The book review I discussed in Wednesday’s post is an example of a “hatchet job.” This is a literary form in which the goal is not merely to criticize an opponent’s work, but to show that it is utterly worthless. Hatchet jobs are often marked by large amounts of snark and snideness, often at the expense of making a cogent argument.
Such was the case in the essay at the heart of Wednesday’s post. We were discussing William Deresiewicz’s review of the book Jane Austen: Game Theorist, which was written by UCLA political scientist Mark Suk-Young Chwe. The review appeared in The New Republic, which is sadly notorious for publishing these sorts of bungled hatchet jobs. Let us recall that Deresiewicz opens like this:
Proust was a neuroscientist. Jane Austen was a game theorist. Dickens was a gastroenterologist. That’s the latest gambit in the brave new world of “consilience,” the idea that we can overcome the split between “the two cultures” by bringing art and science into conceptual unity—which is to say, by setting humanistic thought upon a scientific foundation. Take a famous writer, preferably one with some marketing mojo, and argue that their work anticipates contemporary scientific insights. Proust knew things about memory that neuroscientists are only now discovering. Austen constructed her novels in a manner that is consistent with game theory. Bang, there’s your consilience.
One problem with hatchet jobs is the risk of provoking sympathy for your target. That is certainly the case here. I have not read Chwe’s book, and it’s entirely possible that his arguments are as bad as Deresiewicz suggests. It’s hard to believe, though, that an obscure political scientist writing an academic book suggesting a novel reading of Jane Austen really deserves this level of hostility. It’s not as though he’s defending creationism.
Deresiewicz’s opening sentences bring to mind Mary Midgley’s review of The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins. Midgley’s review has become the gold standard for hapless hatchet jobs. No one familiar with Dawkins’ book would have recognized it in Midgley’s incompetent description, but that did not stop her from writing with extraordinary arrogance and condescension. The review opens like this:
Genes cannot be selfish or unselfish, any more than atoms can be jealous, elephants abstract or biscuits teleological. This should not need mentioning, but Richard Dawkins’s book The Selfish Gene has succeeded in confusing a number of people about it, including Mr. J. L. Mackie. What Mackie welcomes in Dawkins is a new, biological-looking kind of support for philosophic egoism. If this support came from Dawkins’s producing important new facts, or good new interpretations of old facts, about animal life, this could be very interesting. Dawkins, however, simply has a weakness for the old game of Brocken-spectre moralizing–the one where the player strikes attitudes on a peak at sunrise, gazes awe-struck at his gigantic shadow on the clouds, and reports his observations as cosmic truths. He is an uncritical philosophic egoist in the first place, and merely feeds the egoist assumption into his a priori biological speculations, only rarely glancing at the relevant facts of animal behaviour and genetics, and ignoring their failure to support him.
That Dawkins’s book had nothing to do with philosophic egoism is the least of this paragraph’s problems. And it is only the tip of a lengthy iceberg, that only gets worse after this beginning.
One sign of a bad hatchet job is when you can just see the writers congratulating themselves for their cleverness. With Deresiewicz it was the line about Dickens being a gastroenterologist. You can just see him sitting in front of his computer thinking, “Gastroenterologist? Heh! That’s good.” That line is especially obnoxious given that it was meant to conceal the fact that Deresiewicz had just two examples, written six years apart, of the disturbing trend he was presuming to document. With Midgley the sinking feeling begins right in the first sentence, with the line about biscuits and teleology. Upon reaching the laughably overwrought bit about Brocken spectre moralizing, you can be certain the review is not going to improve.
On the other hand, we can be grateful to Midgley for provoking an excellent counter-hatchet job from Dawkins himself. His reply opens like this:
I have been taken aback by the inexplicable hostility of Mary Midgley’s assault. Some colleagues have advised me that such transparent spite is best ignored, but others warn that the venomous tone of her article may conceal the errors in its content. Indeed, we are in danger of assuming that nobody would dare to be so rude without taking the elementary precaution of being right in what she said. We may even bend over backwards to concede some of her points, simply in order to appear fair-minded when we deplore the way she made them. I deplore bad manners as strongly as anyone, but more importantly I shall show that Midgley has no good point to make. She seems not to understand biology or the way biologists use language.
