Konrad Lorenz:
"The Waning of Humanness" (1985)

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Konrad Lorenz, the Austrian zoologist who won a Nobel Prize in 1973, was precursor of Wilson's Sociobiology and in general of Evolutionary Psychology. He wrote this book when he was almost 80 years old. This book is written in a semi-philosophical jargon that is not quite difficult to read, or, at least, to understand. Sentences are convoluted and not very scientific. References to Kant's work are frequent and as obscure as the original. Lorenz was obviously well-versed in the German-language books of his time (and the gestalt psychology that flourished in Germany when he was young) and seems to rely a lot on studies made in Germany. He also seems influenced by Spengler's "The Decline of the West" (1918), and the original title of this book echoes Spengler's.
His previous book "Civilized Man's Eight Deadly Sins" had been devoted to the destruction of humankind. This book, instead, is concerned with the destruction of humanity. The premise is quite simple: "many of the innate as well as traditional norms of humans that were still well-adapted programs of social and economic behavior just a short while ago today contribute to the waning of what is humane." And there is a meta-problem that makes this threat even worse: "The man is unable to keep pace with the increasing speed with which changes the culture and the social environment. The gap is growing year after year". Lorenz argued that technological evolution is now proceeding much faster than biological evolution: humans have invented a new force that accelerates evolution in a manner independent of the natural environment. In other words, our genetic program worked well for thousands of years to bring us from the caves to the skyscrapers but now it is beginning to work against us, against our "humanness". Technological progress was the result of our evolution but now it is becoming the main enemy of our nature. He explains this apparent contradiction (how can something created by natural selection be dangerous?) by arguing that natural selection works well for short-term goals, not necessarily in the long run. Lorenz singles out a potential disaster, the nuclear holocaust (which he considers "probable"), and an already real disaster, the environmental crisis. Humans, therefore, are an endangered species.

He spends a lot of time arguing that the future is not predetermined (in contrast with Spengler's view of western civilization), lest people feel no motivation to act. In other words, there is something that we can do to save the world. He is afraid of passive faith in progress. He thinks that Kurt Popper proved that "every attempt to predict the future is logical impossible".

Adaptation is a cognitive process because each mutation that makes a species more adapted codifies new information about the environment. He defines higher organisms those that have acquired the greatest amount of information about the environment. Ironically, lower forms of life tend to be better adapted than higher forms of life: higher forms of life create the conditions for their own downfall. Evolution is so creative because the ecosystem is so complex and species coexist and compete. He believes in a direction in evolution because each new species has to compete for existing ecological niches that are already occupied and therefore tends to be pushed towards new, higher, ecological regions. The evolution of cultures is similar to the evolution of species. Unfortunately, now that the world is becoming more globalized, cultures are becoming more homogeneous, and so the variety and competition that used to propel their evolution have lost their power.

He is opposed to scientism or ontological reductionism because he thinks that it leaves out the subjective observer in the attempt to study objective reality. He stresses instead the fundamental identity of physiological and psychological processes: body and mind are dual aspects of the same thing.

Beware, though, that he thinks of "mind" as a collective phenomenon. And the ills that he identifies in society, when people strive for what is detrimental, are to him "epidemic neuroses." The main one is the scientistic belief: that everything is ultimately just a physical process, a view that destroys any difference between higher and lower forms of life. Humans spend so much of their time with inanimate objects that they come to believe that everything is "makable" and "repairable". He takes issue with the technocratic frenzy, the assumption that anything technically feasible has to be made (just because it is feasible). This frenzy is taking humans further and further away from their "humanness". He points at multinational corporations as the force largely responsible for fueling this ideology. He thinks that this ideology is steadily leading towards a society that favors uncritical subordination and is hostile to the free-thinking individual; in other words, to Huxley's "Brave New World".

He opposes the "blank slate" theory that we are born with no skills and proper training can turn us into just about anything. He sees this doctrine as a consequence of the idea that "all men are born equal", an idea welcomed by both multinational corporations and communist regimes. And this gives him hope in the future.

His view of young people is that they are depressed because of the excessive materialism created by their parents, a congenital alienation towards democracy, and the addiction to entertainment; all of this leads to boredom, and frequently to suicide. He suggests that education should help them "differentiate the meaningful from the meaningless", and the meaning can be found in the beauty of nature, and especially in sympathizing with all other living beings. He spends a few pages discussing the power of lies to derail this project, and this could have been a very interesting discussion: the linguistic ability of humans exponentially increases the ability of humans to lie and to propagate false information. At the end Lorenz places himself at the antipodes of Monod's depressing existential vision (humans as powerless in a largely hostile unknowable world) because he believes that humankind is a step towards "becoming truly humane beings".

This (well-intentioned) book could have been ten-pages long. Most of it is not very rational, nor very meaningful (ironically, for a book that talks about meaning). Many lengthy passages are difficult to understand and probably there is little to understand anyway. The rest could be summarized in ten pages, and perhaps it would have been more effective. If the book was meant to make me optimist about the future, it certainly failed. I agree with his premises, but his solutions don't seem convincing to me.

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