Open thread – August 22, 2010

By Razib Khan | August 22, 2010 12:04 am

I found out this week that the idea of the “Noble Savage” is erroneously attributed to Jean Jacques Rosseau. I haven’t read much Rosseau myself, so I’m familiar with the general shape of his ideas through the filters of later interpreters. But even if I’d consumed the great man’s oeuvre in totality I wonder if the urban myth is so powerful that I’d impute to him the concept anyhow?

Which got me thinking, quite often people in the sciences are unfamiliar with the great works of the past in their primary form. I haven’t read a word of Isaac Newton, but that’s not very important to me because I’ve taken courses which cover mechanics. I only recently read The Origin of Species with any level of understanding, but ultimately much of Charles Darwin’s thinking has become seamlessly interleaved into the body of modern evolutionary biology. In contrast in the humanities the past seems very fresh, and the “readings” of original authors can give one a very distorted impression of the primary source.

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  • Michael Meadon

    The problem with Rousseau is that (like Wittgenstein), there are (at least) two ‘versions’: it’s hard to reconcile his early and late thought. While he certainly did not ‘invent’ the Noble Savage, he does express views in “Discourse on the Arts and Sciences” that is quite clearly a kind of Romantic Primitivism. The Rousseau of “The Social Contract”, though, doesn’t seem to buy that anymore. (Though this is controversial).

    There is a huge literature on this question…

  • bioIgnoramus

    I didn’t read Origin of Species until my forties, and since then I’ve urged all and sundry to read it. It’s the best argued, best written extended advocacy I’ve ever read. Similarly, everyone should read Smith’s Wealth of Nations and Gibbon’s Decline and Fall.

  • bioIgnoramus

    A question for you, Razib. I’m inclined to say that to get a grip on Western Civilisation, at least in its most important variant, one needs to have read those three books, a wodge of Shakespeare, and….and here’s the difficulty. One obviously needs to have some idea of Christianity, but what should one read to get it? Not the Bible I think, either in its Authorised Version or in the more modern editions so helpfully translated into Local Government English. But what?

  • Joshua Zelinsky

    The example I generally give where reading the original really matters is Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolution. What he was saying gets so distorted by others. Even when they try to make a case closer to what he meant they often make the case much weaker. He’s still wrong in many ways, but he’s wrong for much more subtle and interesting reasons, and he’s partially right, whereas lots of the people who have taken what he had to say and ran with it are just all wrong.

  • Dhruva

    razib (my brown brother) have you read any rabindranath tagore, dhan gopal mukerji, or nirad chaudhuri?

  • Razib Khan

    Not the Bible I think, either in its Authorised Version or in the more modern editions so helpfully translated into Local Government English. But what?

    the new testament is quite short though. but if the person is ambitious the church fathers, aquinas, luther, calvin, will give one a good sense of lived and concrete intellectual christianity.

  • bioIgnoramus

    There may be more need for some sort of Guide to Christianity and Its History than I suspected. I watched a documentary this evening which managed to allude to the persecution of the Lollards without mentioning who persecuted them.

  • Razib Khan

    you bring up an interesting point. i’m reluctant to recommend a ‘history of christianity’ because it’s such a big topic, and you kind of need to imbibe the significance of the religion from multiple sources….

  • TGGP

    Didn’t Paul Johnson write a history of christianity?

    When I heard about Rousseau not believing in the Noble Savage from Gene Callahan he blamed the misunderstanding on 18th century racists. But when I checked the Wikipedia link there wasn’t anything about that (the section he linked to was no longer there).

  • Razib Khan

    tggp, i think he meant voltaire (who was a polygenist).

    re: christianity, i think it’s such a big topic i wouldn’t want a novice to be introduced through one author’s viewpoint.

  • dave chamberlin

    Another question for Razib

    What do you think the future holds for the long left tail on the bell shaped curve of human intellegence. We have two theories; 1)societies that can make cockoo clocks are dying out theory. Which assumes the fornicating hordes are out reproducing the highly intellegent and therefore those members of the long left tail will shrink as a percentage of the population. Then we have 2)the selective breeding theory. Which assumes that very bright women and men are attending the very best universities together and selecting each other as mates so that even if Joe Average decends into idiocracy the long left tail will if anything increase in its percentage of the overall population.

    I can ask the question but, it will take someone in this select group to give it a real answer, lol.

  • Razib Khan

    re: #2, i have looked at evidence for it, and don’t see it increasing that much. i think the main hope is better coordination, leveraging, and collective action by the cognitively gifted. more chemical engineers, fewer financial engineers. isaac newton’s grandfather was an illiterate you know.

  • miko

    I’m not sure if i’s what you meant, but i don’t think reading anything about the Christian religion as theology would be required for a grip on western civ. Honest differences over religious tenets are very rarely drivers of history–at best theological differences are pretenses for conflict driven by the usual politics and economics. Even Luther falls into this category.

    The church as a political and economic player is certainly a big force in history, and any good history will–and has to–treat it as such. Knowing the specifics of their magical beliefs doesn’t matter. I think the political power of the church tends to lend false import to the details of their professed beliefs–they are unrelated, any arbitrary dogma in a broad range could fill–and has filled–that role.

    That said, from a literature/philosophy point of view, there is beautiful writing in the context of theology. Though again, I don’t think anyone needs more than some good footnotes to appreciate these things as literature or argument or whatever.

  • Razib Khan

    miko, i agree. why i clarified “intellectual” christianity. that being said, even when talking about the non-intellectual material/social consequences of a religion, i’m worried that a particular author will have a specific viewpoint. this isn’t a major issue if you’re talking about the cultural history of hats in the west. but christianity, or the role of capital in western civilization, are so big that one book isn’t the best idea.

  • Yawnie

    Re Vitamin D Found to Influence Over 200 Genes, Highlighting Links to Disease It says – “there is a growing body of evidence that vitamin D deficiency also increases an individual’s susceptibility to autoimmune conditions such as multiple sclerosis.

    I doubt that, veteran vitamin D researcher Hector DeLuca has recently cast doubt on whether vitamin D synthesis positively affects MS. UV radiation suppresses experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis independent of vitamin D production. I would not be surprised if supplements of vitamin D exacerbated MS.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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