Christopher Caldwell wrote in Reflections on the Revolution in Europe, “One moves swiftly and imperceptibly from a world in which affirmative action can’t be ended because its beneficiaries are too weak to a world in which it can’t be ended because its beneficiaries are too strong.” It is a wonderful observation that applies to much more than just affirmative action. It seems to apply to all aspect of Progressivism. Today’s minority view is tomorrows absolute, inviolable dogma. It happens so quickly, no one seems to notice.
That’s been the way with Progressives and science. It used to be common to see a Subaru or Volvo decorated with a Darwin fish. The point was to let the world know that the driver was a good liberal, who embraced reason, rather than superstition. Of course, the other point was to stick it to Christians, who the Left had declared their primary enemy somewhere in the middle of the last century. Even so, science was a big part of how Progressives defined themselves. Then suddenly, imperceptibly, the opposite was true.
That’s what we are seeing with the response to David Reich’s book, Who We Are and How We Got Here and the subsequent articles he has written about his research. The great Greg Cochran has been reviewing the book, pointing out the bizarre contortions Reich goes through in order to avoid having his lab burned down. It’s a bit of an exaggeration to say that Reich fears an angry torch wielding mob, but it is only a small exaggeration. Many careers have been ruined by getting on the wrong side of the mob.
Understandably, Cochran takes exception to much of this, because he is a true man of science. He values truth above all else. He has no patience for the political, and now theological, nonsense that saturates the modern academy. There’s also a personal aspect to it, as Reich takes some cheap shots at the late Henry Harpending, who was Cochran’s colleague for many years. They collaborated on The 10,000 Year Explosion and on this groundbreaking paper. Cochran can be forgiven for taking this a bit personal.
On the other hand though, David Reich is not an old guy with his career behind him and his retirement vested. He is in his prime years as a scientist and as such he has to be careful to not upset the mullahs in the orthodoxy. That’s why he is going through these ham-handed efforts to inoculate himself against the charge of heresy. The morality police may not burn down his lab, but they are more than happy to burn down his career. If they will hurl a giant like James Watson into the void, they will not flinch at David Reich.
If you are old enough to remember the 1980’s, you remember a time when it was Progressives chanting about free speech, the need for independent media and the glories of scientific inquiry. Today, it feels like a million years ago, only because none of it is true now and not just in small ways. Progressives have swung so far in the opposite direction, becoming what they always claimed they were fighting, it is impossible to imagine them being otherwise. A younger person must assume it has always been this way.
The funny thing is that our Progressive mullahs are probably worse than the people who suppressed Galileo. Relatively speaking, they are worse than Torquemada. The old inquisitor was quite lenient, relevant to the age, when stealing a cow could get you hanged. Galileo’s trouble with the Church had as much to do with politics and his personal squabbles as science. Today, the people in charge take a perverse pleasure in destroying the life of a heretic. Billionaires now hunt Dirt People on-line for sport.
If you are in the human sciences, none of this is lost on you. If you read academic papers, they have become so thick with jargon and statistics, they are impenetrable to all but the people in the field. Some of it is the normal pattern of group behavior, but some of it is a defense against the charge of heresy. Instead of writing coded notes in the margins of approved texts, people in the human sciences rely on impenetrable gibberish and eye-glazing statistics. Race has now become “ancestry group”, for example.
One thing that is clear, in hindsight, is that Church efforts to contain the growth of scientific inquiry were a rearguard action. The institutional place of the Church was not toppled by science and reason. The role of religious institutions was already diminishing with the rise of the secular institutions and the spread of commerce. The clergy was no longer the richest faction in European society. Their efforts to re-impose their order on society was reactionary and doomed. The world was changing and the feudal era was ending.
Perhaps something similar is happening with Progressives and human sciences. Their embrace of reason was always like their embrace of liberal democracy, socialism and social reform. It is as a means to an end. Free speech was a bus they rode from their position outside the academy, to a position atop the academy. Once they got to their destination, they got off the free speech bus. That’s certainly true of their embrace of science and reason. Once they gained power, they peeled the Darwin fish off the car.
On the other hand, there is no reason to think that humanity is a linear progression from tribal darkness to some glorious post-human future. We have the phrase “dark ages” because there have been dark ages, when civil society reached a dead end, collapsed and sat dormant for centuries. Back when the turn began, Allan Bloom wrote that relativism and multiculturalism were ushering in a closing of the American mind. Perhaps now we are seeing the fruit, the coming of a new dark age ruled by fanatics and dullards.