Good Letters

I read that famed biologist E.O. Wilson provoked a tempest by claiming a genetic basis for social cooperation that has the politically unfortunate side-effect of undermining a widely embraced explanation for the persistence of homosexuality.

If he’s right, we’re stuck with an uncomfortable reality that homosexuality is a choice, or a learned behavior, or something that sounds equally unsavory in the parlors of the enlightened.

I don’t have a dog in that hunt, but I confess I enjoy seeing scientists upset. Whenever you stumble upon a coven of them inveighing against a line of inquiry, you can be fairly certain there’s something worth inquiring after. Discoveries are frequently advanced by heretics, after all, and reviled, up until the very last, by the keepers of orthodoxy.

The reason expert denunciation should draw one’s attention is that very few of us like to be wrong. Fewer still like to stand shivering beyond the glow of tribal fires. A thinker will only stand lonely and shivering, therefore, if he really is convinced he has glimpsed something to indicate that the campfire needs to be dragged, ember by brand, in his direction.

Dogma guardians, meanwhile, only assemble to denounce him when, deep down, they worry he may be right. You ignore the crazy man at the back of the bus, but you argue with the colleague who says your math is wrong (and if this isn’t true of you, then you may yourself be a crazy person—or perhaps you are my eleven year-old, who will cheerfully argue with a fencepost if I let him).

Wherever experts gather to hurl opprobrium, in other words, has often been precisely where a newly discerned truth is emerging.

Michael Polanyi, a chemist before the Second World War, wrote about this phenomenon in his densely packed Personal Knowledge. Repulsed by the utilitarian, centralized approach to science of thuggish German and Russian regimes, Polanyi became a philosopher of science, and a staunch advocate for creative freedom.

One of Polanyi’s many insights is that much essential knowledge is tacit, and a product of engaging with, rather than simply analyzing, the world.

Tacit knowledge is one reason economic micromanagement often fails catastrophically. The whiz kids in the regulatory bureau—or megalith corporation’s headquarters—don’t know, despite (or because of?) their educations, that the valve on the widget plant’s number-six boiler gives off a high-pitched whine right before it blows a seal, or that you have to whack it with a wrench when it sticks in freezing weather, or a dozen other facts that make the local engineer the best judge of how to run it safely and efficiently, until the geniuses in central command bury him under procedures, or replace him with someone who has more education, the chief effect of which is a willingness to follow procedures without asking questions.

Polanyi discerned, further, that discovery often occurs in flashes of insight, when multiple ideas and observations converge in a brief and blissful brain symphony. Entranced by his epiphany, the scientist applies the tools of his trade to prove it was not a mirage.

Polanyi counterposed this holistic envisioning against the reductionism that is characteristic of the small-minded, be they scientists, government officials, corporate chieftains, or even people unencumbered by advanced degrees.

As a schoolboy, I was taught that “the scientific process” means dispassionate, reductionist hypothesis-exploration. You break things into parts and analyze each in turn to understand them.

Perhaps not coincidentally, this was when I grew bored with science—and most other classroom subjects for that matter. I preferred novels, where big, interrelated, utterly unexpected things can happen on any page. Unless one is reading Danielle Steel.

I think more serious teaching of literature—by teachers who read, if there are enough of them to go around—would make for better scientists. This is no doubt a counter-intuitive notion to those utilitarian technocrats busily displacing fine arts with computer labs.

Literature engenders wild and independent thought. It prepares the mind—as prayer cultivates the heart—for epiphany. Epiphany is the chief enemy of intellectual orthodoxy, and reductionism, and rote procedure.

Which I don’t suspect will make my case with the technocrats.

Maybe technocrats run the world, so who am I to spare a child an opportunity to join their ranks? Schools now proudly embrace a utilitarian ethos (How will this resource get as many children as possible to the next level?).

Political parties, meanwhile, are havens for technocrats; their bombast is only proof (Which bold statement will shift as many undecideds to our camp, solidify our core, yet run little risk of mobilizing our opponents?)

And churches? You need only peruse the multiplicity of titles on church growth and giving-unit cultivation to glimpse what the Dewey decimal system spans in Hell. (Because make no mistake, in Hell they use the Dewey decimal system.)

Maybe technocrats run the world, but they possess none of the power to change it, at least not for the better. This will fall to people who read and think and pray well, and who, I suspect, would have made very bad computer-lab students.

All of which means those nights I read to my children aren’t small things, but potential revolutionary acts. With any luck, they’ll draw protests from the gathered experts themselves one day.

The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Tony Woodlief

Tony Woodlief lives in North Carolina. His essays have appeared in The Wall Street Journal and The London Times, and his short stories appeared in Image, Ruminate, Saint Katherine Review, and Dappled Things. His website

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