Edge @ Serpentine: Extinction Panel

Edge @ Serpentine: Extinction Panel

A Conversation with
Helena Cronin, Chiara Marletto, Jennifer Jacquet, Steve Jones, Molly Crockett [11.6.14]



HELENA CRONIN is the Co-Director of LSE's Centre for Philosophy of Natural and Social Science; Author, The Ant and the Peacock: Altruism and Sexual Selection from Darwin to Today. 
Helena Cronin's Edge Bio Page

CHIARA MARLETTO is a Junior Research Fellow at Wolfson College and Postdoctoral Research Assistnat at the Materials Department at the University of Oxford. 
Chiara Marletto's Edge Bio Page

JENNIFER JACQUET is an Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies at NYU researching cooperation and the tragedy of the commons; Author, Is Shame Necessary 
Jennifer Jacquet's Edge Bio Page

STEVE JONES is a Professor of Genetics at the Galton Laboratory of University College London; Author, The Lanugage of the Genes
Steve Jones's Edge Bio Page

MOLLY CROCKETT is an Associate Professor in the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford; Wellcome Trust Postdoctoral Fellow at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging. 
Molly Crockett's Edge Bio Page

HANS ULRICH OBRIST is the Co-director of the Serpentine Gallery in London; Author, Ways of Curating. 
Hans Ulrich Obrist's Edge Bio Page

JOHN BROCKMAN is the Editor and Publisher of Edge.org; Chairman of Brockman, Inc.; Author, By the Late John Brockman, The Third Culture. 
John Brockman's Edge Bio Page

HANS ULRICH OBRIST:  Maybe before we start to moderate the panel, it would be great to hear a few words from John, who brought us all here together.

JB:  One interesting thing that comes through the disparate talks is what happens when you drop the word "biology" into a conversation. In Helena’s world, or in Steve’s classroom in medical school—in terms of extinction—one thing that’s extinct for a lot of people is science itself. I was interested in an article I read about your experiences in the classroom, if you care to talk about it or not. Helena I’ve heard on the radio debating people about the distinction of sex differences. It seems like what happened in 1975, starting with the work of Robert Trivers, was the introduction of what became known as realistic biology of mind: the idea that we’re mammals, we can be studied the way we study mammals, and we’re biological entities. A lot of people have a problem with that.


STEVE JONES:  Yeah, that’s true. You’re talking about a specific and slightly unfortunate interaction, which a lot of biologists in this country have had, which is strong resistance by particular religious groups to being told about evolution. I refer at UCL, which is a very heterogeneous bunch of students, to Islamic students who send in petitions and write letters saying they shouldn’t have to listen to talk about evolution. My response to that is you can’t do biology without listening to evolution. It’s like doing English and not believing in grammar, or doing physics and having doubts about gravity. It doesn’t work. That is a concern.

In some ways there’s a matching and more subtle concern which is more important. There is, among many educated people and many people of a liberal persuasion—I would like to think I have one of those attributes—an unwillingness to accept the facts of biology. It is the case, as Helena suggested to us—although it’s grossly overstated—there are biological differences between males and females in many ways in behavior and other things; they’re used unfairly. There is a heritability of intelligence, which you only have to say that and heaven falls upon you mainly because people don’t understand what the word  "heritability" means. It means far less than what the papers tell you it means. I don’t know why anybody wants to study heritability at all. It’s almost a meaningless statistic.

The answer about science is science stands by itself. It doesn’t care what people think about it. The universe didn’t care about the inquisition, it continued circling around. Genetics is like that. Genetics is a scientific way to make sex boring. That’s what I do professionally, and we discover things that may be uncomfortable. But if they’re uncomfortable, too bad. The morals have to be put on one side. That’s the issue: people unwilling to accept the truths of science on ideological grounds. It doesn’t matter what the ideology is, it's the unwillingness to accept the truth that I don’t like. 

MOLLY CROCKETT:  Helena, did you want to add to that?

HELENA CRONIN:  Yes. There is a problem about the ideology, and it’s winning. For example, policy-making is entirely made on the grounds that males and females are the same and, roughly speaking, if females aren’t the same as males it’s because they’re being held back in some way. There are all sorts of attempts to get 50/50 percents in engineering, for example, which is ludicrous because on average there is much less interest in that area. I’m not talking about ability, just less interest.

