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Douglas Axe: The Sway of Self-Image in Evolutionary Debates

David Klinghoffer

Protein chemist Douglas Axe spoke a few days ago — yes, scandalously, to a live audience, as he was delighted to confirm with the organizers — in Tucson. He defended the thesis that, “Four-Year-Olds Grasp Design Better Than Most Biology Professors.” You can see it here:

Dr. Axe isn’t denigrating expertise. “The problem,” he says, “is not expertise. The problem is tyranny.” Of course that’s true of more areas of thought than just evolutionary biology, as he goes on to explain. Also, the tyranny is exerted not only by bullies and through self-censorship — but equally so by what may be the most irresistible tyrant: the picture of ourselves that each one of us carries around in our head. How we are. How we wish to be. And how we wish to be seen. Always, you need to keep in mind the sway of self-image, the hunger to be associated with the smart people. It’s the drive, says Axe,

to look good. It’s to look smart and I think something like that is happening in the academy. Once you become aware of the fact that the smart people think a certain way and you want to be thought of as smart, that applies a certain peer pressure to you. You need to think that way as well. And that is very much going on in the academy.

You really cannot understand debates about evolution, and other things, without appreciating the ego — the male ego in particular, you could argue — that is involved.