Friday, April 29, 2011

Morals, Marx & May Day

As often seems to happen after I read a good book, I've had an unsettled period, a couple weeks of neither-here-nor-thereness reading-wise. I've pulled out of it and am now engrossed in a fine novel. First, however, I spent the better part of a week trying to get through a book—and I did try! I violated my own rule about how many pages to give a book before giving up on it, gave it well over 100 pages before crying uncle!—that had sounded like it might be a fun and interesting follow-up to The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore. I responded to a publicist's promotion and received a free review copy of The Moral Lives of Animals by Dale Peterson. I'm thinking I should stop doing this—not that I have that often, two or three times now, but each time the book's been a disappointment that I've forced myself to stick with much longer than I would have had it not been a review copy, plus I feel obliged to blog about it where I'd otherwise have probably kept silent as I do about many books I read or try to read.

Well then. While I read Bruno Littlemore as primarily a commentary on human society, the novelist did also fold into the story some provocative ideas about animal (or at least chimpanzee) consciousness, mentation, and, yes, morality. So I hoped that with The Moral Lives of Animals I'd get a chance to pick up and run with some of these ideas. Didn't happen. The book's a dud. In several ways. You know how you'll sometimes read a magazine article that makes a cogent point or two about a particular issue, and then a year or two later you'll see that the writer has expanded the article into a book, and you'll read the book and think, jeez, she/he should have left it an article? Peterson's book feels like one of those—a good idea for an article-length piece, destroyed by expansion into a tedious book—only, oops, as far as I can tell it never was an article. So it's a book that should have only been an article. I could recap Peterson's main points in a paragraph or so, or, in conversation, in a minute or two, and then back up his points with some of the buttressing evidence in another few paragraphs or, in conversation, another five or 10 minutes. You know: we human beings are not unique; we are animals too; we share most or all of our physiological and psychological characteristics with other mammals; there is wide and deep evidence of moral behavior among other mammals; and of emotion; and of social cooperation; these characteristics and behaviors developed over millions of years because they have evolutionary value; and so on. There just doesn't seem to be anything new or any particular contribution here.

Over the last several years there's been a slight but steady stream of news reports about scientific studies providing evidence that unselfishness or altruism or kindness or cooperation, some quality along this spectrum, is an essential human trait, constructed by evolution and proven by way of animal-behavior studies. These reports naturally intrigue and encourage me; they're the sort of thing I'd hoped to find in this book. Some of this is in here, but there's so much bloat, obfuscation, repetition and dross that it's obscured. Bummer. This is my second unsuccessful try at such a read. My last was one of Frans de Waal's books, which I had to give up on very early because I got pissed off at a gratuitous anti-Soviet comment right near the beginning. If you feel compelled to insert an attack against the first group of people who tried to build a socialist society at the very beginning of a book that is purportedly about the evolutionary benefits of empathy and cooperation, I don't feel compelled to keep reading your words.

Which reminds me to note that most of these books, Peterson's and de Waal's definitely among them, even as they assert what seem to be mildly progressive points, are thoroughly grounded in bourgeois consciousness and imbued with bourgeois ideology. This is important to remember especially with reference to evolutionary biology, a field upon which these writers heavily rely and that's rife with not only potential for reactionary use and abuse but much actual reactionary use and abuse. There is a whole wing of evolutionary biology, arguably its biggest, dominant wing, that's devoted to "proving" all sorts of sexist, even misogynist, theses. This is the sort of "science" that lets an asshole like Lawrence Summers assert, as he did in a 2005 speech as president of Harvard University, that the female of the species is underrepresented in science and engineering because of a "different availability of aptitude at the high end." In other words, um, women are stupid—and, hey, there are studies of chimpanzee behavior that prove it. So. Any and every bourgeois-liberal book of social science heavily based on the work of evolutionary biologists must be approached with this in mind.

When it comes to morality, there is in fact a human-specific angle that none of these writers appreciates or acknowledges. I speak of course of class. Morality is a vague and amorphous enough concept, but it becomes even less meaningful in a consideration devoid of class analysis. For a Marxist, there is no broad blanket moral code shared among everyone, worker and owner alike. How could there be, when our interests are so thoroughly opposed? Thinking about these issues, this morning as I was getting ready for work I pulled from our bookshelves my old, well-worn copy of Their Morals and Ours by Leon Trotsky. It's got to be 30 years or more since I read this collection. Seems like a good moment to give it another going-over.

While I was at the shelves, I noted a book on Teresa's to-read pile and may ask her if I can have a go at it now. Marx's Ecology: Materialism and Nature by John Bellamy Foster. Title, topic and glowing blurbs aside, I have no idea what this one really is. I know what I wish it to be: that rare bird, an honest-to-goodness non-revisionist not-anti-communist Marxist work on questions of science and society. Whether it delivers, we shall see.

All this talk of morals and society leads me to a moral imperative. And that is to march this Sunday, May 1, May Day, for worker and immigrant rights. There are actions in cities around the country. Find yours and stand with our sisters and brothers to fight back against all the attacks on our rights, and especially in solidarity with immigrants who are being deported in record numbers by the Obama administration. Here in New York, meet up at noon at Union Square, where we'll rally before marching to Foley Square to join up with other groups for a mass demonstration of worker unity. Here's a bit of the May Day press conference this past Tuesday at New York City Hall. (That's my lover Teresa Gutierrez of the May 1st Coalition for Worker and Immigrant Rights in the yellow jacket.)