Jeremy Griffith. Freedom: The End of the Human Condition. Sydney, Australia: WTM Publishing, 2016. See here to buy the book.
Jeremy Griffith is an Australian biologist. This book and his treatise have been recommended by a number of academics. Harry Prosen, a professor of Psychiatry and former President of the Canadian Psychiatric Association, wrote the introduction to this book. And yet, as Griffith points out throughout this book, Griffith’s ideas have been controversial and rejected by a number of academics. But Griffith contends that many people have found spiritual healing as a result of his ideas.
This book is about why humans are the way that they are, and how they can find healing from their alienated condition. Understanding how everything Griffith says fits together was rather difficult for me. Griffith would have done well to have provided a lucid, concise summary at the end of the book of what exactly he is proposing. I have to confess, though, that I did not watch the online videos that Griffith says are helpful for people wanting to understand the book. Plus, Griffith says that a rereading of the book could make a profound difference.
What are some of Griffith’s points? I will try to explain them, as I understand them.
Griffith is arguing against the idea that humans are naturally selfish and violent. For Griffith, the opposite is the case: we are naturally loving and peaceful. That is our instinct. Griffith appeals to at least three considerations to support this argument. First of all, Griffith points to the behavior of bonobos, apes who are very closely related to human beings. Griffith has studied bonobos, and he contends that they are peaceful and loving. Second, Griffith maintains that mythology contains a remembrance of how the ancestors of humans used to be. Hesiod, Plato, and Genesis 2-3 present a sort of Golden Age in the past when humans were peaceful towards one another. Third, Griffith appeals to archeology and the fossil record, which he believes indicate that certain ancestors of humans were peaceful.
At the same time, Griffith appears to believe that nurture played a role in how humans became instinctively peaceful. Griffith seemed to acknowledge that there is a genetic tendency in many animals towards selfishness: a competitive desire to survive and pass on their genes. But he argues that, at some point, ancestors of humans developed benevolence. They did this by nurturing their children with unconditional love. This taught their children the value of unconditional love and gave them the inner security they needed to love others. According to Griffith, the conditions were right in certain areas for this to develop: there was material plenty, for example, and that lessened the need to compete for resources.
But Griffith maintains that there was a Fall, and that this Fall related to knowledge, as Genesis 3 says. Consciousness and intelligence emerged. Humans could feel free to go against their instincts in favor of pursuing their own desires. And yet, consciousness and intelligence brought something else, according to Griffith, and that is defensiveness and self-justification: humans want to contend that they are right, against the belief that they are violent and flawed.
Griffith believes that his insights about nurturing are controversial because people do not want to admit that they are bad parents. At the same time, Griffith’s solution is not for people to feel guilty and beat up on themselves. His solution seems to be for people to realize that their nature is to be peaceful and loving: to become reconciled with who they truly are.
I am giving this book four stars because I did enjoy it. As a Christian who believes in evolution, I wonder how Genesis 1-3 and evolutionary scenarios of history can hold together, and this book is helpful in that regard. (This is not to imply that Griffith is a Christian, in a traditional sense, for he seems to have non-traditional ideas about God.) I do not have the background in biology to evaluate Griffith’s arguments, but his arguments and his interaction with scholarship struck me as scholarly. Griffith’s quotations of literature and pop culture also made this book interesting and relevant. I particularly liked Griffith’s discussion of the Simpsons and how Homer Simpson had a legitimate problem with Ned Flander’s religiosity, even if Homer couldn’t articulate what that problem was.
In terms of criticisms, like I said, Griffith could have been clearer, and he could have pulled together what he was saying a lot better. Griffith was also making controversial statements about homosexuality and autism, and he was drawing from decades-old research in doing so. Moreover, Griffith could have toned down his save-the-world rhetoric, his narrative about how he has been persecuted, and his criticisms of E.O. Wilson.
To be honest, while I found this book to be fascinating, I am not entirely clear about what issues are at stake, in terms of Griffith’s arguments and the arguments of those with whom he disagrees. Both sides seem to believe that humans have good and bad tendencies: they just differ on how to account for them. What difference does that make, practically speaking? It makes a huge difference, for Griffith, for he talks as if many people who reject his message are in denial. Really? It looks like an academic difference of opinion to me.
I apologize, though, for any incompleteness of understanding on my part.
I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.