Saturday 10 November 2012

If We Can Understand Who We Really Are

The twentieth century comedy actor, Jimmy Edwards, once remarked, “If there was any good advice he could give it would be, “don’t take good advice!” There’s a message there somewhere.

A few weeks ago, The Guardian carried an interesting review by Susanna Rustin of a book entitled, “The Social Conquest of the Earth” by Edward Wilson. Since I have already touched on the subject of advice, I can tell you that the writer and atheist Richard Dawkins has advised that we shouldn’t read it, “Potential readers should throw the book aside with great force” he says.  Should we take such advice?  What is so objectionable about the book in the first place?  First, we should remember that back in 1976 Professor Richard Dawkins published a book on evolution entitled “The Selfish Gene”.  The premise of this book is that our genes drive evolution, and that our genes drive us to do the things that give us most chance of survival and of replicating those same genes.  Our actions may appear to be unselfish, but basically, the genes are driving us in one direction – the survival and replication of our genes.

However, the Harvard biologist and professor Edward Wilson has scientifically challenged this rather bleak view of humanity, much to the annoyance of Richard Dawkins. From his research, Wilson has proposed the alternative view; he said, "I think if we can understand who we really are then we could reach a much better world."  His work and research on social insects such as ants has led him to conclude that their high level of organisation through close co-operation has promoted the replication of their own genes. Through such co-operation, there has been altruistic evolution that has ensured group survival and so these insects have become one of the most successful species on earth.

For Wilson, the lives of the ants provide a lesson for humanity.  He sees our own selfish striving is continually at war with our more generous co-operative and compassionate instincts.  He says it is a conflict between the poorer and better angels of our own nature.  He warns us about the contradictions of human society, a society he says that is a "star wars civilization with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions and god-like technology.  We thrash about terribly confused by the mere fact of our own existence and the danger to ourselves and the rest of life".

But Wilson, through his own take on evolutionary theory offers us hope. He says, "I think we have the qualities to come through and staunch the haemorrhage of species extinction I just think people are capable of being better than they have been. Why would you risk your life to save the life of a stranger? Why would you give up one of your kidneys? We really are a wonderful species, and I think if we can understand who we really are, then we can reach a much better world, and a much better arrangement than we have now."

On the other hand, Professor Dawkins has said the threat of extinction was real and very disturbing he has stated, "Humans may be unique in having the consciousness and ability to look into the future. Ninety nine per cent of species have become extinct. I don't think there has been a mechanism by which a species took steps to halt a headlong rush to extinction."

Against the advice of professor Dawkins, to throw professor Wilson's book "aside with great force", perhaps we might consider that Wilson’s perspective holds out the hope for humanity that in the end our better angels can defeat our poorer angels and that ultimately we can create a better world.  These two opposing views may be dressed up in scientific verbiage but the decision to choose hope over despair lies within you alone, no one can think for you, you have to decide.

We struggle with the dark side our own human nature there is uncertainty and we have to live with that. However, Psalm 23 exhorts us to acknowledge God, to live with the faith, courage, and determination:

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
    all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
    for ever. Amen

Our beliefs and attitudes make us who we are and will ultimately create the world in which we live.