deep and ambitious questions....breathtaking in scope. Keep watching
The World Question Center."
Is Today's Most Important Unreported Story?"
assume for a second that Ted Koppel, Charlie Rose and the editorial
high command at the New York Times have a handle on all
the pressing issues of the day.... a lengthy list of profound,
esoteric and outright entertaining responses. San Jose
Mercury News ("Web Site for Intellectuals Inspires Serious
Questions Have Disappeared?"
"As William Blake might have written
to a coelacanth: Did he who made the haplochromids make thee?"
"When will overpopulation create worldwide starvatiion?"
"What are the implications of human nature for political systems?"
"...a set of questions that ought to have disappeared:
questions that seek reasons for patterns that in reality are due
"The questions that have disappeared are eschatological."
"Does God play dice?" (...first asked by Albert Einstein
some time in the 30's.)
"How do societies function and
"How should adult education
work? How do we educate the masses? (That's right, The Masses.)....
"What is the difference between men and pigs?"
"Why is our sense of beauty and elegance such a useful tool for
discriminating between a good theory and a bad theory?"
"When will we face another energy crisis, and how will we cope with
"Are subordinate clauses more typical of languages with a long literary
tradition than integral features of human speech?"
at the world upside down: what are we enhancing or what is vanishing
in our brains while flat and dormant views of the universe are slowly
"What will life be like after the revolution?"
"Did Fermat's question, 'is it true that there are no integers
x, y, z and n, all greater than 2, such that x^n + y^n = z^n?',
F? for short, raised in the 17th century, disappear when Andrew
Wiles answered it affirmatively by a proof of Fermat's theorem F
long before all nations obey the basic principles of the human rights
as outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December
"Why Is There Something Instead of Nothing?"
does [fill in the blank] in human affairs relate to the great central
"What is the next step in the evolution of democracy?"
|David G. Post
"... can there really be fossil sea-shells in the mountains
of Kentucky, hundreds of miles from the Atlantic coast?"
"...from what source do governments get their legitimate power?"
"How can I stop the soul of the deceased reanimating the body?"
"Who should make the truly global
decisions, and how?"
old question of whether our categories of reality are discovered
We Seen the End of Science?"
"Will the Internet Stock Bubble Burst?"
"How many angels can dance on the point of a pin?"
"How will Americans handle a surplus of leisure?"
"Can the threat of recombinant DNA possibly be contained?"
"Did Noah Really Collect all Species of Earthly Organism on
"questions that were asked in extinct languages"
" the old
Platonic questions about the nature of the good and the form of
"What can government do to help create a better sort of human?"
"...the narrative shifted and ...the female sense of identity
in the West, for the first time ever, no longer hinges on the
identity of her mate ..."
to this year's question are deliciously creative... the variety
astonishes. Edge continues to launch intellectual skyrockets
of stunning brilliance. Nobody in the world is doing what Edge
Denis Dutton, Editor of Arts
& Letters Daily
its fourth anniversary edition "The World Question
Center 2001" Edge has reached out to a wide
group of individuals distinguished by their significant achievements
and asked them to respond to the following question:
"What Questions Have Disappeared?"
At publication, 83 responses (34,000 words plus) have been posted.
Additional responses are expected in the coming weeks and will
be posted on Edge as they are received.
