Edge in the News

THE GUARDIAN [1.1.06]

Mankind's increasing understanding of the way genes influence behaviour and the issue's potential to cause ethical and moral dilemmas is one of the biggest dangers facing society, according to leading scientists. The concerns were voiced as part of an exercise by the web magazine Edge, which asked more than 100 scientists and philosophers: "What is your dangerous idea?". The responses were published online yesterday.

Craig Venter, founder of the J Craig Venter Science Foundation, said the genetic basis of personality and behaviour would cause conflicts in society. He said it was inevitable that strong genetic components would be discovered at the root of many more human characteristics such as personality type, language capability, intelligence, quality of memory and athletic ability. "The danger rests with what we already know: that we are not all created equal," he said.

It is an idea echoed by Steven Pinker, a psychologist at Harvard University. "The human genomic revolution has spawned an enormous amount of commentary about the possible perils of cloning and human genetic enhancement. I suspect that these are red herrings. When people realise that cloning is just forgoing a genetically mixed child for a twin of one parent, and is not the resurrection of the soul or a source of replacement organs, no one will want to do it. Likewise, when they realise that most genes have costs as well as benefits (they may raise a child's IQ but also predispose him to genetic disease), "designer babies" will lose whatever appeal they have."

Richard Dawkins, of Oxford University, said our increased understanding of how our brains work would lead to difficult questions in defining morality. "As scientists, we believe that human brains, though they may not work in the same way as man-made computers, are as surely governed by the laws of physics.

"When a computer malfunctions, we do not punish it. We track down the problem and fix it, usually by replacing a damaged component, either in hardware or software. Isn't the murderer or the rapist just a machine with a defective component? Or a defective upbringing? Defective education? Defective genes?"

Other scientists chose to focus on people's relationship with the environment. Physicist Paul Davies puts forward the idea that our fight against global warming may be lost. "The idea of giving up the global warming struggle is dangerous because it shouldn't have come to this. Mankind does have the resources and the technology to cut greenhouse gas emissions. What we lack is the political will."

Samuel Barondes, a neurobiologist at the University of California, San Francisco, is concerned at the march of drugs that can control the behaviour of the brain. Medications such as Prozac have been used successfully for years to treat conditions from depression to more serious psychiatric illnesses. "Despite the testimonials and apparent successes, the sustained use of such drugs to change personality should still be considered dangerous," said Professor Barondes. "The real danger is that there are no controlled studies of the effects of these drugs on personality over the many years or even decades in which some people are taking them."

Royal Society president Martin Rees said the most dangerous idea was public concern that science and technology were running out of control. "Almost any scientific discovery has a potential for evil as well as for good; its applications can be channelled either way, depending on our personal and political choices; we can't accept the benefits without also confronting the risks. The decisions that we make, individually and collectively, will determine whether the outcomes of 21st century sciences are benign or devastating."

Professor Rees argues that the feeling of fatalism will get in the way of properly regulating how science progresses. "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."

http://search.yahoo.com/404handler?src=news&fr=404_news&ref=http%3A//www.edge.or... [1.1.06]

What you will find emerging out of the 117 essays written in response to the 2006 Edge Question — "What is your dangerous idea?" — are indications of a new natural philosophy, founded on the realization of the import of complexity, of evolution. Very complex systems — whether organisms, brains, the biosphere, or the universe itself — were not constructed by design; all have evolved. There is a new set of metaphors to describe ourselves, our minds, the universe, and all of the things we know in it.

THE TIMES [1.1.06]

LET ME take you to The Edge. Or more specifically, www.edge.org, an intriguing little website set up by John Brockman, the literary agent in New York responsible for catapulting science writers such as the neuropsychologist Steven Pinker into the big time.

The cyber salon styles itself, with unabashed pomposity, as a purveyor of the Third Culture, a potpourri of current science, futurology and philosophy. An annual highlight is the Edge question, posed every January by Brockman to set the theme for the coming year. The 2006 teaser, announced yesterday, is this: what is your dangerous idea? Brockman describes it as “an idea you think about (not necessarily one you originated) that is dangerous not because it is assumed to be false, but because it might be true?”.

The answers have already started rolling in (Edge contributors have a particular disdain for the divine, so they probably haven’t got much to do at this time of year), and how very provocative they are. Here is my pick of the crop:

Kevin Kelly, editor-at-large of Wired magazine, cautions that the preservation of anonymity, usually viewed as admirable in this identity-obsessed world, is not necessarily a good thing. “There’s a dangerous idea circulating that . . . it is a noble antidote to technologies of control . . . Privacy can only be won by trust, and trust requires persistent identity,” he writes. He points to the damage done to the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia by its policy, now abandoned, of allowing anonymous sources to place information on its public records.

Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, the director of the Quality of Life Research Centre at Claremont Graduate University in California, argues that the simplicity of the free market cannot meet the complex needs of humankind. “The dangerous idea on which our culture is based is that the political economy has a silver bullet — the free market — that must take precedence over any other value, and thereby lead to peace and prosperity.

“It is dangerous because, like all silver bullets, it is an intellectual and political scam that might benefit some, but ultimately requires the majority to pay for the destruction it causes.” When health, the environment and public safety are eroded by the free market, he says, we should think carefully about allowing it to reign unchallenged.

  • THERE IS ONE dangerous idea that still trumps them all: the notion that, as Steven Pinker describes it, “groups of people may differ genetically in their average talents and temperaments”. For “groups of people”, read “races”.

    With the advent of genetics, the tinkle of The Bell Curve, reviled for its thesis that whites are smarter than blacks, refuses to fade away. The idea of genetic racial difference — accepted for physical traits such as skin colour and hair texture — is discarded as irrelevant and even dangerous when applied to mental characteristics such as intelligence.

    A pair of academics trod this perilous territory recently, when they suggested that the disease-causing genes unique to Ashkenazi Jews — such as those responsible for Tay-Sachs disease and Gaucher disease — continue to be passed on because they offer a counter benefit: enhanced intelligence.

    Henry Harpending and Gregory Cochran, from the University of Utah, cite circumstantial evidence for their theory: a handful of papers that link those same disease-causing genes to increased neural growth. This, they suggest, fits with the observation that Ashkenazis favoured “cognitively demanding” jobs, such as setting up businesses.

    The Bell Curve, incidentally, suggested that Ashkenazi Jews had the highest average IQ of any ethnic group. Einstein was an Ashkenazi (although it’s safe to assume he was so exceptional as to be untypical). The Utah academics, whose study has been denounced as “bullshit” by some commentators, point out that Jews — not necessarily Ashkenazi — punch well above their weight in the Nobel Prize league. They comprise 3 per cent of the American population but 27 per cent of US laureates.

    Of course, others confronted with genius do not invoke genes, brains and diseases — rather a cultural emphasis among Jewish parents on scholarship and academic achievement. What . . . pushy Jewish mothers nagging their precious sons to do well? Now there’s a dangerous idea.

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/guest_contributors/article78... [1.1.06]

The cyber salon styles itself, with unabashed pomposity, as a purveyor of the Third Culture, a potpourri of current science, futurology and philosophy. An annual highlight is the Edge question, posed every January by Brockman to set the theme for the coming year. The 2006 teaser, announced yesterday, is this: what is your dangerous idea? Brockman describes it as “an idea you think about (not necessarily one you originated) that is dangerous not because it is assumed to be false, but because it might be true?”.

