2001: I am not a fan of Malcolm Gladwell. Review of “The Tipping Point” from The Lancet.

I actually quite enjoy Gladwell’s articles – a bit solutionist at times but he can tell a story well. Like many other books by New Yorker writers whose New Yorker pieces I quite enjoy, Gladwell’s books tend to disappoint. From The Lancet in Feb 2001, here is a not very flattering article on The Tipping Point.

The Tipping Point clearly has influenced Nudge and a range of other small-things-make-a-big-difference approaches to social issues. As a principle it is not inherently wrong, and the examples Gladwell discusses are pretty interesting…. but the complexity and subtlety of a situation can get missed.

Looking back on this review, I was (am?) prone to some hackneyed phrases (“insightful pieces with quicksilver intelligence” for instance) and the piece doesn’t really hang together – I evidently dislike the book, but why? I seem to only cite literary grounds, finding Gladwell’s style here a bit annoying. Looking back, it is clear the solutionism is pretty rampant here, and I could have reflected more critically on that:

The new New Thing
Seamus Sweeney
Published: 03 February 2001

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(05)71540-3

The tipping point has much to recommend it—certain fascinating ideas and phenomena explained clearly. But it also has much to deplore—tendencies towards pop psychology and writing to match. The book is subtitled “How little things can make a big difference”, and Gladwell uses the sharp fall in crime in New York City in the 1990s and the sudden hipness of Hush Puppies, previously chronically unfashionable, to introduce the book, as examples of sudden, unpredictable trends. He claims to apply the thinking of an epidemiologist to how social and cultural trends spread. “The Tipping Point is the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point”, the tiny, decisive moment where the slightest push makes all the difference.

Gladwell tells us of the “Three Rules of Epidemics.” The first is The Law of the Few—in any epidemic, a small group of people infect a disproportionate amount of people. He uses the examples of Darnell “Boss Man” McGee, who infected at least 30 women with HIV, and Gaetan Dugas, “Patient Zero”, the flight attendant linked to over 40 of the earliest cases of AIDS in New York and San Francisco. The same principle applies to social and cultural epidemics. Gladwell defines who the few are: Connectors, who know a lot of people in different social groupings; Mavens, well-informed people who discover new products, concepts and trends; and Salesmen, who persuade people to try The New Thing. A social epidemic must touch base with representatives of all three groups. The second rule of epidemics is the Stickiness Factor. Gladwell uses the examples of the famous Winston’s cigarettes slogan (“Winston tastes good like a cigarette should”) and the story of Sesame Street to illustrate the properties of The New Thing that make it memorable. The third law of epidemics is the Power of Context. In 1964, a woman called Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death in Queens on the street with her 38 neighbours watching, none of whom bothered to call the police. At the time it was cited as evidence of the selfishness induced by urban life. But subsequent psychological work found that in such events, the biggest factor that determines whether someone helps is the number of witnesses. The more witnesses, the less likely that an individual will take the responsibility to act; it is diffused among too many people. In other words, the effect of The New Thing depends on the context.

Gladwell invokes the tumble in New York crime statistics, and in particular the concept known as “Broken Windows”; apparently petty crime like graffiti or broken windows acts as a suitable context for violent crime. Thus minor changes such as cleaning up graffiti help spread the social epidemic of not committing crime. The lesson here is that context is crucially important in behaviour. A rather mean-spirited experiment on a group of seminarians is cited as proving this; they were asked to prepare a sermon and cross over to another building. Some were told to sermonise on “The Good Samaritan”, while others were given more general texts. As they headed off, some were told that they were running late while others were told they were early. En route they encountered a man who had collapsed on the ground and was in some distress. It was found that the seminarians who helped the stranger were those who were running early— even those who were about to speak on the Good Samaritan would hurry past if they thought they were late. Thus the physical context (lateness versus punctuality) was more important than the moralistic context (the actual content of the sermon) in determining behaviour.

Gladwell has many more examples than those referred to here; from the epidemic of suicide in Micronesia to the rise and fall of Airwalk sneakers. His universe is a giddy one, one where “with the slightest push—in just the right place—it can be tipped”. As an adventure through a world of ideas, it is highly enjoyable. But as a work of literature, it has an irritating factor of its own.

A critic quoted on the press release for this book compares Gladwell to Edmund Wilson. Another literary figure came to mind: Anthony Robbins, author of Unlimited power and Awaking the giant within. What sounds like a cross between popular science writing and cultural commentary instead occupies a no-man’s-land between books for salesmen and self help books for people who don’t read.

