Phlosopher Daniel C. Dennett and his scarecrow

August. Edge is quiet. The conversation is on hold. The Edge community has hit the road... Dennis Overbye walked on the beach on Fire Island with his daughter Mira, now 16 months old;Nicholas Humphrey encountered the philosopher Daniel C. Dennett and his scarecrow in Blue Hill, Maine; Gregory Benford hung out in Japan with a robot named Asimo; David Fokos made a pretty picture in Martha's Vineyard; Jaron Lanier learned about clannishness and the perception of enemies by leaving Berkeley and traveling to Indiana; Daniel C. Dennett sailed the coast of Maine; Timothy Taylor enjoyed Wagner's Valkyries at the State Opera in Vienna; David Berreby contemplated territoriality and variety on his roof in Brooklyn; Steven Pinker delighted in meeting his 19-year-old mother and 25-year-old father through their honeymoon pictures of 50 summers ago; Delta Willis left her houseboat on the Hudson river in New York City for Swansea; James O'Donnell schmoozed with 123 7-foot tall fiberglass bears in Berlin; [Page 2:] John Horgan communed with rehabbed birds and read blood-soaked books; George Dyson checked in from Interstate 90 in South Dakota; William Calvin matched up the apes in the San Diego Zoo with people he knows; Alison Gopnik gathered with 26 immediate family members in the Umbrian Hills; Hans- Joachim Metzger used his imaginary two-camera-device make black light objects in Munich; Irene Pepperberg traveled with a parrot in Europe and talked to people about animal cognition; Margaret Wertheim visited a Jules Verne-like chamber for studying plasmas in New Mexico; Susan Blackmore endured the hottest summer in Bristol in 343 years by working in her garden; Marc D. Hauser introduced trained eagles to simulate attacks on the poor innocent monkeys rhesus monkeys on the Island of Cayo Santiago, Puerto Rico; Keith Devlin watched one of the Palio races for the first time in Siena; Roger Schank stayed at home on the beach in Palm Beach, Florida; and Paul Davies fulfilled his childhood dream of visiting the independent country of San Marino...

Back o Par

Dennis Overbye

Fire Island

Nancy and I didn't venture very far from Manhattan this summer. it was our first summer with Mira, now 16 months, shown here with me on the beach at Fire Island. She, of course, is a trip all by herself.


Nicholas Humphrey

Blue Hill, Maine


It's been a long summer. I and my family spent two very happy weeks in the first part of August in Maine, staying with Dan and Susan Dennett, whose farm in Blue Hill is conveniently close to my wife's parents home on Deer Isle.

Ayla and the children revelled in her parents' attention, while I and Dan hung out at the farm, repaired his barn, talked about stuff and played anagram scrabble—or rather played anagram scrabble and talked. (Have you heard of this new game? It's totally addictive .. and the rule seems to be—Susan will confirm this—Dan wins.)

I went from there to a conference on Evolution and Religion, organised by David Smith, in Portland, Maine, under the auspices of the New England Institute. David is plowing a lonely furrow, championing Evolutionary Psychology in the teeth of the know-nothing conventional culture of psychology in the US. The conference was great. David is great. He deserves all our support.

Then, home to Cambridge, and on to two blessed weeks at our house in Kerry, Ireland. The weather in Ireland was Mediterranean (while this summer the Mediterranean coast has been like the Sahara). We took a boat to the Skellig Isles, craggy rocks jutting out of the sea, six miles from the mainland, where from about 600 to 1200 A.D. a community of Christian monks had a monastery. Bernard Shaw wrote about their life "I tell you the thing does not belong to any world that you and I have lived and worked in: it is part of our dream world."

I am researching the subject of "reasons to live". The monks of the Skelligs present as great a paradox as any.



Gregory Benford



I spent part of this summer in Asia, and of most interest to Edge folk might be my tour of the Honda robot center.

The Asimo robot can see you, respond, walk smoothly beside you to a conference room, look where you point. Honda leases a dozen of them to high tech firms so they can introduce stockholder meetings and kick off sales conferences. People invariably treat it as a person, and it has a boy's voice, appropriate to its height. The Japanese are far ahead of the rest of the world in this because they come to the technology unburdened by literature and films that see robots as ominous and threatening. It was refreshing to meet one at last. I could not stop myself from embodying it—that is, reacting as if to a small, friendly boy with a high-pitched voice.

