… God, who, though his power
Creation could repeat, yet would be loath
Us to abolish, lest the Adversary
—Paradise Lost Book XI
… the literary chit-chat which makes the reputation of poets boom and crash in an imaginary stock exchange …
—The Anatomy of Criticism
“Son, let me make one thing clear,” Air Force General Curtis Le May, the first head of the Strategic Air Command, supposedly said sometime in the 1950s to a young officer who repeatedly referred to the Soviet Union as the “enemy” during a presentation about Soviet nuclear capabilities. “The Soviet Union,” the general explained, “is our adversary. The enemy is the United States Navy.” Similarly, the “sharp rise in U.S. inequality, especially at the very top of the income scale” in recent years—as Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman called it, in 1992—might equally be the result of confusion: as Professor Walter Benn Michaels of the University of Illinois at Chicago has written, “the intellectual left has responded to the increase in economic inequality by insisting on the importance of cultural identity.” The simplest explanation for that disconnect, I’d suggest, is that while the “intellectual left” might talk a good game about “speaking truth to power” and whatnot, “power” is just their adversary. The real enemy is science, especially Darwinian biology—and, yet more specifically, a concept called “survivorship bias”—and that enmity may demonstrate that the idea of an oppositional politics based around culture, rather than science, is absurd.
Like a lot of American wars, this one is often invisible to the American public, partly because when academics like University of Chicago English professor W.J.T. Mitchell do write for the public, they often claim their modest aim is merely to curb scientific hubris. As Mitchell piously wrote in 1998’s The Last Dinosaur Book: The Life and Times of a Cultural Icon, his purpose in that book was merely to note that “[b]iological explanations of human behavior … are notoriously easy, popular, and insidious.” As far as that goes, of course, Mitchell is correct: the history of the twentieth century is replete with failed applications of Darwinian thought to social problems. But then, the twentieth century is replete with a lot of failed intellectual applications—yet academic humanists tend to focus on blaming biology for the mistakes of the past.
Consider for example how many current academics indict a doctrine called “social Darwinism” for the social ills of a century ago. In ascending order of sophistication, here is Rutgers historian Jackson Lears asserting from the orchestra pit, in a 2011 review of books by well-known atheist Sam Harris, that the same “assumptions [that] provided the epistemological foundations for Social Darwinism” did the same “for scientific racism and imperialism,” while from the mezzanine level of middlebrow popular writing here is William Kleinknecht, in The Man Who Sold The World: Ronald Reagan and the Betrayal of Main Street America, claiming that in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, “social Darwinism … had nourished a view of the lower classes as predestined by genetics and breeding to live in squalor.” Finally, a diligent online search discovers, in the upper balcony, Boston University student Evan Razdan’s bald assertion that at the end of the nineteenth century, “Darwinism became a major justification for racism and imperialism.” I could multiply the examples: suffice it to say that for a good many in academe, it is now gospel truth that Darwinism was on the side of the wealthy and powerful during the early part of the twentieth century.
In reality however Darwin was usually thought of as on the side of the poor, not the rich, in the early twentieth century. For investigative reporters like Ida Tarbell, whose The History of the Standard Oil Company is still today the foundation of muckraking journalism, “Darwin’s theory [was] a touchstone,” according to Steve Weinberg’s Taking on the Trust: The Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller. The literary movement of the day, naturalism, drew its characters “primarily from the lower middle class or the lower class,” as Donald Pizer wrote in Realism and Naturalism in Nineteenth-Century American Fiction, and even a scholar with a pro-religious bent like Doug Underwood must admit, as he does in From Yahweh to Yahoo: The Religious Roots of the Secular Press, that the “naturalists were particularly influenced by the theories of Charles Darwin.” Progressive philosopher John Dewey wrote in 1910’s “The Influence of Darwinism on Philosophy” that Darwin’s On the Origin of Species “introduced a mode of thinking that in the end was bound to transform the logic of knowledge, and hence the treatment of morals, politics, and religion.” (As American philosopher Richard Rorty has noted, Dewey and his pragmatists began “from a picture of human beings as chance products of evolution.”) Finally, Karl Marx—a person no one has ever thought to be on the side of the wealthy—thought so highly of Darwin that he exclaimed, in a letter to Frederick Engels, that On the Origin of Species “contains the basis in natural history for our view.” To blame Darwin for the inequality of the Gilded Age is like blaming Smokey the Bear for forest fires.
