Science has brought us many advances and has deepened our understanding of the world around us, pushing back the boundaries of our ignorance. But as it has given, so it has taken. It has revealed a vast stage whose age is measured in incomprehensible epochs of Deep Time and whose dimensions stretch away into the frigid depths of an uncaring cosmos. Leaving us bereft of meaning and purpose, science has driven home how utterly insignificant we, the denizens of that Pale Blue Dot, ultimately are. Personally, I find this perspective deeply humbling and I know many scientists feel likewise, but I also realise we live in a bubble of our own.
The notion that we are unique, special, or – in the eyes of many still – God’s chosen children, persists. Luckily for us all, evolutionary biologist David P. Barash is here to take down our “species-wide narcissism” a peg or two (or three). But far from a self-congratulatory circle-jerk, Through a Glass Brightly is an erudite, life-affirming, and sometimes riotously amusing look at ourselves.
About half of the chapters in this book are reworked and expanded versions of essays and articles published in other outlets. But the format of this book allows Barash to bring together his thinking on these topics, and add others in the process. The first eight chapters mostly deal with paradigm shifts that diminished humanity’s sense of self-importance and have thus been fiercely resisted, while the last eight chapters look more closely at scientific ideas on human nature and how these have changed. Each chapter focuses on an old anthropocentric paradigm to which Barash marries a new “anthropodiminishing” paradigm (both handily summarised at chapter’s end).
As such, Barash initially wanders widely, taking in (of course) how astronomy made us the centre of the universe no more. How evolution explained the maddening imperfections in our body, a ramshackle patchwork that is a far cry from an intelligent design. How the anthropic principle, the idea that the cosmos has been fine-tuned for human life, is but an illusion. And in perhaps his most gripping chapter, he ponders the meaning of life or the lack thereof: “Meaning isn’t bestowed upon anyone merely because there is a god who gives a damn, or by virtue of existence itself“. But his assertion that life is inherently meaningless is no call for nihilism. He besieges us to take responsibility for our own choices, to create meaning for ourselves in a world without purpose. Now, where have I heard that before?
“Sometimes the problem isn’t simply to discover truths but to accept them (p. 5)”
Ah yes, my favourite foul-mouthed blogger Mark Manson who so eloquently highlighted how we avoid the, what he calls, uncomfortable truth: that human existence is meaningless. To then argue that we must learn to act without hope. It should come as no surprise that both Manson and Barash profess an interest in Buddhism. The upshot is that Barash is surprisingly unconfrontational. Whereas a Richard Dawkins seems hell-bent on pissing off the world’s religions, Barash is, in my opinion, strident without being demeaning. Above all, he seeks to dispense wisdom, “so that paradigms lost become wisdom gained“.
The second part of the book is where Barash turns his gaze inwards, towards science itself. This is the more technical half, focusing on anthropology, psychology, and evolutionary biology. He gives a masterful recounting of the birth of ethology as a biological discipline and how it led to the idea that animals lack complex cognition, making humans unique – something a new generation of researchers is hard at work dismantling. Think of Marc Bekoff, Frans de Waal and Carl Safina.
“Call it a kind of evolutionary existentialism. In an absurd, inherently meaningless world […] the only route to meaning is to achieve it by how we engage our own sentient existence. (p. 27)”
Barash questions the honesty of communication. He doubts the concept of free will. And he gets downright technical when discussing parent-offspring conflict, kin selection and altruism. The better (and worse) angels of our nature are not god-given but have plausible biological explanations. Naturally, he has to introduce his hobby-horse monogamy, while reminding us that biology is not destiny – so don’t you get any funny ideas.
And although he agrees with Steven Pinker that violence has declined in recent times, he disagrees with the idea that we have always been chronically prone to war. Nor are we natural pacifists. The truth, as usual, is more complicated and lies somewhere in the middle. Although he draws different conclusions, he channels Richard Wrangham when he distinguishes between two kinds of violence: “violence is almost certainly deeply entrenched in human nature; warfare, not so much“.
“As it happens, Occam’s Razor is generally a good rule of thumb. But it is neither sacrosanct, nor so sharp that it cuts through all aspects of reality (p. 97)”
A final chapter sees Barash worry about the insane pace at which our cultural evolution has outstripped our biological evolution, with concomitant mismatches occurring at all levels. The result is a “terrifying paradox of culturally mediated power wielded by a creature that is not only biologically unprepared to do so, but actively ill-prepared“. Something which deeply troubles him in the context of nuclear proliferation. And, much to my delight, he calls out overpopulation as the root cause of many of our current problems, noting how it “is set at its maximum effective rate” which did not use to be a big problem. I will kiss the feet of any man or woman who publicly calls out the demon in demography.
Throughout, Barash quotes poets, classical authors, scientists, and philosophers to enliven his narrative, though he is notably quotable himself as I have tried to show above. Through A Glass Brightly slays holy cows without patronising chest-thumping, and champions science without succumbing to cringeworthy glorification. Erudite and uplifting, it is the light-bearing brother to Nicholas Money’s The Selfish Ape that I will be reviewing next.
Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.
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