Sunday, June 30, 2013

From My Notebook, no.14

“This debate will, no doubt, continue to unfold in the always contentious and always entertaining annals of the study of the very earliest human ancestors”, Travis Rayne Pickering, 2013: "Rough and Tumble: aggression, Hunting, and human evolution", University of California Press, p 29.
I continue on occasion to read serious authors on anthropology-related subjects, a subject I became interested in some years back when I was interested in human social evolution from my reading of Adam Smith's speculative evolutionary accounts of the history, or rather pre-history, of human societies.  Occasional hints and references to these years culminated in my sketched and unpublished work for my “The Prehistory of Bargaining” (based on my wholly Smithian account of the evolution of “truck, barter and Exchange”, WN I.ii. are made regularly, where appropriate on Lost Legacy and in some of my papers, and in my Note Books).
Hence, when I read the above sentence in a new book by Travis Rayne Pickering, I recognised instantly to what he referred.  Disputes among social anthropologists are classic examples of the worst aspects mutual abuse that some individual scholars bring to their discipline in their corner of the Academy.
I am mindful of a well known case among some “socio-biologists” loosely related to anthropology over suggestions that certain traits in the history of human behaviour had biological roots, leading a distinguished contender for the highest prizes in science to engage in a disgusting behaviour set, including urging his students to disrupt his rival’s classes for expressing different, beliefs about aspects of their interpretation of data that the instigator of this riotous behaviour considered reprehensible, even ‘Nazi-like’.
I think urging students to disrupt someone else’s classes is about as Nazi- or Communist-like as you can get without wearing a provocative armband and carrying a big stick too.
Moreover the two of them were complicit to the extent of not speaking to each though their laboratories were in the same building and they regularly had to pass each other in the corridors and occasionally attended the same official meetings.
Economists are not immune from such anti-intellectual behaviour on occasion. 
In the late 1970s, Milton Friedman gave a lecture at Strathclyde University at the height of his fame for disagreeing with Keynesianism then taught as orthodoxy in the undergraduate Honours degree (where I was the Senior Lecturer in the department’s and gave the final year class in Keynesian Public Finance). 
When I turned up for Professor Friedman’s lecture I was amazed to find a large number of University uniformed janitors in attendance, standing around the walls of the large lecture room and at the front of the platform, from where Professor Friedman was to speak and the University Principal was in the chair the proceedings. 
On asking the Head Porter what was going on (I knew him well from my student days) he told me it was pre-cautionary in case there was trouble from the large audience (by them packing every seat) and hinted they had received information suggesting a ‘riot’ was possible!  In the event there was no trouble, not even hostile interruptions or questions. 
True, the student newspaper had carried stories commenting on Friedman’s ‘unwelcome’ visit (“Friend of Pinochet’s Chile”, etc) and some hostile leaflets had been tossed around the campus, but nobody I knew expected discourteous manners, let alone a ‘riot’!  Indeed, the audience, staff and students, warmly applauded Professor Friedman at the end of his visit particularly for his opening line: “Greetings from the Republic of Letters” and his very evident courteous manners and his clear intellectual coherence, even though many of the economics staff and Honours students did not agree with his remedies for replacing the Keynesian orthodoxy, then on its last legs (until the latest world recession where it is trying to make its come-back).
So intellectual discord is present in anthropology and economics (and for all I know in other disciplines too), but discord over ideas is never acceptable when it becomes personal.
Note how Malthus and Ricardo carried on their debate in their correspondence for many years without either of them stooping to breaches of scholarly manners.


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