Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Another Nightmare: The Intellectual Eclipse of the West

Last night I was literally lying awake around 3.30am thinking over the implications of the global economic crisis for what has hitherto been the economic hegemony of Western civilizations. The result was my earlier post about the possibility of a hyper-inflation being just around the corner. This, however, is not my only, or chief, worry.
I remember reading as a child a book which must have been written in the early twentieth century. I can recall neither the title nor the plot, but what has stayed with me was a remark made by an adult character in the book to the child-protagonists, to the effect that, unimaginable as it might seem, the British Empire would one day be a thing of the past.
Given that we were then living through the ongoing moves towards colonial independence, two things struck me forcibly. The first was that this ‘unimaginable’ event was coming true, and the second was that therefore other such changes as would seem unimaginable in the present might be just as possible in the future.
And it is that sense of ‘unimaginable possibilities’ that I feel when looking at where we are now. Everyone on this planet has grown up with the ‘normality’ of Western dominance. This has been most obvious economically, but it has also been true industrially, and, even more importantly, intellectually, culturally and scientifically.
I say more importantly, however, because economic downturns can come and go. The crisis of the ‘Great Depression’ gave way to a period of sustained economic boom and prosperity which might itself have seemed ‘unimaginable’ at the time. And the same could perhaps be true in the present economic climate. Western nations have maintained high levels of domestic product and living standards despite competition with one another and with the economies which emerged in the Far East during the post-war years.
It might reasonably be doubted whether all can have such generous slices of cake in a world of limited physical resources. This is why there can be no certainty that the living standards to which we have become accustomed can be made universal. But it is not necessarily the case that a global economy must always have great disparities of prosperity, and therefore the economic rise of the East need not entail the economic decline of the West.
What is in prospect however, is not merely a shift in the economic balance of power but in the vitality of civilizations.
At its most basic, this may simply mean that the West as a whole, including the United States of America, may be about to go through on an even larger scale what Great Britain went through in the 1950s and 60s, namely  an abrupt transition from being the key world power to an international bit-player. That, it must be said, is a process from which the British are still recovering, and which has yet to be fully played out. Our privileged position in the UN Security Council, for example, is beginning to look as anomalous as the position of Anglican bishops in our own House of Lords. The time cannot be far off when embarrassing questions begin to be put.
What is harder to imagine, however, yet is surely possible, is that the entire Western world faces the same situation —where, for example, a heavily indebted US, whose dollar no longer commands respect and which can no longer afford to maintain its armed forces (remember the rusting Russian submarines of the 1990s), is simply forced to take a back-seat in the decision-making councils of the world.
Yet even this is not my ‘worst case’ scenario, for it is possible to cope with a variety of outside threats, so long as one is inwardly strong. My real worry is that the Western world will be surpassed by the East not only economically but culturally. And the danger here, I believe, would come from an intellectual decline of the West, manifesting itself through a decline in cultural vitality and scientific endeavour.
The signs of cultural decay have been there for decades. All over the world, ‘Western’ artistic culture is admired and imitated, and we could take some pride in this —but it is not the artistic culture of the contemporary West which is admired. There is something slightly unnerving, for example, about Eastern prodigies in Western musical forms. On the one hand, it is slightly bizarre seeing someone excelling in a form of cultural expression quite different from their own. There is also something threatening about the sense that they are ‘better at it than us’ (not unlike the feeling we Englsih get when playing the rest of the world at football or cricket).
Worse than that, though, we are surely no longer producing art which will be much admired in two or three centuries time —as evidence of which we need only look at the succession of artistic ‘movements’ which come, and more importantly go, through the intellectual ‘upper echelons’ of our own society. If we have so little confidence in the durability of our best cultural efforts, can we assume that others will think differently?
Yet my concern is that this is still not the greatest threat, for an even more serious danger is that we will fall behind in the area of scientific endeavour and discovery. And if we feel that this is not merely ‘unimaginable’ but impossible, we might do well to remind ourselves how the Muslim world might have felt in the early middle-ages, when Western Europe might have seemed decidedly backward in this regard and where continued Islamic progress would have been taken for granted.
Specifically, I believe there are two possible contributors to such a decline which are already evident. The first is the transformation of our educational system from an intellectual enterprise to a business. Recently I was briefly involved in consultations regarding the future of the chaplaincy at the University of East London —a post I held for seventeen years. At one stage, in this I asked a member of staff what was the prevailing ethos of the institution —what was the core reason for its existence? The answer was to the effect that, “We are a business, whose product is academic degrees.”
I have to say, that fitted entirely with my perceptions of the same institution coming towards the end of my tenure some fifteen years ago. When I started at what was then the North East London Polytechnic it was chaotic and wasteful, but it was fun, and it had about it still some sense of intellectual adventure (though not as much as one might have hoped). By the time I left, it was clean, tidy, reasonably financially efficient and intellectually as dull as ditch-water. What mattered most, it seemed, to both management and students was getting the qualifications for a well-paid job. The staff, caught in the middle, simply had to deliver in order to survive.
But the trouble is, you cannot build an adventurous intellectual class (from which will come great endeavours and great discoveries) on the basis of boosting your figures for ‘first destination returns’ —the number of students who, upon leaving higher education, go straight into what they themselves describe as ‘employment’, preferably relevant to their degree subject. A degree ought not to be evaluated first and foremost on the basis of its usefulness in obtaining gainful employment, and those who think it should have already abandoned the cultural foundations of Western culture, which brings me to the second contributing factor.