The next decade will see robots appearing in ordinary life. We have much to learn from the Japanese about living with robots & cyborgs, who have 90% of the world's robots already.

Gregory Benford

David Fokos

Martha's Vineyard

Dear John,

Since moving to San Diego from Boston five years ago to concentrate on my photography, just about the only thing left to remind me what season we're in is my semi-annual trek back to Martha's Vineyard.

More than anything else, what I enjoy most about Martha's Vineyard are the wonderful, varied beaches, many of them with few or no people in sight. Working next to the water with my 80-year old 8x10 view camera feels very meditative and grounding. I feel a connectedness with the nature which I just never seem able to acquire sitting at home in my urban loft.

For the past decade I have been using photography as a means to develop a better personal understanding of human perception, however my latest Vineyard image contributes little to that investigation. Rather, I gave myself permission to just make a pretty picture. In this sense it represents a little photographic vacation for myself.

However, I did ship my camera equipment out and spent a couple days working by the water. I now find that 90% of my photographs feature water in them. Using long exposures ranging from 20 seconds up to 60 minutes, I have tried to filter out what I call the "visual noise" of everyday life—all the short-term, "instantaneous" events within a scene that preoccupy our visual perception—in order to reveal the fundamental, underlying forms of our world. It is these forms that I think we respond to on a visceral level.

I am continually interested to see people looking at my photographs—to see them physically relax. People seem completely comfortable and at ease with these images, happy to accept them as evidence of a reality, even though they show a world which we never see! The ocean never looks this way, and yet people are not troubled by this, nor do they even question it. However, I think that by stripping these scenes down to their fundamental forms—removing the visual noise—the viewer is able to breathe a sigh of relief, similar to the relief one experiences switching off a static-ridden radio station.



Jaron Lanier

Berkeley, California


This has been the Summer of clannishness. On every level it seems that humans are clumping into opposing groups to an even greater degree than usual, at least from the perspectives available to me.

Most of my time has been spent in Berkeley, with sojourns to Toronto, Dartmouth, and various points in the interior of the USA, like Indiana.

While visiting Indiana to give a lecture, I saw big block letters on a billboard spelling out a slogan that I couldn't even believe at first, "Nuke Berkeley." I must say, Berkeley doesn't have much of anything kind to say about Indiana either.

My European friends have started to seem like distant aliens. They don't read the same news, or even share the same political vocabulary as Indiana, and lately can barely even talk to Berkeley.

Scientific communities seem punchier than usual as well. I recently wrote to a physicist who was a stranger to me simply to praise a textbook he had written, but when I mentioned that I was friendly with his ideological opponents in the quantum gravity debates, he became rather cold and dismissive.

I think of myself as a liberal, but by Berkeley standards I'm a reactionary conservative. For the first time in my life, I haven't felt free to speak my mind in casual conversations. For instance, a friend of mine in town made a point of trying to board a commercial flight recently while wearing a button that said, "Suspected terrorist." He said he was trying to make a statement about the deterioration of civil liberties—that all citizens were being treated like terrorists. The pilot said he was uncomfortable with the button and asked him to take it off. This resulted in a stand-off, and eventually my friend left the plane.

In the Berkeley context this story is about evil police state repression of free speech, but to me, having lived through the attack in NYC, it seemed more like a case of attempted hate speech and the resolution a simple matter of kindness to the pilots. If someone wore a button saying, "Suspected Nazi", or "Suspected rapist", I would feel the same way. The unintentional point would be more powerful than the intended point.

While I'm ready to state this opinion in print and get some diffuse and delayed grief for it, it wouldn't be worth the trouble to state it in most conversations I seem to find myself in in Berkeley. My opinion might be wrong, but I'd prefer to feel free to state it, and it's strange to me not to have that freedom in the ultra-polarized climate we are living though at the moment.

