Edge 214
Summer Edition — June 21, 2007

(7,550 words)

By Katinka Matson


Steven Pinker
Richard Dawkins



Food For Thought
By Ann Gibbons


Attempts to Patent Artificial Organism Draws A Protest
Jocelyn Kaiser

By Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Angry reception greets patent for synthetic life
By Peter Aldhous

By Patent pending

By Evolution and the brain

Moral psychology: The depths of disgust
By Dan Jones

A propósito de un nuevo humanismo
By Salvador Pániker

Atheism and Evidence
By Stanley Fish

A Simpler Origin for Life
By Robert Shapiro

Steven Pinker

Richard Dawkins
Edge hits the beach at Barnes & Noble!

The 2006 Edge Question — "What Is Your Dangerous Idea" — has now been published in book form in the US and the UK. The question was posed by Steven Pinker, who wrote:

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?

For the book version, Steven Pinker has written the Preface and Richard Dawkins wrote the Afterword. I am pleased to present both pieces below just in time for the start of the summer reading season.

Edge is a conversation. The conversation continues.


By "dangerous ideas" I don't have in mind harmful technologies, like those behind weapons of mass destruction, or evil ideologies, like those of racist, fascist, or other fanatical cults. I have in mind statements of fact or policy that are defended with evidence and argument by serious scientists and thinkers but which are felt to challenge the collective decency of an age. The ideas in the first paragraph, and the moral panic that each one of them has incited during the past quarter century, are examples. Writers who have raised ideas like these have been vilified, censored, fired, threatened, and in some cases physically assaulted.

Preface to Dangerous Ideas
By Steven Pinker

Do women, on average, have a different profile of aptitudes and emotions than men? Were the events in the Bible fictitious — not just the miracles, but those involving kings and empires? Has the state of the environment improved in the last fifty years? Do most victims of sexual abuse suffer no lifelong damage? Did Native Americans engage in genocide and despoil the landscape? Do men have an innate tendency to rape? Did the crime rate go down in the 1990s because two decades earlier poor women aborted children who would have been prone to violence? Are suicide terrorists well educated, mentally healthy, and morally driven?  Are Ashkenazi Jews, on average, smarter than gentiles because their ancestors were selected for the shrewdness needed in  money lending? Would the incidence of rape go down if prostitution were legalized? Do African American men have higher levels of testosterone, on average, than white men? Is morality just a product of the evolution of our brains, with no inherent reality? Would society be better off if heroin and cocaine were legalized? Is homosexuality the symptom of an infectious disease?  Would it be consistent with our moral principles to give parents the option of euthanizing newborns with birth defects that would consign them to a life of pain and disability? Do parents have any effect on the character or intelligence of their children? Have religions killed a greater proportion of people than Nazism? Would damage from terrorism be reduced if the police could torture suspects in special circumstances? Would Africa have a better chance of rising out of poverty if it hosted more polluting industries or accepted Europe's nuclear waste? Is the average intelligence of Western nations declining because duller people are having more children than smarter people? Would unwanted children be better off if there were a market in adoption rights, with babies going to the highest bidder? Would lives be saved if we instituted a free market in organs for transplantation? Should people have the right to clone themselves, or enhance the genetic traits of their children?

Perhaps you can feel your blood pressure rise as you read these questions. Perhaps you are appalled that people can so much as think such things. Perhaps you think less of me for bringing them up. These are dangerous ideasideas that are denounced not because they are self-evidently false, nor because they advocate harmful action, but because they are thought to corrode the prevailing moral order.

By "dangerous ideas" I don't have in mind harmful technologies, like those behind weapons of mass destruction, or evil ideologies, like those of racist, fascist, or other fanatical cults. I have in mind statements of fact or policy that are defended with evidence and argument by serious scientists and thinkers but which are felt to challenge the collective decency of an age. The ideas in the first paragraph, and the moral panic that each one of them has incited during the past quarter century, are examples. Writers who have raised ideas like these have been vilified, censored, fired, threatened, and in some cases physically assaulted.

