This is where I’ll post various musings, and where you’ll be able to comment.
Dear James Le Fanu,
Your book “Why Us? How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves” did more for me than the reading of any book that I can remember. It achieved this miracle: it enabled me to begin to attend to what within the miracle of the intricate workings of my entire physiology is causing me to have the experience of ‘being me’ while in the act of existing (and thus taking in all of reality). I believe through the close reading of your book I came nearer than I ever have to being able to appreciate the objective basis of what constitutes each moment of being alive as a human being. You did nothing less than allow me to catch myself in the totality of what is happening within my entire physiology (and being) which is giving rise to the unity of my physical and mental experience of the universe–while at the same time catching my very self in this act. It is as if, existentially, by describing what makes it possible–genetically, biologically, chemically–to be a human being, you awakened me from a trance. I am profoundly grateful to you for this.
“…for that self-reflective brain comprehends the world from the perspective of the individual to whom it belongs–SO THAT BRAIN MUST ALSO ACQUIRE THE SENSE OF THAT INNER PERSON WE KNOW OURSELVES TO BE…” (p. 149)
I do not believe I was ever quite the same after I read this sentence. You see, I was able empirically to verify this truth in the immediacy of my own experience.
Robert Wood (Toronto, Canada)
Thanks for those appreciative comments. The issue you mention is the most important of all for ‘understanding ourselves’. I am myself both body and mind, but the moment I start examining any aspect of either (my bodily functions, or my thoughts) then they cease to be ‘me’ but rather become some objective property belonging to myself. This is clearly quite incompatible with the materialist theory of the self as an illusion generated by the brain to give the impression of there being ‘someone in charge’ as how could that illusion then scrutinise its (illusory) properties. So we are led back inexorably to proposing the dualist notion of the self as being both objective (and thus scrutinisable) and subjective (which does the scrutinising).
Dear James Le Fanu,
Your analysis seems unanswerable to me. I predict that the strict materialist, in reading your book (or even just what you say here), will–no doubt without realizing it consciously–become defensive subjectively INSIDE THE VERY SELF WHOSE ONTOLOGICAL EXISTENCE HE DENIES. You don’t allow mere opinion to get in the way of reality–and it is, ultimately, the supreme disinterestedness of your book that will metaphysical threaten the hard-core materialist. It seems paradoxical, but UNLIKE ANY BOOK ON SCIENCE I HAVE READ, “Why Us? How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves” had the virtually same impact on me as a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem. Truth is innocent. If it may be said, as a scientist you allow the soul (if I may use that term) to have its say INSIDE SCIENCE. Has this ever been done before–I mean OBJECTIVELY? I think not. If I may say it, I think THE UNIVERSE ITSELF likes your book. Why? Because of its felicitous correspondence to the way things really are. This is a book I should put in the hands of someone who is near to dying–that he or she might maximize their consciousness of what is actually going on while they are alive as a unique human being. Sincerely, Robert Wood
Dear Mr Le Fanu,
Charles Peguy, a French Poet, said that “everything begins with la mystique and ends with la politique” and (although it seems people since have argued as to what quite precisely he meant) it is clear he is generally speaking of moving from wonderment, vision and fine words towards specific action directed towards making things better in the real world: to try to fetch actuality into something like a line with the ideal.
I have read ‘Why Us’ and (whilst not wanting to be written off as the sort of slavishly flattering reader that the superlatives with which I am about to extol it might otherwise warrant) I must admit to having found it to be one of the most refreshing, exciting and important books I have yet read.
I have been a voracious reader all my life – saying this is only partially an attempt to qualify myself as an amateur commentator with some qualifications towards commentating – chiefly I want to explain that my impulse to reading has been to wring wherever I can what marvel I might from the great sponge of other people’s conscious existence; having been, since I first knew of it, astounded and inspired, bewildered and euphoric at the simple fact of my own.