Even aside from the plain facts of history, however, you’d think the sheer absurdity of pinning Darwin for the crimes of the robber barons would be self-evident. If a thief cited Matthew 5:40—“And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also”—to justify his theft, nobody would think that he had somehow thereby indicted Jesus. Logically, the idea a criminal cites to justify his crime makes no difference either to the fact of the crime or to the idea: that is why the advocates of civil disobedience, like Martin Luther King Jr., held that lawbreaking in the name of a higher law still requires the lawbreaker to be arrested, tried, and, if found guilty, sentenced. (Conversely, is it somehow worse that King was assassinated by a white supremacist? Or would it have been better had he been murdered in the course of a bank robbery that had nothing to do with his work?) Just because someone commits a crime in the name of an idea, as King sometimes did, doesn’t make the idea itself wrong. nor could it make Martin Luther King Jr. any less dead. And anyway, isn’t the notion of taking a criminal’s word about her motivations at face value dubious?
Somehow however the notion that Darwin is to blame for the desperate situation of the poor at the beginning of twentieth century has been allowed to fester in the American university system: Eric Rauchway, a professor of history at the University of California Davis, even complained in 2007 that anti-Darwinism has become so widespread among his students that it’s now a “cliche of the history paper that during the industrial era” all “misery and suffering” was due to the belief of the period’s “lords of plutocracy” in the doctrines of “‘survival of the fittest’” and “‘natural selection.’” That this makes no sense doesn’t seem to enter anyone’s calculations—despite the fact that most of these “lords,” like John Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie, were “good Christian gentlemen,” just like many businessmen are today.
The whole idea of blaming Darwin, as I hope is clear, is at best exaggerated and at worst nonsense. But really to see the point, it’s necessary to ask why all those “progressive” and “radical” thinkers thought Darwin was on their side, not the rich man’s. The answer can be found by thinking clearly about what Darwin actually taught, rather than what some people supposedly used him to justify. And what the biologist taught was the doctrine of natural selection: a process that, understood correctly, is far from a doctrine that favors the wealthy and powerful. It would be closer to the truth to say that, on the contrary, what Darwin taught must always favor the poor against the wealthy.
To many in the humanities, that might sound absurd—but to those uncommitted, let’s begin by understanding Darwin as he understood himself, not by what others have claimed about him. And misconceptions of Darwin begin at the beginning: many people credit Charles Darwin with the idea of evolution, but that was not his chief contribution to human knowledge. A number of very eminent people, including his own grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, had argued for the reality of evolutionary descent long before Charles was even born: in his two-volume work of 1796, Zoonomia; or, the Laws of Organic Life, this older Darwin had for instance asserted that life had been evolving for “millions of ages before the commencement of the history of mankind.” So while the theory of evolution is at times presented as springing unbidden from Erasmus’ grandson Charles’ head, that’s simply not true.
By the time Charles published On the Origin of Species in 1859, the general outline of evolution was old hat to professionals, however shocking it may have been to the general public. On the Origin of Species had the impact it did because of the mechanism Darwin suggested to explain how the evolution of species could have proceeded—not that it presented the facts of evolutionary descent, although it do that in copious detail. Instead, as American philosopher Daniel Dennett has observed, “Darwin’s great idea” was “not the idea of evolution, but the idea of evolution by natural selection.” Or as the biologist Stephen Jay Gould has written, Darwin’s own chief aim in his work was “to advance the theory of natural selection as the most important mechanism of evolution.” Darwin’s contribution wasn’t to introduce the idea that species shared ancestors and hence were not created but evolved—but instead to explain how that could have happened.
What Darwin did was to put evolution together with a means of explaining it. In simplest terms, that natural selection is what Darwin would say it was in the Origin: the idea that, since “[m]ore individuals are born than can possibly survive,” something will inevitably “determine which individual shall live and which shall die.” In such a circumstances, as he would later write in the Historical Sketch of the Progress of Opinion on the Origin of Species, “favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones would be destroyed.” Or as Stephen Jay Gould has succinctly put it, natural selection is “the unconscious struggle among individual organisms to promote their own personal reproductive success.” The word unconscious is the keyword here: the organisms don’t know why they have succeeded—nor do they need to understand. They just do—to paraphrase Yoda—or do not.
Why any of this should matter to the humanities or to people looking to contest economic inequality ought be immediately apparent—and would be in any rational society. But since the American education system seems designed at the moment to obscure the point I will now describe a scientific concept related to natural selection known as survivorship bias. Although that concept is used in every scientific discipline, it’s a particularly important one to Darwinian biology. There’s an argument, in fact, that survivorship bias is just a generalized version of natural selection, and thus it simply is Darwinian biology.
That’s because the concept of “survivorship bias” describes how human beings are tempted to describe mindless processes as mindful ones. Here I will cite one of the concept’s most well-known contemporary advocates, a trader and professor of something called “risk engineering” at New York University named Nassim Nicholas Taleb—precisely because of his disciplinary distance both from biology and the humanities: his distance from both, as Bertold Brecht might have has described it, “exposes the device” by stripping the idea from its disciplinary contexts. As Taleb says, one example of survivorship bias is the tendency all human beings have to think that someone is “successful because they are good.” Survivorship bias, in short, is the sometimes-dangerous assumption that there’s a cause behind every success. But, as Darwin might have said, that ain’t necessarily so.