The answers have already started rolling in (Edge contributors have a particular disdain for the divine, so they probably haven’t got much to do at this time of year), and how very provocative they are. Here is my pick of the crop:

Kevin Kelly, editor-at-large of Wired magazine, cautions that the preservation of anonymity, usually viewed as admirable in this identity-obsessed world, is not necessarily a good thing. “There’s a dangerous idea circulating that . . . it is a noble antidote to technologies of control . . . Privacy can only be won by trust, and trust requires persistent identity,” he writes. He points to the damage done to the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia by its policy, now abandoned, of allowing anonymous sources to place information on its public records.

Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, the director of the Quality of Life Research Centre at Claremont Graduate University in California, argues that the simplicity of the free market cannot meet the complex needs of humankind. “The dangerous idea on which our culture is based is that the political economy has a silver bullet — the free market — that must take precedence over any other value, and thereby lead to peace and prosperity.

“It is dangerous because, like all silver bullets, it is an intellectual and political scam that might benefit some, but ultimately requires the majority to pay for the destruction it causes.” When health, the environment and public safety are eroded by the free market, he says, we should think carefully about allowing it to reign unchallenged.

  • THERE IS ONE dangerous idea that still trumps them all: the notion that, as Steven Pinker describes it, “groups of people may differ genetically in their average talents and temperaments”. For “groups of people”, read “races”.

    With the advent of genetics, the tinkle of The Bell Curve, reviled for its thesis that whites are smarter than blacks, refuses to fade away. The idea of genetic racial difference — accepted for physical traits such as skin colour and hair texture — is discarded as irrelevant and even dangerous when applied to mental characteristics such as intelligence.

    A pair of academics trod this perilous territory recently, when they suggested that the disease-causing genes unique to Ashkenazi Jews — such as those responsible for Tay-Sachs disease and Gaucher disease — continue to be passed on because they offer a counter benefit: enhanced intelligence.

    Henry Harpending and Gregory Cochran, from the University of Utah, cite circumstantial evidence for their theory: a handful of papers that link those same disease-causing genes to increased neural growth. This, they suggest, fits with the observation that Ashkenazis favoured “cognitively demanding” jobs, such as setting up businesses.

    The Bell Curve, incidentally, suggested that Ashkenazi Jews had the highest average IQ of any ethnic group. Einstein was an Ashkenazi (although it’s safe to assume he was so exceptional as to be untypical). The Utah academics, whose study has been denounced as “bullshit” by some commentators, point out that Jews — not necessarily Ashkenazi — punch well above their weight in the Nobel Prize league. They comprise 3 per cent of the American population but 27 per cent of US laureates.

    Of course, others confronted with genius do not invoke genes, brains and diseases — rather a cultural emphasis among Jewish parents on scholarship and academic achievement. What . . . pushy Jewish mothers nagging their precious sons to do well? Now there’s a dangerous idea.

Alok Jha, http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2006/jan/02/genetics.research [1.1.06]

Mankind's increasing understanding of the way genes influence behaviour and the issue's potential to cause ethical and moral dilemmas is one of the biggest dangers facing society, according to leading scientists. The concerns were voiced as part of an exercise by the web magazine Edge, which asked more than 100 scientists and philosophers: "What is your dangerous idea?". The responses were published online yesterday.

Craig Venter, founder of the J Craig Venter Science Foundation, said the genetic basis of personality and behaviour would cause conflicts in society. He said it was inevitable that strong genetic components would be discovered at the root of many more human characteristics such as personality type, language capability, intelligence, quality of memory and athletic ability. "The danger rests with what we already know: that we are not all created equal," he said.

Boing Boing [12.31.05]

Each year, John Brockman at Edge.org asks some of the brightest minds in science and technology to consider one question. This year: What is your dangerous idea?

The history of science is replete with discoveries that were considered socially, morally, or emotionally dangerous in their time; the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions are the most obvious. What is your dangerous idea? An idea you think about (not necessarily one you originated) that is dangerous not because it is assumed to be false, but because it might be true?

Respondents include many whose work has appeared on Boing Boing before, including: J. Craig Venter, Sherry Turkle, Danny Hillis, Jaron Lanier, Rodney Brooks, David Gelernter, Kevin Kelly, Freeman Dyson, George Dyson, Rudy Rucker, Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, Clay Shirky, Ray Kurzweil, and Clifford Pickover.

Here is U.C. Davis neurobiologist Leo M. Chalupa's dangerous idea:

# A 24-hour period of absolute solitude

Our brains are constantly subjected to the demands of multi-tasking and a seemingly endless cacophony of information from diverse sources. Cell phones, emails, computers, and cable television are omnipresent, not to mention such archaic venues as books, newspapers and magazines.

This induces an unrelenting barrage of neuronal activity that in turn produces long-lasting structural modification in virtually all compartments of the nervous system. A fledging industry touts the virtues of exercising your brain for self-improvement. Programs are offered for how to make virtually any region of your neocortex a more efficient processor. Parents are urged to begin such regimes in preschool children and adults are told to take advantage of their brain's plastic properties for professional advancement. The evidence documenting the veracity for such claims is still outstanding, but one thing is clear. Even if brain exercise does work, the subsequent waves of neuronal activities stemming from simply living a modern lifestyle are likely to eradicate the presumed hard-earned benefits of brain exercise.

My dangerous idea is that what's needed to attain optimal brain performance — with or without prior brain exercise — is a 24-hour period of absolute solitude. By absolute solitude I mean no verbal interactions of any kind (written or spoken, live or recorded) with another human being. I would venture that a significantly higher proportion of people reading these words have tried skydiving than experienced one day of absolute solitude.

 

Link to complete list of respondents, and their answers.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-brockman/the-edge-annual-question_b_13106.htm... [12.31.05]

The composer John Cage leaned across the table and handed me a copy of Cybernetics by Norbert Wiener. The year was 1966. We were at a weekly dinner gathering of young artists at the townhouse of Fluxus pioneer Dick Higgins. Cage would cook a meal--a mushroom dish--and we would sit around discussing his latest ideas.

I had been invited to meet with Cage because of my work on The Expanded Cinema Festival at Film-maker's Cinematheque in New York, a month-long program in late 1965 of performances by artists, dancers, poets, film-makers, and “happenings” performers, the connecting thread being the incorporation of cinema into their work.

Painter Robert Rauschenberg mounted a kinetic collage, a living version of his famous art pieces of the 1960s. Sculptor Claes Oldenburg presented an oddly designed movie projector that looked like the sphinx, placed it on the stage and projected light onto the audience. Video artist Nam June Paik, standing on a step-ladder behind a large opaque screen, over a period of hours, slowly cut out an ever-widening square revealing more of himself to the audience. I was sitting next to the artist Joan Miró, who was in town for a dinner in his honor that evening at the Museum of Modern Art. Despite the curator’s pleadings, Miró refused to budge and sat through the entire performance.

It was during this period that I first became cognizant of science. The artists, unlike their literary counterparts, were avidly interested in, and reading, the scientists. I started reading books by physicists Jeans, Eddington, Einstein, and poets such as Wallace Stevens, who had deep insights into ideas in the sciences. I received an invitation to meet with Marshall McLuhan. I recall that we talked a lot about his theme that art can serve as a beacon — a distant early warning system that can tell the old culture what is beginning to happen, to interpret what scientists are doing. The value was not in explanation, or the popularizing of science; rather, it was in description, rendering visible the questions the scientists were asking.

Twenty-seven years later, in 1992, in an essay entitled "The Emerging Third Culture," I put forth the following argument:

Telegraph.co.uk [12.31.05]

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.

