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

1998
"What Questions Are You Asking Yourself?"
"A site that has raised electronic discourse on the Web to a whole new level.... Genuine learning seems to be going on here." — Atlantic
1999
"What Is The Most Important Invention In The Past Two Thousand Years?"
"...Thoughtful and often surprising answers ....a fascinating survey of intellectual and creative wonders of the world ..... Reading them reminds me of how wondrous our world is." — Bill Gates, New York Times Syndicated Column
2000
"What Is Today's Most Important Unreported Story?"
"Don't assume for a second that Ted Koppel, Charlie Rose and the editorial high command at the New York Times have a handle on all the pressing issues of the day.... a lengthy list of profound, esoteric and outright entertaining responses. — San Jose Mercury News ("Web Site for Intellectuals Inspires Serious Thinking")

2001
"What Questions Have Disappeared?"

Howard Gardner
"Has History Ended?"

Richard Dawkins
"As William Blake might have written to a coelacanth: Did he who made the haplochromids make thee?"

J. Doyne Farmer
"What do these discarded questions tell us?"

Stephen M. Kosslyn
"How do people differ in the ways they think and learn?"

Alun Anderson
"Why are humans smarter than other animals?"

Denis Dutton
"When will overpopulation create worldwide starvatiion?"

Steven Pinker
"What are the implications of human nature for political systems?"

Brian Goodwin
"Where Does Love Come From?"

Martin Rees
"Was Einstein right?"

Nicholas Humphrey
"...a set of questions that ought to have disappeared: questions that seek reasons for patterns that in reality are due to chance"

Randolph M. Nesse
"Why is life so full of suffering?"

Paul Davies
"How fast is the Earth moving?"

David M. Buss
"Do Men and Women Differ Psychologically?"

Howard Rheingold
"
Why can't we use technology to solve social problems?"

Thomas A. Bass
"The questions that have disappeared are eschatological."

John Allen Paulos
"Don't reckon that I know."

Stanislas Dehaene
"The definition of life and consciousness?"

Leon Lederman
"Does God play dice?" (...first asked by Albert Einstein some time in the 30's.)

Dave Winer
"What's yout business model?"

Lance Knobel
"Are you hoping for a girl or a boy"?

Rick Potts
"How do societies function and change?"

Jordan Pollack
"Should the right to own property be preserved?"

Kevin Kelly
"What is the nature of our creator?"

David Gelernter
"How should adult education work? How do we educate the masses? (That's right, The Masses.).... "

Tor Norretranders
"Who are we"?

Marek Kohn
"What about the workers"?

Joseph Le Doux
"How do our brains become who we are?"

Kai Krause
"What is the difference between men and pigs?"

Milford Wolpoff
"Where has Darwin gone?"

Al Seckel
"Why is our sense of beauty and elegance such a useful tool for discriminating between a good theory and a bad theory?"

Kenneth Ford
"When will we face another energy crisis, and how will we cope with it?"

Stephen H. Schneider
"Will the free market finally triumph?"

John H. McWhorter
"Are subordinate clauses more typical of languages with a long literary tradition than integral features of human speech?"

Sherry Turkle
"Can you have an artificial intelligence?"

Rafael E. Núñez
"Do computers think?"

Eduardo Punset
"Looking at the world upside down: what are we enhancing or what is vanishing in our brains while flat and dormant views of the universe are slowly disappearing?"

Jay Ogilvy
"What will life be like after the revolution?"

Verena Huber-Dyson
"Did Fermat's question, 'is it true that there are no integers x, y, z and n, all greater than 2, such that x^n + y^n = z^n?', F? for short, raised in the 17th century, disappear when Andrew Wiles answered it affirmatively by a proof of Fermat's theorem F in 1995?"

Susan Blackmore
"Do we survive death?"

Keith Devlin
"Why can't girls/women do math?"

Raphael Kasper
"What does all the information mean?"

Jason McCabe Calacanis
"How long before all nations obey the basic principles of the human rights as outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10th, 1948?"

