Jonah Lehrer on the Lesson He Learned from Charles Darwin

Yesterday, self-plagiarist and quotation-maker-upper Jonah Lehrer delivered a $20,000 speech to the Knight Foundation. He’s been criticized left and right for the #Humblebrag of a talk (in which he says he just needs a stricter set of rules so that he knows the difference between right and wrong)… but I actually liked a part of his speech where he (accurately) quoted Charles Darwin:

Jonah Lehrer

There is a wonderful section in Charles Darwin’s autobiography where he writes about his “golden rule.” The rule is simple: Whenever Darwin encountered a “published fact” or “new observation” that contradicted one of his beliefs, he forced himself to “make a memorandum of it without fail and at once.” Why did Darwin do this? Because he had “found by experience that such facts and thoughts” — those inconvenient ideas — “were far more apt to escape from the memory than favorable ones.”

This really is the golden rule. It begins with a recognition of inherent weakness, but contains this weakness with a conscious habit, something that Darwin has learned to do “without fail.” It is the recognition that character requires constant vigilance, that the moment we take our good decisions for granted is also the moment we expose ourselves to the possibility of making some very bad ones.

Either that was excellent timing — yesterday being Darwin’s birthday and all — or one hell of a cool coincidence. Either way, it’s good advice. We know religious people take observations that contradict their Holy Book… and chuck them aside. They don’t even allow for the possibility that their “God-given book” could be wrong about anything.

We shouldn’t let ourselves fall into the same trap.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.