Similarly, one of the most egregious examples I came across recently, which I’ll share with you just for the fun of it, was the Institute of Physics of all institutions which, started off its recent report with the idea that we need more engineers, more physicists, more hard scientists. Yes, of course, we all agree with that. Then they noticed that there aren’t as many women as men doing it. Then the problem suddenly changed halfway through the report, and it ended up in an Institute of Physics report was suggesting we shift more males over into the humanities and so on, so we’ll get more 50/50 even if very few women are doing engineering. There will be so few men there anyway, so it would be more evened up.

Now that’s a kind of madness. I know this sounds as if it can’t be true. That’s the kind of madness you get when you’re trying to impose an ideology that assumes you must have sameness otherwise you can’t have fairness. You can have fairness, and you should be treated fairly on the grounds of who and what you are. You don’t have to be the same as anybody else in order for that to happen.

CROCKETT:  Can I just push a little bit on that? You’ve made a compelling case that a lot of the differences we see in gender distribution in different career pathways are naturalistic. They seem to be evolved traits that were in response to some selective process, but of course in philosophy there’s this famous notion that you can’t derive an "ought" from an "is," and I want to ask you about the ethics of this. I wonder what are the implications of your research for the more ethical question about what should we be trying to encourage, and also related to this idea that having more homogeneity in anything is detrimental to the survival of an idea, of a field. I’m just wondering how the ideas about how things are, are related to how they should be.

CRONIN:  I entirely agree with you about keeping that distinction, and that’s why I feel it’s important that we understand what Steve said—the difference between science and ideology. But from the point of view of what we should encourage, well, we should encourage things, for example, we need more doctors. If we need more engineers, we should encourage it. But we should encourage people to be doctors or engineers. What we don’t want to do is discourage anybody who has a real interest and wants to do something, whether that’s a woman being an engineer or a man doing something typically feminine. It's a very, very simple thing, but the planning of what you need in society and which people you encourage to go for it are two different things

CROCKETT:  Great. I had a question, which probably many of the people on this panel could answer in different ways, and that’s to do with the extinction of ideas. A lot of talks touched on this and, of course, John has recently hosted at Edge the Edge Question about what scientific ideas are ready for retirement. Chiara, during your talk you spoke a lot about how knowledge can survive and be resilient, and it seemed like your theories were touching on what makes an idea survive, and I’m just wondering if you could turn this on its head a little bit and talk about how an understanding of resilience and survival might inform us of how certain ideas that maybe shouldn’t survive do survive and fail to die. You mentioned creationism, and I’m sure there have been talks today about climate change denial. I’m just wondering what can we get theoretically.

JB:  There’s also very credible ideas like dream theory that may or may not be worth retaining, but they’re mainstream.

CROCKETT:  Yeah, I’m just curious your thoughts on that.

JB:  So we’re not just talking about creationism.

MARLETTO:  I think ideas and knowledge in general are to be judged in terms of how many problems they can solve. It could be the case that certain ideas that appear to be wrong to some of us haven’t shown the fact that they aren’t parochial and they can’t solve certain problems. One should just insist on criticism, criticizing those ideas and showing by watertight arguments that there are problems that they can’t solve and possibly that sometimes they are the very reasons why we get stuck on a problem. Also, there’s an interplay between the reason why certain ideas that seem to be wrong are resilient and our background knowledge. This connects to the phenomenon by which, despite our moral standards having improved, we still have certain phenomenon like the fact that apparently women are a minority yet in scientific subjects. Well, that’s just because there are certain ideas that haven’t been criticized well enough. It's just part of the progress that humanity does, criticizing them but in a pacific way and without seeing conspiracies anywhere.

CROCKETT:  Moving from the criticism of ideas to the criticism of cultural practices or the practices of companies, I’m just wondering, Jennifer, if you could tell us your thoughts on whether there is anything fundamentally different about the extinction versus resilience of ideas versus cultural practices and behaviors that might harm the environment.

