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April 18, 2003

HEROES AND VILLAINS

This is my first blog, so its main purpose is to introduce myself. I have taken
part in some previous discussions, and Razib has now given me the opportunity to blog in my own right.

I am English, and I live near London. I am not an academic, but my university studies included the history of science, and for the last ten years I have been writing occasional papers on the subject. My main interest is in evolutionary
biology, including population genetics, speciation, sociobiology, and evolutionary psychology. I also have some interest in anthropology and human evolution.

It occurred to me that one way to give readers a general idea of my approach would be to list some of the thinkers I most admire. So here are twenty of my
‘heroes’ (in historical order) - and a few villains:

THOMAS HOBBES: still fresh and daring after 350 years.
DAVID HUME: the boldest of all sceptics. For present purposes, his most important contribution is his insistence that ‘ought’ cannot be derived from ‘is’- values cannot be derived from facts.
THOMAS REID: another 18th century Scot. Reid is generally known as a critic of Hume, but he had interesting views of his own on human nature. For more on Reid and other C18 thinkers, see my paper ‘Instinct and Enlightenment: philosophy, theology and the theory of animal behaviour in the 18th century’ in SVEC (Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century), 2002:06, pp.243-303.
ADAM SMITH: a boring choice, I suppose, but unavoidable.
WILLIAM PALEY: an underrated thinker. Above all, his ‘Natural Theology’, which was much admired by Charles Darwin, provides overwhelming evidence of ‘adaptation’ in the organic world. For more on Paley, see my paper ‘William Paley confronts Erasmus Darwin: natural theology and evolutionism in the eighteenth century’ in Science and Christian Belief, 10 (1998), pp.49-71.
THOMAS MALTHUS: much maligned by people who have never read him. It is desirable to read both the original short version of his ‘Principle of Population’, and one of the later, expanded editions.
CHARLES DARWIN: obviously.
ALFRED RUSSEL [sic] WALLACE: nice guy, shame about the spiritualism. See the sympathetic recent biography by Michael Shermer.
FRANCIS GALTON: explorer, inventor, meteorologist, biologist, statistician, anthropologist, psychologist, and pioneer of fingerprint analysis. They don’t make them like that any more! For more on Galton, see my papers ‘Galton’s 100: an exploration of Francis Galton’s imagery studies’ in British Journal for the History of Science, 27 (1994), pp.443-63, and ‘Francis Galton on twins, heredity and social class’ in British Journal for the History of Science, 34 (2001), pp.323-340. See also Gavan Tredoux’s Galton website at http://www.mugu.com/galton/index.html
AUGUST WEISMANN: not immune to the German vices of dogmatism and system-building, but he did defend and advance the theory of natural selection at a time when it was under threat.
FRIEDRICH NIETZSCHE: crazy name, crazy guy. Another thinker much maligned by people who have not read him.
WILLIAM JAMES: his ‘Principles of Psychology’ is still the best single book to read on the human mind.
KARL PEARSON: not a very nice man, it seems, and his penchant for collectivism was unfortunate, but his prodigious intellectual energy and range
of achievement are inspiring.
EDWARD WESTERMARCK: a Finnish anthropologist (1862-1939). His
books on ‘The History of Human Marriage’ (3 vols.) and ‘The Origin and Development of Moral Ideas’ (2 vols.) are a treasure-house of politically incorrect information about ‘primitive’ peoples.
LEONARD DARWIN: the fourth son of Charles Darwin, Leonard was considered the dunce of the family. After a career in the British Army, he dabbled in politics and economics before at the age of 60 he was invited to become President of the Eugenics Education Society. The Society probably just wanted a respectable figurehead, but Leonard turned out to be an effective chairman and writer on eugenics. His book ‘The Need for Eugenic Reform’ (1925), though inevitably dated, is still worth reading, and his article on ‘Heredity and Environment’ (Eugenics Review, 8 (1916-17), pp.93-122) is one of the best things ever written on that thorny subject. Behind the scenes, Leonard also provided advice, encouragement, and financial assistance to the young R. A. Fisher. Their published correspondence (‘Natural Selection, Heredity, and Eugenics’, ed. J. H. Bennett (1983)) shows that Leonard was himself an astute evolutionary theorist, and some of the ideas usually associated with Fisher may have started with Leonard: for an example, see my note in ‘Nature’, 355 (1992), p.118.
R. A. FISHER: a great statistician as well as a great biologist - it just isn’t fair!
EDWARD EVANS-PRITCHARD: to my mind the outstanding anthropologist of the 20th century. His books on the Nuer and the Azande are about as close as we can get to understanding the life and thought of non-Western peoples.
FRIEDRICH HAYEK: for defending liberty and individualism against prevailing fashions. Not so sure about some of his later work, which drifted towards ‘organicist’ conservatism.
W. D. HAMILTON: for his originality and intellectual courage, best seen in his prefaces to the essays in ‘Narrow Roads of Gene Land’ (vols. 1 and 2).
JOHN MAYNARD SMITH: the most distinguished living evolutionary theorist. Notable for his clarity and objectivity. He has contributed to nearly every branch of the subject, and I believe his book (with Eors Szathmary) ‘The Major Transitions in Evolution’ (1995) may prove to be the most important book on evolution in the last 50 years.


