January 20, 2014

Ian McEwan: Don't throw out the baby with the bathwater

I've been pointing out essays by the Edge consortium on the topic of "What Scientific Concept Should Be Retired?" that I have disagreements with, so here's one I like by the science-minded British novelist Ian McEwan, author of Atonement.
Ian McEwan 
Novelist; Author, Sweet Tooth; Solar; On Chesil Beach; Amsterdam 
[Questioning the Question:] Beware of arrogance! Retire nothing! 
... A great and rich scientific tradition should hang onto everything it has. Truth is not the only measure. There are ways of being wrong that help others to be right. Some are wrong, but brilliantly so. Some are wrong but contribute to method. Some are wrong but help found a discipline.  
Aristotle ranged over the whole of human knowledge and was wrong about much. But his invention of zoology alone was priceless. Would you cast him aside? You never know when you might need an old idea. It could rise again one day to enhance a perspective the present cannot imagine. It would not be available to us if it were fully retired. Even Darwin in the early 20th century experienced some neglect, until the Modern Synthesis. [Darwin's] The Expression of Emotion [in Animals] took longer to be current. William James also languished, as did psychology, once consciousness as a subject was retired from it. Look at the revived fortunes of Thomas Bayes and Adam Smith (especially 'The Theory of Moral Sentiments') We may need to take another look at the long-maligned Descartes. Epigenetics might even restore the reputation of Lamarck. Freud may yet have something to tell us about the unconscious. 
 
In general, the big boys of the past were extremely smart. Their best ideas were often dreamed up to deal with current situations, which, after awhile, stopped being current. But, sometimes, situations continue to cycle until there is some relevance between what he was writing in response to and what we face.

For example, in the middle of the last decade, I was developing my theory of affordable family formation, which struck some observers as fairly novel. Yet, much of the basis for it turned out to have been anticipated by Benjamin Franklin in his 1754 essay Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, a short essay that I had only heard of mentioned derisively for its immigration restrictionism and for Franklin's clumsy attempt to define the object of his concern.

Franklin's goal was to obtain for his people a higher standard of living, defined as higher wages and lower prices, especially for land, via having more land per person.

Now Ben Franklin is not a forgotten figure in history. He's on the $100 bill, the most closely examined form of money in the world, since it's the most tempting target of counterfeiters.

Moreover, this essay played a key role in intellectual history, since it preceded much of what Malthus had to say by almost a half century (as Franklin's admirers forced Malthus to concede in his second edition), and Malthus inspired both Darwin and Wallace to separately conceive of the theory of natural selection. (Wallace famously came up with it during a malarial dream following an evening reading Malthus.)

Still, the import of Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind has largely been forgotten. In part, this is because Franklin himself lost interest in the subject in the subject of maintaining a larger amount of land per person through immigration restriction in 1756.

Why? Because obtaining more land per capita through war suddenly became feasible two years later. The advent of the French & Indian War in 1756 brought up the possibility of Franklin's people spreading into the middle of North America, and Franklin became obsessed with keeping the British government from botching this opportunity by trading back North American conquests to the French for sugar islands. Franklin argued in 1760 that whichever power settled the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River Valley would dominate the world in the 20th Century.

Then, London's Proclamation of 1763 restricting colonists from settling west of the Appalachians started to incline the previously highly loyal Franklin on the road to the Revolutionary War and America obtaining vast lands by defeating the Indians and Mexicans. So, Franklin lost interest in arguing against Invite the World and started arguing for Invade the World (or at least the Western three-fourths of the temperate zone of North America).

Personally, here in 2014, I don't want more war. So, the peaceful, let's-mind-our-own-business Franklin of 1754 strikes me as more appealing and more intellectually relevant to America's current situation than the militarily aggressive Franklin of 1756 onward.

But then I'm some sort of weirdo extremist who is skeptical of the Invade-the-World / Invite-the-World conventional wisdom, so I would think that, wouldn't I?
 

34 comments:

Anonymous said...