Every era has its dangerous ideas. For millennia, the monotheistic religions have persecuted countless heresies, together with nuisances from science such as geocentrism, biblical archeology,  and the theory of evolution. We can be thankful that the punishments have changed from torture and mutilation to the canceling of grants and the writing of vituperative  reviews. But intellectual intimidation, whether by sword or by pen, inevitably shapes the ideas that are taken seriously in a given era, and the rear-view mirror of history presents us with a warning. Time and again people have invested factual claims with ethical implications that today look ludicrous. The fear that the structure of our solar system has grave moral consequences is a venerable example, and the foisting of "Intelligent Design" on biology students is a contemporary one. These travesties should lead us to ask whether the contemporary intellectual mainstream might be entertaining similar moral delusions. Are we liable to be enraged by our own infidels and heretics whom history may some day vindicate?

I suggested to John Brockman that he devote his annual Edge question to dangerous ideas because I believe that they are likely to confront us at an increasing rate and that we are ill equipped to deal with them. When done right, science (together with other truth-seeking institutions, such as history and journalism) characterizes the world as it is, without regard to whose feelings get hurt. Science in particular has always been a source of heresy, and today the galloping advances in touchy areas like genetics, evolution, and the environment sciences are bound to throw unsettling possibilities at us. Moreover, the rise of globalization and the Internet are allowing heretics to find one another and work around the barriers of traditional media and academic journals. I also suspect that a change in generational sensibilities will hasten the process. The term "political correctness" captures the 1960s conception of moral rectitude that we baby boomers brought with us as we took over academia, journalism, and government. In my experience, today's students — black and white, male and female — are bewildered by the idea, common among their parents, that certain scientific opinions are immoral or certain questions too hot to handle.

What makes an idea "dangerous"? One factor is an imaginable train of events in which acceptance of the idea could lead to an outcome that only recently has been recognized as harmful. In religious societies, the fear is that that if people ever stopped believing in the literal  truth of the Bible they would also stop believing in the authority of its moral commandments. That is, if today people dismiss the part about God creating the earth in six days, tomorrow they'll dismiss the part about "Thou shalt not kill." In progressive circles, the fear is that if people ever were to acknowledge any differences between races, sexes, or individuals, they would feel justified in discrimination or oppression. Other dangerous ideas set off fears that people will neglect or abuse their children, become indifferent to the environment, devalue human life, accept violence, and prematurely resign themselves to social problems that could be solved with sufficient commitment and optimism.

All these outcomes, needless to say, would be deplorable. But none of them actually follows from the supposedly dangerous idea. Even if it turns out, for instance, that groups of people are different in their averages, the overlap is certainly so great that it would be irrational and unfair to discriminate against individuals on that basis. Likewise, even if it turns out that parents don't have the power to shape their children's personalities, it would be wrong on grounds of simple human decency to abuse or neglect one's children. And if currently popular ideas about how to improve the environment are shown to be ineffective, it only highlights the need to know what would be effective.

Another contributor to the perception of dangerousness is the intellectual blinkers that humans tend to don when they split into factions. People have a nasty habit of clustering in coalitions, professing certain beliefs as badges of their commitment to the coalition and treating rival coalitions as intellectually unfit and morally depraved. Debates between members of the coalitions can make things even worse, because when the other side fails to capitulate to one's devastating arguments, it only proves they are immune to reason. In this regard, it's disconcerting to see the two institutions that ought to have the greatest stake in ascertaining the truth — academia and government — often blinkered by morally tinged ideologies. One ideology is that humans are blank slates and that social problems can be handled only through government programs that especially redress the perfidy of European males. Its opposite number is that morality inheres in patriotism and Christian faith and that social problems may be handled only by government policies that punish the sins of individual evildoers. New ideas, nuanced ideas, hybrid ideas — and sometimes dangerous ideas — often have trouble getting a hearing against these group-bonding convictions.