The tipping point marks something of a dumbing down for Gladwell, who writes thought-provoking, insightful pieces with quicksilver intelligence for the New Yorker. One can’t help thinking that Gladwell started writing a very different book, and commercial imperatives took over. Or possibly it is the condescension of the metropolitan New Yorker writer to the little folks out there in Middle America. There is a fascinating book to be written about Gladwell’s basic thesis—that little things not only make a big difference, they make the biggest difference. This is, alas, not it.


Review of Oliver Sacks, “The River of Consciousness”, TLS 13th March 2018

A Medical Education

I have a review in the current TLS of Oliver Sacks’ essay collection, “The River of Consciousness” . The full article is subscriber only so here is the opening….

Who is the most famous medical doctor in the world today? Until his death in 2015, a reasonable case could be made that it was Oliver Sacks. Portrayed by Robin Williams on screen, inspiring a Michael Nyman opera and plays by Peter Brook and Harold Pinter, Sacks took his followers far beyond the confines of neurology.

In their Foreword to The Rivers of Consciousness, a posthumously published collection of Sacks’s essays, the editors recount the time Sacks appeared in a Dutch documentary series, A Glorious Accident. Along with, among others, Daniel Dennett, Freeman Dyson and Stephen Jay Gould, Sacks discussed “the origin of life, the meaning of evolution, the nature of consciousness. In a lively discussion, one thing was clear: Sacks…

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Review of “Life Ascending”, Nick Lane, Eurotimes July 2009

Review of “Life Ascending”, Nick Lane, Eurotimes July 2009


This fine book on evolution was well reviewed at the time and won the 2010 Royal Society prize for science books. Here is my review from Eurotimes . Or rather this is a draft, and readers will note one paragraph just trails off… I cannot find the final version online or in my email so I am not sure what followed! This review is focused on the ophthalmological aspects of the book, though not to the exclusion of the wider issues :

Life ascending.
Nick Lane

There are ten great inventions of evolution discussed in Nick Lane’s lucid, stimulating book – life’s origin,
DNA, photosynthesis, the complex cell, sex, movement, sight, hot blood, consciousness, and death. Lane
makes it clear from the outset that invention does not mean a conscious agency purposefully steered the
process, rather he is referring to the ten great innovations that have transformed life that were created
through natural selection. Readers of this journal will have particular interest in the chapter on sight, which
I will therefore focus on in this review, but the whole book is superbly written and extremely enjoyable.

The eye has long been a favourite topic of anti-evolutionists. In 1802, the English utilitarian philosopher William Paley
argued in his Natural Theology that the eye is an organ of such complexity that it is absurd to suppose
that the purposeless blunderings of evolution (evolutionary ideas pre-dated Darwin, of course) could have
produced it. He used the analogy of a blind watchmaker producing a timepiece, which later gave Richard
Dawkins the title of one of his books. Darwin himself is frequently misquoted by creationists and affiliated
persons in this context – he seemed the admit that “To suppose that the eye, with all its inimitable
contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for
the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems
… absurd in the highest possible degree.” Darwin went on the write, however, that “if numerous
gradations from a perfect and complex eye to one very imperfect and simple, each being useful to its
possessor, can be shown to exist” the problem is solved.

In fact, we now have models of the evolution of the eye that exceed those of other organs in explanatory
power. The Swedish researchers Dans Eric Nilsson and Susanne Pelger have modelled this succession
of steps, which is each generation is taken as one year, requires somewhat less than half a million years.

The eye does seem, at first glance, to pose a problem to evolutionary explanations of its origin. What’s
more the human eye, with its rods and cones located behind an array of nerves and with its blind spot
where the optic nerve leaves the orbit, does not at first, cynical glance to be especially well designed.
Furthermore, the cant charge of anti-evolutionists has been “what use is half an eye?”, and answering the
question of how a retina could have evolved, separate from the rest of the optic apparatus, is at first
glance difficult. “Evolution is cleverer than you are” is a famous dictum of the evolutionary biologist Leslie
Orgel, and Lane goes on to show not only that the eye is well adapted to its purpose, but that (I am not sure what I said subsequently)

His approach begins, entertainingly for readers of this publication, with the observation that “anyone who
has been to a conference of ophthalmologists will appreciate that they fall into two great tribes: those who
work at the front of the eye … and those who work at the back … the two tribes interact reluctantly, and at
times barely seem to speak the same language.” For this divide, ironically, reflects the half-an-eye
distinction and allows us to consider the evolution of both halves of the eye.

