Edge 73 — August 30, 2000`

(11,255 words)


Getting Human Nature Right
A Talk With Helena Cronin

Certainly, human nature is fixed. It's universal and unchanging — common to every baby that's born, down through the history of our species. But human behavior — which is generated by that nature — is endlessly variable and diverse. After all, fixed rules can give rise to an inexhaustible range of outcomes. Natural selection equipped us with the fixed rules — the rules that constitute our human nature. And it designed those rules to generate behavior that's sensitive to the environment. So, the answer to 'genetic determinism' is simple. If you want to change behavior, just change the environment. And, of course, to know which changes would be appropriate and effective, you have to know those Darwinian rules. You need only to understand human nature, not to change it.

Beyond 2001: HAL's Legacy for the Enterprise Generation
By Frank Schirrmacher

Who, if not the Europeans, who, if not the Germans, is in a position to talk about the power role that models can acquire over reality? Wars have been fought over them and whole generations incited to violence in their name. We have studied the images and the language which gave the pioneers of the industrial revolution their confidence and we have encapsulated its life cycle — from the discovery of electricity to the sinking of the Titanic — in parables.


Comments by Kai Krause, Clifford Pickover, Stewart Brand, Jaron Lanier on "Beyond 2001: HAL's Legacy for the Enterprise Generation" By Frank Schirrmacher



Getting Human Nature Right

A Talk With Helena Cronin


Helena Cronin achieved prominence in the early 90's as the author of The Ant and the Peacock: Altruism and Sexual Selection from Darwin to Today,, named one of the Nine Best Books of the Year by the New York Times Book Review in 1992, and widely considered the definitive history and integrative summary of altruism and sexual selection in modern evolutionary biology. It is also unusual in being as well informed in the history and philosophy of the subject as it is up-to-date with modern evolutionary theory.

For several years she ran a highly influential program of public lectures and debates at the London School of Economics which thrust evolutionary biology, psychology, medicine, and social science onto center stage. In convening the intellectual salon known as the [email protected] seminars the "hottest intellectual ticket in London" Cronin carved for herself a unique niche as the convener of a cutting edge intellectual salon of worldwide repute and, in so doing, she has become an important public intellectual in the UK.

Cronin, who is also co-editor of the Darwinism Today book series, has become a renowned champion of Darwinian theory, especially as it applies to the human species and can be used to inform social policy. Through many articles, interviews, and appearances in the British media, she has become known as an eloquent and tough-minded spokesperson for the importance of Darwinism in modern intellectual life.

HELENA CRONIN is a Co-Director of London School of Economic's Centre for Philosophy of Natural and Social Sciences, where she runs the wide ranging and successful program "[email protected]" which fosters research at the forefront of evolutionary theory. She is the author of The Ant and the Peacock: Altruism and Sexual Selection from Darwin to Today.

LINK: [email protected]

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Getting Human Nature Right
A Talk With Helena Cronin

HELENA CRONIN: The questions I'm asking myself at the moment are about the connections between two things. On the one hand, there's what science tells us about the evolved differences between women and men — what we know from modern Darwinian theory. And, on the other hand, there's the public perception of the science, which is largely negative and riddled with misunderstandings. Of course, when evolutionary theory gets applied to our own species, it always arouses opposition. But when it comes to sex differences … that sparks off hostilities and misconceptions all of its own.

It all stems from muddling science and politics. It's as if people believe that if you don't like what you think are the ideological implications of the science then you're free to reject the science — and to cobble together your own version of it instead. Now, I know that sounds ridiculous when it's spelled out explicitly. Science doesn't have ideological implications; it simply tells you how the world is — not how it ought to be. So, if a justification or a moral judgement or any such 'ought' statement pops up as a conclusion from purely scientific premises, then obviously the thing to do is to challenge the logic of the argument, not to reject the premises. But, unfortunately, this isn't often spelled out. And so, again and again, people end up rejecting the science rather than the fallacy.

The 'implication' that seems to worry people most of all is so-called 'genetic determinism'. It's the notion that, if human nature was shaped by evolution, then it's fixed and so we're simply stuck with it — there's nothing we can do about it. We can never change the world to be the way we want, we can never institute fairer societies; policy-making and politics are pointless.

