1995 AD: Anno Darwinis?

December 29, 1995

The year began with an interview with academic and writer Wole Soyinka, Africa's first Nobel laureate for literature. Soyinka, who spent months in jail for promoting peace with breakaway Biafra during the Nigerian civil war, had been a constant thorn in the side of the government. He gave the interview to The THES shortly after fleeing Nigeria following the confiscation of his passport by the military junta.

"Creative thinking has its own inhibitions - it almost rebukes you. Your colleagues are in jail, hostages are being taken all around you I you're wondering 'What have I failed to do that allowed this to happen in my environmentI?' It gives you not writers' block - it turns you into a blockhead."

Back in March, Frederick Crews, emeritus professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley explained why he thought Freud was so wrong. "What passes today for Freud-bashing is simply the long postponed holding of Freudian ideas to the same standards of non-contradiction, clarity, testability, cogency and parsimonious explanatory power that prevail in empirical discourse at large.

"Step by step, we are learning that Freud has been the most overrated figure in the entire history of science and medicine - one who wrought immense harm through the propagation of false aetiologies, mistaken diagnoses and fruitless lines of enquiry. Still, the legend dies hard and those who challenge it continue to be greeted like rabid skunks."

Over the summer THES explored the intellectual impact of the new Darwinism, not only within biology, "selfish gene" theory's natural home, but across a wide range of other subjects - from psychology to anthropology.

Darwin proposed that living things evolve by the "fittest" (ie those most suited to the environment) surviving to pass on their superior qualities to the next generation. Stir the science of genetics into the Darwinian soup and you have an explanation for human development which is argued about at the margins but accepted in its fundamentals by almost every academic biologist.

It is an argument academics in other fields may find counter-intuitive, but some have applied it fruitfully, if controversially, to a range of phenomena, from depression to the question of why women marry rich men or whether there is an ideal waist-hip ratio.

Randolph Nesse, associate professor at Michigan University, Ann Arbor, suggests that abnormal mental states could be adaptations that confer an advantage in the struggle for survival. American evolutionary psychologist David Buss argues that men's and women's mating behaviour can be explained in terms of a similar drive to ensure the survival of their genes into the next generation; men maximise opportunities to pass on their genes by sleeping around, women by choosing partners who will help ensure the safe upbringing of their children. According to his global mating study across 37 cultures, this means that rich men will, according to Darwinian logic, marry younger, more beautiful women, have affairs and sire dozens of love children.

And Devendra Singh contends that women with the "ideal" waist/hip ratio of 0.73 have universal appeal as potential partners because their body shape transmits subliminal signals about fecundity and fertility; a theory apparently confirmed partly by examination of Playboy centrefolds and Barbie dolls.

It may all seem a bit daffy to the outsider - but there is even work going on to try to tie up how this behaviour is actually initiated by the brain. Are there specialised neural circuits controlling, for example, the way we select our partners? Can we identify the mechanism driving casual sex?

Tamsin Wilton, lecturer in health and social policy at the University of the West of England, Bristol was furious when her publisher, Taylor and Francis, refused to reproduce images from safe sex literature as part of her book En/Gendering Aids. The images, which included a drawing of a naked and female Leonardo da Vinci as well as an illustration of one man performing fellatio on another, were, argued Wilton, crucial to her argument: about how safe sex messages are promoted differently to men, women and gays.

An "uncomfortable" publisher, Taylor and Francis, was not convinced and Dr Wilton was invited either to withdraw the offending images or take her manuscript elsewhere.

"Given that publishers have the right (and obligation) to ensure that they do not fall foul of the law, what further rights should they exercise to determine what may/may not be exposed to the academic gaze?" asked an angry Wilton in a feature article about her difficulties.

In July James Tooley, the new director of education research at the rightwing think tank, the Institute of Economic Affairs, proposed, in The THES, that school exams should be replaced by IQ tests, a suggestion underpinned by a number of arguments in 1995 resurrecting theories about the genetic basis for intelligence.

In reply Richard Pring, professor of educational studies at Oxford University, recalled the, in his view, bad old days of IQ testing. "In practice, the claims of IQ testing were not really believed in. Why else would so many of us have been forced to swot to prove that we had innate intelligence? And, if the intelligence tests tested a fixed quotient of intelligence, how is it that so many of our vice chancellors failed?" In 1995 we saw the emergence of a new academic field linked to the Darwinian one, "consciousness studies", with the establishment of its own journal. Susan Greenfield, a neuroscientist at Oxford University and author of Journey to the Centers of the Mind, reviewed the new journal: "Some ten years ago, the term 'consciousness studies' would not have held much meaning. The philosophers of mind did not really concern themselves much with the messy, physical brain: conversely, card-carrying neuroscientists viewed anyone of their number interested in 'the mind' with a distrust usually reserved for those asserting belief in UFOs or ghosts.