Douglas Rushkoff
"Is nothing sacred?"

Henry Warwick
"None"

Andy Clark
"Why Is There Something Instead of Nothing?"

Piet Hut
"What is Reality?"

David Berreby
"
'How does [fill in the blank] in human affairs relate to the great central theory?''

Sylvia Paull
"What Do Women Want?"

Colin Tudge
"The Great Idea That's Disappeared"

Eberhard Zangger
"Where Was Lost Atlantis?"

Robert Provine
"Obsolete and Inappropriate Metaphors"

Judy Harris
"Do genes influence human behavior?"

Philip W. Anderson
"A question no longer: what is the Theory of Every Thing?"

Dan Sperber
"Are women and men equal?"

Michael Shermer
"Can science answer moral and ethical questions?"

Lee Smolin
"What is the next step in the evolution of democracy?"

Rodney A. Brooks
"What is it that makes something alive?"

Roger Schank
"Why teach mathematics?"

John Horgan
"Is enlightenment a myth or a reality?"

Robert Aunger
"Is the Central Dogma of biology inviolate?"

David G. Post
"... can there really be fossil sea-shells in the mountains of Kentucky, hundreds of miles from the Atlantic coast?"

"...from what source do governments get their legitimate power?"

David Myers
"Does money buy happiness?"

William H. Calvin
"Where did the moon go?"

Carl Zimmer
"When will disease be eradicated?"

David Deutsch
"And why?"

Timothy Taylor
"How can I stop the soul of the deceased reanimating the body?"

Dan McNeill
"Where is the Great American Novel"?

Izumi Aizu
"Who should make the truly global decisions, and how?"

John Barrow
"How does a slide rule work?"

Margaret Wertheim
"...the old question of whether our categories of reality are discovered or constructed."

Geoffrey Hinton
"What is 'vital force'?"

Tom Standage
"Are there planets around other stars?"

Lawrence M. Krauss
"Does God Exist?"

Joseph Traub
"Have We Seen the End of Science?"

"Will the Internet Stock Bubble Burst?"

Karl Sabbagh
"How many angels can dance on the point of a pin?"

Stewart Brand
"How will Americans handle a surplus of leisure?"
"Can the threat of recombinant DNA possibly be contained?"

Mark Hurst
"Do I have e-mail?"

Cliff Pickover
"Did Noah Really Collect all Species of Earthly Organism on his Ark?"

George B. Dyson
"What does the other side of the moon look like?"

David Haig
"questions that were asked in extinct languages"

James J. O'Donnell
"
the old Platonic questions about the nature of the good and the form of beauty"

Pamela McCorduck
"Can machines think?"

Marc D. Hauser
"Do animals have thoughts?"

New Christopher Phillips
"none"


New Tracy Quan
"Who does your bleeding?"


New Joel Garreau
"What can government do to help create a better sort of human?"


New Naomi Wolf
"...the narrative shifted and ...the female sense of identity in the West, for the first time ever, no longer hinges on the identity of her mate ..."


New Terrence J. Sejnowski
"Is God Dead?"

New Ann Crittenden
"Is human nature innately good or evil?"
 
 
Printer version

"Responses to this year's question are deliciously creative... the variety astonishes. Edge continues to launch intellectual skyrockets of stunning brilliance. Nobody in the world is doing what Edge is doing."
Denis Dutton, Editor of Arts & Letters Daily


New THE WORLD QUESTION CENTER 2001

"What Questions Have Disappeared?"


For its fourth anniversary edition — "The World Question Center 2001" — Edge has reached out to a wide group of individuals distinguished by their significant achievements and asked them to respond to the following question:

"What Questions Have Disappeared?"

At publication, 83 responses (34,000 words plus) have been posted. Additional responses are expected in the coming weeks and will be posted on Edge as they are received.