I wish there was more scientific study of clannishness and the perception of enemies. Anthropologists and primatologists can tell us a few things, but what I'm most curious about is the genetic components of the idea of "the enemy." Maybe if we understood the part of us that can be activated to fear the appointed enemy of the moment, we could learn to soften our worst impulses.

A month before the attacks I had published an interview with Global Business Network in which I toyed with the idea of regularly spraying anti-depressive or perhaps euphoria-inducing pharmaceutical compounds on the Middle East and Afghanistan. Probably too late to try that idea.

It turns out that the "Nuke Berkeley" part of Indiana I visited was very pro-Prozac, since the stuff was manufactured there, and local mythology held that a higher concentration of people were using it in the neighborhood than anywhere else. As for Berkeley, well, it would seem to be one of the more self-medicated places I've visited, judging from the odors that reach you on the sidewalk and what you see growing in home gardens. Is it possible that we're medicating ourselves into a state of increased paranoia?

That thought has occurred to me in the past to explain aspects of the Berkeley side of the divide. Since the '60s there's been a tremendous cachet to paranoid thinking in "progressive" culture. Some of the most prominent progressive thinkers have specifically been technicians of paranoia enhancement, such as Chomsky and Pynchon. It's much easier to be taken seriously in Berkeley if you're manifestly paranoid. This seems a shame to me, since it is a self-disempowering stance.

On a purely anecdotal basis I observe that a certain paranoid edge seems to rise over time in many of the drug users I have known, even though the drugs in question have been quite varied. The literature does seem to support the idea that varied disruptions can induce paranoia, and I wonder how closely paranoia is followed by the phenomena of exaggerated enemy perception or clannishness.

One of the sad casualties of the recent financial scandals was the support of unusual scientific research by the accounting firm Ernst and Young. After the Enron scandal and all the rest, accounting firms were told to narrow their businesses in order to avoid conflicts of interest. E&S had been a key source of support to researchers like Stuart Kauffman who were interested in finding new scientific paths to understanding human affairs. The neuroscientist Antonio Damasio and I had been among the "Ernst and Young Fellows" before the fall.

We were about to embark upon some new lines of thinking about biological components to economic and political behavior. One of the noisiest trends in economics follows from the astonishing recent discovery that humans are "irrational", rather than the rational players of classical economic models, but even that's probably not quite the right idea. It's not that people are irrational, but that our sense of rationality arises out of a long biological history and reflects different survival pressures than we face today. We are not irrational, but differently rational.

An example of the sort of biologically-informed economics one might be able to do is to identify a sweet spot in the otherwise undifferentiated continuum between socialism and Laissez Faire capitalism. This has to do with the sense of reward. An argument against pure socialism is that people need to be able to earn rewards in order to be motivated to achieve excellence.

To the degree that socialism has ever existed, it does seem to have produced rather complacent, static, and grey societies. But how much reward does a person really need to be offered in order to feel motivated? Does a CEO need 10 times, 100 times, or 1000 times the reward of the lowest paid worker to be optimally motivated? Is it possible to examine the biology of the reward pathways in the human brain to say something about this? Could biology serve to help find a point of compromise? There don't seem to be any other ideas on the table for resolving the dispute between Indiana and Berkeley, so biology ought to be given a chance.



p.s. Regarding the above "postcard" image...Berkeley hosted an "only here" conference called "Mind States", in which Sue Blackmore, V.S. Ramachandran, and I were joined by a crush of speakers interested in the psychedelic experience. I've personally never used drugs, not even alcohol, and an amused Timothy Leary used to call me "The control group" when he was alive.* [see editor's note] At any rate, a wonderful photographer named Dean Chamberlain created portraits of some of the speakers and the image here is what he made of me and some of my musical instruments. His exposures last for hours, during which he moves about with assorted lights in order to create an extraordinary saturated ambience. My talk at the conference was about cephalopod cognition, so the portrait has an underwater theme with assorted stuffed cephalopods showing up (can you find them?)

[* Ed. Note: Leary said the same thing to me in 1965. Jaron was 5 years old. JB]

Daniel C. Dennett

Pickering Island, Maine

Fog is to be expected when you're sailing on the coast of Maine, and it pays to have a few good books along to read while waiting for the scale-up that let's you see where you're going. When not sailing or rebuilding my barn this summer, I've been finishing off overdue writing projects and preparing for a seminar I'm teaching this fall at Tufts with Nassir Ghaemi, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School who has a Masters in philosophy from Tufts: "Broken Minds". (And no, you can't audit it; we're overbooked with students taking the course for credit.)

