The Anecdote on Thrasybulus   

PericlesPeriander sent a messenger to Thrasybulus to ask for advice on ruling Corinth. Thrasybulus did not answer, but took the messenger out for a walk in the corn field. As they strolled along, Thrasybulus idly swatted the corn with his stick, so cutting back the stems that stuck out above the rest. The messenger returned and told Periander what had happened. Periander deduced that Thrasybulus's advice was to kill the most outstanding citizens. Any student of modern tyranny knows that Thrasybulus's advice is followed to this day. The most outstanding citizens are likely to be the prime challengers of the tyrant's power.

"The Thrasybulus anecdote with its imagery of a tyrant cutting down and throwing away his sociopolitical peers seems to reflect the intra-aristocratic strife that gave rise to tyrannies in many Archaic poleis in the late seventh and sixth centuries B.C.E. The verbs [used] ... reflect the violence of this struggle for power.""

    It seems likely that the anecdote was transmitted orally from generation to generation in the Archaic period until finally recorded by Herodotus in his Histories. The nature of the anecdote probably changed to reflect the times and the audiences to which it was directed. In the Athenian democracy it was modified to signify the harmfulness of tyranny to the whole citizen body.

   To resolve inter-aristocratic strife more peacefully, Cleisthenes established the institution of ostracism, by which citizens would assemble and mark pieces of broken pottery (ostraca) with the name of an outstanding citizen whom they wished to send into exile for 10 years. This was not a penalty for wrong-doing, but the political outcome of an appeal to the citizenry by the aristocrats, somewhat similar to our modern election campaigns when one party comes into power, but the losing party constitutes an opposition and is not physically exiled.

   Aristotle in his Politics repeated the Thrasybulus anecdote, noting that the need to destroy outstanding men "is not only expedient for tyrants, however, and not only tyrants do this, but also oligarchies and democracies. For ostracism has the same effect."

    One of the worst aspects of the modern peer-review process is the way those academic "aristocrats" who have seized the ideological high-ground in some area where there are different schools of thought, seize the funding and publication power and send into academic exile those who would contend with them. The ideal of a calm, objective, debate between contenders tends not to be followed when personal stakes are high  -  funds, research space, maintenance of academic dynasties, reputations, high awards.

    The attack of Ernst Mayr on the long deceased William Bateson (Click Here) perhaps illustrates the forces at work. Mayr (1973) began an "Essay Review" on "The Recent Historiography of Genetics" by pointing out that books on the history of Genetics were "with a few exceptions ... written by members of the genetics establishment." He considered it "a most welcome corrective" against bias "that in recent years certain aspects of the history of genetics have been analyzed by historians." However, he noted that "historians have not given anywhere near enough attention to the importance of the scientific (and cultural) backgrounds of opposing schools. In biology, far more so than in the physical sciences, there are nearly always competing camps in any area." Thus, both biologists and historians are biased. To understand biology one needs to understand its history, but to understand its history one needs to understand biology. So where did Mayr stand in this?

     He did, indeed, turn to the possibility that his own viewpoint might be biased: 

"If I arrive occasionally at biased evaluations, it would seem to me less a fault than to express no opinion at all and to repeat the same standard assertions that have been with us for fifty or more years. I hope that I will be refuted where my judgement is faulty, so that, in good dialectic fashion, thesis and antithesis will eventually lead to a well-balanced, objective synthesis."

    This reads as very insightful and proper. Yet it presupposes that those who might deem Mayr's judgement faulty will be given an equal opportunity to present their "antithesis" to his "thesis" (i.e. that the playing field will be kept level; Ash 2001). The Thrasybulus anecdote tells us that this is unlikely to be so. Mayr was an academic aristocrat by any standard, and for the following reasons we may suppose that, over the years, he acted a la mode Thrasybulus. 

      Bateson died in 1926. How, given Mayr's complacency, intemperate language (Click Here), and his large school of disciples, could anyone wishing to explore Bateson's views have been awarded a research grant in the interim? And if a grant had been awarded and the research had been productive, how easily would it have been to get the results published? Knowing what Mayr was prepared to say in a public forum, it is not difficult to imagine the tenor of his remarks when protected by the shield of anonymity when peer-reviewing grants and publications. Sensing this, those with Batesonian views may be discouraged from even attempting to submit grant applications or to publish papers or books in the area. 

    The converse, of course, applies to those who, actually, or for political reasons, share Mayr's viewpoint. The process of academic speciation is alive and well. At the time of this writing (2001) some of Mayr's younger fellow aristocrats who follow the party line (Turelli, Barton & Coyne) dutifully cite Dobzhansky and Mayr at the beginning of a review entitled "Theory and Speciation" . 

    Some of these people may be true scientific aristocrats, in the best sense of the phrase. However, they may also have survived merely because they have not been academically decapitated. Too often academic survival requires skills, more in politics and marketing, than in scientific innovation. Too often academic survival requires scientific naivete, not subtlety. As in all political campaigns, simple messages, even if incorrect, have the most sales value. Thus "survival of the fittest" and the "genic paradigm" reign supreme.

    And of course, there is minimal academic risk when bashing someone who is long dead, whose surviving relatives are not into evolutionary biology, and whose supporters are muffled (knowing that it is a waste of time to submit grant applications or papers for publication). It is very unlikely that the biters will be bit by the peers who review their grants and papers. Indeed, uncompliant peers are unlikely to be picked, by grant agency bureaucracies and editors, to so review in the first place. 

     Mayr concluded his "Essay Review" (1973) by again hinting at the blame due to those whose faulty ideas have delayed scientific progress:

"The role of constructive [meaning Mayrian] as well as retarding [meaning Batesonian] contemporary concepts in the development of new generalizations still requires far more analysis."

     In 1997 another "aristocrat," the director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, declared that "pessimism is destructive." But unwarranted optimism can be equally destructive. A naive unwillingness to face the difficulties and uncertainties in an area where there are still enormous gaps in our knowledge, will almost certainly slow progress. 

    Until knowledge is more complete, strange facts and ideas not easily accommodated by current dogma nevertheless deserve attention. In this circumstance, pessimism regarding the conventional wisdom can be highly constructive. For more on this see my AIDS web-page (below).

Ash, E. H.(2001) Queen v Northumberland, and the control of technical expertise. History of Science 39, 215-240 

Ash. E. H. (2010) Introduction. Expertise and the early modern state. Osiris 25, 1-24 

Cohen, J. (1997) Looking for leads in HIV's battle with the immune system. Science 276, 1196-1197.

Forsdyke, S. L. (1999) From aristocratic to democratic ideology and back again. The Thrasybulus anecdote in Herodotus' Histories and Aristotle's Politics. Classical Philology 94, 361-372.

Forsdyke, S. L. (2000) Exile, ostracism and the Athenian democracy. Classical Antiquity 19, 232-263.

Mayr, E. (1973) Essay Review. The recent historiography of genetics. Journal of the History of Biology 6, 155-165.

Turelli, M., Barton, N. H., Coyne, J. A. (2001) Theory and Speciation. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 16, 330-342.  

                                                                                                Donald Forsdyke 2001

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Last edited on 08 April 2013 by D. R. Forsdyke