Humanism and Humanity

Theodosius Dobzhansky (1900—1975), the greatest Russian-American geneticist and evolutionary biologist of the 20th century. He described a non-fixed universe, in which culture is “the actualization of the potentialities of man as the bearer of spirit.”

What follows is an excerpt from his influential work, The Biology of the Ultimate Concern, in which he examined the role of science within culture which together arrive at an understanding of the “Big Questions,” which in turn establish a “credo” for human life.

Dostoevsky makes his Ivan Karamazov declare: “What is strange, what is marvelous, is not that God really exists, the marvel is that such an idea, the idea of the necessity of God, could have entered the head of such a savage and vicious beast as man; so holy it is, so moving, so wise, and such a great honor it does to man.” This is even more marvelous than Dostoevsky knew. Mankind, Homo sapiens, man the wise, arose from the ancestors who were not men, and were not wise in the sense man can be. Man has ascended to his present estate from one still more savage, not necessarily more vicious, but quite certainly a dumb and irrational one. It is unfortunate that Darwin has entitled one of his two greatest books the “Descent,” rather than the “Ascent,” of man. The idea of the necessity of God, and other thoughts and ideas that do honor to man, were alien to our remote ancestors. They arose and developed, and secured a firm hold on man’s creative thought during mankind’s long and toilsome ascent from animality to humanity.

Organisms other than men have the “wisdom of the body”; man has in addition the wisdom of humanity. Wisdom of the body is the ability of a living system so to react to environmental changes that the probabilities of survival and reproduction are maximized. For example, a certain concentration of salt in the blood is necessary for life; if an excess of salt is ingested, it is eliminated in the urine; if the salt supply is scarce the urine contains little salt. Such “wise” reactions of the body are confined usually to the environments which the species has frequently encountered in its evolutionary development. This built-in “wisdom” arose through the action of natural selection.

The place of the wisdom of humanity in the scheme of things requires a separate consideration. Humanism, according to Tillich (1963), “asserts that the aim of culture is the actualization of the potentialities of man as the bearer of spirit,” and “Wisdom can be distinguished from objectifying knowledge (sapientia from scientia) by its ability to manifest itself beyond the cleavage of subject and object.” This wisdom is the fruit of self-awareness; man can transcend himself, and see himself as an object among other objects. He has attained the status of a person in the existential sense, and with it a poignant experience of freedom, of being able to contrive and to plan actions, and to execute his plans or to leave them in abeyance. Through freedom, he gains a knowledge of good and of evil. This knowledge is a heavy load to carry, a load of which organisms other than man are free. Man’s freedom leads him to ask what Brinton (1953) refers to as Big Questions, which no animals can ask.

Does my life and the lives of other people have any meaning? Does the world into which I am cast without my consent have any meaning? There are no final answers to these Big Questions, and probably there never will be any, if by answers one means precise, objective, provable certitudes. And yet seek for some sort of answers we must, because it is the highest glory of man’s humanity that he is capable of searching for his own meaning and for the meaning of the Cosmos. An urge to devise answers to such “metaphysical” questions is a part of the psychological equipment of the human species. Brinton (1953) rightly says that “Metaphysics is a human drive or appetite, and to ask men to do without metaphysics is as pointless as to ask them to do without sex relations. There are indeed individuals who can practice abstention from metaphysics as there are those who can practice abstention in matters of sex, but they are the exceptions. And as some who repress sex actually divert it into unprofitable channels, so do those who repress metaphysics.

The German word Weltanschauung and the Russian mirovozzrenie have no precise English equivalents. The usual translation, “world view,” subtly betrays the meaning. A world view, like a view from a mountaintop, may be pleasant and even inspiring to behold, but one can live without it. There is a greater urgency about a Weltanschauung, and some sort of mirovozzrenie is felt to be indispensable for a human being. The Latin credo is becoming acclimatized in English in a sense most nearly equivalent to Weltanschauung . It is most closely related to the “ultimate concern” which Tillich considers to be the essence of religion in the broadest and most inclusive sense. “Religion is the aspect of depth in the totality of the human spirit. What does the metaphor depth mean? It means that the religious aspect points to that which is ultimate, infinite, unconditional, in man’s spiritual life. Religion, in the largest and most basic sense of the word, is ultimate concern. And ultimate concern is manifest in all creative functions of the human spirit” (Tillich 1959).

It is the ultimate concern in man that Ivan Karamazov found so strange and so marvelous. Man’s nature impels him to ask the Big Questions. Every individual makes some attempts to answer them at least to his own satisfaction. One of the possible answers may be that the Questions are unanswerable, and only inordinately conceited or foolish people can claim to have discovered unconditionally and permanently valid answers. Every generation must try to arrive at answers which fit its particular experience; within a generation, individuals who have lived through different experiences may, not quite, one hopes, in vain, make sense of those aspects of the world which the individual has observed from his particular situation.

My life has been devoted to working in science, particularly in evolutionary biology. Scientists are not necessarily more, but I hope also not less, qualified to think or to write about the Big Questions than are nonscientists. It is naive to think that a coherent credo can be derived from science alone, or that what one may learn about evolution will unambiguously answer the Big Questions. Some thinkers, e.g., Barzun (1964) dismiss such pretensions with undisguised scorn: “…the scientific profession does not constitute an elite, intellectual or other. The chances are that ‘the scientist,’ from the high-school teacher of science to the head of a research institute, is a person of but average capacity.” And yet even Barzun, no friend or respecter of science, grudgingly admits that science “brings men together in an unexampled way on statements to which they agree without the need of persuasion; for as soon as they understand, they concur.” Some of these “statements” which science produces are at least relevant to the Big Questions, and in groping for tentative answers they ought not be ignored.

The time is not long past when almost everybody thought that the earth was flat, and that diseases were caused by evil spirits. At present quite different views are fairly generally accepted. The earth is a sphere rotating on its axis and around the sun, and diseases are brought about by a variety of parasites and other biological causes. This has influenced people’s attitudes; the cosmology that one credits is not irrelevant to one’s ultimate concern. To Newton and to those who followed him the world was a grand and sublime contrivance, which operates unerringly and in accord with precise and immutable laws. Newton accepted, however, Bishop Ussher’s calculations, which alleges that the world was created in 4004 B.C. The world was, consequently, not very old; it had not changed appreciably since its origin, and it was not expected to change radically in the future, until it ended in the apocalyptic catastrophe. Newton was a student of the Book of Revelation as well as a student of cosmology. In Newton’s world man had neither power enough nor time enough to alter the course of events which were predestined from the beginning of the world.

The vast universe discovered by Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton became quite unlike the cozy geocentric world of the ancient and the medieval thinkers. Man and the earth were demoted from being the center of the universe to an utterly insignificant speck of dust lost in the cosmic spaces. The comfortable certainties of the traditional medieval world were thus taken away from man. Long before the modern existentialists made estrangement and anxiety fashionable as the foundations of their philosophies, Pascal expressed more poignantly the loneliness which man began to feel in “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces.” If he worked hard, man could conceivably learn much about how the world was built and operated, but he could not hope to change it, except in petty detail. An individual human was either saved or damned, and those of Calvinist persuasion believed that this alternative was irrevocably settled before a person was even born. This left no place for humanism in Tillich’s sense; an individual man had few potentialities to be actualized, and culture had scarcely any at all.

It has become almost a commonplace that Darwin’s discovery of biological evolution completed the downgrading and estrangement of man begun by Copernicus and Galileo. I can scarcely imagine a judgment more mistaken. Perhaps the central point to be argued […] is that the opposite is true. Evolution is a source of hope for man. To be sure, modern evolutionism has not restored the earth to the position of the center of the universe. However, while the universe is surely not geocentric, it may conceivably be anthropocentric. Man, this mysterious product of the world’s evolution, may also be its protagonist, and eventually its pilot. In any case, the world is not fixed, not finished, and not unchangeable. Everything in it is engaged in evolutionary flow and development.

Human society and culture, mankind itself, the living world, the terrestrial globe, the solar system, and even the “indivisible” atoms arose from ancestral states which were radically different from the present states. Moreover, the changes are not all past history. The world has not only evolved, it is evolving. Now, “In the Renaissance view, the world, a place of beauty and delight, needed not to be changed but only to be embraced; and the world’s people, free of guilt, might be simply and candidly loved” (Durham 1964). Far more often, it has been felt that changes are needed:

“For the created universe waits with eager expectation for God’s sons to be revealed. It was made the victim of frustration, not by its own choice, but because of him who made it so; yet always there was hope, because the universe itself is to be freed from the shackles of mortality and enter upon the liberty and splendor of the children of God. Up to the present, we know, the whole created universe groans in all its parts as if in the pangs of childbirth” (Rom 8:19-22).

Since the world is evolving it may in time become different from what it is. And if so, man may help to channel the changes in a direction which he deems desirable and good. With an optimism characteristic of the age in which he lived, Thomas Jefferson thought that “Although I do not, with some enthusiasts, believe that the human condition will ever advance to such a state of perfection as that there shall no longer be pain or vice in the world, yet I believe it susceptible of much improvement, and most of all, in matters of government and religion; and that the diffusion of knowledge among the people is to be the instrument by which it is to be effected.” This is echoed and reechoed by Karl Marx and by Lenin in their famous maxim that we must strive not merely to know but also to transform the world. In particular, it is not true that human nature does not change; this “nature” is not a status but a process. The potentialities of man’s development are far from exhausted, either biologically or culturally. Man must develop as the bearer of spirit and of ultimate concern. Together with Nietzsche we may say: “Man is something that must be overcome.”

Picasso is alleged to have said that he detests nature. Tolstoy and some lesser lights claimed that any and all findings of science made no difference to them. Fondness and aversion are emotions which admittedly cannot be either forcibly implanted or expurgated. One may detest nature and despise science, but it becomes more and more difficult to ignore them. Science in the modern world is not an entertainment for some devotees. It is on the way to becoming everybody’s business. Some people feel no interest in distant galaxies, in foreign lands, exotic human tribes, and even in those neighbors with whom they are not constrained to deal too often or too closely. Indifference to one’s own person is unlikely. It is feigned by some, but rarely felt deep down, when one is all alone with oneself. This unlikelihood, too, is understandable as a product of the biological evolution of personality in our ancestors. It made the probability of their survival greater than it would have been otherwise. Ingrained in man’s psyche before it was explicitly formulated, the adage “Know thyself” was always a stimulus for human intellect.