Aizu ° Alun Anderson ° Philip W. Anderson ° Robert
Aunger ° John Barrow ° Thomas A. Bass ° David Berreby
° Susan Blackmore ° Stewart Brand ° Rodney A. Brooks
° David M. Buss ° Jason McCabe Calacanis ° William
H. Calvin ° Andy Clark ° Paul Davies ° Richard Dawkins
° Stanislas Dehaene ° David Deutsch ° Keith Devlin
° Denis Dutton ° George B. Dyson ° J. Doyne Farmer
° Kenneth Ford ° Howard Gardner ° David Gelernter
° Brian Goodwin ° David Haig ° Judy Harris °
Marc D. Hauser ° Geoffrey Hinton ° John Horgan °
Verena Huber-Dyson ° Nicholas Humphrey ° Mark Hurst
° Piet Hut ° Raphael Kasper ° Kevin Kelly °
Lance Knobel ° Marek Kohn °
Stephen M. Kosslyn ° Kai Krause ° Lawrence M. Krauss
° Leon Lederman ° Joseph Le Doux ° Pamela McCorduck
° Dan McNeill ° John H. McWhorter ° David Myers
° Randolph M. Nesse ° Tor Norretranders ° Rafael
E. Núñez ° James J. O'Donnell ° Jay Ogilvy
° Sylvia Paull ° John Allen Paulos ° Cliff Pickover
° Steven Pinker ° Jordan Pollack ° David G. Post
° Rick Potts ° Robert Provine ° Eduardo Punset °
Martin Rees ° Howard Rheingold ° Douglas Rushkoff °
Karl Sabbagh ° Roger Schank ° Stephen H. Schneider °
Al Seckel ° Michael Shermer ° Lee Smolin ° Dan Sperber
° Tom Standage ° Timothy Taylor ° Joseph Traub °
Colin Tudge ° Sherry Turkle ° Henry Warwick ° Margaret
Wertheim ° Dave Winer ° Milford Wolpoff ° Eberhard
Zangger ° Carl Zimmer °
Publisher & Editor
published in German by Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
Join the Edge public forum at
WORLD QUESTION CENTER 2001 (recent additions)
from Geoffrey Miller: "Three
Victorian questions about potential sexual partners:
'Are they from a good family?'; 'What are their accomplishments?';
'Was their money and status acquired ethically?' °
"Christopher Phillips: "none" °
Tracy Quan: "Who does your bleeding?" °
Joel Garreau: "What can government do to help create
a better sort of human?" ° Naomi Wolf: "...the
narrative shifted and ...the female sense of identity in the
West, for the first time ever, no longer hinges on the identity
of her mate ..." ° Terrence J. Sejnowski:
"Is God Dead?" ° Ann Crittenden: "Is
human nature innately good or evil?"
Meet Online to Offer New Perspectives on Old Questions
January 9, 2001
THE NEW YORK TIMES
(free registration required)
Once a year, John Brockman of New York, a writer and literary
agent who represents many scientists, poses a question in his
online journal, The Edge, and invites the thousand or so people
on his mailing list to answer it.
the end of 1998, for example, he asked readers to name the most
important invention in 2,000 years; the question generated 117
responses as diverse as hay and birth control pills. This year,
Mr. Brockman offered a question about questions: "What questions
have disappeared, and why?"
are edited excerpts from some of the answers, to be posted today
Fragen sind verschwunden?"
Die Sphinx in der New Economy: Eine Umfrage unter fuehrenden Wissenschaftlern
NEW YORK, 8. January
Auch die Zukunft kommt nicht ohne Traditionen aus. Selbst eine
mit Mlle. de Scud»ry zeitreisende Mme. de S»vign» m˝śte sich nicht
gar zu sehr wundern, wenn sie beim Netzsurfen auf ein Internetmagazin
stieśe, das sich unerschrocken prezińs "Salon" nennt.
Wo immer aber ein Salon zum Verweilen, Sinnieren und Brillieren
lîdt, kann eine Preisfrage nicht weit sein.
Elektronisch funktioniert sie nicht viel anders als zu Zeiten
der Aufklîrung und ihrer Debattierzirkel. In seinem Internetsalon
(www.edge.org) verf˝hrt der Verleger und Literaturagent John Brockman
zum Anfang des Jahres gelehrte Koryphîen gern zu Antworten auf
solche Fragen. Diesmal hat er den Ritus selbst thematisiert und
fragt nach Fragen, die keiner mehr stellt. An die hundert Wissenschaftler,
Philosophen und Publizisten der sogenannten "Dritten Kultur"
nehmen am Spiel teil, haben aber die Spielregeln nicht alle gleich
verstanden. Warum eine Frage verschwindet, kann schlieślich viele
Gr˝nde haben. Vielleicht ist sie beantwortet, vielleicht auch
nicht zu beantworten, was freilich in der Regel den intellektuellen
Spieleifer um so heftiger stimuliert, vielleicht aber war die
Frage auch von Anfang an nicht fragenswert......