Now for the villains:

KANT: the rot started here. The problem is not that most of Kant’s doctrines are false (though they are), but that he presented them in such appalling style. Before Kant, philosophers aimed at clarity, even if they did not always achieve it; after Kant, it was acceptable, even fashionable, to equate
obscurity with profundity.
HEGEL: I once spent a lot of time trying to understand Hegel, and I still resent the waste of time and effort. Gilbert Ryle got it right when he said, ‘Hegel is not worth studying, even as error’.
MARX: the worst thing about Marxism (well, apart from the millions of deaths
it caused) is the way it immunises itself against criticism by labelling the critics as ‘bourgeois ideologists’. By the way, Marx was also a shit in his private life: a braggart and a bully, who sponged off his friends and knocked
up the house-maid.
FREUD: barking mad.
J. B. WATSON: Watson’s ‘Behaviorism’ is a deeply stupid book. It is astonishing how little evidence Watson had for his views. One may paraphrase his argument in three steps:
Step 1: there is no conclusive evidence for innate dispositions in man
Step 2: therefore there are no innate dispositions in man
Step 3: therefore my theory of conditioning is correct.
The starting point was not unreasonable in Watson’s time, but Step 2 does not follow from Step 1, and Step 3 does not follow from Step 2. It is one of the mysteries of the 20th century how charlatans like Freud and Watson
became so influential.

Well, that’s enough heroes and villains. Hopefully, everyone will find something to annoy or offend them!

DAVID BURBRIDGE

Posted by David B at 06:21 AM




Thought-provoking list. Welcome to Gene Expression, Union Jack.

Posted by: duende at April 18, 2003 07:14 AM


History of Science has always fascinated me as well. In this regard, I should be most interested in your reaction to my attempt to identify a certain phenomenology of philosophy as operant in evolutionary theory. Please see:

http://www.gnxp.com/MT2/archives/000178.html

and the subject of Cannibalism.
David Yeagley

Posted by: David Yeagley at April 18, 2003 08:17 AM


Welcome, David. Sounds like you and Razib will have lots to talk about. I like your list of heroes and villains as well (though I am not familiar with all of them by any means), though I would have given the title 'Boldest of all Sceptics' to Nietzsche (or were you using 'Sceptic' in some specific sense?). At any rate I am starting to feel like I will have to go back and read some Hume - I have only read a few excerpts, and tended to dismiss the man, but with recommendations from you and Razib perhaps a second look is in order...

Posted by: bbartlog at April 18, 2003 09:19 AM


Thanks for the welcome!

I don't know why the text of my post came out ragged. I pasted it in from a WP file (obviously), but it looked OK when I previewed it. Any hints on how to avoid this?

I will reply to comments later.

Posted by: David Burbridge at April 18, 2003 09:51 AM


Not one genuine physical scientist amongst your heroes and villains. Don't they count?

Have you ever heard of Charles Sanders Peirce?

Posted by: Timegrid at April 18, 2003 11:24 AM


David,

Welcome! I think it's exciting that you have published work. Also, your insightful conversation over group selection was certainly a highlight of my blog experience the other week.

Posted by: Jason Malloy at April 18, 2003 12:33 PM


ah jeez,
David why couldn't you have been there 6 years ago so I would not have wasted hundreds of $ of "History of Philosophy, 19th century thinkers".
Also, Hume is good, but isn't he generally considered to have killed the empiricist movement started by Locke. And I would probably have a heart attack if I heard a mainstream college actually teaching Hayek, in leftist acedemic circles he's considered no better than Ayn Rand (who is a good writer and makes some good points but is WAY over the top)

Posted by: scott at April 18, 2003 05:24 PM


Hobbes was a schlemiel, a total barbarian. His argument for social cooperation was essentially, "we'll kill you if you don't work with us."