To “know thyself,” scientific knowledge alone is palpably insufficient. This was probably the basis of Tolstoy’s scoffing at science. To him science seemed irrelevant to the ultimate concern, and to him only the ultimate concern seemed to matter. But he went too far in his protest. In his day, and far more so in ours, the self-knowledge lacks something very pertinent to the present condition if one chooses to ignore what one can learn about oneself from science. This adds up to something pretty simple, after all: a coherent credo can neither be derived from science nor arrived at without science.

Construction and critical examination of credos fall traditionally in the province of philosophy. Understandably enough, professional philosophers often show little patience with amateurs who intrude into their territory. Scientists turned philosophers fare scarcely better than other amateur intruders. This proprietary attitude is not without warrant, but the matter is not settled quite so easily. What, indeed, is philosophy? Among the numerous definitions, that given by Bertrand Russell (1945) is interesting: “between theology and science there is a No Man’s Land, exposed to attacks from both sides; this No Man’s Land is philosophy.” Less colorfully, philosophy is defined as the “science of the whole,” which critically examines the assumptions and the findings of all other sciences, and considers them in their interrelations. Still other definitions claim that philosophy works to construct a coherent Weltanschauung . Under any of these definitions, scientists may have some role to play, at least on the outskirts of philosophy. At the very least, they must be counted among the purveyors of raw materials with which philosophers operate when they formulate and try to solve their problems. With some notable exceptions, modern schools of philosophy, especially in the United States and England, have been taking their cues very largely from the physical sciences; the influential school of analytical philosophy is engrossed with mathematics and linguistics. Biology and anthropology are neglected. Of late, there appear to be, however, some straws in the wind portending change.

The relevance of biology and anthropology is evident enough. In his pride, man hopes to become a demigod. But he still is, and probably will remain, in goodly part a biological species. His past, all his antecedents, are biological. To understand himself he must know whence he came and what guided him on his way. To plan his future, both as an individual and much more so as a species, he must know his potentialities and his limitations. These problems are only partly biological and scientific, and partly “theological.” In short, they are philosophical problems in Bertrand Russell’s sense.

Since I am a biologist without formal philosophical and anthropological training, the task which I set for myself is quite likely overambitious. I wish to examine some philosophical implications of certain biological and anthropological findings and theories. This small book [The Biology of the Ultimate Concern, 1967] lays no claim to being a treatise either on philosophical biology or on biological philosophy. It consists of essays on those particular aspects of science which have been particularly influential in the formation of my personal credo. This is said not in order to disarm the potential critics of these essays, but only to explain what may otherwise appear a rather haphazard selection of topics discussed and of those omitted in the pages that follow. Together with Birch (1965) I submit that:

My scientific colleagues might well say, “Cobbler, stick to your last.” But we have been doing that in science for long enough. I have attempted what is not a very popular endeavour in our generation. It is to cover a canvas so broad that the whole cannot possibly be the specialized knowledge of any single person. The attempt may be presumptuous. I have made it because of the urgency that we try, in spite of the vastness of the subject. I would not have written had I not discovered something for myself that makes sense of the world of specialized knowledge in which I live.


Featured: Theodosius Dobzhansky demonstrates the Hirsch index, 1966.


Teilhard de Chardin: Putting an End to the Myth

Pasolini once wrote that theology is one of the branches of fantastic literature. We will reserve this assertion for the theology-fiction of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955). Despite eleven condemnations by the Church, which silenced him because of the “serious attacks on Catholic doctrine” developed in his books, his theology enjoyed incredible success in the 1950s and especially the 1960s, supported by the Society of Jesus. Even good souls were seduced by its lyrical prose, full of neologisms and appealing, if bizarre, poetic flights of fancy. His euphoric project of reconciling modern science and faith was very much in the spirit of a time bathed in optimism against a backdrop of technological advances.

And yet, not only are the Jesuit’s theses devoid of scientific credibility, they are also contrary to the most elementary truths of faith. This is what Wolfgang Smith demonstrates at length in a very insightful work. Smith is both an inspired philosopher and a leading scientist, physicist and mathematician, who has taught at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Teilhard was a paleontologist of no particular genius, incompetent in both biology and physics, and the knowledge he gained from his profession (the discovery of fossils) had no connection with his ideological construction, as he acknowledged in his correspondence. This explains why his theses were criticized by renowned scientists.

Teilhard’s intention was to reintroduce God into a scientific vision dominated by evolution. He made no secret of his intention to re-found Christianity—an “improved Christianity,” an “ultra-Christianity,” a “meta-Christianity,” as he put it—on new foundations. The universe was conceived in a pantheistic mode: “There is in the World neither Spirit nor Matter; the Fabric of the Universe is Spirit-Matter.” According to a great “law of Complexity of Consciousness,” “everything that exists is Matter that becomes Spirit.” For him, the doctrine of creation ex nihilo is contradicted by the “temporo-spatial enormity,” the “energetic immensities,” and the “unfathomable organic connections of the phenomenal World.” For Teilhard, “grace represents physical over-creation. In other words, it is properly biological in nature.”

We must also abandon our conception of a God above time: “Around us and within us, by the encounter of his Attraction and our Thought, God is in the process of ‘changing’… By the rise of the Cosmic Quantity of Union, his radiance, his hue are enriched!” Rejecting the law of the universe’s increasing entropy, Teilhard asserts that everything converges irresistibly towards an “Omega Point,” which is none other than the cosmic Christ.

One of the stumbling blocks between Teilhard’s vision and Church teaching is the dogma of original sin. In what is perhaps the most fascinating chapter of his book, Wolfgang Smith explains how Adam’s Fall fits into a different representation of origins than the Jesuit’s: ” it is this primordial catastrophe—and not a Darwinist ascent—that is responsible for the human condition as we know it today.” On the contrary, for Teilhard, evil is simply disorder caused by natural processes. This conception led him to an astonishing relativization of man’s sinfulness. His “neo-humanist” political vision is based on the phenomenon of “socialization,” aggregation through collectivization, which brought him to a singular complacency to Nazi and Communist totalitarianism. In 1938, he wrote: “I do not know where to fix my sympathies, at the present time: where is there more hope and ideal at present? In Russia, or in Berlin?”

In the end, all the truths of faith are reinterpreted in his own way, as best he can, or, in the case of the most troublesome, abandoned.

We recommend this book to all Teilhardardians, and in particular to the Jesuits, who have just opened a Centre Pierre Teilhard de Chardin on the Plateau de Saclay [the European Silicon Valley], with the ambition of making it “a space for dialogue between science, philosophy and spirituality.” It would have been preferable to choose better sponsor.


Denis Sureau is the editor of the review Transmettre and the bi-monthly newsletter Chrétiens dans la Cité. He is the author of Pour une nouvelle théologie politique. This article comes through the kind courtesy of La Nef.


The Philosophy of St. Bonaventure On Creation

Then appeared the peripatetics, whose master and leader was Aristotle, and whom St. Bonaventure treats with some moderation during the calm period of the Commentary on the Sentences. At this time he is well aware that Aristotle taught the eternity of the world; now, as we shall see more fully later on, he considers that the doctrine of the eternity of the world is extremely hard to reconcile with that of creation; he does not believe then that Aristotle considered matter and form created by God out of nothing, even from all eternity: utrum autem posuerit materiam et formam factam de nihilo, hoc nescio; credo tamen quod non pervenit ad hoc.

Relying upon charitably interpreted texts, St. Bonaventure supposes that Aristotle considered the world as made by God from eternal elements. The philosopher’s error was therefore double, since it rested on the eternity of the elements and on ignorance of creation ex nihilo, but it had at least an advantage over Plato in not supposing that matter could ever have existed without its form. The error of Plato, which assumed God, matter and the idea in separation, seemed to him then more objectionable (multo vilior) than that of Aristotelianism which assumed God and a matter eternally perfected by its form: ideo et ipse etiam defecit licet minus quam alii. Later St. Bonaventure expresses harsher opinions about Aristotle, but yet he will never expressly deny that his God without ideas and without providence made the world eternally, of eternally existent matter and form.

So it clearly appears that those who of all philosophers came nearest to the truth yet failed to reach it. Now it is just there, at the precise point at which the skill of philosophers breaks down, that revelation comes to our aid, teaching us that all has been created and that things have been brought into being in the totality of what they are: ubi autem deficit philosophorum peritia, subvenit nobis sacrosancta Scriptura, quae dicit omnia esse creata, et secundum omne quod sunt in esse producta. Thus it is that the reason when better informed perceives and confirms with decisive arguments the truth that Scripture affirms.

For it is certain that the more a productive cause is primary and perfect in the order of being, the more profoundly its action penetrates its effects. In the case where the cause considered is the absolutely primary and perfect being, the action that it exercises must extend its efficacy to the total substance of each of its effects.

In other words, if God produces a thing, He can only produce it integrally, and His action necessarily engenders its constitutive principles, matter and form, at the same time as the compositum. Similarly, the less aid it requires for its action, the more noble and the more perfect is the agent. If then we consider the most perfect agent possible, his action must be completely sufficient in itself and must be exercised without recourse to any external aid. Now the case of God is exactly this; He is then capable, in Himself, of producing things without the help of pre-existing principles. On the other hand, God is perfectly simple; His essence is not divisible into particular beings; He does not extract things from Himself by dissecting His own substance; so He necessarily extracts them from nothing. In the same way, lastly, if God is truly perfect and absolute simplicity, He cannot act in a part of Himself; in each of His actions, it is His whole being that is concerned and comes into play; now the nature of the effect is necessarily proportioned to that of the cause; so just as the action of a being composed of matter and form can engender a form in a matter which is already present, so an absolutely simple being such as God can produce the integral being of a thing. Acting in all His being, His effect can only be being; the natural result then of the divine action is the bringing into existence of that which nothing preceded, except God and the void.

