Edge 233 — January 14, 2008
(9,700 words)

EDGE publishes "Life: what a Concept!"
transcript as a downloadable pdf book

EDGE @ DLD (Digital, Life, Design)
10:00am, January 21
, Munich
"LIFE: A GENE-CENTRIC VIEW"
Craig Venter & Richard Dawkins

(Moderator: John Brockman)

THE THIRD CULTURE
WHAT'S YOUR CONSUMPTION FACTOR?
By Jared Diamond

THE WORLD QUESION CENTER
The Edge Annual Question — 2008
WHAT HAVE YOU CHANGED YOUR MIND ABOUT? WHY?

Press Coverage: Arts & Letters Daily; bloggingheads.tv; boingboing; Canberra Times; Corriere Della Sera; The Globe and Mail; The Guardian; Il Giornale; Infectious Greed; The Independent; El Mundo; National Review Online; The News & Observer; [email protected]; O'Reilly Radar; San Francisco Chronicle; Slashdot; Spiegel Online; Süddeutsche Zeitung; Sunday Tribune; The Telegraph; The Times; Toronto Star; The Wall Street Journal; The Washington Post; Die Zeit

THIRD CULTURE NEWS
THE NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE
Cover Story
THE MORAL INSTINCT
By Steven Pinker

EDGE IN THE NEWS
THE NEW REPUBLIC
The TNR Q&A
by Isaac Chotiner

CAPITAL TIMES (Madison, Wisconsin)
THINK POSITIVE
Mary Bergin

THE AGE (Melbourne, Australia)
QUESTIONS
Lorien Kaye


"I just read the Life transcript book and it is fantastic. One of the better books I've read in a while. Super rich, high signal to noise, great subject."
Kevin Kelly, Editor-At-Large, Wired

"The more I think about it the more I'm convinced that Life: What A Concept was one of those memorable events that people in years to come will see as a crucial moment in history. After all, it's where the dawning of the age of biology was officially announced."
Andrian Kreye, Süddeutsche Zeitung

EDGE PUBLISHES "LIFE: WHAT A CONCEPT!" TRANSCRIPT AS DOWNLOADABLE PDF BOOK [1.14.08]

Edge is pleased to announce the online publication of the complete transcript of this summer's Edge event, Life: What a Concept! as a 43,000- word downloadable PDF Edge book.

The event took place at Eastover Farm in Bethlehem, CT on Monday, August 27th. Invited to address the topic "Life: What a Concept!" were Freeman Dyson, J. Craig Venter, George Church, Robert Shapiro, Dimitar Sasselov, and Seth Lloyd, who focused on their new, and in more than a few cases, startling research, and/or ideas in the biological sciences.

pdf download
(click here)

Reporting on the August event, Andrian Kreye, Feuilleton (Arts & Ideas) Editor of Süddeutsche Zeitung wrote:

"Soon genetic engineering will shape our daily life to the same extent that computers do today. This sounds like science fiction, but it is already reality in science. Thus genetic engineer George Church talks about the biological building blocks that he is able to synthetically manufacture. It is only a matter of time until we will be able to manufacture organisms that can self-reproduce, he claims. Most notably J. Craig Venter succeeded in introducing a copy of a DNA-based chromosome into a cell, which from then on was controlled by that strand of DNA."

Jordan Mejias, Arts Correspondent of Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, noted that:

"These are thoughts to make jaws drop...Nobody at Eastover Farm seemed afraid of a eugenic revival. What in German circles would have released violent controversies, here drifts by unopposed under mighty maple trees that gently whisper in the breeze."

Click here for the Edge feature on the "Life: What a Concept!" August event (photo album; streaming video; links).


COMING SOON


DLD08 PROGRAM


10:00 AM Monday (Jan. 21st)
Munich

"LIFE: A GENE-CENTRIC VIEW"
A conversation with
Craig Venter & Richard Dawkins
(Moderator: John Brockman)

Edge is pleased to announce that evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and genomics researcher Craig Venter will discuss the gene-centric view of life at DLD (Digital, Life, Design) in Munich on January 21. This event continues the exploration of the ideas explored at the Edge "Life: What a Concept!" meeting in August.


Thirty-two years ago, Richard Dawkins published The Selfish Gene, one of the landmark books of the 20th Century. In it, he set forth the "gene's-eye" view of life. (See "The Selfish Gene: Thirty Years On" on Edge).

"Individuals are not stable things," he wrote, "they are fleeting. Chromosomes too are shuffled into oblivion, like hands of cards soon after they are dealt. But the cards themselves survive the shuffling. The cards are the genes. The genes are not destroyed by crossing over, they merely change partners and march on. Of course they march on. That is their business. They are the replicators and we are their survival machines. When we have served our purpose, we are cast aside. But genes are the denizens of geological time: genes are forever."

"Notions like Selfish Genes, memes, and extended phenotypes are powerful and exciting," notes computer scientist W. Daniel Hillis. "They make me think differently. Unfortunately, I spend a lot of time arguing against people who have over interpreted these ideas. They're too easily misunderstood as explaining more than they do. So you see, this Dawkins is a dangerous guy. Like Marx. Or Darwin."

Part of Dawkins' danger is his emphasis on models derived from cybernetics and information theory, and that such models, when applied to our ideas of life, and in particular, human life, strike some otherwise intelligent people numb and dumb with fear and terror.

According to psychologist Steven Pinker, "Dawkins's emphasis on the ethereal commodity called "information" in an age of biology dominated by the concrete molecular mechanisms is another courageous stance. There is no contradiction, of course, between a system being understood in terms of its information content and it being understood in terms of its material substrate. But when it comes down to the deepest understanding of what life is, how it works, and what forms it is likely to take elsewhere in the universe, Dawkins implies that it is abstract conceptions of information, computation, and feedback, and not nucleic acids, sugars, lipids, and proteins, that will lie at the root of the explanation."

Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist, is Charles Simonyi Professor For the Understanding of Science, Oxford University. His most recent book is the international bestseller, The God Delusion. (SeeRichard Dawkins's Edge Bio page)

Craig Venter, who decoded the human genome, is on the brink of creating the first artificial life form on Earth. "I have spent", he says, "the last fifteen years of his career doing, digitizing biology. That's what DNA sequencing has been about. I view biology as an analog world that DNA sequencing has taking into the digital world."

