“Our elegy is a sociological one” says J.D.Vance at some point in his spellbinding book, “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis”1. Elegy was the funeral chant in ancient Greece – a place to mourn the passing of beloved ones. Vance autobiographical memoir captures the spirit of contemporary America in a rich tapestry of figures. The book is a narrative of geographic segregation, a sequence of snapshots from class-system tourism into white-trash. The real protagonist of this moving account is the loss of the white-dividend in contemporary rust-belt America.
In 2005, the equity research team in the American bank Citigroup circulated an infamous report: it gave large currency to the loosely defined concept of ‘plutonomy’, basically arguing that the world economic order had irrevocably changed: that – it said – was reflected in the emergence of a new wealthy transnational class – whose luxury needs perspicacious investors would better be long on. Later on, in 2013, another American bank -JPMorgan- came with a report focusing on the (structural) reason of Europe economic under-performance compared with the US: it argued that Europe could not compete with US because of the dead weight of its post WWII welfare state.
During his teens in the industrial Midwest, Jack Vance was oblivious to the complex web of dependencies an economy like the US was and is deeply entrenched in. But he had to look no further than into his backyard to assess the genesis of the troubles he was mired in: a dysfunctional culture. “Social class in America isn’t just about money” (pg. 63), says Vance and “[Hillbillies] were of the same racial order (whites) as those who dominated economical, political and social power in local and national arenas. But Hillbillies shared many regional characteristics with the southern blacks arriving in Detroit” (pg. 31). With precocious intelligence of his predicament, Vance bootstrapped his way to a Master at Yale Law School amidst the most unpromising circumstances; he wasted no lesson his unprivileged background could offer: a summer job in a local grocery store became an applied sociology class onto eating habits of lower-class: “The more harried a customer, the more they purchased precooked or frozen food, the more likely they were to be poor. And I knew they were poor because of the clothes they wore or because they purchased their food on food stamps.” (pg . 132) – while the period in the US Marine Corp was a difficult but ultimately beneficial step in the direction of self-discipline, planning, commitment. No one in his close proximity had done quite anything like that before.
One of the readings that enlightened him best was a study by William Wilson, “The Truly Disadvantaged”. “As millions migrated north to factory jobs, the communities that sprouted up around those factories were vibrant but fragile: When the factories shut their doors, the people left behind were trapped in town that could no longer support such large populations with high-quality work. Those who could – generally the well educated, wealthy or well-connected – left, leaving behind communities of poor people.” (pg. 144). But we should not look at his book as a master class in macro-economy: Vance does not articulate the reasons such factories outsourced to Asia, he does not diffuse on China’s opening of special economic zones (1979) -whereby a billion cheap workers entered the job market, depleting Europe’s and US’s traditional (if a bit pampered) labor constituencies2: Vance does not need to, because his elegy is a most personal cry, it is a most passionate insight into family ties crumbling, into drug addiction and steady downward movement on the socioeconomic ladder. But via his effort, intelligence and ability, via the examined life -ie peering into his own predicament- and via the help of valuable mentors along the way, Vance managed to escape his destiny and become a successful Private Equity operator in the Bay Area.
His book is a stark reminder that true enemies to success are within, they are complacency and delusional faiths, as well as self-serving narratives of being disadvantaged. His mentor at Yale, tiger mom Amy Chua, could not have asked more from one of his pupils.
1. [ Vance, J. D. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. William Collins 2016]↩ 2. Late Eric Hobsbawm had already charted this disarray in “The Forward March of Labour Halted?”↩
In 1862, Dostoevsky visited London for the World Exhibition. The Crystal Palace transfixed his mind. He penned the following perceptive remarks:
“You sense that it would require great and everlasting spiritual denial and fortitude in order not to submit, not to capitulate before the impression, not to bow to what is, and not to deify Baal, that is, not to accept the material world as your ideal”.