"Has History Ended?"
I am going to take slight liberty with
your question. With the publication a decade ago of Francis Fukuyama's
justly acclaimed article The End Of History, many pundits
and non-pundits assumed that historical forces and trends had
been spent. The era of the "isms" was at an end; liberal democracy,
market forces, and globalization had triumphed; the heavy weight
of the past was attenuating around the globe.
At the start of 2001, we
are no longer asking "Has History Ended?" History seems all too
alive. The events of Seattle challenged the globalization behemoth;
the world is no longer beating a path to internet startups; Communist
and fascist revivals have emerged in several countries; the historical
legacies in areas like the Balkans and the Middle East are as
vivid as ever; and, as I noted in response to last year's question,
much of Africa is at war. As if to remind us of our naivete, Fidel
Castro and Saddam Hussein have been in "office" as long as most
Americans can remember. If George II is ignorant of this history,
he is likely to see it repeated.
HOWARD GARDNER, the major proponent of the theory of multiple
intelligences, is Professor of Education at Harvard University
and author of numerous books including The Mind's New Science
and Extraordinary Minds: Portraits of Four Exceptional Individuals.
"As William Blake might have written to a coelacanth:
Did he who made the haplochromids make thee?"
people on the Edge list seem to have chosen to understand
'questions that have disappeared' in three very different senses:
1. Questions that were once popular but have now been answered
2. Questions that should never have been asked in the first place
3. Questions that have disappeared although they never received
a satisfactory answer.
This third meaning is, I suspect, the one intended by the organizer
of the forum. It is the most interesting of the three since
it suggests real science that we should now be doing, rather than
just raking over the historical coals.
The three meanings are too disparate to bring together easily,
but I'll try. The popular question 'Has there been enough time
for evolution to take place?' can now confidently be answered
in the affirmative. It should never have been put in the
first place since, self-evidently, we are here. But what is more
interesting is that the real question that faces us is almost
the exact opposite. Why is evolution so slow, given that
natural selection is so powerful? Far from there being
too little time for evolution to play with, there seems to be
Ledyard Stebbins did a theoretical calculation about an extremely
weak selection pressure, acting on a population of mouse-sized
animals to favor the largest individuals. His hypothetical
selection pressure was so weak as to be below the threshold of
detectability in field sampling studies. Yet the calculated
time to evolve elephant-sized descendants from mouse-sized ancestors
was only a few tens of thousands of generations: too short to
be detected under most circumstances in the fossil record. To
exaggerate somewhat, evolution could be yo-yo-ing from mouse to
elephant, and back again, so fast that the changes could seem
instantaneous in the fossil record.
Worse, Stebbins's calculation assumed an exceedingly weak selection
pressure. The real selection pressures measured in the field
by Ford and his colleagues on lepidoptera and snails, by Endler
and his colleagues on guppies, and by the Grants and their colleagues
on the Galapagos finches, are orders of magnitude stronger. If
we fed into the Stebbins calculation a selection pressure as strong
as the Grants have measured in the field, it is positively worrying
to contemplate how fast evolution could go. The same conclusion
is indirectly suggested by domestic breeding. We have gone
from wolf to Yorkshire terrier in a few centuries, and could presumably
go back to something like a wolf in as short a time.
It is indeed the case that evolution on the Galapagos archipelago
has been pretty fast, though still nothing like as fast as the
measured selection pressures might project. The islands
have been in existence for five million years at the outside,
and the whole of their famous endemic fauna has evolved during
that time. But even the Galapagos islands are old compared
to Lake Victoria. In the less than one million years of
the lake's brief lifetime, more than 170 species of the genus
Haplochromis alone have evolved.