The conviction that honest opinions can be dangerous may even arise from a feature of human nature. Philip Tetlock and Alan Fiske have argued that certain human relationships are constituted on a basis of unshakeable convictions. We love our children and parents, are faithful to our spouses, stand by our friends, contribute to our communities, and are loyal to our coalitions not because we continually question and evaluate the merits of these commitments but because we feel them in our bones. A person who spends too much time pondering whether logic and fact really justify a commitment to one of these relationships is seen as just not "getting it." Decent people don't carefully weigh the advantages and disadvantages of selling their children or selling out their friends or their spouses or their colleagues or their country. They reject these possibilities outright; they "don't go there." So the taboo on questioning sacred values make sense in the context of personal relationships. It makes far less sense in the context of discovering how the world works or running a country.

Should we treat some ideas as dangerous? Let's exclude outright lies, deceptive propaganda, incendiary conspiracy theories from malevolent crackpots, and  technological recipes for wanton destruction. Consider only ideas about the truth of empirical claims or the effectiveness of policies that, if they turned out to be true, would require a significant rethinking of our moral sensibilities. And consider ideas that, if they turn out to be false, could lead to harm if people believed them to be true. In either case, we don't know whether they are true or false a priori, so only by examining and debating them can we find out. Finally, let's assume that we're not talking about burning people at the stake or cutting out their tongues but about discouraging their research and giving their ideas as little publicity as possible.

There is a good case for exploring all ideas relevant to our current concerns, no matter where they lead. The very act of engaging in rational discourse presupposes a commitment to evaluating ideas on their intellectual warrant alone. Otherwise how could one even make the case that dangerous ideas should be discouraged, in the face of someone else arguing (as Dan Gilbert does in this volume) that the idea of discouraging ideas is itself morally dangerous? Should proponents of keeping dangerous ideas private then be forced to keep that idea private, because their opponents deem it to be dangerous? If not, why should the proponents' judgment about dangerousness and nondangerousness be granted a privilege they deny to others? The idea that ideas should be discouraged a priori is inherently self-refuting. Indeed, it is the ultimate arrogance, as it assumes that one can be so certain about the goodness and truth of one's own ideas that one is entitled to discourage other people's opinions from even being examined. 

Also, it's hard to imagine any aspect of public life where ignorance or delusion is better than an awareness of the truth, even an unpleasant one. Only children and madmen engage in "magical thinking," the fallacy that good things can come true by believing in them or bad things will disappear by ignoring them or wishing them away. Rational adults want to know the truth, because any action based on false premises will not have the effects they desire. Worse, logicians tell us that a system of ideas containing a contradiction can be used to deduce any statement whatsoever, no matter how absurd. Since ideas are connected to other ideas, sometimes in circuitous and unpredictable ways, choosing to believe something that may not be true, or even maintaining walls of ignorance around some topic, can corrupt all of intellectual life, proliferating error far and wide. In our everyday lives, would we want to be lied to, or kept in the dark by paternalistic "protectors," when it comes to our health or finances or even the weather? In public life, imagine someone saying that we should not do research into global warming or energy shortages because if it found that they were serious the consequences for the economy would be extremely unpleasant. Today's leaders who tacitly take this position are rightly condemned by intellectually responsible people. But why should other unpleasant ideas be treated differently?

There is another argument against treating ideas as dangerous. Many of our moral and political policies are designed to pre-empt what we know to be the worst features of human nature. The checks and balances in a democracy, for instance, were invented in explicit recognition of the fact that human leaders will always be tempted to arrogate power to themselves. Likewise, our sensitivity to racism comes from an awareness that groups of humans, left to their own devices, are apt to discriminate and oppress other groups, often in ugly ways. History also tells us that a desire to enforce dogma and suppress heretics is a recurring human weakness, one that has led to recurring waves of gruesome oppression and violence. A recognition that there is a bit of Torquemada in everyone should make us wary of any attempt to enforce a consensus or demonize those who challenge it.

