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How many innocent trees were killed to write this book?
le 18 août 2001
Reg Morrison and Lynn Margulis start their book off with some provocative, fascinating stuff. They suggest, as E.O. Wilson has done, that something way back in human evolution drove people to evolve an inclination toward spirituality, a sense of "specialness" (the "proud illusion" in the title), and many of the traits of cooperativity that people hold dear. In the book Morrison himself expresses admiration for human achievement, while noting that an aspect of human evolutionary heritage of which people are generally unconscious, has driven the tendency toward pollution and overpopulation which is damaging to human and environment alike. It's a compelling idea, and is also useful in that it can help society to look more pragmatically at tacit assumptions and address the root causes of many problems, to craft better policy. If the authors had only stopped with this sensible, though novel, idea and developed it further, they would have written a 5-star masterpiece.
But the authors disastrously overstretch themselves and indulge in the ultimate hubristic fantasy: They pretend that they can "step outside" of their own human selves and perceptions, take a so-called "objective" viewpoint (though, needless to say, they do not hesitate in piling on assumption after assumption), and essentially give an absolute description of human nature and society based solely on genetic determinism. They trip over their own logic so many times that they bruise themselves, and come up with an utterly downbeat conclusion that, ironically, actually argues against doing anything constructive for the environment, since in their view the genetic tendencies basically lead humans toward destruction of their own civilization and the environment alike. It's an utterly preposterous, amoral, irresponsible, laughable conclusion that is essentially a self-parody. Most problematically, the book takes total genetic determinism as a given. Undoubtedly the genes say an awful lot about human behavior, but while they do introduce a set of tendencies, the interaction of the genes with environment and with the many facets of human society, foster quite a few unpredictabilities-- most of all in the capacity to observe and learn, and to adjust behavior correspondingly. This is in fact already happening; in developing countries as well as the developed world, birthrates are rapidly dropping, and especially in Europe, Japan, and developing countries alike, there is an intense drive underway to implement renewable energy sources in place of fossil fuels. There is quite a bit of human behavior that is extraordinarily adaptive, far more than can be glimpsed from a reductionistic assumption derived from genetic determinism, and Morrison fails to consider the power of this "higher-brain" thinking in adjusting behavior to protect both society and the environment. The next time these or any other authors talk about attacking the "human cancer," they should start with the people staring at them in the mirror. If you read this book, ignore its eventual argument; instead, continue in its theme of examining underlying assumptions that might be destructive to the environment, since this can provide insight-- and a more sensible environmental policy.