Leo M. Chalupa, http://www.boingboing.net/2006/01/01/edgeorg_annual_quest.html [12.31.05]

The history of science is replete with discoveries that were considered socially, morally, or emotionally dangerous in their time; the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions are the most obvious. What is your dangerous idea? An idea you think about (not necessarily one you originated) that is dangerous not because it is assumed to be false, but because it might be true?

Respondents include many whose work has appeared on Boing Boing before, including: J. Craig Venter, Sherry Turkle, Danny Hillis, Jaron Lanier, Rodney Brooks, David Gelernter, Kevin Kelly, Freeman Dyson, George Dyson, Rudy Rucker, Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, Clay Shirky, Ray Kurzweil, and Clifford Pickover.

ARTS & LETTERS DAILY [12.31.05]

Science can be a risky game, as Galileo learned to his cost. NowJohn Brockman asks over a hundred thinkers, “What is your most dangerous idea?”... more»

Roger Highfield, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/1506874/Ban-all-schoo... [12.31.05]

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.

ohn 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.

THE HUFFINGTON POST [12.31.05]

“Here’s a book for you.”

The composer John Cage leaned across the table and handed me a copy of Cybernetics by Norbert Wiener. The year was 1966. We were at a weekly dinner gathering of young artists at the townhouse of Fluxus pioneer Dick Higgins. Cage would cook a meal--a mushroom dish--and we would sit around discussing his latest ideas.

I had been invited to meet with Cage because of my work on The Expanded Cinema Festival at Film-maker's Cinematheque in New York, a month-long program in late 1965 of performances by artists, dancers, poets, film-makers, and “happenings” performers, the connecting thread being the incorporation of cinema into their work.

Painter Robert Rauschenberg mounted a kinetic collage, a living version of his famous art pieces of the 1960s. Sculptor Claes Oldenburg presented an oddly designed movie projector that looked like the sphinx, placed it on the stage and projected light onto the audience. Video artist Nam June Paik, standing on a step-ladder behind a large opaque screen, over a period of hours, slowly cut out an ever-widening square revealing more of himself to the audience. I was sitting next to the artist Joan Miró, who was in town for a dinner in his honor that evening at the Museum of Modern Art. Despite the curator’s pleadings, Miró refused to budge and sat through the entire performance.

It was during this period that I first became cognizant of science. The artists, unlike their literary counterparts, were avidly interested in, and reading, the scientists. I started reading books by physicists Jeans, Eddington, Einstein, and poets such as Wallace Stevens, who had deep insights into ideas in the sciences. I received an invitation to meet with Marshall McLuhan. I recall that we talked a lot about his theme that art can serve as a beacon — a distant early warning system that can tell the old culture what is beginning to happen, to interpret what scientists are doing. The value was not in explanation, or the popularizing of science; rather, it was in description, rendering visible the questions the scientists were asking.

Twenty-seven years later, in 1992, in an essay entitled "The Emerging Third Culture," I put forth the following argument:

The third culture consists of those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are.

In the past few years, the playing field of American intellectual life has shifted, and the traditional intellectual has become increasingly marginalized. A 1950s education in Freud, Marx, and modernism is not a sufficient qualification for a thinking person in the 1990s. Indeed, the traditional American intellectuals are, in a sense, increasingly reactionary, and quite often proudly (and perversely) ignorant of many of the truly significant intellectual accomplishments of our time. Their culture, which dismisses science, is often nonempirical. It uses its own jargon and washes its own laundry. It is chiefly characterized by comment on comments, the swelling spiral of commentary eventually reaching the point where the real world gets lost.

Today, that fossil culture continues to decline, replaced by the emergent “third culture” of the essay’s title, a reference to C. P. Snow’s celebrated division of the thinking world into two cultures — that of the literary intellectual and that of the scientist. What we witnessed in 1992 was the passing of the torch from one group of thinkers, the traditional literary intellectuals, to a new group, the intellectuals of the emerging third culture. Since then, what traditionally had been called “science” has become “public culture.”

Something radically new is in the air: new ways of understanding physical systems, new ways of thinking about thinking that call into question many of our basic assumptions. A realistic biology of the mind, advances in evolutionary biology, physics, information technology, genetics, neurobiology, psychology, engineering, the chemistry of materials: all are questions of critical importance with respect to what it means to be human. For the first time, we have the tools and the will to undertake the scientific study of human nature.

"Nobody ever voted for the telephone, the automobile, for printing, for television, or for electricity," I wrote in 1969.

And science-based reality continues: nobody voted for the the computational idea, for cybernetics, for the mathematical theory of information (i.e. the digital universe), for the Internet. Governments, politicians, operating through rear-view mirrors, can only play catch up. Science is the big news. Science is the important story.

In 1997, through the nonprofit Edge Foundation, Inc., I founded Edge (www.edge.org) a website and online salon, inhabited by the leading lights of the third culture. On Edge you you have at your fingertips a general science education from what Denis Dutton, founder and editor of Arts & Letters Daily, (www.aldaily.com) has called "The greatest virtual research university in the world". Or, as recently noted by The Observer: a "global online Royal Society." (See: "Edge in the News")

Every year I ask the third culture thinkers on Edge a question. This year, I asked Arianna if she would like to share the event with the readers of Huffington Post.


The Edge Annual Question — 2006


interrogate150-1.jpg


WHAT IS YOUR DANGEROUS IDEA?

 


The history of science is replete with discoveries that were considered socially, morally, or emotionally dangerous in their time; the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions are the most obvious. What is your dangerous idea? An idea you think about (not necessarily one you originated) that is dangerous not because it is assumed to be false, but because it might be true?

 

What you will find emerging out of the 117 essays written in response to the 2006 Edge Question — "What is your dangerous idea?" — are indications of a new natural philosophy, founded on the realization of the import of complexity, of evolution. Very complex systems — whether organisms, brains, the biosphere, or the universe itself — were not constructed by design; all have evolved. There is a new set of metaphors to describe ourselves, our minds, the universe, and all of the things we know in it.

A few years ago, I had the wonderful opportunity to meet with Ernst Mayr, the legendary biologist known as "the Darwin of the 20th Century" who recently died at the age of 100. Attempting to explain the third culture to a man who received in Ph.D. from Berlin University in 1925 is a daunting task. But Mayr, who was still sharp as a tack, didn’t miss a beat.

“Oh, I get it,” he said. “It’s a conversation!”

Welcome to Edge. Welcome to "dangerous ideas". Welcome to the conversation!

Happy New Year!

— JB

p.s. Thanks to Steven Pinker for suggesting the Edge Annual Question — 2006.