For the retinal part of the answer, Lane travels (literarily speaking – it was the marine biologist Cindy Lee
Van Dover who did the actual exploring) to the most hostile and extreme habitat on earth – black-smoker
vents on the deep ocean floor that support an ecosystem of hardy survivors. Among these is the
ironically named eyeless reef shrimp (Rimicaris exoculata), which as a larva has fully formed eyes.
These are not of use to the adult shrimp, so they are reabsorbed and replaced with a literal half an eye
– a naked retina.

Most doctors will remember rhodopsin, perhaps rather dimly. It is the light-sensitive protein at the heart of
the visual process, being involved in photoreceptor synthesis as well as the initial perception of light.
Rhodopsin evolved from an algal ancestor where it is used to calibrate light levels in photosynthesis.
Rhodopsin is used by some bacteria for a form of photosynthesis.
Lane synthesises the evolution of all the aspects of the eye, although one of the ophthalmological tribes
may feel their area of interest is dealt with in slightly less detail than their retinal brethren. The naked
retina was the first step on the journey. As different organisms’ sheets of light-sensitive were arrayed in
different ways, with some recessing into pits which allowed shadows to be cast and therefore an idea of
where light comes from to be assessed, the trade-off between resolving light and light sensitivity began to
tip the balance in favour of lens formation.

Writers in this field must be tired of having to handle the creationist/intelligent design issue. Lane’s book is
not aimed at this debate, although in the footnotes he refers the reader to “The Flagellum Unspun” by
Catholic biochemist Kenneth Miller which attacks the creationist idea of irreducible complexity, as
exemplified by the development of a flagellum. Lane quotes Miller on intelligent design advocates as
double failures, “rejected by science because they do not fit the facts, and having failed religion because
they think too little of God,” and discusses Pope John Paul II’s views of evolution and the mind (made in
the course of his 1996 pronouncement recognising that evolution was more than a hypothesis) with
respect and sensitivity. Lane is clearly that wonderful thing, an enthusiast able to explain and inform

“Democracy is a thing which is always breaking down through the complexity of civilisation” – GK Chesterton, Allan Massie and complexity

. As I have recently written, I am reading a collection of Allan Massie’s Life and Letters columns from the Spectator, which is full of shrewd judgments. In particular there is this on G K Chesterton:

What is disconcerting for many about Chesterton is that, while deadly serious, he revelled in paradoxes, absurdity and farce. He believed in the Devil, believed in him as perhaps few in the last centuries did, but the weapon he employed against him was laughter; he was at one with Rabelais : ‘the discovery of the reality of evil and the battle against it are at the basis of all gaiety and even of all farce’.

Chesterton would have found Orwell admirable — and ridiculous; ridiculous because of his solemnity. ‘The men who really believe in themselves are all in lunatic asylums’, he declared. He thought in paradoxes, on the sensible ground that if an idea is worth anything it ought to be able to be held upside down and shaken about.

Sometimes, admittedly, the paradoxes flew too easily, too frequently and tiresomely from his pen. He wrote too much and often, I suspect, when he was tired, and then the paradoxes had a mechanical or tinkling sound like music from an elderly barrel-organ. But at his best they make you think, and this is always disturbing: ‘Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all.’

That’s a thought you get your mind round. Because he was a man of faith he understood and valued doubt. He thought Charles II’s deathbed admission to the Roman Church proof of his perfect scepticism. The wafer might, or might not be, the body of Christ, but then it might, or might not be, a wafer. More than 70 years after his death he remains an entertaining writer, and a disquieting one. In the opinion of the editor of L’Atelier du Roman, Lakis Proguidis, ‘no twentieth-century author has so thoroughly examined the yawning gulf cut in each soul by the ideology of Progress’.

I know what Massie means about “too easily, too frequently and tiresomely” – at times in the polemical and apologetic works there is a sense of dead horses being flogged. At his best, however, there is a freshness to Chesterton’s prose, especially his fiction. Borges adored Chesterton, indeed placed him with Stevenson (and on one occasion Homer) in a personal pantheon.