Consider for instance a hypothetical experiment Taleb constructs in his Fooled By Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets, consisting of 10,000 money managers. The rules of this experiment are that “each one has a 50% probability of making $10,000 at the end of the year, and a 50% probability of losing $10,000.” If we should run this experiment five times—five runs through randomness—then at the end of those conjectural five years, by the laws of probability we can expect “313 managers who made money for five years in a row.” Is there anything especially clever about these few? No: their success has nothing to do with any quality each might possess. It’s simply due, as Taleb says, to “pure luck.” But these 313 will think of themselves as very fine fellows.
Now, notice that, by substituting the word “zebra” for the words “money managers” and “10 offspring” for “$10,000” Taleb has more or less described the situation of the Serengeti Plain—and, as early twentieth-century investigative reporter Ida Tarbell realized, the wilds of Cleveland, Ohio. Tarbell, in 1905’s “John D. Rockefeller: A Character Study” actually says that by 1868, when Rockefeller was a young businessman on the make, he “must have seen clearly … that nothing but some advantage not given by nature or recognized by the laws of fair play in business could ever make him a dictator in the industry.” In other words, Rockefeller saw that if he merely allowed “nature,” as it were, to take its course, he stood a good chance of being one of the 9000-odd failures, instead of the 300-odd success stories. Which is why he went forward with the various shady schemes Tarbell goes on to document in her studies of the man and his company. (Whose details are nearly unbelievable—unless you’re familiar with the details of the 2008 housing bubble.) The Christian gentleman John D. Rockefeller, in other words, hardly believed in the “survival of the fittest.”
It should in other words be clear just how necessary the concept of survivorship bias—and thus Darwin’s notion of natural selection—is to any discussion of economic inequality. Max Weber at least, the great founder of sociology, understood it—that’s why, in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber famously described the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, in which “God’s grace is, since His decrees cannot change, as impossible for those to whom He has granted it to lose as it is unattainable for those to whom He has denied it.” As Weber knew, if the Chosen of God are known by their worldly success, then there is no room for debate: the successful simply deserve their success in a fashion not dissimilar to the notion of the divine right of kings.
If there’s a possibility that worldly success is however due to chance, i.e. luck, then the road is open to argue about the outcomes of the economic system. Since John D. Rockefeller, at least according to Tarbell, certainly did act as though worldly success was far more due to “chance” rather than the fair outcome of a square game, one could I suppose argue that he was a believer in Darwinism like the believers in the “social Darwinist” camp say. But that seems to stretch the point.
Still, what has this to do with the humanities? The answer is that you could do worse than define the humanities by saying they are the disciplines of the university that ignore survivorship bias—although, if so, that might mean that “business” ought to be classified alongside comparative literature in the course catalogue, at least as Taleb puts it.
Examine economist Gary Smith’s Standard Deviations: Flawed Assumptions, Tortured Data, And Other Ways To Lie With Statistics. As Michael Shermer of Pomona College notes in a review of Smith’s book, Smith shows how business books like Jim Collins’ Good to Great “culled 11 companies out of 1,435 whose stock beat the market average over a 40-year time span and then searched for shared characteristics among them,” or how In Search of Excellence, 1982’s best-seller, “identified eight common attributes of 43 ‘excellent’ companies.” As Taleb says in his The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, such studies “take a population of hotshots, those with big titles and big jobs, and study their attributes”—they “look at what those big guns have in common: courage, risk taking, optimism and so on, and infer that these traits, most notably risk taking, help you to become successful.” But as Taleb observes, the “graveyard of failed persons [or companies] will be full of people who shared the following traits: courage, risk taking, optimism, et cetera.” The problem with “studies” like these is that they begin with Taleb’s 313, instead of the 10,000.
Another way to describe “survivorship bias” in other words is to say that any real investigation into anything must consider what Taleb calls the “silent evidence”: in the case of the 10,000 money managers, it’s necessary to think of the 9000-odd managers who started the game and failed, and not just the 300-odd managers who succeeded. Such studies will surely always find “commonalities” between the “winners,” just as Taleb’s 313 will surely always discover some common trait between them—and in the same way that a psychic can always “miraculously” know that somebody just died.
Yet, why should the intellectual shallowness of business writers matter to scholars in the humanities, who write not for popular consumption but for peer-review? Well, because as Taleb points out, the threat posed by survivorship bias to shoddy kinds of scholarship is not particular to shoddy studies and shoddy scholars, but instead is endemic to entire species of writing. Take for instance Shermer’s discussion of Walter Isaacson’s 2011 biography of Apple Computer’s Steve Jobs … which I’d go into if it were necessary.