[Click here for the Edge Annual Question 2006]

p.p.s. Here is the annotated table of contents for the 72,500 word document:

MARTIN REES
President, The Royal Society; Professor of
Cosmology & Astrophysics, Master, Trinity
College, University of Cambridge; Author, Our
Final Century: The 50/50 Threat to Humanity's
Survival
>Science may be 'running out of control'

J. CRAIG VENTER
Genomics Researcher; Founder & President, J. Craig Venter Science Foundation
>Revealing the genetic basis of personality and
>behavior will create societal conflicts

LEO CHALUPA
Ophthalmologist and Neurobiologist, University of California, Davis
>A 24-hour period of absolute solitude

V.S. RAMACHANDRAN
Neuroscientist; Director, Center for Brain and
Cognition, University of California, San Diego;
Author, A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness
>Francis Crick's "Dangerous Idea"

DAVID BUSS
Psychologist, University of Texas, Austin;
Author, The Murderer Next Door: Why the Mind is
Designed to Kill
>The Evolution of Evil

PAUL BLOOM
Psychologist, Yale University; Author, Descartes' Baby
>There are no souls

PAUL W. EWALD
Evolutionary Biologist; Director, Program in
Evolutionary Medicine, University of Louisville;
Author, Plague Time
>A New of the Golden Age of Medicine

BART KOSKO
Professor, Electrical Engineering, USC; Author, Heaven in a Chip
>Most bell curves have thick tails

MATT RIDLEY
Science Writer; Founding chairman of the
International Centre for Life; Author, The Agile
Gene: How Nature Turns on Nature
>Government is the problem not the solution

DAVID PIZARRO
Psychologist, Cornell University
>Hodgepodge Morality

RANDOPLH M. NESSE
Psychiatrist, University of Michigan; Coauthor
(with George Williams), Why We Get Sick: The New
Science of Darwinian Medicine
>Unspeakable Ideas

GREGORY BENFORD
Physicist, UC Irvine; Author, Deep Time
>Think outside the Kyoto box

MARCO IACOBONI
Neuroscientist; Director, Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation Lab, UCLA
>Media Violence Induces Imitative Violence: The Problem With Super Mirrors

BARRY C. SMITH
Philosopher, Birbeck, University of London; Coeditor, Knowing Our Own Minds
>What We Know May Not Change Us

PHILIP W. ANDERSON
Physicist, Princeton University; Nobel Laureate
in Physics 1977; Author, Economy as a Complex
Evolving System
>Dark Energy might not exist


TIMOTHY TAYLOR
Archaeologist, University of Bradford; Author, The Buried Soul
>The human brain is a cultural artefact

OLIVER MORTON
Chief News and Features Editor at Nature; Author, Mapping Mars
>Our planet is not in peril

SAMUEL BARONDES
Neurobiologist and Psychiatrist, University of
California San Francisco; Author, Better Than
Prozac
>Using Medications To Change Personality

DAVID BODANIS
Writer, Consultant; Author: The Electric Universe
>The hyper-Islamicist critique of the West as a
>decadent force that is already on a downhill
>course might be true

NICHOLAS HUMPHREY
Psychologist, London School of Economics; Author, The Mind Made Flesh
>"It is undesirable to believe in a proposition
>when there is no ground whatever for supposing
>it true"

ERIC FISCHL
Artist, New York City; Mary Boone Gallery
>If the unknown becomes known

STANISLAS DEHEANE
Cognitive Neuropsychology Researcher, Institut
National de la Santé, Paris; Author, The Number
Sense
>Touching and pushing the limits of the human brain

JOEL GARREAU
Cultural Revolution Correspondent, Washington Post ; Author, Radical Evolution
>Suppose Faulkner was right?

HELEN FISHER
Research Professor, Department of Anthropology,
Rutgers University; Author, Why We Love
>Serotonin-enhancing antidepressants (such as
>Prozac and many others) can jeopardize feelings
>of romantic love, feelings of attachment to a
>spouse or partner, one's fertility and one's
>genetic future

PAUL DAVIES
Physicist, Macquarie University, Sydney; Author, How to Build a Time Machine
>The fight against global warming is lost

APRIL GORNIK
Artist, New York City; Danese Gallery
>Great art makes itself vulnerable to interpretation
JAMSHED BHARUCHA
Professor of Psychology, Provost, Senior Vice President, Tufts University
>The more we discover about cognition and the
>brain, the more we will realize that education
>as we know it does not accomplish what we
>believe it does

JORDAN POLLACK
Computer Scientist, Brandeis University
>Science as just another Religion

JUAN ENRIQUEZ
CEO, Biotechonomy; Founding Director, Harvard
Business School's Life Sciences Project; Author,
The Untied States of America
>Technology can untie the U.S.

STEPHEN M. KOSSLYN
Psychologist, Harvard University; Author, Wet Mind
>A Science of the Divine?

JERRY COYNE
Evolutionary Biologist; Professor, Department of
Ecology and Evolution, University of Chicago;
Author (with H. Allen Orr), Speciation
>Many behaviors of modern humans were genetically
>hard-wired (or soft-wired) in our distant
>ancestors by natural selection

ERNST PÖPPEL
Neuroscientist, Chairm Board of Directors, Human
Science Center and Department of Medical
Psychology, Munich University, Germany; Author,
Mindworks
>My belief in science

GEOFFREY MILLER
Evolutionary Psychologist, University of New Mexico; Author, The Mating Mind
>Runaway consumerism explains the Fermi Paradox

ROBERT SHAPIRO
Professor Emeritus, Senior Research Scientist,
Department of Chemistry, New York University.
Author, Planetary Dreams
>We shall understand the origin of life within the next 5 years

KAI KRAUSE
Researcher, philosopher, software developer,
Author: 3DScience: new Scanning Electron
Microscope imagery
>Anty Gravity: Chaos Theory in an all too practical sense

CARLO ROVELLI
Professor of Physics, University of the
Mediterraneum, Marseille; Member, Intitut
Universitaire de France: Author, Quantum Gravity
>What the physics of the 20th century says about
>the world might in fact be true
RICHARD DAWKINS
Evolutionary Biologist, Charles Simonyi Professor
For The Understanding Of Science, Oxford
University; Author, The Ancestor's Tale
>Let's all stop beating Basil's car

SETH LLOYD
Quantum Mechanical Engineer, MIT
>The genetic breakthrough that made people capable of ideas themselves

CAROLYN PORCO
Planetary Scientist; Director Cassini Imaging
Central Laboratory for Operations (CICLOPS),
Boulder CO; Adjunct Professor, University of
Colorado, University of Arizona
>The Greatest Story Ever Told

MICHAEL NESMITH
Artist, writer; Former cast member of "The
Monkees"; A Trustee and President of the Gihon
Foundation and a Trustee and Vice-Chair of the
American Film Institute
>Existence is Non-Time, Non-Sequential, and Non-Objective

LAWRENCE KRAUSS
Physicist, Case Western Reserve University; Author, Atom
>The world may fundamentally be inexplicable

DANIEL C. DENNETT
Philosopher; University Professor, Co-Director,
Center for Cognitive Studies, Tufts University;
Author, Freedom Evolves
>There aren't enough minds to house the population explosion of memes (to come)

DANIEL GILBERT
Psychologist, Harvard University
>The idea that ideas can be dangerous

ANDY CLARK
School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences, Edinburgh University
>The quick-thinking zombies inside us

SHERRY TURKLE
Psychologist, MIT; Author, Life on the Screen:
Identity in the Age of the Internet
>After several generations of living in the
>computer culture, simulation will become fully
>naturalized. Authenticity in the traditional
>sense loses its value, a vestige of another time.

STEVEN STROGATZ
Applied mathematician, Cornell University; Author, Sync
>The End of Insight

TERRENCE SEJNOWSKI
Computational Neuroscientist, Howard Hughes
Medical Institute; Coauthor, The Computational
Brain
>When will the Internet become aware of itself?

