Farmers, fear, and human nature

Our 2nd ORFC Review (May 1 2020) contained an article from Professor Charles Foster. Entitled: “Farmers show us how to fear properly”, in it Charles took what I perceived to be a somewhat dyspeptic view of human nature and so I wrote a riposte. Charles then replied to my reply. Here is the exchange, so far. If you would care to join in the conversation, please do.

Colin Tudge.

Charles Foster raises two very interesting points – and with one I agree absolutely and with the other I disagree absolutely. Since both are close to the core of the venture that now is the focus of my working life – our embryonic College for Real Farming and Food Culture — I feel I should comment.

First, I agree absolutely that farming is special and that those who do it well are special too. Adam Smith (1723-1790) made the point in 1776 in The Wealth of Nations, Book 1 Chapter X:

“After what are called the fine arts, and the liberal professions … there is perhaps no trade that requires so great a variety of knowledge and experience…. The direction of operations, besides, which must be varied with every change of the weather as well as with many other accidents, requires much more judgement and discretion than that of those which are always the same or very nearly the same”.

Farming is indeed at the heart of all the world’s affairs, both human and non-human. It affects everything else and is affected by everything else. It is the sine qua non. Get it right and everything else can start to fall into place. Get it wrong and everything else we do is compromised. The reverse is true too: we cannot get it right unless we get everything else right as well – the science, the economy, the underlying moral and metaphysical mindset. The present attempts by governments – abetted, to their shame, by so many scientists – to ram the square peg of agriculture in all its complexity into the round, simple-minded hole of neoliberal, market-led economics, all controlled by politicians who generally know nothing and seem to care less, is killing the world. As Foster and Smith agree, farming should be seen as the noblest and most vital of professions, along with teaching, medicine and the caring professions, and those who wrestle most assiduously with its intricacies should be among our most valued citizens. The idea that a stripped-down agriculture with a minimal or even zero workforce somehow represents modernity and progress is perhaps the greatest nonsense in a world that increasingly seems to make no sense at all. Britain in particular needs many more farmers rather than fewer and they must be properly rewarded. So far I couldn’t agree more.

But Charles’s second point — a dyspeptic view of human nature – is surely well wide of the mark. Prompted by the Covid-19 pandemic he says:

“Fear is interesting. It shows us, like nothing else, what we’re really like. It dissolves pretence and disables pose. And so we now know what, as a nation (if we really are a nation these days), we’re like. It’s not how traditionally we’ve liked to think of ourselves. We are not characterised by robust common sense, pragmatism, an irreverent sense of humour, an intolerance of highhandedness, and a stiff upper lip. We have been occupied by a virus, and it has taught us that our commitment to freedom is skin deep. We know now that, however much we think that Dad’s Army captures the true spirit of England, we would unhesitatingly capitulate to any invader who offered force, and turn in any Anne Frank we found hiding in next door’s loft.”

Actually, to my knowledge, nobody did betray Anne Frank and her family – or if they did, then the betrayer was very much out of synch with the rest. A great many people all over Europe risked and often lost their lives protecting fugitives from the Nazis. Anne Frank herself wrote in her diary on July 15 1944:

“It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything I still believe people are really good at heart”.

Despite appearances, I am sure she is right. The idea that human beings as a species are fundamentally feckless and selfish has been a common theme of philosophers, priests, and politicians since the year dot. Plato thought that the mob, hoi-polloi, must be kept in their place by patricians and indeed by philosophers. Two thousand years later in his hugely influential Leviathan of 1651 Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) wrote:

“ … the nature of justice consisteth in keeping of valid covenants … but the validity of covenants begins not but with the constitution of a civil power, sufficient to compel men to keep them and then it is also that propriety begins”.
He goes on to tell that if human beings are left to themselves, without such civil power to keep us from each other’s throats —
“The life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”.

The Leviathan might be seen as the core text of the political Right, even for those who have never heard of it or indeed of Thomas Hobbes. It gives them an excuse to form an elite and boss the rest of us around, for if they did not then we would all be at each other’s throats. They rule for our benefit even if, sometimes, they need to be cruel to be kind. They see it as their duty to seize command. In our own times Theresa May above all promised “strong and stable government” even though in practice she delivered anything but.

