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Hanging on to the Edges

Daniel Nettle


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  • 1 Russell, B. (1951). New Hopes for a Changing World (London: Allen & Unwin, p. 5).

Those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision.
–Bertrand Russell, New Hopes for a Changing World1

1This is, in many respects, an anti-book. Books have a clear, unitary central message. The message is set out clearly in the opening chapter; seen growing up, fighting off rivals and doing all kinds of good deeds in a series of episodes in the middle; and then triumphantly restated at the end. Books come from certainty and self-confidence: the world is simpler than you thought! Anti-books, on the other hand, grow from critical self-reflection, compromise, and doubt. They cross and re-cross a complex landscape, trying to see its features from as many angles as possible, pointing out commonalities and false friends, abandoning one path and trying another. Their central message, if there is one at all, cannot be summarised in a sentence, but perhaps emerges, unsuspected, from an entanglement of detailed local engagements. It is a set of value commitments as much as a claim.

2In 2016 I realised, with some alarm, that I had been working for over twenty years (twenty years!) at the interface between the biological and the social sciences, trying to cross the gulf that still tends to separate those two great human endeavours. What conclusions did I have from all this effort? None clear enough, right now, for a book; but plenty for an anti-book. I had been downcast for years that where other people had grand, bold theories or sweeping claims to make their names with, I did not. I had a lot of reading and thinking behind me; a lot of experimentation with different methods and ideas, without entirely nailing my colours to any of them; a lot of ‘both sides have useful things to contribute’ sentiments; a lot of reasonably good-humoured scepticism; and a great deal of respect for the craft. Running through all this was a diffuse sense of slight disappointment: in private moments, I could see that none of the theories espoused out there in the literature, especially those espoused by me, quite lived up to their promise. The big breakthrough had not quite come. When was I going to discover my gift?

3It was only latterly that I realised: disappointment, good-humoured scepticism and the ability to see something valuable on both sides are gifts, of a sort. At any rate, if they’re what you’ve got, they’re what you’ve got. I resolved to reflect on human nature in a way that did not suggest closure, overstatement or facile answers, yet still offered something useful beyond the status quo. More than that, I wanted to find a way of writing more honestly about the academic life. The published record of books and papers airbrushes out a lot of the true nature of this life. Generally, the more influential and prestigious the publication, the more severe the airbrushing is. Readers can see only the tiny subset of thoughts and experiences that makes it through the filtering and signalling processes usually involved in publication. The quotidian mass of unpublished rumination is less cocksure, more imaginative, and in some important sense, truer. The excision of all the doubt and exploration from the final product both biases the scientific record, and gives novice scholars a completely unrealistic sense of what the academic life is really like. I have here tried to find a way of writing that is more open, more like an authentic conversation, than academic papers generally allow for. Over the course of the writing of this book, the search for the authentic voice became part of the substance as well as the style. As such, I hope the reader will forgive me an informality of tone, a periodic recourse to flippancy, and a certain self-involvement, in what follows.

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4Hanging on to the Edges consists of fourteen essays, written in 2016, 2017 and 2018, and originally published separately on my website.2 My intention was that each essay could be read in a single sitting (ignoring the footnotes unless you are keen to follow up sources), and each would stand alone. There are, however, plenty of connections between them if you want to make them. They are organized into three groups. Part I is a set of critical journeys through the current terrain of the human sciences. Respectively, these examine the recurrent tendency for researchers to over-claim for their theories (How my theory explains everything); the pernicious and persistent maintenance of a false distinction between the ‘social’ and the ‘biological’ (What we talk about when we talk about biology); the continuum from social theories that see humans as too self-determining and independent-minded, to those that don’t see them as self-determining and independent-minded enough (The cultural and the agentic); the perils of conceiving of culture as something like DNA and its change as something like natural selection (What is cultural evolution like?); and finally, the whole question of what a theory is, and what a good one would look like in the case of human behaviour (Is it explanation yet?).