LYNN MARGULIS Biologist, University of
Massachusetts, Amherst; Coauthor (with Dorion
Sagan), Acquiring Genomes: A Theory of the
Origins of Species
>Bacteria are us

THOMAS METZINGER
Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies;
Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz; President
German Cognitive Science Society; Author: Being
No One
>The Forbidden Fruit Intuition

DIANE F. HALPERN
Professor of Psychology, Claremont McKenna
College; Past-president (2005), the American
Psychological Association; Author, Thought and
Knowledge
>Choosing the sex of one's child

GARY MARCUS
Psychologist, New York University; Author, The Birth of the Mind
>Minds, genes, and machines

JARON LANIER
Computer Scientist and Musician
>Homuncular Flexibility

W. DANIEL HILLIS
Physicist, Computer Scientist; Chairman, Applied
Minds, Inc.; Author, The Pattern on the Stone
>The idea that we should all share our most dangerous ideas

NEIL GERSHENFELD
Physicist; Director, Center for Bits and Atoms,MIT; Author, Fab
>Democratizing access to the means of invention

PAUL STEINHARDT
Albert Einstein Professor of Science, Princeton University
>It's a matter of time

SAM HARRIS
Neuroscience Graduate Student, UCLA; Author, The End of Faith
>Science Must Destroy Religion

SCOTT ATRAN
Anthropologist, University of Michigan; Author, In God's We Trust
>Science encourages religion in the long run (and vice versa)

MARCELO GLEISER
Physicist, Dartmouth College; Author, The Prophet and the Astronomer
>Can science explain itself?

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF
Media Analyst; Documentary Writer; Author, Get
Back in the Box : Innovation from the Inside Out
>Open Source Currency

JUDITH RICH HARRIS
Independent Investigator and Theoretician; Author, The Nurture Assumption
>The idea of zero parental influence

ALUN ANDERSON
Senior Consultant, New Scientist
>Brains cannot become minds without bodies

TODD E. FEINBERG, M.D.
Psychiatrist and Neurologist, Albert Einstein
College of Medicine; Author, Altered Egos
>Myths and fairy tales are not true

STEWART BRAND
Founder, Whole Earth Catalog, cofounder; The
Well; cofounder, Global Business Network; Author,
How Buildings Learn
>What if public policy makers have an obligation
>to engage historians, and historians have an
>obligation to try to help?

JARED DIAMOND
Biologist; Geographer, UCLA; Author, Collapse
>The evidence that tribal peoples often damage their environments and make war

LEONARD SUSSKIND
Physicist, Stanford University; Author, The Cosmic Landscape
>The "Landscape"

GERALD HOLTON
Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics and Professor
of the History of Science, Emeritus, Harvard
University; Author, Thematic Origins of
Scientific Thought
>The medicination of the ancient yearning for immortality

CHARLES SEIFE
Professor of Journalism, New York University;
formerly journalist, Science magazine; Author,
Zero: The Biography Of A Dangerous Idea
>Nothing

KARL SABBAGH
Writer and Television Producer; Author, The Riemann Hypothesis
>The human brain and its products are incapable
>of understanding the truths about the universe

RUPERT SHELDRAKE
Biologist, London; Author of The Presence of the Past
>A sense of direction involving new scientific principles

TOR NØRRETRANDERS
Science Writer; Consultant; Lecturer, Copenhagen; Author, The User Illusion
>Social Relativity

JOHN HORGAN
Science Writer; Author, Rational Mysticism
>We Have No Souls

ERIC R. KANDEL
Biochemist and University Professor, Columbia
University; Recipient, The Nobel Prize, 2000;
Author, Cellular Basis of Behavior
>Free will is exercised unconsciously, without awareness

DANIEL GOLEMAN
Psychologist; Author, Emotional Intelligence
>Cyber-disinhibition

BRIAN GREENE
Physicist & Mathematician, Columbia University;
Author, The Fabric of the Cosmos; Presenter,
three-part Nova program, The Elegant Universe
>The Multiverse

DAVID GELERNTER
Computer Scientist, Yale University; Chief
Scientist, Mirror Worlds Technologies; Author,
Drawing Life
>What are people well-informed about in the Information Age?

MAHZARIN R. BANAJI
Professor of Psychology, Harvard University
>We do not (and to a large extent, cannot) know
>who we are through introspection

RODNEY BROOKS
Director, MIT Computer Science and Artificial
Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL); Chief Technical
Officer of iRobot Corporation; author Flesh and
Machines
>Being alone in the universe

LEE SMOLIN
Physicist, Perimeter Institute; Author, Three Roads to Quantum Gravity
>Seeing Darwin in the light of Einstein; seeing Einstein in the light of Darwin

ALISON GOPNIK
Psychologist, UC-Berkeley; Coauthor, The Scientist In the Crib
>A cacophony of "controversy"

KEVIN KELLY
Editor-At-Large, Wired; Author, New Rules for the New Economy
>More anonymity is good

DENIS DUTTON
Professor of the philosophy of art, University of
Canterbury, New Zealand, editor of Philosophy and
Literature and Arts & Letters Daily
>A "grand narrative"

SIMON BARON-COHEN
Psychologist, Autism Research Centre, Cambridge
University; Author, The Essential Difference
>A political system based on empathy

FREEMAN DYSON
Physicist, Institute of Advanced Study, Author, Disturbing the Universe
>Biotechnology will be thoroughly domesticated in the next fifty years

GREGORY COCHRAN
Consultant in adaptive optics and an adjunct
professor of anthropology at the University of
Utah
>There is something new under the sun - us

GEORGE B. DYSON
Science Historian; Author, Project Orion
>Understanding molecular biology without discovering the origins of life

KEITH DEVLIN
Mathematician; Executive Director, Center for the
Study of Language and Information, Stanford;
Author, The Millennium Problems
>We are entirely alone

FRANK TIPLER
Professor of Mathematical Physics, Tulane
University; Author, The Physics of Immortality
>Why I Hope the Standard Model is Wrong about Why
>There is More Matter Than Antimatter

SCOTT SAMPSON
Chief Curator, Utah Museum of Natural History;
Associate Professor Department of Geology and
Geophysics, University of Utah; Host, Dinosaur
Planet TV series
>The purpose of life is to disperse energy

JEREMY BERNSTEIN
Professor of Physics, Stevens Institute of
Technology; Author, Hitler's Uranium Club
The idea that we understand plutonium

MIHALYI CSIKSZENTMIHALYI
Psychologist; Director, Quality of Life Research
Center, Claremont Graduate University; Author,
Flow
>The free market

IRENE PEPPERBERG
Research Associate, Psychology, Harvard University; Author, The Alex Studies
>The differences between humans and nonhumans are quantitative, not qualitative

BRIAN GOODWIN
Biologist, Schumacher College, Devon, UK; Author,
How The Leopard Changed Its Spots
>Fields of Danger

RUDY RUCKER
Mathematician, Computer Scientist; CyberPunk
Pioneer; Novelist; Author, Lifebox, the Seashell,
and the Soul
>Mind is a universally distributed quality

STEVEN PINKER
Psychologist, Harvard University; Author, The Blank Slate
>Groups of people may differ genetically in their
>average talents and temperaments

RICHARD E. NISBETT
Professor of Psychology, Co-Director of the
Culture and Cognition Program, University of
Michigan; Author, The Geography of Thought: How
Asians and Westerners Think Differently. . . And
Why
>Telling More Than We Can Know

ROBERT R. PROVINE
Psychologist and Neuroscientist, University of Maryland; Author, Laughter
>This is all there is

DONALD HOFFMAN
Cognitive Scientist, UC, Irvine; Author, Visual Intelligence
>A spoon is like a headache

MARC D. HAUSER
Psychologist and Biologist, Harvard University: Author, Wild Minds
>A universal grammar of [mental] life