Genius was necessary to understand the hidden message behind that beaming facade – he had that in abundance, but crucially it took something else too. Dostoevsky came from backward Russia, where the narrow-mindedness of the ruling class kept the country in the tight grip of underdevelopment, religious bigotry, mass illiteracy if not outright serfdom: the contemplation of the Palace from the remoteness of Russian spiritual and material conditions was the springboard for the revelations he uncovered in his mature literary production. In “The Possessed”, Dostoevsky explored the schizophrenic reaction of the young intelligentsia against the world heralded by The Crystal Palace. As described in another entry, czarist Russia was dangerously exposed to the main undercurrent of European civilization in the xix century- i.e. German Idealism. The intelligentsia knew just how bad things were in motherland and how the forward movement of History – so neatly exemplified by the palace in London – was restrained by the parochialism of Russian ruling class. This situation visited upon them strong, unmitigated anger.
In the riveting “Age of Anger: A History of the Present”1, Pankaj Mishra moves from the same vantage point – he gives a name to the displacements that modernity has wrought on countless human masses, in the entire ‘global village’. He analyzes how the pull of backwardness and the sheer attractive force of the the modern Palace interplay in the soul of modern man. In essence, the book
“argues that the unprecedented political, economic and social disorder that accompanied the rise of the industrial capitalist economy in nineteen-century Europe, and led to world wars, totalitarian regimes and genocide in the first half of the twentieth century is now infecting much vaster regions and bigger populations: that, first exposed to modernity through European Imperialism, large parts of Asia and Africa are now plunging deeper into the West’s own fateful experience of that modernity” (AoA, pg. 10).
In order to drive home such a wide-ranging recognition, Pankaj avails himself of the best guides. He draws heavily from Polanyi’s “The Great Transformation”, Arendt’s “Origin of Totalitarianism” (see here) and of course, as an hidden undercurrent, from the Marshall Bermann’s “All that is Solid melts into air” (text). But the true inspiration for the book -what makes it precious to me – lies in the superb “From Hegel To Nietzsche” by Karl Löwith, where the Jewish philosopher – and student of Heidegger- charts the internal movements of the German spirit in the XIX century.
German classical philosophy – which had in Hegel its final synthesis before disgregation began – is the genial culmination of the European mind coming to terms with the modern world – its main focus the critical exegesis of what modernity implies, how its potential could be realized, how its promises should not be betrayed. Referring to Hegel and the tradition spurred by him, Pankaj is adamant:
“[German philosophy’s] insights germinating during shattering historical and emotional crises were far removed from the stolidly empirical traditions of Anglo-America, or the cold objectivity prized among the ‘politically and economically sated nations’ as Weber called them” (AoA, p. 33) and moreover “The modern world’s greatest philosophical system, implicit in all our political ideas and values today, was built during this time. The French Revolution may have announced the nineteen century’s religion of the nation, and the cults of liberty and equality; but Germans brooding on their political inadequacy produced an Ur-philosophy of development: one to which liberal internationalists and modernization theorists as well as communist universalists and cultural nationalists should subscribe” (AoA, 203)
Pankaj’s real polemic target are the sanitized narratives of the last two centuries of European history. In those narratives, a humanistic, freedom-loving Enlightenment is only shaken, from time to time, by the external threat of some demagogue who takes power in Berlin (1933) or by some fanatic zealots of top-down modernization who happen to run the Kremlin from 1917, etc. You can perceive the Frankfurt School’s lesson -and Hannah Arendt’s- in his words:
“‘Totalitarianism’ with his tens of millions of victims was identified as a malevolent reaction to a benevolent Enlightenment tradition of rationalism, humanism, universalism and liberal democracy – a tradition seen as an unproblematic norm. It was clearly too disconcerting to acknowledge that totalitarian politics crystallized the ideological currents (scientific racism, jingoistic nationalism, imperialism, technicism, aesteticized politics, utopianism, social engineering and the violent struggle for existence) flowing through the whole of Europe in the late Nineteen Century” (AoA, pg. 17)
As early as 1776, Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” metaphor was duplicitous. Its first reference – to an impersonal optimization mechanism (more precisely an iterative solver of constrained inequalities) determining prices – was clear at once. But only few spirits red past that. One of those was Kant. In “Idee zu einer cosmopolitischen Regierung“, he had already recast the ‘invisible hand’ into the concept of ‘unsocial sociability’ (see Hobsbawm, Age Of Revolution, pg 58). But it was Rousseau who understood the full import of that – and built a system on it, with “[his] prescient criticism of a political system based on envious comparison, individual self-seeking and the multiplication of artificial needs”. Between the “First Discourse” (1750), the “Second Discourse” (1754) and “The Social Contract” (1762), the Swiss thinker voiced the new category of ressentiment, or anger indeed – the anger against a state of the world which accelerates competitions on uneven playing fields – what Arendt called later on ‘negative solidarity’ (AOA, 51), i.e.
