Scientists are Civilizations Too

Mario Livio’s Brilliant Blunders looks at five of the major scientists of the modern era (Darwin, Pauling, Einstein, etc.) and examines the significant mistakes each of them made.  Livio does not take cheap shots.  He does not blame the scientists to errors they made due to what they could not have possibly known.  Instead, Livio focuses on blind spots in their theories that they should have seen, or prideful mistakes they made later in life.  Thus his book* functions as a psychological as well as a scientific study.

Each of the scientists in the book made their most significant contributions relatively early in their career (i.e., Einstein’s “Miracle Year”), and Livio believes this trend holds true for scientists in general.  The scientists then committed their “blunders” later in life, and when asked to comment on this, Livio stated that most likely, these men were not content to stay with a pat hand.  If at 35 you change the world with your theories, who wants to tinker with its finer points until retirement?  Instead, the scientists somewhat naturally seek other major breakthroughs, but this time in areas outside their wheelhouse, which is when they make their mistakes.

Are scientists unusual in this regard, or might it be a common human trait?  One thinks of presidential second terms that never seem to go quite as planned (Truman, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, GW Bush, Obama?).  Local Washingtonians remember the humdrum nature of Joe Gibbs’ second stint as the Redskins coach.  U.S. Grant made a much better general than president.  In literature we have figures like Merlin and Lear making their big gaffes late in life.

Of course it could be that we see “fall’s” at the end of things only in hindsight.  We call it the end because he /she “fell” and ended their careers on a bad note.  But they only would end if they did something bad, thus the theory is entirely circular.

I don’t accept this entirely, for some careers end well, and some know when to ride into the sunset.  But the question remains whether or not we trace something general about human life, and we don’t need a perfect record for that.  And if it reveals something about human life in general, it may reveal something about civilizations.

Spengler thought that civilizations had a natural lifespan, like biological organisms.  No civilization by definition could keep going ad infinitum.  I think that’s because he saw civilizations as the outworking of a particular idea, embodied in a particular people (or, perhaps for Spengler, a particular race).  If we take the city-state idea with Athens, for example, we can see

  • An initial dynamism with the “new” idea of democracy embodied in a small community
  • This dynamism having great success, which leads to expansion
  • The expansion leading to inevitable betrayal of the idea, or at least, the idea can’t apply in the same way beyond their community.
  • The tension and contradictions now need resolution, which comes in the form of the Peloponnesian War.

One can see a similar process happening with the Roman Republic, and perhaps even Israel.  The idea of a Jewish state had great moral and dynamic force in the wake of W.W. II.  This gave Israel a great cohesion and sense of mission with their founding generation (’48-’67).  But the success engendered by the force of the idea led to Israel becoming an occupying force, with all the inherent contradictions that implies for their original idea.

In the end I think we should recoil from inevitability Spengler preaches but still be strongly cognizant of the usual pattern of temptation.  In order for our ideals or our identities to experience continual renewal, we need to be aware of their limitations.

*I should say that I did not read the book, but heard the author interviewed.