Now, that's a complete misunderstanding. It doesn't distinguish between human nature — our evolved psychology — and the behavior that results from it. Certainly, human nature is fixed. It's universal and unchanging — common to every baby that's born, down through the history of our species. But human behavior — which is generated by that nature — is endlessly variable and diverse. After all, fixed rules can give rise to an inexhaustible range of outcomes. Natural selection equipped us with the fixed rules — the rules that constitute our human nature. And it designed those rules to generate behavior that's sensitive to the environment. So, the answer to 'genetic determinism' is simple. If you want to change behavior, just change the environment. And, of course, to know which changes would be appropriate and effective, you have to know those Darwinian rules. You need only to understand human nature, not to change it.

Margo Wilson's and Martin Daly's classic work on homicide illustrates this very clearly. Homicide rates vary enormously across different societies. When the rate in Chicago was 900 murders per million of the population per annum (for same-sex, non-kin killings) — this was in the 1970s and 80s — the rate in England and Wales was 30; and in Iceland there were hardly any murders at all. Now, there's no difference in the genes, no difference in human nature, in these places. And that shows up very dramatically when you look at the patterns of the murders. Although the rates are vastly different, the patterns are exactly the same. If you shrink the axes of the Chicago graph of the age and sex of the murderers and lay it over the England/Wales graph, the curves are an exact fit. It's overwhelmingly young men killing young men — starting, peaking and trailing off at exactly the same ages. What makes the difference to the rates is the different environments. And that's crucial for policy. We understand what it is about our evolved minds that leads to such different rates in different environments — the universal propensity of males to be highly competitive, which under extreme conditions can end up in homicide. And that tells us what conditions we'd need to create to lower the murder rates. Indeed, far from being 'genetic determinism', we can see why the Darwinian approach has even been called — with only a touch of irony — 'an environmentalist discipline'.

'Genetic determinism' fosters the notion that, if genes are part of the causal process, then in order to change outcomes you've got to tweak the genes — you've got to alter that one particular cause. That's a very odd idea. There's no reason why you can't intervene at any part of the causal process, no reason why genes should take precedence. As we've seen with murder rates, when you're dealing with the universals of human nature, the environment is the obvious place to intervene. But that can also be true even when you're dealing with genetic differences between people. There are genetic differences, for example, in the propensity to develop adult diabetes. In an environment in which people eat traditional food — low calorie-density, high fibre, low fat, low sugar — nobody develops this kind of diabetes. But expose these populations to a modern diet and the people with the greater hereditary disposition show up immediately. Similarly, there could be genetic differences in men's disposition to compete. But, in appropriate environments — more Iceland than Chicago — those differences would barely show up in the homicide statistics.

There are lots of other notions packed into 'genetic determinism' — to do with free will and responsibility, control over your life and so on. But I've yet to discover a single interpretation of 'genetic determinism' that carries any of the implications that people seem to worry so much about. On the contrary, it turns out that whatever applies to genes applies equally to 'environments'. So, if people fear 'genetic determinism', they should be worrying equally about 'environmental determinism'.

Now, this kind of thinking applied to sex differences has led to deep hostility to the very idea of evolved differences between women and men. And feminists in particular have led this opposition. Of course, 'feminism' covers a multitude of views. There's often not much in common between the unreconstructed Marxists of the British Left, the 'post-modern' jargon-generators and the CEO who's flicking shards of glass ceiling from her padded shoulders. But one thing on which most schools of feminism agree is that they're anti-Darwinian. Even the so-called 'difference' feminists, who 'celebrate' 'us' versus 'them', prefer to invent differences rather than defer to science. I find it all very dismaying — and, as a Darwinian and a feminist, doubly dismaying.

I think this retrenchment stems from a vague belief that you can't have fairness without sameness. I say 'vague' because, once you say it, you can see it's obviously false. But lots of strands of feminism have somehow got themselves committed to the view that if men and women are in any ways fundamentally different it will undermine the quest for a fair and egalitarian society. What originally inspired feminism was the idea that women shouldn't be discriminated against qua women — where it was irrelevant that they were women. Being barred from universities or owning property or whatever, not because they were incapable but because they were women. But that original inspiration gets into a terrible twist when you deny evolved sex differences. Things have got to the point where there's expected to be some kind of 50:50 representation of men and women everywhere — universities, workplace, politics, sport, childcare. So, if women are under-represented, it's put down to sexism alone. Well, whether or not sexism is operating, evolved sex differences certainly will be — differences in dispositions, skills, interests, and ambitions. So women are very likely to make systematically different choices from men. And it's that — not blanket 50:50 distributions — which we should expect fair policies to reflect.