A second problem, and one inseparable from the foregoing, is the question when this integral production of beings can have taken place. The human reason, incapable of discovering with its own resources the true nature of the creative act, is similarly incapable of determining accurately the moment of creation. Either we know that creation consists in producing the very being of things, without employing any pre-existing matter, and so it is obvious that the world was created in time; or, on the contrary, we believe that the creator used in His work principles which were anterior to the world itself, and thus the created universe seems logically eternal. The kernel of St. Bonaventure’s argument on this point was always that there is a contradiction in terms in supposing that what is created out of nothing is not created in time. The idea of a universe created by God out of nothing and from all eternity, an idea which St. Thomas Aquinas considered logically possible, seemed to St. Bonaventure so glaring a contradiction that he could not imagine a philosopher so incompetent as to overlook it.

His thought, which he does not develop at length, although he states it with the greatest energy, seems here to follow St. Anselm very closely and to proceed from a vigorously literal interpretation of the formula ex nihilo. The particle ex, in fact, seems to him capable of only two interpretations. Either it designates a matter existing before the divine action, or it simply marks the starting point of this action, implies and establishes a relation of order, fixes an initial term anterior to the appearance of the world itself.

Now the word ex cannot signify a matter, for it here determines the word “nothing,” the very significance of which is absence of being, which could not therefore designate a material in which things could be shaped. It can only signify the starting point of the divine action and establish the initial term of a relation of anteriority and posteriority. It follows that to say that the world was created ex nihilo is either to say nothing or to say that the non-existence of the universe preceded the existence of the universe; that before there was nothing of the world and that only afterwards the world appeared; to suppose, in a word, the beginning of things in time and to deny their eternity.

Although this seems to have been the central and decisive argument in St. Bonaventure’s eyes, since it makes the eternity of a world created out of nothing seem contradictory, it is presented to us from the time of the Commentary on the Sentences flanked by other arguments of no less historical importance, based on the impossibility of the created infinite. It is easy to prove on this point how inaccurate it is to explain St. Bonaventure’s thought by his ignorance of the Aristotelianism of Albert and St. Thomas. For it is with the help of Aristotelian arguments and in opposition to Aristotle himself that he shows the impossibility of a world created from all eternity; better still he expressly refutes the thesis which St. Thomas was to believe supportable; St. Bonaventure therefore is fully aware of the position that he takes up, and he dismisses the teaching of which he is alleged to be ignorant on the ground of maturely considered principles.

In the first place, the eternity of the world contradicts the principle that it is impossible to add to the infinite; for if the world had no beginning, it has already experienced an infinite duration; now every new day which passes adds a unit to the infinite number of days already gone; the eternity of the world supposes therefore an infinite capable of being augmented. If it is objected that this infinite is so only, as it were, at one end, and that the number of days gone, infinite in the past, is finite in the present, nothing substantial is asserted. For it is evident that, if the world is eternal, it has already passed through an infinite number of solar revolutions and also that there are always twelve lunar revolutions to one solar; so that the moon would have accomplished a number of revolutions in excess of the infinite. So, even considering this infinite bounded by the present, and considering it infinite only where it really is so, in the past, we end by supposing a number larger than the infinite, which is absurd.

In the second place, the eternity of the world contradicts the principle that it is impossible to order an infinity of terms. All order, in fact, starts from a beginning, passes through a middle point and reaches an end. If then there is no first term there is no order; now if the duration of the world and therefore the revolutions of the stars had no beginning, their series would have had no first term and they would possess no order, which amounts to saying that in reality they do not in fact form a series and they do not precede or follow one another. But this the order of the days and seasons plainly proves to be false. This argument may seem sophistical from the Aristotelian and Thornist point of view.

If Aristotle declares that it is impossible to order an infinite series of terms, he refers to terms essentially ordered; in other words, he denies that a series of essences can be infinite if it is hierarchically ordered, if its existence or causality is conditioned from top to bottom, but he does not deny that a series of causes or of beings of the same degree can be infinite. For example, there is no progression to the infinite in the ascending series of the causes of local movement in terrestrial bodies, for superior movers are required, requiring in their turn an immobile first mover to account for them, but we can suppose without contradiction that this hierarchical system of moving causes exists and operates from all eternity, the displacement of each body being explained by a finite number of superior causes, but being preceded by an infinite number of causes of the same order. St. Bonaventure is not ignorant of this distinction and, if he does not accept it, it is not because he cannot grasp it, it is because it implies a state of the universe which is incompatible with his profoundest metaphysical tendencies. In St. Bonaventure’s Christian universe there is, in reality, no place for Aristotelian accident; his thought shrinks from supposing a series of causes accidentally ordered, that is to say, without order, without law and with its terms following one another at random.

Divine Providence must penetrate the universe down to its smallest details; it does not then account only for causal series, but also for those of succession. The root of the matter is that St. Bonaventure’s Christian universe differs from the pagan universe of Aristotle in that it has a history; every celestial revolution, instead of following indifferently an infinity of identical revolutions, coincides with the appearance of unique events, each of which has its place fixed in the grand drama which unfolds itself between the Creation of the world and the Last Judgment. Every day, every hour even, forms part of a series which is ruled by a certain order and of which Divine Providence knows the whole reason; si dicas quod statum ordinis non necesse est ponere nisi in his quae ordinantur secundum ordinem causalitatis, quia in causis necessaria est status, quaero quare non in aliis? St. Bonaventure refuses to admit not only causes but also events accidentally ordered.

The third property of the infinite which is irreconcilable with the eternity of the world is that the infinite cannot be bridged; now if the universe had no beginning, an infinite number of celestial revolutions must have taken place, and therefore the present day could not have been reached. If it is objected, with St. Thomas Aquinas, [Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologica, I . 46, 2 , per tot., where St. Bonaventure’s arguments are discussed point by point: ad 1 and 2 against his interpretation of ex nihilo; ad 6 against the argument “infinita impossible est pertransiri“; ad 7 against the impossibility of an infinite series of accidentally ordered causes; ad 8 against the actually realized infinity of immortal souls]—that to bridge a distance it must be traversed from one extremity to the other, and that, in consequence, one must start from an initial point which in this case is lacking, we shall answer: starting from the present day, we must necessarily be able to fix a day infinitely anterior to it, or else we cannot fix any one; if no anterior day precedes the present day by an infinite duration, then all the anterior days precede it by a finite duration and therefore the duration of the world had a beginning; if, on the contrary, we can fix an anterior day infinitely removed from the present day, we ask whether the day immediately posterior to that one is infinitely removed from the present day or whether it is not. If it is not infinitely removed from it, neither is the preceding one, for the duration which separates them is finite. So if it is infinitely removed from it, we ask the same question about the third day, the fourth, and so on ad infinitum; the present day will not then be further removed from the first than from any of the others, which amounts to saying that one of these days will not precede another, and that they will consequently be all occurring at the same time.

A fourth proposition incompatible with the eternity of the world is that the infinite cannot be understood by a finite faculty. Now to say that the world had no beginning is to say that the finite can understand the infinite. It is generally admitted that God is infinitely powerful and that all else is finite; it will be admitted further, with Aristotle, that every celestial movement implies a finite Intelligence to produce it or, at least, to know it; no doubt it will be allowed, lastly, that a pure Intelligence can forget nothing. If then we suppose that this Intelligence has already determined or simply known an infinity of celestial revolutions, since it has forgotten none of them, it necessarily possesses today the actual knowledge of an infinity of memories. And if it is objected that it can know in a single idea this infinity of celestial revolutions which are all similar to one another, we reply that it does not know these revolutions only, but their effects also, which are diverse and infinite, so that actual knowledge of the infinite must necessarily be attributed to a finite Intelligence.

The fifth and last impossibility which St. Bonaventure brings forward against the eternity of the world is the coexistence of an infinite number of given beings at one and the same time. The world has been made for man, for there is nothing in the universe which is not in some way related to him; it cannot have ever existed therefore without men since it would have had no reason for existing; now man lives only in finite time; if then the world exists from all eternity, there must have existed an infinite number of men. But there are as many rational souls as there are men; therefore there has been an infinity of souls. Now these souls are naturally immortal; if then an infinity of souls has existed, there exists an infinity of them in actuality also, which we have already declared impossible. And the evasions which are attempted in order to escape this error are worse than the error itself. Some suppose metempsychosis, so that a finite number of souls could pass through different bodies during an infinite time, a hypothesis irreconcilable with the principle that each form is the proper and unique act of a determined matter. Others suppose, on the contrary, that a single intellect exists for the whole human race, a still graver confusion, since it involves the suppression of individual souls, of last ends and of immortality. [This objection seems very strong to St. Thomas Aquinas and he hardly sees how the supporters of the eternity of the world can meet it, unless by supposing that the world has always existed, like the unchangeable bodies or the eternal Intelligences, but unlike corruptible beings such as the human species. Cf. Summa theologica, ad 8].

1938.


Featured: Saint Bonaventure, by Claude François; painted ca. 1655.


Molotov’s Proposal that the USSR Join NATO

This proposal sheds important light on Russian attempts to cooperate with the West when it came to a comprehensive defense agreement. Thus, Vyacheslav Molotov proposed that the Soviet Union join NATO. The West rejected this proposal because of a lack of “democracy” in the USSR. In other words, the purpose of NATO was to oppose Russia.

It is important to revisit this proposal in the light of the Russophobia that now pervades the psyche of the Western ruling class.

Presidium, CC CPSU

To: Comrade G.M. Malenkov and Comrade N.S. Khrushchev

According to reports from Soviet embassies and missions and in the foreign press, the Soviet draft of a General European Agreement on Collective Security in Europe has provoked positive responses from quite broad public circles abroad, including such French press organs as Le Monde… At the same time, the Soviet draft has, for understandable reasons, provoked a negative reaction from official circles and from supporters of the “European Defense Community” in France, England and other West European countries. It should be noted that official circles in France have also taken measures to mute the Soviet proposal. Among opponents of the European Defense Community there are also those who don’t support the proposal for a General European Agreement. In this regard the main argument advanced against our proposal is the thesis that the Soviet draft is directed at dislodging the USA from Europe so that the USSR can take its place as the dominating power in Europe. Especially broad use of this thesis is being made in France. Meriting attention in this connection is a conversation between our ambassador in Paris, comrade Vinogradov, and the Gaullist leader [Gaston] Palewski, who said the Soviet proposal is unacceptable in its present form because it excludes the USA from participation in the collective security system in Europe. According to Palewski attitudes to the Soviet proposal would change if the Soviet government declared the USA could take part in the system of collective security in Europe in its capacity as an occupying power in Germany, bearing in mind that the occupation of Germany would not last forever. From this statement of Palewski’s it follows that the USA’s participation in the General European Agreement on a system of collective security would be of a temporary character and limited to the period until the conclusion of a peace treaty with Germany.

