«The university system was rescuable, but that was
Evolutionary biologists Heather Heying and Bret Weinstein explain how ideologues have undermined higher education. And how to survive in a world that is changing faster than ever before.
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Why should we look at the modern world from the perspective of hunter-gatherers?
Weinstein: Well, we shouldn’t really look at the world from the perspective of hunter-gatherers. But we should realize that a very large chunk of our recent history was spent on the plains of Africa hunting and gathering. So it does play a large role in who we are. But we make the argument in the book that it is not right to think of humans as having an environment of evolutionary adaptiveness. In fact, every trait we have has its own environment of evolutionary adaptiveness. That is some environment in which it was first advantages and arose through adaptation. But not all of them are the Pleistocene.
Heying: It is useful to consider all of the moments in our past, all of which we are adapted to some degree. So considering ourselves as hunter-gatherers is useful, considering ourselves as agriculturalists is useful – as opposed to industrialists. Also, if you go backwards in time, from hunter-gatherers, recognizing what we are as apes, as monkeys, as primates, as mammals, as fish, as animals: all of these groups to which we belong, tell us something true about who we are as modern humans.
In your book, “A Hunter-Gatherer’s Guide to the 21st Century”, you note that we live in a hyper-novel world. What do you mean by that?
Weinstein: The idea that we live in an environment for which we are not built is actually quite an understatement. Many of our ancestors lived in environments that were new to them, and they were well adapted to the process of change that is necessary to become well adapted. Our world is changing so fast that even that process cannot keep up. Not only do we not live in the environment of our ancestors, we don’t even live in the environment that we were each born into. By the time we become adults, that environment is gone. And it has been replaced with some new, largely arbitrary environment for which we don’t have the proper intuitions.
Heying: In the past, there were some who were exploring new niches, and there were some who were still doing what had been done before. In this hyper-novel world in which the rate of change itself is changing so rapidly, there’s nowhere to return to. There’s no home base to which you can return and say: okay, that exploration didn’t work out, let’s reset and let’s explore in a different direction.
The question then is, of course, how can we live in this in this world and how we can adapt to this speed of change that you are describing.
Weinstein: We are going to have to accept that change is a significant factor, but not expose us to it on every front at all times.If you think about the question of what the hazards of change are to us, even if we accept as adults that the price of progress is a certain amount of risk with respect to novel technologies, there’s no reason to expose our children to it. For example, why did we simply assume that it would be safe to put them in front of screens in which large corporations that had perverse incentives were pumping content into their minds? Did we think that was going to work out well? Or could we have realized upfront that there was a hazard there, and we needed to go slow?
«We can’t adapt to the speed of change, we’re going to have to figure out how to interface with it in a healthier and safer way.»
Where do you personally find a balance?
Weinstein: The problem is that we have put far too much under the control of markets. And while markets are the best tool that we have to figure out how to accomplish things, they’re terrible at figuring out what we should do. Markets explore every defective human character and exploit for profit. And they are turning us into worse, less capable, less satisfied people. We need to take markets out of that control position, and start navigating on our own.
Heying: At the individual level, having moments of each day or activities that you engage in that are free of the technology that clearly is to some degree deranging us is incredibly useful. Our friend Tristan Harris has been talking about this for many years: having a family dinner with no phones; having a bedtime ritual with no screens.
You mistrust modern technology. But isn’t it sometimes very useful?
Weinstein: The precautionary principle is a correct idea that is very difficult to instantiate surgically, and we don’t know anyone who has a solution to that problem. But we do need to agree on the basic underlying concept that new technologies inherently carry a danger. Not all of them are harmful. But until you know fully what their impacts are, you can’t say one way or the other. So proceeding with caution is a good policy, whether at the level of civilization or at the level of personal choices. At the level of civilization, the stakes are much higher. And so we have to at least agree that not paying an undue price for progress is something we should set as a goal.
Heying: Some of the most amazing advances of Western medicine have been antibiotics, vaccines and surgery. They are extraordinary, they have saved countless lives, they have expanded the length and the quality of life. But that doesn’t mean that every time something happens that could be treated with surgery, surgery is the best move. The same can be said with regard to mass antibiotic use in livestock, which is creating antibiotic resistance, which is making some of our most powerful medical tools less effective. To say we want to be cautious is not to pretend that we aren’t recognizing that these tools have been extraordinary, and should continue to be extraordinary. But that doesn’t mean that they are always the right answer.
Weinstein: There is also a degree to which hubris is the error. In the case of those three marvelous medical advances, each of them is actually built on an evolutionary platform. Each of them is effectively borrowing something very important that already existed in our physiology, and utilizing it in a way that is novel. For us to feel that we have invented antibiotics, that we have invented vaccination, that we have invented surgery, and then to use it in a reckless way, is foolish – to recognize that surgery only functions because of the remarkable capacity of human tissues to heal, that antibiotics are borrowing chemical warfare agents that fungi and bacteria make for their own purposes and titrating them so that they become medicine, and in the case of vaccines, the idea that we’re going to take a subunit, a piece, or a inactivated or benign version of a virus to inform the immune system about what a pathogenic virus or bacteria will look like: These things are all us borrowing from nature, and doing so in a careful way that treats these processes with respect rather than an arrogant way is the key to not doing so much harm.
Is the current transgender phenomenon an example of a harmful application of modern medicine?
Heying: The idea that men can be women and women can be men is just wrong. The idea that some people experience really deep seated gender dysphoria, and can only live their best lives as the sex that they were not born to is true. It’s very, very rare, but there is truth to that. It is also true that this is now a choice that people are embracing, in part because it is fashionable to do so. People are having their futures badly affected, if not utterly destroyed, by being encouraged to either engage in surgery and/or hormonal treatment, which will reverse the normal effects of puberty and from which there will be no full return. Just to go back 500 million years for a moment: in our lineage alone, for at least 500 million years, maybe as much as two billion years, we’ve had two and only two sexes, and it’s never disappeared.
«For humans with all of our overlay of culture, and storytelling, and feeling not quite at peace with our bodies, for us to decide that what that means is the biology isn’t real. That’s a dangerous fiction.»
Weinstein: We should be compassionate to people who are feeling like they may not be as they should be, and we should protect them and allow them to experiment. But part of youth is discovering that what you were very sure of didn’t turn out to be true – we’ve all gone through stages like that. And it’s terrible when the fact of entering such a stage comes with a surgeon’s knife and a commitment that can’t be undone.
How has your experience at Evergreen, allegedly the most liberal place in the United States in terms of academic principles, scholarly research and classroom politics, shaped the views that you have developed in your book?
Heying: We wrote it after we left Evergreen, but we developed many of the ideas while we were there, and with the students we had in our classrooms. One way to approach this question is to say people have imagined that the students who confronted Bret in the hallway in May of 2017 reflected all of the students at Evergreen – but that’s not true. Our students were always open, inquisitive and interested in understanding who they were from an evolutionary perspective. So every quarter, I taught sexual selection, the differences between the sexes, sex roles, in what sex roles look like in other species, and how that manifests in humans, what it means to be male and female, and how those differences track in various species. And I never got anyone protesting me, and nor did Brett. The protests were about something that was fictional, and not at all about what was happening in the classroom.
Weinstein: We had never met the students who protested before. They showed up and were unknown to us. And they were protesting about things that they had been told, not things that they had encountered. The experience of what happened at the end of our tenure at Evergreen obviously shaped us. We effectively experienced a witch hunt. And there is no way to unlearn that lesson, nor would we choose to. I don’t think that the experience of teaching at Evergreen changed our understanding of the scientific realities, but it certainly gave us exposure to a huge range of people.
Would you say you are freer now?
Heying: I would say 10 years ago, we felt that we had some of the best jobs in the world, because we had complete academic freedom to explore what ideas we wanted to teach there. We wanted to take students into the field and into the lab, and there was such an extraordinary free academic freedom for both faculty and students at Evergreen, that it really did allow for the pushing of intellectual boundaries in a way that most places don’t afford now. That freedom began to be encroached upon, obviously, as the ideology moved into campus with this new president, and obviously blew up quite publicly in May of 2017. We were feeling the constriction of the administration, and some of our colleagues on the faculty trying to reduce the freedom that we had, and not in service of better education for students or better thinking in service of some particular ideas that they had about how they wanted things to look. So compared to then, yes, we are much freer.
Weinstein: We continued to behave as we would. And that put us on a collision course with the new administration, which had an authoritarian bent. I would say that we are very free now, but the loss of security is absolutely staggering.
Do you think you might return to any other academic institution at this point?
Heying: We’ll certainly never return to Evergreen – it was actually a condition of our resignation that we’d never apply for a job there ever again. They put that condition on our resignations. It’s possible under some circumstances that we might elsewhere – it would be nice to have academic appointments and to get the kinds of perks that come with those, such as library access, for instance. But teaching full time, in a situation that was more standard, where you have students for 50 minutes at a time, maybe an hour, three times a week, would be such a step down from what we were able to do at Evergreen that it wouldn’t feel like it could possibly bring the same kind of value to the students.
Weinstein: We made a very conscious decision at the point that we left Evergreen: To keep doing what we were doing, we just adapted to the new role that we found ourselves in. The book is that same model that we were teaching in the classroom and our podcast “DarkHorse” forges a relationship with a new audience. But there are ways in which it can’t be the match for what we were doing, because we can’t know an audience of hundreds of 1000s in the same way we could know an audience of 50. However, the ability to reach individuals is something that we cherish.
You run an insightful podcast, which has become its own institution. Do you think that might possibly extend into a long-time countercultural strategy? Is this going to be the next university – the actual university, perhaps?
Weinstein: On the one hand, it’s very interesting to see some idea that pops into your head turn into something like a new institution that very quickly reaches a scale where how it interfaces with the legacy institutions is a real significant question. But is it the university, on the other hand? It can’t be. We need a university system that has all of the components of the university system that is currently in collapse. We can’t do proper scientific research on a podcast.
