Reviewed by Amy Taylor
Is mankind intelligent yet? It’s a question many of us will have pondered — directly or otherwise — at some point in our lives. Here, Colin Sayer attempts to take the bull by the horns and get to the bottom of this essential yet strangely intangible question.
Undoubtedly a big task, Sayer initially asserts that ‘violence is failure’ and ‘mankind is not yet intelligent’. These two initial simplistic statements really do set the whole tone of the book: although Sayer says he is attempting to ask the big questions from the perspective of a layman or casual bystander, it is really a book about mankind’s inadequacies. Most of us will agree with these general sentiments to a greater or less extent, but rather than providing us with balanced discussion, he often drifts into the polemic — and occasionally even to bitterness and sarcastic rhetoric.
Indeed, the whole book is written in a language of grand rhetoric, from the endearing wonderment expressed at the potential of the universe at the beginning of the book through the less endearing — and more prolific — sections lamenting the general, large-scale failings of humanity. Sayer admits that mankind is ‘clever’ for all its discoveries, but makes a distinction between ‘cleverness’ and ‘intelligence’ in despairing of humanity’s ability to make something positive from these discoveries. This is a highly generalised and not, perhaps, the most helpful of assertions. He pessimistically adds that ‘many of our achievements do solve problems, while not a few create worse ones… Mankind will presumably eventually have the capability to render the planet sterile and lifeless, whether by accident or design.’
Sayer ricochets between topics — you’ll find he covers peace, justice, charity, poverty, the environment, smoking and drinking, criminality in the young, language, self-awareness, pollution, genetic engineering and more — and it’s some wonder that he manages to address them all in a mere 95 pages. But he does so, with fervor--and, it must be noted, no doubt partly as a result of brevity and lack of detailed debate.
From the content that is brushed upon, though, it is clear that Sayer is a man with great learning and intelligence. And, for the other flaws here, there is something to admire in his polemic: he is certainly well-intentioned, and morally indignant, especially when it comes to the shortcomings of politicians. His comments about renewable energy also contain much truth, and we are obliged to concede that most of us could be doing more to help our planet.
The questions pondered in this book are grand-scale; treating all of them in such a confined space imparts a rhetorical flavour. For the sake of our collective sanity, I wonder if sometimes the largest questions have to remain unanswered, or that they are in some sense unanswerable.