Last week I spoke at an event at Nottingham University to commemorate the 60th anniversary of The Rise of the Meritocracy, the book by my father that added a new word to the English language. A dystopian satire in the same mould as Nineteen Eighty-Four, it describes a nightmarish society of the future in which status is based on a combination of effort and intelligence rather than inherited privilege.
That sounds like an improvement and, to my father’s annoyance, the word ‘meritocracy’ has come to stand for something politically desirable when he intended the book to be a warning. As a lifelong socialist, he didn’t like meritocracy because he thought it gave the appearance of fairness to the economic inequalities thrown up by free-market capitalism, thereby delaying the emergence of a more egalitarian society.
In my speech I explained that I liked meritocracy for much the same reason. I regard inequality as an inevitable by-product of limited government, which history teaches us is preferable to excessive state power. In common with many utopian socialists, my father believed the state would just ‘wither away’ once it had overseen a massive redistribution of wealth and power, but I’ve always been sceptical. Such optimism is contingent on a conception of human nature that is belied by science, particularly evolutionary psychology: that man is a peace-loving, altruistic creature who can be depended upon not to engage in predation, cruelty, warfare, sexual enslavement and homicidal violence once the workers’ paradise has been created. (To read more, click here.)
The British edition of GQ is 30 years old and, to celebrate its birthday, it is conducting a ‘dissection of masculinity’. I can’t help feeling that’s a bit of a shame – if a men’s magazine won’t celebrate masculinity, who will? – but fear not. The male gender still has one unapologetic champion – step forward Canadian psychology professor Dr Jordan Peterson – and, as part of this promotional push, GQ sent Helen Lewis to interview him.
Those hoping for a re-run of Peterson’s famous encounter with Cathy Newman, the Channel 4 News presenter, will be disappointed. Peterson comes out on top, of course, but Lewis, the deputy editor of the New Statesman, is better prepared than Newman. She’s been to one of his talks, read 12 Rules For Life and – by the looks of things – has studied some of his previous jousting matches on YouTube. (To read more, click here.)
he influence of Twitter continues to grow. Scarcely a day passes without someone being “called out” for an ill-judged tweet, often with career-ending consequences. Indeed, my own career suffered at the beginning of the year after a team of offense archaeologists found some historic treasures in my Twitter account. But I’ve never heard of an imprudent tweet leading to a change in the law – until now.
Earlier this week, an American TV presenter caused uproar when she tweeted a picture of herself posing next to a dead goat on a Hebridean island. “Beautiful wild goat here on the Island of Islay in Scotland,” wrote Larysa Switlyk, presenter of Larysa Unleashed. “Such a fun hunt!! Made a perfect 200 yard shot and dropped him with the gunwerks and nightforce-optics!”
At the time of writing, her tweet has attracted 19,000 comments, most of them using words like “sickening”, “abhorrent” and “evil”. Not surprisingly, many of the people upset by the tweet called for a ban on goat-hunting, including Andy Murray’s mum. The response of the Scottish government, however, was less predictable. (To read more, click here.)
Some interesting scientific research on gender differences was published last week. Two social scientists studied the preferences of 80,000 people in 76 countries to determine whether there’s a link between the attitudes of men and women to risk-taking, patience, altruism, trust and so on, and how advanced a country is in terms of economic development and gender equality.
If gender is a social construct, as many feminists claim, you’d expect men and women’s preferences to be more divergent in places like Pakistan, Malaysia and Nigeria, where gender roles are quite traditional and women have fewer economic opportunities, than in the Nordic countries. However, the opposite is true. The researchers discovered that the more economically developed a country is and the greater the gender equality, the less likely men and women’s attitudes are to converge. This suggests that average psychological differences between men and women are partly biological. How else to account for the fact that when men and women are free to pursue their own interests, gender differences become more pronounced, not less? (To read more, click here.)
On 11 October 2017 an anonymous Google spreadsheet began doing the rounds of American newspapers and magazines — a document that would have far-reaching consequences for Stephen Elliott, a Los Angeles-based writer and editor. Called ‘Shitty Media Men’, the spreadsheet had been created by Moira Donegan, a former assistant editor at the New Republic, and named various men rumoured to be guilty of sexual misconduct. Donegan closed it down a few days later, but by that time it had been widely circulated and many names had been added, alongside a summary of their alleged crimes. The entry for Elliott read: ‘Rape accusations, sexual harassment, coercion, unsolicited invitations to his apartment, a dude who snuck into Binders???’ (Binders is a Facebook group for women writers.)
The spreadsheet contained a disclaimer: ‘This document is only a collection of allegations and rumours. Take everything with a grain of salt.’ Needless to say, that was largely ignored. Numerous articles appeared celebrating the list as a much–needed ‘reckoning’, with not many people pausing to consider whether the men on the list were guilty. Elliott had a collection of essays to promote, but interviews were pulled, readings cancelled and his book tour fizzled out. His television agent stopped returning his calls and some friends began to distance themselves. He found himself at the centre of a Kafka-esque nightmare. (To read more, click here.)
The publication of Blueprint (2018) by the behavioral geneticist Robert Plomin has revived the old debate about whether there’s something inherently racist or right-wing about looking for biological causes of human behavior. The subtitle of Plomin’s book—How DNA Makes Us Who We Are—makes it sound as if he’s a full-blooded hereditarian and that has led to a predictable outcry from long-standing opponents of this “dangerous” intersection where the natural sciences and the behavioral sciences meet. (To read an extract from Blueprint, click here.)
