Harper’s Notes

The Harper Review’s weekly newsletter: borders, globalism, outer space, and more.

The editors

November 17, 2023

Our century’s question: By 1903, W. E. B. Du Bois had already posed what he called the problem of the twentieth century: “the problem of the color line.” For The Harper Review, Ahan Raina writes that it’s overdue for this century to pose a problematic of its own. The problem of the twenty-first century, Raina writes, “is the proper incorporation of the scientific worldview within the total context of human life.” For millennia, we’ve been wrestling with how to incorporate the search for knowledge—for reasons, causes, and consequences—into our daily lives. Now it’s time, with a little help from the philosophers, to finally finish the task.

Reason to believe: Science journalist Sarah Scoles explains in Scientific Americanwhy human beings will never live in space. Michael Muthukrishna, associate professor of economic psychology at the London School of Economics, disagrees. In his new book, A Theory of Everyone: The New Science of Who We Are, How We Got Here, and Where We’re Going, Muthukrishna lays out an optimistic blueprint for the future of humanity, both on this earth and off of it. Muthukrishna argues that in culture—which he defines as knowledge and experience passed down through generations—lies the power to solve the existential threats of the twenty-first century, from political fragmentation to the energy crisis. In a geopolitical moment where faith in indefinite social and technological progress is flagging, Muthukrishna’s book outlines ways we can harness our collaborative creativity in the service of a brighter future for everyone—a future that just might take us beyond the stars.

Do as thou wilt: A popular truism holds that the free market and its practitioners are to blame for many of the world’s most urgent problems, from the climate crisis to rising income inequality. Another popular truism maintains that this has been the case since the emergence of modern free markets in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Marc-William Palen, a senior lecturer of history at the University of Exeter, upends these assumptions in his new book, Pax Economica: Left-Wing Visions of a Free Trade World. He argues that the free market as we know it today emerged in the 1840s as a left-wing, globalist response to imperialism, nationalism, and other predilections of the era. Palen shows that this movement, dedicated to global peace and prosperity, influences global commerce and policy to this day, making his book indispensable for readers seeking a nuanced and unorthodox understanding of our present economic reality.