According to Venter (in his recent BBC Dimbleby Lecture "A DNA-Driven World"), "the future of life depends not only in our ability to understand and use DNA, but also, perhaps in creating new synthetic life forms, that is, life which is forged not by Darwinian evolution but created by human intelligence.

"To some this may be troubling, but part of the problem we face with scientific advancement, is the fear of the unknown — fear that often leads to rejection...Science is a topic which can cause people to turn off their brains".At the end of June, Venter announced the results of his lab's work on genome transplantation methods that allows for the transformation of one type of bacteria into another, dictated by the transplanted chromosome. In other words, one species becomes another.

In talking to Edge about the research, Venter noted the following:

Now we know we can boot up a chromosome system. It doesn't matter if the DNA is chemically made in a cell or made in a test tube. Until this development, if you made a synthetic chromosome you had the question of what do you do with it. Replacing the chromosome with existing cells, if it works, seems the most effective to way to replace one already in an existing cell systems. We didn't know if it would work or not. Now we do. This is a major advance in the field of synthetic genomics. We now know we can create a synthetic organism. It's not a question of 'if', or 'how', but 'when', and in this regard, think weeks and months, not years.

Venter is Director, The J. Craig Venter Institute, and the author of the recently published autobiography, A Life Decoded: My Genome: My Life. (See Craig Venter's Edge Bio Page)


DLD is Europe's conference for the 21st century, covering digital innovation, science and culture and bringing together thought leaders from Europe, the Middle-East, America and Asia. The three-day event is chaired by Edge contributors publisher Hubert Burda (See "Hubert Burda — Germany's Agent of Change" on Edge) and investor Yossi Vardi and hosted by Stephanie Czerny and Marcel Reichart.

DLD08 is scheduled for January 20-22, 2008 at HVB Forum in Munich, Germany.

 



The population especially of the developing world is growing, and some people remain fixated on this. They note that populations of countries like Kenya are growing rapidly, and they say that's a big problem. Yes, it is a problem for Kenya's more than 30 million people, but it's not a burden on the whole world, because Kenyans consume so little. (Their relative per capita rate is 1.) A real problem for the world is that each of us 300 million Americans consumes as much as 32 Kenyans. With 10 times the population, the United States consumes 320 times more resources than Kenya does.

People in the third world are aware of this difference in per capita consumption, although most of them couldn't specify that it's by a factor of 32. When they believe their chances of catching up to be hopeless, they sometimes get frustrated and angry, and some become terrorists, or tolerate or support terrorists. Since Sept. 11, 2001, it has become clear that the oceans that once protected the United States no longer do so. There will be more terrorist attacks against us and Europe, and perhaps against Japan and Australia, as long as that factorial difference of 32 in consumption rates persists.

WHAT'S YOUR CONSUMPTION FACTOR?
By Jared Diamond

JARED DIAMOND, a professor of geography at the University of California, Los Angeles, is the author of Collapse and Guns, Germs and Steel.

Jared Diamond's Edge Bio Page


WHAT'S YOUR CONSUMPTION FACTOR?

To mathematicians, 32 is an interesting number: it's 2 raised to the fifth power, 2 times 2 times 2 times 2 times 2. To economists, 32 is even more special, because it measures the difference in lifestyles between the first world and the developing world. The average rates at which people consume resources like oil and metals, and produce wastes like plastics and greenhouse gases, are about 32 times higher in North America, Western Europe, Japan and Australia than they are in the developing world. That factor of 32 has big consequences.

To understand them, consider our concern with world population. Today, there are more than 6.5 billion people, and that number may grow to around 9 billion within this half-century. Several decades ago, many people considered rising population to be the main challenge facing humanity. Now we realize that it matters only insofar as people consume and produce.

If most of the world's 6.5 billion people were in cold storage and not metabolizing or consuming, they would create no resource problem. What really matters is total world consumption, the sum of all local consumptions, which is the product of local population times the local per capita consumption rate.The estimated one billion people who live in developed countries have a relative per capita consumption rate of 32. Most of the world's other 5.5 billion people constitute the developing world, with relative per capita consumption rates below 32, mostly down toward 1.

The population especially of the developing world is growing, and some people remain fixated on this. They note that populations of countries like Kenya are growing rapidly, and they say that's a big problem. Yes, it is a problem for Kenya's more than 30 million people, but it's not a burden on the whole world, because Kenyans consume so little. (Their relative per capita rate is 1.) A real problem for the world is that each of us 300 million Americans consumes as much as 32 Kenyans. With 10 times the population, the United States consumes 320 times more resources than Kenya does.

People in the third world are aware of this difference in per capita consumption, although most of them couldn't specify that it's by a factor of 32. When they believe their chances of catching up to be hopeless, they sometimes get frustrated and angry, and some become terrorists, or tolerate or support terrorists. Since Sept. 11, 2001, it has become clear that the oceans that once protected the United States no longer do so. There will be more terrorist attacks against us and Europe, and perhaps against Japan and Australia, as long as that factorial difference of 32 in consumption rates persists.

People who consume little want to enjoy the high-consumption lifestyle. Governments of developing countries make an increase in living standards a primary goal of national policy. And tens of millions of people in the developing world seek the first-world lifestyle on their own, by emigrating, especially to the United States and Western Europe, Japan and Australia. Each such transfer of a person to a high-consumption country raises world consumption rates, even though most immigrants don't succeed immediately in multiplying their consumption by 32.

Among the developing countries that are seeking to increase per capita consumption rates at home, China stands out. It has the world's fastest growing economy, and there are 1.3 billion Chinese, four times the United States population. The world is already running out of resources, and it will do so even sooner if China achieves American-level consumption rates. Already, China is competing with us for oil and metals on world markets.

Per capita consumption rates in China are still about 11 times below ours, but let's suppose they rise to our level. Let's also make things easy by imagining that nothing else happens to increase world consumption — that is, no other country increases its consumption, all national populations (including China's) remain unchanged and immigration ceases. China's catching up alone would roughly double world consumption rates. Oil consumption would increase by 106 percent, for instance, and world metal consumption by 94 percent.

