‘Men,’ said Marx in his 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, ‘make their own history, but they do not make just it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances already existing, given and transmitted from the past.’ This is true, despite its provenance; indeed so obviously true that it is virtually a truism. For if it were otherwise, men would find themselves behaving in no circumstances at all, which is literally inconceivable. Circumstances are like the poor, only even more so: ye have circumstances with you always.
But it does not follow from the fact that men don’t make their history just as they please because they inherit particular circumstances (in part self-created, as our past always is) that they have no choice but to act as they do, any more than grammatical rules determine what people say. Those rules prohibit, or rather make meaningless, certain utterances, but there remain an infinite number of possible meaningful utterances.
Geoffrey Miller is a respected evolutionary psychologist at the University of New Mexico. Miller made a mistake, but his big problem was that his mistake was very politically incorrect.
Miller tweeted: “Dear obese Ph.D. applicants: if you didn’t have the willpower to stop eating carbs, you won’t have the willpower to do a dissertation #truth.”
In my view, this tweet was clearly improper. My guess is that self control over eating may be different than the discipline to complete academic work. But in any event, it was not an appropriate thing to say to Ph.D applicants.
The question, though, is how bad of a thing this tweet was, and what sanction, if any, it required. In my view, it was appropriate for the university to ask Miller to apologize and to promise not to take obesity into account when making admission decisions. If he did not cooperate with these sanctions, then perhaps additional matters would be appropriate.
A literary review recently asked me to review a book by an eminent paediatric endocrinologist, Dr Robert Lustig, entitled Fat Chance. It is by no means well-written; but then, as the publisher explained to me, Dr Lustig is a doctor, not a writer. At least he always makes his meaning plain.
His main scientific thesis is that it is dietary sugar, particularly fructose, that has caused the world-wide epidemic of obesity, which is now particularly severe in the United States and Britain. Dr Lustig is a follower of Dr John Yudkin, a British doctor and nutritionist, who first drew the world’s attention to the connection between sugar consumption and obesity, hypertension, hyperlipidaemia and diabetes over 40 years ago in his book Pure, White and Deadly. Yudkin, however, was disregarded or pushed aside by forceful proponents of the alternative animal fat hypothesis of coronary artery and cerebrovascular disease, as well as by the sugar industry which led a propaganda war against his views.