Massimo Pigliucci was raised in Rome, Italy; and went on to earn a doctorate in genetics from the University of Ferrara, Italy, and then a PhD in biology from the University of Connecticut, and finally a PhD in philosophy of science from the University of Tennessee. Massimo Pigliucci was formerly a professor of ecology and evolution at Stony Brook University. In that role he explored phenotypic plasticity, genotype-environment interactions, natural selection and the constraints imposed on natural selection by the genetic and developmental makeup of organisms. In 1997, Massimo Pigliucci received the Theodosius Dobzhansky Prize, which is awarded annually by the Society for the Study of Evolution to recognise the accomplishments of an outstanding young evolutionary biologist. As a philosopher, Massimo Pigliucci is interested in the structure and foundations of evolutionary theory, the relationship between science and philosophy, and the relationship between science and religion. Massimo Pigliucci is also a regular contributor to Skeptical Inquirer, discussing subjects like climate change denial, intelligent design, pseudoscience and philosophy. On top of this, Massimo also writes for Philosophy Now, as well as maintaining his own blogs. A well respected philosopher, I was excited to talk books with him. Please enjoy my interview with Massimo Pigliucci…
When someone asks you ‘what do you do for a living?’ – How do you respond?
I’m a philosopher. That usually throws people off, they don’t know how to react, and if we are at a party they usually walk away. When I’m in a more accommodating mood I say instead that I teach philosophy at City College. It seems less threatening (or perhaps pretentious?), but it doesn’t get a much better response…
A number of things, I always read several books at a time. Let me check my Kindle. So, in random order: The Odyssey by Homer, which I haven’t read in many years. The edition I got has a very nice introductory essay about the history and literary impact of the poem. The Role Ethics of Epictetus by Brian Johnson. It’s based on a PhD thesis that presents the philosophy of one of the most influential ancient Stoics in a novel and interesting reading key. Accoppiamenti Giudiziosi by Carlo Emilo Gadda, a collection of short stories by the 20th century Italian writer. And The Edge of Reason by Julian Baggini, about developing a more, shall we say, reasonable view of the powers and limits of rationality.
When you think about your childhood, what book comes to mind?
My grandfather, with whom I grew up, would bring me to one of Rome’s major bookstores almost every week, and — after quite a bit of leisurely browsing — I was allowed to pick one book and he would buy it for me. So it’s hard to come up with just one title! Still, probably Advise to a Young Scientist by Peter Medawar. I wanted to become a scientist (which I did, eventually), and that book had not only a lot of good advice coming from one of the foremost scientists of the period, but also a great deal of sense of humor, British variety.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
An astronomer. Apparently I had decided on that when I was five, on the night I watched the Apollo 11 Moon landing. Later on, however, I switched to biology, and my first academic career was as an evolutionary biologist. About 17 years ago I went back to school, got a PhD in philosophy, and eventually switched profession.
What do you think your school aged self would think of the present day you?
He wouldn’t be surprised. I always wanted to be a university professor, and that’s what I am. He would be a bit puzzled by my shift from science to philosophy, but he would also remember our wonderful philosophy teacher in high school, Enrica Chiaromonte, and he would connect the dots.
If you could wrap up a single book and gift it to yourself as you left education – which book would it be?
You mean when I finished graduate school? That would be one of the books that influenced me as a kid, which would have been good to read again: A History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell. It is an engaging, opinionated look at the unfolding of philosophy in the Western tradition, an overview of some of the best ideas that humanity has ever come up with — and of the personalities behind them.
Does your reading have routine? Is there a particular time or place that you like to read?
Not really. I always have my Kindle with me, at home, when I take the subway, when I travel. It’s always loaded with half a dozen books and a number of articles. There is no inopportune time to read.
Which book has had the biggest impact on your career so far? How did it impact it?
Since I’ve had two careers, I’m going to pick two. As a biologist, the most impactful book was Biology as Ideology by Richard Lewontin, which deals with how science is far less objective, and more ideologically involved, than most scientists would grant. I hasten to say that Lewontin — formerly a geneticist at Harvard — is no postmodern relativist. But his cautionary analysis of when and how science can go wrong has been a precious gift to help me keep my bearings during my career as a biologist. I was lucky enough, as a graduate student, to meet Lewontin and have the opportunity to thank him in person for the positive influence he had exerted on me.
Regarding my second career as a philosopher, I would have to say An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding by David Hume. Besides the fact that it is a splendid philosophical work in its own right, touching on all sorts of really interesting topics, it is a magistral example of how a philosopher can (and should!) write clearly and engagingly. Ever since, I have tried to imitate at least the spirit, if not the actual style and level of writing, of Hume.
Do you have any books that you strongly associate with someone important in your life?
The Observer’s Book of Astronomy by Patrick Moore, which I associate with my grandfather, since he bought for me. It was my companion throughout middle school, helping me build my first telescope and spend countless nights scanning the skye for planets, stars, and nebulae. As I think it’s clear, I owe a lot to my grandfather.
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. It is the famous personal diary of one of the so-called Five Good Emperors of Rome. Not only it is a rare look into the mind of a ruler who lived two thousand years ago, it has been in print ever since the invention of the printing press because it is a priceless guide to self-reflection and to living a more moral and meaningful life.
Do you prefer fiction or non-fiction?
Not sure about “preferring.” As a matter of fact I read significantly more non-fiction than fiction, but that’s in great part due to my work and my frenetic activity as a blogger (I blog at least four times a week, sometimes more, at both platofootnote.org and howtobeastoic.org). But I make a point of always being in the midst of reading at least one fiction book. The list I gave above, of the books currently on my Kindle, is typical.
Do you think reading is important?
Crucial. Reading is one of the great pleasures made possible by human civilization, but is also an irreplaceable way of expanding your mind, of considering other people’s opinions and customs, of entering, however briefly, into fellow human beings’ minds. As Seneca famously put it, “[while reading] I spend my time in the company of all the best; no matter in what lands they may have lived, or in what age, I let my thoughts fly to them.”
What’s the best book you’ve read in the last 6 months?
1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed by Eric Cline. It’s about the rapid collapse of the extensive network of civilizations that existed in the Mediterranean at the end of the Bronze Age. We still don’t know for sure what caused it, but the book is a splendid reminder not only of the fact that even large and powerful nations eventually fall, but also of the fact that human beings have arrived at the concept of “globalization” several times over. The level of exchange of goods, correspondence, and people across the Mediterranean for centuries before that year was tremendous, and it wasn’t going to be equalled for another millennium.
Do you prefer real books or digital books?
Digital, no question. I know this is likely going to be a very unpopular answer, but for one thing I never quite understood why people crave the tactility of real books, I don’t particularly like touching ink and paper. More importantly, it is incredibly convenient for me to carry hundreds or even thousands of books at my fingertips wherever I go, and to be able to search both them and my usually detailed annotations and highlights.
Name a book that you feel everyone would benefit from reading and explain why.
The same one I recommend more frequently to my friends: Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. It really is an extraordinary document, but more importantly it is an entry way to the idea of systematically reflecting on one’s life in order to become a better human being. I can scarcely think of something more important than that.
What is the book that you feel has had the single biggest impact on your life? What impact did it have?
The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell by Bertrand Russell. I picked it up one lazy afternoon when I was a teenager, not knowing how to pass the time while visiting my father in Rome, since he was intent on listening to the soccer games on the radio. He had one of those anonymous collections of “great books” that people keep on their shelves but never actually read. I was perusing the collection, pulled out Russell’s entry, and starting reading it. I still have the original book in my library. It showed me that a philosopher could have a fascinating life, and actually engage in political and social activism. Who knew? That was a revelation, and I still hold Russell has an example of public intellectual to study and imitate.
A lot! For instance, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt. It’s the story of the rediscovery, during the Renaissance, of the lost poem by Lucretius, De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things). It’s a beautiful poem in its own right, but it is also a detailed presentation of the mechanistic philosophy of Epicurus and the Atomistic philosophers. Greenblatt traces the history of the book, how it got lost and then found again, gives the reader a vibrant picture of the Renaissance and the excitement it brought about, and explains the philosophy underlying Lucretius’ poem. It is also a stark reminder of just how much else we have lost from antiquity and we will likely never be able to recover.
Let me give you one more, this time a work of fiction, to balance things out a bit. It’s Il Fu Mattia Pascal by Luigi Pirandello, the story of a man whose life is not going anywhere because of family and social entanglements from which he wishes he could be freed. Fate gives him the opportunity, since at some point in the novel everyone thinks he is dead. He can now begin a new life, to travel anywhere he wants, to start afresh. But of course eventually he grows tired of being on his own, settles down in Rome, and begins again to entwine himself with the lives of others. It is then that he realizes that we are bound to live a social life, and that our freedom consists not in escaping it, but in figuring out what we want to do with it.
What books or subject matter do you plan on reading in the next year?
Again, let me consult what I’ve already downloaded on my Kindle…Star Trek and Philosophy: The Wrath of Kant by Kevin S. Decker, a collection of essays by professional philosophers regarding the philosophical dimensions of the famous science fiction series. It’s in preparation for a course I’ll be teaching in the Fall at City College. SPQR by Mary Beard – the famed historian, the most recent and up to date history of Rome. The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics by Martha Nussbaum. And From Villain to Hero: Odysseus in Ancient Thought by Silvia Montiglio, an analysis of how the multifaceted mythological character of Odysseus has been exploited by Plato, Aristotle, the Cynics, the Stoics, and the Epicureans. If you notice a bias toward ancient philosophy, you are perceptive. It’s my current version of binge watching.
If you were to write an autobiography – what would it be called?
I would never write an autobiography, despite my admiration for Russell’s mentioned above. I have always thought that autobiographies are often insufferably self-conceited and obviously self-serving books, and I vowed never to succumb to the temptation. If I ever run out of things to write, I’ll just stop writing. Also, my life isn’t that interesting anyway.