|A Review of
By Marilynne Robinson.
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Reviewed by David Anderson.
The four essays in this collection first saw life as the Terry Foundation lectures at Yale University, whose purpose is “to engage both scholars and the public in a consideration of religion from a humanitarian point of view, in the light of modern science and philosophy.” Previous lecturers (all published by Yale UP) include Alvin Plantinga, Stephen Jay Gould, Paul Ricoeur, Margaret Mead, Jacques Maritain and other luminaries.
Marilynne Robinson, who teaches at the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop, is best known for her fiction. Her novel Gilead, a small-town preacher’s survey of his long life in 1950s Iowa, won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
In this collection Robinson goes after some big guns, peddlers of what she calls “parascientific literature”:
By this phrase I mean a robust, and surprisingly conventional, genre of social or political theory or anthropology that makes its case by proceeding, using the science of its moment, from a genesis of human nature in primordial life to a set of general conclusions about what our nature is and must be, together with the ethical, political, economic and/or philosophic implications to be drawn from these conclusions. Its author may or may not be a scientist himself. One of the characterizing traits of this large and burgeoning literature is its confidence that science has given us knowledge sufficient to allow us to answer certain essential questions about the nature of reality, if only by dismissing them. (32–33)
Among purveyors of parascientific ideas Robinson includes Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, Edward O. Wilson, and Sigmund Freud, the subject of her third essay (“The Freudian Self”). She asserts that these men (no women make her list) dismiss anything that can’t be explained by appeal to genetic or economic self-interest. Thus, what we call the mind is merely electrical signals sparking in the darkness, religion is a prion-like infectious meme (Dawkin’s well-known carrier particle of culture) that made the jump from an ancient shaman, and metaphysics counts for nothing.
In her second essay, she tackles that famous—if not missing, then inconvenient—link that evolution wishes it could explain away: altruism (“The Strange History of Altruism”). Why do we help people who aren’t related to us, such as saving a person we don’t know from drowning, when our actions don’t further our own interests?
The tendency of Malthus, and of Darwin in The Descent of Man, to counter the humane and also the religious objections to warfare and gross poverty puts compassion or conscience out of play—two of the most potent and engrossing individual experiences, both factors in anyone’s sense of right and wrong. This is a suppression of, and an assault on the legitimacy of, an aspect of mind without which the world is indeed impoverished. (41)
Her first and fourth essays (“On Human Nature” and “Thinking Again”) provide an introduction and summing up, respectively, to her theme.
A reader often can sense if a written work began as a lecture or some other genre of presentation, and this spoken element is apparent in Robinson’s writing. This is a book that I suspect speaks to the participant more readily as a series of lectures, if you hear the words instead of read them. Robinson is a virtuosic writer, but virtuosity isn’t always a good thing if it obscures what you’re trying to convey. This Charles Ives-ism in her writing will likely frustrate many readers as they make their way through this book; they’ll walk away from it still bearing their unanswered questions. I felt somewhat like I did when I first attempted Mrs Dalloway: my first time through it, the style left me totally flummoxed. The second time through, suddenly I got it. Unfortunately, reading Robinson’s book a second time still left me oftentimes puzzled about what she was trying to say.
In her defense of mind and self, one word doesn’t pass Robinson’s lips very often, a word that concludes Augustine’s explication of self in The City of God (perhaps not as virtuosic, but peluccid, and a powerful counter-argument to those of her parascientific antagonists), a word that is as much a thorn in the side of evolution as altruism:
For we both are, and know that we are, and delight in our being, and our knowledge of it. … Without any delusive representation of images or phantasms, I am most certain that I am, and that I know and delight in this. In respect of these truths, I am not at all afraid of the arguments of the Academicians, who say, What if you are deceived? For if I am deceived, I am. For he who is not, cannot be deceived; and if I am deceived, by this same token I am. … Since, therefore, I, the person deceived, should be, even if I were deceived, certainly I am not deceived in this knowledge that I am. And, consequently, neither am I deceived in knowing that I know. For, as I know that I am, so I know this also, that I know. And when I love these two things, I add to them a certain third thing, namely, my love, which is of equal moment. For neither am I deceived in this, that I love, since in those things which I love I am not deceived; though even if these were false, it would still be true that I loved false things. For how could I justly be blamed and prohibited from loving false things, if it were false that I loved them? But, since they are true and real, who doubts that when they are loved, the love of them is itself true and real? (The City of God XI.26)
David Anderson is a senior science reviewer for Publishers Weekly. He tweets on religion at www.twitter.com/dvdandrsn.