My Dinner Party Guests 3 – Ed Yong

It started with an inspiring talk by an architect – Todd Saunders. The very next week I was fossicking through a whole lot of newsletters I’d written from 2003-10 and I found one which became the jumping-off point for last week’s newsletter about a woman at the cutting edge of genetics – Dr Katie Pollard.

Two’s a coincidence, three’s a trend. With this week’s newsletter my interest in identifying people who are uncovering deep truths becomes a series, so it needs a name.

My Best Dinner Party Ever?

Maybe I should call it ‘My Best Dinner Party. Ever.’ because the people I’ve chosen for this have two qualities: first, they are very insighful, second, they are good at talking about what they do in a way anyone can understand. I’d love to learn from them – and I’d love them to meet each other and swap their stories and concepts with each other.

I’m envisaging a balmy summer night and a long table outside under a pergola with grapevines. Italian style. There would be little lights amongst the vines and candles on the table. The food would be rustic and plentiful.

Ed Yong

This week’s addition is super smart and very funny – a science writer rather than a scientist himself – Ed Yong. Watch his TED talk here about parasites that can take over their hosts to serve their own ends. He’ll be the guy that says: that reminds me of a story. . . I’ll put him in the middle somewhere so everyone can hear.

Last year Ed published a book entitled I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life. I haven’t read it yet, just the amazon sample, but I’ve watched the video of an address he gave about it at the Royal Institution and it’s inspiring.

He says: “We are but the icing on a microbial cake”. Not only did microbes evolve long before us, they evolved long before any being with eyes. Among his stories: 10% of human breast milk are complex sugars not for the baby itself, but to help grow its gut bacteria. But he says:

“microbes are cool, microbes are influential . . but microbes are not our friends . . . we are just another eco-system to them. . . ” He talks of the ‘messy and contextual relationships that abound in nature’.

Fruits of the Enlightenment?

I could equally call this series something like: the Fruits of the Enlightenment. In these neo-fascist Trumpian times it gives me strange comfort to realise that these heroes of mine are all the product of the Enlightenment, the 17th/18th century social revolution that underpins liberal democracy.

Here’s what Damon Linker said about this on the website The Week:

The Enlightenment legacy can be seen all around us: individualism, international commerce and trade, moral cosmopolitanism, freedom of the press and a culture of publicity, technological modernity, the valorization of expertise, and on and on.”

He describes some of the people who have critiqued enlightenment thinking like Jean-Jacques Rousseau who thought that “a highly educated, civilized, and “enlightened” world would be filled with profoundly alienated and unhappy people who felt deeply divided against themselves, longing for a lost sense of wholeness and fulfillment that remained forever beyond their grasp”.

The Enlightenment offers no single answer, no sense of order and no perfect state of being. According to a recent article in Philosophy Now, philosopher Isaiah Berlin argued that “the proper basis for liberalism was to be found in the recognition that there is only a messy kaleidoscope of disparate and incongruent ways of being, which would forever resist the urge to bring about consensus.”

Hmm – more messy and contextual relationships.

I Believe In Enlightened Pragmatism

It is quite striking, but hardly surprising, that anti-enlightenment thinking should arise now as it did in the 1930’s – answering the pain and dislocation that results from a long boom and bust event, overlaid with technological disruption. The most vulnerable are those who clearly remember something different – the baby boomer working class men who ‘remember’ how their middle manager and factory worker fathers provided enough money to support a mom at home mom baking cookies, with grandma round the corner and aunts and uncles in close proximity. Now life is scarier: their town has been hollowed out and their kids are gone.

My dinner party guests actually can help with that. They probably don’t even realise how much their disparate conceptual frameworks and views of the world have to offer in creating new perspectives on social disharmony and economic dislocation. I’ve always believed in Enlightened Pragmatism – the marriage of innovative points of view and a practical problem-solving focus.

It is clear that recent leaders of our social and economic systems have given far more thought to the preservation of their own positions and their existing systems than to support for its individual victims or recognition of its inadequacies – an oversight that is now biting us where it hurts.

While there are radical dystopian solutions to our social and economic troubles, they won’t be pretty. The Enlightenment team needs to draw on its messy kaleidoscope and help us all to see how to proceed.

Next week:

Shall I invite Yuval Noah Harari to my dinner party or not? That depends on whether I believe his latest book Homo Deus is a masterpiece or an act of extreme hubris.