Harper’s Notes

The Harper Review’s weekly newsletter: geniuses, losers, cricketers, and more.

The editors

November 7, 2022

Aristocratic tutoring and the decline of genius: Recirculating on Twitter is an article by neuroscientist Erik Hoel that asks, “Where are all the Einsteins?” The Substack post, published in March of this year, considers what its author claims to be a decline of true world-historic genius in the arts and sciences and whether the loss of “aristocratic tutoring” is partly to blame. The Tufts University research assistant professor describes the role tutoring played in the education of the elite in earlier centuries and considers the cases of figures ranging from Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius to utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill. Hoel is interested in the philosophy of consciousness and the biological function of dreams and writes frequently on the natural sciences and humanities for a popular audience.

Democrats keep falling for “superstar losers”: With midterm elections fast approaching, Atlantic writer Jacob Stern reflects on a trend he’s seen cropping up in the current Democratic Party, that of the “superstar loser.” Citing examples like Texas’s Beto O’Rourke and Georgia’s Stacey Abrams, Stern traces figures who have become national stars by losing state-wide races. These politicians treat electoral failure as a moral victory and continue to garner support even well after they have blown through massive party-funded war chests with nothing to show for it. Stern concludes that in the age of “weak parties and strong partisanship,” especially liberal figures are able to build political capital for themselves even if they never actually govern, and, in fact, it might be better for them if they never do.

Watching the sun rise on society: Human history starts with hunter-gathers, and it ends with—or at least progresses toward—urbanized, global society. You can find platitudes like this everywhere from Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Yuval Noah Harari. But the 2021 bestseller The Dawn of Everything, which took the academic world by storm last year, argues that this “platitude” has been antiquated by a wealth of new research in anthropology and archaeology. The book’s co-author David Wengrow, professor of archaeology at University College London, will deliver this year’s Sigmund H. Danziger Jr. Distinguished Lecture in Classics, expanding on his research into the diverse polities and social structures that characterized early human history. For Wengrow, they’re polities and structures that eschew any teleological understanding of progress and civilization, philosophes and public intellectuals be damned. The lecture will take place on Thursday, November 10, in Kent 107 at 5 p.m.

“Homer’s contest”: In light of the recent Cricket T20 World Cup, let’s talk about cricket. Cricket is a game inherently associated with English imperialism: The major participating nations all constituted either the metropole or the periphery of the Empire. Thus, many of the countries, especially India and Pakistan, are scarred and divided by the wounds of history. Yet in this context, scores of players and fans are embracing one another, paying tribute to the heroes of each other’s teams, and singing and dancing together to songs from a mutual language and culture. This World Cup may serve as a reminder that before the genocide, the war, and the grand strategies, India and Pakistan were one. There has been endless work done in public policy, sociology, and political science that aims to ease interethnic conflict, but it may just be that the solution is competitive sport and beautiful music.