Edge 175— January 5, 2006
(75,000 words)

"Big, deep and ambitious questions....breathtaking in scope. Keep watching The World Question Center." — New Scientist

"Fantastically stimulating...It's like the crack cocaine of the thinking world.... Once you start, you can't stop thinking about that question." — BBC Radio 4

The Edge Annual Question — 2006


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?

[Thanks to Steven Pinker for suggesting the Edge Annual Question — 2006.]

January 1, 2006

To the Edge Community,

Last year's 2005 Edge Question — "What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?" — generated many eye-opening responses from a "who's who" of third culture scientists and science-minded thinkers. The 120 contributions comprised a document of 60,000 words. The New York Times ("Science Times") and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung ("Feuilliton") published excepts in their print and online editions simultaneously with Edge publication.

The event was featured in major media across the world: BBC Radio; Il Sole 24 Ore, Prospect, El Pais, The Financial Express (Bangledesh), The Sunday Times (UK), The Sydney Morning Herald, The Guardian, La Stampa, The Telegraph, among others. A book based on the 2005 Question — What We Believe But Cannot Prove: Today's Leading Thinkers on Science in the Age of Certainty, with an introduction by the novelist Ian McEwan — was just published by the Free Press (UK). The US edition follows from HarperCollins in February, 2006.

Since September, Edge has been featured and/or cited in The Toronto Star, Boston Globe, Seed, Rocky Mountain Mews, Observer, El Pais, La Vanguaria (cover story) , El Mundo, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Science, Financial Times, Newsweek, AD, La Stampa, The Telegraph, Quark (cover story), and The Wall Street Journal.

Online publication of the 2006 Question occurred on New Year's Day. To date, the event has been covered by The Telegraph, The Guardian, The Times, Arts & Letters Daily, Yahoo! News, and The Huffington Post.

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.

What you will find emerging out of the 119 original essays in the 75,000 word document 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.

Welcome to Edge. Welcome to "dangerous ideas". Happy New Year.

John Brockman
Publisher & Editor


119 contributors [75,000 words]: Martin Rees J. Craig Venter Leo Chalupa V.S. Ramachandran David Buss Paul Bloom Philip Campbell Jesse Bering Paul Ewald Bart Kosko Matt Ridley David Pizzaro Randolph Nesse Gregory Benford Marco Iacaboni Barry C. Smith Philip W. Anderson Timothy Taylor Oliver Morton Samuel Barondes David Bodanis Nicholas Humphrey Eric Fischl Stanislas Dehaene Joel Garreau Helen Fisher Paul Davies April Gornik Jamshed Bharucha Jordan Pollack Juan Enriquez Stephen Kosslyn Jerry Coyne Ernst Pšppel Geoffrey Miller Robert Shapiro Kai Krause Carlo Rovelli Richard Dawkins Seth Lloyd Carolyn Porco Michael Nesmith Lawrence Krauss Daniel C. Dennett Daniel Gilbert Andy Clark Sherry Turkle Steven Strogatz Terrence Sejnowski Lynn Margulis Thomas Metzinger Diane Halpern Gary Marcus Jaron Lanier W. Daniel Hillis Neil Gershenfeld Paul Steinhardt Sam Harris Scott Atran Marcelo Gleiser Douglas Rushkoff Judith Rich Harris Alun Anderson Todd Feinberg Stewart Brand Jared Diamond Leonard Susskind Gerald Holton Charles Seife Karl Sabbagh Rupert Sheldrake Tor N¿rretranders John Horgan Eric R. Kandel Daniel Goleman Brian Greene David Gelernter Mahzarin Banaji Rodney Brooks Lee Smolin Alison Gopnik Kevin Kelly Denis Dutton Simon Baron-Cohen Freeman Dyson Gregory Cochran George B. Dyson Keith Devlin Frank Tipler Scott Sampson Jeremy Bernstein Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi Irene Pepperberg Brian Goodwin Rudy Rucker Steven Pinker Richard E. Nisbett Robert Provine Donald Hoffman Marc D. Hauser Ray Kurzweil Haim Harari David G. Myers Clay Shirky Michael Shermer Arnold Trehub Roger Schank Susan Blackmore David Lykken Clifford Pickover John Allen Paulos James O'Donnell Philip Zimbardo Richard Foreman John Gottman Piet Hut Dan Sperber Martin E.P. Seligman Howard Gardner

Tuesday, January 3, 2006
Articles of Note

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

Gene discoveries highlight dangers facing society
Alok Jha, science correspondent
Monday January 2, 2006

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.

Why it can be a very smart move to start life with a Jewish momma
By Anjana Ahuja

January 02, 2006

• 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”.

Emergence, diaspora, the 'imperial consumer':
which ideas will shape the coming year?

