The Books Interview: Nicholas Humphrey

Solving the problem of consciousness.

Most of the Critics section in this week's issue of the New Statesman, out today, is devoted to a philosophy special. The philosopher and writer Raymond Tallis reviews two of the latest contributions to the burgeoning science of consciousness, Antonio Domasio's Self Comes to Mind and Nicholas Humphrey's Soul Dust. Humphrey recently spoke to the New Statesman about his new book.

Can you explain the title of your new book, Soul Dust?
I'm arguing that consciousness is like a kind of fairy dust which turns everything it touches into gold. "Dust" means matter too, but what I also want to do is reintroduce the soul as a respectable issue for evolutionary psychology and philosophy.Soulfulness or spirituality is a major achievement of natural selection. It allows us to live in this extraordinary ecological net which I call "soul land".

What's distinctive about your approach?
Philosophers and scientists have assumed that consciousness must be giving us some new skill or faculty of cognition. Then they get verypuzzled, because it doesn't seem to. I argue that consciousness changes our psychology in terms of our attitude toward the world we live in, rather than giving us a new skill.

Why do you want to make the idea of the soul respectable again?
My position as a natural historian of consciousness is to take seriously the way consciousness affects people's outlook on life. They may, for example, have the Christian idea of the soul, with all the baggage that comes with it.But spirituality and the belief in the soul actually came before religion, and religion has been parasitic on them. I don't agree with the view, now rather common view among evolutionary psychologists, that religion was evolutionarily adaptive.

How do you account for the emergence of religion then?
It emerged for cultural reasons. It's an extraordinarily powerful "meme", if I can use that word. But memes don't have to serve the interests of the hosts who carry them. I'm not arguing that religion is a bad thing in terms of the consequences it has. My point is that people had a spiritual side before religion took advantage of it.

You describe consciousness as a "magical mystery show" that human beings lay on for themselves. Why do we do that?
Sensation didn't have to have the qualities it does. They seem to have been elaborated by some really clever things going on in the brain. The question is why we have evolved them? My answer is that they change our relationship to the world and make it seem a more mysterious and magical place, and make us, as the enchanters of the world, see to be extraordinary, almost supernatural beings.

Indeed, you point out that we are tempted to treat consciousness as something "out of this world".
It seems to be something that is beyond explanation in terms of what we know about the material world. That's a claim which many people, religious believers and philosophers, always make.

So do you see your job in this book as breaking the spell that consciousness puts on us?
I don't think I'm breaking it. I'm drawing attention to it, and marvelling at it. Of course, I'm also trying to give a material explanation for what looks like magic. But the emphasis is on the fact that it does look like magic, and the questions I go on to ask are about what purpose it's serving.

What about animals which are conscious but don't, as far as we can tell, feel so special?
There may be varieties of consciousness which have at least some of the psychological effects I described and which we could recognise in dogs or chimpanzees, say. We should be able to see signs of it in the playfulness and the exuberance of an animal, in the way it delights in being itself.

Your background is in experimental psychology rather than philosophy. What do your more empirically minded colleagues think of what you're doing?
I'm waiting to see. The challenge will be to "prove it". If I am doing this in the name of science, then I ought to come up with predictions. But that is a tough order. I just hope that the ideas are taken seriously and that people who are much cleverer than me will realise that this could haveinteresting and testable consequences.

Interview by Jonathan Derbyshire
Nicholas Humphrey's "Soul Dust: The Magic of Consciousness" is published by Quercus (£18.99)

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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No, J J Abrams – Star Wars was never “a boy’s thing”

Women love things that are “for boys” because these things are actually “for humans”.

In 1977, millions of people went to cinemas to see Star Wars: A New Hope, and afterwards, a good portion of them were suddenly rendered invisible. It didn’t matter that they rushed to line up for the sequels; it didn’t matter that they were eager to buy and play with the toys; it didn’t matter that they grew up to read the novels and explore the expanded universe and sit through the prequels and introduce their children to something they had loved as a child. They’re a group that overlaps with the invisible force that haunts comic book shops, or plays a lot of video games, or makes up nearly half the audience for superhero films, or, to one New Statesman staffer’s persistent, possibly-only-half joking incredulity, liked Doctor Who long before Russell T Davies got his hands on it. 

With less than three weeks before J J Abrams’s rebooted Star Wars hits screens, the director went on Good Morning America yesterday to talk in vague, broad strokes about his turn with the franchise. But the otherwise-unremarkable interview made headlines because of one segment, when Abrams was asked who he most excited to hear from about the film. He said:

“Star Wars was always about, you was always a boy’s thing, and a movie that dads take their sons to. And though that’s still very much the case, I was really hoping that this could be a movie that mothers can take their daughters to as well. So I’m looking forward to kids seeing this movie and to seeing themselves in it, and seeing that they’re capable of doing what they could never imagine was possible.”

That invisible group of Star Wars fans, who love that well-known “boy’s thing”? Women, who have spent the past four decades loving the franchise just as much as all those fanboys, even if no one else – the fanboys themselves in particular – seemed to take much notice. Abrams’s offhand remark coincided with recent headlines like Bloomberg’s “‘Star Wars’ Toys Aren’t Just For Boys Anymore as Rey Takes Over”, a reference to the female lead of The Force Awakens, portrayed by Daisy Ridley. Across the web, aside from stirrings by the now-mandatory Internet Outrage Machine, the overwhelming response seemed to be one of sad and somewhat resigned frustration, with women sharing memories of falling in love with the series, essentially saying, “We’ve been here this whole time.” My friend Lori Morimoto, in “An Open Letter to J J Abrams”, wrote, “I’d like to tell you the story of a girl who became a Star Wars fan. I hope you can suspend disbelief over my existence long enough to make it to the end.”