What gave our culture its past position of precedence was its relative ability to produce people who could think, and who could therefore produces scientific discoveries and advances —whether theoretical or applied —ahead of other nations and cultures. And a case could, I suspect, be made for the suggestion that this required a certain amount of what might be called ‘intellectual leisure’, the space for original thinking free from economic, or even academic, pressure.
Albert Einstein in his patents office, Gregor Mendel in his monastery or William Herschel in his back garden are all examples of what I mean —people who were not working to an agenda determined by assumptions about what they should be studying or how useful their discoveries should be. By contrast, what I fear is happening specifically in the sciences in the West is the limiting of investigation and discovery by both economic and intellectual constraints.
As an example of this I would point to our society’s current hagiolatry of Charles Darwin. The mention of Darwin’s name draws from many an inward response comparable to the Muslim’s “sall Allahu alayhi wa sallam” (May Allah bless him and grant him peace). Any criticism, expressed or implied, is taken as a sure sign of being an ‘unbeliever’ worthy, if not of death, at least of contempt. Darwinism (or, for the sophisticated, neo-Darwinism), and therefore Darwin himself, provides the ‘Great Explanation’ which saves us from intellectual darkness. Criticism, therefore, is not merely futile but dangerous.
Now in what follows I must stress I am entirely unconcerned with the question of speciation by natural selection. Whether that is true or false is irrelevant to the point I am making, as are questions about Creationism or Intelligent Design (so please do not post comments on these subjects).
However, through some reading around the subject of genetics and behaviour, I have become aware of just how strongly even neo-Darwinism has been challenged within the scientific community by other ‘evolutionists’, particular those working in the field of genes and behaviour. These are not covert Creationists or supporters of Intelligent Design, but ordinary scientists, yet they voice opinions which, one suspects will scarcely be allowed to see the light of day in the media or in our educational institutions.
Two writers, for example, expresses the following view:
... recognizing that there are epigenetic inheritance systems through which non-DNA variations can be transmitted in cell and organismal lineages broadens the concept of heredity and challenges the widely accepted gene-centered neo-Darwinian version of Darwinism.
Of course, their work must itself be open to scientific challenge. But the point is that, outside the scientific community you are unlikely to hear anyone who wants to be taken seriously repeating the phrase “challenges ... Darwinism”.
And in case it might be thought that only some kind of stubborn ‘anti-Darwinist’ can think like this, I found this from a critical review of work challenging neo-Darwinism. The author of the review was unpersuaded, but nevertheless wrote,
... the process structuralist critique does reveal some deep-seated problems with orthodox evolutionary theory and some of its suggestions may be employed to good effect.
Once again, the point is not that this ‘disproves Darwinism’, much less that it proves Creationism, but simply that the idea that there are ‘deep-seated problems with orthodox evolutionary theory’ is something you are unlikely to hear admitted in public debate.
A rather more trenchant critic, but still one who is apparently concerned only with evolutionary theory, wrote this:
Ignoring disagreeable literature became a frequent strategy of hardened neo-Darwinians [...]. ‘This intellectual degeneracy is the outward expression of the fact’ [concludes Milton 1997, p. 240] ‘that neo-Darwinism has ceased to be a scientific theory and has been transformed into an ideology . . .’ [...]. (Eugene K Balon, Epigenetic processes, when natura non facit saltum [nature does not make sudden jumps] becomes a myth, and alternative ontogenies a mechanism of evolution. This essay was also apparently reproduced as Alternative Ontogenies and Evolution in Environment, development and evolution: toward a synthesis, edited by Brian Keith Hall, Roy Douglas Pearson, Gerd B. Müller, 2004, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.)
And same author provides perhaps my favourite quote, albeit from another writer:
... the belief that unreconstructed neo-Darwinism is the all-sufficient explanation of evolution illustrates a survival of the polemically fittest.
Let me repeat, these are not quotations from anti-evolutionists. As far as I am aware, they are ‘natural selectionists’ to the core. The point is that the criticisms they voice of (neo)-Darwinism are unlikely to be met with a dispassionate, we might say scientific, response within contemporary debate. (Indeed, I await the comments on this blog which immediately leap to the defence of Darwinism and pour scorn on all critics.)
But that is my point entirely —we have reached a stage in our intellectual climate where a scientific theory has, as the writer above says, become effectively an ideology. And as history shows, such a transformation is inimical to true scientific enquiry.
And the worry is not so much that we are doing it —cultural history is full of such examples —but that we are so blind to the fact that we are doing it and that it goes against the hard-won Western tradition. We believe ourselves to be entering the highlands of free thought after the valleys of ignorance. In fact, we may be simply be descending from the peaks, unaware that we are moving in an intellectual fog. In short collective cultural fear and rejection of ‘unscientific’ religious views (and such undoubtedly exist), but more generally of religion, may actually be crippling our practice of science.
And what if, on the other side of the world, there is a scientific community unshackled by such fears and inhibitions? What if truly free thought actually is possible within their universities and academic communities? By definition, we cannot know what is yet to be discovered. What if their discoveries allow them to develop some hitherto unimagined source of, or store for, energy? What if they are able to produce weapons we cannot match or which neutralize our own? What if their discoveries make them ‘top dog’, yet leave their own cultural assumptions about the way the world should be unchallenged?
The crisis I imagine may not materialize, but if it does not, it will be our good luck, not our own achievement. Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence left off in the 1990s, and the title tells you what he thought of Western culture by that stage. If he is right, and if we have truly become decadent, we cannot assume that we will nevertheless continue the human voyage of enterprise and discovery uninterrupted. It may take a long time for us to realize we are culturally stagnating, but there is the very real possibility that we are.
Revd John P Richardson
6 October 2009

