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November 28, 2004

Coalitional stress

Long time readers of this blog know that I love to employ Paul Krugman as a coalitional stress inducer in dialogues. Left-of-center individuals who might otherwise accept the conventional wisdom about the glory of Stephen Jay Gould (the late literate Left-of-center intellectual) are far more likely to stop and reconsider their assumptions if offered a quote from someone who shares their partisan sympathies. This has peeved some right-wing readers, but as I prioritize scientific fidelity over political purity I don't really particularly care and feel no compunction about using this somewhat sneaky method to spread the gospel of Smith & Hamilton far & wide ("Go, therefore, to all nations and make them my disciples"). The quote that I have used before can be found in this Slate article, and if you haven't read it, click & control-f Gould (my personal experience is that the force of this quote is strong enough to transform partisan screeching to genuine consideration pretty quickly).

In any case, I found another Krugman gem, RICARDO'S DIFFICULT IDEA, a piece bemoaning the difficulty of communicating comparative advantage to the general public (the article itself is worth reading, though I doubt it will surprise anyone in its specifics no matter what your opinion of comparative advantage is). The anecdotes that Krugam recounts makes me very grateful that the general public takes less interest in biology than economics. In any case, juicey quotes to use as weapons in online debates below, since G.W. Bush has been reelected we can be assured that Krugman will be one of the Left's favorite intellectuals for years to come, so we might as well use his opinions to help clarify evolutionary thinking and dispel naive obscurantisms....


Old ideas are viewed as boring, even if few people have heard of them; new ideas, even if they are probably wrong and not terribly important, are far more attractive. And books that say (or seem to say) that the experts have all been wrong are far more likely to attract a wide audience than books that explain why the experts are probably right. Stephen Jay Gould's Wonderful Life (Gould 1989) which to many readers seemed to say that recent discoveries refute Darwinian orthodoxy, attracted far more attention than Richard Dawkins' equally well-written The Blind Watchmaker (Dawkins 1986), which explained the astonishing implications of that orthodoxy. . (See Dennett for an eye-opening discussion of Gould).....

The article received wide attention, even though it was fairly unclear exactly how Reich proposed to go beyond free trade (there is a certain similarity between Reich and Gould in this respect: they make a great show of offering new ideas, but it is quite hard to pin down just what those new ideas really are)....

Ask a working biologist who is the greatest living evolutionary thinker, and he or she will probably answer John Maynard Smith (with nods to George Williams and William Hamilton). Maynard Smith not only has a name that should have made him an economist; he writes and thinks like an economist, representing evolutionary issues with stylized mathematical models that are sometimes confronted with data, sometimes simulated on the computer, but always serve as the true structure informing the verbal argument. A textbook like his Evolutionary Genetics (1989) feels remarkably comfortable for an academic economist: the style is familiar, and even a good bit of the content looks like things economists do too. But ask intellectuals in general for a great evolutionary thinker and they will surely name Stephen Jay Gould -- who receives one brief, dismissive reference in Maynard Smith (1989)....

What does Gould have that Maynard Smith does not? He is a more accessible writer -- but evolutionary theory is, to a far greater extent than economics, blessed with excellent popularizers: writers like Dawkins (1989) or Ridley (1993), who provide beautifully written expositions of what researchers have learned. (Writers like Gould or Reich are not, in the proper sense, popularizers: a popularizer reports on the work of a community of scholars, whereas these writers argue for their own, heterodox points of view). No, what makes Gould so popular with intellectuals is not merely the quality of his writing but the fact that, unlike Dawkins or Ridley, he is not trying to explain the essentially mathematical logic of modern evolutionary theory. It's not just that there are no equations or simulations in his books; he doesn't even think in terms of the mathematical models that inform the work of writers like Dawkins. That is what makes his work so appealing. The problem, of course, is that evolutionary theory -- the real thing -- is based on mathematical models; indeed, increasingly it is based on computer simulation. And so the very aversion to mathematics that makes Gould so appealing to his audience means that his books, while they may seem to his readers to contain deep ideas, seem to people who actually know the field to be mere literary confections with little serious intellectual content, and much of that simply wrong. In particular, readers whose ideas of evolution are formed by reading Gould's work get no sense of the power and reach of the theory of natural selection -- if anything, they come away with a sense that modern thought has shown that theory to be inadequate.


[my emphasis]

Posted by razib at 06:07 PM