Star Wars is a universe populated by complicated gender politics, on and off screen. The three original films fail most facets of the Bechdel test (I laughed out loud here seeing the suggestion that A New Hope deserves a pass because the only two named female characters could have talked offscreen). Princess Leia’s enslavement and escape (and the bikini she wears while doing it) is a cultural touchstone that’s launched a complicated feminist dialogue over the decades. And it is perhaps because of the mostly-male cast in the films – and the long-held assumption that science fiction is a primarily masculine property – that the franchise has long been marketed exclusively to boys, despite the massive and loyal female audience.

But the modern Star Wars empire is helmed a woman, Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy, and when she revealed that two-thirds the story team behind the newest film was female, she also pledged that there would be a woman in the director’s chair before too long. And since one of the leads in The Force Awakens is a woman, her character, along with a black male lead – portrayed by John Boyega – sparked anger from the reactionary white guy corner of the internet in recent months (sorry that the SJWs ruined your movies, guys!). For films that once portrayed a place so alien that only white men were allowed to speak to each other, the widening of representation in this reboot apparently looks to some like a political – or, to them, a politically correct – act.

The welcome diversity of the leading cast highlights all the good intentions in Abrams’s statement: that this new film promises more than a panoply of white guys, that girls and people of colour can see themselves reflected back in these new heroes. All the girls who thought the movies weren’t for them because they only saw men onscreen, or the endless line of male action figures on the shelf, have a point of entry now – that’s what representation means. And that’s certainly worth cheering for, even if it only took us 40 years to get there. But it’s hard for all the people who aren’t white men who’ve found other points of entry over the years, who managed to love it without seeing themselves there. I can speak from personal experience when I say that a lifetime of media about white guys hasn’t stopped me from finding characters and stories to fall in love with.

Here’s a theory: you might not have noticed that you were surrounded by female Star Wars fans all these years because you were the one who rendered them invisible. Women who like things such as Star Wars, or comics, or anything else that leads journalists to write those painful “not just for boys anymore” trend stories, have had to take it from all sides. Enthusiasm for something seen as the province of men clashes with mainstream perceptions of femininity. Even women liking this stuff in the context of traditionally feminised fan spaces, like fanfiction, find themselves fending off assumptions from men and women alike, perhaps the accusation that they are sexualising something too much, or they are placing too much weight on the emotional elements of a storyline. Basically, that they’re liking the thing the wrong way.

But women’s enthusiasm for perceived “male” spaces is always liking the thing the wrong way. The plainest illustration of this is the Fake Geek Girl, in meme and in practice: the barriers to entry are raised immeasurably high when women try to join in many male-dominated fannish conversations. The wonderful Noelle Stevenson illustrates this beautifully – and then literally, when a guy challenges her on her work. I’m sure that just by writing about Star Wars, I’m opening myself up to the angry gatekeeping-style pissing contests that men like to toss at women who claim to like the things they like. (Let’s get it all out in the open here: Star Wars isn’t my fandom. I saw the three original films on dates with my first boyfriend – our first date: Star Trek: First Contact, because we were clearly the coolest kids in town – and upon rewatches as an adult nothing grabbed me. But I am also a fandom journalist, so that’s kind of how this works.)

There’s a persistent myth – and I say persistent because I keep seeing these deluded boys get mad in new viral posts – that women who claim to like geeky things are just pretending, the somewhat confusing notion that they are doing it for attention. (And then there’s the inevitable anger that in this supposedly desperate plea for attention – why else would a woman claim to like their beloved characters?! – these women still don’t want to sleep with them.) And what never seems to occur to any of these gatekeepers is that these women were there all along, liking these things just as much – and are finally being given the cultural space to be open about their interests and passions. But that space is given haltingly; plenty of women, tired of waiting, are going out and taking it. The result is the tension (and, at times, outright hostility) that has marked certain corners of the fannish world in the past few years.

Women love things that are “for boys” because these things are actually “for humans”. There are many reasons that people love Star Wars, and most of them are universal things: the themes, the characters, the archetypal struggle of good versus evil. Most of the time we default to the white guy; he struggles with things we all struggle with, but somehow, he is deemed most relatable. Abrams, Kennedy, and everyone behind the new films should be applauded for their efforts to give non-white guys a turn at the universal story – I think these are incredibly valuable choices, and certainly will make the films vastly more accessible, particularly to children.

But we don’t just need Rey on screen and Rey dolls on the shelves for mothers and daughters – those same mothers and daughters have found plenty to love without many women to look to on their screens. We need boys to love the female heroes as much as we’ve loved the men over the years: we need universal to be truly universal. And when we express that love, the default reaction shouldn’t be a challenge: not, “You don’t like this thing as much as I do,” or, “You don’t love this the right way.” Isn’t it easier to say, “Oh, I’m so glad that you love this, too!”

Elizabeth Minkel is a staff writer for The Millions, and writes a regular column on fan culture for the New Statesman. She is on Twitter @ElizabethMinkel.