RAY KURZWEIL
Inventor and Technologist; Author, The
Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology
>The near-term inevitability of radical life extension and expansion

HAIM HARARI
Physicist, former President, Weizmann Institute of Science
>Democracy may be on its way out

DAVID G. MYERS
Social Psychologist; Co-author (with Letha
Scanzoni); What God has Joined Together: A
Christian Case for Gay Marriage
>A marriage option for all

CLAY SHIRKY
Social & Technology Network Topology Researcher;
Adjunct Professor, NYU Graduate School of
Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP)
>Free will is going away

MICHAEL SHERMER
Publisher of Skeptic magazine, monthly columnist
for Scientific American; Author, Science Friction
>Where goods cross frontiers, armies won't

ARNOLD TREHUB
Psychologist, University of Massachusetts, Amherst; Author, The Cognitive Brain
>Modern science is a product of biology

ROGER C. SCHANK
Psychologist & Computer Scientist; Chief Learning
Officer, Trump University; Author, Making Minds
Less Well Educated than Our Own
>No More Teacher's Dirty Looks

SUSAN BLACKMORE
Psychologist and Skeptic; Author, Consciousness: An Introduction
>Everything is pointless

DAVID LYKKEN
Behavioral geneticist and Emeritus Professor of
Psychology, University of Minnesota; Author,
Happiness
>Laws requiring parental licensure

CLIFFORD PICKOVER
Author, Sex, Drugs, Einstein, and Elves
>We are all virtual

JOHN ALLEN PAULOS
Professor of Mathematics, Temple University,
Philadelphia; Author, A Mathematician Plays the
Stock Market
>The self is a conceptual chimera

JAMES O'DONNELL
Classicist; Cultural Historian; Provost,
Georgetown University; Author, Avatars of the Word
>Marx was right: the "state" will evaporate and
>cease to have useful meaning as a form of human
>organization

PHILIP ZIMBARDO
Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Stanford University; Author: Shyness
>The banality of evil is matched by the banality of heroism

RICHARD FOREMAN
Founder & Director, Ontological-Hysteric Theater
>Radicalized relativity

JOHN GOTTMAN
Psychologist; Founder of Gottman Institute; Author, The Mathematics of Marriage
>Emotional intelligence

PIET HUT
Professor of Astrophysics, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton
>A radical reevaluuation of the character of time

DAN SPERBER
Social and cognitive scientist, CNRS, Paris; author, Explaining Culture
>Culture is natural

MARTIN E.P. SELIGMAN
Psychologist, University of Pennsylvania, Author, Authentic Happiness
>Relativism

HOWARD GARDNER
Psychologist, Harvard University; Author, Changing Minds
>Following Sisyphus, not Pandora

Yahoo News [12.31.05]

What you will find emerging out of the 117 essays written in response to the 2006 Edge Question — "What is your dangerous idea?" — are indications of a new natural philosophy, founded on the realization of the import of complexity, of evolution. Very complex systems — whether organisms, brains, the biosphere, or the universe itself — were not constructed by design; all have evolved. There is a new set of metaphors to describe ourselves, our minds, the universe, and all of the things we know in it.

The Times [12.23.05]

Christmas brings with it the ultimate suspension of disbelief: a virgin birth of the Son of God. And a lack of substantial evidence to back up this claim seems to be no barrier to the belief of millions of Christians.

But when it comes to asking leading lights of science and medicine how they square belief with scientific fact, you might imagine a different story.

Body&Soul asked leading experts in their fields: “What do you believe to be true even though you cannot prove it?” The answers reveal unsubstantiated, but nevertheless influential, theories from yodelling ancestors to winning formulas for artistic achievement.

Belief appears to motivate even the most rigorously scientific minds. It stimulates and challenges, it tricks us into holding things to be true against our better judgment, and, like scepticism — its opposite — it serves a function in science that is playful as well as thought-provoking.

SARAH-JAYNE BLACKMORE 

Cognitive neuroscientist 

I believe that I have free will over the decisions I make, but I can’t prove it because all the scientific evidence is to the contrary. Like everyone else, I deceive myself that I have it. This is because human beings are designed to think that they have freedom over their actions. In fact, our brain makes decisions before making us conscious we have made them. For instance, the part of the brain that controls movement is active up to one second before we are aware of deciding to move. Afterwards, another part of the brain provides an explanation of why the movement was made. So, although I am able to rationalise why I did something after the event, my brain is always one step ahead.

ARMAND LEROI 

Evolutionary biologist 

I believe but I cannot prove that the first song ever sung by a human being was a yodel, a song relying on the voice fluctuating from falsetto to normal pitch.

My latest project is attempting to reconstruct the history of human song with the help of the musician Brian Eno. Our starting point is that songs — from polyrhythmic chants of Xhosa farmers to the nasal cries of Lisbon fadistas — contain information that tells us how humans migrated from Africa more than 60,000 years ago and constructed the diverse cultural world we see today. I believe that songs are the product of a history that can be retrieved if you listen to them. I ’m trying to understand songs as geneticists understand genes or linguists interpret language. If these very different human attributes are ruled by Darwinian dynamics, might not music be, too?

Perhaps. But a yodel as the first human song? The idea seems absurd. But the yodel is not only found among Swiss goat herders; it can also be heard in Congo’s jungles and the Kalahari desert, in the songs of the Mbuti pygmies and San Bushmen. It is among these peoples that I suspect the origin of human song may be found. Of course, I can prove none of this — yet.

LORD WINSTON

Fertility expert 

I believe but I cannot prove that religiousness is, in part, genetically determined. The strongest reason for my belief is provided by the study of twins by the behavioural geneticist Thomas Bouchard in the 1980s. It gave insight into which aspects of the human condition are nature and which nurture. But I don’t think genes are the only contributing factor. Bouchard’s study, and recent research by psychologists, shows that religious background and parental influence provide environmental influences; in other words, extrinsic religiosity, based on the rewards of churchgoing, such as a sense of belonging. Intrinsic religiosity is a deeper feeling of spirituality, not related to churchgoing. This, I believe, is genetically determined. This belief neither denies nor proves the existence of God. For all we know, it was God who put the genes there.

ALISON MURDOCH 

Professor of reproductive medicine 

I believe that life does not begin at conception, but I have no proof. I am an atheist and I believe in the sanctity of life but not that there is a higher spirit up there creating it. I don’t think there is a magic moment when life begins. I favour a gradualist approach. Once a baby is born, it is an individual. But there’s a time before that when it is still part of the woman who is carrying it. At the very early stages of pregnancy, she has the right to make decisions about it. As the pregnancy develops, the growing infant acquires its independent rights.

While I respect the value of a fertilised egg because it has the capacity to create a baby, I do not look on it in the same way that I would regard a child. Life should be respected differently at different stages. A fertilised egg is not a life; it is a potential life. I can’t prove this, but my work is based on it. If I felt that every fertilised egg that I created for IVF was an individual person, I couldn’t do my job. We create hundreds of embryos every week; eight to ten for each person, only ever using two.

GABRIEL DOVER 

Geneticist 

I believe but I cannot prove that the biological basis of our individuality is not knowable. My theory is that the unique form, mind and behaviour of each one of us is due to net- works of interaction between our estimated 25,000 genes.

This process is highly particular and utterly unpredictable. Even if we were given a print out of the structure of our genes at conception, we would not be able to say how they would connect in the making of an individual, despite much hype to the contrary.

