A Child of One’s Own by Rachel Bowlby: A study of “unnatural” parenthood

One could say that the Oedipus narrative gave us <em>Wuthering Heights</em> where the Moses story resulted in <em>Jane Eyre</em>; or at least that between them can be found the spectrum of objective and subjective narrative possibilities.

A Child of One’s Own
Rachel Bowlby
Oxford University Press, 256pp, £20

Without wishing to see too much that is analagous between the artistic and the procreative – the latter being found so frequently to be the enemy of the former – one might say that ours is an era in which the prospective parent has an unprecedented degree of authorial control. The erstwhile notion of “family planning” and the subsequent growth of reproductive technology constitute an invitation to shape the life narrative, to rethink, as it were, the concept of inevitability. Whatever forces we once blamed the mystery of ourselves on – fate, God, the simple randomness of biology – the author’s hand is these days more conspicuous. Freud taught us to see ourselves as psychologically the product of our parents and now medicine has extended that patent to our physical being. Increasingly, a person – a baby – is another person’s big idea.

One might ask what inevitability ever did for us, now that it’s gone. One answer might be that it gave common cause to our mistakes, that the sense of ourselves as part of and subject to some grand, mysterious design was socially cohesive in a way that the narrative of “choice” cannot replicate. A parent, these days, is someone who has got what they wanted and can be left alone. What Freud identified as the parent’s narcissistic objectlove is now serviced by culture even before the object is conceived; the faux-eminence of the contemporary child perhaps only reflects the self-regard of those who, more explicitly than ever, see themselves as its maker. Children do not belong to everybody any more and, as well as being uniquely gratified by the child’s capacity for narcissistic supply, the modern parent is isolated when their creation – as creations are apt to do – goes wrong.

Rachel Bowlby’s study of “unnatural” parenthood is predicated on this interesting elision of art and biology and, among other things, reminds us of how much the notion of “character” has suffered at the hands of the modern author-parent, whereby the subjective self is able to extend itself into others without recognising their objectivity. As Bowlby demonstrates, writers have made some preposterous uses of the biological link – or lack of it – but what, for instance, Dickens loses in realism by breaking the subjectivefamilial continuum he gains in reverence for the human spirit. The hermeticism of the family, in the works Bowlby examines, is indeed the enemy of creativity, for the family seeks to conserve itself by excluding others or else by recruiting them into its subjective world. The family “plot” is no plot at all, hence the novelist’s time-honoured decision to introduce an interloper to stir things up.

Again and again, Bowlby shows writers and dramatists breaking the family structure to get a better view of character, with the Oedipal story as the template not – as the post-Freudian misreading goes – for a vision of “plot” as extensive of the self and its desires but rather the reverse. “The baby [Oedipus] is got rid of for fear of what he may do to the parents”; when the link between parent and child is severed, the greater (artistic) mystery of character is born.

Bowlby makes some interesting comparisons between this and the foundling story of Christian culture – that of Moses – and in doing so demonstrates that these two stories lie at the root of two opposing narrative traditions. The Moses story represents the narrative of wish-fulfilment: Moses’s mother abandons him not because she fears or hates him but because she loves him. At great personal risk, she disguises herself as a wet nurse: ergo, his wet nurse turns out to be his “real” mother, whose love is proved, indeed, to be greater than average. One could say that the Oedipus narrative gave us Wuthering Heights where the Moses story resulted in Jane Eyre; or at least that between them can be found the spectrum of objective and subjective narrative possibilities.

Bowlby finds, by her own admission, the parental “subconscious” of such novels as Mansfield Park, Tom Jones and Silas Marner almost the most fascinating thing about them. She also finds some intriguing antecedents to our world of surrogacy, fertility treatment and adoption (and, brilliantly, in the case of Mary, mother of Jesus, to artificial insemination) in plot twists that are, in essence, novelists’ decisions to rupture reality so as better to make it serve their specific emotional, psychological and artistic needs.