To its opponents, sociogenomics—or social genomics—of which Plomin is a leading practitioner, sounds suspiciously like sociobiology. When the Harvard entomologist E.O. Wilson published a book of that name in 1975, it was greeted with passionate opposition by a group of left-wing scientists who had assembled under the banner of ‘Science for the People,’ originally an anti-Vietnam War protest group. The biologists in that organization, several of whom Wilson had counted as friends up until this point, formed the ‘Sociobology Study Group’ and started firing off venomous letters to newspapers. For instance, a letter in the New York Review of Books signed by Stephen J. Gould and Richard C. Lewontin, among others, accused Wilson of peddling the same junk science that had led to the murder of six million Jews:
The reason for the survival of these recurrent determinist theories is that they consistently tend to provide a genetic justification of the status quo and of existing privileges for certain groups according to class, race or sex. Historically, powerful countries or ruling groups within them have drawn support for the maintenance or extension of their power from these products of the scientific community…These theories provided an important basis for the enactment of sterilization laws and restrictive immigration laws by the United States between 1910 and 1930 and also for the eugenics policies which led to the establishment of gas chambers in Nazi Germany.
Wilson was dubbed the ‘Right-Wing Prophet of Patriarchy’ and subjected to vicious barracking whenever he crossed Harvard Yard or attempted to speak in public. The most famous protest occurred in 1978 at a symposium of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington D.C. that had been convened to bring Wilson and his critics together. Ulicia Segerstrale takes up the story in Defenders of the Truth (2000), the definitive account of the sociobiology controversy:
The session has already featured Gould, among others, and Wilson is one of the later speakers. Just as Wilson is about to begin, about ten people rush up on the speaker podium shouting various epithets and chanting: ‘Racist Wilson you can’t hide, we charge you with genocide!’ While some take over the microphone and denounce sociobiology, a couple of them rush up behind Wilson (who is sitting in place) and pour a pitcher of ice-water over his head, shouting ‘Wilson, you are all wet!’ (To read more, click here.)
This article in the Guardian correctly points out that polygenic risk scores for medical problems are based on genomic data compiled from predominantly European-descended populations 1/ (To read more, click here.)
West Yorkshire Police hit the headlines twice this week. First we learned that the fourth-largest force in England and Wales has decided to ‘screen out’ 46.5 per cent of cases a year, i.e. not investigate them. And these aren’t minor crimes, but things like theft, assault and burglary. Apparently, West Yorkshire Police’s 5,671 officers will spend their time on ‘more complex’ offences instead. What do they mean by that? A clue was provided by the second story which concerned the verbal harassment warning the force has given to Graham Linehan, a television comedy writer, after a Twitter dispute resulting from Linehan referring to a transgender activist as ‘he’ rather than ‘she’ — and using their original, male name — even though the person in question is biologically male.
Many people will think this is poetic justice for Linehan and, by rights, I should be one of them. The co-writer of Father Ted is a socialist zealot with more than half a million followers on Twitter, and for years he has used this platform to denounce anyone to the right of Jeremy Corbyn. His stock-in-trade is furious moral indignation, the effect of which is often to whip up his disciples into an outrage mob, baying for blood. I’ve been on the receiving end many times, the most recent of which was four months ago when I published an account of getting into trouble at the beginning of the year for breaching politically correct speech codes on Twitter — exactly the same thought crime Linehan has now been accused of. ‘A stupid, empty man, quick with a lie, shallow as a puddle, one of the worst the UK has to offer,’ he tweeted. Cue the usual pile-on from his left-wing followers. I could tell they were sensitive, bookish types because their language was straight out of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. (To read more, click here.)
My oldest friend Sean Langan came to lunch last Sunday and, rather disappointingly, he seemed more interested in playing with our Amazon Alexa than asking me what I’d been up to. Sean is a documentary filmmaker who spends a lot of time in war zones — he’s just back from Syria —and he often reminds me of that Japanese soldier stranded in the Philippines who didn’t realise the second world war was over until 29 years later. The technological changes that occur while he’s in some god-for-saken hellhole are a constant source of wonder to him. I half-expected him to stop dead in front of our TV in amazement: ‘You mean to tell me the pictures are actually in colour? Whatever will they come up with next!’
Alexa is an internet-connected virtual assistant that looks like a large, black tin can. She sits there, dormant, until you say her name, at which point she comes to life. ‘Alexa,’ you say. ‘Is it going to rain today?’ She will then do her best to answer, sometimes accurately, sometimes not. People use it to make shopping lists, listen to podcasts, even control their heating. After an initial flurry of excitement, I mainly use her as an egg timer. (To read more, click here.)
The inquisition that has been launched by Woke physicists against Professor Strumia for expressing some heretical ideas at CERN about why women are under-represented in physics is truly shocking. You would think physicists, of all people, would be wary of inquisitions.
Professor Strumia has now been suspended by CERN and is under investigation by the University of Pisa, where he holds a chair in physics, for “ethics violations”. I wouldn’t be surprised if he loses both positions.
In the BBC report, his headline sin is reported to be claiming that “physics was invented and built by men”. That’s not 100% accurate — some women, such as Marie Curie, have made critical contributions to the field — but is it “offensive”? (To read more, click here.)