Posted by: Otto Kerner at April 18, 2003 06:40 PM


i think you should have your current enemies in focus more than your dead heros. Your heros aren't here to help you, and the current enemies, though intellectually inferior to such luminaries as Darwin and James, are more fruitful concepts.
Think of those who argue the axiom of equality of all ethnicities in every dimension, a very weak position but also a very popular one. Jared Diamond, the position of the NYTimes, most essayists. This site a rare place to read nonidiological (eg, no nazis, white supremacists, etc) discussions on how genetics relates to other phenomenon, so carry the torch well (don't exaggerate!). You will be labeled a racist by most casual observers, however, so have a thick skin. Remember, one can't get upset by those who retort that 2+2=5, or with an anecdote.

Posted by: eric at April 18, 2003 08:00 PM


Just one quick explanation, in reply to Timegrid - I didn't include physical scientists among my 'heroes' because I was focusing, for the purposes of this forum, on those who have contributed to the understanding of evolution and human nature. In a wider list of my 'heroes' I would certainly include Galileo, Newton, Faraday and Helmholtz, as well as pure mathematicians like Gauss and Euler (not that I can really claim to understand them). Oh, and I should include some historians like Gibbon, Burkhardt, Maitland...

Yes, I have heard of C S Peirce, but again, I'm not sure he is so relevant to the issues discussed here. And why not add Frege, Cantor, Poincare...!

I will come back to other comments eventually.

Posted by: David Burbridge at April 19, 2003 03:47 AM


Hayek is one of the main stars in the PBS series "Commanding Heights: The Battle for the World Economy", which one of my college's economics professors purchased for the school library and which our political economy club (The Worldly Philosophers' and Dismal Scientists' Society) has started showing on a quarterly basis.

You can watch the series online at:
http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/commandingheights/

It's really good! And it has a happy ending!

Posted by: Jacqueline at April 19, 2003 05:44 AM


In his later career Watson went into advertising and industrial psychology. (He left academic life because of a messy divorce; times have changed). He was quite successful, as I understand. He definitely does not belong on anyone's list of ivory tower academics. So there was something in what he said; this does not of course validate his overall theory.

Besides blank-slate behaviorism, Watson is equally important for anti-mentalist views of psychology.

Posted by: zizka at April 19, 2003 05:26 PM


I promised to reply to comments, so:

Duende: thanks for the welcome

David Yeagley: I think your earlier posts were concerned with the role of disease in evolution. That's a big subject, and I don't know much about it. The late W D Hamilton thought that the need to generate genetic variety to resist disease was the main reason for sexual reproduction - in which case, three cheers for disease! On prion diseases specifically, which you mentioned, I don't think they are more likely than other diseases to cross species boundaries. Sheep and cows live on the same farms, but cows don't get scrapie. Also, the risk of humans getting variant-CJD from eating BSE-infected beef is now thought to be slight. Public health experts in Britain think the number of deaths from variant-CJD has already peaked at about 20 a year (out of an at-risk population of at least 20 million). You are more likely to die by falling down in your bath-tub.

bbartley: I find it difficult to compare Hume and Nietzsche - different counties, different centuries, different styles. Hume was primarily a pure philosopher, Nietzsche primarily a critic of the culture and values of his time. I admire both of them for their intellectual courage.

[cont. in next post]

Posted by: David Burbridge at April 20, 2003 02:52 AM


[cont. from previous post]

Timegrid: see my earlier comment. Sorry I misspelled Burckhardt.

Jason Malloy: thanks for the kind words.

Scott: did Hume kill empiricism? I suppose that by showing the limits of what can be proved from experience he may have inadvertently induced Kant and others to promote non-empiricist alternatives, but he can hardly be blamed for the folly of his successors.

Otto Kerner: I won't defend the substance of Hobbes's doctrines, but I don't recognise your description. Hobbes believed that in a 'state of nature' men would fight each other, therefore they had to agree with each other to submit to be governed by a ruler (a sovereign individual or collective body, which might be a Parliament). Hobbes's view of the 'state of nature' has generally been regarded as too pessimistic, but looking at Iraq at the moment I am not so sure!

eric: good point. I may do another blog some time about some more recent 'villains'. Thanks for the warning about 'racism'. I am not personally very interested in race, except in so far as racial differentiation provides some evidence about the pattern of human evolution.

