot better.  Griffith was also making controversial statements about homosexuality and autism, and he was drawing from decades-old research in doing so.  Moreover, Griffith could have toned down his save-the-world rhetoric, his narrative about how he has been persecuted, and his criticisms of E.O. Wilson.

To be honest, while I found this book to be fascinating, I am not entirely clear about what issues are at stake, in terms of Griffith’s arguments and the arguments of those with whom he disagrees.  Both sides seem to believe that humans have good and bad tendencies: they just differ on how to account for them.  What difference does that make, practically speaking?  It makes a huge difference, for Griffith, for he talks as if many people who reject his message are in denial.  Really?  It looks like an academic difference of opinion to me.

I apologize, though, for any incompleteness of understanding on my part.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.

7 comments:

  1. I’ve been studying Griffith’s writing for over 25 years. While I was once a supporter, I eventually became a critic of his theory. Perhaps I can help to clarify something of what he is saying.

    He believes that our conscience is encoded in our genes - that we are born with an expectation of ideal behaviour in ourselves and others. And he believes that the dark side of our nature - our selfishness, lustfulness, aggression, etc. is a reaction to the criticism which comes from this genetic conscience. The less well-nurtured we have been, the more insecure our ego will be and the more we will be adversely effected by this criticism.

    In his theory, our defiance of this genetic conscience has been both necessary and heroic, because we needed the freedom to deviate from its idealistic programming in order to find understanding of ourselves. Only with understanding of how our dark side came into being can we heal it with compassionate understanding of ourselves. The idea is that, when our conscious mind knows that it was not bad for defying our conscience it will become secure in itself and not feel criticised by the ideals.

    Even though we have the explanation provided in his books he does not feel that we will be fully healed of our insecurity in this generation, but that the process will only be completed by the improved nurturing which our somewhat increased psychological security will allow us to give to the next few generations.

    I haven’t read the work of E. O. Wilson, but my understanding is that the reason Griffith is so critical of him is that he presents a different explanation of the human condition which does not say that we are morally corrupted beings. Griffith feels that, beneath our civilised exterior, we are filled with rage against anything innocent as a result of the emotional damage inflicted by this 2 million year battle to defy our idealistic genetic programming. So, for him, Wilson is someone trying to deceive us by telling us this problem of incredible levels of moral corruption doesn’t exist. And if it does exist and isn’t acknowledged and addressed then that will lead to the destruction of our species. That is why he puts E. O. Wilson on the side of the Anti-Christ.

    Griffith feels his books are a fulfilment of Christianity. Personally I think he very much misunderstands Jesus, but I’m not a Christian myself and my views of Jesus’ teachings are probably pretty unorthodox in themselves.

    My key disagreement with Griffith is that I don’t believe that our conscience is genetic. I believe we are born with an orientation towards loving cooperative behaviour, but I believe that our conscience is learned. We have moral principles instilled in us by parents and teachers and, because our self-acceptance gradually becomes conditional, the obeying of these principles becomes one of those conditions. If we don’t follow an instilled moral principle with lose self-acceptance, i.e. we feel guilty. The fact that the conscience is learned can be evidenced by the fact that what makes us feel guilty differs from person to person and culture to culture.

    I do believe that idealism undermines our self-acceptance and that hostility towards the oppressiveness of idealism is the source of our dark side. But I believe that idealism is a social rather than genetic phenomenon. It could be thought of a thought virus which has spread through society and down through history breeding selfishness and hostility as a reaction against it.

    This is where the ideas of Jesus are particularly important for me, even though I don’t consider myself a Christian. In Jesus the emphasis is on love and non-judgement. This is the answer to idealism. Idealism is unforgiving and undermines our self-acceptance and our acceptance of others. If we feel forgiven and can learn to accept ourselves just as we are then our capacity for love is opened up. Freedom from the human condition means removing the barriers to love, and idealism is the key barrier.

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  2. Thanks for your comment, Aussiescribbler. Your comment here, and your comments on Amazon, are helpful in putting pieces of Griffith's thought in context.

    I have a question about something you say. You say that, according to Griffith, "our conscience is encoded in our genes." But it seemed to me that Griffith was saying that we got our instincts for good as a result of nurturing. Did the nurturing enhance the conscience rather than creating it, according to Griffith? Or did the nurturing create the conscience, and it got passed down genetically after that?

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  3. The way Griffith’s theory works is that nurturing amongst our proto-human ancestors is what gave us our genetic conscience. The nurturing of the infants was driven by the mothers’ “selfish” motive of promoting the survival chances of their own genes. But to the infants it looked like selflessness and so they were trained in cooperative selfless behaviour. This orientation towards selflessness became encoded in the genes. In his first book Free : The End of the Human Condition (1988), Griffith isn’t very clear on how this happened. He says : “The genes would follow the training in love (the love-indoctrination) reinforcing it.” This sounds like Lamarck’s idea of the inheritance of acquired characteristics, rather than anything consistent with Darwinian evolution. In Freedom he brings in the more convincing argument that the more cooperative culture which grew out of love-indoctrination could have made it possible for females to chose mates based on cooperativeness. In many species the alpha males dominate the mating, thus breeding in competitiveness. If the female selected for cooperativeness it would have bred out competitiveness. I can see how this could lead to a cooperative loving society like the bonobos only more so, but since cooperation requires a forgiving sense of flexibility, I don’t see how it could have lead to a genetic orientation which would be unforgiving of our conscious mind’s need to experiment in self-management. Intolerance to deviation from cooperativeness is not a cooperative trait and individuals who manifested this characteristic would surely be de-selected in favour of those who were less bothered by other’s “mistakes”.

