We Need A Modern Origin Story: A Big History

David Christian [5.21.15]

In modern science, and I include the humanities here, science in a German sense of science—rigorous scholarship across all domains—in modern science we've gotten used to the idea that science doesn't offer meaning in the way that institutional religions did in the past. I'm increasingly thinking that this idea that modernity puts us in a world without meaning—philosophers have banged on about this for a century-and-a-half—may be completely wrong. We may be living in an intellectual building site, where a new story is being constructed. It's vastly more powerful than the previous stories because it's the first one that is global. It's not anchored in a particular culture or a particular society. This is an origin story that works for humans in Beijing as well as in Buenos Aires. 

It's a global origin story, and it sums over vastly more information than any early origin story. This is very, very powerful stuff. It's full of meaning. We're now at the point where, across so many domains, the amount of information, of good, rigorous ideas, is so rich that we can tease out that story. 

DAVID CHRISTIAN is Professor of History, Macquarie University, Sydney; Author, Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History. David Christian's Edge Bio Page


I'm a Russian historian, and I love teaching Russian history. I taught it during the Cold War when it seemed exceptionally significant. Teaching it in Australia, where I was, was a bit like talking about the dark side. I felt my students needed to know about that world.

I'm not Russian, but I was teaching Russian history and eventually I realized I was giving the subliminal message that humans are divided, at a fundamental level, into competing tribes. Having lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis, I remember it vividly. I was a schoolboy in England where this tribalism threatened to blow us all up. That was a very vivid experience for me. I thought, for historians to keep teaching this subliminal message—that we're divided by tribes—is not a good thing. 

Popper Versus Bacon

Peter Coveney [5.7.15]
Introduction by

People have to go around measuring things. There's no escape from that for most of that type of work. There's a deep relationship between the two. No one's going to come up with a model that works without going and comparing with experiment. But it is the intelligent use of experimental measurements that we're after there because that goes to this concept of Bayesian methods. I will perform the right number of experiments to make measurements of, say, the time series evolution of a given set of proteins. From those data, when things are varying in time, I can map that on to my deterministic Popperian model and infer what's the most likely value of all the parameters that would be Popperian ones that would fit into the model. It's an intelligent interaction between them that's necessary in many complicated situations.

by John Brockman

There’s a massive clash of philosophies at the heart of modern science.  One philosophy, called  Baconianism after Sir Francis Bacon, neglects theoretical underpinning and says just make observations, collect data, and interrogate them. This approach is widespread in modern biology and medicine, where it’s often called informatics.  But there’s a quite different philosophy, traditionally used in physics, formulated by another British Knight, Sir Karl Popper. In this approach, we make predictions from models and we test them, then iterate our theories.

 In modern medicine you might find it strange that many people don’t think in theoretical terms. It's a shock to many physical scientists when they encounter this attitude, particularly when it is accompanied by a conflation of correlation with causation. Meanwhile, in physics, it is extremely hard to go from modeling simple situations consisting of a handful of particles to the complexity of the real world, and to combine theories that work at different levels, such as macroscopic theories (where there is an arrow of time) and microscopic ones (where theories are indifferent to the direction of time).

At University College London, physical chemist Peter Coveney, is using theory, modeling and supercomputing to predict material properties from basic chemical information, and to mash up biological knowledge at a range of levels, from biomolecules to organs, into timely and predictive clinical information to help doctors. In doing this, he is testing a novel way to blend the Baconian and Popperian approaches and have already had some success when it comes to personalized medicine and predicting the properties of next generation composites.


PETER COVENEY holds a chair in Physical Chemistry, and is director of the Centre for Computational Science at University College London and co-author, with Roger Highfield, of The Arrow of Time and Frontiers of Complexity. Peter Coveney's Edge Bio Page.

This Is My Vision Of "Life"

Richard Dawkins [4.30.15]
Introduction by

My vision of life is that everything extends from replicators, which are in practice DNA molecules on this planet. The replicators reach out into the world to influence their own probability of being passed on. Mostly they don't reach further than the individual body in which they sit, but that's a matter of practice, not a matter of principle. The individual organism can be defined as that set of phenotypic products which have a single route of exit of the genes into the future. That's not true of the cuckoo/reed warbler case, but it is true of ordinary animal bodies. So the organism, the individual organism, is a deeply salient unit. It's a unit of selection in the sense that I call a "vehicle".  

