Saturday, November 3, 2007


So this is my blog – it will consist almost entirely of my irregular musing and reflections on recent (and sometimes not so recent) published academic papers in evolutionary and social psychology. Occasionally I might indulge myself by venturing further afield, probably mainly into political science. I may even sometimes fail to take myself seriously and blog about something other than a specific academic paper…

A few things about me: I am doing my masters in cognitive science at the University of KwaZulu Natal in Durban, South Africa. Once upon a time I believed standard social science could really be scientific and thus pursued an undergraduate degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics (the fabled PPE) at the University of Cape Town. At the tender age of 17 I was deeply (and probably irrevocably) imprinted with evolutionary psychology by an utterly serendipitous encounter with Steven Pinker’s How the Mind Works. So when the reality sunk in that standard social science – and political science in particular, my first academic love – was more social than scientific, I turned to evolutionary psychology in the hope of a real science of society. We’ll see… (Oh, I should also point out that I’m incorrigibly addicted to ellipses…)

Why, you may ask, did I call my blog “Ionian Enchantment”? In Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, E. O. Wilson explains that the term ‘Ionian Enchantment’ (coined in 1995 by Gerald Holton) refers to the “belief in the unity of the sciences – a conviction, far deeper than a mere working proposition, that the world is orderly and can be explained by a small number of natural laws” (1998: 5). This belief is so called, Wilson goes on to explain, because it was in Ionia during the 5th and 6th centuries B.C.E. that the foundation of the Western intellectual tradition was laid and, with it, the dream of universal learning was born. (See also "Ionian Enchantment: A Brief History of Scientific Naturalism" by Ignacia Prado). It is perhaps not particularly surprising that a naturalist like myself would become enchanted by a vision that promised a truly scientific theory of human behavior that is deeply integrated with the rest of science and the natural world.

I can’t think of a better way to end my first entry than quoting Wilson again:

Such, I believe, is the source of the Ionian Enchantment. Preferring a search for objective reality over revelation is another way of satisfying religious hunger. It is an endeavor almost as old as civilization and intertwined with traditional religion, but it follows a very different course – a stoic’s creed, an acquired taste, a guidebook to adventure plotted across rough terrain. It aims to save the spirit, not by surrender but by liberation of the human mind. Its central tenet, as Einstein knew, is the unification of knowledge. When we have unified enough certain knowledge, we will understand who we are and why we are here. (1998: 7)


Wilson, E. O. (1998) Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (New York: Vintage Books)

Pinker, S. (1997) How the Mind Works (London: Penguin)


  1. Not a bad idea at all, Michael. I think this will be something worth keeping an eye on. I look forward to many more interesting and well-written posts. Oh, and that Wilson quote is actually rather moving.

  2. Glad to see you got the blog going.

    I'm not sure what this Ionian enchantment business amounts to. As you gloss it here I don't get *how* it's more that the working proposition re the world being orderly and able to be explained by a small number of natural laws. A bunch of other web sources when discussing it say stuff about 'a state of mind' and 'harmony' rather than particular beliefs.

  3. Hugh: thanks... and, yeah, I love that quote. It was my fav quote in FB for a while.

    John: I don't think Wilson uses the term in the sense of "harmony" or "state of mind". I think when Wilson says the Ionian Enchantment is "far deeper than a mere working proposition" he means it's psychologically/emotionally 'deeper'. That is, he compares it with religious feeling in some sense - he and others treat it as more that a working proposition. (I highly recommend the book by the way - not because it's especially convincing, but because it's extraordinarily interesting).

  4. Hey Michael
    I agree about the emtional appeal about the IE, it is both a useful proposition and brings a sense of wonder.

  5. So I've been reading this blog backwards, which I why I ended up at the beginning. Its very enjoyable and I hope it takes off.

    Let me make two comments about this post: (1) I would hesitate to generalize from your experiences at UCT to political science as a discipline. (2) My view is that you're only going to get limited leverage on social phenomena working from the level of human nature. Science is often not reducible.

  6. I was raised on Pinker and Wilson, too, and I must tell you, you haven't grappled at all with sociobiology until you have grappled with CR Hallpike. Read at least "Darwinism, Dogma and Cultural Evolution. An education requires understanding of and reckoning with all available evidence.