The Enlightenment is like a shark

Either we move forward, or we perish.

Review — The Urtext Fades

Gerald Sindell

The ability of a civilization to adopt better ideas will predict the health of that civilization. To understand why and how new ideas are adopted would unlock the secrets of human progress. We live in a world that offers us two clear models of the adoption of better ideas: in science we have steady progress. New discoveries are tested, peer reviewed, and published. Adoption of better ideas in medicine, for instance, continues unabated.

In the social sciences we see a contrasting model. New ideas, such as representative government, can appear and disappear over thousands of years. Ideas of acceptable human conduct can come and go. The United States, once a beacon of decency, can suddenly adopt a policy of torture of its enemies. Civilization can, indeed, go backward. The Diffusion of Innovations does not answer the `why’ of this fundamental question. In it we can read lengthy studies of how long it took for a group of farmers in the 1930s to adopt hybrid corn. Some were early adopters, some clumped in the middle, some hold out to the bitter end. Somehow lumped together with that study we find a discussion about the adoption of rap music. How rap is an `improvement’ on something else is beyond me. The author suggests that it is easier to record than classical or jazz. Oh. Now I get it.

Completely missing is any observation about the varying challenges caused by large, as opposed to incremental, breakthroughs. In science, Einstein’s theory of relativity moved human knowledge forward by a sudden leap of a hundred years. The opposition to it was fierce, but because it was science, it was tested over a number of decades and changed the world. Great departures in the soft sciences, such as theories about child development, can languish for decades and even disappear. Why?

Missing also is any notion of the power of narrative to introduce an idea. When a story accompanies something new, adoption is greatly enhanced. Christianity benefits from its narrative. So also did Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus cause a global rise in fans for Mozart. Without the figure of Salieri, millions fewer would have come to be delighted by Mozart’s genius.

What else stands between better ideas and their rapid adoption? Resistance to change, fear of loss, fear of the learning curve, fear the change can’t be reversed if it doesn’t work out, not enough perceived improvement to make the effort worthwhile, fear of the unknown. In the index of this book, “fear,” “emotion,” and “resistance” do not make an appearance. I wish I could recommend an alternative work, but it seems to me it has yet to be written. For the darkest possible view of our civilization and its inability to adopt better ideas, you can wallow in Morris Berman’s The Twilight of American Culture and his more recent Dark Ages America: The Final Phase of Empire. As far as the antidote to that bleak view, I’m still looking for some better ideas to adopt.

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