By Chet Yarbrough
The Shape of the New: Four Big Ideas and How They Made the Modern World
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, but Hamilton, Jefferson, Falwell and Qutb rest on the shoulders of others.
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 reflect on unleashed sectarian beliefs consequent to 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 and Christianity, believes only in his faith, a Mohammedan God.
Montgomery and Chirot note that much of the religious right is reactionary. The religious right challenges the socioeconomic belief of Smith’s sectarian vision of the invisible hand. To a Christian, the invisible hand can only be God’s hand. 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 Koran. The authors question the good works of the evangelical 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 direction of 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 the importance of a liberal education. One may be a genius, but without a liberal education genius is often so narrowly focused, it leads to societal destruction.