If India as well as China were to catch up, world consumption rates would triple. If the whole developing world were suddenly to catch up, world rates would increase elevenfold. It would be as if the world population ballooned to 72 billion people (retaining present consumption rates).

Some optimists claim that we could support a world with nine billion people. But I haven't met anyone crazy enough to claim that we could support 72 billion. Yet we often promise developing countries that if they will only adopt good policies — for example, institute honest government and a free-market economy — they, too, will be able to enjoy a first-world lifestyle. This promise is impossible, a cruel hoax: we are having difficulty supporting a first-world lifestyle even now for only one billion people.

We Americans may think of China's growing consumption as a problem. But the Chinese are only reaching for the consumption rate we already have. To tell them not to try would be futile.

The only approach that China and other developing countries will accept is to aim to make consumption rates and living standards more equal around the world. But the world doesn't have enough resources to allow for raising China's consumption rates, let alone those of the rest of the world, to our levels. Does this mean we're headed for disaster?

No, we could have a stable outcome in which all countries converge on consumption rates considerably below the current highest levels. Americans might object: there is no way we would sacrifice our living standards for the benefit of people in the rest of the world. Nevertheless, whether we get there willingly or not, we shall soon have lower consumption rates, because our present rates are unsustainable.

Real sacrifice wouldn't be required, however, because living standards are not tightly coupled to consumption rates. Much American consumption is wasteful and contributes little or nothing to quality of life. For example, per capita oil consumption in Western Europe is about half of ours, yet Western Europe's standard of living is higher by any reasonable criterion, including life expectancy, health, infant mortality, access to medical care, financial security after retirement, vacation time, quality of public schools and support for the arts. Ask yourself whether Americans' wasteful use of gasoline contributes positively to any of those measures.

Other aspects of our consumption are wasteful, too. Most of the world's fisheries are still operated non-sustainably, and many have already collapsed or fallen to low yields — even though we know how to manage them in such a way as to preserve the environment and the fish supply. If we were to operate all fisheries sustainably, we could extract fish from the oceans at maximum historical rates and carry on indefinitely.

The same is true of forests: we already know how to log them sustainably, and if we did so worldwide, we could extract enough timber to meet the world's wood and paper needs. Yet most forests are managed non-sustainably, with decreasing yields.

Just as it is certain that within most of our lifetimes we'll be consuming less than we do now, it is also certain that per capita consumption rates in many developing countries will one day be more nearly equal to ours. These are desirable trends, not horrible prospects. In fact, we already know how to encourage the trends; the main thing lacking has been political will.

Fortunately, in the last year there have been encouraging signs. Australia held a recent election in which a large majority of voters reversed the head-in-the-sand political course their government had followed for a decade; the new government immediately supported the Kyoto Protocol on cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

Also in the last year, concern about climate change has increased greatly in the United States. Even in China, vigorous arguments about environmental policy are taking place, and public protests recently halted construction of a huge chemical plant near the center of Xiamen. Hence I am cautiously optimistic. The world has serious consumption problems, but we can solve them if we choose to do so.

[First published as an OpEd piece by The New York Times, January 2, 2008]




The Edge Annual Question — 2008

When thinking changes your mind, that's philosophy.
When God changes your mind, that's faith.
When facts change your mind, that's science.

WHAT HAVE YOU CHANGED YOUR MIND ABOUT? WHY?

Science is based on evidence. What happens when the data change? How have scientific findings or arguments changed your mind?"

166 contributors; 113,000 words

"The world's finest minds have responded with some of the most insightful, humbling, fascinating confessions and anecdotes, an intellectual treasure trove. ... Best three or four hours of intense, enlightening reading you can do for the new year. Read it now."
— Mark Morford, San Francisco Chronicle

"As in the past, these world-class thinkers have responded to impossibly open-ended questions with erudition, imagination and clarity."
J. Peder Zane, The News & Observer

"A jolt of fresh thinking...The answers address a fabulous array of issues. This is the intellectual equivalent of a New Year's dip in the lake — bracing, possibly shriek-inducing, and bound to wake you up."
— Margaret Wente, The Globe and Mail

"Answers ring like scientific odes to uncertainty, humility and doubt; passionate pleas for critical thought in a world threatened by blind convictions."
Sandro Contenta, The Toronto Star

"For an exceptionally high quotient of interesting ideas to words, this is hard to beat. ...What a feast of egg-head opinionating!"
— John Derbyshire, National Review Online

"Even the world’s best brains have to admit to being wrong sometimes: here, leading scientists respond to a new year challenge."
— Lewis Smith, The Times

"Provocative ideas put forward today by leading figures."
Roger Highfield, The Telegraph

"The splendidly enlightened Edge website (www.edge.org) has rounded off each year of inter-disciplinary debate by asking its heavy-hitting contributors to answer one question. I strongly recommend a visit."
— Boyd Tonkin, The Independent

"A remarkable feast of the intellect... an amazing group of reflections on science, culture, and the evolution of ideas. Reading the Edge question is like being invited to dinner with some of the most interesting people on the planet."
— Tim O'Reilly, O'Reilly Radar

"A great event in the Anglo-Saxon culture."
El Mundo

"As fascinating and weighty as one would imagine."
— Comment (Leading Article), The Independent

"They are the intellectual elite, the brains the rest of us rely on to make sense of the universe and answer the big questions. But in a refreshing show of new year humility, the world's best thinkers have admitted that from time to time even they are forced to change their minds."
James Randerson, The Guardian

PRESS COVERAGE: Arts & Letters Daily; bloggingheads.tv; boingboing; Canberra Times; Corriere Della Sera; The Globe and Mail; The Guardian; Il Giornale; Infectious Greed; The Independent; El Mundo; National Review Online; The News & Observer; [email protected]; O'Reilly Radar; San Francisco Chronicle; Slashdot; Spiegel Online; Süddeutsche Zeitung; Sunday Tribune; The Telegraph; The Times; Toronto Star; The Wall Street Journal; The Washington Post; Die Zeit


boingboing
January 10, 2008


EDGE Question 2008: What have you changed your mind about?


