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Ten Incredible Pearls of Wisdom From Great Minds

ten wisdom dawkins

The world can be a confusing place, but academics, authors, artists, poets and philosophers are just some of the many who have tried to explain things. In my wanderings through scientific texts, popular non-fiction and and documentaries, there have been a few stand out comments.

Whether it be Malcolm Gladwell’s keen insight into human nature, or Carl Sagan’s prophetic view of the world, all have resonated in some way beyond comprehension. They seem intrinsically correct, and universally true.

So here are ten incredible pearls of wisdom from the great minds.

1. On The Origins And Nature Of Human Behaviour

‘Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to because we may then at least have the chance to upset their designs.’ – Richard Dawkins, ethologist, evolutionary biologist and popular-science writer.

As the current face of evolutionary theory, Dawkins’ is no stranger to controversy. And although his work has revolutionised our understanding of the natural world, his opinions about how we must overcome our nature have caused the most conversation.

ten wisdom dawkins

The nature of life is conservative, selfish and driven by unconscious forces. Dawkins’ understands that to ‘be good’ you must understand our basic urges. Image courtesy of Flickr.

Dawkins’ is very aware how our evolutionary history, and how the selective pressures of the environment and each other, have shaped our behaviour. And in his book ‘The Selfish Gene‘, gives us to pause to consider the true morality of nature.

What is ‘natural’ isn’t inherently ‘moral’, and what we consider ‘moral’ is not inherently survival.  So Dawkins’ asks us to understand our primal natures if we are to best them.

2. On The Power Of Words

‘To acquire immunity to eloquence is of the utmost importance to the citizens of a democracy. ‘ – Bertrand Russell, Philosopher, Logician and Nobel Prize winner.

Although Russell is best known as a philosopher, his life of work reached deeper into the shared mind of society than we realise. By studying and writing on the academic disciplines of logic, mathematics and epistemology (the study of knowledge,) he became a strong advocate for peaceful societal reform.

A man’s words may make beautiful the macabre. Russell relied on logic to unify humanity toward a common good. Image courtesy of Flickr.

And most noteworthy are his observations of how people can be manipulated by words. The use of eloquent language, a flowery vocabulary or poetic arrangement can make the terrible seem empowering.  You need only read the words of Nazi spokesperson Joseph Goebbels to see how language can betray human decency.

We must understand a man’s motivation, and place it in the context of the sociopolitical climate, to truly understand what may be hiding behind the words.

3. On The Risks Of Virtue

‘Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.’ – Friedrich Nietzsche, Philosopher, Author and culture commentator.

As the central reference to ‘Nihilism‘, Nietzsche examined the purpose of life without purpose. His infamous quote ‘God is dead‘ instilled the idea that the concept and role of any God is limited, and that through pain and suffering we may choose a virtuous path.

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Nietzsche warned us not to become monsters in the pursuit of greatness. Image courtesy of Flickr.

Whilst an avid skeptic of religion in general, his infamous parable ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra‘ presented, in humbling terms, the true insanity of zealotry. He warns us not to lose ourselves in purpose, and to recognise how a belief in achieving ‘the good’ can lead to evil.

And in a world where popular influencers claim a moral authority, his words could not carry greater weight.

4. On The Importance Of Responsibility

‘Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.’ – Jean Paul Satre, Philosopher.

Regarded by many as the father of ‘Existentialism‘, Satre believed that existence precedes essence, and that we must find our own way in a meaningless universe. But in accepting this freedom in action, we cannot ignore our role in what comes next.

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Satre  believed that with action comes responsibility, and with freedom comes the same. Image courtesy of Pixabay.

Many existentialists reject the concept of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ behaviour being an inherent natural motivation, and instead suggest that we make our decisions based on complex (although often incorrect,) contextual interpretations.

Not only does this mean we must be aware of our own limits, but take responsibility when they are exposed.

5. On The Stoicism Of Knowledge

The older I get, the more I understand that the only way to say valuable things is to lose your fear of being correct. – Malcolm Gladwell, Author and Journalist.

Famed author of ‘David And Goliath’, ‘Outliers‘ and ‘The Tipping Point‘, Gladwell explores the interconnectedness of humanity with the world around it. In his poignant prose he unravels what may seem miraculous, often challenging widely held beliefs.

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Gladwell has exposed and explained the hidden reasons behind cultural success and individual power. To question convention is as useful as it is risky. Image courtesy of Flickr.

His work tells us not only to dig deeper to explain the world, but that explanations may exist beyond the obvious. He also extols the value of expressing new ideas, fearlessly with no regard for your own ego.

We must challenge convention to find the truth, even if it risks our reputations.

6. On The Insights Given By Friendship

‘You can learn something about a person by the company she keeps.’ – Sam Harris, Philosopher and Neuroscientist.

Although more likely to be a figure of repute for his views on religion, Harris is a distinguished author and surveyor of the interface between neuroscience, morality and the world at large.

