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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Against the Law: Peter Wildeblood must be one of the bravest men who ever lived

BBC2's historical gay rights film evokes bewilderment, fear and agonising pain.

My head told me that Against the Law (26 July, 9pm), the BBC’s film about Peter Wildeblood, the only openly gay man to give evidence to Lord Wolfenden’s committee, wasn’t up to much. Wildeblood was one of the three men who in 1954 were convicted of buggery in the notorious Montagu case (the others being Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and his cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers) – a trial that led, thanks to unease about the verdict, to the inquiry that resulted in the Wolfenden report, which in 1957 recommended the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain.

The film is based on the book Wildeblood published (he was a journalist) after his release from Wormwood Scrubs. Its script, by Brian Fillis, was underpowered and off-puttingly didactic, and I couldn’t understand, at first, the decision to keep interrupting the drama with the spoken-to-camera recollections of a series of elderly gay men. But at some point my heart, which was aching, told my head to shut up. This is… good enough, I thought, watching the film’s last few moments, in which the 89-year-old Roger and the 77-year-old Percy tenderly kissed for the camera. I was mad for Roger. Did he remember Wolfenden? My dear, how could he ever forget it? At the time, he was having an affair with Lord Wolfenden’s son, Jeremy, which certainly added piquancy to the newspaper reports as he read them over breakfast.

If I’d been casting this piece, I might have gone for a floppy-haired Matthew Goode type for Wildeblood, the former public school boy – but that would have been my mistake. It’s hard to imagine a finer performance than the one given by Daniel Mays, an actor who is not even remotely floppy haired.

Here was all of the wit and compassion you find in Wildeblood’s prose, combined with emotions I’d hitherto only been able rather half-heartedly to imagine: bewilderment, fear, agonising pain. As Wildeblood watched his former lover, an RAF corporal called Edward McNally, turn Queen’s evidence during his trial, May’s face grew slack with disbelief. He looked, to me, as if some unknown hand was quietly disembowelling him. By which had he been most betrayed? Love, or the law of the land?

Everyone knows what followed, but it was horrible to see nevertheless. Mailbags were sewn; aversion therapy was discussed (the prison shrink, played with viper-like precision by Mark Gatiss, told Wildeblood he could either receive a series of electric shocks or a drug that would make him vomit for two days). I thought, not for the first time, that Wildeblood must have been one of the bravest men who ever lived – though it’s not as if he wanted for company: the director’s talking heads, silver of hair and soft of jowl, reminded us of this at every turn, and I was glad of the human punctuation they provided. For most of us, this stuff is history. For them, it had been life.

Some people are devoted to newts, and others to hobbits; a few enjoy recreating the battles of the Civil War. The film My Friend Jane (17 July, 7pm) got down and not very dirty with the Austen super-fans, by which I mean not those who have read Sanditon and The Watsons but types who like to dress in full Regency garb and dance to the sound of a spinet come Saturday night. Actually, it’s scarier than this. A former doctor, Joana Starnes, breathlessly described her new career as a writer of “top-tier JAF”. Translated, this means highly superior Jane Austen fan fiction. She’s produced seven JAF novels, which sounds like a lot until you discover that 60 come out every month.

Zack Pinsent, meanwhile, who is 22, makes his living as a period tailor in Hove, where he likes to promenade in fall-front trousers – a flap enables the gentleman thereby to pee – and top hat. I wanted to laugh at him, and all the other empire-line eccentrics in this odd little documentary. But there was something touching about their obsession; at least they didn’t attempt to intellectualise it, unlike those literary fan girls who have lately taken to writing entire books about why their lives would be meaningless without this or that great writer for company. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue