There are many other features in the head that help us become exceptional long-distance walkers and runners. I became obsessed with the idea that humans evolved to run long distances, evolved to walk long distances, basically evolved to use our bodies as athletes. These traces are there in our heads along with those brains.

DANIEL LIEBERMAN is Professor of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University. His research combines experimental biology and paleontology to ask why and how the human body looks and functions the way it does. He is especially interested in the origin of bipedal walking, the biology and evolution of endurance running, and the evolution of the human head. He also loves to run.

Daniel Lieberman's Edge Bio Page

[47:38 minutes]


I've been thinking a lot about the concept of whether or not human evolution is a story of brains over brawn. I study the evolution of the human body and how and why the human body is the way it is, and I've worked a lot on both ends of the body. I'm very interested in feet and barefoot running and how our feet function, but I've also written and thought a lot about how and why our heads are the way they are. The more I study feet and heads, the more I realize that what's in the middle also matters, and that we have this very strange idea —it goes back to mythology—that human evolution is primarily a story about brains, about intelligence, about technology triumphing over brawn.



  • LIFE

"One of the fundamental questions here is, is extinction a good thing? Is it "nature's way?" And if it's nature's way, who in the world says anyone should go about changing nature's way? If something was meant to go extinct, then who are we to screw around with it and bring it back? I don't think it's really nature's way. I think that the extinction that we've seen since man is 99.9 percent caused by man."



One of the fundamental questions here is, is extinction a good thing? Is it "nature's way?" And if it's nature's way, who in the world says anyone should go about changing nature's way? If something was meant to go extinct, then who are we to screw around with it and bring it back? I don't think it's really nature's way. I think that the extinction that we've seen since man is 99.9 percent caused by man.

RYAN PHELAN is the Executive Director of Revive and Restore, a project within The Long Now Foundation, with a mission to provide deep ecological enrichment through extinct species revival.

Ryan Phelan's Edge Bio Page

[14:33 minutes]

REALITY CLUB: Jennifer Jacquet, Stuart Pimm, Esther Dyson

[ ED. NOTE: The following conversation took place at the seventh annual Science Foo Camp (SciFoo),  hosted by Nature, Digital Science, O'Reilly Media, and Google, August 3 - 5, 2012, at the Googleplex in Mountain View, California. Special thanks to Philip Campbell of Nature, Timo Hannay of Digital Science, Tim O'Reilly of O'Reilly Media ("Foo" stands for "friends of O'Reilly"), and Chris DiBona and Cat Allman of Google. —JB ]


[RYAN PHELAN:] The big question that I'm asking right now is: If we could bring back an extinct species, should we? Could we? Should we? How does it benefit society? How does it advance the science? And the truth is, we're just at the beginning of trying to figure all this out. I got inspired really thinking about this through my involvement with George Church, and I've been on the periphery of an organization that he started called The Personal Genome Project. Over the last seven years I've been working primarily in personalized medicine, keeping my eye on the application of genomic medicine in different areas, and the growth of genomics and the shockingly drop in the sequencing price, and the cost of sequencing, and what that means to all different areas of science.

One thing led to another and we started talking with George about what it would mean if we could actually apply this towards the de-extinction of species. It turns out, of course, that in George's lab he's pioneering in all these methods. Right now, George's approach of basically editing the genome starts to make the concept of bringing something back really plausible.



  • LIFE

"I was asked earlier whether the goal is to dissect what Schrödinger had spoken and written, or to present the new summary, and I always like to be forward-looking, so I won't give you a history lesson except for very briefly. I will present our findings on first on reading the genetic code, and then learning to synthesize and write the genetic code, and as many of you know, we synthesized an entire genome, booted it up to create an entirely new synthetic cell where every protein in the cell was based on the synthetic DNA code."



John Brockman

Several weeks ago, I received the following message from Craig Venter:


"I would like to extend an invitation for you to join me in Dublin, Ireland the week of July 10 during which one of the landmark events of 20th Century science will be celebrated and reinterpreted for the 21st Century as part of the Science in the City program of Euroscience Open Forum 2012 (ESOF 2012). This unique event will connect an important episode in Ireland's scientific heritage with the frontier of contemporary research.  