I've also been thinking a lot about religion. The taboo against subjecting religious practices to scientific scrutiny leaves us more or less voluntarily blindfolded about some of the most potent and dangerous phenomena in the world today. It is time to defy that taboo. For thousands of years, human beings have lived in a sort of culturally induced trance, subjugating their wills to invisible beings and forces, laboring and sacrificing, building great temples, painting great pictures, composing great music-and killing great numbers of differently entranced human beings—all for the greater glory of ... something unknown and mysterious. How can the astringent world of science compete with the reassuring warmth of communally shared secrets and ceremonies, the spine-tingling beauties of religious ecstacy? People want their lives to be decorated with mystery, punctuated by magic, spiced with adventures of "the
spirit." Shouldn't they be allowed to dream on in peace? I'm afraid not. The stakes are too high, and we can no longer allow the entranced to impose their follies on the rest of us.

Tomorrow, Labor Day, we harvest the last of the tomatoes and cukes and pack up for the return to Massachusetts.

Dan Dennett

Timothy Taylor

Vienna, Austria

Dear John,

The summer began in Austria. I was guest professor in Vienna last semester, teaching archaeological method and theory and laying the groundwork of research for my new book on material culture. My association with the Institute of Prehistory stretches back to my early days of digging when a small group of us, mainly but not exclusively Cambridge students, were annually hosted by Professor Herwig Friesinger at his marvellously well-run site of Gars/Thunau in the Kamp valley, northwest of the capital. This time I had a family to bring with me. The girls attended Viennese schools and learnt German while developing cake- and schnitzel-eating skills. We enjoyed Wagner's Valkyries at the State Opera and ambient music with my composer friend Hans-Joachim Rodelius.

The journey was an education in itself—first Bradford to the North Sea coast at Hull; overnight ferry to Zeebrugge; the two-day drive through Germany; arriving to haul everything four floors up to our splendid appartment in the Porzellangasse. In contrast to flying, we absorbed the extent of Europe in real terms: fields, hills, river crossings, the changes in topography and the styles of the houses. But to be exact this was the extent of western Europe. There is an old saying in Austria—"the Balkans begin in Vienna", and we made a series of exciting day trips—visas no longer required—to the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary, each only about an hour's drive distant.

The east-west boundary goes back before the Iron Curtain. Nor is it simply that the Turks got no further than Lower Austria in A.D. 1529. There is a clear edge here even 20 million years ago. My old friend Hans Tuzar, who directs the Krahuletz Museum in Eggenburg, took us all fossil hunting on the edge of the old Pannonian sea. Look out eastward nowadays from what was once the cliff edge of western Europe over what was once ocean, the rolling lowlands of the Weinviertel ("Wine Quarter") rapidly give way to the Hungarian Puszta, westernmost outlier of the great Eurasian steppelands. Behind you is the reticulated, hedged and walled world of the west; in front the vast flat spaces that reach, almost unbroken, to the borders of India and China. Like Suleiman the Magnificent, the Iron Age Scythian nomads got no further than this in their raids westwards from South Russia. And, coming out of the west, this was also one of the last settled stopping places for the Celts before they began their ravages of Transylvania and Thrace to eventually reach and sack Delphi in 279 B.C. Hans and I are now planning to excavate the fortress of a particular Celtic tribe called the Kampi (after whom the Kamp valley is named)—a tribe famous enough to be known to the Alexandrian geographer Ptolemy.

The ancient geographers knew Europe pretty well, right through to the remote island of Ierne, known to Greek traders by at least 530 BC. By sheer chance we ended our summer there. An Irish television company rang to ask if I could come over to talk about sex and death in the Neolithic. We had scheduled a family camping trip to Scotland but we took the Holyhead-Dublin ferry instead. After doing the television archaeology bit around the massive 5000-year old passage tomb complexes of Newgrange and Knowth in the bend of the river Boyne, we headed southwest to the Dingle peninsula. At Gallarus Oratory we pitched tent, rather grandly, on the westernmost campsite in mainland Europe. The place was dotted with the corbel-vaulted beehive huts of the prehistoric inhabitants. They knew beyond doubt that they were at an edge too, all Europe to their back, and only the Atlantic ahead. But I thought of you, over the glittering horizon in NY, and reflected on how our inner geography conditions everything we see, and the perspective of prehistory conditions it yet further.