Our development is not hardwired. A single gene, even one related to genetic diseases, has no meaning outside the context of its networks with hundreds of other genes. So, my belief is that there is no fixed or natural link between genes and traits. This gives a unique take on what it means to be human; when Samuel Beckett wrote “I alone am man” he was right.

JOHN BROCKMAN 

Editor of The Edge, a scientific debate website 

I believe but I cannot prove that we are moving towards a future full of correct answers but this may cause us to lose our ability to ask the right questions. In this age of “search culture”, with Google and other search engines leading us towards unlimited information, we focus on knowing, on ideas of truth and proof.

Many people welcome these technological advances as the first steps toward a universal library. My concern is that we are moving forward blinded by a naive sense of certainty.

When I asked this same question about belief and proof as the annual Edge question (www.edge.org), last year, the responses pointed to the new ways of understanding the world: advances in physics, information technology, genetics and neurobiology. But the researchers behind these new developments did not achieve success by having answers: they asked the right questions.

SUSAN GREENFIELD 

Neuroscientist and pharmacologist 

I believe in the final triumph of the good guy. It’s totally unprovable and sounds awfully moral, but it drives me. I think being honest and kind, and living by your principles, wins through in the end, even if it doesn’t seem expedient at the time. This challenges the notion that human beings are corrupt and inherently nasty, committed only to furthering their own causes by realpolitik.

It has led me to consider what a belief is and why people hold them, sometimes even die for them, without any proof.

But belief can obstruct science; it can prevent you examining the evidence properly. Think of how men have argued over the centuries that women are less intellectually capable than men. However, it can also guide you towards an idea. Giving in to a hunch can be the best thing a scientist can do; we shouldn’t underestimate the power of intuition.

SIR ARNOLD WOLFENDALE 

Former Astronomer Royal 

I believe but I cannot prove that God exists. As a scientist as well as a Christian, I know that I am supposed to require firm knowledge for every phenomenon in which I believe, but with religious belief, the potential benefits are great enough for normal critical attitudes to be suspended. All this is not to say that I accept all of Christianity lock, stock and barrel. Indeed, I hope that it evolves, as some of the Christian dogmas seem to be in need of an overhaul.

RAYMOND TALLIS 

Gerontologist and philosopher 

I believe so many things without proof that I am spoilt for choice. As Karl Popper pointed out, no belief can be legitimately placed beyond the reach of doubt. There is always the possibility of further observations that may prove it wrong. Take, for instance, the statement: “All swans are white.” It looked pretty unassailable until visitors to Australia reported sightings of black swans. And if I extend the notion of reasonable doubt virtually everything within the borders of our known world can be doubted.

Here are two of my most stubborn beliefs: first, that the material objects which populate my world are not just the sum total of my experience of them. Some philosophers argue that you can reduce objects to the personal interaction you have with them; outside of that, they don’t exist. I believe the opposite. I believe — despite proof that still confounds the brightest philosophical minds — that material objects exist outside of my own relationship with them. Second, I believe that our all-too-human religions, which are organised around an all-too-human idea of God, have nothing significant to say about how things really are, compared with our everyday perceptions.

SIR JOHN KREBS 

Principal of Jesus College, Oxford 

I believe that Mozart was a better composer than Carl Stamitz, a lesser-known contemporary. I do not know how I would prove this, or any other kind of aesthetic superiority. If public reaction to a musician was enough, that would solve it but, if an independent objective proof is required, it’s close to impossible. There is a chance that one day we will arrive at a formula that will explain why music X is better than music Y. We may discover that certain music elicits a larger release of serotonin in listeners. Alternatively, that a brilliant painting sends certain messages from the retina to the brain.But I doubt it very much. Nor do I think it would be a good thing. By reducing art to science, you risk losing the essence of what you are trying to explain. In other words, the X-factor that makes it superior. Art involves individual judgment and, therefore, it’s not quantifiable. The only good thing would be that I’d be able to find other composers I’d like by applying the magic formula.

Sir John Krebs is the speaker at the Royal Institution’s Christmas Lectures, from December 26-30. To book, visit www.rigb.org

EDZARD ERNST 

Professor of complementary medicine 

I don’t believe in anything that I can’t prove. My only true belief is in science and its ability to sort out belief from fact. Part of my fascination with alternative therapies stems from the fact that some of them have not yet been proved. My job is to establish whether or not they are evidence-based. There is no aspect of belief in this at all. If there is, it gets in the way and becomes a bias. Once you have tested and established your hypothesis, you try to disprove it. If you can’t, you do the test again before you consider believing it. If you find the results contradict your belief, you abandon it — or you’re a fool. This is why I am convinced of the power of placebo. I have done trials with patients who suffer from intractable pain. A portion of them, who were seen by actors pretending to be spiritual healers, improved so significantly that some were able to abandon their wheelchairs. This is this kind of proof I look for before I believe in something.

What We Believe But Cannot Prove, edited by John Brockman, published by Free Press (£9.99), is available from Times Books First at £9.49 p&p is free. Call 0870 1608080 or visitwww.timesonline.co.uk/booksfirstbuy

Toronto Star [12.17.05]

SEED December/January Science factions: The flood of "year in review" round-ups about to wash over us could do worse than take a cue from this penetrating recap, which has the smarts to set its individual ideas within the context of one Big Idea, in this case, the "Third Culture."

John Brockman, editor of the fascinating website edge.org, explains it like this: "The third culture consists of those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are."

Circling around that intersection of science and philosophy are ideas as disparate as star athletes on drugs, Africa as an incipient centre for scientific research, race-based medicine, and the death throes of the oil economy. Amen.

The Boston Globe [12.11.05]

...One report, by the prominent neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran of the University of California at San Diego, even suggested that mirror neurons could be involved when people understand metaphors.

These are early days for research into mirror neurons, but Ramachandran predicted in a 2000 essay (available online at www.edge.org/3rd_culture/ramachandran/ramachandran_p1.html) that they ''will do for psychology what DNA did for biology: they will provide a unifying framework and help explain a host of mental abilities that have hitherto remained mysterious and inaccessible to experiments."

They could even help explain how language emerged in early humans, he argued in the essay. ...

The Observer [12.10.05]

What We Believe by Cannot Prove
edited by John Brockman
The Free Press £9.99, pp266

John Brockman is the PT Barnum of popular science. He has always been a great huckster of ideas. In the Sixties he got an MBA and then made his first fortune selling psychedelia to corporations, turning on marketing execs with 'multi-kinetic happenings' and showing them how their profits could levitate. These days he acts as literary agent for many of the world's greatest minds, including Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, and achieves for some of them the kind of publishing advances that it takes great mathematicians to compute. The universe may be infinite, but Brockman still insists on his 15 per cent of it.

In order to help these floggable ideas to keep germinating, Brockman has set up a kind of global online Royal Society, called the Edge. The Edge promotes what he calls the Third Culture, a marriage of science and philosophy and even poetry, an alternative to CP Snow. This cross-fertilising club, the most rarefied of chat-rooms, has its premises on his website www.edge.org, which presents monthly interviews and debates with many of the world's foremost thinkers, who also happen to be, more often than not, his clients.

As a favour, perhaps, or because they are genuinely intrigued or flattered to be in the company of their peers, every year a good number of these thinkers respond to a question posed by Brockman. In 2004 the question was: 'What do you believe is true, even though you cannot prove it?'