EDGE: Is it a question of defining what is a woman?

CRONIN: No. It's not to do with definitions. For an evolutionary biologist, the defining characteristic of females and males is their sex cells: eggs or sperm. But that's just the fundamental difference from which all other sex differences proliferate. So we can leave definitions behind, move on from eggs and sperm, and ask which characteristics are sex-typical in our species — just as we ask which characteristics are species-typical or age-typical or typical of stages of development, in our species or any other.

Now, unlike whether you're an egg-bearer or a sperm-bearer, this kind of characterisation doesn't cleave our species neatly into two. And people often seize on this as anti-Darwinian ammunition. I'm sure you've heard the argument: "But the differences within the sexes are greater than the differences between them". Well, I said it's an argument. But it's usually stated just like that — as premisses without a conclusion. I think the implication is meant to be that there's so much overlap in the distributions that the Darwinian interest in differences is misleading.

But is that right? It needs thinking through — but when I try, the argument tends to fall apart. For a start, how important the difference is depends on why you're interested in it, what your aim is. If your aim is to get rich, don't try selling pornography to women or romantic novels to men; don't try selling 'Kill! Kill!' computer games to girls or 'people' games to boys. And, anyway, you can't simply generalise about how large the overlap is; it depends on the characteristic. There'll be almost no overlap if you pitch boys against girls in throwing missiles — the boys will win every time; and almost no overlap in fluency of speech — nine out of ten men will do worse than women. Then there's the fact that, even if the mean differences are small, there can be huge differences at the extremes. Men are on average only a few inches taller than women; but all the very tallest people are male. So men might end up ahead just for that statistical reason alone.

There's also a curious fact — it's one that's been uncovered by evolutionary biology — about the shapes of the distribution curves for most male-female differences. Darwin remarked on it and it holds robustly across other species, too. It's that males are far more variable than females — they are over-represented both at the top of the heap and at the bottom of the barrel. For some characteristics, people might not care. But what about this implication? Fewer women are likely to be dunces but also fewer will be geniuses. When I mentioned this in a seminar in the States, I was sharply corrected by a group of feminists: "There's no such thing as genius". I later discovered that this had become a fairly standard 'feminist studies' line. I couldn't help wondering whether 'genius' had been airbrushed out because there weren't many women in the picture. Darwinian theory also suggests that it's important to look at differences in disposition and interests, as well as abilities. Will the top piano student become the international star? Being competitive, status-conscious, dedicated, single-minded, persevering — it can make all the difference to success. And these are qualities that a lot of men are far more likely to possess, often in alarming abundance.

So what you have to do for any characteristic is ask how important it is that there's much overlap, what difference it makes to the policy you're dealing with and so on. The 'differences within and between' argument somehow has a politically correct air. But it's actually useless — or downright misleading — as a guide to making decisions.

I also suspect — I say 'suspect' because 'within and between' is a bit vague — I suspect that, although this is a popular argument with feminists, it doesn't always fit happily with other feminist arguments. If there are wide 'differences within', then women aren't very homogenous — there's a wide spread of abilities and dispositions — and some proportion of women will be in the male end of the distribution. That might be for any characteristic, from hormone levels to 3D rotation (being able to imagine rotating objects in space — a notoriously male trick). But how does this mesh with the idea that women who are high achievers in traditionally male pursuits — engineering, mountaineering or whatever — are 'role models' for other women? The idea is that these women are just like the others and it's only male prejudice and self-doubt that's holding the other women back. But maybe these women are the extremes of those 'differences within' that feminists themselves emphasise — and so they're not just like the next woman? But then how can feminists confidently claim that it's only prejudice and self-doubt that's preventing any woman from achieving the same?

Worse, how can anyone confidently point to these women — as anti-Darwinians often do — as evidence against evolved sex differences? And, actually, it does turn out that this confidence is seriously misplaced. Far from undermining an evolutionary analysis, these women are probably exceptions that prove the Darwinian rule. So, for example, with 3D rotation, women exposed in the womb to high levels of androgen perform far better than normal women — indeed, almost as well as men. And with dispositions, too — women in traditionally male professions respond to challenges with a characteristically 'male' high adrenaline charge; and it seems that their job choice follows their disposition rather than — as I wrongly guessed when I first heard this — their disposition being shaped by the job.