"In February 1943 one of the most distinguished scientists of the 20th Century, Erwin Schrödinger, delivered a seminal lecture, entitled 'What is Life?', under the auspices of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, in Trinity College, Dublin. The then Prime Minister, Éamon de Valera, attended the lecture and an account of it featured in the 5 April 1943, issue of Time magazine.

"The lecture presented far-sighted ideas on how hereditary information could be encoded in a chemical structure (aperiodic crystal) in living cells. Schrödinger's book (1944) of the same title is considered to be a scientific classic. The book was cited by Crick and Watson as one of the inspirations which ultimately led them to unravel the structure of DNA in 1953, a breakthrough which won them the Nobel prize. Recent advances in genetics and synthetic biology mean that it is now timely to reconsider the fundamental question posed by Schrödinger 70 years ago. I have been asked to revisit Schrödinger's question and will do so in a lecture entitled "What is Life? A 21st century perspective"; on the evening of Thursday, July 12 at the Examination Hall in Trinity College Dublin."  

Never one to turn down an interesting invitation, I was able to organize an interesting week beginning with an Edge Dinner in Turin, in honor of Venter, Brian Eno and myself, where Venter, in an after-dinner talk, began to publicly present some of the new ideas he would flesh out in his Dublin talk.

Then on to Dublin, where I sat in the front row at Examination Hall next to Jim Watson and Irish Prime Minister (the "Taoiseach) Enda Kenny for Venter's  lecture. At it's conclusion, the two legendary scientists, Watson and Venter, shook hands on stage, as Watson congratulated Venter  for "a beautiful lecture". Schrödinger to Watson to Venter: It was an historic moment.

Listen and watch carefully. 


[55:14 minutes]



  • LIFE

"We can now send biology at the speed of light, and this is one of the implications of our work, which we recorded two years ago making the first synthetic life form. We completely synthesized the genetic code of a cell starting with a digital code in the computer—it's the ultimate interface between computers and biology. The digital code and the genetic code have a lot in common; something Schrodinger pointed out in 1943, saying it could be something as simple as the Morse code."



(click to expand)

Ginevra Elkann e Carlo Antonelli
hanno il piacere di invitarla all'
Edge Dinner 
in onore di John BrockmanJ. Craig Venter e Brian Eno 
martedì 10 luglio
ore 19.30 aperitivo
ore 20.30 cena
Ristorante Del Cambio – Piazza Carignano, 2  – Torino

[34:16 minutes]

by John Brockman

It was a perfect trifecta of invitations. 

1. An invitation from Craig Venter to join him in Dublin for "one of the landmark events of 20th Century science" in which he had been asked, to celebrate and reinterpret for the 21st Century Erwin Schrödinger's seminal lecture, entitled "What is Life?"delivered in 1943 at Trinity College, Dublin. The then Prime Minister, Éamon de Valera, attended the lecture along with his cabinet.

Venter, at the forefront of recent advances in genetics and synthetic biology, was asked to reconsider the fundamental question posed by Schrödinger 70 years ago. Would I join him for the lecture in Examination Hall, Trinity College, and Dublin on Thursday, July 12th? Having been on the road with Venter in Europe and elsewhere, I didn't hesitate. "Maybe", I replied.

2. "I'm a deity in Torino", said a bemused Brian Eno. The artist-musician was talking about expectations for his new exhibition, an installation of clouds of music at the Royal Palace in Venaria Reale,  just outside Turin, one of Italy's magnificent public places.  "When I gave the public lecture," Eno said, "thousands of people wanted to get in.Eno is one of the most interesting intellectuals I know, is and always worth my time, so spending a couple of days with him in Italy,  was an attractive proposition. We had recently collaborated on an Edge dinner at his London studio in Notting Hill. Since then, I learned some more about Eno's background in music and art when I happened to watch a documentary about U2's early days in Germany. In it, Bono explains that he, and many musicians in his world, started as artists, and Eno was their teacher. 