Jacqueline: glad someone is still interested in Hayek.

zizka: yes, Watson is also historically important for his anti-mentalism, but he went way over the top. Thinking as movements of the larynx, indeed! As was already pointed out in Waton's lifetime, this would be tough on people whose larynx had been surgically removed!

Posted by: David Burbridge at April 20, 2003 03:09 AM


David, I don't have any disagreements with your heros (though their are a few I'm unfamiliar with, but I'd probably include some ancients as well as some cultural/artistic figures in my hero list. And what about Sartre as a villain. Not only was his philosophy more vile than the vague abstractions of Hegel, but I think there is a continuity between Sartre and today's idiotic left.

Kant say I've read much Kant, but from what I do know about him, I don't think I'd go as far as to call him a 'villain.'

Finally, I see a noticeable British/Continental split on hero/villain list. I too don't have much patience for too much abstract system building, but I've also noticed that there may be an advantage in that the continent seems to have given the world the greatest mathematicians. Descartes, Leibniz, Cauchy, Euler, Gauss, Cantor, Goedel, Poincare, Riemann, Hilbert, the Bernoullis, etc. are all from the continent. Newton of course is an example of a great English mathematician, but he seemed to invent calculus for the practical purpose of solving physical problems.

Posted by: justapolak at April 20, 2003 06:26 AM


Justapolak: yes, Sartre makes a good villain.

I agree my list of heroes is rather Anglocentric. I was tempted to add de Tocqueville and Pareto, except for the embarrassing fact that I haven't read them!

I'm still inclined to 'villainise' Kant, because of his disastrous influence on German philosophy, and his deliberate creation of a whole new vocabulary of obscure jargon ('transcendental unity of apperception', and so on - and it don't think it is any clearer in German).

Good point about the relative lack of British mathematicians. Oddly, we were doing quite well in the 17th century, with Harriott, Napier, Wallis, and Newton himself, but after Newton it was all downhill (until recently?) Some would attribute this to the after-effects of the Newton-Leibnitz quarrel, as British mathematicians were isolated from Continental developments, but I don't think this is a full explanation.

Posted by: David Burbridge at April 20, 2003 09:49 AM


David: the trouble with Hobbes is that he didn't want to allow people to agree to submit to a ruler -- submission was to be mandatory on pain of death. I believe he says this in so many words at some point in the Leviathan which I am too lazy to dig up and quote.

Posted by: Otto Kerner at April 20, 2003 10:44 AM


Once people have committed themselves to forming a Commonwealth, and to accept the decision of the majority in submitting to a sovereign, they cannot back out: if they try to back out, it would be 'just' for their fellow citizens to destroy them. And of course Hobbes thinks the sovereign him/her/itself must have very wide powers over the citizens, if there is to be peace and order. (Ans remember that the sovereign could be a collective body like a Parliament or Congress. Hobbes himself returned from France to England after Charles I was executed, and lived there during Cromwell's Protectorate.) I'm not saying that I agree with Hobbes. What I like about him is his lack of sentimentality and his rigour of argument. If you don't like his conclusions, it should be possible to say exactly where in the chain of argument you disagree with him. Just saying you don't like the conclusions is not good enough!

Posted by: David Burbridge at April 21, 2003 01:53 AM


David, where would Stephen Jay Gould fall in your hero/villain spectrum?

Posted by: Troy at April 21, 2003 02:30 AM


David, where would Stephen Jay Gould fall in your hero/villain spectrum?

hehehe. . .

looking at his heroes and villians, it's as if we even need to ask. Now if they were reversed. . .

Posted by: Jason Malloy at April 21, 2003 06:54 AM


I think I'd put SJG in a new class - jester or perhaps pompous blowhard.

Posted by: justapolak at April 21, 2003 07:44 AM


I'm ambivalent about SJG. Some of his essays are very enjoyable, and his book on 'Ontogeny and Phylogeny' is not bad at all.

The 'punctuated equilibrium' theory raised important issues, but spoiled things by setting up a straw man as an opponent.

On the other hand, 'The Mismeasure of Man' is a dishonest book, at least in the revised edition, where Gould had a chance to correct his errors but chose not to do so (see the references in Hamilton 'Narrow Roads', vol.2, p.505.)

What puzzles me is why Gould was always described as a paleontologist. As far as I can make out, Gould did virtually no first-hand research on fossils after his PhD on snails in the 1960s (and I have seen it claimed that that research wasn't very good either).

Posted by: David Burbridge at April 22, 2003 03:19 AM