A final example. 'Within and between' is used routinely to remind people like me that sex differences are only statistical generalisations and that they don't hold true for all individuals — which is, of course, right. But isn't the glass ceiling 'only' a statistical generalisation? There's an overlap in men's and women's jobs, particularly in middle management; some women are higher up than the average man — and so on. But is that a reason for dismissing the glass ceiling as unimportant? Statistical generalisations are exactly what many feminist issues are all about.

I think that the statistical distribution of male-female differences is a really interesting issue, with important implications for policy. It's one of those areas that's just waiting for the marriage of the evolutionary approach — which deals with universals — and behavior genetics — which deals with individual differences. I'm really keen to see research on this. It seems to me to be something that Darwinism, feminism and policy-makers most definitely need to deal with. Meanwhile, 'within and between' gets us nowhere.

EDGE: How would your conclusions impact social policy?

CRONIN: How could responsible social policy not be informed by an evolutionary understanding of sex differences? All policy-making should incorporate an understanding of human nature — and that means both female and male nature. Remember that if policy-makers want to change behavior, they have to change the environment appropriately. And what's appropriate can be very different for women and for men. Darwinian theory is crucial for pointing us to those differences.

I heard an American comedian the other day taking a swipe at 'creeping neo-Darwinism'. "I don't believe in the criminal gene", he said, "but, if there was one, I think they'd find it right next to the out-of-work one". All very politically correct. But dead wrong on the differential impact of unemployment on men and women. For a woman, unemployment means loss of a job; for a man, it means loss of status. And this difference combines with other sex differences to take women and men down very different pathways once the workplace door closes on them. So, for example … A low-status man is a low-status mate; he'll have more difficulty finding a partner. And more difficulty keeping one; couples in which the wife earns more than the husband are more likely to divorce. Domestic violence stems from male sexual jealousy; low status is a potent factor for moving the psychological machinery of jealousy into high gear. And it turns out that misattributed paternity is as minimal as 1% among very high-status American males but up to 30% among unemployed, deprived, inner-city males. What's more, as in many other species, being low on the hierarchy has a demonstrable clinical impact on men's health and longevity. And, again as in other species, when the future looks inauspicious, males are more likely to take risks. If 'criminal genes' turn up next to 'unemployment genes' in men, it's because a distinctive male psychology is making the links. Anyone who really cares about unemployment and its appalling social ramifications shouldn't be sniping at evolutionary theory; they should be embracing it. It's absolutely indispensable for getting a handle on the relevant causal connections.

Sex-blind social policy isn't impartial, it isn't more fair — it's less so. Why, for example, assume that girls and boys learn in the same way? If you look, say, at maths — the academic area in which sex differences are most extreme — the boys' advantage apparently rests on their innate superiority in mechanical and 3D thinking. Now, there's some evidence that girls improve considerably if they're taught in ways that circumvent this. That's the kind of thing that a fair education policy should be concerned with. And the same goes for the law, for the workplace, for economic planning … for whatever field social policy is being devised. We're not an androgynous species. Fair policies should reflect that fact.

We're living in a rapidly changing world. There's the increase in male unemployment. There's women finally having the resources to go it alone as parents. And women finding that, as their own status rises, the pool of potential partners shrinks. There are increasing inequalities, consigning substantial proportions of men to permanently low status in a 'winner-take-all' game. How will our Stone Age minds react to these changes? What will be significant for men and for women? Does Darwinian theory have an impact on social policy? How could it not?

EDGE: Obviously you're controversial?

CRONIN: Yes. But I shouldn't be. I'm just doing standard science.

In fact, it should be the other way round. It's people who are prepared to talk about policy and society without knowing the first thing about human nature that should be considered controversial.

EDGE: How do you deal with relativism?

CRONIN: Post-modernism and its stable-mates — they're obviously all complete balderdash, not to be taken seriously intellectually. But as a social scourge they have to be taken very seriously. Apart from the sciences, which have built-in immunity, they've taken a frightening hold on academia — on people who are influential and who are teaching future generations of influential people. It's the resulting attitudes to science that I most deplore — the view that there are no universal standards by which to judge truth or falsity or even logical validity; that science doesn't make progress; that there's nothing distinctive about scientific knowledge; and so on. One of the reasons why so much logic-free, fact-free, statistics-free criticism of Darwinism has been able to find an audience is this attitude that science is just another view so I'm free to adopt my view, any view.

EDGE: There's a lot of scientists and science writers out there communicating with the public and there's no central canon of science. When you use the word science in public discourse aren't you trying to beat somebody over the head?

CRONIN: No, absolutely not. First, there is a central canon — a very robust one. The disagreements — especially those that attract public attention — are rarely to do with core theories. They're usually about the elaboration of those theories — healthy disagreements about a core that's fundamentally agreed on. But second, and more important, the canon of science, what gives it authority, is above all its method. So, when scientists have those disagreements, there are objective ways of deciding between them. Theories must be testable and then must pass the tests. On a day-to-day basis things won't always be clear-cut; it's not an instant process. Neither, of course, is it infallible. But it's by far the best we've got and it's done a breath-takingly impressive job so far. As for "trying to beat somebody over the head" … It's not individual scientists being authoritarian. It's science being an authority — and rightly so because it is indeed authoritative. So, once people understand that there's a vast distinction between science and non-science, and the distinction lies in scientific method, they'll understand the status of current disagreements and how to assess them.

EDGE: What would Charles Darwin have thought if he knew that he was being used today as an excuse to fool around?

CRONIN: I think he'd say the same as I'm saying, which is that there's a difference between what science tells us are our evolved propensities and the moral status of our behavior. And it's fallacious to go from facts to values. So evolved propensities don't constitute an excuse.

EDGE: There are certainly no lack of critics of the "Darwin-made-me-do-it school." Many scientists doing lab work, messing around with the brain, physical body, don't seem persuaded.

CRONIN: Yes, a century and a half after the publication of the Origin and still Darwinian theory hasn't penetrated into many areas of biology. And, even among biologists who do take an adaptationist approach, all too many of them drop it rather hastily when it comes to our own species — particularly when it comes to our psychology and our behavior — and most of all when it comes to sex differences. I'm often reminded of the anti-Darwinian attitudes of the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century — the period that's been called 'the eclipse of Darwinism'. Biology was rife with vulgar empiricism — dismissing adaptationist explanations on the grounds that they were teleological, going beyond the evidence, and so they weren't genuine science.

The problem's not only with the public's perception of Darwinism and sex differences. Many a scientist has also yet to be persuaded. They seem to have learned from the mistakes of the past how to make new ones. But while the earlier rejection of Darwinism was rather tragic, this one's looking increasingly like farce. It's clear which way the history of science is going from here.

Beyond 2001: HAL's Legacy for the Enterprise Generation
By Frank Schirrmacher

FRANK SCHIRRMACHER became head of the arts and science department of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, one of the most influential German newspapers . He has been one of the publishers of FAZ since 1994.

Beyond 2001: HAL's Legacy for the Enterprise Generation
By Frank Schirrmacher

DALLAS. Doubtless, the visitor tells himself, doubtless Bill Joy's worries are nothing more than science fiction — the irrational fears of a run away engineer.

Which is why he was so pleased to find an answer to them — a rejoinder by Robert A. Freitas called "Some Limits to Global Ecophagy," which can be downloaded from the Internet. Freitas addresses the fear that nanorobots might one day replicate unrestricted and out of control and take over the planet.

A rejoinder which consigns Joy to the realms of science fiction — which of us would not applaud? Freitas' article is 30 pages long and contains a lot of complex sums. But the point of these computations is not to tell us whether or not atomic nanorobots are feasible. Instead, they tell us how to read the tell-tale signs of rampant robotic procreation and what can be done to stop it. Freitas tells us how we can use global warming to measure the spread of nanorobots. He also calculates the energy consumption of all the insects and all the birds on the Earth. His paper has already been presented to the U.S. authorities responsible for President Clinton's nanotechnology initiative. It is an advisory paper intended for politicians.

What is extraordinary about this scientific debate is that both Joy and Freitas are talking about a technology which is so far in the future that even the word infancy would be premature. Yet both are convinced — Joy with grave concern and Freitas full of hope — that it will dominate the next great industrial revolution.