Izumi Aizu ° Alun Anderson ° Philip W. Anderson ° Robert Aunger ° John Barrow ° Thomas A. Bass ° David Berreby ° Susan Blackmore ° Stewart Brand ° Rodney A. Brooks ° David M. Buss ° Jason McCabe Calacanis ° William H. Calvin ° Andy Clark ° Paul Davies ° Richard Dawkins ° Stanislas Dehaene ° David Deutsch ° Keith Devlin ° Denis Dutton ° George B. Dyson ° J. Doyne Farmer ° Kenneth Ford ° Howard Gardner ° David Gelernter ° Brian Goodwin ° David Haig ° Judy Harris ° Marc D. Hauser ° Geoffrey Hinton ° John Horgan ° Verena Huber-Dyson ° Nicholas Humphrey ° Mark Hurst ° Piet Hut ° Raphael Kasper ° Kevin Kelly ° Lance Knobel ° Marek Kohn ° Stephen M. Kosslyn ° Kai Krause ° Lawrence M. Krauss ° Leon Lederman ° Joseph Le Doux ° Pamela McCorduck ° Dan McNeill ° John H. McWhorter ° David Myers ° Randolph M. Nesse ° Tor Norretranders ° Rafael E. Núñez ° James J. O'Donnell ° Jay Ogilvy ° Sylvia Paull ° John Allen Paulos ° Cliff Pickover ° Steven Pinker ° Jordan Pollack ° David G. Post ° Rick Potts ° Robert Provine ° Eduardo Punset ° Martin Rees ° Howard Rheingold ° Douglas Rushkoff ° Karl Sabbagh ° Roger Schank ° Stephen H. Schneider ° Al Seckel ° Michael Shermer ° Lee Smolin ° Dan Sperber ° Tom Standage ° Timothy Taylor ° Joseph Traub ° Colin Tudge ° Sherry Turkle ° Henry Warwick ° Margaret Wertheim ° Dave Winer ° Milford Wolpoff ° Eberhard Zangger ° Carl Zimmer °

Happy New Year!

John Brockman
Publisher & Editor

[Simultaneously published in German by Frankfurter Allgemeine ZeitungFrank Schirrmacher, Publisher.]

Join the Edge public forum at


New THE WORLD QUESTION CENTER 2001 (recent additions) [1.16.01]

Contributions from Geoffrey Miller: "Three Victorian questions about potential sexual partners: 'Are they from a good family?'; 'What are their accomplishments?'; 'Was their money and status acquired ethically?' ° "Christopher Phillips: "none" ° Tracy Quan: "Who does your bleeding?" ° Joel Garreau: "What can government do to help create a better sort of human?" ° Naomi Wolf: "...the narrative shifted and ...the female sense of identity in the West, for the first time ever, no longer hinges on the identity of her mate ..." ° Terrence J. Sejnowski: "Is God Dead?" ° Ann Crittenden: "Is human nature innately good or evil?"


New Minds Meet Online to Offer New Perspectives on Old Questions
January 9, 2001
By THE NEW YORK TIMES
(free registration required)

Once a year, John Brockman of New York, a writer and literary agent who represents many scientists, poses a question in his online journal, The Edge, and invites the thousand or so people on his mailing list to answer it.

At the end of 1998, for example, he asked readers to name the most important invention in 2,000 years; the question generated 117 responses as diverse as hay and birth control pills. This year, Mr. Brockman offered a question about questions: "What questions have disappeared, and why?"

Here are edited excerpts from some of the answers, to be posted today at www.edge.org.....


New "Welche Fragen sind verschwunden?"
Die Sphinx in der New Economy: Eine Umfrage unter fuehrenden Wissenschaftlern
NEW YORK, 8. January


Auch die Zukunft kommt nicht ohne Traditionen aus. Selbst eine mit Mlle. de Scud»ry zeitreisende Mme. de S»vign» m˝śte sich nicht gar zu sehr wundern, wenn sie beim Netzsurfen auf ein Internetmagazin stieśe, das sich unerschrocken prezińs "Salon" nennt. Wo immer aber ein Salon zum Verweilen, Sinnieren und Brillieren lîdt, kann eine Preisfrage nicht weit sein.

