Review by Victoria Hart Gaskell, 2008
Murphy, Michael. The Future of the Body: Explorations Into the Further Evolution of Human Nature. Los Angeles: Jeremy P. Tarcher, Inc., 1992.
Michael Murphy is the co-founder of the Esalen Institute, the teaching and research center of the 1960s and 1970s famous for its early leadership in America of the Human Potential movement, which posited that human beings have great reserves of extraordinary potential that are undeveloped in most people but that with development can lead to lives exceptional in their satisfaction, productivity, and well-being. While no longer active in the running of the Institute, Murphy still researches and writes on topics of extraordinary human activities and potential. The Future of the Body looks to such activities and potential – over a wide range from the placebo effect to odors of sanctity and more -- in support of his argument that “by gathering data from many fields – including medical science, anthropology, sports, the arts, psychical research, and comparative religious studies – we can identify extraordinary versions of most, if not all, of our basic attributes … These grace-laden analogies of our normal attributes … can be cultivated … by practicing certain virtues and disciplines and by building institutions to support them. “(3) “These many extraordinary attributes exhibit an apparent continuity with features of animal nature … part of a richly complex development that began with the earliest forms of life, and … they point toward further human advance. Their cultivation … would carry forward the earth’s evolutionary adventure.” (4)
There is much to appreciate about this book. Its 785 pages and massive amounts of information are well organized into the three sections of the book proper (1 – Possibilities for Extraordinary Life, 2 – Evidence for Human Transformative Capacity, 3 – Transformative Practices), numerous appendices, notes, a bibliography, permissions and copyrights, and an index. It is a fascinating read, with Part 2 (the largest section of the book) a startling collection of anecdotes and documentation of extraordinary human functioning. Murphy includes and takes seriously instances of such functioning from such familiar areas of study as medicine, psychology/psychiatry, hypnosis, psychical research, and religion, while also taking seriously and including instances from more unfamiliar areas such as martial arts, somatic disciplines like the Alexander Technique, legend, art, and sport; the material is historical, cross-cultural/comparative, inclusive of male and female experience, and holistic in its integrative view of mind/body/spirit. He acknowledges that such extraordinary functioning can destroy as well as promote well-being, and suggests that the destructive aspects can be curtailed by transformative practice.(61-63) While scientific and scholarly methods of data collection and evaluation are relied upon, the methods used in other disciplines of spirit and body for data collection and evaluation are also respected and used, with caveats against “tall tales” and reported instances of extraordinary function for which there is little or no support(7-14). Murphy’s discussion of involution/evolution, grace, and panentheism, citing Hegel, Sri Aurobindo, Plato, and Charles Hartshorne, among others, raises challenging questions with regard to what particular religious and inter-religious understandings of evolution and transcendence might mean in a context of extraordinary human functioning, especially as it includes his discussion of the “problem of evil” and his call for transformative “acts that promote a better life for the creatures of this planet.”(171-200)
In terms of Murphy’s actual argument, however, I am not convinced that extraordinary human functioning will carry forward the earth’s evolutionary adventure, “that the self-evident break with normal consciousness and behavior, the transcendence of certain needs, and the self-mastery of mind and flesh characteristic of metanormal functioning would, if realized by enough people, create a new kind of life on this planet.”(31) First of all, Murphy defines evolution in many ways throughout the book, so that the term itself becomes confusing. If the book is about the “further evolution of human nature”, how does this relate to human evolution generally, particularly as so many of the examples given for metanormal functioning are physical manifestations of that functioning? How does physical metanormal functioning connect to or develop the evolution of human nature? Murphy also hedges his argument with so many caveats about the uncertainties of evolution and the fact that these instances of extraordinary human functioning are at best potentialities that at times he seems to undercut his own argument. Murphy sees “transformative practices” as the key to the evolution he envisages, but while his discussion of transformative practices is itself judicious, thought-provoking, and encouraging, it raises questions as to who is able to devote the time, energy, and resources to the “long-term cultivation” of metanormal attributes through these transformative practices other than the subsidized, the wealthy, or the leisured, as well as what numbers of people would need to be involved for how long for evolution to take place on the scale Murphy envisages, and how this evolution is to be passed down to succeeding generations (particularly as many of the persons cited as “metanormal” are celibate monastics or unconnected solitaries within a particular discipline). Finally, there is no gathering together of the examples or of the transformative practices to point to what these might indicate as the “new human” in the evolutionary sense, other than to say that the practices must develop the whole person individually; there is no discussion of how individual practices or examples connect to and/or develop into group evolution.
I still highly recommend this book. With research, generosity, accessibility, entertainment, and passion Murphy does make the argument that as human beings we have much potential that is untapped, that much of it is in areas that are unfamiliar or isolated by culture or discipline or suppressed/ignored by vested interests, and that all manifestations of this potential need to be studied more fully, comprehensively, and comparatively across history and cultures, so that we are better informed about ourselves and the world we live in.