The Hard Problem

J9398Over at the LSE, Maurice Bloch reviews Nicholas Humphrey's Soul Dust: The Magic of Consciousness (you can find the first chapter of the book here at Princeton University Press):

This is an extraordinary book as it attempts to explain all the most distinctive things about human beings in a few hundred pages. It is written by a swashbuckling character who clearly does not hesitate to take up the most daring challenges. Perhaps such characterisation will be enough to put off the majority of social and cultural anthropologists who have grown weary of grand generalisations about our species made by scholars from the natural sciences who have very little understanding of why our subject has abandoned making such grandiose pronouncements. So often these proposals seem mere repeats of older theories which have subsequently been found wanting for reasons of which their new advocates are unaware. At least in this case such condemnation would be somewhat unfair as it is clear that the author is well acquainted with what many anthropologists write and have written and he is not unsympathetic as so many natural scientists are. Another reason why anthropologists might reject this book out of hand is less admirable; it may simply be a manifestation of the sad theoretical timidity which has recently characterised much of the subject.

Whatever the causes for reluctance, such dismissal would be a pity. The book is written in a fun manner which will both delight and annoy but will never bore. I believe the discussion it contains, or at least parts of it, can prove excitingly thought provoking to all practitioners of social and cultural anthropology. What I therefore say to my anthropological colleagues is: “Prepare to be infuriated but read the book all the same”. Darwinian evolutionary theory frames the thesis. The argument is about the vexed question of the nature of human consciousness and what it implies. It thus attempts to explain the least obviously useful aspects of human beings as adaptations which account for their presence and survival. This however is not the usual ignorant reductionist stuff that we have all come to fear.