This, in a sense, is the most fascinating parallel between literary and procreative culture and it hints at the profound limitations of the novel as a form. How does the novel decide between being the objective book of life and the subjective book of self? In attempting to reconcile the two, the author becomes a kind of God, making nature in his or her image. But in art, at least, reality is corrective. The novel that wanders too far from what we agree to be real – if only psychologically – dismisses itself from our notice. How far the same can be said of reproductive technology (and for how long) is another question. Bowlby believes the corrective power of reality adheres as much in life as in art: “There always is, or was, or will be, another person or institution or social world in the life of the child . . . There is never, once and for all, a child of one’s own.” I hope she’s right.

Increasingly, a person – a baby – is another person’s big idea. Photograph: Julia Margaret Cameron, 1865. Getty Images
FRED TOMASELLI/PRIVATE COLLECTION/BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
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How nature created consciousness – and our brains became minds

In From Bacteria to Bach and Back, Daniel C Dennett investigates the evolution of consciousness.

In the preface to his new book, the ­philosopher Daniel Dennett announces proudly that what we are about to read is “the sketch, the backbone, of the best scientific theory to date of how our minds came into existence”. By the end, the reader may consider it more scribble than spine – at least as far as an account of the origins of human consciousness goes. But this is still a superb book about evolution, engineering, information and design. It ranges from neuroscience to nesting birds, from computing theory to jazz, and there is something fascinating on every page.

The term “design” has a bad reputation in biology because it has been co-opted by creationists disguised as theorists of “intelligent design”. Nature is the blind watchmaker (in Richard Dawkins’s phrase), dumbly building remarkable structures through a process of random accretion and winnowing over vast spans of time. Nonetheless, Dennett argues stylishly, asking “design” questions about evolution shouldn’t be ­taboo, because “biology is reverse engin­eering”: asking what some phenomenon or structure is for is an excellent way to understand how it might have arisen.

Just as in nature there is design without a designer, so in many natural phenomena we can observe what Dennett calls “competence without comprehension”. Evolution does not understand nightingales, but it builds them; your immune system does not understand disease. Termites do not build their mounds according to blueprints, and yet the results are remarkably complex: reminiscent in one case, as Dennett notes, of Gaudí’s church the Sagrada Família. In general, evolution and its living products are saturated with competence without comprehension, with “unintelligent design”.

The question, therefore, is twofold. Why did “intelligent design” of the kind human beings exhibit – by building robotic cars or writing books – come about at all, if unintelligent design yields such impressive results? And how did the unintelligent-design process of evolution ever build intelligent designers like us in the first place? In sum, how did nature get from bacteria to Bach?

Dennett’s answer depends on memes – self-replicating units of cultural evolution, metaphorical viruses of the mind. Today we mostly use “meme” to mean something that is shared on social media, but in Richard Dawkins’s original formulation of the idea, a meme can be anything that is culturally transmitted and undergoes change: melodies, ideas, clothing fashions, ways of building pots, and so forth. Some might say that the only good example of a meme is the very idea of a meme, given that it has replicated efficiently over the years despite being of no use whatsoever to its hosts. (The biologist Stephen Jay Gould, for one, didn’t believe in memes.) But Dennett thinks that memes add something important to discussions of “cultural evolution” (a contested idea in its own right) that is not captured by established disciplines such as history or sociology.

The memes Dennett has in mind here are words: after all, they reproduce, with variation, in a changing environment (the mind of a host). Somehow, early vocalisations in our species became standardised as words. They acquired usefulness and meaning, and so, gradually, their use spread. Eventually, words became the tools that enabled our brains to reflect on what they were ­doing, thus bootstrapping themselves into full consciousness. The “meme invasion”, as Dennett puts it, “turned our brains into minds”. The idea that language had a critical role to play in the development of human consciousness is very plausible and not, in broad outline, new. The question is how much Dennett’s version leaves to explain.

