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?