3 March 2011



Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piatelli-Palmarini. What Darwin Got Wrong. Profile Books, 2011.

Rosemany Pilkington (Ed.) Esprit: Men and Women of Parapsychology; Personal Reflections. Volume 1. Anomalist Books, 2010.

Barbara Ehrenreich. Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled American and the World. Granta, 2010

James Shapiro. Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare. Faber and Faber, 2011.
Anyone reading Jerry Fodor's book in hopes of getting some kind of creationist attack on evolution is going to be disappointed, the authors do not doubt the facts of evolution, merely the applicability of what is sometimes known as the Neo-Darwinian synthesis. Many of their arguments are of a highly technical nature and I could not possibly comment on their accuracy or otherwise. Indeed one of the problems of this book is that it is difficult to work out who the intended readership is meant to be. It is far too technical in many places to be of interest to the lay readership, while professionals are clearly unlikely to be greatly sympathetic to the intervention of outsiders. The authors are cognitive psychologists, though Massimo Piatelli-Palmarini was formerly a molecular biologist, and it would appear that they have been surprised by the negative reaction of those professional evolutionary biologists who have reviewed the book. Dare one suggest that it is only by creating such a row that this book becomes a saleable commodity? After all if it been given a bland title such as 'New Factors in Evolutionary Biology: A Philosophical Overview," or similar it would have likely made little fuss, and had limited appeal. No doubt the authors' are correct in arguing that many complex factors are at play in evolution, but their more general critique of 'The Theory of Natural Selection' at times seems to degenerate into semantics.

🔺 Pilkington's Esprit is a reprint, with a new introduction, of a series of autobiographical pieces by 'elder statesmen' of parapsychology, first published in 1987. As the participants were already elderly then, and most have since died, their names (Jule Eisenbud, Montague Ullman, Jan Ehrenwald, Eileen Coly, Joseph Rush, Gertrude Schmeidler, Emilio Servadio, Renee Haynes, Hans Bender, Karlis Osis, George Zorab and Bernard Grad) are probably not at all familiar to the wider public, or even perhaps to younger parapsychologists. They were significant though in their own time. Perhaps the main interest of this book is to see the sort of anomalous personal experiences which set them on their path and the extent to which some of them, at least, all well educated and cultured people, could come to believe in things which most of their colleagues and the wider scientific community consider not just unlikely but impossible. These include such things as Ted Serios' thought photography (Eisenbud), the "miracles" of Sai Baba (Osis) or the orgone boxes of Wilhelm Reich (Grad).

🔺If you want to really understand why groups like CSICOP get so hot under the collar in the US, then Barbara Ehrenreich's book will give you some clues. It traces the development of an essentially authoritarian culture of 'positive thinking' in health, business and religion which has begun to permeate the country. The author came across the culture herself while being treated for breast cancer, in the form of support groups which not only see cancer patients as a ready market for all sorts of kitsch, but who create an atmosphere of blame the victim. To express fear, rage and other natural human emotions over their condition is regarded as negative thinking, and those who fail to recover are told it is more or less there own fault. Some of these now portray cancer as a 'gift'. Presumably other 'gifts' which positive thinkers will promote in the future including being raped, having your teenage child knifed to death in an alley, your partner killed in Afghanistan, or indeed the 'gift' of 9/11.

There is some degree of choice about joining a support group, but in business it is often a matter of compulsion. The dominance of various kinds of essentially childlike magical thinking, of the "wish upon a star" variety now seems to be replacing notions of expertise, education and hard work as a route to success. Ehrenreich suggests that one reason for this is that rational behaviour and choices do not seem to lead to much success in a constantly downsizing, worker-crushing work environment. Positive thinking becomes a lens through which the grotesquely overpaid megalomaniacs at the top of the corporate ladder can ignore any criticism or words of warning, hence the global financial collapse.

The author reveals a world of motivational speakers, life coaches and other parasites, populated by cranks, charlatans, chancers, con-artists and plain old fashioned crooks, who make a fortune by conning the deluded and the desperate. There are also the 'prosperity churches' which have created a form of Christianity-lite in which all that subversive talk about the meek and poor inheriting the earth, or the difficulties of rich folk getting through the eyes of needles has been deleted.

Ehrenreich traces the development of this New Age-y positive thinking to the New Thought movements of the mid 19th century, which reacted against the dour Calvinism of their ancestors. Perhaps another cause for the development, and one which explains similar trends in the former Communist societies, is that they, like the United States, had a utopian vision of themselve, and are conceived as essentially a perfect society, and in a perfect society if things go wrong for you it must be your fault and not the fault of the social organisation.

🔺Shapiro examines the history of beliefs and speculation about Shakespeare, and the claims that someone else wrote his plays, most notably Francis Bacon or Edward de Vere Earl of Oxford. The first was originally promoted by an American English teacher, Delia Bacon (apparently no connection), and the latter by the rather unfortunately named Thomas Looney, and both were much elaborated on, and gained the adherence of celebrities ranging from Mark Twain to Sigmund Freud.

Many of the arguments brought out by these various contrarians display many of the features encountered in other fringe literature, the argument from snobbery (how could a Stratford yokel rather than a courtier write these plays), reliance on cryptograms and hidden meanings in the text and grandiose and monumentally implausible conspiracy theories, such as those that have Bacon or Oxford as both the illegitimate son and lover of Queen Elizabeth. Needless to say if there was even the faintest suggestion of such an extraordinary scandal it would have been the talk of the courts of Europe and featured heavily in the propaganda against Elizabeth. Shapiro shows how these ideas have grown out of changes in mores over the years, in particular the rise of the idea that literature is largely autobiographical, an idea quite foreign to Shakespeare's time. -- Reviews by Peter Rogerson.

1 comment:

Howard Schumann said...

The argument for Edward de Vere as Shakespeare does not come from snobbery nor is it dependent on Oxford either being the son or lover of Queen Elizabeth.

It is based on evidence (too numerous to discuss here), something which academics like Shapiro do not bother to examine but can readily be found in books from Ogburn to Mark Anderson and in websites such as www.politicworm.com.

Shaoiro would rather use character assassination to denigrate such great literary figures as Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, and Henry James who happened to have the vision to see what was underneath the Stratford mythology.