"Sunlight is the best disinfectant," according to Justice Louis Brandeis's famous case for freedom of thought and expression. If an idea really is false, only by examining it openly can we determine that it is false. At that point we will be in a better position to convince others that it is false than if we had let it fester in private, since our very avoidance of the issue serves as a tacit acknowledgment that it may be true. And if an idea is true, we had better accommodate our moral sensibilities to it, since no good can come from sanctifying a delusion. This might even be easier than the ideaphobes fear. The moral order did not collapse when the earth was shown not to be at the center of the solar system, and so it will survive other revisions of our understanding of how the world works.

In the best Talmudic tradition of arguing a position as forcefully as possible and then switching sides, let me now present the case for discouraging certain lines of intellectual inquiry. Two of the contributors to this volume (Gopnik and Hillis) offer as their "dangerous idea" the exact opposite of Gilbert's: They say that it's a dangerous idea for thinkers to air their dangerous ideas. How might such an argument play out?

First, one can  remind people that we are all responsible for the foreseeable consequences of our actions, and that includes the consequences of our public statements. Freedom of inquiry may be an important value, according to this argument, but it is not an absolute value, one that overrides all others. We know that the world is full of malevolent and callous people who will use  any pretext to justify their bigotry or destructiveness. We must expect that they will seize on the broaching of a topic that seems in sympathy with their beliefs as a vindication of their agenda.

Not only can the imprimatur of scientific debate add legitimacy to toxic ideas, but the mere act of making an idea common knowledge can change its effects. Individuals, for instance,  may harbor a private opinion on differences between genders or among ethnic groups but keep it to themselves because of its opprobrium. But once the opinion is aired in public, they may be emboldened to act on their prejudice — not just because it has been publicly ratified but because they must anticipate that everyone else will act on the information. Some people, for example, might discriminate against the members of an ethnic group despite having no pejorative opinion about them, in the expectation that their customers or colleagues will have such opinions and that defying them would be costly. And then there are the effects of these debates on the confidence of the members of the stigmatized groups themselves.

Of course, academics can warn against these abuses, but the qualifications and nitpicking they do for a living may not catch up with the simpler formulations that run on swifter legs. Even if they did, their qualifications might be lost on the masses.    We shouldn't count on ordinary people to engage in the clear thinking — some would say the hair-splitting — that would be needed to accept a dangerous idea but not its terrible consequence. Our overriding precept, in intellectual life as in medicine, should be "First, do no harm."

We must be especially suspicious when the danger in a dangerous idea is to someone other than its advocate.  Scientists, scholars, and writers are members of a privileged elite. They may have  an interest in promulgating ideas that justify their privileges, that blame or make light of society's victims, or that earn them attention for cleverness and iconoclasm. Even if one has little sympathy for the cynical Marxist argument that ideas are always advanced to serve the interest of the ruling class, the ordinary skepticism of a tough-minded intellectual (the mindset that leads us to blind review, open debate, and statements of possible conflicts of interest) should make one wary of "dangerous" hypotheses that are no skin off the nose of their hypothesizers.

But don't the demands of rationality always compel us to seek the complete truth? Not necessarily. Rational agents often choose to be ignorant. They may decide not to be in a position where they can receive a threat or be exposed to a sensitive secret. They may choose to avoid being asked an incriminating question, where one answer is damaging, another is dishonest, and a failure to answer is grounds for the questioner to assume the worst (hence the Fifth Amendment protection against being forced to testify against oneself). Scientists test drugs in double-blind studies in which they keep themselves from knowing who got the drug and who got the placebo, and they referee manuscripts anonymously for the same reason. Many people rationally choose not to know the gender of their unborn child, or whether they carry a gene for Huntington's disease, or whether their nominal father is genetically related to them. Perhaps a similar logic would call for keeping socially harmful information out of the public sphere.

As for restrictions on inquiry, every scientist already lives with them. They accede, for example, to the decisions of committees for the protection of human subjects and to policies on the confidentiality of personal information. In 1975 biologists imposed a moratorium on research on recombinant DNA pending the development of safeguards against the release of dangerous microorganisms. The notion that intellectuals have carte blanche in conducting their inquiry is a myth.