The thesis of the dislodgement of the USA from Europe is also being used against the Soviet proposal by supporters of the European Defense Community in England and other countries, by official circles that support the plan for the creation of such a “community” and its so-called European army.

Taking this into account, the Foreign Ministry considers it advisable to limit the possibilities of using this argument against the Soviet draft by sending the governments of the USA, England and France a note which states that on its part the Soviet government sees no obstacle to the positive resolution of the question of the USA’s participation in the General European Agreement on Collective Security in Europe. In the Foreign Ministry’s view it would be inadvisable to declare that the participation of the USA would be of a temporary character. In this regard the Foreign Ministry proceeds from that fact that from the point of view of the interests of the struggle against the European Defense Community it would be inexpedient to indicate the temporary character of the USA’s participation in the General European Agreement.

In introducing a proposal for the participation of the USA in the General European Agreement, the Foreign Ministry considers it advisable not to change the previous proposal that the Chinese People’s Republic would participate in the system of collective security in Europe as an observer

It is necessary to consider another argument deployed against the Soviet proposal, namely that it is directed against the North Atlantic Pact and its liquidation. In order to limit the use of this argument against the Soviet proposal the Foreign Ministry considers it advisable that simultaneously with our proposal about the participation of the USA in the General European Agreement we should, in the same note, pose, in an appropriate form, the question of the possibility of the Soviet Union joining the North Atlantic Pact. Raising this question would make things difficult for the organizers of the North Atlantic bloc and would emphasize its supposedly defensive character, so that it would not be directed against the USSR and the people’s democracies.

The simultaneous posing of the possible participation of the USA in the General European Agreement and possibility of the USSR joining the North Atlantic Pact would be advantageous for us because it would be perceived as demanding a concession in return for the USSR’s agreement on the participation of the USA in the General European Agreement… However, the Foreign Ministry’s view is that our agreement on the admittance of the USA into the General European Agreement should not be conditional on the three western powers agreeing to the USSR joining the North Atlantic Pact.

Most likely, the organizers of the North Atlantic bloc will react negatively to this step of the Soviet government and will advance many different objections. In that event the governments of the three powers will have exposed themselves, once again, as the organizers of a military bloc against other states and it would strengthen the position of social forces conducting a struggle against the formation of the European Defense Community. Such a negative attitude toward the initiative of the Soviet government could, of course, have its negative side for us in so far as it affected the prestige of the Soviet Union. Taking this into account, the Foreign Ministry proposes that the Soviet note should not state directly the readiness of the USSR to join the North Atlantic bloc but limit itself to a declaration of its readiness to examine jointly with other interested parties the question of the participation of the USSR in the North Atlantic bloc.

Of course, if the statement of the Soviet government meets with a positive attitude on the part of the three western powers this would signify a great success for the Soviet Union since the USSR joining the North Atlantic Pact under certain conditions would radically change the character of the pact. The USSR joining the North Atlantic Pact simultaneously with the conclusion of a General European Agreement on Collective Security in Europe would also undermine plans for the creation of the European Defense Community and the remilitarization of West Germany.

The Foreign Ministry considers that raising the question of the USSR joining NATO requires, even now, an examination of the consequences that might arise. Bearing in mind that the North Atlantic Pact is directed against the democratic movement in the capitalist countries, if the question of the USSR joining it became a practical proposition, it would be necessary to raise the issue of all participants in the agreement undertaking a commitment (in the form of a joint declaration, for example) on the inadmissibility of interference in the internal affairs of states and respect for the principles of state independence and sovereignty.

In addition the Soviet Union would, in an appropriate form, have to raise the question of American military bases in Europe and the necessity for states to agree to the reduction of military forces, in accordance with the position that would be created after the USSR’s entry into the North Atlantic Pact.

At the present time, however, it will be sufficient, taking into account the above considerations, to include at the end of the note a statement of a general character: “the Soviet Government keeps in mind that the issues arising in connection with this question must be resolved in the interests of strengthening world peace and the security of peoples.”

The draft resolution for the CC of the CPSU is enclosed

I ask you to examine it.V.M. Molotov26 March 1954


This document appears through the kind courtesy of the Digital Archive at the Wilson Center.


Genetics of the Jewish People

Stephen Jay Gould remarked that “the most erroneous stories are those we think we know best—and therefore never scrutinize or question” (Gould, 1996). In the past, shamans and priests were believed to have omnipotence in controlling nature, man, and fate. As guardians of history and memory, they developed captivating narratives that bounded nature, religion, and mythology and aspired humans to continue their efforts to tame the natural and supernatural worlds. Nowadays, scientists have adopted the traditional role of the shamans and, grievously, some of their inclination to narratives (Sand, 2017).

In reconstructing the past from the distribution of genetic variation, population geneticists oftentimes rely on narratives. To decide between scenarios, geneticists have a multitude of accessories ranging from evolutionary theories to advanced computational tools applicable to modern and ancient genomes (Veeramah and Hammer, 2014; Morozova et al., 2016). In their efforts to understand human origins, geneticists also reach out to other disciplines like anthropology, linguistics, archeology, and history. However, as with any historical reconstruction, the inferred past remains a subject of controversy due to the subjectivity of the data, tools, assumptions, and, most importantly, the narratives that guided the scientist (Sand, 2017). Genetic studies of Jewish communities are especially vulnerable to such controversies as these communities have adopted various narratives since their inception (e.g., Patai and Patai, 1975; Kirsh, 2003, Kirsh, 2007; Kahn, 2005; Falk, 2006; Sand, 2009).

A narrative may meet its demise in a number of ways. It can evolve into a new narrative, usually by assimilating elements of other narratives, it can evolve by “drift” and eventually be replaced by a fitter variant, or it can be surrendered to scientific scrutiny that may either prove or dismiss it as fictitious.

This is now the case with two central Judeo-Christian narratives: the first, proposed less than two centuries ago by historian Heinrich Graetz, depicts the origin of modern-day Jews as the lineal descendants of the Biblical Judaeans. This narrative lacks historical (Sand, 2009) and linguistic (Wexler, 1993, Wexler, 2011) evidence. The second, rooted in first century Christian myths that were internalized by Jewish scholars, alludes to the “Roman Exile” that followed the destruction of Herod’s temple (70 A.D.) and introduced a massive Jewish population to Roman lands (Yuval, 2006). Such a population transplant, however, also lacks historical and linguistic support (Horon, 2000; Yuval, 2006; Sand, 2009; Wexler, 2016).

Most of the genetic studies on Jews focused on Ashkenazic Jews (AJs). The first genetic study that challenged the Levantine origin of AJs argued that such an origin has only been upheld and “replicated” due to the false dichotomy fallacy and that a Caucasus origin, never truly explored, explains the data better (Elhaik, 2013). A follow-up study (Costa et al., 2013) reported that at least 90% of Ashkenazic maternal ancestry is indigenous to Europe and likely originated through conversion of local populations with the remaining ancestries having East Asian or unidentified origins. These finding are supported by ancient DNA evidence showing 0–3% Levantine ancestry and a dominant Iranian ancestry (88%) in modern-day AJs (Das et al., 2016). Interestingly, this evidence explains the higher estimates of Middle Eastern ancestry ranging from 27 to 65% (Figure 1) in that previous analyses either considered Iran and the Caucasus as part of the “Middle East,” thereby inflating the proportion of Middle Eastern ancestry, or compared AJs to Palestinians, themselves a population with 40% non-Levantine ancestry that increased their similarity to AJs (Das et al., 2016). The second narrative has recently been revived due to the genetic similarity between AJs and south European populations (Xue et al., 2017). However, this similarity can be explained by the Greco-Roman origin of AJs who lived along the shores of the Black Sea in “ancient Ashkenaz” during the early centuries A.D. (Das et al., 2016), which is supported by historical (Harkavy, 1867) and linguistic evidence (Das et al., 2016). In light of these findings (Figure 1), Ostrer’s proposal that land disputes in the Middle East should be decided by the proportion of Middle Eastern ancestry in one’s genome (Ostrer, 2012) is regrettable and underlies the danger in developing policy based on ill-founded narratives.

These are not the only Jewish narratives in question. Over the past years, historical, theological, linguistic, and genetic narratives have all been challenged and replaced by new theories (Patai, 1990; Wexler, 1993, Wexler, 1996; Finkelstein and Silberman, 2002; Sand, 2009; Finkelstein, 2013; Kohler, 2014; Das et al., 2016; Elhaik, 2013). This was to be expected since, dismantling these narratives not only undermined their historical basis but also rendered any insights about the Judaeans gained by studying modern-day Jews erroneous.

To reflect upon the exhilarating progress in the youngest of these fields—population genetics—this Frontiers’ topic aimed to bring the most updated findings and perspectives. The first paper of this topic (Tofanelli et al., 2014) examined the “Cohen gene” hypothesis originated by Skorecki et al. (1997). In that study, the authors reported that individuals with the surname Cohen spotted in Canada, the UK, and Tel Aviv’s beaches (Goldstein, 2008) exhibit genetic differences from the general Israeli population in their Y chromosome. Skorecki and colleagues claimed that these differences evidenced their descent from ancient Judaean high priests, although ancient priests were never sampled. Tofanelli et al. showed that the “Cohen gene” narrative lacks biological support and criticized the use of haplotypemotifs as reliable predictor of “Jewishness.” Nogueiro et al., 2015, studied the origin of Portuguese Sephardic Jews. The authors reported that the genetic diversity of uniparental markers alludes to the complexity of the demographic processes underlying the genetic pool of the Portuguese Crypto-Jews’ descendants, which likely involve introgression from and admixture with Iberian populations. These findings were called into question for being interpreted within an a priori narrative depicting Portuguese Crypto-Jews as a reproductive isolate (Marcus et al., 2015). Falk’s perspective pulled the rug from under the field of Jewish genetics, arguing that thus far no Jewish markers were found, which highlights the imminent question—who are the people being studied and what is their relatedness to the ancient Judaeans, if any? Elhaik developed Falk’s postulate into a blind-test and invited members of the public, academia, and industry who claimed they can genomically distinguish Jews from non-Jews to prove their claims. Failing to satisfy the terms of the test and explaining why “Jewish biomarkers” are unlikely to exist, Elhaik concluded that all the findings concerning Jewish genetics should be critically evaluated.