POSTED BY XENI JARDIN, JANUARY 10, 2008 9:44 AM | PERMALINK

I've been traveling in Central America for the past few weeks, so I'm late on blogging a number of things -- including this. Each year, EDGE.org's John Brockman asks a new question, and a bunch of tech/sci/internet folks reply. This year's question: What have you changed your mind about?

Science is based on evidence. What happens when the data change? How have scientific findings or arguments changed your mind?

Link.

I was one of the 165 participants, and wrote about what I learned from Boing Boing's community experiments, under the guidance of our community manager Teresa Nielsen Hayden: Link to "Online Communities Rot Without Daily Tending By Human Hands."
Here's a partial link-list of my favorite contributions from others:

Tor Nørretranders, W. Daniel Hillis, Ray Kurzweil, David Gelernter, Kai Krause, Clay Shirky, J. Craig Venter, Simon Baron-Cohen, Jaron Lanier, Martin Rees, Esther Dyson, Brian Eno, Yossi Vardi, Tim O'Reilly, Chris Anderson, Rupert Sheldrake, Daniel C. Dennett, Aubrey de Grey, Nicholas Carr, Linda Stone, George Dyson,Steven Pinker, Alan Alda, Stewart Brand, Sherry Turkle, Rudy Rucker, Freeman Dyson, Douglas Rushkoff .

...



SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
January 9, 2008


A top 10 of the top 10
Mark Morford


...It's not a top 10 list. It's not even a top 100. It has nothing to do with fashion or trends or politics or the year's coolest iPod accessories. It is intellectual hotbed Edge.org's annual question, this time a profound doozy: "What have you changed your mind about. Why?"

As of now, 165 of the world's finest minds have responded with some of the most insightful, humbling, fascinating confessions and anecdotes, an intellectual treasure trove of proof that flip-flopping is a very good thing indeed, especially when informed/inspired by facts and shot through with personal experience and laced with mystery and even a little divine insight. Best three or four hours of intense, enlightening reading you can do for the new year. Read it now.

Then flip it over and answer the same question for yourself.

...



NEWS @ORF.at
January 9, 2008

Wenn Wissenschaftler ihre Meinung ändern Lukas Wieselberg, science.ORF.at

"Flip-Flops" werden im Englischen verächtlich Menschen genannt, die plötzlich ihre Meinung ändern. Was bei Politikern oft als ein Zeichen von Opportunismus interpretiert wird, gehört in der Wissenschaft zum Wesen. Dennoch ist es auch unter Forschern und Forscherinnen nicht üblich, sich öffentlich zu einem Sinneswandel zu bekennen. Genau das haben sie aber nun gemacht. Bereits zum elften Mal hat der New Yorker Literaturagent John Brockman namhaften Wissenschaftlern zum Jahreswechsel knifflige Fragen gestellt. Diesmal lauten sie "Wobei haben Sie Ihre Meinung geändert? Und warum?"

Die Antworten von insgesamt 165 Forschern und Expertinnen sind unterschiedlich und oft amüsant: Der Biologe Richard Dawkins erklärt, warum Meinungswandel kein evolutionärer Nachteil sind; die Philosophin Helena Cronin zeigt, dass es unter Männer zwar mehr Nobelpreisträger gibt, aber auch mehr Trottel; und Anton Zeilinger erzählt von seinem Irrtum, die Quantenphysik einst für "nutzlos" gehalten zu haben. ...

...



THE GLOBE AND MAIL
January 9, 2008

RECOMMENDED LINKS

IT doublethink
Shane Schick

Even IT gurus have the right to think twice.

This year the online salon Edge.org has drawn a lot of attention for the annual question it put out to a mixture of scientists and artists: What have you changed your mind about?

Contributors range from actor Alan Alda to folk singer Joan Baez, but some of the real gems came from technology visionaries who decided to take a second look at their original visions.

[Note to Globe and Mail: It's "the mathematician physicist John C. Baez", not his cousin the "folk singer Joan Baez", daughter of the physicist Albert Baez.]

...



TEMPOS DEL MUNDO (Buenos Aires)
January 8, 2008


The most prestigious scientists also change their minds


BUENOS AIRES, jan. 8 (UPI) — On the occasion of the new year, the most sublime thinkers of the world have recognized that, from time to time, they are obliged to rectify their views.

When addressing topics as diverse as evolution man, the laws of physics and differences sex, a group of scientists and philosophers, among Which includes Steven Pinker, Daniel Dennett, Paul Davies and Richard Wrangham, have confessed, all of them Without exception, they have changed their minds, reports Madrimasd.org.

This exhibition of scientific modesty has occurred As a result of the questions, coinciding with New year, annually raised the website edge.org, which has obtained responses from more than 120 of the most Important thinkers in the world.

A recurring theme in the answers is that what distinguishes science from other forms of knowledge and faith is that new ideas based on quickly replace old ones when they are based on evidence produced by tests. Accordingly, in the intellectual scope there is nothing of shameful in recognizing that one has changed positions.

[Spanish Original ...]



SÜDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG — Munich
January 8, 2008FEUILLETON — Page 1

Die Partei der Zweifler;
Bei der Frage des Jahres im Onlinemagazin Edge machen
sich Wissenschaftler Gedanken Ÿber ihre eigene Fehlbarkeit
Ralf Bönt

Eines der anregendsten intellektuellen Spiele findet sich jedes Jahr im Januar auf der Website Edge.org, wenn Wissenschaftler und Künstler im "World Question Center" auf die Frage des Jahres antworten. 2007 prügelte man mit Vehemenz auf die Religionen ein, und so klingt schon die Frage für 2008 wie ein erneuter Generalangriff auf die Seligen: "Welche Ihrer Meinungen haben Sie einmal geändert?" Ist die Religion doch der Ort der göttlichen Wahrheit, die sich nicht begründen muss und nicht bezweifelt werden kann. Wenn er einer Partei angehöre, hatte der Agnostiker Camus auch gesagt, dann der des Zweifels. Keine Konfrontation sollte mehr gescheut werden. Die letzte Heimat der Unverzweifelten bleibt dagegen der Glaube. Was Edge angeht, wird diese Erwartung jedoch enttäuscht. ...



