TigerTalks in the City: “Breakthrough Books”
TigerTalks in the City: “Breakthrough Books”

Last week, Princeton Entrepreneurship Council (PEC) held the latest installment of TigerTalks in the City, a quarterly series designed to bring Princeton research to New York City. The topic of the evening’s panel discussion was “Breakthrough Books,” and featured four distinguished Princeton faculty members and Princeton University Press authors: Sir Angus Deaton, Dwight D. Eisenhower Professor of International Affairs, Emeritus; Nancy W. Malkiel, Professor of History, Emeritus; Dalton Conley, Henry Putnam University Professor in Sociology; and Alexander T. Todorov, Professor of Psychology.



Mung Chiang, PEC chair and a Princeton University Press author himself, opened the event with the definition of Entrepreneurship the Princeton way, which is defined broadly as “the initiation of transformations through risk-taking actions and value-creating organizations.” Chiang pointed out that this definition of entrepreneurship extends to individuals with an “entrepreneurial mindset,” an attribute that could certainly be applied to each panelist.



As ancient mediums for disseminating information, books are likely one of the last things that come to mind when one considers “entrepreneurship” or “innovation.” However, books do have the power to act as impetuses for change. Peter Dougherty, Princeton University Press Director and panel moderator, shared a poignant example: “(The Press’s) first ‘breakthrough book’ was published in 1922; it was by Albert Einstein and it was called The Meaning of Relativity.” Einstein’s work set the bar high for Princeton University Press authors, but the original, groundbreaking research in each panelist’s book continues to initiate transformation and inspire innovation today.



Nobel Laureate Sir Angus Deaton spoke about the findings in his most recent book, The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality. “The Great Escape is about how humanity, or at least a large fraction of it, has escaped from destitution and early death,” Deaton said. Deaton identified the Industrial Revolution as the catalyst for this escape, which began with aristocrats and slowly spread to the rest of the world’s population. “People were not just getting richer, they were getting more years to enjoy their riches.” However, Deaton pointed out that progress is often a zero-sum game, and can thus be an engine of inequality: “Some people find a way of getting rich or escaping from a disease, but not everyone,” Deaton said. “Progress is often like this: some escape, and some are left behind.”



 For centuries, women were not admitted to Princeton, Harvard, Yale and Dartmouth. Nancy Malkiel’s book, “Keep The Damned Women Out”: The Struggle for Coeducation, seeks to explain the remarkable clustering of the decisions by these institutions in such a short space of time. The title of Malkiel’s book was extracted from a letter by an angry alumnus to Dartmouth’s board of trustees, and is representative of the fierce opposition to coeducation by many alumni, faculty and students at all-male universities. Unfortunately, the decision to go coed “was not the result of a high-minded moral commitment to opening educational opportunities for women,” Malkiel observed. Rather, the decision was in the “strategic self-interest” of institutions wanting to “shore up a first-rate applicant pool,” which had declined because “’the best boys’ no longer wanted to go to all-male institutions.” Malkiel also places the coeducation decisions in the broader context of the 1960s: “Men and women students in the sixties demonstrated together, protested together, registered black voters together; not going to school together seemed increasingly outmoded.” Malkiel pointed out that the composition of student bodies began to change to include larger numbers of minorities and public school students, so “admitting women in a way followed logically.” And while women who were admitted to these early classes may still have been figuratively “left behind” in their undergraduate experience, a look around at the event’s audience of diverse Princeton alumni gives one the sense that progress has indeed been made.


 Dalton Conley, co-author of The Genome Factor: What the Social Genomics Revolution Reveals about Ourselves, Our History, and the Future, shared how genetics and the social sciences intersect to paint a more comprehensive picture of human social life. “Consistent, strong evidence suggests that you can name any human behavior…and about half of it is genetic and half of it is environmental,” Conley said. These findings explain a significant share of who gets ahead in society and who does not, often acting as engines of mobility that counter social disadvantage. “The relative impact of genomics is increasing and the impact of the environment is decreasing,” Conley said. “This may sound like a bleak future for equality; however, just because something’s genetic doesn’t mean that you can’t address it.” Conley suggested that these advances in genotyping may hold the key to improving people’s health and lifespan through the ability to predict things like diabetes and cardiovascular disease.


 


While genomics is a relatively new discipline, physiognomy, or the assessment of character from a person’s outer appearance, dates back to the nineteenth century. Physiognomy as a science may be outdated, but in Face Value: The Irresistible Influence of First Impressions, Alexander Todorov asserts that we continue to make snap judgments about others after seeing their faces for less than one tenth of a second. “We are more likely to vote for someone who looks competent, to invest with someone who looks trustworthy, and to assign harsh sentences to people who look untrustworthy,” Todorv said. Todorov cautioned against these types of judgments, and suggested that our judgments may tell us more about our own biases and stereotypes than the traits of others.



During the Q&A portion of the event, one audience member observed that inequality in one shape or form seemed to be a recurring theme in each of the panelists’ research. From economic and educational inequities to genetic and physiognomic disparities, “Inequality is going to be on our agenda forever,” Deaton remarked. But the innovative insights in these books have the potential to inspire “risk-taking actions and value-creating organizations” from the ranks of entrepreneurs across the globe, who will hopefully develop solutions that continue to propel humanity forward.



— Julie Clack
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Director or the plutonium refinement in Yonkers.