Here’s the thing about studying science: If you stick to the topic itself and keep your attention focused on flowers, insects, crustaceans, lizards, or whatever, you’ll learn all sorts of wild facts about nature and get better at pub trivia, which is its own reward.
Where it gets weird and problematic is when you take ideas from Evolution, Ecology and Behavior or Cell Biology or Particle Physics or Astrobiological Phylogenetics or anything else in the Sciences and then look for applications outside of their context, whether to individuals, families, organizations, cities, countries, or any other assemblage of humans. Too often, that road leads to Social Darwinism, Eugenics, the Holodomor, the Holocaust, and “Build the Wall.”
Incidentally, if you go the other direction by importing human language, culture, and behavior into the natural world, that’s anthropomorphism, which is also weird but usually less problematic. For example, talking dogs are always appropriate.
But back to repurposing scientific ideas out of context. It goes something like this: You see a diagram of a cell in all its chaotic beauty. You slowly begin to make sense of it. And then one day, you’re reading the paper and you think, wow, the country is like a giant cell and so let’s wrap a giant membrane around it. Boom, you’re an idiot.
Repurposing scientific models doesn’t have to be a complete disaster. My favorite attempt at the alchemy of turning Science into Humanities can be seen in the works of Elias Canetti – first in fiction, and then in a sociological wintry mix.
Canetti’s Auto-da-Fé (translated to English from the German by C.V. Wedgwood under the personal supervision of the author) is a caustically funny 1935 novel about reclusive 40-year-old virgin Peter Kien, a “Professor” with no students who resides in his 25,000-volume library writing brilliant academic papers sent to conferences he won’t attend. Professor Kien lets nothing distract him from the beloved books feeding his prodigious and capacious memory.
He knew more than dozen oriental languages. A few of the western ones did not even need to be learnt. No branch of human literature was unfamiliar to him. He thought in quotations and wrote in carefully considered sentences. Countless texts owed their restoration to him.
Kien had hired a housekeeper in a blue starched skirt, Therese Krumbholz, to dust his bookshelves. For eight years, she fulfilled her daily task, even while searching for what she believed to be his secret vice, something like a body hidden under the floorboards. Then, inspired by the wisdom of Confucius, Kien asks for Therese’s hand in marriage. But Therese is hardly the person he had imagined her to be. They marry, they clash, they go to war with one another.
Canetti earned a doctorate in chemistry, which is perhaps why this setup has the feel of a science experiment: What if you mixed a pure substance, let’s call it Kienium, with a beaker of Krumbholzine solvent? As with all entertaining chemistry experiments, the result is a sizzling, smoking, acrid build-up to an explosion.
Twenty-five years later, Canetti published Crowds and Power (Masse und Macht, 1960), an unusual and bold combination of history, anthropology, sociology, and psychology. In the way that a chemist would describe atoms, elements, and compounds, Canetti characterizes crowds by their emotions, symbols, formation, and discharge. He systemizes the concept of packs, religions, and aspects of power. He finds chemically inspired patterns in the workings of human society and backs up his findings with anthropological studies along with a good dose of intuition. And in the end, intuition is what Crowds and Power delivers.
Does Canetti have a reproduceable and replicable scientific theory? No. But if you start looking at crowds after reading the book, you’ll feel like you know what’s happening.
Just don’t try this alchemy at home.
A section of this essay first appeared in Seattle Review of Books, Don’t Read THAT, Read THIS, August 29, 2018.