Freitas, a man not even 40, was commissioned by NASA to conduct an extensive study of self-replicating systems for long-distance space travel. He has just published the first volume of his "Nanomedicine," another science which doesn't yet exist but is nevertheless described in great detail. He is a quiet and unassuming scientist, whose patrons include the 1996 Nobel laureate in chemistry, Richard E. Smalley. It was Smalley's own paper on "Nanotechnology and the Next 50 Years" which helped establish nanotechnology as a serious new branch of science. Ray Kurzweil and Ralph Merkle are also among those who find it difficult to dismiss Freitas as a dreamer. "We've got to learn," Smalley said in his paper, "how to build machines, materials, and devices with the ultimate finesse that life has always used: atom by atom, on the same nanometer scale as the machinery in living cells." To which Freitas responds, "This is something we will learn."

Freitas responded to Joy because he considers Joy's concerns to be legitimate. "That's exactly what we're doing here," he says, referring to Zyvex's bunker like pavilion near Dallas. Zyvex, which likes to describe itself as the first private molecular nanotechnology development company in the United States, doesn't build nanorobots as yet. According to Freitas, however, that's only a matter of time. "We can move single atoms around with our tweezers," he says, "but we can't yet put them down exactly where we want them." Once this becomes possible, he tells us, it should, in theory, be possible to create completely new materials. At present, however, Zyvex is still working on the tools required for such a job, including tweezers just 0.5 mm (0.02 inches) long which can open and close 1,000 times per second.

The visitor leaves the story on the possibilities and hazards of nanotechnology to his better informed colleagues. What interests him, apart from the rather spooky dialogue between Joy and Freitas, is the imagination which provides the raw material for this new reality.

"I was a dyed-in-the-wool Trekkie," says Freitas. And those who want to get an idea of what is currently going on in the twilight zone between science, fantasy and politics must take such confessions seriously. Just as the German archeologist Heinrich Schliemann's generation was obsessed with Homer, so all the great sci-fi epics, especially those on celluloid, have left their mark on these 40-something scientists. And they now have the education and — thanks to the new economy — the enormous financial resources they need to pursue their version of reality. Schliemann wanted to find Troy, while these pioneers are on a quest for their own childhood utopias. It is not just the child's desire to fly through interstellar space or even the prospect of scientific prestige — such as was recently reaped in by Craig Venter — which motivates them. Death is also a driving force, as is the fear of death. Jim van Ehr, whose complex software developments have earned him billions of dollars, is the man now bankrolling Zyvex. And he is getting impatient. Having just turned 50, he knows he doesn't have so many years ahead of him. He, too, carries a lot of Hollywood baggage around with him.

He, too, wants to know what the future will be like, even if that means having himself deep-frozen after death — an idea which not just Freitas, but nearly everyone in the lab is deeply committed to.

"I was created in the HAL factory in Urbana, Illinois on January 12, 1997." These are the words with which Arthur C. Clarke, in his 1968 novel "2001 — A Space Odyssey" (later filmed by Stanley Kubrick), introduces us to the supercomputer HAL, to a machine with artificial intelligence powerful enough to destroy both the spaceship and its crew. It's now Aug. 1, 2000 and HAL is still a utopia, no matter how firmly this utopia — like the heroes of the real Odyssey — is anchored in the hearts and minds of an entire generation.

Taking such stuff seriously is considered taboo among intellectuals. Those intellectuals who do read Joy therefore reserve most of their contempt for that passage in his treatise in which he describes a future in which humans are no longer needed. It is at this point that he narrates his very own bildungsroman and acknowledges the influence of such sci-fi classics as Isaac Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein and above all, Star Trek, the adventures of the starship Enterprise, which he used to watch while his parents went bowling. This, we hear, is also the quality of his warnings: Science fiction in the style of an American soap.

We have spent decades training ourselves to think of history in terms of ideologies, motives, influences and world views. Why does one think the way he thinks? Who indoctrinates a person? The "old world" spent decades worrying about the long-term effects Hollywood might have on our children. And now that we know the answer to this question, now that we are indeed confronted with the results of Captain Kirk, the educator — are contempt and ridicule our only response? Haven't at least our professional, cultural and literary critics noticed what is going on here?

Who, if not the Europeans, who, if not the Germans, is in a position to talk about the power role that models can acquire over reality? Wars have been fought over them and whole generations incited to violence in their name. We have studied the images and the language which gave the pioneers of the industrial revolution their confidence and we have encapsulated its life cycle — from the discovery of electricity to the sinking of the Titanic — in parables.