IL GIORNALE (Genoa)
January 6, 2008

Turnaround for Scientists
Matteo Sacchi

What is the coolest online forum, one where scientists and great minds from all over the world exchange opinions and ideas, and the one that keeps the scientific debate alive? Almost certainly it’s edge.org, an American website whose most ardent supporters include, to quote some of the best known, Richard Dawkins, the famous and controversial evolutionary biologist and author of The Selfish Gene; Brian Eno, the visionary music producer; psychologist Steven Pinker; and physicists like Alan Guth or Gino Segré, who are changing the present vision of the universe. This where you’ll run into debates that count, thanks also to a device that has started a cultural trend: every year edge.org asks an artful question that the big brains who haunt its electronic pages are invited to answer. This year’s question is: What have you changed your mind about? Why?

The mea culpa flocked in in great numbers and from prestigious sources, (more than a hundred in a few days), revealing that the greatest minds are changing their opinions on a lot of subjects, from the expansion of the universe to evolution, from the meaning of science to the workings of the human brain through the value of the Roman Empire in front of the barbarians.

PDF VERSION

...



THE NEWS & OBSERVER — Raleigh-Durham
January 6, 2008

Zane:

The changing of the mind
By J. Peder Zane, Staff Writer

... As in the past, these world-class thinkers have responded to Web site editor John Brockman's impossibly open-ended questions with erudition, imagination and clarity.

In explaining why they have cast aside old assumptions, the respondents' short essays tackle an array of subjects, including the nature of consciousness, the existence of the soul, the course of evolution and whether reason will ultimately triumph over superstition.

Two of the most interesting answers may signal a cease-fire in the gender wars.

In 2005, Harvard President Lawrence *. Summers was assailed for suggesting that innate differences might explain why there are few top women scientists. Now Diane F. Halpern, a psychology professor at Claremont Mc-Kenna College and a self-described "feminist," says Summers was onto something.

"There are real, and in some cases sizable, sex differences with respect to cognitive abilities," she writes.

Her views are echoed by Helena Cronin, a philosopher at the London School of Economics.

"Females," she writes, "are much of a muchness, clustering around the mean." With men, "the variance — the difference between the most and the least, the best and the worst — can be vast." Translation: There may be fewer female geniuses in certain fields, but there are also fewer female morons...

...



BLOGGINGHEADS TV
January 5, 2008

Science Saturday: New Beliefs for a New Year

• Edge.org’s annual question
• George’s answer to the Edge question
• John’s answer to the Edge question


John Horgan & George Johnson

John and George’s New Year resolutions; John softens his pessimism about neuroscience ; The soccer club theory of terrorism; The trouble with relying on experts; How George got hooked on garage-band science; Happiness is a burning bridge.

...



THE GLOBE AND MAIL
January 5, 2008
OPINIONS


Hark! A shriek-inducing wake-up call; Culture can change our genes. Men really do outperform women. We can't predict the future ...


Margaret Wente Comment Column; Second Thoughts

If you want to start your year with a jolt of fresh thinking, I have just the thing. Each year around this time, a Web-based outfit called the Edge Foundation asks a few dozen of the world's brightest scientific brains one big question. This year's question: What have you changed your mind about?

The answers address a fabulous array of issues, including the existence of God, the evolution of mankind, climate change and the nature of the universe. Some of the most provocative responses deal with the bonanza of new evidence from the fast-evolving fields of genetics, neuroscience and evolutionary biology. This is the intellectual equivalent of a New Year's dip in the lake - bracing, possibly shriek-inducing, and bound to wake you up. For the full menu, go to www.edge.org. Meantime, here's a taste. ...

...



THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
January 5, 2008

The Informed Reader
CULTURE
Change of Mind Could Spur A Hardening of the Heart

EDGE -- JAN. 4

When scientists and other prominent intellectuals change their mind about important things, their new outlook often is gloomier.
That, at least, is the theme of responses to a survey conducted by online science-and-culture publication the Edge, which asked some influential thinkers: "What have you changed your mind about? Why?"

...Fittingly, Harvard University psychologist Daniel Gilbert says he has changed his mind about the benefits of changing one's mind. In 2002, a study showed him that people are more satisfied with irrevocable decisions than with ones they can reverse. Acting on the data, he proposed to his now-wife. "It turned out that the data were right: I love my wife more than I loved my girlfriend."

...



TORONTO STAR
January 5, 2008

CHANGING YOUR MIND
In praise of the flip

Ralph Waldo Emerson called consistency the hobgoblin of little minds, yet we live in a world where 'flip-floppers' are treated with contempt. An ambitious new survey of top thinkers, however, serves as a reminder of how healthy it is to change one's mind

Sandro Contenta
Staff Reporter

...Challenging this complacency is a project by the Edge Foundation, a group promoting discussion and inquiry into issues of our time. To kick off the New Year, the group put this statement and question to many of the world's leading scientists and thinkers:

"When thinking changes your mind, that's philosophy. When God changes your mind, that's faith. When facts change your mind, that's science. What have you changed your mind about?"

Answers, posted on the website www.edge.org, came from 164 people, many of them physicists, philosophers, psychologists and anthropologists. They ring like scientific odes to uncertainty, humility and doubt; passionate pleas for critical thought in a world threatened by blind convictions. In short, they're calls for more people who can change their minds. ...

...



WASHINGTON POST
January 4, 2008

RAW FISHER
Marc Fisher


RFQ: What Have You Changed Your Mind About? (Plus: Last Chance on the Coin Contest)

...University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt says he used to consider sports and fraternities to be the height of American celebration of stupidity. "Primitive tribalism, I thought. Initiation rites, alcohol, sports, sexism, and baseball caps turn decent boys into knuckleheads. I'd have gladly voted to ban fraternities, ROTC, and most sports teams from my university." But Haidt has changed his mind: "I had too individualistic a view of human nature. I began to see us not just as chimpanzees with symbolic lives but also as bees without hives. When we made the transition over the last 200 years from tight communities (Gemeinschaft) to free and mobile societies (Gesellschaft), we escaped from bonds that were sometimes oppressive, yes, but into a world so free that it left many of us gasping for connection, purpose, and meaning. I began to think about the many ways that people, particularly young people, have found to combat this isolation. Rave parties and the Burning Man festival are spectacular examples of new ways to satisfy the ancient longing for communitas. But suddenly sports teams, fraternities, and even the military made a lot more sense." ...

