Where do cool ideas come from? Every year, the online salon Edge.org poses one question and gets a bunch of smart people to answer it.
The 2011 question was: What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit? The answers, compiled as a book with the laughably ambitious title, This Will Make You Smarter: New Scientific Concepts to Improve Your Thinking, has 165 contributions from eminent thinkers on subjects too disparate to be memorable: anthropophilia, cognitive humility, haecceity, and other such abstruse concepts.
Some themes emerge out of this morass of ideas. One that informs this column is called dualism.
During the brief moment that I majored in anthropology in college, I was fascinated by the work of Napoleon A. Chagnon and his seminal 1968 text Yanomamo: The Fierce People. Chagnon's time as a field scientist in the Amazon had a profound impact on the field of anthropology even as his methods (and misunderstandings of his methods) resulted in an academic war on his research and his character. To further explore Chagnon's legacy, and what he really found in the rainforest, BB pal John Brockman of EDGE convened a meeting between Chagnon and big thinkers Steven Pinker, Richard Wrangham, Daniel C. Dennett, and David Haig. The result is 30,00 words of conversation and hours of video that John says is "one of the most significant events in (Edge's) sixteen year history.
Every year, the Edge.org website, run by a group of scientists and intellectuals in the U.S., presents a provocative question the responses to which are then collected in a book that is invariably instructive and surprising, since the contributions are heavyweights from various fields of academia and the world of the arts. "What is your favorite explanation is that deep, elegant or beautiful?" was the question proposed in 2012. Almost 200 responses are collected in the volume This Explains Everything, launched earlier this year.
One of the texts that particularly caught my attention is the novelist and philosopher Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, she remembers that there is in principle no connection between the fact that a theory is beautiful and it is true, and yet we tend to use aesthetic criterion for deciding between competing explanations. ...
1. The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker (Penguin, $20). A monumental achievement. Pinker, a Harvard psychology professor, draws on 5,000 years of historical evidence to explain in fascinating detail how violence has declined across human history. More broadly, he shows that human beings have learned to treat each other better in general.