Agreed, McEwan’s piece was a bright spot in a sea of sordid entries. Arguing in favor of ”retiring” ideas is like arguing that it was good that all of Aristotle’s dialogues were lost because most of his ideas were probably wrong.

Anonymous said...

You refer to Franklin wanting to defeat "Mexicans" in this post. During Franklin's lifetime, Mexico was a colony of Spain. Also, I doubt Franklin's territorial ambitions for the colonies extended as far west as Texas or other parts of what later became independent Mexico. At that time, what is now Pittsburgh was the wild, wild West.

You keep referring to an "invade the world" agenda. Last time I checked, this agenda was pretty much completely defunct, and nobody listens to people still pushing it (e.g. Max Boot). Even with regard to Iran, nobody is suggesting an invasion, just bombing and blockading them (if there were no other way to stop their nuke program). In any event, it is now clear we won't even maintain sanctions against Iran, much less bomb it; our rules prefer to give Iran a green light to go nuclear at a time of its choosing, preferably (from the point of view of the current officeholders) after the next presidential election.

So congratulations, Steve, you have won the fight against "invading the world." Would you consider desisting from beating a long-dead horse and concentrating your energy and considerable analytic powers on live issues - like, say, "inviting the world," an agenda that is still very much alive?

Anonymous said...

"In general, the big boys of the past were extremely smart."

Maybe, maybe not.

It was easier to make a big difference in general ideas and discoveries than in specialized ones.

Back in the days, one could make a name with a general idea or discovery.
Now, everything is so specialized that you have to be extremely delicate in how you handle knowledge.

I think it's much tougher to study evolution now than in the days of Darwin. Darwin just needed good general sense. Today, you have to know detailed info of genes and stuff.

Anonymous said...

reserve and rethink but do not retire

5371 said...

Malthus actually got a lot wrong that Franklin had got right. Werner Sombart deals very severely with Malthus in one of his later works. He shows how mechanistic are Malthus's conceptions, and what a regression they are from the sophisticated treatment of demography by French writers in the second half of the eighteenth century. Franklin definitely fits into their tradition, recognising that people's response to an economic challenge depends on their own nature as well as their environment.

Anonymous said...

You keep referring to an "invade the world" agenda. Last time I checked, this agenda was pretty much completely defunct, and nobody listens to people still pushing it (e.g. Max Boot).

If that were true, then why do Krauthammer, Kristol and countless others still have good jobs at places like Foxnews while the guys who were right, Pat Buchanan, put out columns on WND?

Even with regard to Iran, nobody is suggesting an invasion, just bombing and blockading them (if there were no other way to stop their nuke program).

That's nice. If a nation like Iran can be subdued with stand-off bombing and blockading, then why weren't those methods used in Afghanistan and Iraq? It's kind of an admission that the past decade was a colossal waste of blood and treasure.

So congratulations, Steve, you have won the fight against "invading the world." Would you consider desisting from beating a long-dead horse and concentrating your energy and considerable analytic powers on live issues - like, say, "inviting the world," an agenda that is still very much alive?

Invade the world is not dependent upon one nation, Iran. Invade the world encompasses the policy of maintaining hundreds of overseas bases around the world. For example, why do we still have troops in South Korea?

It encompasses putting our noses into others' business where it does not belong. For example, trying to topple the Syrian government, or giving a moments notice to Russian laws while our own nation is in disarray.

Invade the world is seen in the creation of Africa Command. As long as this continues, it will feed into the invite the world policy that all of us on this site despise so much.

Bill said...

And today's "invite the world" strategy seems to lead to less land per person while our "invading" does not open a habitable contintent as in Franklin's time. These would against our current course even without a disdain for war. Assuming that policies are still geared toward increasing the standard of living of citizens...

Anonymous said...

Materialism

Anonymous said...

incite the world, invite the world.

Polichinello said...

Heliocentrism was one of those "discarded" ideas, actually, until Copernicus picked it back up.

MC said...