“individuals with very different pasts find themselves herded by capitalism and technology into a common present, where grossly unequal distributions of wealth and power have created humiliating new hierarchies. This proximity […] is rendered more claustrophobic by digital communication, the improved capacity for envious and resentful comparison, and the commonplace, and therefore compromised, quest for individual distinction and singularity” (AoA, 13)
Rousseau saw another thing very clearly. He understood that the ruling class, and in particular the intellectual stratum (in his time, Voltaire) would always want to dictate what is best for the common man. Most of the enlightenment philosophers and all the technocratic intelligentsia in the following two centuries, would stand by Voltaire side. Nietzsche understood the full import of that, when “claimed to identify in the battle between Voltaire and Rousseau the ‘unfinished problem of civilization’ “(AoA, pg. 94). In the posthumous “The Willpower” (123 –Spring-Fall 1887), Nietzsche wrote indeed:
The unfinished problems I pose anew: the problem of civilization, the fight between Rousseau and Voltaire around 1760. Man becomes more profound, mistrustful, “immoral,” stronger, more confident of himself—and to this extent “more natural”: this is “progress.”— At the same time, in accordance with a kind of division of labor, the strata that have become more evil are separated from those that have become milder and tamer—so that the overall fact is not noticed immediately.—It is characteristic of strength, of the self-control and fascination of strength, that these stronger strata possess the art of making others experience their progress in evil as something higher. It is characteristic of every “progress” that the strengthened elements are reinterpreted as “good.
These two strands germinating from Rousseau’s thought would undergird every critique of modernization projects ever after- from Komeini to Brexit or Trump, Pankaj reiterates. Hence the anger as a driving force of political turmoil – spread to the whole globe by the concurrent destruction of premodern cultures and by the existence of digital platforms mirroring events in real time, with no geographical boundaries2. His conclusion is worth repeating here:
“Many people find it easy to aim their rage against an allegedly cosmopolitan and rootless cultural elite. Objects of hatred are needed more than ever before during times of crisis, and rich transnationals conveniently embody the viced of a desperately sought-after but infuriatingly unattainable modernity: money worship, lack of noble virtues such as patriotism. Thus, globalization, while promoting integration among shrewd elites, incites political and cultural sectarianism everywhere else, especially among people forced against their will into universal competition” (AoA, pgg 333-334)
We ought to be thankful to the author for his superb book. The great intellectual tradition spurred by German classical philosophy – from Hegel down to Habermas or Bauman – has in Mishra Pankaj another powerful voice.
This book review is mirrored here as well – where its proper place in the bigger frame of DIGITAL AGE can be better perceived.
1. [ Pankaj, Mishra. Age of Anger. A History of the Present. Penguin Press , 2017]↩ 2. See also: “The coming of Anarchy” by Robert Kaplan ↩
This splendid book by Michael Burleigh “Small Wars, Faraway Places”1 is an intellectual delight which surely deserves to be read time and again. The faraway places under scrutiny are, among others, Korea, Middle East, Malaya & Philippines, Indocina, Algeria, Kenya & Congo, Cuba and dulcis in fundo, Vietnam: the intersection of the above list with the time window 1945-1965 makes for a very urgent and compelling reading. The idea which undergirds the book is ambitious, as the subtitle says: to find a common denominator into very divergent phenomena to explain the genesis of the Modern World. From Dien Bien Phu (1954) to Algeria , from Suez (1956) to Congo the book analyses the faltering French and British colonial rules with a close inspection onto the generally confused dynamics of decolonization struggles, and into the lives of the very few people that had the intelligence of the situation, be they Churchill (who “did global strategy rather than free dentures” [pg. 121]), DeGaulle, Eisenhower, Kenyatta or Krushcev.