Yet the Coelacanth Latimeria, and the three genera of lungfish,
have scarcely changed in hundreds of millions of years. Surviving
Lingula ('lamp shells') are classified in the same genus as their
ancestors of 400 million years ago, and could conceivably interbreed
with them if introduced through a time machine. The question
that still faces us is this. How can evolution be both so
fast and so leadenly slow? How can there be so much variance
in rates of evolution? Is stasis just due to stabilizing
selection and lack of directional selection? Or is there
something remarkably special going on in the (non) evolution of
living fossils? As William Blake might have written to a
coelacanth: Did he who made the haplochromids make thee?
RICHARD DAWKINS is an evolutionary biologist and the Charles Simonyi
Professor For The Understanding Of Science at Oxford University;
Fellow of New College; author of The Selfish Gene, The Extended
Phenotype , The Blind Watchmaker, River out of Eden (ScienceMasters
Series), Climbing Mount Improbable, and Unweaving the
do these discarded questions tell us?"
The road of knowledge is littered with old questions, but by their
very nature, none of them stands out above all others. The diversity
of thoughtful responses given on the Edge forum, which
just begin to scratch the surface, illustrates how progress happens.
The evolution of knowledge is a Schumpterian process of creative
destruction, in which weeding out the questions that no longer
merit attention is an integral part of formulating better questions
that should. Forgetting is a vital part of creation.
Maxwell once worried that the second law of thermodynamics could
be violated by a demon who could measure the velocity of individual
particles and separate the fast ones from the slow ones, and use
this to do work. Charlie Bennet showed that that this is impossible,
because to make a measurement the demon has to first put her instruments
in a known state.
This involves erasing information. The energy needed to do this
is more than can be gained. Thus, the fact that forgetting takes
work is essential to the second law of thermodynamics. Why is
this relevant? As Gregory Bateson once said, the second law of
thermodynamics is the reason that it is easier to mess up a room
than it is to clean it. Forgetting is an essential part of the
process of creating order. Asking the right questions is the most
important part of the creative process. There are lots of people
who are good at solving problems, fewer who are good at asking
Around the time I took my qualifying examination in physics, someone
showed me the test that Lord Rayleigh took when he graduated as
senior wrangler from Cambridge in 1865. I would have failed it.
There were no questions on thermodynamics, statistical mechanics,
quantum mechanics, nuclear physics, particle physics, condensed
matter, or relativity, i.e. no questions covering most of what
I had learned.
However, the classical mechanics questions, which comprised most
of the bets, were diabolically hard. Their solution involved techniques
that are no longer taught, and that a modern physicist would have
to work hard to recreate. Of course, in a field like philosophy
this would not have surprised me it just hadn't occurred
to me that this was as true for physics as well. The physicists
in Rayleigh's generation presumably worked just as hard, and knew
just as many things. They just knew different things. After overcoming
the shock of how much had seemingly been lost, I rationalized
my ignorance with the belief that what I was taught was more useful
than what Rayleigh was taught. Whether as a culture or as individuals,
to learn new things, we have to forget old things. The notion
of what is useful is constantly evolving.
The most important questions evolve through time as people understand
little bits and pieces, and view them from different angles in
the attempt to solve them. Each question is replaced by a new
one that is (hopefully) better framed than its antecedant. Reflecting
on those that have been cast aside is like sifting through flotsam
on a beach, and asking what it tells us. Is there a common thread
that might give us a clue to posing better questions in the future?
When we examine questions such as "What is a vital force?", "How
fast is the earth moving?", "Does God exist?", "Have we seen the
end of science?", "Has history ended?", "Can machines think?",
there are some common threads. One is that we never really understood
what these questions meant in the first place. But these questions
(to varying degrees) have been useful in helping us to formulate
better, more focused questions. We just have to turn loose of
our pet ideas, and make a careful distinction between what we
know and what we only think we know, and try to be more precise
about what we are really asking.
I would be curious to hear more discussion about the common patterns
and the conclusions to be drawn from the questions that have disappeared.
J. DOYNE FARMER, one of the pioneers of what has come to be called
chaos theory, is McKinsey Professor, Sante Fe, Institute, and
the co founder and former co-president of Prediction Company in
Santa Fe, New Mexico.
do people differ in the ways they think and learn?"