Anyhow all this is prelude to a passage from The Everlasting Man which struck me as forcibly summarising the thoughts of Joseph Tainter on complexity:

It is far more probable that a primitive society was something like a pure democracy. To this day the comparatively simple agricultural communities are by far the purest democracies. Democracy is a thing which is always breaking down through the complexity of civilisation. Anyone who likes may state it by saying that democracy is the foe of civilisation. But he must remember that some of us really prefer democracy to civilisation, in the sense of preferring democracy to complexity.

Sheer “determination to live by the will” : Allan Massie on Widmerpool

I haven’t read much of The Spectator lately; it seems to have less and less of interest. Once, regardless of one’s political views, the literary quality of the magazine was high: for a while, the Life & Letters column by Allan Massie brought back some of this glory. A few years ago
“Life & Letters: The Spectator Columns” came out, and for those with a Kindle it is available in Kindle Unlimited.

One of the interesting things about blogging has been seeing how my interests have changed over the years. I have fifteen or so years back, sport would have been a major interest, whereas now it is a little above nil. Around the same time, I was strongly influence by Anthony Powell’s writing, not only A Dance to the Music of Time, but his various other novels.

I picked up one of the middle volumes of A Dance to the Music of Time, Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant, at random in a second hand bookshop. Immediately I was smitten, and hooked, and I am not sure if I would have tried to read the whole series from the start de nove as it were (indeed, the opening volume, A Question of Upbringing, and the last, Hearing Secret Harmonies, are by some way the weakest) The whole series is a tapestry, intricately woven with recurring characters and situations. Plot is relatively unimportant, or at least seems that way – character is all. While some of the most unforgettable characters have their exits during the book (X Trapnel, one of the most outstanding, only features in one), the dominant personality as the books progress is not the narrator Nick Jenkins but the cipher turned toady turned man of “the corridors of power” turned …. well I wouldn’t want to ruin anything, Kenneth Widmerpool.

Periodically I revisit Powell’s panorama of twentieth century English society. Unlike my interest in sport, my appreciation of Powell is undimmed. It affects my admiration for the work not a jot that Powell wasn’t a big fan of Ireland or the Irish.

Anyhow, in the very first column included in Massie’s book,

“The fate of the Running Man”,
from the Spectator of 17th May 2006, Massie addresses a point I had often considered. Powell’s depiction of Widmerpool’s dogged, rather isolative running was/is one factor that rather turned me against running as a sport (perhaps to the detriment of my fitness) And Massie’s consideration of Widmerpool has a wider application in this age of narcissism:


’ve been thinking about a question posed by Colin Donald in a paper given at last December’s Anthony Powell Centenary Conference. ‘Does Widmerpool “add up” as a character?’ he asked. ‘He certainly has a varied career, progressing from awkward, unpopular boy to crazed, elderly hippy via stints as a solicitor’s clerk, bill broker, territorial officer, wartime major and DAAG, Cabinet Office military martinet, Labour MP, publisher, suspected Russian agent, university teacher, TV personality, Californian guru, trendy university chancellor and spectacularly embarrassing cult member’ — a list which omits only his time on Sir Magnus Donners’ staff.

A varied career, certainly, not necessarily an incredible one. A reading from the volume entitled Eccentrics in the collection of Daily Telegraph obituaries yields comparable examples of wayward lives. The question is whether we believe in Widmerpool right up to his last metamorphosis as a seeker of ‘harmony’ in Scorp Mortlock’s cult?

There is another pertinent question. How much of Widmerpool’s career did Powell foresee when he introduced us to this figure ‘in a sweater once white and cap at least a size too small, on the flat heels of spiked running shoes’? Not necessarily a great deal. It’s unlikely that he knew then that Widmerpool would die shouting, ‘I’m running, I’m running, I’ve got to keep it up.’

For one thing, Powell told me he didn’t do ‘a lot of overall planning’. In this context he remarked that when Stringham says of Widmerpool ‘that boy will be the death of me’, he didn’t then know that Widmerpool would indeed be responsible for sending Stringham to Singapore where he died in a Japanese PoW camp. Stringham’s quip, which was ‘the sort of thing people said then’, was a happy chance.

