Joe Thinks the Big Thoughts

Three things happened to yours truly over the last ten days. First, I, along with the rest of humanity, survived past the end of the Mayan calendar. Second, I had the flu. Third, as a result of happenstance 2, I was finally able to finish reading a delightful book: Charles Darwin, Portaint of a Genius by Paul Johnson. It’s a book I’ve been anticipating for a while now: a succinct, learned and extremely polite critical biography of Darwin, written by a heavyweight historian. I’d been expecting such a book because, well, it’s about due.

Not that I have anything against Darwin, mind you. But like a lot of people I’ve become, shall we say, a little tired of the man. Or perhaps to put the point a bit more finely, I’ve gotten tired of the mindless obeisance that’s paid to Darwin in everything from natural history specials to psychology books to business and political essays. The way we throw around terms like “evolution”, “adaptation” and “survival of the fittest” as if a.) we really knew what they meant, b.) they were thoroughly proven, unassailable scientific concepts and C.) Darwin actually invented all of them to begin with.

We don’t, they aren’t and he didn’t. But very few authoritative history writers have dared say so, presumably for fear of being relegated to a literary category heavily populated by frothing hyper-religious wackadoodles. Can one even take up a position that’s critical of Darwin yet still be an evolutionist? Certainly one can, and it’s why I’m very thankful to Mr. Johnson and appreciative of the risks he’s taken. That he’s touched a nerve with his book is evident. Darwin dogmatists have gone absolutely, er, ape over the thing, even though Johnson’s criticisms are really quite mild. So much so that Darwin himself would have agreed with most of them.

Like what? Well, that Darwin didn’t invent the idea of evolution for one. It was a widely-held if rarely spoken belief in Darwin’s day. Most of Darwin’s intellectual peers, to say nothing of his father and even his grandfather, were “free thinkers” as they were called in those days. In fact one could fairly make the argument that the ideas of evolution and adaptation weren’t unique even to the Enlightenment, but date back as far as the ancient Greeks.

What On the Origin of Species did, more than anything else, was to make evolutionary ideas legitimate subjects of discussion. It popped the cap on a dialogue that many adventurous thinkers had longed to have, but feared to initiate for being labeled anti-religious. The reaction to it wasn’t so much Wow! This is completely new and groundbreaking! so much as Whew! I’m sure glad somebody with some credibility finally said something!

For Darwin didn’t research his evolutionary theories all that terribly much. Origin and its very, very long sequel were based on a mere two years of field work Darwin did in his twenties traveling aboard the H.M.S. Beagle. The only concrete, long-term research Darwin did in his life was on the subject of worms and mollusks, ultra-primitive creatures he studied in his house near London. A great deal of what he wrote, especially the bits pertaining to higher mammals, was speculative and largely unsupported by observation.

Certainly the fossil record doesn’t support evolution as most of us conceive of it. The “middle steps” are all missing, the points where nature is supposed to have tested out various biological designs: the newts without spleens, say, or the squirrels with just two bones in their fingers, before mother nature figured out they needed three.

There’s none of that, which is odd. Assuming nature is constantly riffing on all its myriad biological themes — something most of us have been taught to believe from a young age — fossil beds should be bursting with evolution’s go-nowhere melodies. That they aren’t was a source of great puzzlement to Darwin. And if he could puzzle, can’t Paul Johnson? He can and he should if he likes, without being labeled a “creationist”, since his critiques are by and large quite reasonable.

Joe, why are you bringing all this up? Isn’t this a baking blog? Indeed it is, friends. Indeed it is. My goal here is not to engage in a debate on the subject of evolution, but rather to begin the calendar year by exploring some thoughts on beginnings and endings.

Does anyone remember the CERN “OPERA” experiment from fifteen months or so ago? The one which — at least for a while — seemed to undermine Einsteins’s theories on the speed of light and time travel? Well it got me thinking. Specifically that the authority of the big thinkers that have dominated our discourse — scientific and otherwise — for the last 150 years is being eroded. Who are those thinkers? You know them, everybody does. Who comes immediately to mind when someone mentions the words “political philosophy”? What about psychoanalysis? Physics? Natural history?

