Rethink by Steven Poole review – zombie ideas and the return of the old

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From smartphones to maggots to CBT, a dazzling book uncovers the unexpected heritage of cutting-edge thought. Set off on a magic carpet ride

If only the world had listened to Ignaz Semmelweis. In the late 1840s, he helped run a large hospital in Vienna with two maternity wards. In one, the rate of deadly infection after childbirth was around 10%. In the other, it was more than double that. After puzzling over the discrepancy, he remembered that the second clinic was staffed by medical students who often arrived fresh from anatomy class to deliver children their hands clammy from human dissection. Semmelweis realised cadaverous particles could be responsible for the fate of the women and instituted a rigorous new hand-washing regime. Mortality in the ward dropped by 90%.

This was years before Louis Pasteur developed a scientific theory that microscopic germs were the cause of infections that would have explained Semmelweiss success. But being unable to account for why better hygiene worked made his protocol a hard sell. It was rejected by medical authorities and more than two decades passed before germs were identified and antisepsis practised. In the meantime, millions of women died avoidable deaths.

The trajectory of Semmelweiss idea: birth, death, revival is a fairly standard one. Others have more convoluted life cycles, involving hibernation, metamorphosis, even a zombie stage. Steven Pooles Rethink is a magic carpet ride through the history of thought, viewed from such a height that unexpected patterns and correspondences emerge. We learn that cognitive behavioural therapy is effectively 2,300 years old. That Skype and smartphones were envisaged in 1926 (by inventor Nikola Tesla, writing about how the world might look in 50 years time). That you can be wrong in the right way, and right in the wrong way. That borrowing from the past is vital to progress.

Many readers will be familiar with the fact that leeches and maggots are part of a modern hospitals armoury. Once so closely identified with the medical profession that doctors were named after them, leeches were left alone for most of the 20th century, dismissed as tokens of medieval quackery. But then it was discovered that they actually worked. The mix of chemicals in their saliva can alleviate congestion in blood vessels that would otherwise result in necrosis and amputation. And maggots: they might well conjure up a stinking, unsanitary past, but the fact that they eat dead tissue and only dead tissue makes them an effective treatment for wounds that refuse to heal.

Fewer will be aware of the most recent skirmish in the battle for the soul of evolutionary theory. Lamarckism, which holds that the effects of experience can be inherited, was for more than 100 years derided as a quaint pre-Darwinian delusion. The notion that baby giraffes inherited their long necks from parents who put some welly into the task of stretching for leaves seemed positively Aesopian. But researchers in the 21st century have discovered that experience can indeed leave its mark: experiments show that the offspring of mice taught to associate the smell of cherries with pain respond with fear when exposed to the same smell. Lamarck and his followers couldnt identify the mechanisms responsible, and their work was ridiculed as a result. But the new science of epigenetics is being taken very seriously.

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Out of time the Croatian-born Serb engineer Nikola Tesla. Photograph: SSPL via Getty Images

Fewer still will have noticed that panpsychism is enjoying a revival. One version of this theory is animism, the belief that inanimate objects have souls. According to ancient Japanese religious practices, rivers, trees, rocks and buildings are imbued with a kind of life force. A more contemporary interpretation is gaining traction among some philosophers. Their argument goes like this: if our own awareness derives from matter (flesh, blood, brain cells and the like) then it does so either by radical emergence  coming into being via some extraordinary process of which we have no inkling or it is simply a property of all matter. Its hard enough to think of the chair on which youre sitting as composed of billions of buzzing atoms. Now imagine it suffused with glimmers of consciousness too. And yet, for such scholars as Galen Strawson, compared to radical emergence, this is a more parsimonious account. He asks why we refuse to believe that consciousness pervades everything. It is an unexamined part of our common sense, a gut feeling not very scientific.

If some of this has an air of the philosophical parlour game about it, theres real politics in here too: in particular when Poole discusses zombie ideas, the ones that keep on going no matter how many times theyre shown to be false or harmful. Often, they survive because they protect the interests of powerful elites. Chief among them is the efficient markets hypothesis, which lollops onwards even after the 2008 crisis. Then theres the question of what is utopian. Is it more head-in-the-clouds to imagine a guaranteed minimum income an idea regarded by some as too simple to work, too good to be realistic or an invisible hand that, left to its own devices, allocates resources perfectly?

Ultimately, Poole looks to the Greeks not for CBT, but for a guiding principle that could make the ground of human affairs more fertile for good ideas. Its a trick devised by the sceptic philosopher Pyrrho in the third century AD an antidote to dogma, which nonetheless gives every new scheme its due: the suspension of belief. We should apprehend ideas without making them into articles of faith. After all, entertaining something doesnt mean buying into it. But dismissing it out of hand, for reasons of morality or prejudice, is a stance best described as anti-knowledge.

It is testament to the authors narrative skill that this whirlwind of discovery doesnt end up in a pile of papers scattered across the floor. At some points it does feel as if the sheer volume of stories obscures rather than illuminates the bigger picture. (Im tempted to invoke Stendhal syndrome the novelists funny turn after having consumed too much art in Florence. But I feel sure Poole would point out that Stendhals dizziness was merely a 19th-century rehash of an experience noted by Democritus, or Newton.) Ultimately, though, his powers of orchestration succeed. Among the greatest compliments you can give a book is that it helps you to see things differently. So long as youre not dazzled by the fireworks, Rethink could do just that.

To order Rethink for 16.40 (RRP 20) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over 10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of 1.99.

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