Ian McEwan’s Take on the Larry Summers Saga

mcewan.jpgWhen Ian McEwan talks about his writing, he sounds like an impressionist painter entranced by water lilies. He speaks of images and scenes, the feelings they elicit and how they prompt him to begin new books. That’s his power: He’s a writer who has strong ideas, doesn’t shy away from contrarianism and tackles modern political problems, but he isn’t an Ayn Rand packaging political philosophy as fiction. He’s a writer whose respect for and mastery of the written word allows him to play with ideas unpopular in academia without reaping the wrath of critics.

His latest novel, Solar, not only lampoons the state of the modern anti-global warming movement (the head of a climate institute goes to the North Pole, where his penis falls off). The book also mocks academia at every turn.

Michael Beard, a Nobel laureate who has done nothing of note since winning the world’s most prestigious prize, is the anti-hero of Solar. (Spoiler alert.) He holds a post at an unnamed university in Geneva, but does no teaching. He doesn’t particularly care about global warming, or anything else that doesn’t yield immediate pleasure. He heads a center to reverse the damage being done to the planet, mostly because the work is undemanding and pays decently. A young man who works for him (who is also sleeping with his wife) comes up with a brilliant plan to utilize solar energy to replace fossil fuels. Beard steals the idea when the man dies accidentally and frames another one of his wife’s lovers for his murder. Suddenly Beard is the world’s hero.

Beard is asked to be the “titular head of a government scheme to promote physics in schools and universities” and grudgingly accepts. He sits with a committee, mostly physicists (all male) and one woman (a social anthropologist) whose work focuses on proving that genes are “socially constructed.”

Beard is embarrassed by her ideas and recalls “rumors that strange ideas were commonplace among the liberal arts departments. It was said that humanities students were routinely taught that science was just one more belief system, no more or less truthful than religion or astrology….The results surely spoke for themselves. Who was going to submit a vaccine designed by a priest?”

Beard doesn’t voice these objections, but at a committee press conference later in the chapter he’s asked what they’re going to do about the relative lack of women in physics. He responds:

Although there were many gifted women physicists, it was at least conceivable that they would always remain in the minority, albeit a substantial one, in this particular field. There might always be more men than women who ‘wanted’ to work in physics. There was a consensus in cognitive psychology, based on a wide range of experimental work, that in statistical terms the brains of men and women were significantly different. This was emphatically not a question of gender superiority…These were widely observed innate differences in cognitive ability. In studies and meta-studies, women were shown to have, on average, greater language skills, better visual memory, clearer emotional judgment, and superior mathematical calculation. Men scored higher in mathematical problem-solving and abstract reasoning and in visual-spatial awareness.

Whatever your reaction to this Larry Summers-esque moment (mine is not positive as there is no evidence that any recognized traits would make one sex or the other better at physics), your reaction to the backlash that occurs will likely be one of humored incredulity.

The woman on the committee quits, saying his words made her violently sick. She tells the press that he’s a eugenicist and has made a “neoliberal attack on collectivity” which I’m not actually sure means anything, but if it does it’s bad! The headlines in the press read “Nobel Prof Says No to Lab Chicks” and more prestigious papers call him a “genetic determinist,” a “fanatical sociobiologist” and a “neo-Nazi.” But it doesn’t end there for McEwan or Beard. “An article in a left-of-center paper argued that most important differences between men and women were cultural constructs,” to which Beard replies that it’s society’s fault that men can’t get pregnant.

Now, one could argue that Beard is an ass and that McEwan isn’t on his side, which would be fair. That’s where Susan Appelbaum comes in. She’s on a panel with Beard discussing what he’s said, and while most of the speakers accuse him of “crude objectivism by which he seeks to maintain and advance the social dominance of the white male elite,” and “hegemonic arrogance,” Susan disagrees with him differently.

She’s an “Enlightment rationalist” and as a result acknowledges biological sex differences in cognition. She thinks, however, that only empirical evidence should shape our world view and, with many scientific studies under her belt, argues that there are “no significant differences in cognition that gave males an advantage in math or physics.” She’s largely ignored by the audience because she’s too hegemonic and also an Israeli and therefore “an oppressor of Palestinians.”

McEwan is often recognized as one of the great writers of the 21st Century. He is also one of the great satirists. And, like many great satirists, he ridicules the inane more than the heretical. He doesn’t seem to care about these people’s opinions (I’d argue he probably believes something along the lines of Appelbaum’s argument) but he cares that academia is prepared to pillory and attack the humanity of people who don’t toe the line. The number of people on both sides of the political spectrum called “Nazis” in the past twenty years is inexcusable and a topic ripe for mockery. The whole episode ends when Beard is arrested for throwing a tomato back at a protester. In a few months, this is totally forgotten, just like Larry Summers’s resignation.

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