There are two kinds of unit of selection. The difference is a semantic one. They're both units of selection, but one is the replicator, and what it does is get itself copied. So more and more copies of itself go into the world. The other kind of unit is the vehicle. It doesn't get itself copied. What it does is work to copy the replicators which have come down to it through the generations, and which it's going to pass on to future generations. So we have this individual replicator dichotomy. They're both units of selection, but in different senses. It's important to understand that they are different senses.   

RICHARD DAWKINS is an evolutionary biologist; Emeritus Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science, Oxford; Author, The Selfish Gene; The Extended Phenotype; Climbing Mount Improbable; The God Delusion; An Appetite For Wonder; and (forthcoming) A Brief Candle In The Dark. Richard Dawkins's Edge Bio Page

by John Brockman

On January 2, 1997, Edge published in its inaugural edition, "Science, Delusion, And The Appetite For Wonder: A Talk With Richard Dawkins", the complete text of the Richard Dimbleby Lecture which he had delivered a few weeks earlier on BBC Television in his role at that time as the Charles Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University.

Over the years Dawkins has been among the most frequent (and valued) Edge contributors, and our pages are filled with his elegant writing and brilliant thinking. On a trip to England this month, it occurred to me all of his contributions on Edge had been the result either of his public speaking or his writing. I realized that I had never asked him to sit down for a one-to-one videotaped interview. After making arrangements, we met at noon on Saturday, April 11th, in the Enthoven Room of New College to have an Edge conversation. I am pleased to present the video and the transcript below. [ED NOTE: The accompanying soundtrack of the New College bells for the first 22 minutes was not part of the plan.]


THE REALITY CLUB: Nikolai Renedo, Patrick Forber, Daniel C. Dennett

Nikolai Renedo, Patrick Forber, Daniel C. Dennett:

"Dawkins' brilliant distinction in The Selfish Gene (1976) between replicators and vehicles provided a clear framework for understanding how the wonders of life arise in a world dominated by the tedious laws of physics, and in the light of all we have learned subsequently about the details at the molecular level, his 1976 language strikes us as sometimes wonderfully prescient—anticipating "selfish DNA" or genomic parasites, for instance—but not perfect, of course. He acknowledges the slack in a few phrases here. The concept of gene has undergone some transformations, for instance, so are replicators genes? "Let's call them ‘genes' because nowadays they pretty much [our italics] all are genes." And he himself, inThe Extended Phenotype (1982), showed that the set of phenotypic products that combine to enhance the futures of the replicators are not all in the organismic vehicle."

"We would like to propose a friendly amendment that will allow for more accurate identification of these two entities, the replicator and the vehicle. ". . .[continue]

Why some scientific ideas must die

John Brockman [4.29.15]

JB: It all started with a young scientist named Laurie Santos at a conference that I ran saying, “How do we get rid of some of these ideas that are just standing in front of us? Just blocking everybody?”

LP: What are the ideas that blind us now do you think? And blind us into confusion, and argument, and that kind of controversy?

JB: Name a field. ... It comes down to: is science advertising or is it argument?

LP: Your favorite. Which would be one of yours?

JB: Daniel Kahneman has studied human rationality and found out that characteristics we thought we had as humans aren’t necessarily the case. We are not Homo Economicus, we’re not the rational human beings we thought we were. A lot of what we do is pre-conscious and without acknowledgement.

LP: Now that’s interesting. So that’s a big idea about who we are and how we control our lives with rationality and free will. Another idea was the idea of love as well. This is one that attracts criticism from one of your contributors. So tell us a bit more about that. ...

Existential Risk

Jaan Tallinn [4.16.15]
Introduction by

The reasons why I'm engaged in trying to lower the existential risks has to do with the fact that I'm a convinced consequentialist. We have to take responsibility for modeling the consequences of our actions, and then pick the actions that yield the best outcomes. Moreover, when you start thinking about—in the pallet of actions that you have—what are the things that you should pay special attention to, one argument that can be made is that you should pay attention to areas where you expect your marginal impact to be the highest. There are clearly very important issues about inequality in the world, or global warming, but I couldn't make a significant difference in these areas. 