The conclusions of these studies are innovative. The abandonment of the Levantine origin of Jews prompts new questions concerning the origin of various Jewish communities, the gene flow experienced with other communities, and the fate of the ancient Judaeans, which some authors discuss. The work presented here leaves aside many other narratives that should also be reevaluated, such as the purported absence of alcoholics among Jews (Keller, 1970), thought to have a genetic basis (Bray et al., 2010), whereas in reality alcoholism in Israel is a major concern (Efrati, 2014). We hope that articles published under this topic would be valuable for future scholarship.


Eran Elhaik is an Israeli-American geneticist and Associate Professor of bioinformatics at Lund University in Sweden and Chief of Science Officer at Ancient DNA Origins, Enkigen Genetics Limited. This article first appeared in Frontiers in Genetics (July 28, 2017).


Featured: Isaac, Abraham and Jacob, fresco, by Alexandru Ponehalski, in the pronaos of the Birth of the Mother of God Church, or simply the Hill Church (Biserica Din Deal), Ieud, Maramues, Romania; painted ca. late 18th century. (Photo Credit: Rada Pavel).


Khazars or Not?

There has long been much controversy as to whether modern-day Jews are originally Khazars, with much back-and-forth among various vested interests. We are pleased to bring you the work of Professor Eran Elhaik, the foremost Israeli geneticist, who settles the argument rather solidly, in our opinion.



Ten Thoughts on Artificial Intelligence

1. Appearance

The term “artificial intelligence” first appeared in the 1950s, with the advent of the first computers, capable of performing certain tasks that only human intelligence had previously been able to accomplish. Computing was the very first faculty to be transferred to a machine. This explains why what we call a “computer” in English has kept its original name of computer, i.e., “calculator.” Automated calculation was the first example of artificial intelligence.

Why does calculating no longer seem to us to fall under the heading of artificial intelligence? This is an example of what the Anglo-Saxons call the “AI effect”: as artificial intelligence develops, earlier achievements are no longer regarded as artificial intelligence, but as standard machinery. Thus, for example, character recognition, fingerprint recognition and so on. In practice, then, artificial intelligence refers to what “intelligent” machines are just beginning to be able to do.

2. Downgrading the Human

When they first appeared, electronic calculators were described as “electronic brains.” Over time, as machine performance increased, the metaphor was turned on its head: it was no longer the computer that was compared to a brain, but the brain to a computer. The human being is now seen as just another “information-processing machine.” Today, the term “intelligent agent” is used to describe any “system,” natural or artificial, that interacts with its environment, draws information from it and uses this information to maximize its chances of success in achieving its goals or those assigned to it. In this context, artificial intelligence finds itself completely emancipated from the human model from which it once took its name. On the one hand, many aspects of human intelligence remain properly human. On the other hand, artificial intelligences are now capable of performances beyond the reach of any human intelligence. Although designed by humans, they are endowed with certain intellective capacities that are truly superhuman.

3. The Race for Power

Since the 19th century, technology has been indispensable to power. By technology, I am not referring to technique in general, which is as old as humanity itself, but to that very recent part of technique which is inseparable from the mathematical sciences of nature that emerged in Europe from the 17th century onwards, and is inconceivable without them. It was their technological superiority that enabled Westerners to dominate the world for a time. On the threshold of the 20th century, Hwuy-Ung, a Chinese scholar exiled in Australia, confessed his admiration for what he saw: “The marvelous inventions of this country and of Western nations are, for the most part, unknown to us, and seem incredible.” But did these wonders make people happier? The answer was not self-evident. One thing, however, was beyond doubt: “marvelous inventions” conferred unparalleled power. Hence this observation: “Those who do not follow the trend set by the most advanced nations become their victims, as we are experiencing.” After the Second World War, China set out to become a major technological power in its own right, in order to emerge from the long series of humiliations inflicted on it, from the outbreak of the first Opium War in 1839 to the Japanese invasion in 1937. Today, artificial intelligence is becoming a decisive component of technology, and if you do not want to be at the mercy of those more powerful than you, you need to invest in this field.

4. Survival in the Digital Jungle

Power is not the only issue. For as long as there have been homo sapiens on earth—some 300,000 years—they have lived most of their lives in Paleolithic conditions. It was in these conditions that the faculties of our species developed. It goes without saying that these skills include an extraordinary ability to adapt to new environments. However, since the industrial revolution, the environment in which a growing proportion of humanity is called upon to live has been changing so rapidly that, in many respects, our natural faculties, including intelligence, have been taken by surprise. If natural intelligence used to enable us to orientate ourselves correctly in the natural environment, known today as the biotope, we now need artificial intelligence to orientate ourselves correctly in an environment that is itself artificial, the technotope. And for this, artificial intelligence is indispensable. Just think, for example, how helpless we would be to use the Internet if we could not rely on search engines that incorporate forms of artificial intelligence.

5. The Control Society

Among the threats posed by the all-out development of artificial intelligence, the public’s greatest fear is undoubtedly that of social control, through the innumerable digital data now generated by our lives. After all, the word intelligence also means “information gathering.”

One thing is clear, however. By massively rejecting the old-fashioned social control constituted by the inculcation of moral rules, and the discredit that came with breaking them, by fleeing the control exercised by neighbors in traditional communities, late moderns believed that it was possible to do without social control. But a society without social control is no longer a society—it is chaos. To protect against chaos, more and more precautions have to be taken. So, for example, people living in big cities are obliged to equip themselves with digicodes, intercoms and armored doors. The more “open” society becomes, the more its members have to lock themselves in. In this respect, the automated surveillance, assisted by artificial intelligence that is taking shape, has all the allure of Nemesis, the Greek goddess who punished hubris, the excess of beings who did not respect the limits of their condition. The individual who pretended to escape all control sees control returning to him in another form.

6. Permanent Formatting

Another problem is that underneath its apparent neutrality, the machine can conceal biases that are all the more pernicious for being difficult to detect. A search engine, for example, responds to queries with lists of answers, and we do not know what went into their creation. And we do not want to know—the use of search engines would lose all interest if we had to know the details of the search itself. But this means that we are totally subject to the biases included in them, whether these biases are intentional or not. What guides us can also lead us astray, and what informs us can also manipulate us. Academics have subjected the chatbot ChatGPT to a political positioning questionnaire. The result was that OpenAI’s chatbot “has the profile of a mainstream liberal and pragmatic Californian,” very much in favor of multiculturalism, welcoming migrants or minority rights, and that if it were registered to vote in France it would probably vote Macron or Mélenchon. Let us deduce the effects of living in symbiosis with ChatGPT.

7. Looming Acedia

The development of information technology was supposed to free us from routine tasks. In fact, IT “extends the routine of its procedures everywhere.” It is feared that artificial intelligence will only intensify the process to the point of nausea. Workers who put their hearts into their work when the tasks they have to perform call on all their faculties, no longer know what meaning to give to their work when they become mere operators of machines that do the “intelligent” part of the job for them. If you take less trouble, you may also find yourself doing less well.

8. Moral Stunting

By constantly talking about artificial intelligence, making ever more use of it and marveling at its prowess, we are becoming accustomed to making artificial intelligence the paradigm of intelligence—and at the same time devaluing the essential characteristics of human intelligence, and no longer cultivating them. Long ago, God appeared to King Solomon in a dream and said: “Ask what you want me to give you.” Solomon replied, “Give your servant an intelligent heart, to govern your people, to discern between good and evil” (1Ki 3:5-9). The first character of intelligence, here, consists in discerning between good and evil. This is the intelligence that Solomon demonstrates when he dispenses justice. If we become accustomed to seeing artificial intelligence as the model of intelligence, we run the risk of leaving the heart in unintelligence.

Some will argue that it is possible to include moral considerations among the criteria taken into account by artificial intelligence in its operation. In this case, however, it is as if moral reflection had been carried out once and for all, before being delegated to the machine. A faculty that is not constantly used will wither away. Hence moral stunting.

9. Intellectual Stunting

Artificial intelligence is a product of technology, itself intrinsically linked to the development of modern science, to the constitution of mathematical sciences of nature. The aim of these sciences was to make the world comprehensible to us, while at the same time increasing our capacity to act upon it, according to the Baconian equation of knowledge = power. What is happening today?

The power we have acquired over the world has led us to transform it to such an extent that the world resulting from this transformation has become, in some respects, more opaque to us than nature of old was. Our natural faculties are overwhelmed—which is why we increasingly need artificial intelligence to find our way around it, and simply to live in it. But truly interesting artificial intelligence is that which produces results, not just faster and better than we could achieve without it, but results that escape our understanding. Artificial intelligence cannot therefore be considered as a simple decision-making tool: insofar as the genesis of the indications it gives us escapes our control, we are led to simply defer to these indications—which means, in the end, that the decision-making tool decides for us, or more precisely, that our decision resolves itself in the use of the tool. In this case, the tool does not so much increase our capabilities as completely delegate our power to an obscure tool. As a result, our intelligence, which made it possible to set up these extraordinary artificial intelligence devices, finds itself put on vacation by them; and, by dint of being on vacation, it loses the habit of work, and even the ability to work. The loss of control is not, as in a number of dystopias, linked to intelligent machines becoming malevolent towards humans and seeking to enslave or eliminate them, but to the fact that, by constantly relying on them, we become incapable, crippled.