5Part II turns to the topic of poverty, particularly the consequences of poverty within affluent societies. This is one of my main specialist interests, and a topic to which the human sciences must turn with renewed vigour. Poor people know what it means to be hanging on to the edges, in many different ways. Just as the experience of poverty is insufficiently discussed, researchers struggle to conceptualise the causes and consequences of poverty in sensible ways. Thus, these essays deal as much with how to theorise about poverty as the empirical reality of what poverty is like. The mill that grinds young people old examines the link between poverty and ageing, and begins to raise my general claim that the behaviours of poor people typically make pretty good sense given the conditions under which they have to live. Why inequality is bad argues that economic inequality is bad for well-being, though not necessarily for the reason people usually say. Let them eat cake! considers the role of hunger in the consequences of poverty, arguing that before we turn to more abstruse and symbolic arguments, we consider the visceral: poor people in affluent societies simply can’t afford to eat well, and this could explain a lot. The worst thing about poverty is not having enough money argues, as its title suggests, that our explanations for the behaviour of poor people should start not with their intrinsic traits, culture, or life skills, but with the elephant in the room: their scarcity of material resources. Evidential support for this argument comes from what happens when this material scarcity is lifted, even if that uplift is completely at random. Finally in part II, Getting your head around the Universal Basic Income examines the case for that particular form of social transfer, focussing both on its potential advantages and the intuitive reasons people find it problematic.

6In part III, I return to the academic life, its institutional organization, and how one might navigate its shoals. I have always been an advocate of inter-disciplinarity, and this is the subject matter of the first two essays. In The need for discipline, I try, with more success than I anticipated, to force myself into the view that specialist disciplines have value and transmit useful skills. In Waking up and going out to work in the uncanny valley, I reflect on the difficulties of doing inter-disciplinary work for a living, relating this to the categorical proclivities of the human mind. The penultimate essay, Staying in the game, is a slightly battle-scarred reflection on how to survive in academia. The final essay, Morale is high (since I gave up hope) links the personal search for the good life to the broader difficulties swirling around science, which concern reproducibility and incentives for discovering truth.

7For all I have said about this being an anti-book, there is a positive vision for the human sciences in there somewhere, albeit not spelled out in capital letters. I believe in the eventual unity of all knowledge. I believe in the capacity of science to discover the truth about the world, including about this extraordinary, self-conscious ape, and the various ways his social life on this planet might be organised. To realise its potential, science will need to be done rather better than it currently is. I look forward to a world where researchers entertain ideas without building fiefdoms; keep their ears and minds open; treat each other with courtesy and respect; seek out the places where their ideas and knowledge break down rather than comfortable confirmation of what they already believe; and admit when they don’t know, or are wrong. This is also a world where we academics studiously avoid the traps of ordinary-language dichotomies and institutionalised ways of thinking; apply ourselves willingly to problems that really affect human wellbeing; are prepared to advocate certain social arrangements over others where we feel that our knowledge warrants doing so; and assume as much humanity and nuance in the lives of people different from us (other classes, other cultures, other times) as we do in our own. That is a world worth working for.

  • 3 The letter is reproduced in Ian Hacking’s introduction to the fourth edition of Feyerabend’s Again (...)

8In closing, let me read to you from a letter written by the great Paul Feyerabend to the future readers of his final book.3 The letter was never used in that book, but was discovered on a floppy disk (remember those?) after Feyerabend’s death. He writes:

In a few pages, you will find a story written in a style you may be familiar with. There are facts and generalizations therefrom, there are arguments and there are lots of footnotes. In other words, you will find a (perhaps not very outstanding) example of a scholarly essay. Let me therefore warn you that it is not my intention to inform, or establish some truth. What I want to do is change your attitude.

9I can think of no better introduction to Hanging on to the Edges.


1 Russell, B. (1951). New Hopes for a Changing World (London: Allen & Unwin, p. 5).


3 The letter is reproduced in Ian Hacking’s introduction to the fourth edition of Feyerabend’s Against Method: Outline of an Anarchist Theory of Knowledge (New York: Verso, 2010, p. xv).


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