Alas! In the mid-19th century Charles Darwin (1809-1882), kind and liberal gentleman that he was, added fuel to the right-wing fire. His idea of “evolution by means of natural selection” spelled out in The Origin of Species in 1859 emphasized competition for limited resource as the prime spur of evolutionary change. Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) summarized Darwin’s idea as “survival of the fittest”, a phrase that Darwin later adopted. “Fit” in this context means “most apt”, as in “fit for purpose”. It did not necessarily imply brute strength and athleticism. And becoming more appropriate does not necessarily mean getting better in any absolute sense. Barnacles (which Darwin studied at at length) became more apt by losing their brains and sticking what had been their heads to the rock, which objectively speaking seems retrogressive. But the way that words are used and change their meaning seems alone to have given rise to the idea that natural selection necessarily favours the strong and aggressive and that it leads to progress and therefore that competitiveness is a necessary virtue, without which all life including human life would stagnate. Darwin emphasized that natural selection was not the only route to evolutionary change and that animals – and plants – are cooperative too: that it can pay to cooperate. Indeed, taken all in all, nature is more cooperative than it is competitive. If it were not so, life would not be possible at all. At all levels, life is a master class in cooperativeness.

Nowadays more and more biologists recognize that in reality, the best way to survive and to leave offspring is to cultivate the skills of cooperativeness. It seems clear too that in intelligent beings like us who seem to have a choice in the matter (as opposed to ants who seem to be more or less enslaved by their genes), cooperativeness is most robust when underpinned by compassion – by true concern for the feelings and wellbeing of others. In other words, Darwinian natural selection ought to favour compassion. Neoliberalism is intended above all to be competitive (barring the odd cartel) and this is seen to be “Darwinian” and therefore science-based and therefore true. This is bad biology and very bad moral philosophy.

Charles Foster acknowledges in his essay that Covid-19, like all such crises, has brought out the best in people; not just the heroism of front-line medical staff but of people-at-large, going to the shops for oldies and whatever else is compatible with lock-down. That is indeed the norm. Those who are truly unsocial, like the hedge-fund managers who plan to hoover up bankrupt companies at knock-down prices, are the exception. It is true, though, that a little evil goes a long way. A few bad people have a disproportionate influence. One rotten apple in the barrel, and all that. Those who see crises as opportunities for personal enrichment should be seen as sociopaths or indeed as psychopaths. It also an unfortunate fact, however, that ruthless competitiveness does bring material rewards in the short term; and that wealth brings power; and that the short term pre-empts the long term. So although those who think only of short-term personal wealth can properly be seen as psychopaths, they do tend to rise to the top, in the short term. This is all too evident in world politics. Is it not?

I have been arguing for some years that to put the world to rights we need a complete re-think – nothing less than a Renaissance; that this Renaissance must be rooted in food and farming – an Agrarian Renaissance; that the agriculture we need must be of the “Enlightened” kind – rooted in the principles of Agroecology and Food Sovereignty; that the Renaissance must be led by us, people at large; and that we, Ordinary Jo(e)s, are eminently capable to doing what is needed, not least because we are primarily cooperative, and that this is possible because we are primarily compassionate, even though a few people clearly are not, and even though the few who are not are all too apt to gain a short-term material advantage.

Colin Tudge Wolvercote May 4 2020


Very many thanks: a splendid response!

A few observations. It is certainly true to say that cooperation, community, and altruism have been enormously powerful evolutionary motors – both in humans and non-humans. I think that they are likely to have been more important than selfishness and competition, and have written a whole book saying so (The Selfless Gene). They are still very prominent -both in humans (as I expressly say in my blog) and in non-humans, and no doubt natural selection is still using them.

So far I think we agree. We may now start to disagree.

The commonest word used in relation to the pandemic is ‘unprecedented.’ Rarely is there any attempt to say exactly what about it is unprecedented. It is certainly not the threat posed to individuals or, as a matter of mere medicine, to populations. There have been far worse threats. The Black Death killed one in three. What is really unprecedented (and in many ways heartening) is the degree to which a statistically very low risk to a small part of the population is generally regarded as a justification for wholescale interferences with civil liberties and significant damage to the national and international economy. This is very interesting. To what can it be attributed?