David Berreby

Brooklyn, New York

Dear John,

With a book due and no cash to speak of, I spent the summer, when it wasn't raining, on the roof of my building in Brooklyn. Thinking about how and why people get persuaded that they're members of meaningful tribes—ethnic, religious, national, sports-fan, whatever.

These identities are complicated to learn and maintain, and yet they come to feel as simple as breathing. That's weird. And they feel as essential as breathing, too. That's really weird. Many people would rather die (or think they would) than change religion or flag. Many would be glad to kill someone (or think they would) whose existence threatens their tribe's welfare (even if the victim poses no threat to their individual life or livelihood). I'd really like to understand why the mind works this way. What I am finishing now is a modest proposal for how to think about these questions, with reports about relevant research (which is going on in a number of fields).

The location isn't nearly as penitential as it sounds. In fact, I love it up here. On the night of the blackout, Mars and the constellations looked brilliant. With a light breeze, the roof was so much more pleasant than my apartment that I slept up there. During the day crows look me over, flying by at shoulder level. Big wading birds sail by, commuting between their safe islands to the west and the good hunting ponds to the east, in the park, the botanical garden and the cemetery. I've seen and heard many forms of avian surprise; cardinals, mockingbirds, doves and herons are startled to find a human perched near them. Once two little blue herons they flew directly over my head, about eight feet above me.

At five flights up, though, I don't have the perspective of a penthouse deity. The height of Brooklyn neighborhoods is still on a human scale. It was dictated by fluid dynamics—water from the reservoirs can't rise more than four or five stories without pumps. I hear kids ride bicycles on the sidewalk. People at the corner are repairing a car. It seems to involve a boombox and a lot of consultations. If I look east I can see a family setting up for dominoes—table, folding chairs. The couple up the block who like to bicycle are heading out for an evening ride, in their spandex and helmets. Another couple strolls down the other side of the street, holding hands. They pass the front garden of a house across the street, where a dog is snoozing on the stoop. Next door, a woman tends a tree. On a rooftop a block away a someone is doing tai-chi exercises in late-day light. I consider waving; decide against. Roof etiquette is to pretend you have the sky to yourself.

So this was a good place to contemplate territoriality and variety. The other day, a flash of white caught my eye and I saw a little budgerigar, on the lam from his cage. I tried to lure him over, but he cocked his head, looked at the cloudless blue sky, and flew off.

All this is probably way off topic. But I liked the question.



Steven Pinker

Truro, Massachusetts

Dear John,

These postcards show where I have been spending my last two months. They were not taken this summer, however, but fifty summers ago, and they show not me but my parents, Harry and Roslyn. A pleasant activity of this summer has been to plan (together with my siblings Susan and Robert) an anniversary celebration for my parents, who were married September 3, 1953.

We asked them for old photos, and some were Kodachrome slides. Kodachrome was the first color film in widespread use, and among its remarkable properties is longevity. The slides look as if they were taken yesterday, their quality limited only by the cheap camera with which they were taken.

The delight of meeting my 19-year-old mother and 25-year-old father was intensified when I saw where the pictures were taken. For their honeymoon, these penniless newlyweds had borrowed my grandfather's car and drove from Montreal to New England, New York, and Washington DC. Two of their stops present me with neat coincidences, and an opportunity to see the effects of fifty years on familiar places and people.

