So the selfish gene trumps the female eunuch. Richard Dawkins tops our poll of public intellectuals, with Germaine Greer second, followed by Amartya Sen, Eric Hobsbawm and Jonathan Miller. It is no coincidence that first and second place have gone to such accomplished metaphor-makers, but the top five are hardly children of the soundbite age. The thousand-plus of you who voted – making a neat, opinion poll-sized sample of the thinking classes – went for public intellectuals built to last. All the top five established their reputations in the 1970s, or even earlier, and never looked back. And although most of them play the media game, it is through the book and lecture hall that we know them best. This is less true of the next five, all of whom made their names through newspapers or television: Timothy Garton Ash, Simon Schama, Michael Ignatieff, Melvyn Bragg and Niall Ferguson. For the full results, see our newly revamped website – www.prospect-magazine.co.uk.
As with Prospect’s “progressive dilemma” debate in March, we have an outburst in the Guardian to thank for much of the publicity for our list, this time from the women’s page, which complained about the small number of women (12) on our list of 100. Our figure actually falls midway between the number of women who are fellows of the Royal Society (about 5 per cent) and the number of women MPs (18 per cent), so does not seem out of kilter with contemporary realities. In any case, public intellectuals are a mature bunch, so our list reflects the gender relations of the mid-20th century rather than 2004 – when girls outperform boys in school and many obstacles to combining a career and family have been removed. (About half of the women on Prospect’s list have no children, perhaps reflecting the greater difficulty of that combination a generation ago.)
The Butler report and the debate around it highlight John Lloyd’s arguments about the power struggle between politics and the media. How can we break the “spiral of evasion” in which politicians speak equivocally to protect themselves from media abuse, which in turn stimulates the journalistic urge to uncover and accuse, which in turn leads to more obsessive evasions by the political class?
If solving that dilemma does not appeal to you as you glance at Prospect on the beach, you could try the conundrums of synthetic biology or public…