A Species In Denial
A 1,000 word summary of the central concept
The area of inquiry in which Jeremy Griffith has made a key contribution is the subject of our human condition, and exploring how this condition has coloured every aspect of our world view. It is a biological treatise on the human condition which he defines as: ‘If the universally accepted ideals or morals are to be cooperative, loving and selfless, then why are we humans so competitive, aggressive and selfish? What is the reason for humans ’ divisive natures?’
Griffith uses the following line from William Blake’s poem Tiger, Tiger Burning Bright to illustrate this dilemma: ‘When the stars threw down their spears / And watered heaven with their tears / Did he smile his work to see? / Did he who made the lamb make thee?’
He argues compellingly that the turmoil and conflict between races, countries, religions; environmental destruction; material inequality; overpopulation; resource depletion; and depression will not fundamentally change at all until we solve this dilemma of the human condition and bring self-understanding to the human situation. As he describes it, humanity has been in a race between self-destruction and self-discovery.
Jeremy Griffith’s work provides an amazing insight into the human condition. Perhaps the riddle that has most gripped humanity through the ages has been, put simply, how could we humans be ‘good’ when there is much evidence that we are ‘bad’? Griffith uses biology to explain that human ‘sin’, or ‘upset’ as he terms it, has been a necessary and unavoidable stage in our upward evolutionary development. He firmly argues that the seed cause of our condition is psychological, not cultural, social, physiological or genetic.
Importantly Griffith doesn’t seek to condone ‘sin’ or give free reign to our upset, rather to ameliorate and remove it, all together, in time, through understanding-driven compassion and dignification of that upset. Griffith gives a rational framework for ‘loving’ our upset out of existence rather than repressing it.
Many eminent thinkers have recognised the estrangement between the instinctual self (conscience) of humans and the intellectual (conscious) self, and suggested that this divided human state is the source of our capacity for ‘good’ and ‘evil’. Griffith brings a brilliant and novel examination of the interplay between these two dimensions of self. He argues that genetics is a ‘learning-system’ or method of ‘information processing’ that can give an instinctual orientation to an animal’s behaviour through the process of genetic selection. Alternatively, the capacity for conscious thought relies on being insightful and understanding cause and effect for it to be able to know how to behave.
Griffith argues that some 2 million years ago amongst our ape ancestors a fully conscious, analytic, knowledge seeking mind emerged in the presence of an already established genetic orientation. An internal conflict between the two learning systems began. The instincts, being a genetic orientation rather than insightful—were ‘ignorant’ of the intellect’s need to understand through experiments in cause and effect—the result being the human condition. We became divided psychologically.
The intellect felt a sense of criticism from the directives of the instinctual self and as a result becomes psychologically embattled with a sense of guilt and insecurity of worth. The inquiring conscious mind or ego rapidly employs blockout (denial) and alienation to silence the accusing of the instinctual self; becomes egocentric or self-centred on vindicating its sense of self-worth; and angry toward the sense of criticism. In a word ‘upset’.
Griffith explains that the expressions of the intellect or mind have for so long been held responsible for breaking up a pre-existing harmony and have looked entirely dark and destructive but impossibly ‘goodness’ and divinity exists in, and emerges from that domain. Conversely, our instinctual self or conscience which we have always upheld as ‘good’ and ‘morally ideal’ is theologically to blame in effect. It was the ‘villain’ in the sense that its unavoidable but unjust criticism of the intellect produced the psychological upset.
On this basis, Griffith gives a foundation to understand and not merely have faith and belief, that we have been good—in fact heroic—and in pursuit of a ‘heavenly cause’, and not bad after all. He allows us to realise that fulfilling the potential of the intellect through accumulating knowledge about our world and ourselves, has produced tremendous turmoil, but in so doing we have been fulfilling nature’s most amazing invention and ‘God’s purpose’. We can understand we had to be ‘willing to march into hell for heavenly cause’ (Joe Darian’s 1965 song, The Impossible Dream, from the play The Man of La Mancha).
Carl Jung pointed out that ‘wholeness’ depends on being able to ‘own our own shadow’ and it is the dark side to human nature that Griffith argues we can now at last understand and thus ‘own’, and through doing that, become ‘whole’.
Griffith extends this dichotomy of the conflict between the intellect and the instinctual self to explain that it finds many expressions in the world: men and women, old and young, city and country, man and God, white and black, science and religion, and right or left wing politics. The former being more aligned or representative of the ego and its corrupting search for knowledge, and the latter with the instinctual self and cooperative ideals. With a solution to the underlying conflict the polarisation and confrontation between these expressions can subside.
Griffith argues that unable to understand our divided, ‘corrupted’ condition we had no choice but to live in denial of it. It follows that once we finally explain ourselves that carefully constructed castle of denial can be dismantled safely, releasing a veritable avalanche of insights about ourselves. His book, A Species In Denial, is just that, an avalanche of insights into ourselves, into why we have been the way we have been.