In its current issue, the Atlantic magazine has an interesting item,”The 14 Biggest Ideas of the Year”, together with a short discussion about each of them. (The sub-headline is: “A guide to the intellectual trends that, for better or worse, are shaping America right now. (Plus a bunch of other ideas, insights, hypotheses, and provocations)” ). For interest, I’ll show them below (headings only). They’re a varied bunch. Some of them, in my view, are significant and some are insignificant (even untrue).
What grabbed me about the list is that the first and third of the ideas (presumably of high importance in the Atlantic’s view), would also be high on my list. They happen to be written by two of the most brilliant observers of the current world scene, namely Gillian Tett and Chrystia Freeland. As for Dana Priest — someone I haven’t come across before — I am not so sure about her contribution, “Nothing stays secret”. We will probably never know just what is being discussed right now in the two most powerful decision-taking groups in the world, namely the top clique in the US Treasury and the nine members of the Chinese Politburo. Perhaps our grandchildren might when memoirs will be published.
However, here follows the list. I’ll then follow this with what I think is by far and away the most important new idea (or, rather, bunch of them), not just of this year, but of this century.
1. The Rise of the Middle Class — [it’s] just not ours
2. Nothing stays secret
3. The Rich are different from you and me
4. Elections work
5. The Arab Spring is a jobs crisis
6. Wall Street, same as it ever was
7. Public Employee, public Enemy
8. Grandma’s in the Basement (and Junior’s in the Attic)
9. The Next War will be digitized
10. Bonds are dead (Long live Bonds)
11. Gay is the true Normal
12. The Players own the Game
13. The Maniac will be Televised
14. The Green Revolution is neither
Except perhaps for the cosmos or the quantum world, scientific investigation is now proceeding into the most complex of all the disciplines that have ever been attempted — and with astonishing success. I speak of evolutionary biology (or evolutionary psychology as it is also known as). The first draft of the Human Genome Project in 2003 was a thunder-clap that has been reverberating ever since with an ever-expanding number of research teams all round the world.
DNA (for all life-forms) is proving to be far more complex than was ever dreamed in the 1990s when the HGP and other parallel projects were first started. At least three or four major revisions have had to be made to the orthodox view of genetics that arose in 1953, when the structure of DNA was first established by Crick, Franklin, Watson and Wilkins. However, the other side of the complexity coin is a huge paradox. This is that the behaviour of the human species is becoming clearer than ever, simpler by far than all the outpourings of philosophers, poets and visionaries since they started to be recorded about 2,500 years ago.
In the simplest terms, human nature is no different from the behaviour of 3,000 other mammalian species. Rank order, and consequent choice of sex partners by freely choosing females, is the only method by which quality control of DNA within a species is maintained. Furthermore, the rank ordering takes place within relatively small groups, and sexual choice mostly takes place between groups of extremely similar cultures. Furthermore, it is only in small groups that significant new ideas can be developed and thenceforth propagated, and then only to other small groups of a similar cultural level. As to both cases — sexual choice and ideas-transfer — they only take place when there is a degree of friendliness between groups, but this is usually only a temporary condition. Most of the time, the relationship between groups is tense, even to breaking out occasionally into warfare, even to the extent of indescribable cruelty.
Such a view is regarded by hundreds, if not thousands, of intelligent writers and observers around the world as being simplistic. At present, they hold sway in the media and political circles. But these are the views of those who know little about biology and even less about genes. We’re not yet fully into the era of the DNA-sequencer machine, just as the world of 1700 or thereabouts was not yet into the era of the steam engine or the electrical dynamo. However, because genetics is powerfully driven mainly for medical benefits — and knowledge of human nature is, as it were, largely a byproduct — then scientific investigation will continue to accelerate and the newly clarifying views of human nature will follow also.
Our present form of government, the nation-state, was in the making for centuries but really didn’t crystallize to its present form until the days of the artillery regiment two centuries ago. Our civil services — the only true power brokers within the modern nation-state — are largely multi-level civilian copycats of the armed service hierarchies. But this has only led us into chaos. We can hope for better forms of governance in due course when the findings of evolutionary biology make their way into the minds of politicians and economists who, at present, can only think in terms of aggregates, whether of votes or banknotes. They’ll be the ones who will one day be regarded as simplicists.