David Brooks: A new grand narrative





Standing on a hill in East Jerusalem, amid the clash of religious and political orthodoxies, stands a musty old museum devoted to human progress. When you walk into the Rockefeller Museum with its old-fashioned display cases crowded with ancient pottery shards and oil lamps, you can begin by looking at the stone tools of early man. Then you proceed room by room through the invention of agriculture and cities, winding up finally with the statues and reliquaries of the medieval era.

What you’re really looking at is a philosophy of history. The museum was set up in 1938, when scholars still spoke confidently of mankind’s upward march from primitive culture to higher civilization. History is portrayed here as a great, unified story, with crucial pivot moments when humanity leapt forward — when people first buried their dead, when they moved from animistic faiths to polytheism, when they learned to cultivate reason and philosophy.

These days, historians hate those kinds of unifying grand narratives, and the idea that history is a march of progress upward to the present. Yet I have to confess, I loved the Rockefeller Museum. Though it’s dense and dry, it rekindled the University of Chicago flame that lingers in every graduate’s soul and got me thinking all sorts of Big Thoughts. I also had the sensation — which I used to get during those sweeping old Western Civ courses — of seeing my own time from the outside, from the vantage point of some ancient spot.

And it occurred to me that while we postmoderns say we detest all-explaining narratives, in fact a newish grand narrative has crept upon us willy-nilly and is now all around. Once the Bible shaped all conversation, then Marx, then Freud, but today Darwin is everywhere.

Scarcely a month goes by when Time or Newsweek doesn’t have a cover article on how our genes shape everything from our exercise habits to our moods. Science sections are filled with articles on how brain structure influences things like lust and learning. Neuroscientists debate the existence of God on the best-seller lists, while evolutionary theory reshapes psychology, dieting and literary criticism. Confident and exhilarated, evolutionary theorists believe they have a universal framework to explain human behavior....



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