How To Deal With Fringe Academics

Dear John and Judith,

At this point in the dialogue, I agree we should turn to some other examples of fringe scholarship, preferably taken from outside the field of evolutionary biology.

For the record, I don’t see much sense in comparing MacDonald to Lewontin and Gould simply because all these gentlemen show some interest in “group selection.” Perhaps evolutionary change takes place at the level of the group; perhaps it doesn’t. Either way, the more interesting question is how, when, and why we ought to understand a particular human behavior to be an evolutionary adaptation. In these terms, MacDonald gives what appears to be a highly adaptationist account of Jewish ritual as a (group) evolutionary strategy, just as others have recently given a highly adaptationist account of rape as an (individual) evolutionary strategy. Whatever their intellectual virtues or vices, neither Lewontin nor Gould is especially apt to discuss human behaviors as complex as religious ritual in terms of evolutionary strategies.

The problem still remains, however, of how to separate “fringe” scholarship from acceptable scholarship. There seems to be a clash of two admirable imperatives here. On the one hand, scholars believe that truth is the enemy of dogma; the best answers may be unpopular or uncomfortable answers, and finding them requires a principled refusal to rule out any hypotheses in advance. On the other hand, scholars believe that ideas have consequences; the effort to understand nature and society isn’t just an edifying game, and one must carefully consider the implications of lending legitimacy to one provisional idea or another.

Judith, your argument seems to take the second imperative more seriously than the first. Shouldn’t the sorting of good ideas from bad ideas be allowed to take place through the regular mechanisms of scholarly inquiry? Isn’t the failure of his colleagues to cite his work on Judaism the most deafening and persuasive refutation MacDonald could possibly receive? Do we want to hold all intellectual interventions to the highest standards of moral accountability, as if advancing an idea were the equivalent of raising a knife? Must anyone who wishes to make use of de Man or Heidegger’s work first come to a definite view of how their onetime fascist sympathies affected their ideas, and then make that view known to the public, before going on to cite them?

Over to you,