OT, Bill Simmons tucks tail in the face of PC:

http://grantland.com/features/the-dr-v-story-a-letter-from-the-editor/

I have never felt more like I'm living in an insane asylum than I have after reading all the media reactions to this piece.

Anonymous said...

And today's "invite the world" strategy seems to lead to less land per person while our "invading" does not open a habitable contintent as in Franklin's time.

But they are, according to plan, opening a habitable piece of real estate on the Eastern Mediterranean, replete with ocean views.

Anonymous said...

You keep referring to an "invade the world" agenda. Last time I checked, this agenda was pretty much completely defunct, and nobody listens to people still pushing it (e.g. Max Boot).

I beg to differ. The agenda is alive and well. Suffice to observe the ongoing dispossession of Gentiles in Palestine.

David said...

Mileage was had out of alchemy by a certain scientist named Issac. I'm sure his peers considered it retired... they also didn't write the Principia.

Maxwell Power said...

I don't get it: so the trans golf club designer already killed herself months ago; spiking the story won't bring her back. But Simmons is groveling because the WWT generals upbraided him over publishing now? How would it have been more dignified to refrain from running it at all?

(Simmons:)
" 1. Someone familiar with the transgender community should have read Caleb’s final draft"

So it is about shovel-ready jobs too.

Seeing so many people direct their outrage at one of our writers, and not our website as a whole, was profoundly upsetting for us. Our writers don’t post their stories themselves. It’s a team effort. We all failed.

Yeah, scapegoating by militant gays is definitely a bitch. Be happy the state of New Jersey's not trying to put any of your staff in jail, yet

Anonymous said...

Excellent Mandy Rice-Davies allusion.

Anonymous said...

And today's "invite the world" strategy seems to lead to less land per person while our "invading" does not open a habitable contintent as in Franklin's time.

But they are, according to plan, opening a habitable piece of real estate on the Eastern Mediterranean, replete with ocean views.


Yep. The "Holy Land," and center of the world for centuries, is arguably up there with a continent.


JJ said...

The US is still invading the world for land. Only now we do it for Israel. Not only that, but we are forced to dilute the land per capita so American Jews dont have to feel repulsed and scared by a mostly homogeneous white American nation coupled with select highly educated immigrants.

The "invade the world/invite the world" still continues without missing a beat. Only now the US political elites wants anyone and everyone BUT Northwestern European whites. What is the purpose of modern US immigration policy and foreign policy? Not for the common people, thats for sure.

Anonymous said...

Steve,

You often boast about all the famous public intellectuals who secretly read your blog.

From the comments here, your readers also seem to include quite a few Jew-obsessed loons (who, based on the comments here, apparently think Jews are trying to invade the world when they defend themselves from terrorism and attempted genocide). Which doesn't discredit your work not devoted to Jew-obsessions but might be the main reason people in polite society can't admit to reading you or being influenced by you. Yes I know the HBD stuff would still be an issue - but just possibly that's not the main reason.

You remind me of a teenager who thinks other kids don't like him because his clothes aren't cool enough, when the real reason is he has B.O.

But maybe you want to keep the Jew-obsessed loons. If so, enjoy the company - and the smell!

Anonymous said...

The US is still invading the world for land. Only now we do it for Israel. Not only that, but we are forced to dilute the land per capita so American Jews dont have to feel repulsed and scared by a mostly homogeneous white American nation.

Amen.

Anonymous said...

From the comments here, your readers also seem to include quite a few Jew-obsessed loons (who, based on the comments here, apparently think Jews are trying to invade the world when they defend themselves from terrorism and attempted genocide).

The hasbara contingent has arrived.

Anonymous said...

The fifteenth century quote from Thomas a Kempis: "Be not angry that you cannot make others as you wish them to be, since you cannot make yourself as you wish to be." has always struck me as even more profound than The Golden Rule. Why can't we be the studious, conscientious, courageous, tenatious beings we aspire to be, instead of the doughnut eating, sleepy, masturbating apes we are? If the brain is just a wet computer, and the body just it's vehicle, why won't it conform to our commands? It is a beautifully crafted phrase, paradoxically implying that our weakness should elicit sympathy for others, but at the same time conceding that we may not be capable of willfully summoning the feeling. Can we be kind robots? Evolution has made the quote more pertinent today than when it was written.