It has always seemed to me that the world into which I was involuntarily sprung some 40-odd years ago operates very largely dismissive of the amazing fact of itself. It has long-appeared to me that science has perversely gone out of its way to cheapen the mystery by describing it, including our ability to perceive both it and ourselves, in terms of banal sub-biological necessity. Furthermore, it has long-occurred to me that a community of beings who largely accept a simple, material basis for themselves – at the expense of the sense of their individual incredibleness – and who are led to attempt to fulfil their material existences by the acquisition of material stuff and material status, suits modern society very well indeed (a society that HG Wells foresaw and only got wrong in the extent of the subtlety by which its members are brainwashed and the expanse of surface contentment that it provides).
Having been born and brought up in this society and reached a stage in life when I have married, worked in a profession for 20+ years, brought up children, and generally ‘made a life’, I can attest to the fact that its programming is extremely effective. The system, very largely works.
But only if one considers it, as it insists, on a material level.
Where it doesn’t function at all, of course, is in encompassing the very wonder of itself, of our self and of ourselves, which we might otherwise learn is worth any amount of material status or stuff that the world can provide. Where one feels one’s daily context rejecting this astonishing reality –the authentic reality that we can genuinely directly know – and where we see it generally attempting to snuff out the embryonic recognition of the same fundamental awareness in our children and replace it with its manufactured, contingent reality, one might find oneself incensed; where we find it allowing injustice and iniquity to blight the life of many of our fellow manifestations of individual wonder, simply to feed its own material reward system, one might very well find oneself apoplectic.
And so I’ve lived in this world under entirely mute protest for far too long. For too long I have thought that I must be wrong or maybe just a little whacky, and that lacking a capacity of credulity to throw myself blindly into the comfort of a doctrinal religion or a political movement that was equally as blind to the fundamental truth, I must consider myself a lingering adolescent and lump it. Buddhism appeals to me greatly but, to be candid, only as a private refuge – there being not much scope for the Buddhist equivalent of jihad against western materialism – and, as you may have detected, if I am allowed a blank on which to write, I can stoke myself up into a veritable polemic of invective such that a ‘private refuge’ in the face of incensed apoplexy feels very acutely like what it is, the kind of cop-out that the world of the material banks on us making.
And so it is with genuine deep satisfaction and delight that I read your book.
You say that there comes a time when ‘science enters into a ‘state of crisis’ which can only be resolved by a radical shift in its fundamental theories and its perception of ‘how things are’ ’and that to reassert the priority of the dual nature of reality ‘might prompt one of those rare convulsive upheavals in human understanding’, but you acknowledge that science has effectively become a self-serving discipline – a description and a quantification of the material – and unable by definition to look out beyond itself.
Of course, religion was once the custodian of all human truth but, as enquiry outgrew it, priests found themselves unable to look beyond the limitations of their own paradigm, and thus the arcane became ever more archaic. Now perhaps science is in the very same position; the question is what new line of enquiry, what school of thought outside the scientific (and religious) is needed to convince humanity it to begin to look beyond its ‘high priests’ again?
Perhaps the crusade ought simply to be to continue to champion the message in the world that there are no fundamental answers, and that we should all revel in the heady objective uncertainty of the very definite and astonishing subjective fact of ourself.
Having written the book that has struck such outward chimes with my subjective impressions, I wonder if you, Mr Le Fanu, find the impulse that bred the idea of ‘Why Us’ retaining an urge to develop; therefore, and given the wonderful latitude of an internet forum to attempt a liberty with a writer that I’ve never felt the need to try before, I seize the opportunity to ask how have you found your argument received and whether, as M. Peguy suggests you must, you feel compelled to move towards the realm of action, even if it be through further words.
Yours most sincerely
P.S. Kindly overlook the inclination toward hyperbole to which I am given when enthused!
‘Why Us’ is one of the two or three most important books I’ve read on biological theory, the attack on reductionism and socio-biology in particular was devastating and long overdue.
A new paradigm is coming — but what can/will it be? Towards the end of the book you suggest that “many neglected observations and experiments….hint at the existence of yet unknown forces in biology, such as the remarkable capacity of living organisms to regenerate their parts” (p. 257).