By slouching on a sofa and playing online games, teenagers in developed countries have seen their physical capacities decline by a quarter over the last four decades. The average IQ has also fallen over the last twenty years. Many factors must be contributing to this phenomenon—but at least part of it has to do with the delegation to machines of an ever-increasing number of tasks that used to require our intelligence. At the end of the 1960s, Louis Aragon was well aware of this process: “Progress that gradually deprives me of a function leads me to lose the organ. The greater man’s ingenuity, the more he will be deprived of the physiological tools of ingenuity. His slaves of iron and wire will reach a perfection that the man of flesh has never known, while he will gradually return to the amoeba. He will forget himself.”

10. Connected Chicks

When I was a child, a playground riddle asked: what’s small, yellow and very scary? The answer was a chick with a machine gun. Today, we could ask, what’s small, yellow and thinks it’s the lord of creation? A connected chick. Connected immatures, that is what we are becoming. If the power stops flowing to the sockets, if it stops recharging the batteries, if our earthly and celestial roots are atrophied, it is not just our devices that will be neutralized, it is we ourselves that will be annihilated.


Olivier Rey is a mathematician and philosopher of science whose area of study is science and society, with a focus on transhumanism. This article appears through the kind courtesy of La Nef.


Featured: Ai-Da, the first humanoid robot, with self-portrait, 2021.


Natura: Ex Historia naturali

If you would like to learn to speak and read Latin using the acclaimed Ecce Romani series, consider enrolling in Apocatastasis Institute, where Latin is anything but dead!

Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (MDCCVII ad MDCCLXXXVIII)


Quantula igitur lucet natura in terra! Lumen purum ab oriente in occidentem protensum deaurat successive hemisphaeria globi. Elementum aereum diaphanum ambit; calidum et fructiferum calorem animat et omnia vitae suae initia provehit; aquae vivae et salutares ad eorum sustentationem et incrementum tendunt; alta per terras sparsa prendo vapores aereos, hos fontes inexhaustos semperque recentes reddunt; in immensas lacunas continentes dividunt. Maris ambitus tantus est, quanta terra. Non enim frigidum et sterile elementum est, sed aliud imperium, quasi primum pingue et frequens. Digitus Dei metas notavit. Cum inuadunt aquae litora occidentis, nudant orientales. Haec immensa aquarum congeries, ipsa inertis, coelestium motuum gubernationem sequitur. Iustis oscillationibus recursus et refluxus libratus, surgit et cadit cum planeta noctis; altiora dum cum planeta diei concurrunt, magnos aestus faciunt duae vires in aequinoctiis coniungentes. Nostra nexus cum caelis nullibi clarius significatur. Ex his constantibus et communibus motibus aliae variae et singulares consequuntur: terrae remotiones, depositae in fundo aquae, elevationes formantes, sicut eae super superficie terrae, excursus qui, secundum directionem istorum montium, eas conformant angulis correspondentibus; et volvens in medio fluctuum, sicut aquae super terram, flumina vero maris.

Aer quoque, levior et magis fluidus quam aqua, multis obedit viribus: longinqua solis et lunae actio, immediata actio maris, caloris rarefaciendi et frigoris densandi, continuas agitationes in se producit. Ventorum curricula, prae se agens et nubes colligens. Meteora gignunt; vapores humidos litorum maritimorum ad terrae continentium superficies transportandum; procellas determinant; distribue pluvias fecundae et benigna rores; mare commovere; agitant mobiles aquas, capiunt vel maturant flumina; flumina attollere; procellas concitare. Iratum mare in coelum erigitur, fremitum frangit contra fossata immobilia, quae nec perdere nec superare potest.

Ab his irruptionibus tuta terra supra mare elevata est. Superficies eius, floribus insignita, viridi semper viridibus ornata, millibus et millibus animalium dissimiles species, quies est; deliciarum domicilium, ubi homo naturae auxilio constitutus, ceteris omnibus dominatur, solus qui scire et admirari potest. Eum Deus spectatorem universitatis ac testem mirabilium suorum fecit. Divina scintilla animatur, quae eum divinorum mysteriorum participem reddit; et per cujus lucem cogitat et reflectit, videt et legit in libro mundi sicut in exemplari divinitatis.

Natura est exterior solius gloriae Dei. Qui studet et contemplatur, gradatim ad interiorem thronum omniscientiae surgit. Adorandus Creator omnibus creaturis imperat. Caelorum vassallus, terrae rex, quem nobilitat et ditat, ordinem, concordiam et subordinationem animantium constituit. Naturam ipsam exornat; colit, extendit, excolit; tribulos supprimit vepribusque et uvas et rosas multiplicat.

Solitudines adspice litora, tristesque terras, in quibus numquam habitabat homo: obsita vel horrentia densis, densisque atrae silvis, undique adsurgens, trunca sine cortice arboribus, flexis, tortis, caduca vetustate; prope, aliae numerosius, iam putrefactae aggeribus putrida, seminibus erumpentes obruentes obruentes. Natura, ubique iuvenis, hic decrepitus est. Terrarum ruinas harum productionum superata praebet, pro viriditate viriditatis, spatio tantum impedito percurso grandaevis arboribus, plantis parasiticis, lichenibus, agaricis, fructibus immundis corruptionis onustis. In ima parte aqua, mortua et stagnata, quia indirecta; aut palustris ager neque solidus neque liquidus, unde inaccessibilis et inutilis habitantibus tam terre quam aquarum. Hic paludes sunt aquatilium nobilium plantis, quae venenata tantum alunt, et ab immundis animalibus versantur. Inter has humiles contagias paludes et hae maiores silvae extendunt campi nihil commune habentibus cum pratis nostris, in quibus herbae utiles herbas obruunt. Nemo est tam egregius caespes, qui similis terrae videtur, aut graminis illius cui praeclari nuntiat fertilitatem; sed iuncturis duris ac spinis herbis, quae inter se potius quam solo cohaerere videntur, quaeque inter se subinde exarescentes impediunt, crassam mattam pluribus pedibus crassam faciunt. Nullae sunt viae, nullae communicationes, nullae intelligentiae vestigia in his locis silvestribus. Homo, bestiarum semitas sequi coactus et assidue vigilare, ne praeda eorum, magnorum solitudinum silentio territa, ipsa solitudine perculsa, revertitur et dicit.

Natura primitivae foeda et moriens est; ego, ego solus, vivom et suavem facere possum. Haec paludibus arefaciamus; in rivos et canales convertendo, has mortuas aquas movendo animant. Utamur elemento activo et devorante quondam nobis abscondito quod invenimus ipsi; Hanc supervacuam mattam incendite silvis: Iam semiustae iamdudum, et consumite ferro, quem nequeat ignis perdere! Mox, pro iunco et aquatico, ex quo rubeta venenum suum componit, videbimus butteras et cytisum, herbas dulces et salutares. Hanc semel inexplicabilem terram armenta bestiarum terminantium calcabunt et uberes, semper renovatos, pascua reperient. Multiplicare, multiplicare iterum. Utamur novo auxilio ad opus nostrum perficiendum; et bos iugo subditus exerceat in sulcando terram suam fortitudinem. Tunc cultura reflorescit, et sub manibus nova nascitur natura.

Quam pulchra natura colitur, cum hominis curis splendide et magnifice ornatur! Ipse summum decus, nobilissima productio est; se multiplicans gemmam pretiosissimam multiplicat. Ipsa se cum eo multiplicare videtur, ars enim sua omnia quae sinum eius occultat illuminat. Quos thesauros hactenus neglectos! Quae novae divitiae! Flores, fructus perfecti grana infinite multiplicata; utiles animalium species translatae, propagatae, sine fine auctae; species noxias, sublatas, conclusas, exterminatas; aurum et ferrum magis necessarium quam aurum, extractum de visceribus terrae; torrentes inclusi; flumina gubernant et coercent; mare submissum et comprehensum ab uno hemisphaerio ad alterum transiit; terra ubique pervia, ubique viva ac fertilis; in vallibus, ridentes camp; in campis, uberes pascuis, an uberiores messes; colles vitibus ac pomis onusti, cacumina arboribus et silvis novellis utilibus coronata; solitudines mutatas in urbes, magnas incolas, populos, qui indesinenter circumirent, se a sedibus ad ultima spargunt; crebras apertas vias et communicationes ubique sicut tot testes vigoris et unionis societatis constituunt; mille alia virtutis et gloriae monumenta: homo ille, orbis dominus, eum mutaverit, totum superficiem redintegraverit, imperiumque naturae communicet.

Sed tantum iure vincendi regit, et fruitur potius quam possidet. Retinere potest nisi semper innovatis laboribus. Si haec cessant, omnia languescunt, mutantur, inordinata fiunt, rursus in manus Naturae intrant. Iura suum revocat; delet opus hominis; monumenta lautissima pulvere musco tegit; interimit eos in tempore relicto, tantum doleat quod sua culpa majorum victorias amiserit. Haec tempora per quae homo amittit regnum suum, saecula barbariae cum omnia pereunt, semper bellis praeparantur et cum fame ac depopulatione perveniunt. Homo, qui nihil potest praeter multitudinem facere, et in societate tantum valet, solus in pace beatus, insania est se armare ad infelicitatem et ad perniciem suam pugnare. Insatiabili cupiditate, insatiabili adhuc ambitione caecatus, humanitatis sensus renuntiat, omnes in se copias vertit, et socium suum perdere quaerens, se ipsum interimit. Et post hos dies sanguinis et caedis, cum transierit fumus glorise, videt cum moerore devastatam esse terram, sepultas artes, dissipatas gentes, debiles gentes, felicitatem suam perditam, et exstinctam potentiam suam.

anno MDCCLXIII.


Featured: A Capriccio of Rome with the Finish of a Marathon, by Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes; painted in 1788.


The Conjurement of Yuval Noah Harari

To understand Harari’s work, it is essential to understand the myths on which it is based. By this, we do not mean the myths to which the author alludes in his texts, in the form of stories that men tell to other men to “organize cooperation” (Harari, 2015) collectively, but the myths that Harari himself constructs with his arguments and perhaps those that he uses as pillars of his theses and conclusions.