"Although philosophers such as John Searle, and most scientists (with the notable exception of John Eccles), viewed a dualist approach involving a separate mind and brain as old hat, those studying the mind nonetheless maintained a distance from those studying the brain, and vice versa. Technical terminology and esoteric concepts on both sides ensured a mind-brain barrier more effective than that ever asserted for the mind-brain itself.

"In 1986, however, Patricia Churchland published Neurophilosophy and showed how interdisciplinary discussions on a scientific approach to the mind might after all be possible. Experts started to look beyond the confines of their own particular fields to contemplate big questions concerning an individual's thoughts and emotions and, in so doing, legitimise issues previously regarded as 'nonscientific'. Eminent thinkers such as the philosopher Daniel Dennett, the mathematician Roger Penrose, the biologist Francis Crick and the immunologist Gerald Edelman have all produced bestselling and controversial books on consciousness in the past few years which have fired the popular imagination. And such works have, not surprisingly, in turn created a demand for more information relayed in an understandable form. Publications have now not so much snowballed as avalanched. It is in this climate that the Journal of Consciousness Studies has been launched.

"Not only does no other journal focus on the same subject as JCS, it is unique in offering a forum for highly divergent individuals united in a "new", common interest and constituting an increasingly confident, if still rather self-conscious community. "With JCS, consciousness studies have arrived."

Critical theory, claimed one English literature lecturer in July, is now so dominant in English faculties that it has become the new orthodoxy and a real threat to academic freedom. So strongly did our writer feel that he/she requested anonymity to make his/her point, arguing that his/her position would become intolerable if his/her identity were revealed.

"My first and second years learn their lessons early: post-structuralism and radical feminist criticism are what the tutors want and what they will reward. Liberalism and humanism are out-moded, defunct, hopelessly passe and misconceived.

"So my students produce unintelligible essays crammed with blase anti-humanist rhetoric, tortuously unconvincing interpretations and puritanical moralising posing as political insight I These students will have read Derrida but not Plato, Lacan but not Freud, Althusser but not Marx."

Paul Davies, astrophysicist and leading science writer, published About Time: Einstein's Unfinished Revolution, in which he claims that "time, and hence all physical reality, must have had a definite origin in the past". Ilya Prigogine, Nobel laureate in chemistry, disagreed in his review: "Davies is of course referring to the 'Big Bang'. We do indeed believe, since the discovery of the black body residual radiation 30 years ago, that the universe began in a state of high density and high temperature. But was this the beginning of time? There are many other possibilities compatible with this particular observation. For example the Big Bang could correspond to an instability leading to a phase transition from a pre-universe often called the "quantum vacuum" or the "meta-universe". After all, science generally deals with questions concerning classes of events, such as the birth of galaxies or of stars.

"The answers to such questions require the solution of the famous (or infamous) quantum gravity problem. It is premature to speak of the beginning of time as a "discovery" in the same sense that we speak of the "discovery" of the electron or the proton.

"No final conclusion can be drawn. The problem of time's 'origin' may stay with us still for a long time, perhaps forever. But it is important to know that at present various options for understanding it are open."

In September Claude Levi-Strauss, professor emeritus of social anthropology at the Coll ge de France, revisited photographs he took more than 50 years ago and mused on the past and uncertain future of the Indians of the Amazon, remnants of advanced civilisations decimated by genocide and disease. But are we all Indians now? he asked in a provocative conclusion to his pessimistic recollection.

"The Bororo, whose good health and robustness I had admired in 1935, are today being consumed by alcoholism and disease and are progressively losing their language. It is in missionary schools that Bororo youths are being taught about their myths and ceremonies. But, for fear that they might damage the feather diadems, masterpieces of traditional art, the missionaries are keeping these objects locked up, entrusting the Indians with them only on strictly necessary occasions. They would be increasingly difficult to replace since the macaws, parrots and other brightly coloured birds are also disappearing..

"The victim of circumstances of its own making, western civilisation now feels threatened in its turn. It has, in the past, destroyed innumerable cultures in whose diversity lay the wealth of humankind. Guardian of its own fraction of this collective wealth, it is allowing itself to forget or destroy its own heritage.

"The population explosion, for which the West shares responsibility, is reducing the living space between human beings at an alarming rate. As for progress, it is devouring itself..

"Dispossessed of our culture, stripped of values that we cherished - the purity of water and air, the charms of nature, the diversity of animals and plants - we are all Indians henceforth, making of ourselves what we made of them."

In Britain only five per cent of professors are women. In America the equivalent figure is 16 per cent. Queen's Counsel and chancellor of Oxford Brookes university, Helena Kennedy, writing in The THES in November, slammed such statistics as "shameful" and probed academe's failure to promote women. Are academic women being judged by male values? Do they work in different, perhaps more collaborative, ways - using methods not accorded equal status with men's more aggressively competitive techniques? Why do university appointment panels not issue job descriptions for professorships, explicit criteria against which biased choices could be exposed?