3. "Yes, you should go to Torino", said the curator and Edge collaborator Hans Ulrich Obrist, Co-Director of London's Serpentine Gallery. "It is very glamorous. And Edge has a big following there. Whatever Ginevra has in mind, it will be elegant". He was talking about Ginevra Elkann, a film producer, as well as President of Pinacoteca Giovanni e Marella Agnelli, the modern museum that houses part of her grandparent's permanent collection which was designed for the Agnelli family by the architect Renzo Piano. Perched on the roof of the gigantic building that once housed the Fiat plant in Turin, the museum is surrounded by a race track for testing the automobiles manufactured for Fiat and Ferrari by Elkann's late grandfather, Gianni Agnelli, the biggest industrialist in Italian history. The museum, in addition to its permanent collection, is primarily devoted to exhibits of personal collections of interesting people from the artist Damian Hirst, to the dealer Bruno Bischofberger, to Jean Pigozzi, the owner of the largest collection of African art and a long-time Edgie.

It was at the DLD Conference in Munich last January that I met Elkann and Carlo Antonelli, editor-in-chief of the Italian edition of Wired. "Come to Torino," they said. We'll host an Edge evening, an Edge dinner. "Everyone" will come, not just from Torino, but from Rome and from Milan as well.

So, I told Venter I would go to Dublin to hear his talk if he would come to Turin with me and do a trial run at an Edge dinner two days prior. Eno agreed to stay on for the event. Elkann and Antonelli created a marvelous ambience of people and place that made for a memorable event, particularly due to Venter's provocative talk on new developments in synthetic genomics research, which set the stage for his historic lecture in Dublin later in the week.



An EDGE Original Essay

[photo credit: Max Gerber]

I am often asked whether I agree with the new group selectionists, and the questioners are always surprised when I say I do not. After all, group selection sounds like a reasonable extension of evolutionary theory and a plausible explanation of the social nature of humans. Also, the group selectionists tend to declare victory, and write as if their theory has already superseded a narrow, reductionist dogma that selection acts only at the level of genes. In this essay, I'll explain why I think that this reasonableness is an illusion. The more carefully you think about group selection, the less sense it makes, and the more poorly it fits the facts of human psychology and history.

THE REALITY CLUB:  Stewart BrandDaniel EverettDavid C. Queller, Daniel C. DennettHerbert GintisHarvey Whitehouse & Ryan McKayPeter J. RichersonJerry CoyneMichael HochbergRobert Boyd & Sarah MathewMax Krasnow & Andrew Delton,Nicolas BaumardJonathan HaidtDavid Sloan WilsonMichael E. PriceJoseph HenrichRandolph M. NesseRichard DawkinsHelena CroninJohn Tooby.  


Group selection has become a scientific dust bunny, a hairy blob in which anything having to do with "groups" clings to anything having to do with "selection." The problem with scientific dust bunnies is not just that they sow confusion; … the apparent plausibility of one restricted version of "group selection" often bleeds outwards to a motley collection of other, long-discredited versions. The problem is that it also obfuscates evolutionary theory by blurring genes, individuals, and groups as equivalent levels in a hierarchy of selectional units; ... this is not how natural selection, analyzed as a mechanistic process, really works. Most importantly, it has placed blinkers on psychological understanding by seducing many people into simply equating morality and culture with group selection, oblivious to alternatives that are theoretically deeper and empirically more realistic.

STEVEN PINKER is a Harvard College Professor and Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology; Harvard University. Author, The Better Angels Of Our Nature: How Violence Has Declined, The Language Instinct, and How the Mind WorksSteven Pinker's Edge Bio Page


Human beings live in groups, are affected by the fortunes of their groups, and sometimes make sacrifices that benefit their groups. Does this mean that the human brain has been shaped by natural selection to promote the welfare of the group in competition with other groups, even when it damages the welfare of the person and his or her kin? If so, does the theory of natural selection have to be revamped to designate "groups" as units of selection, analogous to the role played in the theory by genes?