We asked leading thinkers to offer their predictions
Monday January 2, 2006

"Nobody ever voted for the telephone, the automobile, for printing, for television, or for electricity," I wrote in 1969. Nobody voted for the internet, but suddenly everybody is voting for Google - or so it seems, as, collectively, we are making it the most powerful company in the world. Recently, deep-thinking historian George Dyson put this in perspective with an essay titled Turing's Cathedral - and really hit a nerve. According to Dyson, Google represents the long-awaited transition from the kind of computing envisioned by Alan Turing in 1936 and realised by John von Neumann in 1945, to the something else that both these prophets warned us would be coming soon. Template-based addressing, as embodied by Google (and its ilk), is the bridge between information processing in computers and information processing in living things. This is bigger than Google. And 2006 is the year in which we are going to realise this.

Ban all schools? That's a dangerous thought
By Roger Highfield, Science Editor
Januaryr 1, 2006

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. ...

Op-Ed Columnist

The Year of Domesticity
January 1, 2006

The Larry Summers flap produced an outpouring of work on the neurological differences between men and women. I'd especially recommend "The Inequality Taboo" by Charles Murray in Commentary and a debate between Steven Pinker and Elizabeth Spelke in the online magazine Edge.

Sunday, January 1, 2006
EDGE.org annual question: What is your dangerous idea?
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?

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.

John Brockman: The Edge Annual Question
Sun Jan 1, 2:28 PM

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.

What scientists believe but can't prove . . .

Dec. 24, 2005

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 tomotivate 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.

Tasty reads from the newsstand
John Sakamoto
Dec. 18, 2005

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.

We feel your pain... and your happiness too
The human brain's source of empathy may also play a role in autism

By Carey Goldberg, Globe Staff | December 12, 2005

...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 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.

Seebach: It might just be for the best if we read too much into our lives
Linda Seebach
December 10, 2005

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."


Science and nature

The meaning of life
Asking 100 of the world's great thinkers to answer the same big question proves a fascinating exercise. And, yes, aliens are involved
Tim Adams
Sunday December 11, 2005 — Print Edition

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

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.

Las nuevas lecturas del 'Quijote' copan los actos de Kosmopolis
Israel Punzano — Barcelona
EL PAÍS - Cultura - 04-12-2005

Cervantes was not the the only protagonist of the second day of Kosmopolis. Also debated was the influence of Darwin's theory of the natural selection in the advances of diverse scientific disciplines, that include evolutionary biology to neuroscience to cosmology. In this colloquy, which also covered the future of the humanism, were the cosmologist Lee Smolin, the biologist Robert Trivers and the neurocientist Marc Hauser. The presentation of the event was Eduard Punset and the moderator was John Brockman, who is know for spreading scientific publications. Smolin emphasized the importance of the investigations of Darwin in the later development of Einstein's theory of the relativity and wondered if we were prepared to accept a world without absolute laws, where everything changes. Hauser pointed out that the revolution of Darwin's revolution was also about morality, as it counters the rationality of Kant and the predominance of emotions in Hume.

Brockman: "Hoy la cultura es la ciencia, los intelectuales de letras estan desfasados"
Justo Barranco — 05/12/2005 — Barcelona

"The thinkers of the third culture are the new public intellectuals" as "science is the only news"... "Nobody voted the electricity, the Internet, the birth control pill, or for fire. "The great inventions that change everything involves technology based on science "... "It is critical to participate in the discussion of such questions today as the culture is science."

La tercera cultura en Kosmopolis
John Brockman

EL PAÍS - 05-12-2005

In terms of science, the third culture is front and center: geneticist J. Craig Venter is attempting to create synthetic genes as an answer to our energy needs; biologist Robert Trivers is exploring the evolutionary basis for deceit and self-deception in human nature; biologist Ian Wilmut, who cloned Dolly the sheep, is using nuclear transfer to produce embryonic stem cells for research purposes and perhaps eventually as cures for disease; cosmologist Lee Smolin researches the Darwinian evolution of universes; quantum physicist Seth Lloyd is attempting to build quantum computers; psychologist Marc D. Hauser is examining our moral minds; and computer scientists Sergey Brin and Larry Page of Google are radically altering both the way we search for information, as well as the way we think.


Kosmopolis, literatura a la ultima

Eva Belmonte
December 3, 2005

Kosmopolis 2005. Celebration of International of Literature in the Center of Contemporanea Culture of Barcelona (CCCB).

...The relation between science and the third culture was another one of the subjects of debate of this Celebration of Literature. Four personalities of the scientific world participated in the Third Culture event. They are Robert Trivers, John Brockman, Marc Hauser and Lee Smolin. They demonstrated that Literature is not is not just the province of the old school of the humanities culture.


Can a person be considered cultured today with only slight knowledge of fields such as molecular biology, artificial intelligence, chaos theory, fractals, biodiversity, nanotechnology or the human genome?  Can we construct a proposal of universal knowledge without such knowledge?  The integration of  "literary culture" and "scientific culture" is the basis for what some call the "third culture":  a source of metaphors that renews not only the language, but also the conceptual tookit of classic humanism
The New Humanists


A polifacética figure
Brockman and the New Intellectuals
“Science won the battle”
“¿Qué queda del marxismo? ¿Qué queda de Freud? La neurociencia le ha dejado como una superstición del siglo XVIII, de ideas irrelevantes”