Though I am more sympathetic to the argument that important ideas be aired than to the argument that they should sometimes be suppressed,  I think it is a debate we need to have. Whether we like it or not, science has a habit of turning up discomfiting thoughts, and the Internet has a habit of blowing their cover. Tragically, there are few signs that the debates will happen in the place where we might most expect it: academia. Though academics owe the extraordinary perquisite of tenure to the ideal of encouraging free inquiry and the evaluation of unpopular ideas, all too often academics are the first to try to quash them. The most famous recent example is the outburst of fury and disinformation that resulted when Harvard president Lawrence Summers gave a measured analysis of the multiple causes of women's underrepresentation in science and math departments in elite universities and tentatively broached the possibility that discrimination and hidden barriers were not the only cause. But intolerance of unpopular ideas among academics is an old story. Books like Morton Hunt's The New Know-Nothings and Alan Kors and Harvey Silverglate's The Shadow University have depressingly shown that universities cannot be counted on to defend  the rights of their own heretics and that it's often the court system or the press that has to drag them into policies of tolerance. In government, the intolerance is even more frightening, because the ideas considered there are not just matters of intellectual sport but have immediate and sweeping consequences. Chris Mooney, in The Republican War on Science, joins Hunt in showing how corrupt and demagogic legislators are increasingly stifling research findings they find inconvenient to their interests.

The essays in the present volume offer a startling variety of stimulating thoughts. Some are frankly speculative, others are ideas about an unrecognized danger, and many are versions of Copernicus's original dangerous idea — that we are not the center of the universe, literally or metaphorically. Whether you agree or disagree, are shocked or blasé, I hope that these essays provoke you to ponder what makes ideas dangerous and what we should do about them.

STEVEN PINKER is the Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University an author of The Blank Slate.

Steven Pinker's Edge Bio Page


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?

Afterword to Dangerous Ideas
By Richard Dawkins

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-line salon, 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 sapiens enjoys in our unconscious assumptions. Why does 'pro life' always mean 'pro human 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.

RICHARD DAWKINS, an Evolutionary Biologist, is Charles Simonyi Professor For The Understanding Of Science, Oxford University, and author of The God Delusion.

Richard Dawkins' Edge Bio Page


"Danger – brilliant minds at work...A brilliant book: exhilarating, hilarious, and chilling." The Evening Standard (London)

Paperback — UK
£8.99, 352 pp
Free Press, UK

Paperback — US
$13.95, 336 pp
Harper Perennial

WHAT IS YOUR DANGEROUS IDEA? Today's Leading Thinkers on the Unthinkable With an Introduction by STEVEN PINKER and an Afterword by RICHARD DAWKINS Edited By JOHN BROCKMAN

"A selection of the most explosive ideas of our age." Sunday Herald "Provocative" The Independent "Challenging notions put forward by some of the world’s sharpest minds" Sunday Times "A titillating compilation" The Guardian

What are third culture intellectuals reading at the beach this summer? Well, most of them don't go to the beach. They're too busy doing interesting and important work including writing books that you can read at the beach or anywhere else.

Here's a selection of recent books by Edge contributors...

Daniel C. Dennett

Richard Dawkins

What Is Your Dangerous Idea

Breaking The Spell

Letter to a Christian Nation

The God Delusion

Paul Steinhardt and Neil Turok

On Chesil Beach

Faust in Copenhagen


Endless Universe

Philip Zimbardo

Reading Judas

The Black Swan

The Cosmic Jackpot

The Lucifer Effect

Natalie Angier

Gut Feelings

The Happiness Trip

The Creation

The Canon

Lee Smolin

Homo Britannicus

Passionate Minds

Evocative Objects

The Trouble With Physics

Marc D. Hauser

Social Intelligence

Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain

Emotional Intelligence: 10th Anniversary Edition

Moral Minds

John Brockman, Ed.

