The Wise Men (and Women!)


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Since the age of the Druids, bees have been a symbol of wisdom. The Greeks and the Celts used the symbolism as well, as did cultures in India and Egypt, Sumerian mythology, and Christianity. Bees were the symbols of sun gods, earth goddesses, and the Virgin Mary. In the Jewish story, Deborah — whose name means “bee” — was a prophet who saved her city from invaders. In English, Welsh, Irish, Greek, and assorted other languages, the word “bee” is caught up by sound or by root with the word for “to live” or “alive.” Even Charles Darwin was scared of the knowledge to be found in the bee hive, afraid their cooperative, altruistic lives could disprove his theory of evolution, perched as it was on that vicious idea of survival of the fittest.

  • Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience by Stephen S. Hall. 352 pages. Knopf. $27.95.

It seems Stephen S. Hall was struck by the millennia-long connection between bees and wisdom, as he bumps up against the hive in his research, remarking “the bees again!” in Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience. The correlation runs a little deeper, though. We feed our bees corn syrup, truck them from state to state, throw out their honey, and spray their pollen supply with toxic insecticides and pesticides, and wonder why in the world they might be dying off in catastrophic numbers. Congruently, we dismiss old people in our culture as invisible and worthless, we degrade and devalue some of the most basic components of wisdom, and the experts we listen to on the news are not the wisest people we can find, but those who can scream the loudest. No wonder our supplies of both bees and wisdom are in such short supply these days.

Wisdom is not the same as knowledge, and so it seems odd it has attracted the attention of science. There is such a thing as “wisdom studies” now, and in his book Hall talks to researchers and neuroscientists in a search for the latest information about wisdom. Scientists treat wisdom the way they treat anything else. They break it down into its smallest components to identify and test, and they attempt to figure out how it works, how to obtain it, and what it is. There are, according to Hall and the researchers he meets, eight attributes of wisdom: Emotional Regulation, Knowing What’s Important, Moral Reasoning, Compassion, Humility, Altruism, Patience, and Dealing with Uncertainty. Tests are designed, studies are lined up, and college undergrads short of cash or in need of class credit are recruited as lab rats in our pursuit of wisdom.

The problem is that wisdom is elusive, and the act of reducing it down to a binary code seems ridiculous. Take a common test for moral reasoning: A trolley is out of control and will kill five people unless you pull the lever for the trolley to switch tracks, resulting in the death of one person. What do you do? Researchers later switched it up to find people’s moral threshold: How far would you go to save those five people? How much would you participate in that one person’s death? Would you kill him or her with your own hands? The problem with the test is that it has only two answer choices: yes and no. Life is messier than that. As is morality. There is no room on the survey to talk about survivor’s guilt, or whether the value of life is equal for each individual, or finding alternatives to pushing someone to their death, like, say, yelling at the people on the track to get out of the goddamn way. Luckily, Hall is wise enough to notice this. He takes a skeptic’s view of the tests’ real world application; he knows that everyone in the world knows how you’re supposed to answer: you are supposed to kill the one to save the five. What’s more interesting is now that we have neuro-imaging, we can watch a person’s brain at work, their emotional response, how rationality has to override disgust. A person might give the right answer on the survey and still be the type of person who doesn’t intervene when he or she hears a cry for help.

Hall writes:

There is a danger in seeing this as a map of isolated points rather than a three-dimensional, pulsing, dynamic network of neural coordination, one that is constantly changing, and changeable, one that is weighted with different inputs depending on our previous experiences, our learning, our mood that day, the general uncertainty or anxiety we may be feeling, our life circumstances at any time, our age and stage of life — a network that is, in a word, idiosyncratic.

He’s referring here to our sense of fairness and our willingness to participate in altruistic behavior, but it could refer to almost any chapter in the entire book. The problem with many behaviorists — and in particular this new splashy trend of the economist explaining society to us — is their simplistic reduction of our desires, motivation, and reasoning. And so while the neuro-imaging might teach us that our brains are much more complex than the standard self-reporting tests reveal (On a scale of one to 10, how humble are you?), the experiments break down when they try to encompass all we bring to every decision, or when they figure out why knowing the wise or moral thing to do does not lead one to actually do that thing. (Although yes, they are developing studies to test for that.)

Some of the studies, however, have a wonderful sense of whimsy in their efforts to expose human nature. Take, for instance, a 2007 study at Pennsylvania State University’s Smeal College of Business, conducted by two economists. They wanted to know if there was a correlation between narcissism in CEOs and volatility in that company’s performance. As they were unable to kidnap the various CEOs and put them through extensive personality testing, they examined “the size of the leader’s photograph in company documents, the length of entries in Who’s Who, the frequency with which the CEO was mentioned in corporate press releases, and the number of times the CEO used the first-person singular (I, me, mine, my, myself) in interviews.” What they found was that the more narcissistic the CEO appeared to be, the more detrimental they were to the company. And, of course, the results are now clearly visible to everyone who has been following the news of the United States financial system in the past two years.

Many people in Hall’s book, from various researchers to Montaigne, put forth definitions of wisdom; perhaps the best comes from John A. Meacham in his essay, “The Loss of Wisdom”:

To be wise is not to know particular facts but to know without excessive confidence or excessive cautiousness. Wisdom is thus not a belief, a value, a set of facts, a corpus of knowledge or information in some specialized area, or a set of special abilities or skills. Wisdom is an attitude taken by persons toward the beliefs, values, knowledge, information, abilities, and skills that are held, a tendency to doubt that these are necessarily true or valid and to doubt that they are an exhaustive set of those things that could be known.

Hall may believe that “we crave wisdom — worship it in others, wish it upon our children, and seek it ourselves.” But there’s a difference between admiring wisdom and emulating it. That’s perhaps the best illustration of the difference between knowledge and wisdom: We know the value of wisdom. We know that narcissists should not be in charge of industries that can wipe out people’s lives — our Enrons, our BPs, our Bear Stearns. But as long as it’s possible to make money this way, we don’t fuss about it too much. We know that we should be caring for the poorest and most vulnerable members of our society, but we don’t want to pay higher taxes to do so, nor do we really want to donate much of our time or money. When it comes down to it, we greatly prefer the life of the binary, of the scale of one to 10, the things broken down to their smallest components. But perhaps the most crushing of all the studies was one that showed that a person will naturally act altruistically — until they see those around them behaving selfishly. Instead of pulling up the behavior of the others, the altruistic give up and become as greedy as everyone else.

I’m sure Hall did not mean to write a book that drew out all my ugliest, most cynical beliefs in mankind, but he did. I had the urge to turn away from it in the way I want to turn away from the news that tells me there is still no substantial financial regulation and probably won’t be in the near future, that the health care bill is next to worthless, that politicians are feeding people’s disgust about homosexuality to get them to vote against basic civil rights, that whales are showing up dead on the East Coast and BP is still allowed to handle the clean-up, that no one knows what exactly is killing off our bees and putting our entire food supply in jeopardy. But then I remember Hall’s chapter on Patience, and maybe a chapter he should have included: Faith. Because wisdom isn’t a bolt out of the blue. It’s the low hum of the hive. And the hive? It’s buzzing.
17 June 2010