Most Americans, even (or, perhaps, especially) educated Americans,
seem to believe that all people are basically the same
we have the same innate abilities and capacities, and only hard
work and luck separates those who are highly skilled from those
who are not. But this idea is highly implausible. People differ
along every other dimension, from the size of their stomachs and
shoes to the length of their toes and tibias. They even differ
in the sizes of their brains. So, why shouldn't they also differ
in their abilities and capacities? Of course, the answer is that
they do. It's time to acknowledge this fact and take advantage
In my view, the 21st century is going to be the "Century of Personalization."
No more off-the-rack drugs: Gene and proteonomic chips will give
readouts for each person, allowing drugs to be tailored to their
individual physiologies. No more off-the-rack clothes: For example,
you'll stick your feet in a box, lasers will measure every aspect
of them, and shoes will be custom-made according to your preferred
style. Similarly, no more off-the-rack teaching.
Specifically, the first step is to diagnose individual differences
in cognitive abilities and capacities, so we can play to a given
person's strengths and avoid falling prey to his or her weaknesses.
But in order to characterize these differences, we first need
to understand at least the broad outlines of general mechanisms
that are common to the species.
All of us have biceps and triceps, but these muscles differ in
their strength. So too with our mental muscles. All of us have
a short-term memory, for example (in spite of how it may sometimes
feel at the end of the day), and all of us are capable storing
information in long-term memory. Differences among people in part
reflect differences in the efficacy of such mechanisms. For example,
there are at least four distinct ways that visual/spatial information
can be processed (which I'm not going to go into here), and people
differ in their relative abilities on each one. Presenting the
same content in different ways will invite different sorts of
processing, which will be more or less congenial for a given person.
But there's more to it than specifying mechanisms and figuring
out how well people can use them (as daunting as that is). Many
of the differences in cognitive abilities and capacities probably
reflect how mechanisms work together and when they are recruited.
Understanding such differences will tell us how to organize material
so that it goes down smoothly. For example, how--for a given person-should
examples and general principles be intermixed?
And, yet more. We aren't bloodless brains floating in vats, soaking
up information pumped into us. Rather, it's up to us to decide
what to pay attention to, and what to think about. Thus, it's
no surprise that people learn better when they are motivated.
We need to know how a particular student should be led to use
the information during learning. For example, some people may
"get" physics only when it's taught in the context of auto mechanics.
All of this implies that methods of teaching in the 21st Century
will be tightly tied to research in cognitive psychology and cognitive
neuroscience. At present, the study of individual differences
is almost entirely divorced from research on general mechanisms.
Even if this is remedied, it's going to be a challenge to penetrate
the educational establishment and have this information put to
use. So, the smart move will probably be to do an end-run around
this establishment, using computers to tutor children individually
outside of school. This in turn raises the specter of another
kind of Digital Divide. Some of us may in fact still get off-the-rack
I'll leave aside another set of questions no one seems to be seriously
asking: What should be taught? And should the same material be
taught to everyone? You can imagine why this second question isn't
being asked, but it's high time we seriously considered making
the curriculum relevant for the 21st Century.
M. KOSSLYN, a full professor of psychology at Harvard at age 34,
is a researcher focusing primarily on the nature of visual mental
imagery. His books include Image and Mind, Ghosts in the Mind's
Machine, Wet Mind: The New Cognitive Neuroscience,
Image and Brain: The Resolution of the Imagery Debate,
and Psychology: The Brain, the Person, the World.
are humans smarter than other animals?"
Such a simple question. Many of you might think "Has that
question really disappeared?" Some questions disappear for
ever because they have been answered. Some questions go extinct
because they were bad questions to begin with. But there are others
that appear to vanish but then we find that they are back with
us again in a slightly different guise. They are questions that
are just too close to our hearts for us to let them die completely.
