History, Evolution, and The Darwin Debate

Darwiniana header image 2

Where are the public intellectuals on Darwinism?

November 11th, 2008 · 1 Comment

Public Intellectual 2.0
The lament for ‘public intellectuals’ is misplaced. It is a genus that apparently has not yet come into eixstence. What is a public intellectual? Of those who claim the mantle where are those who can see through the reign of the Darwin propaganda machine? All we get is Mr. Hitchens, public intellectual and Dawkins groupie.
In a confusion of the left, and such biologists as S.J. Gould who subtly abdicated the critique of the theory he knew was flawed, the sphere of public discourse has been taken over by the subtitute for a public philosophy seen in the New Atheists and figures such as Dawkins. This is not some plea for theism, merely a wondering sense that atheism has discredited itself as a botched cult movement. Where, or what, is the real thing? Or perhaps the way is beyond theism or atheism.
What is needed, and what might properly be the realm of a public intellectual, is the complex terrain of public philosophy between the sciences and the humanities, and the deeper meaning of what that indicates for a secular age. C.P. Snow was right, the ‘humanities’ need science. But he failed to indicate that the scientists are in desperate need of a meta-scientific perspective, and a larger cultural dimension from the current prostrate embrace of rank scientism.
That is, a realization of the failure, or inability, of science (or religion) to define the ideological ground of modernism in a techocratic age.
And there is a larger dimension of world religion as this intersects with the discourse of public philosophy, not a simple question, for the heritage of Feuerbach. What is the fate of Buddhism, as we recall this blog discussing Hitchens drunk at the entrance to an Indian ashram? The last elected public intellectual, btw, was a Turkish sufi, if anyone recalls the amusing swamping of the vote by his fans. The scope of discourse has expanded beyond reasonable limits, to include the mysteries of an unstable mix of cultural history. Redefining secularism in that context is not a simple task.
Such a complex trajectory can hardly expect success if such a simple issue as the failure of Darwinism remains unacchievable.
A good starting point for the public intellectuals. Start with something simple, a paradigm shift beyond Darwinism. It doesn’t even require a Marxist slant (except to de-darwinize the ‘left’), or a scheme to plot against the government.
Just some public intellectual 2.0 mentations, in public.

Disquisitions about public intellectuals usually conclude that they ain’t what they used to be. Subtitles from recent books on the topic include A Study of Decline and An Endangered Species? Indeed, the major point of debate is dating the precise start of the decline and fall. For some critics, Götterdämmerung started in the 1950s; for others, the 1930s. More-curmudgeonly writers place the date earlier, stretching back to the heyday of John Stuart Mill or even the death of Socrates.

The pessimism about public intellectuals is reflected in attitudes about how the rise of the Internet in general, and blogs in particular, affects intellectual output. Alan Wolfe claims that “the way we argue now has been shaped by cable news and Weblogs; it’s all ‘gotcha’ commentary and attributions of bad faith. No emotion can be too angry and no exaggeration too incredible.” David Frum complains that “the blogosphere takes on the scale and reality of an alternative world whose controversies and feuds are … absorbing.” David Brooks laments, “People in the 1950s used to earnestly debate the role of the intellectual in modern politics. But the Lionel Trilling authority figure has been displaced by the mass class of blog-writing culture producers.”

But these critics fail to recognize how the growth of blogs and other forms of online writing has partially reversed a trend that many cultural critics have decried — what Russell Jacoby called the “professionalization and academization” of public intellectuals. In fact, the growth of the blogosphere breaks down — or at least erodes — the barriers erected by a professionalized academy.

Most of the obituaries for the public intellectual suffer from the cognitive bias and conceptual fuzziness that come from comparing the annals of history to the present day. Over time, as lesser intellectual lights tend to fade from view, only the canon remains. Even when glancing back at the intellectual giants of the past, current public commentators are more likely to gloss over past intellectual errors and instead focus on their greatest moments. Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man might look wrong in retrospect, but it is not more wrong than Daniel Bell’s The End of Ideology.

Jacoby repeatedly challenges critics of his 1987 polemic, The Last Intellectuals, to name public intellectuals born after 1940 in order to compare them with past generations. But that is not a very difficult task. At magazines and periodicals, full-time authors and contributing editors who write serious-but-accessible essays on ideas, culture, and society include Anne Applebaum, Barbara Ehrenreich, Malcolm Gladwell, Christopher Hitchens, and Fareed Zakaria. Despite the thinning of their ranks, public intellectuals unaffiliated with universities, like Paul Berman, Debra Dickerson, Rick Perlstein, David Rieff, and Robert Wright, still remain. The explosion of think tanks in the past 30 years has provided sinecures for the intellectual likes of William A. Galston, Robert Kagan, Brink Lindsey, and Walter Russell Mead. The American academy houses many intellectuals uninterested in engaging the public, but it also houses Eric Alterman, Michael Bérubé, Joshua Cohen, Tyler Cowen, Jared Diamond, Stanley Fish, Francis Fukuyama, Jacob Hacker, George Lakoff, Mark Lilla, Patricia Nelson Limerick, Louis Menand, Martha Nussbaum, Steven Pinker, Robert Putnam, Eric Rauchway, Robert Reich, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Lawrence H. Summers, and Cass R. Sunstein. Readers may easily quibble with any of the names listed above, but most cultural commentators would agree that most of the names belong on that list. Furthermore, those names only scratch the surface.

Tags: Evolution · globalization · Philosophy

1 response so far ↓

Leave a Comment