The public intellectuals we don’t deserve

Joakim’s latest post is so good that I can’t help but add my own thoughts. I disagree with nearly all of Joakim’s picks (though Jared Diamond and Niall Ferguson are good choices), but I can’t put my finger on why this is. So, in the hopes that maybe you can figure out why my list is so different than Joakim’s, here are my six public intellectuals, and the fields they write about, that everybody should know (aside from my fellow Notewriters, of course):

Evolution: Joe Henrich, an anthropologist at Harvard and author of 2016’s The Secret of Our Success, a book that has done better than any other at explaining cultural evolution and its relationship to biology and genetics. Dr Henrich is the guy doing all of that excellent work on WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic) people, too. Here is a pdf to a recent article of his on the Roman Catholic Church.

History: With apologies to Kevin, Charles C. Mann is the author whose work on history should be more popular. Mann’s 1491 (2005) is not only what revisionary work should look like, but it’s also a great primer on the history of science. 1493 (2012) was not as groundbreaking as 1491 but it’s still the best work of popular history out there that explains the world we live in today. Mann’s focus on history as a global phenomenon and on the history of science is what sets him apart from all of the others. His The Wizard and The Prophet came out earlier this year.

Exchange: The science of exchange has gone through a bit of a down spell lately, and for good reason: many in the profession have long claimed to be prophets. Tyler Cowen is not one of those economists. His public conversations and blogging and have done wonders for those who follow along, and his books are breezy, informative, and entertaining. My favorite Cowen book is 2009’s Create Your Own Economy, and his newest, Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero, came out earlier this year. His popular work strives to balance a moderate attitude towards all ideas while still leaning strongly on the counter-intuitive ideas that have helped make economics stand out among its peers in the social sciences.

Ethics: Yes, ethics is still important, and John Lachs is the philosopher we don’t deserve. Lachs, a Vanderbilt professor, authored 2014’s Meddling: On the Virtue of Leaving Other People Alone, which is a great, easy-to-read book on an idea that should be much more popular.

Literature: Nnedi Okorafor. Okorafor’s voice has the potential to revitalize conversations on literature throughout the world. Okorafor dabs mostly in the realm of science fiction and fantasy, but she also writes for Marvel Films and Dark Horse Comics. Start with her Binti trilogy. Literature needs a big change in order for people to start talking about books again, and Okorafor has the potential and the swagger to make that happen.

Inequality: The left is almost entirely unreadable on the most important topic in the world today, with the notable exception of Branko Milanovic (his 2018 2016 book Global Inequality is wonderful, and I’ve heard nothing but good things about his newest book: Capitalism, Alone), and conservatives, led by Ross Douthat, have retreated inward and focused on their well-worn hobbyhorses: church attendance, community, and familiarity (Yoram Hazony’s The Virtue of Nationalism is perhaps the hottest book from this sector of the political quadrant). Unfortunately, inequality has always been best dealt with by libertarians, and nobody from the libertarian camp has felt quite comfortable enough, or been good enough, to step up and write the book that needs to be written. Oh wait, that can’t be right. Deirdre McCloskey exists. I’m tempted to put Bourgeois Equality on the list, but a 700+ page book just doesn’t count as popular. Will Why Liberalism Works, her newest book (2019), finally catapult her into the broader consciousness of the West? Let us hope so, but we don’t deserve her.

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