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 chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Wow, someone is willing to pay $20K to hear Jonah Lehrer speak. What an amazing world in which we live.

    • Coathanger

      People pay that much for Bristol Palin to speak. Nothing shocks me anymore.

    • skizzle

      In fairness, he is ridiculously gorgeous.

    • Miss_Beara

      Just to speak, plagiarists prosper to the tune of $20K. Clearly I am in the wrong line of work.

      • Roger

        Yeah, too bad we have scruples, right?

  • http://twitter.com/WrichPrintz Wrich Printz

    All I can say is that Pretty People get away with some amazing BS. No wonder they always show Jesus as a Near-model level strangely white guy. It really let’s you say some amazingly absurd things.

  • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

    At the very least we should all be aware that none of us are immune to confirmation bias. Anything we can actively do to overcome it good advice.

    Of course, some of us will know it doesn’t apply to us.

  • GregFromCos

    The full quote is this:

    I had also, during many years, followed a golden rule, namely, that whenever a published fact, a new observation or thought came across me, which was opposed to my general results, to make a memorandum of it without fail and at once; for I had found by experience that such facts and thoughts were far more apt to escape from the memory than favourable ones. Owing to this habit, very few objections were raised against my views which I had not at least noticed and attempted to answer.

  • Verimius Reinstorff

    Follow up: Knight Foundation publicly regrets paying Jonah Lehrer to speak.

    http://www.knightfoundation.org/blogs/knightblog/2013/2/13/knight-foundation-regrets-paying-lehrer-speaking-fee/


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