David said...

>You often boast about all the famous public intellectuals who secretly read your blog.From the comments here, your readers also seem to include quite a few Jew-obsessed loons<

You assume that intellectuals and people interested in Jews are in mutually exclusive catagories.

Anonymous said...

"From the comments here, your readers also seem to include quite a few Jew-obsessed loons"

Paradoxically, Jews hate most those gentiles who 'act Jewish' in doing to Jews what Jews do to gentiles.

So, Jews can act Jewish against whites, but if whites act Jewish back to the Jews, Jews get upset.

Should Jews own the culture of critique and 'obsession' with power?

Should the rest of us just obey?

PS. We are like this because some Jewish country club didn't let us play golf. We are traumatized and can't help it.

Steve Sailer said...

Darwin himself doesn't strike me as as much of a genius as many other single name thinkers. He seems to me more like what Neil Armstrong was to the space program: proof that the system works. Victorian Britain would have come up with Darwinism with or without Darwin. I suspect even without Alfred Russel Wallace figuring it out in the late 1850s, somebody else would have by, say, 1870: Huxley, Galton, or the like.

Anonymous said...

Paradoxically, Jews hate most those gentiles who 'act Jewish' in doing to Jews what Jews do to gentiles.

What does it mean to "act Jewish"?

IHTG said...

Most liberals who are scandalized by Steve Sailer point out things he's said about blacks, not Jews. So no, I don't think the antisemitism of his commentariat is the reason for his ostracization.

David said...

>What does it mean to "act Jewish"?<

He (or she?) seems to be referring to Kevin MacDonald's Culture of Critique book. Google Derbyshire on MacDonald for a review of the book.

Mr. Anon said...

"Anonymous said...

From the comments here, your readers also seem to include quite a few Jew-obsessed loons."

Do you mean those Jews who pop up out of nowhere to sniff out any hint of anti-semitism, because somewhere on the internet, even just briefly, someone might not think that Jews are the bestest, most-wonderfulest people on Earth? That someone might have the temerity to criticize a people who obviously must remain beyond all criticism?

Anonymous said...

"You assume that intellectuals and people interested in Jews are in mutually exclusive catagories (sic)."

He doesn't have to assume; he can read.

pat said...

How can an idea be 'retired'? Let's say we retire your idea of family formation. The Office of Old, Bad Ideas (OOBI) makes its ruling and your idea is retired.

Then a few years later someone does a Google search and it pops up again.

Albertosaurus

Rohan Swee said...

You keep referring to an "invade the world" agenda. Last time I checked, this agenda was pretty much completely defunct, and nobody listens to people still pushing it (e.g. Max Boot). Even with regard to Iran, nobody is suggesting an invasion, just bombing and blockading them (if there were no other way to stop their nuke program). In any event, it is now clear we won't even maintain sanctions against Iran, much less bomb it; our rules prefer to give Iran a green light to go nuclear at a time of its choosing, preferably (from the point of view of the current officeholders) after the next presidential election.

You sound so disappointed.

But take heart - at least the "Assad is Hitler" ploy appears to have been dusted off for another try this week, so somebody must be feeling hopeful.

Anonymous said...

"You often boast about all the famous public intellectuals who secretly read your blog.From the comments here, your readers also seem to include quite a few Jew-obsessed loons."

That last part is certainly true, and they are indeed a tiresome and pitiable lot. But a fundamental fallacy of the liberal West is believing that everything will be optimal if we only ignore anything that might interest a Jew-obsessed loon. Admittedly, that is not a bad strategy, for the most part, and the smug self-righteousness that comes with it is invigorating. But it also requires walking around with a dangerously large pair of blinders.

David said...

>He doesn't have to assume; he can read.<

Then he never read Voltaire, Goethe, Luther... or Haaretz.