For millennia, human superiority was taken for granted. From the
lowest forms of life up to humans and then on to the angels and
God, all living thing were seen as arranged in the Great Chain
of Being. Ascend the chain and perfection grows. It is a hierarchical
philosophy that conveniently allows for the exploitation of dumber
beasts of other species or races as a right by their
superiors. We dispose of them as God disposes of us.
The idea of human superiority should have died when Darwin came
on the scene.
Unfortunately, the full implications of what he said have been
difficult to take in: there is no Great Chain of Being, no higher
and no lower. All creatures have adapted effectively to their
own environments in their own way. Human "smartness"
is just a particular survival strategy among many others, not
the top of a long ladder.
It took a surprisingly long time for scientists to grasp this.
For decades, comparative psychologists tried to work out the learning
abilities of different species so that they could be arranged
on a single scale. Animal equivalents of intelligence tests were
used and people seriously asked whether fish were smarter than
birds. It took the new science of ethology, created by Nobel-prize
winners Konrad Lorenz, Niko Tinbergen and Karl von Frisch, to
show that each species had the abilities it needed for its own
lifestyle and they could not be not arranged on a universal scale.
Human smartness is no smarter than anyone else's smartness. The
question should have died for good.
Artificial intelligence researchers came along later but they
too could not easily part from medieval thinking. The most important
problems to tackle were agreed to be those that represented our
"highest" abilities. Solve them and everything else
would be easy. As a result, we have ended up with computer programs
that can play chess as well as a grandmaster. But unfortunately
we have none that can make a robot walk as well as a 2-year old,
yet alone run like a cat. The really hard problems turn out to
be those that we share with "lower" animals.
Strangley enough, even evolutionary biologists still get caught
up with the notion that humans stand at the apex of existence.
There are endless books from evolutionary biologists speculating
on the reasons why humans evolved such wonderful big brains, but
a complete absence of those which ask if a big brains is a really
useful organ to have. The evidence is far from persuasive. If
you look at a wide range of organisms, those with bigger brains
are generally no more successful than those with smaller brains
hey go extinct just as fast.
Of course, it would be really nice to sample a large range of
different planets where life is to be found and see if big-brained
creatures do better over really long time scales (the Earth is
quite a young place). Unfortunately, we cannot yet do that, although
the fact that we have never been contacted by any intelligent
life from older parts of the Universe suggests that it usually
comes to a bad end.
Still, as we are humans it's just so hard not to be seduced by
the question "What makes us so special" which is just
the same as the question above but in a different form. When you
switch on a kitchen light and see a cockroach scuttle for safety
you can't help seeing it as a lower form of life. Unfortunately,
there are a lot more of them than there are of us and they have
been around far, far longer. Cockroach philosophers doubtless
entertain their six-legged friends by asking "What makes
us so special".
ALUN ANDERSON is Editor-in-Chief of New Scientist.
will overpopulation create worldwide starvation?"
They cordoned off the area and brought in disposal experts to
defuse the bomb, but it turned out to be full of sawdust.
The Population Bomb is truly a dud, although this news and its
implications have yet fully to sink into the general consciousness.
can become so embedded in our outlook that they are hard to shake
by rational argument. As a Peace Corps Volunteer working in rural
India in the 1960s, I vividly remember being faced with multiple
uncertainties about what might work for the modernization of India.
There was only one thing I and my fellow development workers could
all agree on: India unquestionably would experience mass famine
by the 1980s at the latest. For us at the time this notion was
an eschatological inevitability and an article of faith.
35 years since those days, India has grown in population by over
a million souls a month, never failing to feed itself or earn
enough to buy the food it needs (sporadic famine conditions in
isolated areas, which still happen in India, are always a matter
of communications and distribution breakdown).
