I have been reading Stephen Pinker’s ‘Better Angels’ and more recently Mandy Hager’s teen novel ‘Smashed’, which begins with a teen complaining about having to be a puppet of ‘selfish genes’.
‘Better Angels’ is an impressive book, but I think Pinker takes the selfish genes theory more seriously than it deserves, and I like Rupert Sheldrake’s take on that idea, in his book ‘The rebirth of Nature”:
“In the vivid language of Richard Dawkins, organisms are ‘throw-away survival machines’ built by the selfish genes for themselves to live in. These genes are no longer mere chemicals; they have come to life, and have minds like ruthless men. Not only do they have powers to ‘create form’, ‘mould matter’ and ‘choose’, but they engage in ‘evolutionary arms races’ and even ‘aspire to immortality’. The selfish gene theory takes anthropomorphism to an extreme unprecedented in science.”
I too doubt selfish genes are an illuminating metaphor, though these days science seems to favour genes as mastercode for everything to do with life and no-one seems to favour Sheldrake’s alternate theory that memory and growth of living things are best explained by what he calls morphic fields – like gravitational fields except they relate to the resonance of all present patterns with all previous patterns, not the mutual attraction of all matter.
Intuitively I feel Sheldrake may be right in thinking that our brains ‘receive’ memories (more or less effectively according to circumstances) from some external and persisting source, meaning that when brain damage alters memory its not because ‘data’ has been lost but because the receiver is more or less dysfunctional.
Although I can accept ‘the presence of the past’ (one of Sheldrake’s book titles) for organisms in proximity, I struggle with his idea that such morphic fields are immune to time and space. I do, however, like his idea that earth may be a ‘species of planet’, developing along a path that other planets in other solar systems have already followed (meaning there might be people not entirely unlike ourselves on distant worlds).
If morphic resonance were my theory I would propose that morphic fields of planets and stars and galaxies may propogate across the universe, but may not do so instantaneously, and might like other things be subject to such limitations as the speed of light.
Getting back to Better Angels, it seems to me Pinker is right; so many of the massive changes he observes have happened in my lifetime, with bewildering speed.
Which I think ties in with the sudden evolution of the internet, with all its linkages. Perhaps we need not worry so much about imminent apocalypse, perhaps what we are currently a part of is a pupal stage for a new kind of life; if Gaia is sentient and purposive, as Lovelock says, then aren’t we likely to be part of her path to heightened consciousness; “Being that can be understood is language,” says Gadamer. Perhaps soon Gaia will look out across the galaxy and say to other conscious planets with a newfound voice: ‘cogito ergo sum’ to which they will reply ‘Happy Birthday’.
And maybe then we’ll cease to over-breed, and human population will again decline and commune villages (with new communication possibilities) will fill the earth. Like mushrooms, as New Zealand hippies used to say, though cities, Singapore, New York and all the rest are likely to continue to evolve as well. And there might be, as Ou Ning hopes, a better interface, a ‘right relationship’ between the city and the countryside.
Here’s how I finished a media studies assignment in 2008:
My European ancestors were almost all illiterate. My Father’s memorable storytelling, my mother’s love of traditional songs and poems, which she mostly knew ‘by heart’, these were passed down from Scottish and English villagers for whom orality was always paramount. The poems and the stories I write now are well informed by village poetry and oratory and song.
Texts do engender other texts, or dress themselves in altered forms so as to reach new audiences. Sagas were once put into books. Now books go into films. All literate expression aims, at best, for focus and precision. Components cut and rearranged and edited together. Feature films reach a global audience; fuse music, art and drama into one. They are hugely influential. Despite their high technology, they can be great cooperative works of art, make manifest our rich humanity, amazing grace.
Is it not ethnocentric to suppose that just one species, ours, on just one planet, has invented language for itself alone? As Sheldrake writes, Gaia might be a member of a cosmic species. In which case we might not be as misguided as we appear. Our still unfolding story might yet have a plot. It certainly has us on the very edge of our seats: it is a cliffhanger. But let us not rule out the unexpected twist – the new direction.