But now, as President Clinton said when his government's nanotechnological initiative was launched this February, we are at the threshold of the "third industrial revolution." Surely, then, it is time to ask how the agents of this revolution perceive themselves and the roles they are playing, to ask what influenced them as children, who their role models were and what are their goals? It is not Joy but rather Jeremy Rifkin who describes the situation as follows, in "The Biotech Century": "Never before in history has humanity been so unprepared for the new technological and economic opportunities, challenges, and risks that lie on the horizon. Our way of life is likely to be more fundamentally transformed in the next several decades than in the previous 1,000 years. By the year 2025, we and our children may be living in a world utterly different from anything human beings have ever experienced in the past." Rifkin's own term for this transformation is "remaking the world."

People have always wondered what kind of people Hollywood's galaxies would one day produce. We know now. The first generation is already there. Joy, the founder of Sun-Microsystems and one of the prime movers behind the transformation now taking place, claims to have been influenced and motivated above all by "Star Trek." The office of Rick Rashid, Microsoft's head of research, is full of "Star Trek" memorabilia. Venter feels a deep affinity for Christopher Columbus as well as for Jules Verne's Captain Nemo. Two years ago, MIT Press published a book called "HAL's Legacy: The Computers of 2001 as Dream and Reality." In this book, several scientists discuss whether HAL really could exist and the technology which would be necessary to make it happen. More important than their crushing conclusion — that computers will not even be able to talk the way HAL talks in the film — is the following message: HAL is fantasy, not science.

Yet HAL has inspired countless scientists to make fantasy a reality. The magazine Scientific American went so far as to suggest that our anthropomorphic view of machines can be attributed almost exclusively to Kubrick's movie. Had it not been for those people who followed up the visions of Clarke and Kubrick, we would not even have what limited artificial intelligence there is today, the magazine said.

We have known for centuries that art can change reality, but we still resist the logical extension of this insight to the realms of science and technology.

When Jaron Lanier complains that the current generation of scientists and engineers did not even grow up with the tools of scientific skepticism, then this obviously has something to do with the quasi-aesthetic education of engineers and scientists. There is indeed an element of Bohemian outlandishness inherent in both the hopes and fears of people like Kurzweil, Joy, Rifkin, Venter and Freitas, and in this country at least, this outlandishness is barely understood.

Yet it is these same people who also have the courage to take cognitive risks — as if taking the legacy of the 20th century one stage further. "Why can't we write all 24 volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica on a pin head?" asked the great American physicist, Robert Feynman, 41 years ago, adding, wryly, that space was plenty. "This," says Freitas, "was the beginning of nanotechnology. And you know what? There's enough space there for us all."

Aug. 1

Copyright © Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 2000
All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part is prohibited.


Comments by Kai Krause, Clifford Pickover, Stewart Brand, Jaron Lanier on "Beyond 2001: HAL's Legacy for the Enterprise Generation" By Frank Schirrmacher

From: Kai Krause
Date: August 5, 2000

It's time to remember that the future cannot be extrapolated from the past!
By Kai Krause

In the 1930s there was a lovely movie called Metropolis by Fritz Lang, probably one of the best in its genre. Here was a vision of the future where factory workers in gigantic cities under glass domes would endlessly turn huge wheels and push gigantic buttons.

How incredibly far this description strays from the reality now that we have hit 2000 need not be further expounded, but it strikes me as amazing that there are still attempts over and over again to do the exact same simplistic extrapolations from today forward.

The chances that the newfangled production lines and electrical machinery of the 1930s would somehow multiply was obvious, however the manner in which this would play itself out was NOT more and larger or anything linear.

And the same will inevitably apply to the new worlds of nanotechnology and roboticae.

As a optimistic realist skeptic I have to wonder what the point is even in either ringing the alarm bells or calmly denying problems in an area that is so certain to undergo mutations at every turn no one not even in this distinguished round should have the hubris to presume they could jump over their own shadow. This is a Gödel-like system exclusion problem, not one scientist merely not having thought long enough, or his colleague overlooking some detail and if only they argue enough we'll divine this future. We won't. Period.

The only value of the recent manifestos published by Joy and Kurzweil published by Schirrmacher in FAZ may well be the PR effects for the authors, but I see literally no real basis for serious discussion in the contrived dreams or fears. It's too early, we know too little, ideas mutate too fast. Clearly there will be immense changes ahead, but what is the point of talking about "robots becoming too aware" when you can't even add a number into your cell phone without 35 keystrokes.

