Afterword to Dangerous Ideas

Afterword to Dangerous Ideas

Richard Dawkins [12.31.06]


RICHARD DAWKINS is an evolutionary biologist and the former 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, Unweaving the Rainbow, The Devil's Chaplain, The Ancestor's Tale, The God Delusion, The Greatest Show on Earth, and The Magic of Reality.

Richard Dawkins's Edge Bio Page 



Dangerous ideas are what has driven humanity onward, usually to the consternation of the majority in any particular age who thrive on familiarity and fear change. Yesterday's dangerous idea is today's orthodoxy and tomorrow's cliché. Surely somebody must have said that? If not I'll have to say it myself, although only to pull back in a hurry. Such seductive generalizations conceal a dangerous asymmetry. Although it is true that hindsight can recognize accepted norms that were once dangerous ideas, it is also true that most dangerous ideas from the past neither deserved nor received eventual acceptance. It is not enough for an idea to be dangerous. It must also be good.

Scientists pay lip service to the view that an idea must stand on its own merits, not on the authority of its inventor. There is no scientific Führer, Pope or Prophet of whom we are tempted to say, X is his idea so X must right. But scientists are only human, and we inevitably take note of a proven track record. If a star scientist whose ideas have worked in the past comes up with a new one, we naturally prick up our ears. Especially if the new idea is a dangerous one.

Where scientists are concerned, John Brockman has the most enviable address book in America. His annual Edge Question yields a book whose Table of Contents on its own is well worth reading. Here is a set of authors with something to say, and with outstanding credentials to say it, all faced with the same seemingly simple question — in this case "What is your dangerous idea?” What answers will the Brockman circle come up with? What surprising meanings, indeed, will they discover for the question? Dangerous to whom? Or to what?

The 109 contributors to this book ply the spectrum. There's danger to the world or to the future of humanity and life. There's danger to vested interests whose amour propre might be threatened. There's danger to one's own personal peace of mind or sense of cosmic worth.  There's danger in the sense of ideas that are intellectually daring or bold — pushing the envelope, to employ the fashionable cliché — which doesn't necessarily imply danger in any of the other senses. Happily, in modern America there is no need to talk about ideas that threaten the thinker's life because they are deemed unacceptable by the prevailing society. Galileo was prevented, on pain of physical harm, from publishing his dangerous ideas. Darwin was more fortunate in his time, although he arguably censored his dangerous idea for two decades for fear of upsetting his wife, and the society of which she was a part. Closer to our own time, in Lysenko's Russia, ideas that today's geneticists consider commonplace — indeed, simply true — could not be uttered without danger of public humiliation and imprisonment. 

This book presents to us 109 top intellectuals from the Brockman on-linesalon, famed for their good ideas (or, in one case, notoriously bad ideas). What, then, are their dangerous ideas, and are they any good? I found that I could analyse the 109 answers as a kind of poll. How many opt for doom and foreboding — global warming, terrorist meltdown and similar apocalyptic jeremaiads? By my count, eleven, although some of these were anti-Jeremaiahs whose dangerous idea is that the dangers are exaggerated. I counted 24 whose dangerous idea concerns society, then 20 whose dangerous idea touches on psychology, then 14 on politics or economics. Eleven chose topics that, in one way or another, concern religion, broadly defined. Six explore the cosmic angst that seems to follow from, for example the belief that we are alone in the universe, or the belief that there is nobody at home in our skulls, nothing that could honestly answer to the name of soul. Six authors take a self-referential approach to the Brockman question, discussing as a dangerous idea the very idea of asking for dangerous ideas; or, in one case, the very idea that ideas can be considered dangerous.

Those tallies are not mutually exclusive. I did, however, recognize one exclusive pair of categories, and I forced myself to place every contribution in one or other of them. It seemed to me that there is a non-overlapping and exhaustive distinction between ideas that are false or true about the real world — factual  matters in the broad sense  — and ideas about what we ought to do — normative or moral ideas, for which the words true and false have no meaning. It is perhaps unsurprising that a group predominantly made up of scientists should favour 'is' ideas (factual, true-or-false ideas) over 'ought' (normative, policy) ideas, but not by a great margin. I make it 68 factual to 41 policy ideas.

Are there any dangerous ideas that are conspicuously under-represented in this book? I have two suggestions, both of which can be spun into either the 'is' or the 'ought' box. First, I noticed only fleeting references to eugenics, and they were disparaging. In the 1920s and 30s, scientists from the political left as well as right would not have found the idea of designer babies particularly dangerous  — though of course they would not have used that phrase. Today, I suspect that the idea is too dangerous for comfortable discussion, even under the license granted by a book like this, and my conjecture is that Adolf Hitler is responsible for the change. Nobody wants to be caught agreeing with that monster, even in a single particular. The spectre of Hitler has led some scientists to stray from 'ought' to 'is' and deny that breeding for human qualities is even possible. But if you can breed cattle for milk yield, horses for running speed and dogs for herding skill, why on earth should it be impossible to breed humans for mathematical, musical or athletic ability? Objections such as 'These are not one-dimentional abilities' apply equally to cows, horses and dogs, and never stopped anybody in practice.

I wonder whether, sixty years after Hitler's death, we might at least venture to ask what is the moral difference between breeding for musical ability, and forcing a child to take music lessons. Or, why is it acceptable to train fast runners and high jumpers, but not breed them? I can think of some answers, and they are good ones which would probably end up persuading me. But hasn't the time come when we should stop being frightened even to put the question?

My other surprise omission from this list of 109 dangerous ideas concerns the unspoken assumption of human moral uniqueness. It is harder than most people realise to justify the unique and exclusive status that Homo sapiensenjoys in our unconscious assumptions. Why does 'pro life' always mean 'prohuman life.' Why are so many people outraged at the idea of killing an 8-celled human conceptus, while cheerfully masticating a steak which cost the life of an adult, sentient and probably terrified cow? What precisely is the moral difference between our ancestors' attitude to slaves and our attitude to nonhuman animals?  Probably there are good answers to these questions. But shouldn't the questions themselves at least be put?

One way to dramatize the non-triviality of such questions is to invoke the fact of evolution. We are connected to all other species continuously and gradually via the dead common ancestors that we share with them. But for the historical accident of extinction, we would be linked to chimpanzees via an unbroken chain of happily interbreeding intermediates. What would — should — be the moral and political response of our society, if relict populations of all the evolutionary intermediates were now discovered in Africa? What should be our moral and political response to future scientists who use the completed human and chimpanzee genomes to engineer a continuous chain of living, breathing and mating intermediates  — each capable of breeding with its nearer neighbours in the chain, thereby linking humans to chimpanzees via a living cline of fertile interbreeding.

I can think of formidable objections to such experimental breaches of the wall of separation around Homo sapiens. But at the same time I can imagine benefits to our moral and political attitudes that might outweigh the objections. We know that such a living daisy chain is in principle possible because all the intermediates have lived — in the chain leading back from ourselves to the common ancestor with chimpanzees, and then the chain leading forward from the common ancestor to chimpanzees. It is therefore a dangerous but not too surprising idea that one day the chain will be reconstructed — a candidate for the 'factual' box of dangerous ideas. And — moving across to the 'ought' box  — mightn't a good moral case be made that it should be done. Whatever its undoubted moral drawbacks, it would at least jolt humanity finally out of the absolutist and essentialist mindset that has so long afflicted us.