    Anyway, let’s assume for the sake of argument that Griffith is right in this. So we have this genetic conscience which arose as a result of the nurturing process amongst our proto-human ancestors. Our relationship with this conscience is then largely determined by how well we personally were nurtured.

    Perhaps I can give an analogy which will make this clear. Imagine a work place with a very critical boss. Every time someone makes the slightest mistake he tells them off. Now lets look at the experience of two workers in this office. One has an easy stress-free life outside the office. His wife takes care of all his needs and his children give him no trouble. The other worker lives on his own in a tiny bedsit next to a noisy nightclub. There is no-one to make him feel good when he gets home from work and he doesn’t get much sleep at night. The first worker is going to be better able to ride with the boss’s criticisms. The second worker, tired and unloved, will be frazzled, will make more mistakes and as a result will be criticised even more by the boss. As a result he will be angrier at the boss’s behaviour than his co-worker.

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  4. I believe that what is at our core doesn’t criticise us. What is at our core is an all-forgiving sense of love. It is we who criticise ourselves and each other. The psychiatrist Wilhelm Reich invented the term “character armour” to describe the relatively inflexible personality structure which we develop to protect ourselves from threats from within (repressed desires and emotions) and without (criticism). It seems to me that our selfishness, guilt, aggression, alienation, etc. are all functions of our character armour. Our character armour is not welded to us. We tend to loosen it to the degree that we feel safe. We put up the barriers less with friends than with strangers for example.

    So it seems to me that the problem of these negative characteristics is not as hard to solve as Griffith claims. If we were going to have to become perfect workers in a work place were the boss was going to come down on us every time we made a minor mistake, it might take a lot of nurturing to get us to that point where we could operate like a cog in the machine and be free of the boss’s criticism. If the problem is that certain kinds of unhelpful ideas spread conflict in society and make us withdraw into a selfish and embattled attitude, then what we need to do is to challenge the supremacy of those ideas while cultivating unconditional self-acceptance, so that we will feel secure enough to put down our armour and let our core of uncritical love combined with our rational problem solving mind lead us to a free and united humanity.

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  5. Thanks for that follow-up, Aussiescribbler. Your first paragraph is especially helpful because it places some of what Griffith says into a sort of sequence. One area in which I was confused in reading Griffith's book was trying to understand the sequence in which Griffith believes things happened. He says that bonobos chose more cooperative mates. Yet, it seemed to me that he was also saying that proto-human mothers nurtured their children in a time when their husbands were alpha-males. From what you say, he is arguing that the nurturing came first, then the cooperative mates.

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  6. I think the idea is that the love-indoctrination process in nurturing would lead to a decrease in competitiveness in males first of all, so alpha male behaviour would decrease. But this is a cultural rather than genetic change, its roots are in the learning experience of the individual rather than in something born into them. The mate selection process would be needed to give cooperativeness a genetic survival advantage, i.e. the more cooperative would breed and the less cooperative would not.

    But environmental factors may be the most important influence on the decline of alpha male behaviour. As I understand it, alpha male behaviour is strong in gorillas and chimpanzees, but bonobos are matriarchal. Apparently bonobos live in a fairly isolated area and don’t share this habitat with other apes. And food is not scarce as it is for other ape communities. Those best adapted to life in an environment in which it is necessary to fight to defend territory and food are going to be competitive and aggressive individuals. Simply removing these environmental pressures would create the space for nurturing to foster cooperativeness.

    You might be interested in this lecture on these issues which was given by a friend of mine who has also been familiar with Griffith’s ideas since the time of his first book and, like me, has written critical reviews of Griffith’s work. Gary has had an academic paper on Ardipithecus Ramidus published and he understands the anthropological and primatological evidence far better than me :

    https://youtu.be/Sd8cAgraeKM

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  7. Aussiscribbler left this comment (which I may have accidentally deleted):

    I believe that what is at our core doesn’t criticise us. What is at our core is an all-forgiving sense of love. It is we who criticise ourselves and each other. The psychiatrist Wilhelm Reich invented the term “character armour” to describe the relatively inflexible personality structure which we develop to protect ourselves from threats from within (repressed desires and emotions) and without (criticism). It seems to me that our selfishness, guilt, aggression, alienation, etc. are all functions of our character armour. Our character armour is not welded to us. We tend to loosen it to the degree that we feel safe. We put up the barriers less with friends than with strangers for example.

    So it seems to me that the problem of these negative characteristics is not as hard to solve as Griffith claims. If we were going to have to become perfect workers in a work place were the boss was going to come down on us every time we made a minor mistake, it might take a lot of nurturing to get us to that point where we could operate like a cog in the machine and be free of the boss’s criticism. If the problem is that certain kinds of unhelpful ideas spread conflict in society and make us withdraw into a selfish and embattled attitude, then what we need to do is to challenge the supremacy of those ideas while cultivating unconditional self-acceptance, so that we will feel secure enough to put down our armour and let our core of uncritical love combined with our rational problem solving mind lead us to a free and united humanity.

    ReplyDelete

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