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In Defense of the Generalist

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As I was researching my book, Evolutionaries, I made an interesting observation: This is not a world built for generalists. It is a world built for specialists. What's valued intellectually is specialty knowledge -- expertise on the mechanics of eukaryotic cells or the chemistry of black holes or the life cycles of ant colonies. Even within individual disciplines, the drumbeat of specialization takes precedence over broader systems of knowledge. It's not enough to be a physicist; one is a particle physicist or a quantum loop theorist or a string theorist. It's not enough to be an historian; one is an expert on Renaissance social customs or South Asian political dynamics in the 18th century. Indeed, the degree of specialization in our collective knowledge base is both stunning in its depth and detail and frightening in its increasing fragmentation.

"Most educated people at the beginning of the twenty-first century consider themselves to be specialists," writes Craig Eisendrath. "Yet what is needed for the task of understanding our culture's evolution, and of framing a new cultural paradigm, is the generalist's capacity to look at culture's many dimensions and to put together ideas from disparate sources."

The people I have come to call "Evolutionaries" are generalists for this very reason. Their critical insights are a result of thinking as a generalist must think -- with a passionate but broad curiosity that fans out across culture and sees connections, patterns, transitions, and trends where others only see discrete facts and details. An Evolutionary must be able to look at the movements of nature, culture, and cosmos as a whole, yet without denying the infinite detail that surrounds us.

If one reads the books written by many of today's thinkers who are tracking the evolution of culture and even of the cosmos itself, this one characteristic that immediately stands out. Whatever their fields of expertise, most are incredibly well-informed generalists. They move from one field to another with ease and sometimes brilliance. They are unafraid to risk the wrath of the specialists and take research from one field and apply it another. They shift gracefully from science to sociology to philosophy and then apply all they have gained in the journey to human life and culture. They are interpreters par excellence -- synthesizers, holistically inclined pattern-recognizers. They mine today's incredible knowledge base for insights, and help make sense out of the enormous confusion that the information revolution hath wrought. In doing so, they serve a great function. They help explain our place in the scheme of things.

Of course, there are times when such thinking can go very wrong. For example, when well-intentioned but ill-informed people take difficult concepts from a complex field like quantum physics, and draw overly facile conclusions about how they apply to spirituality and life. Bookstores are filled with such ill-conceived problem children of the science and spirit relationship. And it's not just spirituality. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman has used the term "biobabble" to describe a similar misapplication of biological principles to economic systems. Moreover, even if our thinking is clear and our intentions genuine, it is always hard to satisfy the specialists' criteria, to avoid stepping on toes in fields that are not one's primary expertise. But that should not deter us from appreciating the importance of this missing function.

Over the last decades there has been a growing sense that the critical role that a generalist plays in society is being forgotten, with dangerous consequences for culture. In discipline after discipline, experts have raised concerns that our knowledge base has privileged depth and detail over breadth and context. As Eisendrath points out, one result of this increasing fragmentation of knowledge is that there is no one left "to speak for the culture as a whole."

Of course, in an advanced society, specialization has a honored place. But after we have gained all the power of specialization, recognized the necessity of reductionism, practiced the art of slicing and dicing reality into smaller and smaller revelations, we must set a new course. We have so much information, but have so little context. We have so much knowledge, but somehow lack a larger frame in which to understand it. We are data rich and meaning poor. It takes me all of 10 seconds on Google to find the infant mortality rate of Chad in 2003, and yet, we have seemingly no clue as to how and why some cultures evolve in healthy ways, and others descend into anarchy. We have mapped the marvelous complexity of the human genome and yet stand by helplessly as kids wander our streets as dropouts and junkies, undeveloped throwaways of the wealthiest culture in history. We may be on the verge of unlocking the very secrets of life and longevity, and yet millions of people have so despaired at our capacity to positively impact the evolution of culture that they have decided the only way forward is for the earth to suffer a near apocalypse, or as some believe, undergo a miraculous global awakening. Evolutionaries sense that the world is fragmented, and that we must embrace our role in jumpstarting the process of higher integration.

The idea of evolution, by its very nature, helps us to integrate our thinking. It transcends the neat structures of disciplines mapped out on the university campus and encourages us to lift our eyes to patterns and trends that break the boundaries of compartmentalization. It compels us to think in bigger ways about life, time, and history, until finally we find ourselves staring at contexts so fundamental that they can temporarily break the hold of the mind's incessant fascination with particulates of experience and reveal completely new perspectives on existence. Perhaps that is why Hegel, one of the original evolutionary philosophers, when asked "what is truth?" replied with the slightly flippant but no less profound answer, "Nothing in particular."

Integration is still a road less traveled. The generalist remains a rare breed, and the evolutionary generalist even more so. There are few who have the capacity or inclination to speak for "culture as a whole." Yet there is little question that our future lies is this direction. As author James Gardner writes in what I think is one of the most salient and inspiring descriptions of precisely this kind of integrative attitude toward knowledge:

The overlapping domains of science, religion, and philosophy should be regarded as virtual rain forests of cross-pollinating ideas -- precious reserves of endlessly fecund memes that are the raw ingredients of consciousness itself in all its diverse manifestations. The messy science/religion/philosophy interface should be treasured as an incredibly fruitful cornucopia of creative ideas -- a constantly coevolving cultural triple helix of interacting ideas and beliefs that is, by far, the most precious of all the manifold treasures yielded by our history of cultural evolution on Earth.

Being an evolutionary generalist is more than simply being a pluralist -- one who makes space for multiple perspectives and points of view. In fact, there is evidence, coming from a variety of sources, that integrative, cross-disciplinary thinking may not just be the latest and greatest idea of the cognoscenti, but an actual higher mental function that represents a further step in the evolution of consciousness itself. In other words, it may be an evolutionary adaptation to the challenges presented by our globalizing, ever-complexifying society.

Whatever the case, we should never forget that the very faculties we use to perceive the world are themselves caught up in the evolutionary process itself. More and more theorists are suggesting that the relatively limited capacities of homo sapiens in the 21st century represent not some final end state of development or a completed picture of human possibility, but merely one more stage in a cosmic drama that has taken us from energy to matter to life to mind and now seeks higher and higher potentials. They suggest that the immense challenges of our globalizing world are themselves catalyzing and calling forth evolutionary potentials in human development, that will allow us to begin to make deeper sense of the immense complexities of our wonderfully diverse but painfully fragmented age. No, they aren't teaching this in Kansas schoolrooms or creationist colleges, but neither is it common at Harvard. But if we are to form a more perfect, and integrated, union of our fragmented world in the days to come, it is a perspective worth considering.