Before the reader arrives at that crux, there are many useful philosophical interludes: on different senses of “why” (why as in “how come?” against why as in “what for?”), or in the “strange inversions of reasoning” offered by Darwin (the notion that competence does not require comprehension), Alan Turing (that a perfect computing machine need not know what arithmetic is) and David Hume (that causation is a projection of our minds and not something we perceive directly). Dennett suggests that the era of intelligent design may be coming to an end; after all, our best AIs, such as the ­AlphaGo program (which beat the human European champion of the boardgame Go 5-0 in a 2015 match), are these days created as learning systems that will teach themselves what to do. But our sunny and convivial host is not as worried as some about an imminent takeover by intelligent machines; the more pressing problem, he argues persuasively, is that we usually trust computerised systems to an extent they don’t deserve. His final call for critical thinking tools to be made widely available is timely and admirable. What remains puzzlingly vague to the end, however, is whether Dennett actually thinks human consciousness – the entire book’s explanandum – is real; and even what exactly he means by the term.

Dennett’s 1991 book, Consciousness Explained, seemed to some people to deny the existence of consciousness at all, so waggish critics retitled it Consciousness Explained Away. Yet it was never quite clear just what Dennett was claiming didn’t exist. In this new book, confusion persists, owing to his reluctance to define his terms. When he says “consciousness” he appears to mean reflective self-consciousness (I am aware that I am aware), whereas many other philosophers use “consciousness” to mean ordinary awareness, or experience. There ensues much sparring with straw men, as when he ridicules thinkers who assume that gorillas, say, have consciousness. They almost certainly don’t in his sense, and they almost certainly do in his opponents’ sense. (A gorilla, we may be pretty confident, has experience in the way that a volcano or a cloud does not.)

More unnecessary confusion, in which one begins to suspect Dennett takes a polemical delight, arises from his continued use of the term “illusion”. Consciousness, he has long said, is an illusion: we think we have it, but we don’t. But what is it that we are fooled into believing in? It can’t be experience itself: as the philosopher Galen Strawson has pointed out, the claim that I only seem to have experience presupposes that I really am having experience – the experience of there seeming to be something. And throughout this book, Dennett’s language implies that he thinks consciousness is real: he refers to “conscious thinking in H[omo] sapiens”, to people’s “private thoughts and experiences”, to our “proper minds, enculturated minds full of thinking tools”, and to “a ‘rich mental life’ in the sense of a conscious life like ours”.

The way in which this conscious life is allegedly illusory is finally explained in terms of a “user illusion”, such as the desktop on a computer operating system. We move files around on our screen desktop, but the way the computer works under the hood bears no relation to these pictorial metaphors. Similarly, Dennett writes, we think we are consistent “selves”, able to perceive the world as it is directly, and acting for rational reasons. But by far the bulk of what is going on in the brain is unconscious, ­low-level processing by neurons, to which we have no access. Therefore we are stuck at an ­“illusory” level, incapable of experiencing how our brains work.

This picture of our conscious mind is rather like Freud’s ego, precariously balan­ced atop a seething unconscious with an entirely different agenda. Dennett explains wonderfully what we now know, or at least compellingly theorise, about how much unconscious guessing, prediction and logical inference is done by our brains to produce even a very simple experience such as seeing a table. Still, to call our normal experience of things an “illusion” is, arguably, to privilege one level of explanation arbitrarily over another. If you ask me what is happening on my computer at the moment, I shall reply that I am writing a book review on a word processor. If I embarked instead on a description of electrical impulses running through the CPU, you would think I was being sarcastically obtuse. The normal answer is perfectly true. It’s also true that I am currently seeing my laptop screen even as this experience depends on innumerable neural processes of guessing and reconstruction.

The upshot is that, by the end of this brilliant book, the one thing that hasn’t been explained is consciousness. How does first-person experience – the experience you are having now, reading these words – arise from the electrochemical interactions of neurons? No one has even the beginnings of a plausible theory, which is why the question has been called the “Hard Problem”. Dennett’s story is that human consciousness arose because our brains were colonised by word-memes; but how did that do the trick? No explanation is forthcoming. Dennett likes to say the Hard Problem just doesn’t exist, but ignoring it won’t make it go away – even if, as his own book demonstrates, you can ignore it and still do a lot of deep and fascinating thinking about human beings and our place in nature.

Steven Poole’s books include “Rethink: the Surprising History of New Ideas” (Random House Books)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times