Like so many of the doomsayers of the twentieth century, we left
crucial factors out of our glib calculations. First, we failed
to appreciate that people in developing countries will behave
exactly like people in the rest of the world: as they improve
their standard of living, they have fewer children. In India,
the rate of population increase began to turn around in the 1970s,
and it has declined since. More importantly, we underestimated
the capacity of human intelligence to adapt changing situations.
speaking, instead of a world population of 25 or 30 billion, which
some prophets of the 1960s were predicting, it now looks as though
the peak of world population growth might be reached within 25
to 40 years at a maximum of 8.5 billion (just 2.5 billion above
the present world population). Even without advances in food technology,
the areas of land currently out of agricultural production in
the United States and elsewhere will prevent starvation. But genetic
technologies will increase the quantities and healthfulness of
food, while at the same time making food production much more
environmentally friendly. For example, combining gene modification
with herbicides will make it possible to produce crops that induce
no soil erosion. New varieties will requires less intensive application
of nitrogen fertilizers and pesticides. If genetic techniques
can control endemic pests, vast areas of Africa could be brought
into productive cultivation.
will be no way to add 2.5 billion people to the planet without
environmental costs. Some present difficulties, such as limited
supplies of fresh water in Third World localities, will only get
worse. But these problems will not be insoluble. Moreover, there
is not the slightest chance that population growth will in itself
cause famine. What will be fascinating to watch, for those who
live long enough to witness it, will be how the world copes with
an aging, declining population, once the high-point has been reached.
steady evaporation of the question, "When will overpopulation
create worldwide starvation?", has left a gaping hole in
the mental universe of the doomsayers. They have been quick to
fill it with anxieties about global warming, cellphones, the ozone
hole, and Macdonaldization. There appears to be a hard-wired human
propensity to invent threats where they cannot clearly be discovered.
Historically, this has been applied to foreign ethnic groups or
odd individuals in a small-scale society (the old woman whose
witchcraft must have caused village children to die). Today's
anxieties focus on broader threats to mankind, where activism
can mix fashionable politics with dubious science. In this respect
alone, the human race is not about to run out of problems. Fortunately,
it also shows no sign of running out of solutions.
DENIS DUTTON, founder and editor of the innovative Web page Arts
& Letters Daily (www.cybereditions.com/aldaily/), teaches
the philosophy of art at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand
and writes widely on aesthetics. He is editor of the journal Philosophy
and Literature, published by the Johns Hopkins University
Press. Professor Dutton is a director of Radio New Zealand, Inc.
"What are the implications of human nature for political
systems? This question was openly discussed in two historical
The first was the Enlightenment. Hobbes claimed the brutishishness
of man in a state of nature called for a governmental Leviathan.
Rousseau's concept of the noble savage led him to call for the
abolition of property and the predominance of the "general will."
Adam Smith justified market capitalism by saying that it is not
the generosity but the self-interest of the baker that leads him
to give us bread. Madison justified constitutional government
by saying that if people were angels, no government would be necessary,
and if angels were to govern people, no controls on government
would be necessary. The young Marx's notion of a "species character"
for creativity and self-expression led to "From each according
to his ability"; his later belief that human nature is transformed
throughout history justified revolutionary social change.
The second period was the 1960s and its immediate aftermath, when
Enlightenment romanticism was revived. Here is an argument the
US Attorney General, Ramsay Clark, against criminal punishment:
"Healthy, rational people will not injure others ... they will
understand that the individual and his society are best served
by conduct that does not inflict injury. ... Rehabilitated, an
individual will not have the capacity-cannot bring himself-to
injure another or take or destroy property." This is, of course,
an empirical claim about human nature, with significant consequences
The discussion came to an end in the 1970s, when even the mildest
non romantic statements about human nature were met with angry
denunciations and accusations of Nazism. At the century's turn
we have an unprecedented wealth of data from social psychology,
ethnography, behavioral economics, criminology, behavioral genetics,
cognitive neuroscience, and so on, that could inform (though of
course, not dictate) policies in law, political decision-making,
welfare, and so on. But they are seldom brought to bear on the
issues. In part this is a good thing, because academics have been
known to shoot off their mouths with half-baked or crackpot policy
proposals. But since all policy decisions presuppose some hypothesis
about human nature, wouldn't it make sense to bring the presuppositions
into the open so they can be scrutinized in the light of our best
PINKER is professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences
at MIT; director of the McDonnell-Pew Center for Cognitive Neuroscience
at MIT; author of Language Learnability and Language Development,
Learnability and Cognition, The Language Instinct , How the Mind
Works, and Words and Rules.
