The Origin of Anger in the Breakdown of Popular Science Publishing

(Here comes a rant. Be warned.)

Sometimes you don’t need to read the book to have an opinion upon its subject matter.

Take ‘The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind,’ a book I happened to glance at whilst at Unity Books the other day; the blurb claims that consciousness (i.e. volitional thinking) is an adaptation which occurred less than three thousand years ago. Now, part of that claim I think is very plausible; consciousness of this type is, I believe, an evolutionary adaptation (and, I think, one that is largely illusionary) but three thousand years ago? That’s awfully recent; we have written histories older than that.

Which brings me to Western Scientific Chauvism. I, like Slartibartfast, am a big fan of Science. I think its probably the best systemic form of justified beliefs (which you might be tempted to call ‘knowledge’) that we have. I also believe, justifiably, that our evidence underdetermines our theories and whilst the Natural Sciences are ‘good’ and predictive and very explanatory, they rest on certain assumptions that are largely unprovable and, if we were to change these assumptions then that might render us new and exciting theories that are just as ‘good’ and predictive and very explanatory (and yes, I’m going to be vague on which assumptions we can so easily swap out; that is a matter for another time).

Now, a common critique of scientists by, say, advocates of Intelligent Design, alternative medical practioners and post-modernists is that the Western Scientific mindset is not open to criticism, revision and suchlike. Now, mostly these advocates are wrong; Western Scientific practice has a long and glorious history of theory revision, abandonment, retraction and, well, other stuff. But these advocates (of wacky beliefs) have a point in that Western Scientific practice can be both dogmatic and colonial. Dogmatic in the sense that getting theories retracted can be hard, even in the face of evidence to the fact that things aren’t working out (look at all those Climate Change Deniers, for example; some of them are scientists) and colonial because Western Scientific practice, like the British Empire, doesn’t know when not to stick its nose into other peoples’ business.

So, you might well be asking, how does this rant fit in with the bicameral consciousness book (which, remember, you [referring to you referring to me; this could get messy] admit not to having read)? Good question. Here’s the book’s blurb:

At the heart of this book is the revolutionary idea that human consciousness did not begin far back in animal evolution but is a learned process brought into being out of an earlier hallucinatory mentality by cataclysm and catastrophe only 3000 years ago and still developing. The implications of this new scientific paradigm extend into virtually every aspect of our psychology, our history and culture, our religion – and indeed, our future. In the words of one reviewer, it is “a humbling text, the kind that reminds most of us who make our livings through thinking, how much thinking there is left to do.

One thing this book appears to posit is that the real breakthrough in human consciousness (going from hearing voices to actually thinking and being rational) occured in Greece. About two and half thousand years ago. Doesn’t that seem a little, well, Western? What about Mesoamerica? What about the Lapita Peoples of the Pacific? Did these people manage complex polities only by virtue of hearing voices? That somewhat flies in the face of the evidence. It also seems to suggest that either consciousness proper evolved in humans at the same time, regardless of where they were, or that Grecian consciousness spread widely and rapidly or, a bit disturbingly, some of the world is not yet rational.

It seems, on the face of it, a little silly, does it not? Except it’s not just silly, it’s scary.

At the turn of the 20th Century there was a common racism that denied that the peoples of Africa and Mesoamerica (and so forth; essentially it was the racism that if you didn’t sunburn in normal sunlight conditions then you weren’t really human) could really have been all that civilised and that, really, their monuments and suchlike where the remains of older civilisations like that of Atlantis and Lemuria (because non-caucasoids can’t attain such levels of advancement) because the proponents of this view were pretty sure that, like Jesus, Atlanteans and Lemurians were white. In the 60s and 70s this racism raised its head again in the works of von Daniken and his ilk, except that they were more equal oppurtunity racists; now the mud races were basing their civilisations on that of alien ‘gods;’ we caucasoids were nominally better because we , subsequently, went beyond replicating the monuments of our alien gods and had got around to creating our own civilisations (although von Daniken then took even that achievement away from us when he wrote ‘Miracles of the Gods;’ our modern religions are just the old alien ones dressed up as Romans). This ‘bicameral mind’ book is just another example of the same old racism, this time using science. And people are going to believe it because we’re rather fond of Western Scientific and thus it gets used (inappropriately) to let people get away with promulgating inadequate ideas.

The first moral of the story is this; it’s not as if Westerners/causasoids/et al have a monopoly on rigorous rationality; the Polynesian peoples were far better ship builders and navigators, the Aztecs were far cleaner (and had more sensible clothing) and the Harrapans knew about efficient waste disposal some two thousand years before anyone else thought ‘Should I really be standing in all this effluence?’ Indeed, even in our enlightened state (I say, speaking as a white middle-class citizen of some privilige) we still tended to ignore experts if we felt they weren’t ‘suitably’ qualified (i.e. hadn’t gone to the right schools). Famously, cartographers used to ignore the testimony of sailors in preference to books written over a thousand years ago when it came to the location and constitution of foreign lands. Thus the presence of black swans was roundly ignored and heckled for quite some time, such testimony blamed upon rum rations and lewd behaviour caused by crossing the equator. That we continue to engage in such behaviour today (and I’m thinking sternly here of those peoples who identify as ‘Brights’ and ‘Skeptics’) simply shows an amazing ignorance of scientific practice and of the history of science itself. This dogmatic and colonial aspect of Western Scientific practice is cultural; nothing about the Natural Sciences suggests that we must practice them in this way. We just do because we’re continuing the bad habits of our (less rational?) forebears. Bad Westerners! For shame!

The second moral of this story is that I should not be allowed to look at the Popular Science section in bookshops. It just makes me angry.

(I should point out that ‘The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind’ isn’t considered to be mainstream science at all. It was just that I saw it on prominent display at Unity Books in their popular science section and it just enraged my liberal scientific mind to the point of venting [or ‘ventage,’ as I should like to say].)