JAAN TALLINN is a co-founder of The Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at University of Cambridge, UK as well as The Future of Life Institute in Cambridge, MA. He is also a founding engineer of Kazaa and Skype. Jaan Tallinn's Edge Bio Page

by Max Tegmark

I find Jaan Tallinn remarkable in more ways than one. His rags-to-riches entrepreneur story is inspiring in its own right, starting behind the Iron Curtain and ending up connecting the world with Skype. How many times have you skyped? How many people do you know who created a new verb?

Most successful entrepreneurs I know went on to become serial entrepreneurs. In contrast, Jaan chose a different path: he asked himself how he could leverage his success to do as much good as possible in the world, developed a plan, and dedicated his life to it. His ambition makes even the goals of Skype seem modest: reduce existential risk, i.e., the risk that we humans do something as stupid as go extinct due to poor planning. 

Already after a few short years, Jaan’s impact is remarkable. He is a key supporter of a global network of non-profit existential risk organizations including The Future of Humanity Institute, The Machine Intelligence Research Institute, The Global Catastrophic Risk Institute, The Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at University of Cambridge, and The Future of Life Institute, the last two of which he co-founded.

I’ve had the pleasure to work with him on The Future of Life Institute from day one, and if you’ve heard of our recent conference, open letter and well-funded research program on keeping artificial intelligence beneficial, then I’d like to make clear that none of this would have happened if it weren’t for Jaan’s support. If you’re an intelligent life form reading this text millions of years from now and marvel at how life is flourishing, you may owe your existence to Jaan.

MAX TEGMARK is a Physicist, MIT; Researcher, Precision Cosmology; Founder, Future of Life Institute; Author, Our Mathematical Universe. Max Tegmark's Edge Bio Page


I split my activity between various organizations. I don't have one big umbrella organization that I represent. I use various commercial organizations and investment companies such as Metaplanet Holdings, which is my primary investment vehicle,to invest in various startups, including artificial intelligence companies. Then I have one nonprofit foundation called Solenum Foundation that I use to support various so-called existential risk organizations around the world.


Peter Gabriel & Anne Wojcicki

"To accomplish the extraordinary, you must seek extraordinary people."

A new generation of artists, writing genomes as fluently as Blake and Byron wrote verses, might create an abundance of new flowers and fruit and trees and birds to enrich the ecology of our planet. Most of these artists would be amateurs, but they would be in close touch with science, like the poets of the earlier Age of Wonder. The new Age of Wonder might bring together wealthy entrepreneurs ... and a worldwide community of gardeners and farmers and breeders, working together to make the planet beautiful as well as fertile, hospitable to hummingbirds as well as to humans. —Freeman Dyson

In his 2009 talk at the Bristol Festival of Ideas, Freeman Dyson pointed out that we are entering a new Age of Wonder, which is dominated by computational biology.  The leaders of the new Age of Wonder, Dyson noted, include "biology wizards" Kary Mullis, Craig Venter, medical engineer Dean Kamen, and "computer wizards" Larry PageSergey Brin, and Charles Simonyi, and  John Brockman and Katinka Matson, the cofounders of Edge, the nexus of this intellectual activity. 

Every year since 1999, we have hosted The Edge Annual Dinner (sometimes referred to as “The Billionaires' Dinner”). Guests have included the leading third culture intellectuals of our time, dining and conversing with the founders of Amazon, AOL, eBay, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, PayPal, Space X, Skype, and Twitter. It is a remarkable gathering of outstanding minds—the people who are rewriting our global culture. 

Paul AllenJulia Milner, Yuri Milner

Through such gatherings, its online publications, master classes, and seminars, Edge, operating under the umbrella of the non-profit  501 (c) (3) Edge Foundation, Inc., promotes interactions between the third culture intellectuals and technology pioneers of the post-industrial, digital age, the "worldwide community of gardeners and farmers and breeders" referred to by Dyson as the leaders of the "Age of Wonder”. Edge members share the boundaries of their knowledge and experience with each other and respond to challenges, comments, criticisms, and insights. The constant shifting of metaphors, the intensity with which we advance our ideas to each other—this is what intellectuals do. Edge draws attention to the larger context of intellectual life.