Now that you’re looking at it from the outside – do you think the situation has become worse for your colleagues who are still in academia?
Heying: The situation hasn’t improved since 2017. We have argued that it’s not clear that the existing system of higher education is fixable. I still hang on to some sliver of hope that it is. Whether or not the system that we currently have is in any way going to be the higher education that we need in 10 years or 50 years? That is an open question. But it looks ever less likely.
Because ideologues get tenure and can then continue as long as they wish to?
Heying: Tenure is tricky. We were engaged for a little over a year in actively trying to figure out how to create a new system of higher education. And one of the ideas that we were playing with was contracts that get longer and longer with each successive ones. So you get hired maybe for one year, and then the next contract is three years, and then at some point, maybe you get an 11 year contract – if you keep on doing good work, you’re more likely to get a longer contract, but you’re never completely safe, which is what tenure does. When people are being safe, they might be revealing that they weren’t that interested or interesting, or that they were a little bit lazy, or that they were ideologues at the point they get tenured – that’s part of the problem, yes, but it’s not all of the problem by any means.
Where did the undesirable developments of the university system start?
Weinstein: The university system was rescuable, but that was decades ago. When we were undergraduates, we tried to point out what would happen if the system continued to play with ideas that we now call “critical theory”. And what we feared has come to pass, frankly, worse than we expected.
Heying: It seemed really impossible for us to imagine in the early 90s that it would spread so widely. It seemed so patently ridiculous that the fact that we were running into these bad ideas in a few anthropology classes, it seemed necessary to push back – but we also way underestimated the risk.
Weinstein: As did everybody else. It was impossible to imagine that we would be having arguments about whether two plus two actually equals four or whether men are truly different than women. These are nonsense arguments, it is sophistry, which has taken over the university system. We’ve let this fester so long, so I would say that the rescue of the academic institutions is now almost unthinkable. That said, because we do need a system that does what they were commissioned to do, we will effectively have to build it again.
Isn’t part of the problem though that most other areas of society now actually mirror this ideology? If you look at journalism and the public sphere, cultural institutions – it all seems to be intertwined.
Heying: Yes, it is. And I think it was really gaining ground in the late 1980s, early 1990s, when we were in college, and then it kind of disappeared for a while. And what it seems like to me is that those people who took it seriously, who were our peers when we were undergraduates, then became professors themselves and have now become dominant. They became dominant in part by creating whole new fields, whole new departments. And so we’re able to become increasing in number in colleges that way, by creating whole new departments that didn’t even exist before. We have a whole generation of people who’ve been indoctrinated rather than educated, who look around and see accurately, that this is an era where it’s going to be very difficult to be more successful than their parents were for maybe the first time in human history, and who see themselves as disempowered. They have been taught to view the entire world through the lens of race and sex and other indicators of demographic. And they’re not wrong that they’ve gotten a raw deal. But they have not been given a toolkit that actually allows them to assess what the situation is that they’re dealing with.
Weinstein: There was a period of several years after Evergreen melted down, and our story became well known, where we were being invited to speak on what was portrayed as a free speech crisis on college campuses. Every time I was asked to speak on that topic, I made the same point: This isn’t a free speech crisis, and it’s not about college campuses.
What is it about?
Weinstein: It’s about control. And college campuses are where the battle took place, initially. In the summer of 2020, it spilled out into the world, and suddenly people could see that what it was had nothing to do with the colleges. They understood, but too late. And it is important for us to now get ahead of this process and realize that we are actually watching a delusion spread across civilization. It’s not the first time that this has happened. And when it has happened in the past, it has ended terribly. We have to get ahead of this thing. And we have to say: You know what, two plus two does equal four, men are different from women, the history of humanity is not of one race battering other races – it is a history that has many glorious aspects, and many horrifying ones, and the only way to move forward is to democratize the benefits that have been discovered and achieved so that everybody has access to them. That’s the way to solve this. Going back to settle past scores real and imagined – that’s not going to work.
What you are saying stresses that this is not a problem pertaining to the United States, nor to Europe, nor to the Western world. It’s a global phenomenon.
Weinstein: It is a human phenomenon unfolding in a novel way. We don’t see it, because we’re standing too close – we look at the narratives and say: What is this? Why are people telling me suddenly that two plus two doesn’t equal four? When in the past have we heard people say nonsense, and what has happened next? What does it look like? Cancel culture is understood as a brand new phenomenon that has taken place because of the defects of social media. Now, it’s not brand new, right? Witches were “cancelled”, too, but we didn’t have the term “canceled.” It is a historical process unfolding with a novel twist. And once we understand that that’s where we are in history, it will be much clearer what we need to do.
Heying: One of the distinctions is that witches have been canceled throughout history, but never before have we had a global economy.
Weinstein: The danger is all the greater because this time we’re all in it together. You can’t have one population make a terrible mistake and set a continental flame. The fact is: we’re in one boat – and we will sink or stay afloat together.