The Emotion Machine

A Madman Dreams of Turing

Why Darwin Matters

My Einstein

Chris Anderson

Whose Freedom

Many Worlds in One

After Dolly

The Long Tail

Yochai Benkler

Francis Crick

Betraying Spinoza

The Selfish Gene
(30th Ann.Ed.)
The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom

The Wealth of Networks

Daniel Gilbert

Ten Lessons to Transform Your Marriage

Intelligent Thought

Graph Design for the Eye and Mind

Stumbling On Happiness

Alan Grafen, Matt Ridley, Eds.
Steven Mithen

Richard Dawkins

The Mobius Strip

Seeing Red

The Singing Neanderthals

Edward O. Wilson

Fantastic Realities

In Search of Memory



Jared Diamond

Programming the Universe

What We Believe but Cannot Prove

No Two Alike


David Berreby

The Blank Slate

Decoding the Universe

From Counterculture to Cyberculture

Us and Them

Austin Burt & Robert Trivers

Genes in Conflict

Conversations on Consciousness

The Cosmic Landscape

Warped Passages

Lynn Margulis, Eduardo Punset
David Berreby

Nature Revealed

Hiding In the Mirror

Mind, Life and Universe

Us and Them

Stephen M. Kosslyn

The Fabric of the Cosmos

The Numbers Behind NUMB3RS

The Singularity Is Near

Clear and to the Point


The Victorian Internet
The Happiness Hypothesis: Putting Ancient Wisdom to the  Test of Modern Science

The Tree

Five Minds for the Future



ROBERT D. VAN VALIN, JR. [6.14.07]
Heinrich Heine University, Düsseldorf

There are a number of points worth emphasizing with respect to Dan Everett's claims about Pirahã. First, and most important, he is not claiming that Pirahã speakers are in any way limited in what they can say by the lack of recursion in the syntax. Saying ‘John has a brother. His brother has a house' communicates the same content as ‘John's brother's house', albeit with less perspicuous packaging. The fact that Pirahã speakers can formulate such utterances supports Everett's claim that they can form recursive semantic propositions, which are then expressed in this non-recursive way in the syntax. There are analogues in other languages. I worked for many years with speakers of Lakhota, the language of the Sioux, which definitely has recursive structures in its syntax. If one asked a Lakhota speaker if the Lakhota equivalent of ‘I know that Bill stole the money', with ‘that Bill stole the money' as an embedded clause, is a possible Lakhota sentence, he or she would say that it is. If, on the other hand, one asked a Lakhota speaker how he or she would say that sentence, they would respond ‘Bill stole the money, and I know it', which is exactly the same kind of non-recursive structure found in Pirahã. Given a choice, the Lakhota speakers I have worked with always chose the non-recursive structure. There are good reasons why they would want to avoid such embedded clauses, given certain features of Lakhota syntax, but the point is that speakers find it to be communicatively equivalent to the recursive structure.

John Searle long ago proposed a principle of effability, which states that all languages are capable of expressing the same content. Despite the lack of recursion, Pirahã speakers are indeed able to express complex propositions. This is relevant to Chomsky's claim that recursion is the key feature of human language. Chomsky's approach treats syntax as the main backbone of language, to which other aspects of language are secondary. Because speakers are capable of formulating complex recursive propositions, this must, given Chomsky's view of the centrality and primacy of syntax to language, be realized in terms of recursion in the syntax.

Chomsky has long maintained that the purpose of human language is to permit the free, creative expression of human thought, and it follows that there must be recursion in the syntax in order for the expression of complex propositions to be possible. He has also long denied that the communicative function of language is in any way relevant to an understanding of the structure of language, maintaining in fact the the structure of language is dysfunctional with respect to communication. Now, suppose one took the opposite view from Chomsky and claimed that the function of communication is relevant to the understanding of the structure of language and that in analyzing language one should treat it as a system exhibiting an complex interaction between syntax, semantics and pragmatics (the principles governing the use of language in context).

