All watched over

(Disclaimer: Reading back over the post that follows, I realise that I should never take up quilting, because the patchwork you are about to read has way too many poorly concealed seams and loose threads. It is much too easy to pick apart. All I ask is that you resist this temptation for as long as you can. Think of this post as a Halloween costume, something thrown together quickly to create an overall emotional effect, but not to be examined too closely. If it leaves you with the sense of having been a little bit frightened and a little bit amused, then it will have served its purpose. Feel free to treat it as a Piñata on your second reading (if you can be bothered with a second reading), though I should warn you that there are no candy corns or sherbets inside, only hot air… if anything.)

A few years ago, Susie and I went to a friend’s fortieth in the hills of the Mornington Peninsula. It was a warm night, and so, some time after midnight, we decided to take a walk along the brightly moonlit, but, at this hour, deserted highway. The night sky was framed by the sawtooth tops of the giant pines that lined the road. We left the breeze-borne waves of party noise further and further behind until the only sounds were our footfalls and the breeze itself. We felt alone in the kind of light-headed, soul-expanding way that you never can in the city. It would have been magical, were it not for the fact that we had both just finished reading Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’.

We were, at that point in our lives, a couple who were trying to decide whether or not it was wise, or even ethical, to have children, and ‘The Road’ brought a more visceral dimension to this decision-making process. That night, as we walked, we were consumed by thoughts of the beauty and tragedy of the parent-child relationship in that book, and so our conversation turned inevitably to children. In the light – and darkness – of McCarthy’s vision of post-apocalyptic horror it seemed to both of us that, before you choose to give life to a child, you need to ask yourself whether you would we be capable of taking that life in order to save the child from a fate worse than death itself? It was late, and we had been drinking, but even now, as I write in the cold light of daytime sobriety, I still think it is a fair question.

The memory of this conversation and this question returned to me last night as I watched the final episode of ‘All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace’, a documentary by film maker Adam Curtis. The episode featured graphic footage of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, including a fleeting image of the body of a murdered infant. I could not help but think of all those Tutsi parents, knowing what was taking place around them, knowing that it was almost certainly only a matter of time before the mobs found them and their children, and trying to decide what to do. If I try to put Susie, myself and Tilly in that place, I find that my mind collapses.

What’s even more frightening though, is how little I really think about these dilemma and the parents who face them, and not just in theory. Only very occasionally an act of genocide or an extreme famine will make it into the news and I will be confronted by images of parents facing agonising choices, or an agonising sense of powerlessness, in the face of their children’s suffering.

How can it be that for so much of the time the truth of this remains such a dim light on the outer edge of my consciousness, that the injustice of this reality doesn’t move me to constant rage and action?

Is it, perhaps, that my genes won’t let me, because it doesn’t serve their interests? This would probably be how evolutionary biologist W.D. Hamilton would answer the question. Never heard of him? Well, neither had I, until the last few days when I came across him in two different contexts. The first was in ‘All watched over by Machines of Loving Grace’ and the second was in the book version of a series of lectures called ‘Absence of Mind’ by the Pulitzer Price winning novelist Marilynne Robinson (see here for a review from the Guardian).

Hamilton is famous for his formula that sought to illustrate how altruism could make sense within the theory of evolution, driven as it is by self-interest. His suggestion was that individuals might sacrifice themselves for close relatives, since they carried much of his or her genetic material, and thus his or her altruism would still perpetuate his or her own genes. This altruism, however, would not stretch to those only distantly related – Rwandan Tutsis or Somalian refugees, for example.

There is a powerful logic here, and yet Robinson and Curtis not only question this logic, but suggest, for different reasons, that theories like those of Hamilton – theories that reduce human beings to the unwitting slaves of other agents or drives – must be actively resisted. Robinson sees the kind of reductionism that Hamilton’s formula represents as having radically undermined the status of the human mind and human creativity. While Curtis believes that in the West, these theories have allowed us to avoid taking responsibility for the fact that despite all the technological and scientific progress of the last century, we remain completely incapable of preventing war, famine and genocide. They reinforce paralysis in the face of the enormous and growing global challenges we face.

