Old Books

I’m reading an 80 year old copy of J.B.S. Haldane’s The Inequality of Man, which is one of those books that still has some relevance to this age. Every so often, Haldane gets some mention, as in the case of Richard Dawkins in the 1970’s. Like a lot of smart white guys from the past, his ideas are now heretical, so few dare mention him or his ideas. HBD’ers will reference him from time to time, but otherwise he is slowly being forgotten.

My copy is a worn old copy that is a few years from falling to pieces. I don’t know where I got it, but I figured I should read it before it falls to dust. As I’m reading bits of the page’s edge falls away, creating a natural bookmark. Even though it is 80 years old and written by an upper class Brit, the book reads easier than most modern stuff. The old British academics really knew how to use the language to reach a broad audience.

There’s a great value, I think, to reading old books in science and social commentary. One of the things that jumps off the page right from the start is just how fresh much of his discussion of population differences seems today. I recently re-read The Money Game by Adam Smith. You would think a book about Wall Street written in the 1960’s would seem ridiculous today. Instead, it was as fresh as anything written today.

His treatment of computers and markets (keep in mind that computers were rarities in the 1960’s) was strikingly prescient. The lesson you take away is the money game, the world of finance, has not changed much at all in fifty years. The point of the book, is it had not changed much in the previous fifty years. Reading stories about scams run by big banks on the 1920’s, that are just like those run today, is a bit jarring in a good way.

That’s one reason why I think it is wise to read old books from time to time. It is a good reminder that the world has not changed very much. By old books, I don’t just mean classics. A well-read man should have read the Western Canon. I mean old books that were popular in their day, but are not included as classics of Western thought. It’s like going back in time and learning about common sense all over again.

Of course, this why the Left locks up history into a trunk and buries it in the backyard. Constant reminders that human relations have not changed very much makes the idea of Marxist Man ridiculous even to the most gullible. If the nature of man is transcendent and rooted in his biology, Marxist Man is an impossibility. Then you have the fact that the ideas current with modern radicals are just recycled from past radicals.

Reading about people 100 years ago making the same claims people are making today is satisfying until you learn they failed disastrously. That is going to take the wind out of the sails of even the most dedicated. “This time things will be different” can only take you so far. Those promised benefits of some form of socialism sound less compelling when you read the same claims made fifty years ago.

That said, there’s a service to the stable minded too. Haldane was one of the first population geneticists. He was also a Marxist. On the one hand, he offers up respectable and rational ideas about population genetics. On the other hand, he claims Soviet communism is a great success and will work in the long run. Incredibly, he claims the Soviets had, at the time of his writing, made no attempt to socialize agriculture.

At the time, the Soviets were brutally collectivizing the peasants, killing millions in the process. It is also during the Holodomer, which a British intellectual of his stature surely heard some rumors. He may not have known the details, but the rumors were everywhere. The point here is that brilliant people are capable of believing outrageously insane things. Reading old books on social commentary is a great reminder of that.

What I’m enjoying about Haldane is something HBD chick touches on in this blog post. Population genetics and eugenics are separate things. The modern critics of HBD immediately throw out the eugenics card. Of course, they quickly jump to Hitler the holocaust, tying population genetics to mass murder. It’s a tactic aimed at shutting down any discussion of the subject by making it immoral on its face.

Haldane goes to great lengths explaining why the eugenicists are wildly mistaken on the science of genetics. What we know now and what he could not know then, is what the Left would do with these ideas. The modern Left’s assault on HBD has little to do with science and everything to do with history. The heroes of the American Left were eugenics promoters. Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, was a eugenicist, who wanted to sterilize the unfit.

That’s an obvious example, but the Progressive Era is full of them. Sterilization campaigns were a regular feature of the American Left from the beginning. The language changed, but the underlying justification remained. Programs launched by liberals in the 60’s and 70’s aimed at reducing birth rates in black ghettos were just thinly veiled eugenics programs. Of course, it is hard to be the friend of the black man if you have been systematically trying to snuff them out.

In contrast, the HBD folks, for the most part, don’t try to tease morality or public policy from the science of population genetics. There are exceptions and abuse, but the folks dedicated to the science don’t care about the politics. The reason is an example Haldane uses. Atoms do not act in predictable ways. Instead, they act in a number of ways with differing degrees of probability. Rolled up into a bar of steel, however, the mathematics presents an object to us that acts predictably and seemingly consistently.

One last thing on reading old books. There’s a valuable lesson in the wrongness of their certainty. One of my few criticism of John Derbyshire is his blind spot to the error rates of science. The history of science is the history of error. Reading Haldane’s ideas on cancer and what comes next for the treatment of the disease is cringe inducing. His description of blacks in America and their likely future is hilariously anachronistic.

The point is Haldane was brilliant and empirically minded, but he and his contemporaries were wrong about a great many things. Those who came after them made their careers proving them wrong. Those who come after us will do us the same favor. Therefore, it is wise to keep open the possibility that what we think we know now is all wrong. That does not mean there is no truth, just that humans are prone to error.