Marx, Freud, Einstein and Darwin. Together they established the intellectual frame inside which most of us, whether we know it or not, think. Their assumptions and mental models have become so widely adopted that we’re not even aware we’re using them when we process ideas. But we all do it, pretty much every day. Even if you hate Marx, for instance, you still think at least some of his thoughts, I guarantee it. His ideas are part of our modern mental software, even though Marxism lost what little vitality it had left when the Soviet Union collapsed (university humanities and econ departments are among its final redoubts). As for Freud, when’s the last time you heard anyone talk about penis envy or anal fixations with a straight face? So when Einstein appeared to fall, I thought: that’s three down! And I started waiting for a Darwin book, which seemed like the logical thing to do under the circumstances.

When the OPERA results turned out to be a bust I was disappointed. I was really hoping that those neutrinos had traveled faster than the speed of light. I was hoping — as the initial results indicated — that they had arrived at Gran Sasso before they were ever fired from CERN. What a mind freak that would have been! But tell me true, you were hoping for the very same thing, weren’t you? Sure you were. We all were, which indicates (at least to me) that the world is hungering for something new.

So I don’t think I’m alone in wanting something more that mere Darwin right now. I don’t want his ideas debunked and scrapped. I believe them for the most part. Einstein? His vision of the world can remain intact as well, just as Newton’s did even after Albert showed up. Karl? Sigmund? They’ll both have something to contribute in the new future. But they’ll all take a back seat to that someone — or that group of someones — that slaps down the next bigger, broader frame.

It seems like it’s coming soon. Everywhere old edifices are on the verge of collapse. Witness our politics and economies. The 20th century industrial model that replaced the 19th century agricultural model has run its course, at least here in the States. The big industries that built the big factories that supplied the millions of jobs that powered American life in the 20th century are going, going…gone. Gone to Mexico or Asia, never to return. Meanwhile in Washington politicians of the parties of yesterday are bickering over how long they can keep last century’s America chugging (and get the Chinese to pay for it).

Can it last? Not a chance. Which means the next thing, whatever it is, is coming for us. Not just we Americans but Europeans, Asians, the lot. I don’t think it’ll be a bad thing at all, but a very different thing, and we’ll need the economies, politics and Big Ideas to fit it.

The logical question here is: fit what? If I knew that I wouldn’t be sitting here alone in my garage blogging. But if I were to hazard a guess I’d say that the build-big, make lots, consume-even-more model that our economics and politics (both right and left) have relied on for 100 years is history. I don’t think that means we’ll be poorer, in fact I think emerging technologies will make us all wealthier than ever. Our houses might be smaller and we’ll own fewer cars, but we’ll be rich in what we’ll be able to access and experience. The new digital age will be sleek, fast, liberating and all about customization and personalization. There’ll be a lot less mass-produced, one-size-fits-all and a lot more small-run, made for me.

As that happens it might just be that the crass, self-obsessive materialism that’s been a hallmark of the Marx-Freud-Einstein-Darwin era might give way to something that’s a little more fulfilling, humane and outward-looking. Maybe something, dare I say, transcendent.

It’d be a darn good world to bake in if it came to pass, that much is for sure. So thanks, Mayans, for bringing a ceremonial end to the world as we know it. I appreciate it. Thanks also to you, Paul Johnson, for wobbling another of the big statues. It needed it. And thanks above all to you, my dear reader, for following this big silly post this far. I promise I won’t do this again, at least until next New Year’s! – Joe

25 thoughts on “Joe Thinks the Big Thoughts”

  1. Happy New Year!

    Very thought-provoking post. I guess theories are not proposed (and proved) so that we remain stagnant around them. They are always, by their very nature, stepping-stones for the next theories that will be built on their shoulders, or in their place, whichever is appropriate. (But it’s rather a long process!)

    Do you think molecular gastronomy or modernist cuisine will replace plain old baking and cooking? Sometimes the “next big thing” turns out to be very small!

    1. Thanks, Chana, and happy New Year to you too!

      As for your question, I don’t really know. I see molecular gastronomy as a continuation of an arms race that restaurants have been engaged in with home cooks and bakers for quite a while. As “foodism” has grown, high-end restaurants have been under pressure to take food into a realm where we ordinary folks can’t follow…at least not easily. Otherwise, why go out?

