Review : On Humanism by Richard Norman

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Richard Norman presents a lucid, accessible and compelling case for humanism. He rehearses familiar convincing arguments against religion as truth statement or doctrinal scheme. The exposition of his preferred Darwinian account is however somewhat incomplete. He mentions Gregor Mendel’s work on dominant genes in peas, but does not explain that this counters the challenge to Darwin’s theory of the possible blending of mutations back into host populations. He does not mention W D Hamilton’s work as the source of the ‘selfish gene’ theory, nor explain that this claims to refute altruism as a further challenge to Darwin. He also doesn’t respond to the challenge that there is no empirical verification of Hamilton’s hypothesis that only relatives bearing the same gene in a population demonstrate mutual altruism. He sets out William Paley’s watchmaker argument for a designer creation but surprisingly doesn’t directly confront this with David Hume’s counter argument that it fails to account for dis-functionality in nature.

Norman accepts the Darwinian account in a rather unquestioning way, much as he claims believers accept religion with insufficient challenge. Substantial challenges to Darwin include those of Darwin’s contemporary Richard Owen that the theory does not account for the total evolution of any one species, and the point that since species are defined by reproductive isolation (ie pairs of animals capable of reproducing fertile offspring), then a continuous theory has some difficulty explaining such a clearly discrete change. How does the first mutation to cross the species barrier find a mate for fertile reproduction of the new species? Mutations could be responsive rather than random, selection could be random rather than by a strict logic etc.

Norman claims that ‘the theory of natural selection is now accepted by all reputable biologists’ (p31, although on page 45 he writes that this same argument is ‘not good enough’). This seems a tautology, and an insufficient foundation for a conclusion, since it ignores the social and political nature of scientific theory advanced by Thomas Kuhn. Although Norman does acknowledge that science is not an absolute authority, he does tend to suppose that it is. He could have included some material on the epistemology of science. As genetics researcher Nick Lane in his review of the Adam Rutherford’s book ‘Creation’ observed ‘we know less than we think’ (Observer 6 April 2013). Some philosophy of science would help here.

Turning to religion, Norman reaches the same conclusion as Roy Porter in his ‘Flesh in the Age of Reason’ that ‘there is no separate soul’ (p72). This however does not exclude the possibility of a temporary holistically integrated soul (a philosophy of ‘prevenience’), and therefore a spiritual dimension to human life. Norman’s review of religion interpreted other than as truth statement but as meta-narrative from meaning in myth is sensitive, generous and laudable. He welcomes the contribution which religious story can offer, as long as religion claims no privilege for its mythology. He does however struggle with a resulting human religion which he criticises for being indeterminate (pp 174, 181, 183, 185). It’s not at all clear why religion should be required to be determinate if its contribution is myth rather than truth statement or doctrine. He doesn’t require science to be determinate.

The last chapter, new to this 2012 edition, is excellent, generous in spirit, and hugely welcome. Norman calls for a dialogue between atheism, humanism and religion. ‘Humanists’ he writes (p186), ‘need to engage with it (the cultural heritage of Christianity) not just as form but as content, to work at understanding what we can learn from it and what it can tell us about the human condition’. He offers brief expositions of John Cottingham’s proposed religious virtues of humility, hope, awe, and thankfulness. This exemplifies the dialogue and interaction Norman is calling for. It is enriching. If we can develop this into wider contexts, it will be a most welcome shift towards a creative synthesis to replace the stale confrontation between secular atheism and the religious tradition.

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