randolph_nesse's picture
Research Professor of Life Sciences, Director (2014-2019), Center for Evolution and Medicine, Arizona State University; Author, Good Reasons for Bad Feelings
Unspeakable Ideas

The idea of promoting dangerous ideas seems dangerous to me. I spend considerable effort to prevent my ideas from becoming dangerous, except, that is, to entrenched false beliefs and to myself. For instance, my idea that bad feelings are useful for our genes upends much conventional wisdom about depression and anxiety. I find, however, that I must firmly restrain journalists who are eager to share the sensational but incorrect conclusion that depression should not be treated. Similarly, many people draw dangerous inferences from my work on Darwinian medicine. For example, just because fever is useful does not mean that it should not be treated. I now emphasize that evolutionary theory does not tell you what to do in the clinic, it just tells you what studies need to be done.

I also feel obligated to prevent my ideas from becoming dangerous on a larger scale. For instance, many people who hear about Darwinian medicine assume incorrectly that it implies support for eugenics. I encourage them to read history as well as my writings. The record shows how quickly natural selection was perverted into Social Darwinism, an ideology that seemed to justify letting poor people starve. Related ideas keep emerging. We scientists have a responsibility to challenge dangerous social policies incorrectly derived from evolutionary theory. Racial superiority is yet another dangerous idea that hurts real people. More examples come to mind all too easily and some quickly get complicated. For instance, the idea that men are inherently different from women has been used to justify discrimination, but the idea that men and women have identical abilities and preferences may also cause great harm.

While I don't want to promote ideas dangerous to others, I am fascinated by ideas that are dangerous to anyone who expresses them. These are "unspeakable ideas." By unspeakable ideas I don't mean those whose expression is forbidden in a certain group. Instead, I propose that there is class of ideas whose expression is inherently dangerous everywhere and always because of the nature of human social groups. Such unspeakable ideas are anti-memes. Memes, both true and false, spread fast because they are interesting and give social credit to those who spread them. Unspeakable ideas, even true important ones, don't spread at all, because expressing them is dangerous to those who speak them.

So why, you may ask, is a sensible scientist even bringing the idea up? Isn't the idea of unspeakable ideas a dangerous idea? I expect I will find out. My hope is that a thoughtful exploration of unspeakable ideas should not hurt people in general, perhaps won't hurt me much, and might unearth some long-neglected truths.

Generalizations cannot substitute for examples, even if providing examples is risky. So, please gather your own data. Here is an experiment. The next time you are having a drink with an enthusiastic fan for your hometown team, say "Well, I think our team just isn't very good and didn't deserve to win." Or, moving to more risky territory, when your business group is trying to deal with a savvy competitor, say, "It seems to me that their product is superior because they are smarter than we are." Finally, and I cannot recommend this but it offers dramatic data, you could respond to your spouse's difficulties at work by saying, "If they are complaining about you not doing enough, it is probably because you just aren't doing your fair share." Most people do not need to conduct such social experiments to know what happens when such unspeakable ideas are spoken.

Many broader truths are equally unspeakable. Consider, for instance, all the articles written about leadership. Most are infused with admiration and respect for a leader's greatness. Much rarer are articles about the tendency for leadership positions to be attained by power-hungry men who use their influence to further advance their self-interest. Then there are all the writings about sex and marriage. Most of them suggest that there is some solution that allows full satisfaction for both partners while maintaining secure relationships. Questioning such notions is dangerous, unless you are a comic, in which case skepticism can be very, very funny.

As a final example, consider the unspeakable idea of unbridled self-interest. Someone who says, "I will only do what benefits me," has committed social suicide. Tendencies to say such things have been selected against, while those who advocate goodness, honesty and service to others get wide recognition. This creates an illusion of a moral society that then, thanks to the combined forces of natural and social selection, becomes a reality that makes social life vastly more agreeable.

There are many more examples, but I must stop here. To say more would either get me in trouble or falsify my argument. Will I ever publish my "Unspeakable Essays?"  It would be risky, wouldn't it?