      I’m sure home cooks and bakers will catch up at least a little with the technology as time goes along. But home cooking and baking will always be highly prized I think. I gave all of the girls’ teachers home-baked rolls when the girls left on their Christmas holiday. You’d have thought they were made of gold by the way they were received. I don’t think loving hands can ever be truly replaced, not to get all Oprah on you.

      – Joe

  2. Happy New Year Joe, and I am sorry about your flu. I always have a flu shot and so far, it seems to work.
    I must read this. Back in my undergrad days, I was a biology major and I like to keep up with the field. I have read other books by Paul Johnson and have very much enjoyed them. I especially enjoyed A History of the American People. It was very interesting to read American history written by a Brit.

    1. Hey Ellen! Yes, he’s great. I’m reading his Churchill book right now and it’s excellent. Modern Times taught me quite a lot as well. Check that out sometime if you can. You probably won’t like everything about the book (I didn’t), but it’s valuable for a lot of reasons. Let me know what you think of it when you’re done!

      – Joe

  3. I’m still trying to absorb the part about you blogging in your garage.

    Always thought provoking and interesting, Joe!

    1. Well, it’s a garage/office if that helps. The prior owners of our house made hot sauce in here, which is a really strange thought. They had a barbecue restaurant and a mail order sauce business. But it’s actually quite well appointed and comfortable. It’s part of the reason we bought the house!

      – Joe

  4. Joe,

    Happy new year! Thanks for sharing. You make me want to visit Louisville and have a long and fascinating talk in a coffee shop. Or over a bourbon on the rocks…I guess it depends on the time of day.

    But thanks for thinking big and sharing all along the way. The “big name” thing is a little funny because I have caught myself saying, “Joe Pastry said….” in conversation. And not just about baking. Its all the more awkward when no one knows what I am talking about. Duh, French Revolutionary concepts about food and basic sauces!?!

    On a more sentimental note, I hope the “new” does bring back some of the old; like a value for deeper relationships, quality conversation, and legitimate rest. I am encouraged by the younger 20-somethings I know and their longings for more.

    1. Get on down here, Derek! There’s plenty of the good stuff (black or brown) to go around in this town. I’m ever-appreciative when I find a wide receiver for one of the loopy hail Mary passes I pitch out there!

      And I’m with you on bringing back some old with the new. My fingers are crossed! Cheers and hope to see you soon!

      – Joe

  5. I find it surprising that you, an admitted admirer of French pastry, are as captivated as you seem to be by so conservative and so English a writer as Paul Johnson. I suggest trading very carefully here; Johnson is heir to the tradition of Edmund Burke, and I am sure both men would find something disturbingly Jacobin about any recipe containing the word “gateau.” Your site, monsieur, is full of them.

    1. That’s excellent advice, reader Lee, and well taken. I noticed from the sleeve photos that Johnson also seems to favor those boxy British blazers with the heavy pocket flaps and (probably) double vents in the back. Those cuts have always made me look rather, well… “hip heavy” if you know what I mean. Being a taller guy I need something sleeker if I’m going to present well in slacks. Continental tailoring will always be where it’s at for me, especially since I also tend to favor their eyewear and shoes. So I wouldn’t worry too much about one or two odd dalliances. I’ll stay on the straight and narrow. Literally.

      – Joe

  6. Happy New Year Joe
    Good to have a download now and then and made for thought provoking reading.I read in your bio that you have had Lymphoma and successful treatment – SNAP – me too – 25 years long term cure of Hodgkins Stage 2 – anyway where this is going is that once you’ve been through that you are never the same again and it does make you ponder on the big picture and have more time for some things in life and very little time for others e.g. molecular gastronmy – what a load of rubbish that is (in my opinion of course) and agree with you on why restaurants/chefs have gone down that track. I’ll stop now…
    Happy healthy New Year

    1. Hey Heather! Thanks for the great comment and for sharing your good news as well. As you point out, in the right amount cancer can enrich and enlarge one’s life. It certainly did mine.