Elektronisch funktioniert sie nicht viel anders als zu Zeiten der Aufklîrung und ihrer Debattierzirkel. In seinem Internetsalon (www.edge.org) verf˝hrt der Verleger und Literaturagent John Brockman zum Anfang des Jahres gelehrte Koryphîen gern zu Antworten auf solche Fragen. Diesmal hat er den Ritus selbst thematisiert und fragt nach Fragen, die keiner mehr stellt. An die hundert Wissenschaftler, Philosophen und Publizisten der sogenannten "Dritten Kultur" nehmen am Spiel teil, haben aber die Spielregeln nicht alle gleich verstanden. Warum eine Frage verschwindet, kann schlieślich viele Gr˝nde haben. Vielleicht ist sie beantwortet, vielleicht auch nicht zu beantworten, was freilich in der Regel den intellektuellen Spieleifer um so heftiger stimuliert, vielleicht aber war die Frage auch von Anfang an nicht fragenswert......

Howard Gardner

"Has History Ended?"

I am going to take slight liberty with your question. With the publication a decade ago of Francis Fukuyama's justly acclaimed article The End Of History, many pundits and non-pundits assumed that historical forces and trends had been spent. The era of the "isms" was at an end; liberal democracy, market forces, and globalization had triumphed; the heavy weight of the past was attenuating around the globe.

At the start of 2001, we are no longer asking "Has History Ended?" History seems all too alive. The events of Seattle challenged the globalization behemoth; the world is no longer beating a path to internet startups; Communist and fascist revivals have emerged in several countries; the historical legacies in areas like the Balkans and the Middle East are as vivid as ever; and, as I noted in response to last year's question, much of Africa is at war. As if to remind us of our naivete, Fidel Castro and Saddam Hussein have been in "office" as long as most Americans can remember. If George II is ignorant of this history, he is likely to see it repeated.

HOWARD GARDNER, the major proponent of the theory of multiple intelligences, is Professor of Education at Harvard University and author of numerous books including The Mind's New Science and Extraordinary Minds: Portraits of Four Exceptional Individuals.


Richard Dawkins

"As William Blake might have written to a coelacanth: Did he who made the haplochromids make thee?"

Different people on the Edge list seem to have chosen to understand 'questions that have disappeared' in three very different senses:

1. Questions that were once popular but have now been answered
2. Questions that should never have been asked in the first place
3. Questions that have disappeared although they never received a satisfactory answer.

This third meaning is, I suspect, the one intended by the organizer of the forum.  It is the most interesting of the three since it suggests real science that we should now be doing, rather than just raking over the historical coals.

The three meanings are too disparate to bring together easily, but I'll try. The popular question 'Has there been enough time for evolution to take place?'  can now confidently be answered in the affirmative.  It should never have been put in the first place since, self-evidently, we are here. But what is more interesting is that the real question that faces us is almost the exact opposite.  Why is evolution so slow, given that natural selection is so powerful?   Far from there being too little time for evolution to play with, there seems to be too much.

Ledyard Stebbins did a theoretical calculation about an extremely weak selection pressure, acting on a population of mouse-sized animals to favor the largest individuals.  His hypothetical selection pressure was so weak as to be below the threshold of detectability in field sampling studies.  Yet the calculated time to evolve elephant-sized descendants from mouse-sized ancestors was only a few tens of thousands of generations: too short to be detected under most circumstances in the fossil record.  To exaggerate somewhat, evolution could be yo-yo-ing from mouse to elephant, and back again, so fast that the changes could seem instantaneous in the fossil record.