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  1. What an excellent article! I too have debated, online, with closed-minded Darwinist fanatics - not a nice lot! I'm reminded of the one about the Chinese scientist visiting the US (1980s? '90s?) "In our country we may not criticise the Government. In yours, you may not criticise Darwin". I blame the MSM Darwinist hagiologists, such as Dawkins, Attenborough, etc. Dawkins clearly has the most closed mind of all time - not the formula for healthy, real, developing science.

  2. I concur with John Thomas re the excellence of the article. Two brief responses: (a) a culturally hegemonic China might bring with it the extraordinary energy and courage of the Chinese churches; (b)Karl Popper in various ways (though particularly concerned about Marxism and Nazism) anticipated your concerns here about totalitarian ideas beyond question, but also, specifically, I recall a remark he made about the status of 'evolution': even in the 1940s or so when he wrote, that it was not properly named as 'the theory of evolution' because it was not open to questioning, which is the essence of any 'theory'!

  3. Hi Peter, although the aim of the article is not to discuss the merits or demerits of Darwinian theories, I'm rather with John Lennox, who comments in God's Undertaker that Darwin's proposal is not so much a theory as a truism - which is to say that if the propositions are both true that (a) some variable characteristics favour the survival of certain organisms above others and (b) that these variable characteristics can be handed on from one generation to the next, then it must inevitably follow that they will tend to be 'selected' in the surviving population. As a proposition, this requires neither observation nor evidence to deduce. That does not mean it is untrue, but it does rather put Darwin's 'discoveries' in their proper 'scientific' perspective, and also, I take it, explains the need for 'neo' Darwinism.

  4. You should get out more.
    Frank. Merseyside.

  5. John,

    Your point about learning to think is critical. I was an academic scholar in ancient history at an Oxford college consistently near the top of the Norrington Table, and yet, the first place I learned the tools of critical, rational thinking, was 4 years later when I started at Oak Hill.

    The use of logic, recognition of logical fallacies in argument, ability to distinguish constituent elements in questions and arguments, recognition of the proper (and improper) place of rhetoric and emotion etc, were not things I ever encountered at Oxford.

    If that is the case at the best university in the country, be it arts or sciences, then your fears are well-founded.