      On molecular gastronomy, Mrs. Pastry also commented on this post, wondering what implications all these big ideas have for food. I’ll need to ponder that, and what part molecular gastronomy might play. My gut feeling is that it’s ultimately a fad. I can’t see many people getting excited about overtly science-y food for too very long. But I’ve been wrong before!

      – Joe

  7. Well put, Joe. Science is on the verge of a new transition – and there will be further implications (just as cubism was highly influenced by Einstien et al., there will be extensions of these changes that impact acroll all facets of our lives)…. and, as almost always, the politicians will lag behind by about a decade.

    I also wonder if we’ll see a more outward view – as we’re starting to accelerate our access to other planets, I think that will further change out outlook on our place – in relation to each other, and in the universe.

    Probably within 10-20 years. Though I wonder if we’ll recognize it when it happens.

    1. I wonder that too, Roger. I get the feeling that most of us want some new priorities…bigger, better things to concern ourselves with. Maybe these will be some of them!

      Thanks for the comment!

      – Joe

  8. Wow! I came back looking for Joe’s latest great recipe and boy was I surprised. Great post and very thought provoking to read. You reminded me very much of one of my favorite graduate school professors who always made me think in larger ways. I agree with everything you had to say. I often wish I could hang around another hundred years or so and see what happens to our world. Best to you and your family in 2013.

    1. At the rate medical technology is progressing we just might, Tom! 😉

      Thanks for taking my wild tangent so well. And what a compliment! My professor spouse must be rubbing off on me. That’s marriage for you!

      Back to business as usual on Monday!

      – Joe

  9. Like many issues the problem is no one has any skin in the game.

    I say if you want to dismiss Darwin’s theories (and I didn’t say you did) then you don’t get the benefit of the myriad of scientific advances and technologies dependent on his theories. Kind of like you shouldn’t get the benefit of organs if you don’t agree to be an organ donor.

    And that author of yours I don’t think any more of him than this writer. “But no thoughtful reader could possibly tolerate Johnson’s stunning intellectual dishonesty. ”

    You want to find a better theory, go do the science. And good luck. Ditto Einstein. And citing a debunked experiment as some evidence of a sea change in anything is not very persuasive.

    1. Hey Mike!

      Thanks very much for this. Please don’t mistake my intent here. It’s not to validate everything Johnson says (I myself think he goes too far at points) but rather to underscore the value of informed criticism itself. That Johnson’s book exists at all is a value, and I think says something about where we are culturally.

      I’ve read the Slate piece (among others). Stern is also well within his rights to criticize, but I think he goes too far also. Johnson was not being malicious by writing what he wrote, nor does he seek to invalidate anything Darwin has contributed to our understanding of nature. We need not be giants ourselves to point out where the giants err. If that were the case very little progress would ever be made, in science or anything else.

      But try not to take me too seriously here. I’m not seeking to “persuade” anybody of anything, except perhaps to be open to the possibility some new and interesting things might be on the horizon. That’s not so controversial I think.

      Happy baking,

      – Joe

  10. One additional thought here. The root idea within this post, such as it is, is this: there are many reasons why great thinkers rise to prominence, and some of them are cultural. Ideas come along which, quite simply, fit the times. I believe there is evidence to suggest that we are at or or approaching a cultural moment when some new Big Ideas will be needed. And I find that exciting.

    – Joe

  11. The thing is, books like this have an addenda to chip away at science instead of taking what is good and leaving the rest. All ideas will become out of date or moot at some point, but we need those thinkers to spur on other in our society.

    If this were a conversation about food, I could say that Julia Child was not the best French chef of her time. She was only elevated to that status because of the American culture of the time. Most of us agree she inspired millions of people to cook and without her this would be a very sad world.

    Would you say a book about her basically pointing out all her flaws and undeserved status was really needed or indicative of a sea change? Especially when its for profit?

    I think most of us know she was not the best chef but what she gave us was intangible. I feel the same way about Darwin and other scientists. Simplistic by today’s standards, but inspired many of the medical advancements. It depends on how you want to interpret it. However, linking him to Hitler is an obvious conservative anti science addenda. That has been going on for the past 2 decades. The writer’s previous books point in that direction and at the end of the day he is trying to make money by selling a book.