Over the following weeks fed-up women warmed to Kennedy's theme on The THES letters pages. E. Stina Lyon, sociology lecturer at South Bank University, highlighted childcare, still usually the woman's rather than the man's responsibility. Universities, argued Lyon, provide subsidised car parking spaces, but whinge when it comes to coughing up for nursery facilities. They demand evidence of networking and staff development week-ends when appointing to new jobs, while regarding days working from home to fit in with family demands as "scarpering".

Joanna Gray, law lecturer at Newcastle University, wagged an accusing finger at the Research Assessment Exercise. Gray argued (Letters, November 17) that the shake-out from this "transfer market in male academics" will be wholly deleterious, Men, she asserts, are much more happy than their female colleagues to up sticks and move cross country for a tempting job offer, taking wife and 2.4 kids with them. Men - and childless women - responded. Marie Macey, sociology lecturer at Bradford, (Letters, November 24) pointed to a new divide in the promotion stakes; between women with dependents and those without.

So what will 1996 contribute to the cause of equal opportunities in British and American universities? Will Kennedy's "shameful" statistics improve? In the summer a celebration of the work of 40 notable women will be published by Manchester University Press in conjunction with The THES. A full version of Helena Kennedy's article will appear as the introduction to that book.

Francis Fukuyama, author of The End of History and the Last Man, a worldwide bestseller, published Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity. Meghnad Desai, reviewing it, was unconvinced by its thesis: "Fukuyama can be a captivating writer, as his earlier book proved. This book will be championed by those who want to escape the inevitability of market-orientated global capitalism. Trust and social capital are phrases that give us a cuddly feeling and if the clever Fukuyama promises us that trust is good for economic success then we will tend to buy both his book and his thesis, so as to stave off the evil laissez-faire wallahs. But I am afraid this promise will be seen to be false. "

In December, Galileo, launched by Nasa in 1989, finally reached Jupiter. Arthur C. Clarke, an amateur astronomer based in Sri Lanka, reviewing three books on Jupiter and the impact with Jupiter of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 in 1994, gave a visionary warning to us all: "We live in a dangerous universe. Though global, dinosaur-scale catastrophes may be millions of years apart, there have been at least three near-misses in this century. Had it arrived only a few hours later, the flying iceberg that exploded several kilometres above the Siberian forest in 1908 could have wiped out a major city.

"One surprising lesson from the Shoemaker-Levy story is that Jupiter may have played a beneficent role in the history of our planet, its enormous gravitational field sweeping up comets that might otherwise have impacted upon earth. Indeed, life might never have originated here in the first place, if Jupiter had not shielded our planet in the days when the newborn solar system was packed with continually colliding debris left over from its formation. If much of this had fallen upon earth, the oceans would have been kept boiling - and sterile. On the other hand, as analysis of their orbits has shown, Jupiter may occasionally divert comets towards earth, as well as away from it.

"If Comet Hale-Bopp lives up to its advance billing and dominates our night skies in the spring of 1997, the world's governments may turn their attention away from their current problems long enough to consider proper financing for Spaceguard. If they do not, the human race may suffer the same fate as the dinosaurs, when the Jovian bomb doors open again."

The Social Democratic Party lasted a mere seven years - the same number of years taken by Ivor Crewe and Anthony King to write their definitive history of the SDP. Shirley Williams, the party's past president, paid tribute to its erstwhile leader, Roy Jenkins, in a well-argued, near-definitive review:

"Roy Jenkins is described by the authors as wanting very much to be prime minister: they quote a journalist's description, 'an old man in a hurry'. That does not really describe the Roy Jenkins I knew as a colleague in the Gang of Four. He would have liked to be prime minister, but his career demonstrates that on more than one occasion, he cared more for principle than position. In particular, his resignation as deputy leader in 1976 showed how reluctant he was to lead a party he no longer believed in. He never subscribed to the political tactic of going along to get along. But he did want to be leader of the SDP, and the Jenkinsites wanted it even more than he did. They were plus royaliste que le roi.

"He was not, however, the right leader for the times. In his absence abroad, politics in Britain had become savage and crude. The recognition that certain values were shared between the parties' leaders, values of personal liberty, civic behaviour, even of social justice, provided common ground between a Roy Jenkins and an Iain Macleod, a Robert Carr or a Willy Whitelaw. By 1981, that common ground had been destroyed by the fundamentalism of both right and left. The prime minister conceded nothing to her opponents, and her opponents tried to reply in kind. The courtesies had gone.

"When Roy rose to ask a question, the benches around and behind him erupted with heckling and derisive laughter, the benches in front of him with ill-concealed exasperation. Four years as president of the European Commission had not prepared him for such barbarities. He hated it, a civilised man in an uncivilised place. His failure as leader of the SDP says more about British politics in the 1980s than it does about Roy Jenkins himself."

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