Several scientists whom I greatly respect have said so in prominent places. And they have gone on to use the theory of group selection to make eye-opening claims about the human condition.[1] They have claimed that human morailty, particularly our willingness to engage in acts of altruism, can be explained as an adaptation to group-against-group competition. As E. O. Wilson explains, "In a group, selfish individuals beat altruistic individuals. But, groups of altruistic individuals beat groups of selfish individuals." They have proposed that group selection can explain the mystery of religion, because a shared belief in supernatural beings can foster group cohesion. They suggest that evolution has equipped humans to solve tragedies of the commons (also known as collective action dilemmas and public goods games), in which actions that benefit the individual may harm the community; familiar examples include overfishing, highway congestion, tax evasion, and carbon emissions. And they have drawn normative moral and political conclusions from these scientific beliefs, such as that we should recognize the wisdom behind conservative values, like religiosity, patriotism, and puritanism, and that we should valorize a communitarian loyalty and sacrifice for the good of the group over an every-man-for-himself individualism.



"Robert Axelrod's 1980 tournaments of iterated prisoner's dilemma strategies have been condensed into the slogan, Don't be too clever, don't be unfair. Press and Dyson have shown that cleverness and unfairness triumph after all." — William Poundstone, from his Commentary


In January I had the occasion to spend sometime in Munich with Freeman Dyson who informed me about a paper on "The Prisoner's Dilemma" he had co-authored with William H. Press, and he then briefly sketched out some of its ramifications. He indicated that they had come up with something new, a way to win the game. It's simple, he said. The winning strategy: go to lunch. And, he added, the only way to trump this strategy is to come up with a new theory of mind. I tried to go deeper but, he said, "I don't really understand game theory, I just did the math. This is really Bill Press's work."

The highly technical paper, "Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma contains strategies that dominate any evolutionary opponent" by William H. Press and Freeman J. Dyson has now been published in PNAS (May 22, 2012), which was followed by a PNAS Commentary by Alexander Stewart and Joshua Plotkin of the Department of Biology, University of Pennsylvania, entitled "Extortion and cooperation in the Prisoner’s Dilemma" (June 18, 2012). Here's the Abstract of the paper:

"The two-player Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma game is a model for both sentient and evolutionary behaviors, especially including the emergence of cooperation. It is generally assumed that there exists no simple ultimatum strategy whereby one player can enforce a unilateral claim to an unfair share of rewards. Here, we show that such strategies unexpectedly do exist. In particular, a player X who is witting of these strategies can (i) deterministically set her opponent Y’s score, independently of his strategy or response, or (ii) enforce an extortionate linear relation between her and his scores. Against such a player, an evolutionary player’s best response is to accede to the extortion. Only a player with a theory of mind about his opponent can do better, in which case Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma is an Ultimatum Game."

Edge asked William Poundstone, author of  the book The Prisoner's Dilemma, to explain the paper in non-technical terms. In his Commentary below, he writes:

"Robert Axelrod's 1980 tournaments of iterated prisoner's dilemma strategies have been condensed into the slogan, Don't be too clever, don't be unfair. Press and Dyson have shown that cleverness and unfairness triumph after all."

Also below are responses by William Press to Poundstone and by Freeman Dyson to Stewart and Plotkin.

To kick off a Reality Club conversation, mathematician Karl Sigmund at University of Vienna, and biological mathematician Martin Nowak of Harvard, two pioneers of evolutionary game theory, comment below.


THE REALITY CLUB: Karl Sigmund & Martin Nowak



  • LIFE

The significance of the guy holding out his arm, dipping at the wrist, is that that's a gesture that magicians use to imitate the cassowary. The cassowary is New Guinea's biggest bird. It's flightless. It's like a small ostrich. Weighs up to 100 pounds. And it has razor-sharp legs that can disembowel a man. The sign of the cassowary, if you hold out your arm like this, that's the cassowary rolling its head and dipping its head when it's ready to charge. So magicians will imitate a cassowary in order to show their power. Because the cassowary's big and powerful.


Subscribe to RSS - LIFE