When I look at Tilly’s face and feel overcome by feelings of love, is this my genes tricking me into doing everything I can to ensure her survival, and thus their own? And is thinking this way, even if it is true, a recipe for madness, complacency or both? Or is it possible to cultivate my mind (allowing, for arguments sake, that I have one, and that there is an ‘I’ that is in a position to cultivate it) in such a way that when I look at Tilly’s face it prompts not just love for her, but solidarity with all those who feel the same way?

For many spiritual traditions this has been the goal and effect of a life of prayer, meditation, contemplation – linking the particular to the universal, the immanent to the transcendent, love for self to compassion for other. Marilynne Robinson argues that those who in the name of science, psychology or philosophy claim that before ‘the modern’ (however they define or delimit it) there was nothing but ignorance, self-deception and superstition would deny us access to these spiritual traditions and the rich resources they offer.

In ‘All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace’ we encounter the extraordinary life of George Price. Price was a scientist and atheist who applied the mathematics he had used working for IBM to expand on Hamilton’s formula. He concluded that the logic of Hamilton’s theory on altruism could equally be used to explain and, in a sense, justify murder and genocide, since they were acts that could promote your own genes at the expense of those distantly related to you.

Yet his dismay at the idea that it was selfishness that drove every human act (even those that appeared most selfless), in combination with a religious experience that he had in 1970, led him to more and more extreme attempts to disprove his own theory. He gave everything he had to homeless strangers, even inviting them to live with him. This eventually led to his eviction from his flat and a period of homelessness. He became depressed that he was no longer able to help the homeless, and in January 1975 committed suicide. Yet even in his death, he seemed desperate to reject his own theory. In an act of brutal and devastating free will, and in complete defiance of the ‘interests’ of his genes, he cut his own carotid artery with a pair of nail scissors.

There is something of Icarus in both the Atheist George Price and the Christian George Price. A man with great gifts, whose pride and insistence on flying solo leaves them bouncing between the sun and the sea, when even a small child could tell them that the best place to fly is somewhere in between (I’m starting to sound like Paulo Coelho now, I know, but it’s so addictive I can’t stop).

I’m not entirely sure yet, where that in between space is, but it must, at very least, involve on the one hand, accepting that we are animals, and that selfish animal drives encoded in our genes determine so much of who we are and what we do. But also, on the other hand involve the belief that those things that are presented to us by our mind are more than just self-delusion; that those things correspond to real truths about the universe around us. Consciousness may well just be a product of evolution, but isn’t it just possible that in some ways, consciousness can be the tail that wags the evolutionary dog?

In Marilynne Robinson’s words, ‘might not the human brain, that most complex object known to exist in the universe, have undergone a qualitative change?’ Is it possible, she asks, ‘that our species is more than an optimized ape, that something terrible and glorious befell us, a change gradualism could not predict – if this is merely another fable, it might at least encourage an imagination of humankind large enough to acknowledge some small fragment of the mystery we are.’

For Tilly’s sake, I pray that enough of us have the humility and imagination to find a truth or fable that stops us from giving up on ourselves, that enables us to fly rather than plunging headlong into the sea. We have so many reasons for despair, but despair is a luxury of privilege, and if we indulge in it too much, then sooner or later we will lose our position of privilege, along with everything else that we have.

That is why, to return to ‘the Road’, I reckon the very real possibility of Global Environmental Catastrophe may be a dark gift if we have the wisdom to see it that way. By linking all our fates it confronts us with the terrifying, but, hopefully, motivating logic that if we never want to be in the position where we have to decide whether or not to end our children’s lives to spare them from a worse fate, then we must stand up for those who are already in this position.

On that note (pardon the pun) let me leave you with perhaps the only decent song the Manic Street Preachers ever wrote…

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