  6. I heard on Radio 4 this morning that in the next few days there will be a debate, I think at the British Library, on whether the "scholar" is dead and has been replaced by the "researcher" who exists solely to produce results. Sounds like the same issue John has raised, and readers of the blog may be interested. Can't find any details on the BL website, but will let you know when I do.

    Stephen Walton

  7. The Essex Chronicle is sponsoring the first ever Speakers' Corner event in Chelmsford High Street opposite HSamuel on Saturday October 10 starting at 11am.

    The aim is to establish, or maybe re-establish townspeoples rights to speak up - so long as what they say does not conflict with the law of the land - with the vision of a permanant Speakers' Corner somewhere in the town centre.

    If any Bloggers or Bloggets feels like getting out from behind their PCs and telling it like it was, why not come along to listen or perhaps have a say from the soapbox/pulpit.

  8. Anonymous - have you got any sort of reference for that Speakers' Corner event?

  9. Charles Darwin must be one of the few people who manages to remind me simultaneously of both Father Christmas and Captain Haddock. As such, I find much fuss in various directions concerning his legacy somewhat perplexing.

    Still, he also seems to fit your types of external scientific fertilisation of Einstein, Mendel et al in that throughout his endeavours he attempted to engage with general understanding in a public, but not vulgarly journalistic, manner. These days, by way of contrast, we appear to have polarised between self-selecting professional coteries on the one hand and shameless hucksters on the other, with little room extant for amateur critical engagement.

    Michael Canaris

  10. Michael, I think I agree that Darwin does also belong in the category of those with room for 'intellectual leisure'. The important thing is that he was free to think.

    Let me take this opportunity to say, however, that I believe the modern adulation paid to Darwin owes more to the intellectual agenda of his adulators than to the man.

    This is how Darwin summed up his 'theory' (with some edits for brevity):

    "If ... organic beings vary at all ... and I think this cannot be disputed; if there be ... at some age, season, or year, a severe struggle for life, and this certainly cannot be disputed; then ... I think it would be a most extraordinary fact if no variation ever had occurred useful to each being’s own welfare ... assuredly individuals thus characterised will have the best chance of being preserved in the struggle for life; and from the strong principle of inheritance they will tend to produce offspring similarly characterised. This principle of preservation, I have called, for the sake of brevity, Natural Selection. (Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species, 169-170, quoted in Kirsten Birkett, The Essence of Darwinism, 20)

    Now as I've said, this is - as Darwin himself observes - virtually a truism. It requires no new observations, for if his first two propositions are true (which, as he says, seems self-evidently the case), then so ought to be the third, that 'Natural Selection' occurs.

    However, Darwin lacked a mechanism for inheritance and he was wrong in the one he himself suggested. It is what others have made of 'Darwin-ism' that really matters today, and it is that 'ism' (and the massive support it attracts) which shows that we are just as intellectually vulnerable as our forebears to constraining free enquiry.

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  12. John

    I hope this does not seem a bizarre intrusion into your debate. Your thought-provoking piece was linked to on the IN DEFENCE OF YOUTH WORK blog at http://indefenceof youth work.wordpress.com, where a debate about the relationship between so-called intellectuals and practitioners, between classically theory and practice is taking place.

    In terms of your argument a signicant context is the imposition particularly under New Labour upon Youth Work of prescribed and predictable outcomes, which are the very antithesis of a volatile and voluntary, creative and collective process, which carries no guarantees.

    On a personal level I have grown ever more suspicious of Theory, which is not to be confused with being opposed to Thinking, forever Thinking. My own history is significantly influenced by three decades of seeing myself as a Marxist with all its problematic certitude. And I do not see myself as a post-modernist. One of my favourite thinkers Cornelius Castoriadis commented that social and political theory had become the imposition of a template of definitive explanation on what is always a fluctuating set of social relations, but nevertheless he continued to imagine and struggle for a more just and equal society.

    As for Darwin he has never been important to my way of thinking. My own atheism owes him no debt. And it seems to me that the comments on your piece that rush to see Darwinism as the great intellectual blockage to free inquiry protest too much.

    Thanks for the stimulus

    Tony Taylor

  13. Tony, thanks for this. I'd picked up the link, though it is in an area about which I know nothing! Could I just say, I don't want to present "Darwinism as the great intellectual blockage to free inquiry." I was really only wanting to say that here, in one particularly important area for our social (not just scientific) understanding, there is, as it were, a 'blackout' on language, even from other scientists, which might challenge the prevailing 'wisdom'. It is not Darwinism that is getting in the way but (in this particular area) Darwinists may be the problem.