Ban all schools? That's a dangerous thought

[ Sat. Dec. 31. 2005 ]

The Earth can cope with global warming, schools should be banned and we should learn to love bacteria. These are among the dangerous ideas revealed by a poll of leading thinkers.

John Brockman, the New York-based literary agent and publisher of The Edge website posed the question: what is your dangerous idea? in reference to a controversial book by the philosopher Daniel Dennett that argued that Darwinism was a universal acid that ate through virtually all traditional beliefs.

Brockman received 116 responses to his challenge from Nobel laureates, futurists and creative thinkers. These were among them:

The evolution of evil

When most people think of stalkers, rapists, and murderers, they imagine crazed, drooling monsters with maniacal Charles Manson-like eyes. The calm, normal-looking image staring back at you from the bathroom mirror reflects a truer representation.

The danger comes from people who refuse to recognize that there are dark sides of human nature that cannot be wished away by attributing them to the modern ills of culture, poverty, pathology or exposure to media violence.

The danger comes from failing to gaze into the mirror and come to grips with the capacity for evil in all of us.

David Buss, Psychologist, University of Texas, Austin

Our planet is not in peril

Environmental crises are a fundamental part of the history of the earth: there have been dramatic temperature excursions, severe glaciations, vast asteroid and comet impacts. Yet the earth is still here, unscathed. And yet many people in the various green movements feel compelled to add on the notion that the planet is in crisis, or doomed; that all life on earth is threatened. The most important thing about environmental change is that it hurts people; the basis of our response should be human solidarity. The planet will take care of itself.

Oliver Morton, Chief news and features editor at Nature

Let's stop beating Basil's car

Basil Fawlty, television's hotelier from hell, was at the end of his tether when his car broke down. He seized a branch and set about thrashing the car within an inch of its life. Of course we laugh at his irrationality. Instead of beating the car, we would investigate the problem. Is the carburettor flooded? Has it run out of petrol?

Why do we not react in the same way to a defective man: a murderer, say, or a rapist? Why don't we laugh at a judge who punishes a criminal, just as heartily as we laugh at Fawlty?

Isn't the murderer just a machine with a defective component? Or a defective upbringing? Defective genes? Why do we vent hatred on murderers when we should regard them as faulty units that need fixing or replacing? We shall grow out of this and learn to laugh at it, just as we laugh at Fawlty.

Richard Dawkins, Evolutionary biologist, Oxford University

Biotechnology will be domesticated in 50 years

This means cheap tools and do-it-yourself kits for gardeners to design roses, and for animal-breeders to design lizards and snakes. It means biotech games for children, like computer games but with real eggs and seeds.

There are two dangers. First, smart kids and malicious grown-ups will find ways to convert biotech tools to the manufacture of lethal microbes.

Second, ambitious parents will find ways to apply the tools to the genetic modification of babies.

The unanswered question is, whether we can regulate domesticated biotechnology so that it can be applied to animals and vegetables but not to microbes and humans.

Freeman Dyson, Physicist, Institute of Advanced Study

Bacteria are us

Our sensibilities, our perceptions that register through our sense organ cells evolved directly from our bacterial ancestors. Yet our culture's terminology about bacteria is that of warfare: they are germs to be destroyed.

We load our soaps with anti-bacterials; stomach ulcers are now agreed to be caused by bacterial infection. Even if some admit the existence of "good" bacteria in soil or probiotic food, few of us tolerate the dangerous notion that human sperm tails and sensitive cells of nasal passages lined with waving cilia are former bacteria.

If this idea becomes widespread it follows that we humans must agree that, even before our evolution as animals, we have tried to kill our ancestors. Again, we have seen the enemy and, as usual, it is us. Social interactions of sensitive bacteria, then, not God, made us who were are.

Lynn Margulis, Biologist, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

The posterior probability of any particular God is small

You can't in any logical system I understand disprove the existence of God, or prove it for that matter. But in the probability calculus I use, He is very improbable.

Philip Anderson, Princeton University, Nobel laureate

Science must destroy religion

Our fear of provoking religious hatred has rendered us incapable of criticising ideas that are now patently absurd and increasingly maladaptive. It has also obliged us to lie to ourselves about the compatibility between religious faith and scientific rationality.

In the spirit of religious tolerance, most scientists keep silent when they should be blasting the hideous fantasies of a prior age with all the facts at their disposal.

Sam Harris, University of California, Los Angeles

Science encourages religion in the long run (and vice versa)

Ever since Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, scientists and secularly-minded scholars have been predicting the ultimate demise of religion.

But, if anything, religious fervour is increasing across the world. An underlying reason is that science treats humans and intentions only as incidental elements in the universe, whereas for religion they are central.

Science is not well-suited to deal with people's existential anxieties, including death, deception, loneliness or longing for love or justice. It cannot tell us what we ought to do, only what we can do.

Religion thrives because it addresses people's deepest emotional yearnings.

Scott Atran, Anthropologist, University of Michigan

School is bad for children

Schools are structured today in much the same way as they have been for hundreds of years. Schools should simply cease to exist as we know them.

The Government needs to get out of the education business and stop thinking it knows what children should know and then testing them constantly to see if they regurgitate whatever they have been spoon-fed.

We need to stop producing a nation of stressed-out students who learn how to please the teacher instead of pleasing themselves.

We need to produce adults who love learning, not adults who avoid all learning because it reminds them of the horrors of school.

We need to stop thinking that all children need to learn the same stuff. We need to create adults who can think for themselves.

Call school off. Turn them into apartments.

Roger Schank, Chief learning officer, Trump University

Free will is exercised unconsciously

By observing another person's brain activity, one can predict what someone is going to do before he is aware that he has made the decision to do it.

This finding has caused -philosophers to ask: if the choice is determined in the brain unconsciously before we decide to act, where is free will?

Are these choices predetermined? Is our experience of freely willing our actions an illusion, a rationalisation after the fact? Is one to be held responsible for decisions that are made without conscious awareness?

Eric Kandel, Columbia University, Nobel laureate

Science may be 'running out of control'

Public opinion surveys (at least in the UK) reveal a generally positive attitude to science.

However, this is coupled with widespread worry that science may be "running out of control".

Whether this idea is true or false, it's an exceedingly dangerous one because it engenders pessimism, and de-motivates efforts to secure a safer and fairer world.

The future will best be safeguarded - and science has the best chance of being applied optimally - through the efforts of people who are less fatalistic.

Lord Rees, President, the Royal Society

Revealing the genetic basis of personality and behaviour will create societal conflicts

We attribute behaviours in other species to genes but when it comes to humans we seem to like the notion that we are all created equal, that each child is a "blank slate".

But it will inevitably be revealed that there are strong genetic components associated with most aspects of human existence, including personality sub-types, language capabilities, mechanical abilities, intelligence, sexual activities and preferences, intuitive thinking, quality of memory, willpower, temperament, athletic abilities, and so on.

The danger rests with what we already know: that we are not all created equal.

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