Essentially, contemporary science assumes that the universe and life within it are ‘self-explanatory’, need no appeal to anything outside the physical world except possibly transcendent mathematical ‘laws’.
Contemporary biological theory does not, and cannot, explain the formidable stability of living systems, buffeted as they are continually by all sorts of unpredictable circumstances, nor can it explain the astonishing diversity and complexity of life-forms. Natural selection does not explain why species remained unchanged for millions of years, nor does it explain the sudden emergence of unexpected new forms. Natural selection operates, and can operate, only as a force which eliminates hopelessly unpractical designs : one would indeed expect it to produce less, rather than more, diversity in much the same way as market forces eliminate small inefficient businesses and lead towards oligopoly or near monopoly.
For (1.) relative stability, I believe we have to introduce, or rather re-introduce, the Platonic idea of an ‘intemporal domain’ where ‘Forms’ exist and influence what goes on down here. But Plato was wrong to fill this domain with essentially static and unchanging geometric shapes : I see this domain as peopled by what I call ‘event-schemas’. Moreover, these schemas are not eternal and they originate in the ‘normal’ Space/Time we inhabit, also they can and do change, or rather can be displaced by other schemas, though this does not happen readily. The behaviour of species thus follows a pattern which has been stabilised and exists in some sense in this ‘other place’ and this schema guides them, other things being equal, through their extraordinary life changes (e.g. caterpillar to butterfly). The universal genome either is itself such a ‘Platonic’ schema or depends on such a schema : this ‘explains’ why it has lasted so long.
Small changes can accumulate without affecting the basic schema : however, there comes a tipping point when one further small change brings about the displacement of a dominant event-schema and its replacement by a new one. I would expect this process to be both sudden and, in most cases, irreversible.
As for (2.) the inherent ‘creativity’ of nature which supposedly comes from ‘random mutations’, or rather from ‘happy random mutations’, the concept is strange, since to call something ‘random’ does not explain how it could have come about. The happy random events which provoke novelty must have an origin, but this origin cannot be within this world (otherwise the event would be causal and not random). There is seemingly a source for all life which is itself not of this world (but is distinct from the created Platonic world of Schemas). This source, of which the world mystics speak and claim to ‘know’, does not have to be and, as far as I am concerned cannot be, a ‘person’, it is something completely objective, depersonalized — like the original Tao of ancient Chinese philosophy. Sebastian Hayes
Dear James Le Fanu,
i have just finished reading “Why Us”
and simply wanted to thank you for writing it ! it is one of the most inspirational books i have had the good fortune to come across. it is not just the content itself, but the way in which the content is expressed. it was a real page-turner ! the objective, clear and convincing responses to so many of the the materialist arguments in combination with the telling of so much what makes us us were as music to my ears (and mind!). i confess that for many a long year the materialist reasonings of evolutionary biologists, behaviourists, sociologists and psychologists in which everything HAS to boil down to some random mutation which bequeathed some sort of “survival/reproductive advantage” on its possessor etc … have left me feeling irritated and annoyed both at their reasonings and at my inabilty to counter them with much more than an instinctive knowing that there were serious flaws in such a cut and dried approach to the wonder that is Life.
Some years ago i embarked upon the study of Life Sciences and from the moment i began to understand the combination of simplicity and complexity of what constitutes Life i was completely hooked, fascinated, constantly delighted and in awe at the wonder of it all; the interactions of atoms and molecules which combine in a myriad of ways to produce such endless wondrous variety; i was, and still am completely captivated by the workings of the cell. i am at present a mature student (very mature !!) studying Genetics and Human Health and the more i disover the more in awe i am … Life is a wondrous miracle, thank you again for your book, it has been a joy and an inspiration to read.
I read and admired your earlier books Eat your heart out and The Rise and Fall of Modern Medicine and I’ve just read Why Us? with equal or greater enthusiasm. It’s a wonderful book and should be read by everyone. Could I just comment on one or two issues raised in it?
