Sunday, March 17, 2019


After being engrossed with Rousseau for so long, I was having a hard time finding something new to read. At this stage in my life, I get bored immediately by most popular books, and I gave up on one that I had started. What happens usually in the case of popular nonfiction is that the main ideas in the book can be summed up in a few sentences. Quite often, after reading the introduction, there is no point to reading further. I find that there is so little information on most pages that I start to skim them quickly in search of new content. Often there isn't much there – for hundreds of pages. Rather than forcing myself to read something that I didn't like, I looked around and discovered that Edward O. Wilson is about to publish a new book. I've ordered it and will wait for that. Wilson is getting very old, but he has ideas that are more relevant today than ever.

I am still interested in the influence, or, more often, the lack thereof, of intellectuals in their societies. Rousseau, for instance, seems to have influenced aesthetic trends. He popularized the idea of individual freedom and the enjoyment of nature, which relate more to lifestyle choices than to anything substantive. He had no effect on the Industrial Revolution and very little on subsequent political systems. Much of the research in science that has been conducted since the beginning of the Enlightenment has been of service mainly to capitalism, and scientists themselves have tended not to become public intellectuals. My thought is that, with all of the anthropogenic changes taking place on the planet now, it would be appropriate for more biologists to speak out about the environment in the way that Edward O. Wilson has. I think that science has advanced far enough that, when articulated properly, it can serve to redirect public policies into directions that would be beneficial for everyone. Wilson's ideas have been unpopular in the humanities, but he knows what he's talking about and should not be ignored.

Part of the problem in the U.S., as noted by Tony Judt, is that intellectuals here do not play the same public role as those in France do. If there is a problem in France, it is that French intellectuals as a group are now of fairly low quality. Although, say, Michel Houellebecq doesn't have quite the same stature in France as Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre or Michel Foucault did, I wouldn't consider any of these four scientifically informed. Most public intellectuals in both the U.S. and France are drawn from the arts and humanities, which limits the scope of their knowledge. The U.K. seems to produce some scientifically-oriented public intellectuals, such as Martin Rees and Richard Dawkins, but Dawkins is an unnecessarily polarizing figure. Scientifically-oriented public intellectuals in the U.S. tend to be either advocates of capitalism, like Steven Pinker, or dogmatic atheists in the vein of Richard Dawkins.

My interest in public intellectuals dates back to my reading of the New York Review of Books, which, as I've said, was extremely disappointing. The writers there opposed the ideas of E.O. Wilson, did nothing to prevent the election and reelection of George W. Bush, and nothing to prevent the Iraq War. There were articles by Steven Weinberg and Freeman Dyson, but they tended to be apolitical and conservative. I haven't read it for several years, but they probably also did nothing to prevent the election of Donald Trump. As the premier outlet for public intellectuals in the U.S., the New York Review of Books has produced social results that can only be called pathetic. The sloppy thinking, laziness and stupidity that underlies the ineffectiveness of that publication is associated with its emphasis on the arts over the sciences and its knee-jerk service to academics in the humanities.

While my orientation is probably more towards the humanities than the sciences, I increasingly find that the humanities are more subject to the influence of popular trends that reinforce ideas with no scientific basis. It would be easy to write an entire book of examples, but I'll just mention a couple of critical ones. The most obvious fallacies perpetuated in the humanities are those stemming from political correctness. Thus, while scientific evidence continues to accumulate indicating that humans embody genetic determinism – just the same as other species – in the cultural environment at most universities, the myth persists that improved educational opportunities for the economically underprivileged could eradicate their lack of access to good jobs. Though I think that people should be treated the same, this doesn't mean that they are literally the same. For me, one of the greatest fallacies is that the democratic process is a panacea for social inequality. What I notice, particularly now that the Internet is altering the way in which human cognition functions, is that large segments of the population, whether liberal or conservative, are increasingly incapable of making informed decisions, even when those decisions have a direct impact on the quality of their lives. In my view, we are well past the time when science ought to be the basis for most public policy decisions, and the failure of traditional intellectuals with backgrounds in the humanities is beginning to seem astounding.

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