In this sense, we should begin by saying that the author himself is a myth in himself. To a large extent, this mythologization of his figure would explain in part both his work and its very wide dissemination among certain social groups. The Harari myth, his character in the intellectual drama woven by his books, conferences, presentations and various interviews, embodies a sort of intellectual ascetic who lives far from the worldly noise, apart from everything, and contemplating the world from a metaphysical distance that apparently allows him access to the ultimate arcana of our reality.

This is at least what is believed about him, as described, for example, in a BBC report which notes the following:

Yuval Noah Harari does not use a cell phone and spends much of his days away from the incessant flow of information that through the Internet overflows to billions of people around the world. Despite this, this philosopher and professor of history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem has become a sort of guru admired by the elites of Silicon Valley.

Alongside this myth that is the “persona” of Yuval Noah Harari, there are other kinds of myths that are woven into his work. We refer to those that his work and thought construct, perhaps without the intention of being considered myths as such, because of the treatment that this author gives them in his writings, in magazines and conferences. That is to say, to the mention of very complex philosophical ideas, which Harari uses in some of their meanings, as if they were supposedly incontestable truths.

In relation to the first type of these myths, those that the author himself considers as such, we would find, for example, human language itself. About this Harari tells us that it constitutes a myth or narrative construction created by men (the Sapiens) to transmit their ideas and catalog their surrounding world. For Harari, this myth becomes the form of articulation of other multiple narrative constructions, also mythological and entirely artificial, such as religions, money, wealth, government structures, as well as all those ideologies that sustain all these myths. In this sense and according to this author, language would be the mechanism that gives Homo Sapiens an exceptional ability to convey information about everything, even “about things that do not exist at all” (Harari, 2015, p. 37).

The second type of myths that permeate Harari’s work, are those that support the author’s arguments, part of some labels or ideas that he uses in his theses, but that he rarely explains, problematizes or shows their possible analogies. In this sense, we must agree with him when he recognizes that “each person, group or nation has its own myths and stories” (Harari, 2017, p. 15), since he himself is not the exception, with which his own theory already exempts us from responsibilities to analyze what he himself cultivates and on which he structures his philosophy.

Harari’s myths correspond to what Gustavo Bueno calls “obscurantist or confusing myths” (2016a), as ideological constructions that obscure, confuse or camouflage the material reality of things.

Although these myths can be, and in fact are, false or of dubious veracity and empirical contrastability, it is important to note that their mere denunciation, however well-founded it may appear, does not imply the deactivation of that idea (Bueno, 2005). Hence, the practical functions that myths, even obscurantist ones, perform cannot be satisfied by other alternative ideas. In this sense, and as Gustavo Bueno points out, the action and the mythical or illusory structure, hidden in an idea endowed with supreme prestige, will maintain its influence as long as a given social and historical context offers the appropriate conditions for it to do so (Bueno, 2005).

In this sense, Harari’s mythology is doubly false. In the first place, because he considers that his myths, those narrative constructions that he recognizes as mythological, are purely equivocal rationalizations with no other rationality, or capacity, than that of deceiving groups of Sapiens, more or less numerous, to act in favor of other specific similar groups. Seen in this way, false or obscurantist myths are perfectly de-activable with the sole clarification of reason. That is to say, through the illuminating resource of truth, perhaps proclaimed by one of the certified prophets of science, philosophy or politics. Here, Harari aims to help us demystify, or exorcise, the spirits of ignorance that haunt us, a task for which he is widely revered by diverse social groups, many of whom see themselves as enlightening entities and bearers of the flame of truth (Glancy, 2016).

On the other hand, Harari’s myths, in the second sense in which we understand them, as the myths employed by Harari in his theories, are also false. This is so because they represent ideas that are completely abstract and lacking in morphologies or explanatory capacity in the specifics. Harari is a master in the art of using ideas (not concepts) and taking them for granted in ways that are indisputably attractive, especially in a hyper-connected present time that lacks a critical sense or the capacity to assimilate the complex dialectics of the reality that surrounds it. Harari, employs his ideas as given truths, presupposing that the public to whom these are addressed knows what he is talking about when he mentions them, since they constitute precisely the force ideas of our time, or the socially rooted myths (Bueno, 2016b, p. 36) that articulate much of contemporary social and material life.

In Harari’s work, among many other mythologized ideas, we find those that allude to Nature, Evolution, Humanity, History, Science, Culture, “the Global” or “Globalization,” and Homo Sapiens; all of these treated in an absolutely mythological way. Along with these myths, classics, so to speak, in his literature, we can lately find the very new myth of Artificial Intelligence, on which Harari has been lecturing throughout 2022, using his very characteristic apocalyptic and pastoral discursiveness.

At present, we do not have space to analyze all of them, so we will be content with only outlining three of these myths, in some of their most problematic theses. We refer to Evolution, Nature and Happiness, as ideas mythologized by Harari. Without going too deeply into any of these myths, our aim is, at least, to alert the possible reader, or those interested in the work, of this neo-prophet of our time to their existence. In the same way, we seek to outline some of the possible logical directions that these, and many other obscure and confusing ideas proposed by Harari, could take in reality, taken to their ultimate consequences.

Evolution

As a first myth, let us briefly analyze the idea of Evolution that Harari handles in his works. He says that it constitutes a natural mechanism of adaptation and perfection based on genetic algorithms. For Harari, it constitutes a sort of natural or cosmic mechanism, in charge of perfecting the adaptive tools of the species. According to his perspective, the genes of living beings contain certain information, predefined “algorithms,” which allow them to perform certain tasks or functions (Harari, 2018). These predetermined reactions appear and are transformed in response to the environment that surrounds living beings on the planet, allowing species to adapt to the environmental changes that surround them. These mechanisms are what ensure the survival and perhaps subsequent hereditary genetic transmission of the “victorious genes” (Harari, 2018).

So far, apparently, there is real no difficulty. However, Harari’s interpretation of this process presents certain problems. It seems that, according to Harari, the winning genes, those that possess the appropriate algorithm for the survival of the species in its environment, appear or emerge out of nowhere. It is never made clear to Harari how or why this happens. Nor is it understood, or at least not explained, what role is played by the conditions of that same environment that constantly challenges living beings and the species that compose them, in their struggle for survival. Similarly, Harari does not clearly distinguish between the genetic load, or “algorithmic” in his terms, and the behaviors acquired through life practice and transmitted by learning and culture, whether human or animal.

This theory, presented as it is, is extremely dangerous since it opens the door to believe that there could exist modes of behavior in some living beings, including humans, that would be conditioned by inherited genetic algorithms whose transformation, modification or neutralization may not be possible. Taken to its ultimate consequences, it might be thought that behavior conditioned by these genetically inherited algorithms can only be suppressed by eliminating their carriers, or at least by hindering their reproduction over time.

This view seems to suggest that, when speaking of certain animal species in general, we would actually be referring to the members of these that are at the forefront of adaptation to life and not to the “genetic garbage” that must inevitably be left behind, in order for the species to survive in the best version of itself.

Inadvertently, we suppose, Harari provides philosophical content to extremely dangerous beliefs that could lead to the conception that certain behaviors in specific human groups, for whatever historical/ biological reasons, are genetically determined. This would lead to incompatibilities with other genetically conditioned behaviors of different individuals or groups of the same species. The implicit idea that Harari seems to suggest here is that “Nature” will eventually eliminate these carriers, whose genetic/algorithmic load is incompatible with the long-term life of the whole, and that the best of the possible genetic worlds will always prevail in the end.

Nature

Regarding “Nature” of which Harari also speaks, it would have the same creative, organizational and volitional attributes as the gods of traditional religions. Although Harari never explicitly alludes to God and, in fact, refutes His existence, calling it a cultural construction, a “myth;” his analyses frequently insinuate the notion of “intelligent design,” similar to that defended by those who argue for the existence of a Creative Entity. Although in Harari the divinity is more conceptual than anthropomorphic or zoomorphic, his idea of “Nature” constitutes a sort of deified entity, which moves away from the merciful and compassionate God of Christianity, to resemble the uncompromising and punitive God of the Old Testament. This theologized Nature not only creates, but destroys at will, and participates omnipotently in the design and construction of the universe.

In this regard, we may quote Harari’s words during a recent debate with Slavoj Žižek, when he states:

Two things to say about nature, one is that nature doesn’t care about us in any particular way. I mean, if an asteroid hit the planet tomorrow morning and all life on Earth was destroyed, nature wouldn’t care. It would go on as usual (Žižek & Harari, 2022).

Here, Harari makes no distinction between a Nature, in the ecological sense of a general concept that groups together all the non-cultural elements of the surrounding world, and “Natures,” in the plural, which would correspond to the different essences of things, in the manner of “the nature of a table, of a weapon, or of a given behavior.” We might suggest that Harari operates with a totalizing conception of Nature, of Aristotelian origin, which understands the Natural as a finite, yet eternal, whole, encompassing “the set of all things that move” (Boeri, 2016, bk. Physics, 8.5, 34ff), which are distinct from the first immobile mover. In Harari, this distinction is not obvious and again he assumes that it is understood what he means when he alludes to this idea.

In this regard, the question becomes even more confusing because in many parts of his work, Harari also speaks of the other Natures, in the essential sense, without the slightest mention of the differences between one or the other. In such a sense, he does not speak of “the nature of disease,” “the nature of war,” referring to a certain origin or principle, or in the sense of a first essence as in “the true nature of humanity,” “the nature of Christ,” or “the nature of Sapiens”(Harari, 2018). The problem with the use of these ideas is, once again, that no distinction is made between the multiple manifestations throughout history and the various gnoseological fields in which they are applied. Nature, as a philosophical idea, is present both in the sciences, the arts, religions, politics, philosophies, and so on; without us ever knowing from Harari’s mouth to which of these he refers when he uses it.

Happiness

As for happiness, Harari does not say that “Science” holds that it “is not achieved by getting a promotion, winning the lottery or even finding true love.” For Harari, people become happy for only one reason: “for the pleasurable sensations in their body.” This suggests that by simply ingesting some pill or some chemical, we could become happy (Harari, 2017).