On page 26 you refer to “the very earliest humans who traversed the plains of Africa several million years previously”. In using the words human” and man” to refer to the bipeds who appeared before the appearance of language, you follow normal practice. But I think there is a good case for denying the word “human” to any animal which lacks language, whatever its brain size and mode of walking.
Before the discovery of the the Australopithecines and the earlier Hominids, the most clear-cut and obvious difference between people and other animals was our bipedality. But we now know that there were earlier species of bipedal primate. The more recent of these species resembled us increasingly in their skeletons (including brain size) but all were completely different from us in their behaviour. If these animals were still alive, we would probably not regard any of them as human. In many respects their lives may have been very little different from those of chimpanzees.
Thanks to the work of Jane Goodall and others, much more is also now known about chimpanzees. We know (for example) that they make a wide variety of tools out of perishable materials (see McGrew Chimpanzee Material Culture). They also use their “arms” to throw and wield weapons, though not as well as we can. There is a remarkable video clip at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bKpZUsRJWBg which shows chimps attacking a stuffed leopard. It’s clear from this that if the chimp could manage to keep his balance in an upright position, he might be able to keep predators at bay much more effectively. Evolution found a way for this to be achieved, hence the australopithecines. As it happened, this evolutionary route seems subsequently to have led to ourselves, but it might easily not have done.
There’s nothing so very revolutionary about bipedalism, if we look beyond the placental mammals. Marsupials (not having to worry so much about the pelvic birth canal) tend towards bipedality. Birds and many dinosaurs are or were fully bipedal. Bipedality is not synonymous with humanity. What distinguishes us from other animals? There are are two obvious physical differences – bipedality and brain size. But there is another difference which (because it is behavioural rather than physical) has never been given sufficient weight. What makes us different is our development of language and social organization. No other animal has that – and it makes all the difference.
You say all this in your book. But I think it could receive further emphasis because one of the symptoms of the modern “Fall of Man” is the unnecessarily close identification of people with bipedal primates who were not really human at all. That makes us seem little different from apes, because the continuity from quadrupedal ape to pre-human hominid is clear and easy to follow. Bipedality is remarkable, but probably no more remarkable than the elephant’s trunk. But what happened around 50,000 years ago, with the appearance of people who really were people, who spoke languages, had boats and permanent dwelling places and continually developed new technology is quite extraordinary, not like anything which (as far as we know) had ever happened before in the history of the world. And it led straight to the present, to ourselves. That point – only a few thousand generations ago – is where the great discontinuity (or the human miracle) happened.
This leads me to another point (if I’m not taking up too much of your time). There is an increasing general awareness among palaeoanthropologists, of the importance of the shift to “behavioural modernity” around 50,000 years ago. But how or why this happened is often explained in ways that don’t make much sense, either in terms of natural selection or in terms of more recent understanding of speciation. To quote Wikipedia, many think it happened “possibly as a result of a major genetic mutation or as a result of a biological reorganization of the brain.” This is an explanation suggested, certainly, by Richard Klein (The Human Career). What actually is much more likely is that the dramatic change in the fossil record to be seen in Eurasia results from the arrival of newcomers from outside, who proceeded to rapidly replace their bipedal predecessors in the same way that the grey squirrel has recently replaced the red squirrel in the U.K.
My point here is that (although almost all connected with the biological sciences continually pay lip-service to natural selection to ensure their social acceptability) in practice natural selection has been left behind. You quote (P231-2) the great Ernst Mayr as endorsing natural selection and he does. But in another place he accepts that evolution could be seen as a creative process. Like Darwin, Mayr was a field biologist first and an evolutionist afterwards, and he was aware of the wonder of nature.
This is quite long enough. If it is of any interest, there is a lot more on my website http://www.evolution-of-man.info . Thanks for writing a great book and I hope it has the influence it deserves.
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The Rise and Fall of Modern Medicine: Fully Revised and Updated 2nd edition
Why Us? How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves
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