...



INFECTIOUS GREED
January 1, 2008

What Have You Changed Your Mind About?
by Paul Kedrosky

This year's Big Question at Edge from John Brockman, et al., is this, What have you changed your mind about? This is, at least, an interesting question, so I'll start by saying that what I've changed my mind about is whether, in general, the Edge's annual question is worth reading. Okay, sometimes it is.

That said, are any specific answers to this year's Big Question worth reading? Somewhat surprisingly, yes. Granted, some of the answers are just wankery, scientists and others saying that they used to think we wouldn't solve Problem X, and now they think we will, someday, etc. Or, worse yet, there is a passel of up-with-the-environment puffery, where the previously unconverted become carbon holy-rollers. ...

Here are a couple worth reading. Feel free to add more.

Economist Dan Kahneman on the aspiration treadmill
Clay Shirky on science and religion
Nassim Taleb on .... nothing (okay, incomplete, but I still like the semiotic pun)...

...



NATIONAL REVIEW ONLINE
January 3, 2008


the corner

Plato Had a Bad Year [John Derbyshire]

For an exceptionally high quotient of interesting ideas to words, this is hard to beat. ... What a feast of egg-head opinionating!

If there's a common tendency running through many of these pieces, it is the fast-rising waters of naturalism, released by a half-century of discoveries in genetics, evolutionary biology, and neuroscience, submerging every other way of looking at the human world.

We are part of nature, a twig on the tree of life. If we are to have any understanding of ourselves, we must start from that. Final answers to ancient questions are beginning to come in. You may not be happy about the answers; but not being happy about them will be like not being happy about Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle.

...



DIE ZEIT
January 2, 2008


Small issue, big answers


Even the best minds of this world sometimes have to accept that they were wrong. Scientists to answer the question of Edge Foundation, which they change their mind — and why.

The responses of the intellectuals are personal, sometimes very technical, but also political. They cover a wide range of what people employed: Climate change, the difference between men and women, but also the question of the existence of God.

...



Correre Della Sera — Italy
January 2, 2008

A Cultural Forum asks leading thinkers and philosophers to share their mistakes

When a scientist admits: I had it wrong

From theories of evolution to differences among races, some scholars' mea culpa are online

LONDON — "When thinking changes your mind, that's philosophy, when God changes your mind, that's faith, when facts change your mind, that's science". This is the introduction to the year’s question as posed by a cultural association to which belong the principal thinkers of this moment, from Richard Dawkins, British evolutionary biologist and author of cult book The Selfish Gene, to psychologist Steven Pinker, passing through music producer Brian Eno.

Hundreds responded to the challenge (perhaps in part because the answers to preceding questions were published as books) and revealed widespread reversals of opinions—sometimes dramatic, sometimes gracious.

...



EL MUNDO — Spain
January 2, 2008

ZOOM: Edge Question


At the beginning of each year is a great event in the Anglo-Saxon culture, or rather, in the social life of that culture...The event is called the Edge Annual Question, bringing together much of the most interesting

Anthropologist Richard Wrangham has introduced a subtle shift in the explanation of the evolutionary history of man: he once believed it to be caused by eating meat, now he believes that the decisive factor is the kitchen, ie, changing from raw to cooked. The response from the musician Brian Eno explains how he went from revolution to evolution, and how he left Maoism for Darwin. ...



THE TIMES
January 1, 2008

Science has second thoughts about life

Even the world’s best brains have to admit to being wrong sometimes: here, leading scientists respond to a new year challenge


Lewis Smith, Science Reporter


The new year is traditionally a time when people tend to look back and try to work out where it all went wrong – and how to get it right in the future.

The new year is traditionally a time when people tend to look back and try to work out where it all went wrong – and how to get it right in the future.

This time the Edge Foundation asked a number of leading scientists and thinkers why they had changed their minds on some of the pivotal issues in their fields. The foundation, a chat forum for intellectuals, posed the question: “When thinking changes your mind, that’s philosophy. When God changes your mind, that’s faith. When facts change your mind, that’s science. What have you changed your mind about? Why?”

The group’s responses covered controversial issues, including climate change, whether God or souls exist and defining when humanity began.

This time the Edge Foundation asked a number of leading scientists and thinkers why they had changed their minds on some of the pivotal issues in their fields. The foundation, a chat forum for intellectuals, posed the question: “When thinking changes your mind, that’s philosophy. When God changes your mind, that’s faith. When facts change your mind, that’s science. What have you changed your mind about? Why?”

The group’s responses covered controversial issues, including climate change, whether God or souls exist and defining when humanity began.

...


Posted by Zonk on Tuesday January 01, @12:41PM
from the read-dawkins'-it's-awesome dept.
chrisd writes

"The Edge 2008 question (with answers) is in. This year, the question is: 'What did you change your mind about and why?'. Answers are featured from scientists as diverse as Richard Dawkins, Simon Baron-Cohen, George Church, David Brin, J. Craig Venter and the Astronomer Royal, Lord Martin Rees, among others. Very interesting to read. For instance, Stewart Brand writes that he now realizes that 'Good old stuff sucks' and Sam Harris has decided that 'Mother Nature is Not Our Friend.' What did Slashdot readers change their minds about in 2007?"

...



GUARDIAN UNLIMITED
January 1, 2008


Change of heart


What did you change your mind about in 2007? The world's intellectual elite spread some New Year humility.

James Randerson, science correspondent


Since I wrote my piece on this year's show of scientific humility for the New Year's day paper some big names have added their thoughts to the mix.

Here's evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins on how being a "flip-flopper" is no bad thing in science...

The controversial geneticist Craig Venter has had a change of heart about the capacity of our planet to soak up the punishment humanity is throwing at it...