To set the stage, a remark of Noam Chomsky which I have used in a related post is very poignant. In “Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship“, Chomsky writes:
“The Spanish Civil War is one of the crucial events of modern history, and one of the most extensively studied as well. In it, we find the interplay of forces and ideas that have dominated European history since the industrial revolution. What is more, the relationship of Spain to the great powers was in many respects like that of the countries of what is now called the Third World. In some ways, then, the events of the Spanish Civil War give a foretaste of what the future may hold, as Third World revolutions uproot traditional societies, threaten imperial dominance, exacerbate great-power rivalries, and bring the world perilously close to a war which, if not averted, will surely be the final catastrophe of modern history.”
At the end of WWII, the societies analyzed in the book were essentially agrarian – hence fundamentally ancillary to the mechanics of industrialized countries: they were providing the raw material to be transformed by the latter. They were peasant societies, whose structure had often not changed since the agrarian revolution 10.000 years before. Even when the elites (often trained in USSR, as Kenyatta or Ho Chi Min) understood – and tried to break free from- the binding logic of international division of labour, they had to navigate between the colonial rule’s intervention, the Cold War shifting allegiances and the internal peasant resistance to change. In the words of marxist historian George Lichtheim (A short History of Socialism, pg. 285):
“However ignorant they may be, peasants are quite capable of grasping the point that the funds for modernization have to be pumped out of the villages into the urban areas. […] The real problem of every nationalist elite in a backward country is how to get around this stubborn peasant resistance. If it is not to be done in Stalinist fashion – that is by herding the masses into collectives and shipping all opposition elements off to labour camps – it has to be done by some other means: bribery, electoral trickery, appeals to national sentiments, or the straightforward imposition of military rule”.
As said, it took the humiliating experience of Suez (1956) when Nasser nationalized the canal for Britain and France to come to terms with the end of their status as colonial powers. The US had always regarded themselves as champions of freedom: in any event, their very foundation had been an act of rebellion to the (British) colonial yoke and that experience formed the very skeleton of their self-awareness as a country. As Roosvelt wrote in October 1942, “One thing we are sure we are not fighting for is to hold the British Empire together” (SMFP, pg. 2). But, not much later, “Roosvelt […] reluctantly awoke to the probability that the colonial issue might compromise the larger security architecture he envisaged for the post-war world, chiefly by weakening the already debilitated imperial metropolises by stripping away their overseas resources” (SWFP, pg. 28). What happened in the Philippines -engineered by the good services of the “quiet American” (SWFP,pg 199ff, 250ff ) Edward Lansdale– was but an example of a pattern to be repeated in all of the subasian continent: “They [the guerrilla backed by the Americans] became a strongarm force, whose main role to reimpose the authority of the large landowners on the peasants whose campaign for social justice resumed where it had been interrupted by war” (pg. 202).
In the following, few notable cinematographic contributions depicting the liberation struggle will be given.
To follow the temporal stretch of the book articulation, Spielberg’s “The empire of the sun” (1987) (after the eponymous novel by great J.Ballard) is clearly the starting point: the Japanese bombing of Shanghai was the very moment when the British empire started its inevitable demise. It was surely Gillo Pontecorvo´s “The Battle of Algiers” (1966) (with music by Morricone) to become the finest example of such a cinema: the Algerian struggle against the French paratroopers is captured in all the moral ambiguity of such a predicament.
In more recent times, wonderful documentaries have emerged from Joshua Oppenheimer’s effort to charter the terrain of Indonesia in the crucial period of 1965-66. As already reviewed here for some connections with the ideas of Gramsci, his two films (i) The Act of Killing and (ii) The Look of Silence are huge frescos on the contemporary lacerations produced in that backward society in the period scrutinized in the book by Burleigh.