The 100-odd responses to this question make up this book, which is compelling and repetitive by turns. Mostly, the correspondents are concerned with the two great time-honoured questions: is there life anywhere else in the universe? And, are we anything more than flesh and blood? Almost everyone, it appears, believes there is life elsewhere, but hardly anyone has truck with any notion of anything like an individual soul, or even a tangible 'I'. 'Mind', as John Dewey suggests, has become a verb, not a noun.

Despite this denial of a single self, there are plenty of formidable egos on display. Craig Venter, the man who tried to patent our DNA, the Book of Life, and make his fortune from it, believes that all life is a 'panspermic event'; that primordial microbes were sent in a directed rocket ship from an alien galaxy to colonise the earth, a big bang if ever there was one. We, in turn, are constantly pansperming, launching a zillion microbes back into space.

Others are slightly more circumspect. Kenneth W Ford is the retired director of the American Institute of Physics. He believes in the existence of life elsewhere because 'chemistry seems to be so life-striving'.

He also offers a couple of sobering thoughts. Microbes have occupied Earth for at least 75 per cent of its history; intelligent life for about 0.02 per cent of it.

He believes: 'Mars will be found to have harboured life and harbours life no more.' The effect of this on mankind, perhaps only a couple of years away, might be psychologically dramatic; more dramatic than 'Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton; perhaps even more so than the discovery of life elsewhere in the galaxy.'

Brockman characterises our times as the Age of Certainty, in that we are comfortable with materialism and Darwinism, and believe that science could unlock all of the world's mysteries, given enough time; our own version of monkeys and typewriters. Ian McEwan, the novelist and Edge thinker, in his introduction, suggests that we are not so far from the 'old Enlightenment dream of a unified body of knowledge, when biologists and economists draw on each other's concepts and molecular biologists stray into the poorly defended territory of chemists and physicists'.

This faith is striking, and it fervently ignores the contrary tide of superstition and fundamentalism across the world. Even as they are thinking the unthinkable, however, many of Brockman's correspondents, largely Americans, seem also to be arming themselves against a return to an age of uncertainty in which creationism and intelligent design hold sway in the public mind. Enlightenment and infinity are hedged around, these days, by the Holy Neocon Empire.

Rocky Mountain News [12.9.05]

Daniel Gilbert, in an essay The Vagaries of Religious Experience posted at edge.org, says, "things can be viewed in many ways, but human brains like the most rewarding view and thus they search for and hold on to that view whenever they can." He is writing primarily about religious belief, but the observation is broader.

For instance, he says, "a significant portion of those who survive major traumas not only do well, but claim that their lives were enhanced by the experience."

El pais [12.3.05]

 

¿Es posible decir algo original sobre el Quijote? La obra maestra de Cervantes ha generado una bibliografía tan dispar como inabarcable. Sin embargo, como cualquier clásico, su riqueza artística todavía es capaz de provocar en la actualidad nuevas lecturas que se enfrentan a la tradición académica. Escritores vanguardistas rebatieron ayer algunas de estas tesis clásicas en Kosmopolis, el encuentro literario del Centro de Cultura Contemporánea de Barcelona (CCCB).

      John Brockman, en el debate sobre la influencia darwinista
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      Con motivo del Año del Libro, el CCCB acoge hasta hoy una edición especial y compacta de Kosmopolis, su bienal literaria. El Quijoteprotagonizó ayer la programación de la cita cultural. Es bien sabido que este año se conmemora el cuarto centenario de la publicación de la primera parte de la obra maestra de Cervantes. Para festejarlo, los organizadores de Kosmopolis pidieron a varios autores vanguardistas que aportaran lecturas iconoclastas de la novela.

      A juicio del filólogo Manel Zabala, la época en la que apareció el Quijote -marcada por la difusión de la imprenta- guarda similitudes notables con nuestros días. "La revolución que supuso entonces la extensión de la cultura impresa fue tan importante como el reto que nos plantean en la actualidad las nuevas tecnologías". Como ejemplo de similitudes reseñables, Zabala citó la locura en la que cae Alonso Quijano tras leer numerosas novelas de caballería, un trastorno similar al producido por el auge de los videojuegos y otros hábitos digitales entre los adolescentes. "El hidalgo es un adicto que pierde el contacto con la realidad, como sucede a los jóvenes que se enganchan a Internet".

      Especialmente combativo fue el escritor Jordi Carrión que abogó por apartarse de algunas interpretaciones consagradas sobre el Quijote, como las de Jorge Luis Borges, José Ortega y Gasset y la Generación del 98. "El reto de los jóvenes respecto a esta obra consiste en abrir una etapa posborgesiana", defendió Carrión, quien lamentó que el embate narrativo de la novela no haya tenido tantos frutos literarios en España como en otros países. Así, entre los herederos del Quijote se refirió al Tristram Shandy, de Laurence Sterne, o En el camino, del Jack Kerouac. Por su parte, la ensayista Irene Zoe Alameda afirmó que el Quijote no debe leerse como una parodia de los libros de caballería, una reducción simplista. Para justificar su opinión, señaló el respeto que muestra su narrador por Tirant lo Blanc, de Joanot Martorell.

      Cervantes no fue el único protagonista de la segunda jornada de Kosmopolis. En el encuentro también se debatió sobre la influencia que ha tenido la teoría darwinista de la selección natural en los avances de disciplinas científicas diversas, que abarcan desde la física a la genética. En este coloquio, centrado también en el futuro del humanismo y los límites de la ciencia, intervinieron el físico teórico Lee Smolin, el biólogo Robert Trivers y el neurocientífico Marc Hauser. La presentación del acto corrió a cargo de Eduard Punset y el moderador fue John Brockman, artífice de publicaciones de divulgación científica. Smolin subrayó la importancia de las investigaciones de Darwin en el posterior desarrollo de la teoría de la relatividad de Einstein y se preguntó si estábamos preparados para aceptar un mundo sin leyes absolutas, donde todo cambia. Hauser apuntó que la revolución de Darwin también fue moral, porque se opone al racionalista de Kant y al predominio de las emociones de Hume.

      Uno de los apartados más atractivos del encuentro es el audiovisual. En el programa cinematográfico destacó la proyección de Barry Gifford wild as heart in New Orleans,filme en el que los realizadores italianos Francesco Conversano y Nene Grignaffini repasan las obsesiones creativas del irreverente autor estadounidense de Perdita Durango.

      Como ya es costumbre, Kosmopolis trata de reunir en un mismo espacio a público y artistas para que dialoguen sin cortapisas. Ayer acudió a la cita el pintor Joan Pere Viladecans, mientras que Eduardo Arroyo no pudo estar finalmente como se había anunciado.

      La jornada de hoy, día en el que se clausura el encuentro, contiene muchas propuestas interesantes. Entre otros, participarán en diferentes actos los escritores Juan Marsé y Carlos Ruiz Zafón, el dramaturgo británico Peter Jukes, el cineasta Joaquim Jordà, el historiador francés especializado en la evolución de la lectura Roger Chartier y el pintor Frederic Amat.

      La Stampa [12.2.05]

      In Brockman's intentions, this running fire of a provocative and fascinating thesis should provoke a healthy optimism. The "new humanists" of his book are those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are. Their turn then to speak: biologists, computer scientists, geographers, physicists, astronomers, inventors outline in a few pages their own experience and ideas.

      The "third culture" invoked by John Brockman is now an absolute necessity. We can't stand unproductive fences and mutual misunderstandings anymore.

      [From a review of I Nuovi Umanisti (The New Humanists), Garzanti Libri — the best of Edge — now available in a book.]

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