There are two possibilities: One is a genuine concern for the small number of truly vulnerable people. The other is that it is a result of personal existential fear on the part of the relatively invulnerable bulk of the population, who are (as is usual amongst humans, for reasons well-established by evolutionary psychology) very poor calculators of risk. Both no doubt play a part.

In my blog I acknowledged the role of the first, but argued that the second is likely to be more important. Despite your counter-argument, I still think I was right. Apart from the point about the miscalculation of risk, there is something else going on, which is why I talked about the way that farmers live more satisfactorily with contingencies than others. Most of us are disproportionately fearful because mere biological existence or physical integrity are the only loci of our self-perceived significance. Many of us, for much of our lives, don’t believe or stand for anything much: we are atomistic, hard-shelled billiard balls, impervious to anything other than dread at losing something – biological life – which, by itself, is often not tremendously pleasurable.

To be clear: There is no one at all who is like this all the time, and there are many, many people who aren’t like this for any of the time. To be clear again, the fact that a person may not feel that she is significant does not for a moment mean that she is not: she is.

Fear is diagnostically useful: it can highlight our areas of ontological emptiness. it would be unfortunate if we missed the opportunity that the pandemic is giving us to see some important things about ourselves. Because there’s some very good therapy available.

All best wishes.

One thought on “Farmers, fear, and human nature

  1. Generalisations are always suspect (….a generalisation of course) but even particulars can evade or delude us if we forget to have the courage to interrogate our innate tendencies, & thus fail to recall how things can change; and that feelings, perceptions and impressions may shift through time and mutate, from deeper, richer experience. Not being familiar with (my namesake) Charles Foster’s work, I just listened to his Radio 4 broadcast from last September ‘In Tooth and Claw’ that explores the relationship of nature-writing to violence. It’s a sobering meditation. Yet I can’t help but feel something important is missing here in this conversation and more especially in our current zoonotic context. There is a mystery at work, and things we cannot see unaided (like viruses) may indeed assume monstrous imaginal features in the fantastic phobias of the afflicted. It’s complicated. Colin invokes compassion; a difficult word, like metaphysics, that can be read in multiple ways. With respect to the latter Aristotelean attribution, I think I prefer the even more opaque term, mystical; about which much may be said, but less readily understood. A literal reading of compassion however, may too readily connote ‘suffering with’ ~ as a high moral virtue. Personally, that does not appeal to me. In fact I find the notion of vicarious atonement altogether repellent, even repugnant. Empathy might be a more subtle approach. One can have profound feelings for any living thing not just humans, for any creature; even an ecosystem. All this said, what may be truly omitted then, is the vital and compelling realisation that we humans are still, actually evolving ~ in real time; not just subsisting in a perpetual Dervish whirl of mesmeric sensation and hypnotic repetition, but spinning our cognitive experience into other, supernal realms of more refined consciousness ~ right now. Writing about the revelatory description of symbiosis by Lyn Margulis, Donna Haraway (in her characteristically complex recent master-work ‘Staying with the Trouble’) proposes we consider, in the light of our present tragically urgent ecosystemic crisis, adopting sympoiesis or ‘working together’ as a more apt state of becoming. Through such impressively sophisticated scientific emergence, we can explore more now about the exquisite architectures and intricacies of organic existence than ever before, especially if we also embrace those archaic and powerful ancestral means of amplified awareness that spiritual/neurological investigation have revealed and charted to some extent; ways of knowing that are increasingly undergoing a further renaissance of enlightened experimentation these days. We may still be vulnerable to coercive subsummation and there will be those who may revert ‘reflexively’ and blindly to brutality, but we certainly have made ourselves thoroughly aware that we do have the spiritual freedom to choose otherwise. We are indeed at liberty to reconceptualise (the) eternal Law as we once thought we understood it, to freely affirm the sanctity of (all) Life in all its inscrutable manifestations, possible permutations and expressions of will; both here, and potentially, ‘elsewhere’ in ever more subtle cosmic configurations.

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