But it isn’t, according to Taleb: the “entire notion of biography,” Taleb says in The Black Swan, “is grounded in the arbitrary ascription of a causal relation between specified traits and subsequent events.” Biography by definition takes a number of already-successful entities and then tries to explain their success, instead of starting with equally-unknown entities and watching them either succeed or fail. Nobody finds Beethoven before birth, and even Jesus Christ didn’t pick up disciples before adulthood. Biographies then might be entertaining, but they can’t possibly have any real intellectual substance. Biographies could only really be valuable if their authors predicted a future success—and nobody could possibly write a predictive biography. Biography then simply is an exercise in survivorship bias.
And if biography, then how about history? About the only historians who discuss the point of survivorship bias are those who write what’s known as “counterfactual” history. A genre largely kicked off by journalist MacKinlay Kantor’s fictitious 1960 speculation, If the South Had Won the Civil War, it’s been defined by former Regius Professor of History at Cambridge University Richard J. Evans as “alternative versions of the past in which one alteration in the timeline leads to a different outcome from the one we know actually occurred.” Or as David Frum, thinking in The Atlantic about what might have happened had the United States not entered World War I in 1917, says about his enterprise: “Like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, I contemplate these might-have-beens to gain a better appreciation for what actually happened.” In statements like these, historians confront the fact that their discipline is inevitably subject to the problem of survivorship bias.
Maybe that’s why counterfactual history is also a genre with a poor reputation with historians: Evans himself has condemned the genre, in The Guardian, by writing that it “threatens to overwhelm our perceptions of what really happened in the past.” “The problem with counterfactuals,” Evans says, “is that they almost always treat individual human actors … as completely unfettered,” when in fact historical actors are nearly always constrained by larger forces. FDR could, hypothetically, have called for war in 1939—it’s just that he probably wouldn’t have been elected in 1940, and someone else would have been in office on that Sunday in Oahu. Which, sure, is true, and responsible historians have always, as Evans says, tried “to balance out the elements of chance on the one hand, and larger historical forces (economic, cultural, social, international) on the other, and come to some kind of explanation that makes sense.” That, to be sure, is more or less the historian’s job. But I am sure the man on the wire doesn’t like to reminded of the absence of a net either.
The threat posed by survivorship bias extends even into genres that might appear to be immune to it: surely the study of literature, which isn’t about “reality” in any strict sense, is immune to the acid bath of survivorship bias. But look at Taleb’s example of how a consideration of survivorship bias affects just how we think about literature, in the form of a discussion of the reputation of the famous nineteenth French novelist Honoré de Balzac.
Let’s say, Taleb proposes, someone asks you why Balzac deserves to be preserved as a great writer, and in reply “you attribute the success of the nineteenth-century novelist … to his superior ‘realism,’ ‘insights,’ ‘sensitivity,’ ‘treatment of characters,’ ‘ability to keep the reader riveted,’ and so on.” As Taleb points out, those characteristics only work as a justification for preserving Balzac “if, and only if, those who lack what we call talent also lack these qualities.” If, on the other hand, there are actually “dozens of comparable literary masterpieces that happened to perish” merely by chance, then “your idol Balzac was just the beneficiary of disproportionate luck compared to his peers.” Without knowing who Balzac’s competitors were, in other words, we are not in a position to know with certainty whether Balzac’s success is due to something internal to his work, or whether his survival is simply the result of dumb luck. So even literature is threatened by survivorship bias.
If you wanted to define the humanities you could do worse than to say they are the disciplines that pay little to no attention to survivorship bias. Which, one might say, is fine: “In my father’s house are many mansions,” to cite John 14:2. But the trouble may be that, since as Taleb or Smith—and the examples could be multiplied—point out, the work of the humanities share the same “scholarly” standards as those of many “business writers,” it does not really matter how “radical”—or even merely reformist—their claims are. The similarities of method may simply overwhelm the message.
In that sense then, despite the efforts of many academics to center a leftist politics on the classrooms of the English department rather than the scientific lab, that just may not be possible: the humanities will always be centered on fending off survivorship bias in the guise of biology’s threat to “reduce the complexities of human culture to patterns in animal behavior,” as W.J.T. Mitchell says—and in so doing, the disciplines of culture will inevitably end up arguing, as Walter Benn Michaels says, “that the differences that divide us are not the differences between those of who have money and those who don’t but are instead the differences between those of us who are black and those who are white or Asian or Latino or whatever.” The humanities are antagonistic to biology because the central concept of Darwinian biology, natural selection, is a version of the principle of survivorship bias, while survivorship bias is a concept that poses a real and constant intellectual threat to the humanities—and finally, to complete the circle, survivorship bias is the only argument against allowing the rich to run the world according to their liking. It may then not be any wonder why, as the tide has gone out on the American dream, the American academy has essentially responded by saying “let’s talk about something else.” To the gentlemen and ladies of the American disciplines of the humanities, the wealthy are just the adversary.