    Darwin is not a god, but I am not ready to say he is irrelevant just yet. In fact if you look at fields like Epigenetics, they still reference Darwin as to why markers tell genes to turn a cell into a feather in stead of a strand if hair.

    New ideas are always welcome and wished for, but they are few and far between. As a friend once said, It’s always easier to be a movie critic then it is to make a movie.

    1. Hi Kevin!

      Thanks for that very thoughtful comment. I appreciated it greatly and certainly agree that I wouldn’t want to see Darwin or science itself denigrated in any way. Science (particularly food science) is a big part of my profession. Without it I wouldn’t have a job, and certainly not a blog with such a heavy science bent!

      Again I’m not here to defend every particular of Johnson’s book. I did find Johnson’s shots at Darwin for his (implicit or explicit) support of eugenics excessive (Darwin was a a product of his times and it’s unfair to judge each and every one of his attitudes by contemporary standards). It’s true that some have called Johnson a conservative. I’ve never gathered that particularly from the books of his that I’ve read, and as a history buff I own several. He’s certainly not anti-science nor anti-evolution, that much I can say with some confidence. To me the real question is not whether he votes Tory back home in England, but whether he has something valuable to add to the conversation about Darwin. It’s my opinion that he does, and why I recommend the book to you if you can spare the time and the sixteen bucks. For all its flaws it’s a worthwhile read.

      Regarding your question about Julia Child, I suppose it would depend on the spirit with which the criticisms were offered. If they were spiteful and unfair, lacking citations or real relevance to her legacy (say, if someone claimed she was mean to her cat or something), I suppose I would protest that. However if they provided a more complete picture of her than the typical hagiographics, I think I would be interested. But then that’s me. As a lover of history I’m one of those people who wants the complete dope, as it were.

      But remember I said not that the great thinkers are elevated for purely cultural reasons, only that there’s a cultural component to what makes someone like Einstein “Einstein” (Roland Barthes has a great essay on Einstein’s brain in his book “Mythologies”). I think there’s validity to that idea, which is why I wrote this semi-millennial post the way I did. I don’t think it diminishes the relevancy of the great thinkers to observe that. Of course you can disagree with me…and I think you just did! 😉 It’s part of the fun of having a blog!

      I’m very grateful that you took the time to write such a lively and challenging comment, Kevin. I hope you’ll do it again when I do something else you don’t like terribly much. I can’t stay honest in any other way.

      Cheers and happy New Year! Your friend,

      – Joe

  12. Wow, what a pleasant surprise! I enjoyed your post immensely as well as the thoughtful comments and your diplomatic responses. Yesterday, I watched a documentary called, I AM, by Tom Shadyac. A former student recommended it highly and dropped it off. Shadyac became very wealthy as a Hollywood director of movies like Ace Ventura and Bruce the Almighty. After a serious bicycling accident, he developed post-concussion syndrome for many months and was unable to pursue his usual work. He did a lot of reading and thinking. And when the post-concussion syndrome spontaneously went away (no treatment, no known cure), he put together a small crew and went around interviewing many of the authors that he had read: David Suzuki, Desmond Tutu, Coleman Barks, Lynn Taggart, Howard Zinn, among many others. He asked them, “What is wrong with our world today?” and “What can we do about it?” There is a nice long section about distortions in current popular understanding of Darwin’s work and the implications that has had on our society’s emphasis on the acquisition of more and more goods. The documentary is well made; the “experts” are articulate and well informed. Since the synchronicity is so amazing, I had to take the time to let you know about it. It seems to me that it would take your thinking big thoughts along the road a little further in a good way. Cheers, Joe. I love your blog. And I am still enjoying the fruitcake I made in early November with your recipe!

    1. Thanks so much, Melinda! What a delightful comment. I think it’s true that brushes with the ultimate tend to make one think big. That was true in my case, and when you add in a philosophy degree the result is near endless musing. But I will absolutely check that out. I do enjoy examining mostly-unexamined assumptions. There’s almost always interest and entertainment there. I’m glad I was able to share some of my amusement with you!

      – Joe

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