In other words, according to Harari, one is happy because of the result of a complex cocktail of hormones, pheromones, chemical and electrochemical reactions that occur in our biological body, producing in this a certain state that we have culturally denominated as “Happiness.” This idea leads us to logically conclude that, if we could synthetically reproduce these same sensations, we could affirm that we have finally reached the formula of Happiness (Harari, 2017).

The problem here is that Happiness—an obscure and confusing idea (Bueno, 2005)—those states of physical well-being or discomfort, is reduced to the abundance or lack of biochemical substances in individual bodies. Harari argues that human physical pleasure is the key to subjective fulfillment, and that all effort ultimately seeks to produce and extend as much as possible the pleasurable sensations generated in our body by certain states of mind.

According to Harari, the primordial causes of human happiness, up to the present moment of evolution, have been random, external, casual and, unfortunately, contingent. However, he argues that mankind is now prepared to synthesize these reactions and reproduce them permanently in individual bodies. Hence, in his Homo Deus, Harari tells us of the biochemical solution to Happiness. If science is right, Harari tells us,

“and our happiness is determined by our biochemical system, then the only way to guarantee lasting satisfaction is to rig this system. And this is exactly what we have started to do in the last few decades. Fifty years ago, psychiatric drugs were highly stigmatized. Today, that stigma has been broken” (Harari, 2017, p. 39).

This path contrasts with the philosophical and ideological solutions offered throughout history by religious, priests, artists, philosophers and other exponents of human thought.

The main criticism we can make of this conception lies in its reductionism. The ‘biochemistry of happiness’ proposed by Harari does not take into account the multiple human interactions with reality, which in principle create the material framework in which the particular chemical cocktails mentioned by Harari take place. If these interactions produce specific biochemical sensations, it is because certain sociohistorical, dialectical and contingent conditions have imbued some experiences with a particular significance and not others.

In this sense, the complexity and subtleties are so many that in our opinion it would be practically impossible to categorize or even to synthesize. To cite just one example, the cultural act of whipping a person with a whip in a social context could generate biochemical reactions of both pleasure and displeasure—if the institution of whipping in the framework of past master-slave relations was based on the displeasure that this act produced; that is to say, on the unhappiness of the whipped. On the contrary, if this same institution is used in the framework of certain sexual games, being formally the same institution, the material result in terms of Happiness, as understood by Harari, would be very different.

What we seek to point out with this reflection is that it is not the bodily chemical cocktails that produce a certain pleasure, but the phenomena of external reality to which they are indisputably associated. But even supposing that indeed some pharmaceutical company or laboratory manages to synthesize specific chemical cocktails, associated with well-known “happy” experiences, such as a sunset, a parent’s hug, a child’s laughter, etc., the question we could ask Harari is why should we think that we have evolutionarily reached the final number of “happy” experiences, and therefore of possible biochemical cocktails? If we choose to “be happy chemically,” why stop at the biochemistry experienced so far and not open up to broader psychedelic universes?

Harari’s theory overlooks the material relations that exist beyond the principle of individual pleasure. Many human acts, such as a father’s sacrifice for his children or a laborer’s effort in physically strenuous work, occur because of material needs and not because of the pursuit of immediate biochemical gratification. The “Happiness” Harari describes seems to be the selfish, rogue happiness of the idiot (Greek, idiṓtēs) who cares only for himself. Harari suggests that the subjective well-being of the individual should be the ultimate goal of all political and social action. This ideal ignores the fact that happiness is not a scarce or exclusive good, but a state to be collectively sought and cultivated.


Duzan Ávila is a sociologist and researcher at the University of Waikato. Department of Language Arts and Education.


Prince Kropotkin: Russia’s Answer to Charles Darwin

“Who are the fittest: those who are continually at war with each other, or those who support one another?” (Prince Pyotr Kropotkin, 1902).

What would happen to the accepted history of human evolution if instead of an Englishman going to the Galapagos more influence would be given to a Russian going to Siberia? Whereas Charles Darwin based his theory of Natural Selection on what he, from his cultural background, observed in the Galapagos, Pyotr Kropotkin, in his youth travelled to Siberia on geographical expeditions, where he found that a completely different vision than Darwin’s could be both observed and then transferred to the theory of human evolution. Kropotkin observed:

I saw among the semi-wild cattle and horses in Transbaikalia, among the wild ruminants everywhere, the squirrels, and so on, that when animals have to struggle against scarcity of food, in consequence of one of the above-mentioned causes, the whole of that portion of the species which is affected by the calamity, comes out of the ordeal so much impoverished in vigour and health, that no progressive evolution of the species can be based upon such periods of keen competition.

Mainly referring to animals within the same species, Kroptkin also observed in 1902:

In all these scenes of animal life which passed before my eyes, I saw Mutual Aid and Mutual Support carried on to an extent which made me suspect in it a feature of the greatest importance for the maintenance of life, the preservation of each species, and its further evolution.

Referring to Darwin’s theories of natural selection and Herbert Spencer’s addition of the notion of the survival of the fittest, he wrote:

They all endeavoured to prove that Man, owing to his higher intelligence and knowledge, may mitigate the harshness of the struggle for life between men; but they all recognized at the same time that the struggle for the means of existence, of every animal against all its congeners, and of every man against all other men, was “a law of Nature.” This view, however, I could not accept, because I was persuaded that to admit a pitiless inner war for life within each species, and to see in that war a condition of progress, was to admit something which not only had not yet been proved, but also lacked confirmation from direct observation.

Kropotkin writes about many examples of mutual aid within  the animal world, including beetles, crabs, termites, ants and bees. It is the examples that come from Russia which are more culturally unique to his study, for example the Russian steppe eagle:

One of the most conclusive observations of the kind belongs to Syevertsoff. Whilst studying the fauna of the Russian Steppes, he once saw an eagle belonging to an altogether gregarious species (the white-tailed eagle, Haliactos albicilla) rising high in the air for half an hour it was describing its wide circles in silence when at once its piercing voice was heard. Its cry was soon answered by another eagle which approached it, and was followed by a third, a fourth, and so on, till nine or ten eagles came together and soon disappeared. In the afternoon, Syevertsoff went to the place whereto he saw the eagles flying; concealed by one of the undulations of the Steppe, he approached them, and discovered that they had gathered around the corpse of a horse. The old ones, which, as a rule, begin the meal first – such are their rules of propriety-already were sitting upon the haystacks of the neighbourhood and kept watch, while the younger ones were continuing the meal, surrounded by bands of crows. From this and like observations, Syevertsoff concluded that the white-tailed eagles combine for hunting; when they all have risen to a great height they are enabled, if they are ten, to survey an area of at least twenty-five miles square; and as soon as any one has discovered something, he warns the others.

From the mammals he describes the examples of cooperation within deer, antelopes, gazelles, buffaloes, wild goats, sheep, wolves, squirrels, dogs, rats, hares, rabbits, horses, donkeys, deer, wild boars, hippopotamus, rhinoceros, seals, walruses and monkeys. His observations reinforced his view that competition weakened rather than reinforced the individual species; he concluded:

Happily enough, competition is not the rule either in the animal world or in mankind. It is limited among animals to exceptional periods, and natural selection finds better fields for its activity. Better conditions are created by the elimination of competition by means of mutual aid and mutual Support. In the great struggle for life – for the greatest possible fulness and intensity of life with the least waste of energy – natural selection continually seeks out the ways precisely for avoiding competition as much as possible. The ants combine in nests and nations; they pile up their stores, they rear their cattle – and thus avoid competition; and natural selection picks out of the ants’ family the species which know best how to avoid competition, with its unavoidably deleterious consequences. Most of our birds slowly move southwards as the winter comes, or gather in numberless societies and undertake long journeys – and thus avoid competition. Many rodents fall asleep when the time comes that competition should set in; while other rodents store food for the winter, and gather in large villages for obtaining the necessary protection when at work. The reindeer, when the lichens are dry in the interior of the continent, migrate towards the sea. Buffaloes cross an immense continent in order to find plenty of food. And the beavers, when they grow numerous on a river, divide into two parties, and go, the old ones down the river, and the young ones up the river and avoid competition. And when animals can neither fall asleep, nor migrate, nor lay in stores, nor themselves grow their food like the ants, they do what the titmouse does, and what Wallace (Darwinism, ch. v) has so charmingly described: they resort to new kinds of food – and thus, again, avoid competition.

But how does this translate to human societies? Are these just observations on animal kind pushed to extremes, like the winter in Siberia, or are there lessons in there for humankind as well? Kropotkin thought there were lessons to be drawn for human evolution as well. He wrote:

Moreover, it is evident that life in societies would be utterly impossible without a corresponding development of social feelings, and, especially, of a certain collective sense of justice growing to become a habit. If every individual were constantly abusing its personal advantages without the others interfering in favour of the wronged, no society – life would be possible. And feelings of justice develop, more or less, with all gregarious animals. Whatever the distance from which the swallows or the cranes come, each one returns to the nest it has built or repaired last year. If a lazy sparrow intends appropriating the nest which a comrade is building, or even steals from it a few sprays of straw, the group interferes against the lazy comrade; and it is evident that without such interference being the rule, no nesting associations of birds could exist. Separate groups of penguins have separate resting-places and separate fishing abodes, and do not fight for them.

Kropotkin also specifically lectured in opposition to Thomas Huxley’s (the grandfather of Aldous Huxley) Evolution and Ethics lectures of 1893. Contrary to Huxley, Kropotkin believed that love, sympathy and self-sacrifice were more important than competition. In his own words:

Love, sympathy and self-sacrifice certainly play an immense part in the progressive development of our moral feelings. But it is not love and not even sympathy upon which Society is based in mankind. It is the conscience – be it only at the stage of an instinct – of human solidarity. It is the unconscious recognition of the force that is borrowed by each man from the practice of mutual aid; of the close dependency of every one’s happiness upon the happiness of all; and of the sense of justice, or equity, which brings the individual to consider the rights of every other individual as equal to his own. Upon this broad and necessary foundation the still higher moral feelings are developed.


Robin Monotti Graziadei is an architect and film producer. This article appears through the kind courtesy of Nullus locus sine genio.