There are also interesting contributions from Simon Baron-Cohen, the University of Cambridge autism researcher who has changed his mind about equality; psychologist Susan Blackmore, who has gone from embracing the paranormal to debunking it; and artist and composer Brian Eno, who was once seduced by Maoism, but now believes it is a "monstrosity".

What did you change your mind about in 2007?

...



THE INDEPENDENT
January 1, 2008


Deep thinkers reveal that they, too, can change their minds

Steve Connor

Helena Cronin, a philosopher at the London School of Economics, turns her attention to why men appear far more successful than women, by persistently walking off with the top positions and prizes in life — from being heads of state to winning Nobels.

Dr Cronin used to think it was down to sex differences in innate talents, tastes and temperament. But now she believes it has also something to do with the fact that women cluster around a statistical average, whereas men are more likely to be represented at the extreme ends of the normal spectrum — both at the top and the bottom.

Some replies to the Edge question ponder the perennial problem of God. Professor Patrick Bateson of Cambridge University has changed his mind on what to call himself after meeting a virulent creationist. He is no longer an agnostic but an atheist. Meanwhile the actor and writer Alan Alda said that he has changed his mind about God — twice.

What have you changed your mind about? Why?

...



O'REILLY RADAR
January 1, 2008


What Have You Changed Your Mind About?

By Tim O'Reilly

...I eventually offered some ideas and he jumped on one: my skepticism about the term "social software" after Clay Shirky's "Social Software Summit" in November 2002. As it turns out, Clay was right and I was wrong. This was a powerful meme indeed, just five years early.

Here's what I wrote for the 2008 Edge question. As I suspected, it's a meager offering at a remarkable feast of the intellect. Use it, if you must, as an entry point to an amazing group of reflections on science, culture, and the evolution of ideas. Reading the Edge question is like being invited to dinner with some of the most interesting people on the planet.

...



THE GUARDIAN
January 1, 2008


Second thoughts on life, the universe and everything by world's best brains


The changes of mind that gave philosophers and scientists new insights


James Randerson, science correspondent


They are the intellectual elite, the brains the rest of us rely on to make sense of the universe and answer the big questions. But in a refreshing show of new year humility, the world's best thinkers have admitted that from time to time even they are forced to change their minds.

When tackling subjects as diverse as human evolution, the laws of physics and sexual politics, scientists and philosophers, including Steven Pinker, Daniel Dennett, Paul Davies and Richard Wrangham, all confessed yesterday to a change of heart.

The display of scientific modesty was brought about by the annual new year's question posed by the website edge.org, which drew responses from more than 120 of the world's greatest thinkers.

...



THE INDEPENDENT
31 December 2007


Boyd Tonkin: This year, how about some new year's irresolution?


Changes of mind lie at the core of almost every breakthrough in science, art and thought


From tomorrow morning, we can all sample the reasoning that drives shifts in position by a selection of leading scientists and social thinkers. Since 1998, the splendidly enlightened Edge website (www.edge.org) has rounded off each year of inter-disciplinary debate by asking its heavy-hitting contributors to answer one question. This time, the new-year challenge runs: "What have you changed your mind about? Why?". I strongly recommend a visit to anyone who feels browbeaten by fans of that over-rated virtue: mere consistency.

...



ARTS & LETTERS DAILY
January 1 2008

Articles of Note
What have you changed your mind about, and why? John Brockman’s Edge put the question to over a hundred scientists and scholars... more»



THE INDEPENDENT
January 1 2008

COMMENT

Leading article: Why, oh why?

It's becoming something of a New Year ritual. For almost a decade, the website www.edge.org has been asking a selection of eminent thinkers and scholars to answer a single question and publishing the results on 1 January.

In the past it has presented such posers as "What do you believe is true, even though you cannot prove it?" and "What is the most important invention of the past 2,000 years?"

This year Edge wanted to know: "What have you changed your mind about and why?" As usual, it's a good question. And the responses of the likes of Steven Pinker and Helena Cronin are as fascinating and weighty as one would imagine.

...



THE TELEGRAPH
December 31, 2007

Scientists reveal what changed their minds

By Roger Highfield, Science Editor


The best men really do outperform the best women, drugs should be used to enhance our mental powers, and marriages suffer from a “four year itch”, not a seven year one.

These are among the provocative ideas put forward today by leading figures who have been asked what has changed their minds about some of the biggest issues.

The poll of Nobel laureates, scientists, futurists and creative thinkers is published by John Brockman, the New York-based literary agent and publisher of The Edge website.

...


JUST PUBLISHED!
What Are You Optimistic About?:
Today's Leading Thinkers on Why Things Are Good and Getting Better

Introduction by Daniel C. Dennett

"Persuasively upbeat." O, The Oprah Magazine "Our greatest minds provide nutshell insights on how science will help forge a better world ahead." Seed "Uplifting...an enthralling book." The Mail on Sunday


What Is Your Dangerous Idea?: Today's Leading Thinkers on the Unthinkable
Introduction by Steven Pinker
Afterword by Richard Dawkins

"Danger —brilliant minds at work...A brilliant book: exhilarating, hilarious, and chilling." The Evening Standard (London) "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 "Reads like an intriguing dinner party conversation among great minds in science" Discover


What We Believe but Cannot Prove:
Today's Leading Thinkers on Science in the Age of Certainty
Introduction by Ian McEwan

"An unprecedented roster of brilliant minds, the sum of which is nothing short of an oracle — a book ro be dog-eared and debated." Seed "Scientific pipedreams at their very best." The Guardian "Makes for some astounding reading." Boston Globe 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 "Intellectual and creative magnificence" The Skeptical Inquirer

Harvard Coop, December 24, 2007





THE NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE
January 13, 2008

COVER STORY

The Moral Instinct
By STEVEN PINKER

Evolution has endowed us with ethical impulses. Do we know
what to do with them?