Cuba features prominently in the book, hence a reference to Memories of Underdevelopment(1968) by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea seems appropriate here. Finally, the figure of US operative Lansdale was depicted by G.Green in his book “The Quiet American”, whose 2002 film rendition is a reflection on the events that took place in the subAsian continent & on the containment theory that US enforced there. Quoting Burleigh again (pg.199ff) “he [Lansdale] was about to become, on the basis of his work on the Philippines, America´s leading expert on counter-insurgency warfare. His story is so extraordinary and paradigmatic that he is almost a signature theme for much of this book“. A more comprehensive list of decolonization films is here.
Before concluding, an interesting further point is worth stressing from this book. The period chartered coincided with the post-WWII rise of the Soviet Union on the world-stage and its “willingness to kick at the rickety doors of declining British and French global rule” (SWFP,pg. 108). Since 1947, the US policy towards USSR was dictated by a lenghty and powerful report from leading Russian expert George Kennan, “The sources of Soviet conduct”. Crucially, argues Burleigh (pgg. 473-4) the early signs of a sino-soviet split as documented in the later declassified “Esau studies” were never taken into consideration2 till Nixon made his trip to China in 1971. That was too late to avoid the military involvement in Vietnam. A first hand treatment of the fateful 1971 encounter is the 2012 book “On China” by Henry Kissinger3. But this is argument for another review.
1. [ Burleigh, Michael Small Wars, Faraway Places: The Genesis of the Modern World: 1945-1965, Macmillan, 2013]↩ 2.[See additionally this Esau Report] ↩ 3.[ Kissinger,Henry On China, Penguin 2012] ↩
Historical inaccuracy aside, the ads for a variety of butter you could see in London few months ago was truly great – it stressed a point deeply at variance with the liberal consensus. Of course ‘building empires’ is not exactly on the agenda of the democratic & liberal discourse: but that may still be the best way to introduce (and quickly review) an interesting book that has come out recently – to a host of acrimonious denunciations. Let us see what and why.
In ‘The Triple Package’1, tiger mom Amy Chua and her husband Jed Rubenfeld– both law professors at Yale – argue that the success of all (census) groups that outperform the median American in terms of income is predicated on three traits that crucially run counter to today’s liberal thinking: 1. (personal) insecurity 2. superiority complex 3. impulse control
As regards 1) – insecurity means nurturing a deep-seated sense of unease towards his/her own personal achievements. The authors are fond of the intuitions of a subtle French observer: “American suffered, said Tocqueville, from a ‘secret restlessness'” (pg. 85).
As regards 2) – superiority complex, our culture, observe the authors, cannot even make passing reference to such obvious facts as that Jewish people (with 0.2% of world population) have amassed ca. 20% of all Nobel Laureates to this day, or that ‘Asians are now so overrepresented at Ivy League schools that they’re being called the ‘new Jews'” (pg. 7). That is not to say that they are superior indeed, but that they entertain a deep sense of superiority compared to other groups.
As regards 3) – impulse control (famously captured by the Stanford marshmallow test), its force lies in the fact that ‘Drive predicts accomplishment better than IQ’ (pg. 195).
The conclusion from all this is quite stark: the whole liberal educational project appears then vastly overrated and (judging from the authors’ findings) clearly underperforming in the type of results it delivers.
What can we make of those suggestions? Discarding them as tautological – surely immigrants coming into US from the top percentile of the original societies, where cultural, social and economic capitals reinforced each other, would outperform most other people – does not appear intellectually honest. Surely the sample is biased, but cultural traits like those analyzed in the book seem to be sensible regressors on personal achievements. That begs of course the question: based on which metric? ‘Triple package cultures tend to channel people into conventional, materialistic careers’ (pg. 159). In any event, pace Baruch Spinoza, who maintained that that certain social traits like greed or ambition can be irrational passions and not display of active -ie rational -behaviour 2, those traits engender drive which translates into lust for the new & uncharted which propels our society forward.
