By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: Scott L. Montgomery, Daniel Chirot
Narration by: Stephen McLaughlin
“The Shape of the New” is about the power of ideas. Scott L. Montgomery (a geologist and professor) and Daniel Chirot (a winner of a Guggenheim Fellowship for Social Sciences) write about three ideas rarely argued in polite conversation; e.g. economics, politics, and religion.
Montgomery and Chirot capsulize the importance of their subject by paraphrasing Victor Hugo’s line in “Les Miserable”. “One can defeat an army but not an idea”. (The actual quote is: “An invasion of armies can be resisted, but not an idea whose time has come.)
Among others, Montgomery and Chirot profile the ideas of Adam Smith, Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, Jerry Falwell, and Sayyid Qutb. Each represents ideas that are part of modern world socioeconomic and religious thought. Smith’s, Marx’s, and Darwin’s ideas largely standalone, while Hamilton, Jefferson, Falwell and Qutb rest on the shoulders of others.
Adam Smith breaks ground on the economics of self-interest and the seminal role of an “invisible hand” in his book, “Wealth of Nations”. Karl Marx offers a theory of unregulated self-interest and produces the idea of an economic dialectic. Charles Darwin details the origin of species, founded on natural selection. These three ideas change the course of history and shape modern times.
Hamilton, Jefferson, Falwell, Qutb, Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and other leaders adopt, adapt, and distort Smith’s, Marx’s, and Darwin’s ideas; figuratively leading humanity to heaven and hell. Smith’s, Marx’s, and Darwin’s ideas play out in religions and nation-states that deeply influence the modern world.
What Montgomery and Chirot do is return to original texts of Smith, Marx, and Darwin to show how their ideas penetrate Hamilton’s, Jefferson’s, Falwell’s, and Qutb’s thoughts and actions. As Smith’s ideas are disseminated, Hamilton grasps the importance of centralized control of money and national debt to support mercantilism, and free enterprise. Jefferson tempers Hamilton’s nationalist control with arguments for states’ rights that reflect on concerns raised by Smith, and then Marx, about unregulated economic power.
Falwell and Qutb question sectarian beliefs; many of which are consequent to, derivative, or distortions of Darwin’s idea of evolution. If there is no God, then what in life is not permitted?
Falwell begins the evangelical Moral Majority that decries homosexuality and abortion, and posits belief in salvation; only through faith in a Christian God. Qutb disapproves of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s westernization of Egypt because it violates the Quran and Muslim Arab identity. Qutb, like Falwell, is a believer in his only true faith, the Mohammedan God.
Montgomery and Chirot note that many religious right fundamentalists are reactionary. The religious right challenges the socioeconomic belief of Smith’s sectarian vision of the invisible hand. To a Christian, the invisible hand is only God’s hand. To a fundamentalist, Marx and Darwin’s science only has relevance if it fits God’s plan. To Qutb, the true path for humankind is through the word of the Quran (Koran); any other path is blasphemous.
The authors question good works and truth of the fundamentalist movement when it infringes on human freedom and ignores scientific evidence. On the other hand, the authors note that religion plays an important role in the history of morality. Many question the moral direction of fundamentalists and evangelicals but religions continue to shape morality in good and bad ways.
Smith’s, Marx’s, and Darwin’s ideas are seminal beliefs that define arguments in the modern world. Smith’s theory of economics influences both Keynes’ and Hayek’s beliefs even though many of their beliefs are fundamentally in conflict. Marx’s dialectic suggests capitalism is just a phase in an economic cycle that will evolve into communism. China’s rapid advance may not be exactly what Marx predicts but it is a kind of capitalist evolution that incorporates some of the tenants of communist centralized control. Darwin’s view of evolution is morphing into arguments for genetic manipulation to create more perfect human beings. One questions whether this is a step toward Nazism or nirvana.
As Victor Hugo notes, “An invasion of armies can be resisted, but not an idea whose time has come.” Montgomery and Chirot have written an informative and interesting history of “..Big Ideas and How They Made the Modern World”. In the end, “The Shape of the New” is a tribute to a liberal education. One may be a genius, but without a liberal education genius is often so narrowly focused it leads to societal destruction.