The rise and fall of a muddled intellectual


  • Social brain

I’ve gone full circle today.

At lunchtime I thought to myself ‘Matthew, at last, you are truly an intellectual’.

I had introduced a fascinating RSA Thursday talk by Dr Timothy Taylor on his book ‘The Artificial Ape: how technology changed the course of human evolution’. The essence of Dr Taylor’s argument – which has been popularised by a number of newspapers – is that rather than technological innovation being the result of humans  being more intelligent, it is advances in technology (and particular ways for women to carry babies on their backs or chests) that made it possible for us to develop bigger brains. Furthermore, modern technology now relieves us of the need to be born with good eyesight (glasses), memories (handheld computers), or maybe even strength (steroids, artificial limbs). As this means poorly endowed human beings can survive and prosper, we can expect human evolution to start to go into reverse.

Dr Taylor’s talk also included a complex refutation of Richard Dawkins’ idea that technologies are memes. It wasn’t just that I kind of understood the argument, nor that I found the talk compelling, which filled me with self satisfaction. Instead, it was the feeling of deep frustration when I realised it was highly unlikely I would get the time to read the book itself. The distinguished anthropologist, Adam Kuper, who chaired the event, had promised us that ‘The Artificial Ape’ was not only learned and provocative but also incredibly well-written. But I just knew I wouldn’t be able to enjoy Dr Taylor’s book in the small window of time I have until another brilliant work displaces it as ‘the book I wish I had time to read’.    

I realised that the intensity of my frustration at not reading the book was as passionate as feelings I have only previously directed to more prosaic subjects. While I may have spent decades banging on about social justice and big ideas, the things that really get me going are football and - yes I know it’s disgraceful at my age - sexual desire. But here I was, displaying the same passionate desire to read a book about human evolution previously preserved for a West Brom victory or my various fantasies about Michelle Pfeiffer. What better evidence could there be of my status as an intellectual?

But then, just as I was basking in my new self satisfaction, an e-mail link popped up to yesterday’s post. It was to a very clever blog called Bad Conscience. This is what it said:

Matthew Taylor has some typically muddled thoughts about rational self-interest (with a big dollop of RSA propaganda), but correctly concludes that people are not simply self-interested utility maximisers but rather that altruism and disinterested benevolence are possible.

You won’t need me to say which two words pierced my just-inflated ego like a dart. ‘Occasionally muddled’ I could have coped with, ‘typically eclectic’ would have been fine, but ‘typically muddled’! It’s just so disdainful.

I'm now off to France for a couple of days. If it’s sunny and I start to doze on the beach I won’t flatter myself with grasping for big ideas. Instead I will stay with what I know and what brings me comfort in my declining years: a Hollywood star with great bone structure inexplicably but winningly sporting a blue and white striped football shirt.

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