One of the problems of Dance, read as a coherent work, is that Powell started writing it years before the time in which the last two books are set. Accordingly, though Jenkins is in a sense remembering the story, he starts telling it long before it is completed. In writing a novel over a period of 25 years, Powell responded to changes in what was acceptable, being aware also that, unavoidably, he himself changed too. Pamela Flitton, for instance, would have had to be treated differently but for the greater freedom granted a novelist in the post-Chatterley trial mood of the Sixties, though he did not doubt his ability ‘to have attacked her in a more roundabout way’. This suggests that had Powell published a novel every year rather than biennially, bringing out the last volume in 1963 rather than 1975, Widmerpool’s end would have been different, perhaps less awful. His disintegration, recorded with appalling zest in the last two books, could not have taken just the same form before the Sixties. Nevertheless, though Widmerpool’s final appearance as that ‘spectacularly embarrassing cult member’ is far removed from the stolid, awkward schoolboy we first encountered, the seed was indeed planted early, even if Powell himself did not know how it would grow.

When Jenkins meets him at La Grenadière after leaving school he still thinks of him as ‘an ineffective person, rather a freak’; yet the reader is already aware of his strength of will and determination to excel — even if Jenkins thinks his expressed ambition to be ‘such rubbish that I changed the subject’. It is Widmerpool’s determination to live by the will, to impose himself on others, insensitive to their feelings, indifferent to anything but his own interest, which gives unity to his life, making him, for all his erratic course, ‘add up’ as a character. Without imagination, in thrall to the ego, the failure of his respectable career brings this once so conventional boy (shocked to learn that Peter Templar ‘had a woman before he left’ Eton) to the point where he rejects ‘all bourgeois values’. There is nowhere else left for him to go.

Cosmic Walk, Cabragh Wetlands Centre, Tipperary

Cosmic Walk, Cabragh Wetlands Centre, Tipperary

Near Thurles, on the road to Holycross, one finds Cabragh Wetlands Centre, which is the site of the transformation of the marshes around an old Irish Sugar factory into a wildlife sanctuary:

Like many heavy industries of its time, however, it had an unwelcome environmental footprint. Sugar beet was washed before processing, and the sludgy effluent was, at first, released directly into the River Suir.

Initially, this was considered of little consequence when so much wealth was being created locally. But the Suir was renowned for angling, and during the 1960s the almost inevitable happened, and the effluent wiped out many fish. The series of kills drew attention to the untreated discharges, and a local angler, Bob Stakelum, spearheaded a campaign to clean the effluent before it was released.

In response lagoons were built that allowed the sludge to settle before the waste water was discharged. These “settling ponds” stopped the fish kills – and brought an unintended but welcome consequence. Waterfowl took an immediate shine to the lagoons, and wigeons, plovers, lapwings, gulls and curlews began to overwinter there.

Cabragh is a wonderful site which I have visited many times. It has a great variety of fauna and flora and recently has added a new feature – a Cosmic Walk.

The Cosmic Walk concept is influenced by the thought of Brian Swimme, and indeed this approach to reconciling evolutionary, cosmological and religious mindsets features in Peter Reason’s“In Search of Grace”, much-cited on this blog.described here:

The Cosmic Walk is a ritual created by Dominican Sr. Miriam MacGillis of Genesis Farm in New Jersey. It has been modified and facilitated by many people around the world. The Cosmic Walk is a way of bringing our knowledge of the 14-billion-year Universe process from our heads to our hearts.

There is a leaflet on the Cabragh walk available here. One doesn’t necessarily have to embrace the concept overall to enjoy a walk around some striking sculptures … but the overall concept gives these works a deeper resonance.

Rene Girard – “Envy in our world is the real unconscious, the real taboo”

From “Reading the Bible with Rene Girard: Conversations with Steven E. Berry” by Michael Hardin, Scott Cowdell

As for mediated desire, the more democratic the world becomes, the less concrete difference there is between people. Everybody wants to be a billionaire today, and quite a few achieve it. We have a friend at Stanford who made 50 million dollars, in spite of not having a cent to start with. So everything is possible, but these examples are attractive, they’re a mimetic model, which means everybody wants to become a millionaire or marry a princess. This is the world of internal mediation, and it’s inevitably a world of jealousy and envy. Envy in our world is the real unconscious, the real taboo. You mustn’t talk about envy. I think one of the reasons we talk so much about sex, and pretend that we’re very daring when we talk about sex, is that deep down we’re avoiding talking about competition, and therefore about envy. Sex is the false taboo that everybody brags about breaking because they don’t talk about their real motivation, which is ambition, envy of a billionaire or the husband of the most beautiful girl; but usually sex in our world is not the object of a sufficient taboo to be the force that it seems to be. I think it’s ceasing to be that, because all romantic love is disappearing.