From this perspective, the formulation of complex propositions in the semantics, reflecting complex ideas and concepts, need not be reflected in only one property in the linguistic system, namely recursive syntax. If one of the functions of language is the conveying of complex propositional information, then one should take the whole system into account in evaluating whether the principle of effability is satisfied in Pirahã, and on Everett's account, it is.

This leads to a second point. Because the principle of effability is satisfied with respect to complex propositions (the expression of number concepts is another matter, but this issue is easier to resolve than the recursion one, with independent work confirming Everett's claim), it is misleading and inaccurate to accuse Everett of denigrating the Pirahã language or its speakers in any way. While the idea of cultural constraints on the grammar of a language is anathema to many linguists, as the reaction to Everett's work clearly shows, it is difficult to see what other explanation there could be for the lacunae in the system. It cannot be that there is anything genetically different about the Pirahã.

If a Pirahã child were taken at birth from the tribe and raised by a Brazilian family, he or she would learn Portuguese like any other child, with all of its features. There is in fact such a case approximating this situation, and interestingly, when the child as a teenager moved back to live among the Pirahã, she stopped speaking Portuguese, even refusing to speak it, did not use recursive structures, did not count, etc. This can only be explained in terms of cultural constraints and social conventions, since she clearly had those concepts from her learning of Portuguese.

June 15, 2007

Food for Thought
Ann Gibbons

Did the first cooked meals help fuel the dramatic evolutionary expansion of the human brain?

Richard Wrangham was lying beside a fire at home on a cold winter night in Boston 10 years ago when his mind wandered to the first hominids to cook food. He imagined a small group of Homo erectus huddled around a campfire in Africa, roasting a leg of wildebeest and sharing a morsel of singed potato or manioc. ...

June 15, 2007

Attempt to Patent Artificial Organism Draws a Protest
Jocelyn Kaiser

An activist group's concern about maverick genome sequencer J. Craig Venter's intention to patent an entirely synthetic free-living organism has thrown a spotlight on the emerging intellectual-property landscape in this hot new field. The protesters claim that Venter wants his company to become the Microsoft of synthetic biology, dominating the industry. ...

June 20, 2007


Nassim Nicholas Taleb is not afraid to say "I don’t know." In fact, he’s proud of his ignorance. A mathematician, philosopher and hedge-fund manager all in one iconoclastic package, Taleb demonstrates the wisdom in admitting the limitations of our knowledge.

June 16, 2007

Angry reception greets patent for synthetic life
Controversial tycoon Craig Venter raises a storm of protest by applying for a patent on a minimal genome which could be used to create life
By Peter Aldhous

THE enfant terrible of genomics is at it again. First Craig Venter's company Celera raced publicly funded researchers to sequence the human genome. Now his research institute is trying to patent a "minimal genome", which could be used to make synthetic life forms. ...

June 14, 2007

Artificial life

Patent pending
Move over Dolly. Synthia is on her way.

YOU have to hand it to Craig Venter, he is not someone who thinks small. The latest adventure of the man who was the first to sequence the genome of a living organism (three weeks after his grant request to do so was rejected on the grounds it was impossible), the first to publish the genome of an identifiable human being (himself) and the first to conceive the idea of sequencing the genome of an entire ecosystem (and to enjoy a nice cruise across the Pacific Ocean in his yacht while he did so) is curiously reminiscent of the incident that made him a controversial figure in the first place. That was when, 16 years ago, he attempted to patent parts of several hundred genes—the first time anyone had tried to take out a patent on more than one gene at a time...This time, he is proposing to patent not merely a few genes, but life itself. Not all of life, of course. At least, not yet. Rather, he has applied for a patent on the synthetic bacterium that he and his colleagues Clyde Hutchison and Hamilton Smith have been working on for the past few years. ...

June 14, 2007


Evolution and the brain
With all deference to the sensibilities of religious people, the idea that man was created in the image of God can surely be put aside.

