FOM: prophets

Neil Tennant neilt at
Fri Dec 19 16:09:05 EST 1997

If we are going to begin a discussion of prophets and their social status
within a discipline like mathematics, perhaps this would be a good time
to supply this list with an hypothesis I learned about recently from
evolutionary psychology. This is very second-hand, from a book-review in the
TLS (I think).

The question to address is: why did the gene(s) for paranoid schizophrenia
survive? More generally: why did the genes for various social-affective
`disorders' (as perceived by today's standards) survive?
The answer is to suggest that in the `environment of evolutionary
adaptation' (EAA) such genes were actually conducive to survival. 

How was this so? 

Well, people lived in smaller, tightly-knit communities, but they
were communities that could still outgrow their resource base. From time
to time there would be survival advantage in having some wild-eyed, inspiring,
(slightly?) irrational bug-eyed orator leading away a splinter-group to form
a new community in greener pastures. That kind of fellow would also stand to
spread his freakish genes if he could mesmerize many women into bearing his

Think of David Koresh in Waco.

Perhaps the contemporary academic conference piggybacks on this primitive
genetic machinery and its psychological concomitants. Talk enough cryptic
gibberish to attract enough of a following who really enjoy being mystified,
and bingo!---an academic star is born. Groupies aggregate. The prophet scores.

Those are the lucky ones, the bug-eyed orators who still garner rewards.
But now the EAA is defunct, and the world it too constricted and inter-
connected a place. There's nowhere to lead people off any more (unless
you're in the wide spaces of Texas; or Oregon; or Australia). So the
would-be splinter-group leaders with the gift of the gab end up institutionalized in mental hospitals (if they are lucky) or roaming the streets (if
they are not).

I don't necessarily endorse this explanation; but I think it is of interest.
It's also a good cautionary tale to tell those who think their discipline
really needs a `prophet'.

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