A fierce critic of authoritarian dogma, Harris asks us to take responsibility for building our knowledge toward creating a better world.

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Sam Harris is a vocal critic of authoritarian regimes and their numerous abuses. Image courtesy of Flickr.

He also asserts that morality itself exists independently of religious doctrine, and empowers a human approach toward a coalescence of society. And as a neuroscientist, he is all to aware of how our behaviour may make us, or betray our intentions.

So if  you want the measure of a man, consider who they value as friends.

7. On The Illusion Of Simplicity.

‘I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that.’ – Ben Goldacre, Physician and Author.

The namesake of his popular book tells us a lot about Ben Goldacre. An academic and scourge of pseudoscience and ‘folk wisdom’, Ben uses evidence to expose the lies many are sold by the few to the many. He also tells that what is made simple, or appears so, may not be.

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Ben Goldcare makes it his mission to challenge misleading beliefs, expose bad science and explain the misunderstood. Image courtesy of Flickr.

What is claimed to simple may be complex, and what lies between may be inaccurate, underhanded and deliberate.

And with that, we should try to understand the motives behind simplification, and why it is so easy for us to be sold a lie. Amongst his many targets is Homeopathy and the risks involved in being misled.

8. On the Arrogance Of The Human Mind.

‘See that the imagination of nature is far, far greater than the imagination of man.’ – Richard Feynman, Theoretical Physicist, Nobel Prize winner and  Science Communicator.

Whilst it may seem odd that a theoretical physicist is so humble about uncertainty, Feynman shows us just how wonderful the universe is.

Although a pioneer in our understanding of the nature of our reality, he recognises that there is simply more we don’t know.

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Feynman studied and revealed some of the most hidden secrets of our universe, but in doing so realised that was is unknown is our greatest teacher. Image courtesy of Flickr.

The intricacies of our reality, currently hazy between the infinitesimally small and unimaginably large, appear to us through rigorous questioning and often teach us that our presuppositions are not just wrong,  revealing a drastic flaw in human understanding.

We claim to be intelligent, and yet this intelligence often blinds us to our own folly. We must revel in the wonder of whats left to wonder about, and not be afraid to look stupid doing so.

9. On The Value Of Choice And Humility

‘I was never born to write. I was taught to write. And I am still being taught to write.’ – Atul Gawande, Surgeon, Research and Author.

If you are a doctor, you no doubt are aware of Gawande. Whilst a strong advocate of evidence and comprehensive approaches, Gawande has also ventured into a philosophical musing of the human condition.

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As a surgeon, Gawande not only saves lives, but has taken it upon himself to understand what the true value of life is. Image courtesy of Flickr.

In his best-selling book, ‘Being Mortal’, Gawande examines the true value of human life, and what we lose and gain as we age. And true to his nature, he treats himself with a level of skepticism coherent with his humble world view.

We are born with a choice in a difficult world, expertise is only a measure of dedication tempered by self criticism, and arrogance undermines greatness.

10. On The Size Of Our Influence

‘The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena.’ – Carl Sagan,  Astronomer, Astrophycist and Pulitzer Prize winner.

To reduce the works of Sagan to one sentence would vastly sell him short. Not only did he lead the way in popularising science, but housed a mind so in tune with the human condition that his loss is truly universal.

Having inspired legions of scientists, including protege Neil deGrasse Tyson, Sagan’s holistic approach to science and its delicate implications toward society rings as true today as it did years ago.

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Carl Sagan was not just a pioneer of knowledge, but arguably one of humanity’s greatest teachers. Image courtesy of Flickr.

He was exceptionally kind, humble and patient, expressing the very tenets he postulated as a universal ideal.

Sagan reminds us that the true beauty of the universe is not just in its nature, or its creation, but in our pursuit of explanation and the inherent ability to use this knowledge to better ourselves and future generations.

And that perspective matters, for the universe is much greater than such complex molecular machines as we. We are so very small, but in that there is much to be learned, gained and valued.

So Much Left To Learn

Ten quotes simply isn’t enough to even scratch the surface of the grand insights accumulated in the wealth of human knowledge, or beyond it. And with each quote, you may have taken your own interpretation of meaning and purpose.

Perhaps you disagree with some, or worry that they are incongruent with each other. But I am willing to contend the opposite, that each shares a unity in placing the pursuit of knowledge through humility, truth and beneficence as a true virtue.

So what are your favourite quotes? What and who has changed your life? Let us know in the comments. And if you believe, like I do, that knowledge is best shared, then help us by sharing this article with your friends and family.

What’s Next?

The opinions expressed in this article are those of  Dr Janaway alone and may not represent those of his affiliates. Featured image courtesy of Flickr.

Note from the Author: Upon writing this article I became very aware of just how much I don’t know, and how much I can learn. I feel it only right to follow up on this article with more information about the works and lessons of the persons featured. There are many greats not featured on this list, but don’t worry, I will find ways to include them. I do not value my opinion of what is great  above any others, I only wish to signpost what is already there.