On a more fundamental level, the book is a very intelligent variation on Max Weber’s ‘The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism‘ (indeed, the authors refer to it towards the end). ‘Christianity eccelled at teaching the poor to seek security in faith, love and salvation, not in wordly possessions. A theological revolution was required to bring the Triple Package into Christianity, and […] precisely such a revolution took place at the time of Reformation’ (pg. 185). This is quite a novel reading of Weber’s central thesis – interpreted as one of the first accounts of disproportionate group success. ‘Protestants success in America was a version of Triple Package success. The reason the Puritans toiled and saved (impulse control) was that they simultaneously believed they were special (superiority) and literally had something to prove (insecurity) at every moment of their lives’ (pg. 185). Schuld is famously the same word – in Luther’s German – for debt and sin.
The choice of a metric by which to orient each one’s existence is surprisingly difficult:
the fact that our newly polytheistic world assigns such a huge premium to conventional, material targets & careers confirms on the one hand the authors’ central thesis – ranks do exist, judgements and comparison between individuals make sense – but betrays on the other hand a fundamental nervous breakdown: that of a half backed theory of modernity – whereby the liberation from old burdens has not accrued into a renewed -more powerful – vision of man. But here Chua & Rubenfeld’s book is out of its depth and so we leave this suggestion for more extensive discussion on another post.
The conclusion, in any case, is very powerfuls and refreshing. We ought to thank the authors for their message of hope and generosity:
‘Triple Package driveness by definition makes it difficult to live a non-driven life. A simple, decent existence, – with no scrambling to climb any ladder, without caring whether anyone thinks you’re successfull enough – may be the most admirable life of all. But it is rarely available to people afflicted with the Triple Package’ (pg. 166). But finally: ‘this cultural edge has its own price, exacting its own psychological toll, but it may be one of the most liberating and creatively productive places a person can inhabit’ (pg. 164).
Thanks again for your splendid book – tiger mom.
1. [ Chua, Amy; Rubenfeld, Jed. The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America. Penguin Press 1]↩ 2.[ Ethica, IV, Prop. 44, Scolium] ↩
The book “On Human Nature” 1 by Harvard myrmecologist Edmund O. Wilson won the Pulitzer Prize (1979) in consideration of the deep questions it poses and the preliminary answers it tries to furnish. It revolves essentially around the idea of sociobiology – the attempt to apply a reductionist agenda to the social sciences and hence to link them with biology. The underlying assumptions are clear: Homo Sapiens is a mammal and for most of its evolutionary history has been charcaterized by behaviours learned and perfected as hunter-gatherer. The invention of agricolture ca. 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent and the Industrial Revolution ca. 300 years ago have not fundamentally changed those deeply ingrained patterns. The first dilemma Wilson wants to discuss in the book is that ‘we have no particular place to go. The species lacks any goal external to its own biological nature’ (pg. 3). The second dilemma can be articulated in the following way: is human bahaviour controlled by the species biological heratige -and if so, does this biological heritage limit human destiny? Can science peer through the mist of explanations which do not possesst the correct level of abstraction and contribute to a better framing of the problems at stake?
The first dilemma is essentially a reassesment of the problem first raised by Nietzsche in his investigation on European Nichilism, the second is a way to chracterize a family of scientific answers to Nietzsche’s deep question (Gay Science, 3, Etwas fuer Arberitsame) whether science could one day be brought to the investigation of the human behaviour.
Wilson analyzes four of the elemental categories of behaviour:
Two of them (Aggression & Religion) are reviewed below
We already know a poetic expression of the problems Wilson addresses in this chapter: when Sam Peckinpah was filming in St, Burian, Cornwall, his infamous “Straw Dogs” or Stanley Kubrick was realizing “A Clockork Orange”, they were both coming to terms with the same problem – are human being innately aggressive? can the territorial imperative (and its contemporary offsprings, the rituals of modern property ownership) as a variant of aggressive behaviour be controlled?