Does Love Come From?"
What does science have to say about the origins of love in the
scheme of things? Not a lot. In fact, it is still virtually a
taboo subject, just as consciousness was until very recently.
However, since feelings are a major component of consciousness,
it seems likely that the ontology of love is now likely to emerge
as a significant question in science.
Within Christian culture, as in many other religious traditions,
love has its origin as a primal quality of God and so is co-eternal
with Him. His creation is an outpouring of this love in shared
relationship with beings that participate in the essential creativity
of the cosmos. As in the world of Shakespeare and the Renaissance
Magi, it is love that makes the world go round and animates all
This magical view of the world did not satisfy the emerging perspective
of Galilean science, which saw relationships in nature as law-like,
obeying self-consistent logical principles of order. God may well
have created the world, but he did so according to intelligible
principles. It is the job of the scientist to identify these and
describe them in mathematical form. And so with Newton, love turned
into gravity. The rotation of the earth around the sun, and the
moon around the earth, was a result of the inverse square law
of gravitational attraction. It was not a manifestation of love
as an attractive principle between animated beings, however much
humanity remained attached to romantic feelings about the full
moon. Love was henceforth banished from scientific discourse and
the mechanical world-view took over.
Now science itself is changing and mechanical principles are being
replaced by more subtle notions of interaction and relationships.
Quantum mechanics was the first harbinger of a new holistic world
of non-local connectedness in which causality operates in a much
more intricate way than conventional mechanism. We now have complexity
theory as well, which seeks to understand how emergent properties
arise in complex systems such as developing organisms, colonies
of social insects, and human brains. Often these properties are
not reducible to the behavior of their component parts and their
interactions, though there is always consistency between levels:
that is, there are no contradictions between the properties of
the parts of a complex system and the order that emerges from
them. Consciousness appears to be one of these emergent properties.
With this recognition, science enters a new realm.
Consciousness involves feelings, or more generally what are called
qualia, the experience of qualities such as pain, pleasure, beauty,
and . love. This presents us with a major challenge.
The scientific principle of consistency between levels in systems
requires that feelings emerge from some property of the component
parts (e.g., neurones) that is consistent with feeling, experience.
But if matter is 'dead', without any feeling, and neurones are
just made of this dead matter, even though organized in a complex
way, then where do feelings come from ? This is the crunch question
which presents us with a hard choice. We can either say that feelings
are epiphenomena, illusions that evolution has invented because
they are useful for survival. Or we can change our view of matter
and ascribe to the basic stuff of reality some elementary component
of feeling, sentience, however rudimentary. Of course, we could
also take the view that nature is not self-consistent and that
miracles are possible; that something can come from nothing, such
as feeling from dead, insentient matter, thus returning to the
magical world-view of the early renaissance. But if we are to
remain scientific, then the choice is between the other two alternatives.
The notion that evolution has invented feelings because they are
useful for survival is not a scientific explanation, because it
gives no account of how feelings are possible as properties that
emerge in the complex systems we call organisms (i.e., consistent
emergent properties of life). So we are left with the other hard
choice: matter must have some rudimentary property of sentience.
This is the conclusion that the mathematician/philosopher A.N.
Whitehead came to in his classic, Process and Reality, and it
is being proposed as a solution to the Cartesian separation of
mind and matter by some contemporary philosophers and scientists.
It involves a radical reappraisal of what we call 'reality'. But
it does suggest a world in which love exists as something real,
in accord with most peoples' experience. And goodness knows, we
could do with a little more of it in our fragmented world.
GOODWIN is a professor of biology at the Schumacher College, Milton
Keynes, and the author of Temporal Organization in Cells and
Analytical Physiology, How The Leopard Changed Its Spots: The
Evolution of Complexity, and (with Gerry Webster) Form
and Transformation: Generative and Relational Principles in Biology.
Dr. Goodwin is a member of the Board of Directors of the Sante