JENNIFER JACQUET:  It would be very hard for me at least to separate those two things categorically. Maybe you have a different sense. So much of what we practice is based on ideology. Maybe there are certain things that are unlikely to go away, like a desire to gain prestige, but how that manifests itself does change very much over time. We maybe can recognize what some people would call like the meta norms, but then also recognize that within that meta norm ideas and practices change constantly. It’s maybe more an area like that you’re dealing with would be something about how do we go up against people who say that this is a cultural tradition that shouldn’t go extinct, and it’s at odds with extinction itself. That is a very sensitive and difficult area that science has a pretty big role, but values ultimately will come into play.

JB:  Jennifer, what happens when you do an experiment and you get a result that’s contrary to the values you’re pushing?

JACQUET:  What do you mean? You mean with me?

JB:  Well, it seems you know the answer before you do the experiment.

JACQUET:  You as in me or one?

JB:  In terms of the work you’re doing. Science is you run experiments and you find out are they false, are they true, are they not true. You have an agenda. So is it science? What happens if you do an experiment and it gives you the answer that’s contrary to what you’re espousing culturally?

JACQUET:  You’re trying to make the distinction that some people don’t have an agenda, but it’s not clear to me that’s the case. It’s not clear to me that anybody is entirely removed from the values of their discipline or their field. Again, the philosophers that I work with have pointed this out so many times, that every discipline has its own indoctrination process into what you have to believe for things to proceed.

CRONIN:  It's important to realize that whatever your agenda is, if you want to achieve it, you’ve got to know how the world is. It’s no good trying to shape the results of your experiments to your agenda. If you find something contrary to your agenda, that’s going to be extremely useful for you. Science just tells you the way the world is. It can tell you how to kill somebody. It can tell you how to keep them alive, and that doesn’t say whether you’re a murderer or a doctor.

JONES:  There’s a phrase from Bateson, who was an early geneticist, and he said,  "Treasure your exceptions." That's an important thing to say in science because he bred fruit flies. When I’m breeding fruit flies, I’m doing an experiment with students. Now and again things go wrong. Bottle number 1,210 doesn’t give you the right result. What I’m invariably saying and many scientists say:  "Damn, another fly got in," or "I labeled it wrong." You throw it away and, of course, that’s the last thing you should do. That’s the biggest treasure you’ve got is the exception, and that’s the thing which is very hard to get on board. You do have an agenda. The famous case, which more than one person on this panel will know much more than I do, was Lord Kelvin, who said in 1904 to Britain’s physicists,  "Give up doing physics. It’s all done. We understand it. Go and do something more interesting." The next year, quantum mechanics, relativity. Physics in effect collapsed.

There was a huge resistant to that, but in the end everybody said,  "All right. You’re right. We have to start again from the beginning, " and that’s what you have to do. I have to tell you, I’m looking forward to the headline sometime in the near future which says: "DNA Is Not The Genetic Material". That’s much closer than most people think. DNA is a small part of the machine. We have all the influences being on it. DNA may turn out to be unimportant. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? If only you could strip people of their Nobel prizes but you can’t.

CROCKETT: Thank you, Steve.

JB:  It’s interesting. At one of the Edge Master classes, there was a two-day debate: Daniel Kahneman taking on everybody about priming, and he finally said,  "Belief is not an option. It’s based on the facts," but two weeks ago and two years later after these various studies showed that some of the priming studies are not as solvent as people thought they were, he’s backtracking, which backs up what Jennifer is talking about.

JACQUET:  My other addition I would add to that is that the true scientific spirit which was exactly what you were saying is open to revision. I would never, on the basis of one experiment, accept some dogmatic approach to anything. If you’re not open to revision on any idea—physical sciences are a little less open than the social sciences, which have to be very open because human behavior is so varied and culturally dependent—that’s the problem.

CROCKETT:  Thanks, Jennifer.

OBRIST:  The bad news is that we’re out of time. The good news is that this wonderful conversation can continue. It can continue of course on Edge and also on EXTINCT.LY. I wanted to thank Chiara, and Helena, and Jennifer, and Molly, and Steve, and John. Thank you so, so very much, and thanks to Edge