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Why Do We Worry So Much? Turns Out, Its Nature Falling Behind. Inside; The Science Of Anxiety.

There are times when I feel that the world is exploding around me. My heart is racing, hands shaking and breath hard to catch. Often there is no clear reason for these symptoms, or the panic that rushes through my brain. Other times I find myself unable to sleep, and as I watch the hours pass in the twilight hours I wonder why I feel like this. But the answer is something common to us all, Anxiety.

“To venture causes anxiety, but not to venture is to lose one’s self…. And to venture in the highest is precisely to be conscious of one’s self.” Soren Kierkegaard

So what is Anxiety, what does it feel like and how can we live with it? I teamed up with Metro journalist and Mental Health Advocate Hattie Gladwell to get to the bottom of it.

What is Anxiety?

Anxiety is a term used to describe the symptoms of a number of ”Mental Health” conditions ranging from ‘Generalised Anxiety Disorder‘ through to specific phobias. These can include agoraphobia (fear of being out of a safe place.) It can also include such things as ‘Panic Attacks’ and be linked to conditions such as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

Really it represents a whole spectrum of conditions where the world can be uncomfortable to the point of disease. The official definition given by the ICD-10 (a national registry of disease,) reads like this;

‘A category of psychiatric disorders which are characterised by anxious feelings or fear often accompanied by physical conditions associated with anxiety’

A rather less than elucidating definition. But what does Anxiety actually feel like?

What does Anxiety feel like?

“I am exhausted from trying to be stronger than I feel.” -Unknown (source: paintedteacup.com)

Dr Google will tell  you many symptoms, but it seems that the experience of anxiety is very individual. At the centre of it is worry, which can be accompanied by physical symptoms. These symptoms, if clustered together, can present a ‘syndrome’, which can lead to a specific diagnosis. This is all rather complex, and without seeing a doctor, self-diagnosis is dangerous. But we aren’t here to talk about specific types, but what it can feel like to live with it.

‘I have health anxiety, its all or nothing. I will get a surge in adrenaline, hot and cold flushes, shaking.  It happens more when I’m isolated and have more time to think about it. Most days I am panicking that my whole life will be put at hold.’

For me the experience is not entirely different. As a patient of depression, I consider anxiety (a well recognised association of depression,) as an uneasy partner. For me the problems started young, fear of making a fool of myself in front of friends, or fear of being disliked. Over time this changed, and my concerns became focussed on relative fame, (if you could call my experience that,) of being judged by others for my words and opinions.

I promise you nothing is as chaotic as it seems. Nothing is worth diminishing your health. Nothing is worth poisoning yourself into stress, anxiety, and fear’  – Steve Maraboli

This may seem silly to some, but I have had panic attacks after tweeting. I have stayed up for hours refreshing a timeline, worrying what others may say. These feelings have become more general, to a point where a phone call from an unrecognised number begins a spiral. Its uncomfortable, draining and often completely unnecessary, For me anxiety is a terrible affliction that seems bizarre later.

Living with Anxiety

If you suffer from unhelpful feelings of anxiety or catastrophic thinking, your Chimp is in control. – Dr Steve Peters, Psychiatrist 

Anxiety, for many, is a lifelong problem. Depression has its ‘Black Dog’ (mine is named, and I have grown kind to it,) but Anxiety may need a different animal. You can pick yours, but mine can be a Vulture. Treatment is difficult, but there is great success in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy  and medication. These treatments recognise the problem as a system of thought, action, reaction and behaviour.

By identifying your own, and making adaptions, you can begin to recognise when you are being taken over and do something about it. In his best selling book ‘The Chimp Paradox‘, Psychiatrist Steve Peters describes these feelings as being hijacked by ‘The Chimp’, an analogy for the emotional centre of the brain.  By recognising this, and through several techniques, Peters believes that you can take back control.

It is a great book, so give it a read.

Interestingly, these ideas are not new. In fact, Neuroscientist Sam Harris has discussed the overlap between neurocircuitry, religion and spirituality at length in his book ‘Waking Up.’ It is a big subject, but it may be that ancient religions, such as Buddhism, have already figured out how to deal with the pressures of the world by reconsidering their significance.

‘I am undergoing CBT, which I am finding very helpful. I use apps, but they aren’t a cure, but can be short term relief. They help me calm down. I tell myself that although things are horrible right now, it will pass’ – Hattie 

So if you are like me, there is hope.

If you enjoyed this article and would like to discuss it, or pitch ideas for follow ups, follow me on twitter or email me at benjanaway@outlook.com. I am happy for this work to be reposted, just let me know if you do!

What’s Next?

The views above are those of Dr Janaway alone and do not necessarily represent those of his affiliates. They should not be taken as medical advice. If you are concerned about your health please access your local health provider. Please feel free to follow Dr Janaway on twitter. Image courtesy of Pixabay.