[My parents, Roz and Harry Pinker, on the Pilgrim beach in 1953]
These two show my parents on the exact beach in Truro on which my wife and I have a summer cottage. We reconnoitered this stretch to find the exact place they were standing; it wasn't hard, because many of the houses in the photo are still there. But beaches constantly morph because of erosion and deposition, and this one has accreted several hundred feet of sand in the past five decades. The spot where my mother is standing is now a good walk away from the water line. The Provincetown skyline behind my father is virtually identical, a testimony to the town's preservation efforts.
[Harry & friend at John Harvard's feet]
The next three were taken at that other Massachusetts tourist destination, Harvard. By another coincidence, this is a significant locale for me fifty summers later: I have just moved back to Harvard, after 21 years at MIT. The first photo shows Harry and a friend John Harvard's shoe a traditional good-luck rub. John is still there, his left toe still shiny, but University Hall in the background has changed. The awnings, an adaptation to summer sun before the use of air conditioning, are gone. The ivy is gone, too, belying the "ivy league" designation; it was taken down when I was a graduate student in the late 1970s because it was damaging the historic buildings.
[Harry & friend seated on brick wall]
This one shows Harry and a friend at the Harkness Commons at Harvard, a block from where I now live. The brick ledge is still there (the shrubs are only a bit bigger), as is the space-age sculpture reflected in the glass. The complex was designed by Walter Gropius, Dean of the Graduate School of Design, a nice example of postwar International Style, with several low geometric buildings in a large open space connected by crisscrossing paths. At the time it must have looked fantastically futuristic; now it strikes many as archaic and inefficient, and there are rumors that it will become a victim of Harvard's expansion plans.
[Harry & Roz with Widener pillars]
In this last photograph, taken on the steps of the Widener Library, the building hasn't changed in the interim, only the people. Seeing this couple, young enough to be my children, is overwhelming; it fills me with the foolish desire to tell them about the careers, family, and changed world of the half-century to come.

Best wishes,


Delta Willis

Swansea, Massachusetts

Dear John,

After 32 years in New York City (22 of them on a houseboat at the 79th Street Boat Basin) I moved to Swansea, Massachusetts, north of Newport, Rhode Island. Surprisingly painless was this, because of e-mail, streaming radio, and Zabar's online. Withdrawal peeked with the August blackout, when I became sentimental about the one in Manhattan in 1977: chocolate covered strawberries were gratis at Ruskay's, and sidewalk venues on Columbus Avenue wafted clouds of Cannabis, perhaps because police were otherwise occupied, or because it was the 70s. Now the minds of baby boomer are altered free of charge, gaps in speech as spotty as our dream to change the world.

I became sentimental about that lost dream (more the current nightmare), I pull myself up by my own bra straps: How wonderful to sit here on a dead end street in New England yet feel in touch with friends in London and Nairobi, to edit my own web site, or better yet, read Edge.

My plan for the winter is to return to the distant past, exploring Zanzibar and the Swahili culture. Coastal East Africa combines previous interest in archeological sites plus current ramifications of terrorism, a span of 2,000 years tied together by the classic Arab dhow, with its lateen sail. I thought about navigating these subjects when sanding the dagger board for my new/old Sunfish, to be launched Labor Day weekend with a ceremonial Swahili feast, poetry, and a red wine toast to Wilfred Thesiger, the cranky explorer who died recently in London at the age of 93. Known for his desert walks, Thesiger eschewed technology and was rabid about science education.

My summer postcard image was taken in the backyard of the 1906 bungalow where I now live, replete with a fireplace, herb garden, and a massive bedroom/riverview, all unaffected by the tide. The house is only 200 yards from the shore. A new rudder will guide me in new waters. As a New York friend said about my departure, "Change is good, even when it's bad."

All the best,


James O'Donnell

Berlin, Germany

Hey John,

These are a few of the 123 7 foot tall fiberglass bears that spent the summer doing the hokey-pokey on what may still be the site of the future US Embassy in Berlin. It's right by the Brandenburg Gate, on land that was part of no-man's land. If the Germans had left the Wall in place, the Americans would now feel more secure about building on that site, so until our fear of the world is placated, the site is empty and these bears—each one decorated thematically to represent a different country (the mostly red guy is Hungary, the blue one is Ukraine, land of my godchildren)—meant to suggest a more pacific vision of the family of nations.

All the best,

John Brockman, Editor and Publisher
Russell Weinberger, Associate Publisher

contact: [email protected]
Copyright © 2003 by
Edge Foundation, Inc
All Rights Reserved.