An indication of Edge's role in contemporary culture can be measured, in part, by its Google PageRank of "8", which places it in the same category as The Economist, Financial Times, Le Monde, La Repubblica, ScienceSüddeutsche Zeitung, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post. Its influence is evident from the attention paid by the global media:

 "The world's smartest website … a salon for the world's finest minds." Guardian—"the fabulous Edge symposium" New York Times—"A lavish cerebral feast", Atlantic—"Not just wonderful, but plausible", Wall St. Journal "Fabulous", Independent—" Thrilling", FAZ—"The brightest minds", Vanity Fair, "The intellectual elite", Guardian—"Intellectual skyrockets of stunning brilliance", Arts & Letter Daily—"Terrific, thought provoking", Guardian— "An intellectual treasure trove, San Francisco Chronicle—"Thrilling colloquium", Telegraph—"Fantastically stimulating", BBC Radio 4—"Astounding reading", Boston Globe—"Where the age of biology began", Süddeutsche Zeitung—"Splendidly enlightened", Independent—The world’s best brains", Times— "Brilliant... a eureka moment at the edge of knowledge", Sunday Times—"Fascinating and provocative", Guardian—"Uplifting ...enthralling", Daily Mail—"Breathtaking in scope", New Scientist—"Exhilarating, hilarious, and chilling", Evening Standard—"Today's visions of science tomorrow", New York Times

Larry Page & Jesse Dylan

Edge is different from The Invisible College (1646), The Club (1764), The Cambridge Apostles (1820), The Bloomsbury Group (1905), or The Algonquin Roundtable (1919), but it offers the same quality of intellectual adventure.

Perhaps the closest resemblance is to the early nineteenth century Lunar Society of Birmingham (1765), an informal dinner club and learned society of leading cultural figures of the new industrial age—James Watt, Joseph Priestly, Benjamin Franklin, and the two grandfathers of Charles Darwin, Erasmus Darwin and Josiah Wedgwood. The Society met each month near the full moon. They referred to themselves as "lunaticks". In a similar fashion, Edge attempts to inspire conversations exploring the themes of the post-industrial age. 

Tim O'Reilly Marissa Mayer

In this regard, Edge is not just a group of people. I see it as the constant shifting of metaphors, the advancement of ideas, the agreement on, and the invention of, reality.

John Brockman 
 Vancouver, March 18, 2015

Death Is Optional

Yuval Noah Harari, Daniel Kahneman [3.4.15]

Once you really solve a problem like direct brain-computer interface ... when brains and computers can interact directly, that's it, that's the end of history, that's the end of biology as we know it. Nobody has a clue what will happen once you solve this. If life can break out of the organic realm into the vastness of the inorganic realm, you cannot even begin to imagine what the consequences will be, because your imagination at present is organic. So if there is a point of Singularity, by definition, we have no way of even starting to imagine what's happening beyond that. 

YUVAL NOAH HARARI, Lecturer, Department of History, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is the author of Sapiens: A Brief History of HumankindYuval Noah Harari's Edge Bio Page

DANIEL KAHNEMAN is the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economics, 2002 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, 2013. He is the Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology Emeritus, Princeton, and author of Thinking Fast and Slow. Daniel Kahneman's Edge Bio Page

THE REALITY CLUB: Nicholas Carr, Steven Pinker, Yuval Noah Harari, Kevin Kelly

Death Is Optional

DANIEL KAHNEMAN: Before asking you what are the questions you are asking yourself, I want to say that I've now read your book Sapiens twice and in that book you do something that I found pretty extraordinary. You cover the history of mankind. It seems to be like an invitation for people to dismiss it as superficial, so I read it, and I read it again, because in fact, I found so many ideas that were enriching. I want to talk about just one or two of them as examples.

Your chapter on science is one of my favorites and so is the title of that chapter, "The Discovery of Ignorance." It presents the idea that science began when people discovered that there was ignorance, and that they could do something about it, that this was really the beginning of science. I love that phrase.

And in fact, I loved that phrase so much that I went and looked it up. Because I thought, where did he get it? My search of the phrase showed that all the references were to you. And there are many other things like that in the book.

How did you transition from that book to what you're doing now?

YUVAL NOAH HARARI: It came naturally. My big question at present is what is the human agenda for the 21st century. And this is a direct continuation from covering the history of humankind, from the appearance of Homo Sapiens until today, so when you finish that, immediately, you think, okay, what next? I'm not trying to predict the future, which is impossible, now more than ever. Nobody has a clue how the world will look like in, say, 40, 50 years. We may know some of the basic variables but, if you really understand what's going on in the world, you know that it's impossible to have any good prediction for the coming decades. This is the first time in history that we're in this situation.