In the experiment filmed below, John Calhoun showed how a peaceful ecosystem of rats was severly disrupted by the combined force of uncontrolled demographics and spacial confinement. Male aggresivity & female maternity patterns changed – triggering cannibalism, overactivity & huge increase of infant mortality.
As the above laboratory experiment (by now a classic in urban sociology) showed and as Wilson stresses in the book, biology can illuminate just how deeply ingrained human behavioral patterns are the result of vestigial responses to bygone ways of interaction with the surrounding environment. The example of the Mundurucu’ populatios of Brazil (pgg. 111ff) is just a case in point: ‘the Mundurucu’ populations were apparently limited by scarcity of high-grade protein, and they perfected head-hunting as the convention by which competition was diminished on the hunting ground‘. The conclusion is clear: ‘The learning rules of violent aggression are largely obsolete‘ (pg 119).
Coming from the frame of reference of scientific materialism, the deep current of Western thought that permeates all of the scientific enterprize, Wilson’s opening is very refreshing if sad – as the image shows. ‘Our schizofrenic societies progress by knowledge but survive on inspiration derived from the very beliefs which that knowledge erodes‘ (pg 172). In Genealogy of Moral, III,1, Nietzsche rightly said that ‘men would rather have void as purpose than be void of purpose‘. But the Enlightenement dogma that growth of scientific knowledge would progressively dispell religious superstitions is also criticized by Wilson – and rightlty so. From a sociobiological perspective, religions provide a way to organize the social structure of the group (or tribe or ethnic family etc), they mediate the needs of war and peace, by virtue of complex ceremonies and rites of passage they mobilize primitive societies in ways that are ‘directly and biologically advantageous‘ (pg. 180). Nothing is then left to cold and dispassionate analysis? Not so, as sience -according to W. – can now conquer religion as a object of investigation, in the sense that it can now shows whence religion (as a wholly material phenomenon) comes from. Science can now try to answer questions like the following: ‘Is the readiness to be [religiously] indoctrinated a neurologically based learning rule thath evolved through the selectoipn of clans competing one against the other?’ (pg. 184). When moreover he says: ‘Theology is not likely to survive as an independent intellectual discipline‘ (pg. 192), Wilson is opening a vista that has been later expanded by Francis Crick’s ‘neurotheology’ or by similar analysis by Daniel Dennett.
The conclusion – articulated in full force in the last chapter: ‘Hope’ is truly poetic. Its main message is: ‘make no mistake about the power of scientific materialism‘ (pg. 192). Modern life is surely but ‘a mosaic of cultural hypertrophies of the archaic behavioural adaptations‘ (pg. 196) but -refreshingly – ‘this circularity of the human predicament is not so tight that cannot be broken through an exercise of will‘ (ibidem). This is scientific humanism at its best I find.
A final remark. Wilson has an interesting suggestion:
‘I believe that a remarkable effect will be the increasingly precise specification of history. One of the great dreams of social theorists – Vico, Marx, Spencer, Spengler, Teggart and Toynbee, among the most innovative- has been to devise laws of history that can foretell something of the future of mankind. Their schemes came to little because their understanding of human nature had no scientific basis. It was […] orders of magnitude too imprecise. […] Now there is reason to entertain the view that the culture of each society travels along one or the other of a set of evolutionary trajectories whose full array is contrained by the genetic rules of human nature.’ (pg. 207) .
In other words, Wilson is hinting at a scientific framework which can come to grips with the problem of social necessity and the mechanistic interpretation of it. His message of hope is surely needed, as the failure to make Kant’s practical reason tractable can precipitate the prediction of physicist Seth Lloyd: “any species stumped by an intractable problem does not cease to compute, but it would cease to exist”. As intractable problems, read for example the environmental one.
This book review is mirrored here as well – where its proper place in the bigger frame of PARADIGMS LOST can be better perceived.
1. [Edward O. Wilson, On Human Nature, Penguin Books 1995 (original Ed. Harvard University Press, 1978)1]↩