2004 February 22 Sunday
University Presidents Are Pre-Darwinian

Tyler Cowen of Marginal Revolution has a post about what university presidents think undergraduates ought to read.

Here is what university presidents think:

1. The Bible
2. The Odyssey
3. The Republic
4. Democracy in America
5. The Iliad
6. Hamlet
7. (tie) Wealth of Nations, The Koran, The Prince
10. (tie) Federalist Papers, Don Quixote, On Liberty, Invisible Man, King Lear, War and Peace, Moby Dick, The Lexus and the Olive Tree

What an incredibly deficient list. The longer list is not much better and completely misses the bulk of what science is telling us about human nature, life forms in general, and the physical laws of the universe. A person can not be truly educated if that person does not understand:

  • The scientific method.
  • Evolution by natural selection.
  • Statistics.
  • Some basic physics.

Evolution of species by natural selection is obviously the most important idea to come along in the last couple hundred years. Yet most people (and I suspect, most university presidents) still model the world using a pre-Darwinian set of concepts. Plus, even a lot of people who accept natural selection created us still shrink from embracing many of its ramifications (including the fact that natural selection is still happening).

What does it tell us about university presidents that many of them cited Karl Marx and not a single one cited Charles Darwin? Marxism is not a useful set of ideas for thinking about the world. Yet natural selection obviously is. At least the university presidents didn't mention some other discredited modern era frauds such as Sigmund Freud and Margaret Mead.

The inclusion of Stephen Hawking's A Brief History Of Time for a science book is a poor choice since it is not going to teach the reader how to think scientifically or to be able to better understand science. Two mentioned Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel which strikes me as a poor choice. William H. McNeill's review and follow-up outline some of the problems with the book as has Steve Sailer. So the university presidents have no useful advice to offer students to learn about biological science and human nature. They could have pointed to a number of other books such as Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. or perhaps Edward O. Wilson's Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge.

Colleges and universities do a poor job of training young minds. They are very costly, inefficient, and do not require their students to learn basic topics which are essential for making sense of the world. My own biggest educational deficiency is that I had only a single class in statistics and that was not mandated. As a result, I know enough math to detect all sorts of fallacies coming from second rate social scientists (i.e. most social science academics), commentators, politicians, and others. But I'm painfully aware that there are types of analyses I just can't do or even follow that the statistically more adept can perform. You can't understand reality without understanding statistics. Does that mean I'm not truly educated? Afraid so.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2004 February 22 04:19 PM  Human Nature

Steve Anich said at February 22, 2004 4:35 PM:

Add Dawkin's Self Gene for Evalutionary Theory. For basic stats add Cartoon Guide to Statistics (I am not joking).

Grim said at February 22, 2004 6:14 PM:

It may be that university professors were considering works that really ought to be read in the original. Science and mathematics benefit from an approach that can treat the latest theories and arguments, as well as providing a grounding in the history of the doctrines. An up to date textbook is better for that than actually reading Darwin's writings.

The Iliad, on the other hand, is not improved by being made into a textbook. It ought to be read in the original Greek, but failing that, in an accurate translation--I like the Fitzgerald myself. Many of these other works are of the same type--literary masterpieces that everyone ought to actually read. They can't be substituted with excerpts or textbooks, whereas Darwin not only can, but thereby improved upon.

Randall Parker said at February 22, 2004 7:21 PM:

Grim, The top 10 include a book by Thomas Friedman of all people. The longer list includes some history books and the book What Color Is Your Parachute.

Though, on a more positive note I just noticed that the longer list includes two votes for Matt Ridley's Genome.

Yes, there are timeless great classics of literature. But science now offers a considerable source of understanding of human nature. A recommended book reading list for undergrads ought to show a recognition of this fact.

Jeff Schaeper said at February 22, 2004 7:23 PM:

Maybe there is a reason that Darwin is not on the list and it is that Darwin's theory is not holding up too well. When "Origins of the Species" was first published the fossil gaps were very large and you could argue that natural selection could account for the variations seen in species. Since then the fossil gaps have narrrowed significantly without the gradualism proposed in Darwin's thesis. Stephen Gould's solution was to propose "sudden spurt" mutation that would quite conveniently fit in the missing gaps. But that contradicts gradualism which is at the heart of Darwin's theory.

Secondly genetic research is not supporting evolution either. Mitochondrial DNA (directly passed from the female with no recombinant DNA from the male) has shown very little variation less than 7% which argues against evolution as currently propounded.

So I would submit that Darwin doesn't fit as 'truth' yet. Darwin as currently taught may be a fad just like Freud and Mead. In his place I would put Arisotle's scientific works including "ethics". After all Aristotle started the scientific method.

Daniel Von Fange said at February 23, 2004 5:48 AM:

BTW, they question they are answering is: "What are five books you believe every undergraduate university student should read and study in order to engage in the intellectual discourse, commerce, and public duties of the 21st century?" Coming at it from that angle, I think it's a pretty good list. Those books are for the most part classics on human nature. Human nature stays pretty much the same through out history. If you know human nature, you are much more likely to be successful learning, living, thinking, and leading.

Even if evolutionary theory is/was essential to "intellectual discourse, commerce, and public duties", I don't think I could name one book that is such masterpiece that almost everyone would cite it as The Book on evolution (which would be needed to get onto the list), and that is not likely to be proven false in a few years.

Grim said at February 23, 2004 7:01 AM:

Yeah, I saw the Friedman book. I can't account for that one at all, at least, not in a way that speaks well of educators. :) On the other hand, most of the books are in line with what I would suggest. I don't mean to say that they represent a complete education--just that they represent most of the books that should actually be read, as opposed to theories and doctrines that can better be taught from textbooks, or by lecture, or laboratory class.

Bob Badour said at February 23, 2004 8:11 AM:


With the rapid discoveries in genetics and pharmaceuticals that are happening right now, human nature might change very suddenly in the coming decades rendering those classics meaningless.

If Marx was on the list and The Wealth of Nations was on the list, by any chance, was The Road to Serfdom on the list? My guess is No.

Invisible Scientist said at February 23, 2004 1:58 PM:

Whether the academic is for or against Darwinism, is immaterial.
The fact is that there is a correlation between the citizen's IQ
and his/her income ( there are certainly geniuses who chose to be poor,
but I am talking about the actual statistics here.) It is also a fact
that people with high income or high IQ marry among themselves in general,
even though there are exceptions. As a result, there is stratification
in the society, as a function of time. As time progresses, we shall
see that the top 1 % families will own 95 % of the world. (Right now,
the top 10 % families own 90 % of the USA.)

The US Credit System actually nurtures indirectly the separation between
the upper and lower classes, because in order for the credit system to work,
the government is forced to add more money to the economy in the form
of deficit spending, and all the new money given to the lower classes, is
indirectly transferred to the upper classes when the lower classes purchase
goods and services with the new money given to them. The US Credit System is
thus indirectly a transmissiom mechanism for the wealth to the upper classes.

This theory is explained by the Generalized Hydrodynamic Equations
found at the web page, where the cyclical nature of the depressions
is discussed:

The bottom line is that since the producer upper class needs the
consumer lower classes to make a profit, the increasing
separation between classes can cause a depression in the future.

Norman said at February 23, 2004 3:01 PM:

A major problem with much of what's been said above, is the assumption that many people actually understand what they have read --- or, for that matter, have written.

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