June 14, 2007

Moral psychology: The depths of disgust
Is there wisdom to be found in repugnance? Or is disgust 'the nastiest of all emotions', offering nothing but support to prejudice? Dan Jones looks at the repellant side of human nature.

A clue is the language of moral indignation itself. "All cultures and languages that we have studied have at least one word that applies both to core disgust (cockroaches and faeces) and also to some kind of social offence, such as sleazy politicians or hypocrites," says Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and a former student of Rozin's. People labelled as disgusting in this way evoke fears of contamination just as rotting food does. When Rozin asked people about the prospect of wearing Hitler's carefully laundered sweater, most didn't feel at all comfortable with the idea. "The contamination of disgust is generalized to moral issues, and that's a very deep feature of disgust," he says. "If it was just metaphorical then Hitler's sweater wouldn't be so offensive."

Paul Bloom, a psychologist at Yale University is sceptical. He agrees that disgust drives some moral judgements, but points out that they are mainly those relating to behaviour that involves bodily fluids or contact — gay sex, for instance — rather than more abstract issues. Just as people don't really lust for a car or genuinely thirst after knowledge, suggests Bloom, they don't really feel disgust at more abstract issues. "When we say something like 'This tax proposal is disgusting', we're using a metaphor," he says. "It's a very powerful metaphor, but it doesn't elicit the same disgust or nausea as primary disgust elicitors such as faeces and body fluids."

June 18, 2007

A propósito de un nuevo humanismo
Salvador Pániker

(Salvador Pániker es filósofo y escritor.)

En 1959, C. P. Snow dictó en Cambridge una famosa conferencia titulada Las dos culturas y la revolución científica, deplorando la escisión académica y profesional entre el ramo de las ciencias y el de las letras. En 1991, el agente literario John Brockman popularizó el concepto de la tercera cultura, para referirse a la entrada en escena de los científicos-escritores. Nacería así un nuevo humanismo. Un nuevo humanismo que ya no sería tanto el humanismo clásico cuanto una nueva hibridación entre ciencias y letras.

En lo que concierne a la filosofía, este nuevo humanismo debería estar atento no sólo a la ciencia, sino al mayor número posible de corrientes de pensamiento vivo. Ello es que la filosofía no debe estar encerrada en un departamento académico profesional, sino ejercerse en un cruce interdisciplinario y en "conversación" — como dijera el recientemente desaparecido Richard Rorty — con todas las demás ciencias. La filosofía tiene que trazar mapas de la realidad. El filósofo es, en palabras de Platón, "el que tiene la visión de conjunto (synoptikós)", es decir, el que organiza lo más relevante de la "información almacenada" (cultura) y esboza nuevas cosmovisiones (provisionales, pero coherentes). Por otra parte, la inicial intuición de los filósofos "analíticos" — que fueron los primeros en señalar la importancia de evitar las trampas que nos tiende el lenguaje- no debe echarse en saco roto. ...

June 17, 2007

Think Again

Atheism and Evidence
By Stanley Fish

......Atheists like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens believe (in Dawkins's words) that "there is nothing beyond the natural, physical world" and that "if there is something that appears to lie beyond the natural world, we hope eventually to understand it and embrace it within the natural."....

June 2007

A Simpler Origin for Life
The sudden appearance of a large self-copying molecule such as RNA was exceedingly improbable. Energy-driven networks of small molecules afford better odds as the initiators of life.
By Robert Shapiro

...Fortunately, an alternative group of theories that can employ these materials has existed for decades. The theories employ a thermodynamic rather than a genetic definition of life, under a scheme put forth by Carl Sagan in the Encyclopedia Britannica: A localized region which increases in order (decreases in entropy) through cycles driven by an energy flow would be considered alive. This small-molecule approach is rooted in the ideas of the Soviet biologist Alexander Oparin, and current notable spokesmen include de Duve, Freeman Dyson of the Institute for Advanced Study, Stuart Kauffman of the Santa Fe Institute, Doron Lancet of the Weizmann Institute, Harold Morowitz of George Mason University and the independent researcher Günter Wächtershäuser...