Which of the following people would you say is the most admirable: Mother Teresa, Bill Gates or Norman Borlaug? And which do you think is the least admirable? For most people, it’s an easy question. Mother Teresa, famous for ministering to the poor in Calcutta, has been beatified by the Vatican, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and ranked in an American poll as the most admired person of the 20th century. Bill Gates, infamous for giving us the Microsoft dancing paper clip and the blue screen of death, has been decapitated in effigy in “I Hate Gates” Web sites and hit with a pie in the face. As for Norman Borlaug . . . who the heck is Norman Borlaug?

Yet a deeper look might lead you to rethink your answers. Borlaug, father of the "Green Revolution" that used agricultural science to reduce world hunger, has been credited with saving a billion lives, more than anyone else in history. Gates, in deciding what to do with his fortune, crunched the numbers and determined that he could alleviate the most misery by fighting everyday scourges in the developing world like malaria, diarrhea and parasites. Mother Teresa, for her part, extolled the virtue of suffering and ran her well-financed missions accordingly: their sick patrons were offered plenty of prayer but harsh conditions, few analgesics and dangerously primitive medical care.

It’s not hard to see why the moral reputations of this trio should be so out of line with the good they have done. Mother Teresa was the very embodiment of saintliness: white-clad, sad-eyed, ascetic and often photographed with the wretched of the earth. Gates is a nerd’s nerd and the world’s richest man, as likely to enter heaven as the proverbial camel squeezing through the needle’s eye. And Borlaug, now 93, is an agronomist who has spent his life in labs and nonprofits, seldom walking onto the media stage, and hence into our consciousness, at all.

I doubt these examples will persuade anyone to favor Bill Gates over Mother Teresa for sainthood. But they show that our heads can be turned by an aura of sanctity, distracting us from a more objective reckoning of the actions that make people suffer or flourish. It seems we may all be vulnerable to moral illusions the ethical equivalent of the bending lines that trick the eye on cereal boxes and in psychology textbooks. Illusions are a favorite tool of perception scientists for exposing the workings of the five senses, and of philosophers for shaking people out of the naïve belief that our minds give us a transparent window onto the world (since if our eyes can be fooled by an illusion, why should we trust them at other times?). Today, a new field is using illusions to unmask a sixth sense, the moral sense. Moral intuitions are being drawn out of people in the lab, on Web sites and in brain scanners, and are being explained with tools from game theory, neuroscience and evolutionary biology. ...

...




THE NEW REPUBLIC
January 11, 2008

The TNR Q&A

by Isaac Chotiner
'Atonement' author Ian McEwan on Bellow, the Internet, atheism, and why his books are still scary.

What are your online habits? Do you surf the web?Well, I like Edge very much, Arts and Letters is a great resource for me, and then the whole slew of American magazines. I like that tradition-The New Republic, etc. I get them now quite regularly.

Do you read any online reviews?
I don't read the blogs much. I don't like the tone-the rather in-your-face road-rage quality of a lot of exchange on the Internet. I don't like the threads that come out of any given piece of journalism. It seems that when people know they can't be held accountable, when they don't have eye contact, it seems to bring out a rather nasty, truculent, aggressive edge that I think slightly doesn't belong in the world of book reviewing. ...

... Do you see religion as ineradicable, or do you think there is a chance to change people's minds on religion?
I think it is ineradicable, and I think it is a terrible idea to suppress it, too. We have tried that and it joins the list of political oppression. It seems to be fairly deeply stitched into human nature. It seems to be part of all cultures, so I don't expect it to vanish. And yet at the same time, if it is built into human nature, why are there so many people who don't believe in it? I think it is important that people with no religious beliefs speak up and speak for what they value. It is a bit of a problem, the title "Atheist"--no one really wants to be defined by what they do not believe in. We haven't yet settled on a name, but you wouldn't expect a Baptist minister to go around calling himself a Darwinist. But it is crucial that people who do not have a sky god and don't have a set of supernatural beliefs assert their belief in moral values and in love and in the transcendence that they might experience in landscape or art or music or sculpture or whatever. Since they do not believe in an afterlife, it makes them give more valence to life itself. The little spark that we do have becomes all the more valuable when you can't be trading off any moments for eternity.

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CAPITAL TIMES (Madison, Wisconsin)
January 10, 2008


Think positive

Mary Bergin

"What Are You Optimistic About? Today's Leading Thinkers on Why Things Are Good and Getting Better," edited by John Brockman, Harper Perennial, $14.95, 374 pages.

If that "bah, humbug" mood lingers, ponder the observations of an odd assortment of academics and other intellectuals, who choose to see that mug of hot cider as half full. "What Are You Optimistic About?" knows that Americans have an increasingly deep morale problem, so these 150 essays of hope are an antidote for societal despair.

Contributors -- quantum physicist David Deutsch of Oxford, former Time magazine editor James Geary, musician/record producer Brian Eno -- tend to use logic, not sap or divine intervention, to make their arguments. "I am a short-term pessimist but a long-term optimist," writes Paul Saffo, technology forecaster at Stanford. "History is on my side, because the cause of today's fashionable pessimism lies much deeper than the unpleasant surprises of the last half-decade."

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THE AGE (Melbourne, Australia)
January 10, 2008

What Are You Optimistic About?
QUESTIONS
Lorien Kaye

What Are You Optimistic About?
Ed., John Brockman
Simon & Schuster, $29.95

EVERY YEAR, JOHN Brockman, co-founder of the Edge website (a space for scientists and other "empirical thinkers" to exchange ideas), asks his online community to respond to a question. For the past three years, the results have been compiled for wider dissemination. It's a great idea, but with a self-selecting contributor list, the result is somewhat skewed. The subtitle boasts of "today's leading thinkers" but, strictly speaking, this should be "today's leading scientific thinkers". A more balanced anthology would have more than a smattering of contributors from other fields. Further, the almost 150 contributors are predominantly US-based, limiting the perspective.

It is, nevertheless, full of fascinating discussion. Common themes emerge, such as the coming downfall of religion; increased longevity; and a belief that environmental damage will be redressed if not undone, provided we act immediately. Subjects are not confined to what are traditionally seen as scientific issues - there are also multiple pieces about happiness, morality and democracy.

The definition of optimism given by a contributor, that it is "a way of viewing possible futures with the belief that you can affect things for the better", is a reminder of the need for action to be combined with the sort of deep thinking reflected in this collection.