I'm trying to do something that is the opposite of predicting the future. I'm trying to identify what are the possibilities, what is the horizon of possibilities that we are facing? And what will happen from among these possibilities? We still have a lot of choice in this regard.

Digital Reality

Neil Gershenfeld [1.23.15]

...Today, you can send a design to a fab lab and you need ten different machines to turn the data into something. Twenty years from now, all of that will be in one machine that fits in your pocket. This is the sense in which it doesn't matter. You can do it today. How it works today isn't how it's going to work in the future but you don't need to wait twenty years for it. Anybody can make almost anything almost anywhere.              

...Finally, when I could own all these machines I got that the Renaissance was when the liberal arts emerged—liberal for liberation, humanism, the trivium and the quadrivium—and those were a path to liberation, they were the means of expression. That's the moment when art diverged from artisans. And there were the illiberal arts that were for commercial gain. ... We've been living with this notion that making stuff is an illiberal art for commercial gain and it's not part of means of expression. But, in fact, today, 3D printing, micromachining, and microcontroller programming are as expressive as painting paintings or writing sonnets but they're not means of expression from the Renaissance. We can finally fix that boundary between art and artisans.

...I'm happy to take claim for saying computer science is one of the worst things to happen to computers or to science because, unlike physics, it has arbitrarily segregated the notion that computing happens in an alien world.

NEIL GERSHENFELD is a Physicist and the Director of MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms. He is the author of FAB. Neil Gershenfeld's Edge Bio Page

Digital Reality

What interests me is how bits and atoms relate—the boundary between digital and physical. Scientifically, it's the most exciting thing I know. It has all sorts of implications that are widely covered almost exactly backwards. Playing it out, what I thought was hard technically is proving to be pretty easy. What I didn't think was hard was the implications for the world, so a bigger piece of what I do now is that. Let's start with digital.

Digital is everywhere; digital is everything. There's a lot of hubbub about what's the next MIT, what's the next Silicon Valley, and those were all the last war. Technology is leading to very different answers. To explain that, let's go back to the science underneath it and then look at what it leads to.


"Dahlia" by Katinka Matson |  Click to Expand www.katinkamatson.com

"Another year, and some of the most important thinkers and scientists of the world have accepted the intellectual challenge." —El Mundo, 2015

"Deliciously creative, the variety astonishes. Intellectual skyrockets of stunning brilliance. Nobody in the world is doing what Edge is doing...the greatest virtual research university in the world. —Denis Dutton, Founding Editor, Arts & Letters Daily

Dedicated to the memory of Frank Schirrmacher (1959-2014).

In recent years, the 1980s-era philosophical discussions about artificial intelligence (AI)—whether computers can "really" think, refer, be conscious, and so on—have led to new conversations about how we should deal with the forms that many argue actually are implemented. These "AIs", if they achieve "Superintelligence" (Nick Bostrom), could pose "existential risks" that lead to "Our Final Hour" (Martin Rees). And Stephen Hawking recently made international headlines when he noted "The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race."   


But wait! Should we also ask what machines that think, or, "AIs", might be thinking about? Do they want, do they expect civil rights? Do they have feelings? What kind of government (for us) would an AI choose? What kind of society would they want to structure for themselves? Or is "their" society "our" society? Will we, and the AIs, include each other within our respective circles of empathy?

Numerous Edgies have been at the forefront of the science behind the various flavors of AI, either in their research or writings. AI was front and center in conversations between charter members Pamela McCorduck (Machines Who Think) and Isaac Asimov (Machines That Think) at our initial meetings in 1980. And the conversation has continued unabated, as is evident in the recent Edge feature "The Myth of AI", a conversation with Jaron Lanier, that evoked rich and provocative commentaries.

Is AI becoming increasingly real? Are we now in a new era of the "AIs"? To consider this issue, it's time to grow up. Enough already with the science fiction and the movies, Star MakerBlade Runner2001HerThe Matrix, "The Borg".  Also, 80 years after Turing's invention of his Universal Machine, it's time to honor Turing, and other AI pioneers, by giving them a well-deserved rest. We know the history. (See George Dyson's 2004 Edge feature "Turing's Cathedral".) So, once again, this time with rigor, the Edge Question—2015:


John Brockman
Publisher & Editor, Edge

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