Elsewhere, Dawkins fired off two of my all-time favorite zingers:
But no reasonable philosopher would say: “I don’t like your definition, therefore I shall interpret your statement as though you were using my definition of selfishness; by my definition your concept of the selfish gene is nonsense, therefore it is nonsense.” This is, in effect, what Midgley has done: `Genes cannot be selfish or unselfish, any more than atoms can be jealous, elephants abstract or biscuits teleological’ (p. 439). Why didn’t she add to this witty little list, for the benefit of quantum physicists, that fundamental particles cannot have charm?
If the reader discerns in my reply signs of what appears to be undue rancour, I beg him or her to scan a few random sentences of Midgley’s paper and judge the provocation. It is not an invited book review, remember, but a voluntarily contributed article. Her concluding footnote would be hard to match, in reputable journals, for its patronizing condescension toward a fellow academic (a fellow academic, moreover, who is a professional in the field under discussion, a field in which the critic herself is most charitably described as trying hard): ‘Up till now, I have not attended to Dawkins, thinking it unnecessary to break a butterfly upon a wheel. But Mr Mackie’s article is not the only indication I have lately met of serious attention being paid to his fantasies’ (p. 458).
(As an aside, and just to head off what I’m sure someone will point out in the comments, Dawkins also writes, following from where my first quote from him concludes, “No doubt my ignorance would be just as obvious if I rushed headlong into her field of expertise, but I would then adopt a more diffident tone.” Her field of expertise is philosophy, and it will be pointed out that Dawkins’s treatment of philosophy in The God Delusion was not marked by a diffident tone. Point taken, but it is irrelevant to the point I am making here.)
Dawkins’s hatchet job was so effective because it had a solid argument to back up its snark and snideness. He made perfectly clear Midgley’s complete incomprehension of anything he was talking about, which amply justified his tone. His statement that, “[W]e are in danger of assuming that nobody would dare to be so rude without taking the elementary precaution of being right in what she said,” can be taken as a the golden rule of hatchet jobs. If you are going to go to town on someone, you better have the goods.
Which brings me to the finest hatchet job ever written. I am referring to Peter Medawar’s demolition of Teilhard de Chardin’s awful book, The Phenomenon of Man. Medawar writes:
“Everything does not happen continuously at any one moment in the universe. Neither does everything happen everywhere in it.”
“There are no summits without abysses.”
“When the end of the world is mentioned, the idea that leaps into our minds is always one of catastrophe.”
“Life is born and propagates itself on the earth as a solitary pulsation.”
“In the last analysis the best guarantee that a thing should happen is that it appears to us as vitally necessary.”
This little bouquet of aphorism, each one thought sufficiently important by its author to deserve a paragraph to itself, is taken from Père Teilhard’s The Phenomenon of Man. It is a book widely held to be of the utmost profundity and significance; it created something like a sensation upon its publication in France, and some reviewers hereabouts called it the Book of the Year — one, the Book of the Century. Yet the greater part of it, I shall show, is nonsense, tricked out with a variety of metaphysical conceits, and its author can be excused of dishonesty only on the grounds that before deceiving others he has taken great pains to deceive himself. The Phenomenon of Man cannot be read without a feeling of suffocation, a gasping and flailing around for sense. There is an argument in it, to be sure — a feeble argument, abominably expressed — and this I shall expound in due course; but consider first the style, because it is the style that creates the illusion of content, and which is a cause as well as merely a symptom of Teilhard’s alarming apocalyptic seizures.
Having tried to read Teilhard, I can confirm the feeling of suffocation to which Medawar refers.