Danger – brilliant minds at work

[ Mon. Jun. 11. 2007 ]

What is Your Dangerous Idea?: Today’s Leading Thinkers on the Unthinkable Edited by John Brockman (Simon and Schuster, £12.99)

JOHN Brockman is a kind of entrepreneur of ideas. He runs edge.org, a website for boffins, and writes and edits clever books on subjects such as the future and God. Here, he has had what might be his whizziest idea yet. He simply asked the cleverest scientists in the world to tell him one thing: what is the most dangerous idea they can think of? And they did. And it's really good.

When you ask clever people about dangerous ideas, it turns out, they normally say one of two things. Some say that we, as a species, are becoming too clever for our own good - that our ideas are excellent, and that, pretty soon, life will get much worse as a result.

Others say quite the opposite - that the human race has no idea about anything, and that, pretty soon, we'll realise this fact, and that, as a result, life will be much worse. Of course I'm simplifying.

But not much.

Let's start with John Horgan, of the Stevens Institute of Technology. What, he asks quite reasonably, would happen if we managed to get to the bottom of the "neural code", and understood exactly how the brain works? "Will we be liberated or enslaved by this knowledge?" he asks. Quite possibly enslaved, because nobody would be able to believe in the soul any more.

And David Buss, the Darwinian psychologist famous for his research into human mating behaviour, wonders what might happen if we understood ourselves so well that we could grasp the concept "that evil has evolved".

That, in other words, lots of us are descended from tyrants such as Attila the Hun. And that, therefore, he has passed on some of his evil genes to us.

In the end, says Buss, we need to face up to this. "The danger," he says, "comes from people who refuse to recognise that there are dark sides to human nature."

The geneticist Craig Venter has similar worries - understanding the fact that we are all different, genetically speaking, challenges the cosy, politically-correct word we have got used to.
There's more of this - the fear that, in the end, good ideas might actually have bad consequences. What will happen, asks the psychologist Diane Halpern, when we know enough to be able to choose the sex of our children? Too many boys, she believes. She's done the research, and it doesn't look promising.

On the other hand, what if we don't know anything? The Stanford physicist Leonard Susskind wonders about the effect of the " landscape" idea on the future of physics. What if the universe is so big that, "rather than being a homogeneous, mono-colored blanket, it is a crazy-quilt patchwork of different environments"? In this case, we might realise that we only have knowledge of an infinitely small part of it. And then, dispirited, we might give up the ghost.

Maths in the digital age, writes the Cornell mathematician Steven Strogatz, has entered a troublesome new world. These days, we are able prove theorems by crunching numbers in unearthly quantities. But we have no insight - we may know that something is true, but not why. Scary, no? And psychologist Geoffrey Miller gives us a good reason why we haven't had signals from other life-forms - because, if they ever did exist, they got so good at sating themselves with junk food and video games that they died out.

A brilliant book: exhilarating, hilarious, and chilling. But is anything else out there? Quite possibly. As the physicist W Daniel Hillis says: "I don't share my most dangerous ideas."

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