Where is the grandiose A.I. when we barely have machines that stay on for more than an hour without a hiccup. Why can't we build damn PCs that turn on in one second rather than talking about robots that plot evil eradication plans? There needs to be a serious discussion of the implications of technology. But a discussion of the dangers of net pornography would have been very out of place in 1912. A lengthy treatise on portable computers by scholars in 1958 would be entirely useless to us now. Let's wake up to the fact that we just don't have the data and the tools to jump that far.

To discuss the Web one needed to get at least a few years into it to have a base for the curves. Someone in 1993 would make meaningful comments on 2003 and maybe even 2013 but no one in 1976 could have talked about 1996.

For Kurzweil to talk about 40 years out, we may need to get 20 years towards it for any sentence to make any sense!

All the wishful thinking and self-important stances to toil with lofty subject matter gets us dangerously close to the other completely irrelevant "visions" of what may happen. When 1984 was still The Future and everyone works in factories when cars hover and fly away, when aliens have funny facial features and yet always just enough room for a human underneath...Watch any SciFi feature to see how things will not be.

A few other thoughts that tangentially tickle me on this:

• My disappointment lies in the fact that this is all so unimaginative and so anthropocentric. Real aliens don't need merely thicker noses. Who knows what a 3% difference in gravity could bring? You cannot extrapolate a Giraffe from a Hippo....half the creations in nature are mindbogglingly unique solutions, subtle and swift, optimized and beautiful in their mere existence and effectiveness. And yet were are sitting here with Windows Millennium debating way out of our league.

• the downfall of futuristic visions is the MUNDANE. Not miscalculations in technical details, but what real humans out there do with this shit. Spend half an hour in public transportation, watch random over the air TV and then think again. Sit in a decrepit Amtrak and then tell me about the domed cities & whose budget that is.

• the most complex part of the human system may well be the capability to self heal. Imagine every nick and cut and bruise you ever had since childhood cumulatively staying on your body... Never mind the number of neurons and fancy synapse nets that promise to be built in silicon any minute now: if the robots don't have self healing, we have little to worry about. The armies taking over our earth will stall like any hard disk from 4 years ago.

From: Clifford Pickover
Date: August 5, 2000

Frank Schirrmacher discusses several topics. The idea of getting useful ideas from science fiction is not new. Currently there is a big push for this in Europe. For example, the European Space Agency (ESA) has recently asked various foundations to conduct a study on technologies and concepts found in science fiction, in order to obtain imaginative ideas for long-term development by the European space sector. You can learn more by clicking here.

Designer molecules are currently making the biggest impact in the creation of new drugs. Scientists are creating new pharmaceuticals, new amino acids, new proteins, even new genetic codes. I'm sure that someday soon they'll construct entirely new lifeforms. However, if nanotechnology ever develops to a super advanced art in which we can construct pets and lovers from the ground up, why would we ever need "real" ones? Perhaps the difficulty would be that artificial pets and lovers would need to be constructed with a lifetime of "experience" to make them desirable. What types of artificial experience would you like to give to a simulated spouse or companion?


From: Stewart Brand
Date: August 6 , 2000

I agree with Schirrmacher that science fiction has had considerable influence on the current generation of technoids and scientists, but my impression is that it was books far more than Hollywood that did the deed. Asimov's Foundation series was never made into film or TV. Neither have any of Doc Smith's Lensmen series, nor any interesting Heinlein, nor Shockwave Rider, nor Vernor Vinge, nor Neal Stephenson, nor etc., etc. Were the science fiction books of America and England never translated into German? Maybe it's time they were.

Science fiction films that have conveyed serious ideas or inspiration are pretty rare — 2001 indeed, Bladerunner, Gattica, The Matrix. What else?

From: Jaron Lanier
Date: August 7, 2000

A film that moved me when I was a kid was Zardoz — I remember a sentient computer implemented in a fist-sized quartz crystal, clever extrapolations of issues from the 1960s (racism, feminism, suburban ennui), naked women in nets on a beach (I was 12 or so), interesting use of Beethoven...a sophisticated film about biotech, as I remember it. Or maybe I remember it as being more interesting than it really was. Just did a quick search on the net and found it under a site that reviews only "bad movies". But if there was a science fiction movie that influenced me, hat's the one.

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