Worse, Stebbins's calculation assumed an exceedingly weak selection pressure.  The real selection pressures measured in the field by Ford and his colleagues on lepidoptera and snails, by Endler and his colleagues on guppies, and by the Grants and their colleagues on the Galapagos finches, are orders of magnitude stronger.  If we fed into the Stebbins calculation a selection pressure as strong as the Grants have measured in the field, it is positively worrying to contemplate how fast evolution could go.  The same conclusion is indirectly suggested by domestic breeding.  We have gone from wolf to Yorkshire terrier in a few centuries, and could presumably go back to something like a wolf in as short a time.

It is indeed the case that evolution on the Galapagos archipelago has been pretty fast, though still nothing like as fast as the measured selection pressures might project.  The islands have been in existence for five million years at the outside, and the whole of their famous endemic fauna has evolved during that time.  But even the Galapagos islands are old compared to Lake Victoria.  In the less than one million years of the lake's brief lifetime, more than 170 species of the genus Haplochromis alone have evolved.

Yet the Coelacanth Latimeria, and the three genera of lungfish, have scarcely changed in hundreds of millions of years.  Surviving Lingula ('lamp shells') are classified in the same genus as their ancestors of 400 million years ago, and could conceivably interbreed with them if introduced through a time machine.  The question that still faces us is this.  How can evolution be both so fast and so leadenly slow?  How can there be so much variance in rates of evolution?  Is stasis just due to stabilizing selection and lack of directional selection?  Or is there something remarkably special going on in the (non) evolution of living fossils?  As William Blake might have written to a coelacanth: Did he who made the haplochromids make thee?

RICHARD DAWKINS is an evolutionary biologist and the Charles Simonyi Professor For The Understanding Of Science at Oxford University; Fellow of New College; author of The Selfish Gene, The Extended Phenotype , The Blind Watchmaker, River out of Eden (ScienceMasters Series), Climbing Mount Improbable, and Unweaving the Rainbow.


J. Doyne Farmer

"What do these discarded questions tell us?"

The road of knowledge is littered with old questions, but by their very nature, none of them stands out above all others. The diversity of thoughtful responses given on the Edge forum, which just begin to scratch the surface, illustrates how progress happens. The evolution of knowledge is a Schumpterian process of creative destruction, in which weeding out the questions that no longer merit attention is an integral part of formulating better questions that should. Forgetting is a vital part of creation.

Maxwell once worried that the second law of thermodynamics could be violated by a demon who could measure the velocity of individual particles and separate the fast ones from the slow ones, and use this to do work. Charlie Bennet showed that that this is impossible, because to make a measurement the demon has to first put her instruments in a known state.

This involves erasing information. The energy needed to do this is more than can be gained. Thus, the fact that forgetting takes work is essential to the second law of thermodynamics. Why is this relevant? As Gregory Bateson once said, the second law of thermodynamics is the reason that it is easier to mess up a room than it is to clean it. Forgetting is an essential part of the process of creating order. Asking the right questions is the most important part of the creative process. There are lots of people who are good at solving problems, fewer who are good at asking questions.

Around the time I took my qualifying examination in physics, someone showed me the test that Lord Rayleigh took when he graduated as senior wrangler from Cambridge in 1865. I would have failed it. There were no questions on thermodynamics, statistical mechanics, quantum mechanics, nuclear physics, particle physics, condensed matter, or relativity, i.e. no questions covering most of what I had learned.

However, the classical mechanics questions, which comprised most of the bets, were diabolically hard. Their solution involved techniques that are no longer taught, and that a modern physicist would have to work hard to recreate. Of course, in a field like philosophy this would not have surprised me — it just hadn't occurred to me that this was as true for physics as well. The physicists in Rayleigh's generation presumably worked just as hard, and knew just as many things. They just knew different things. After overcoming the shock of how much had seemingly been lost, I rationalized my ignorance with the belief that what I was taught was more useful than what Rayleigh was taught. Whether as a culture or as individuals, to learn new things, we have to forget old things. The notion of what is useful is constantly evolving.

The most important questions evolve through time as people understand little bits and pieces, and view them from different angles in the attempt to solve them. Each question is replaced by a new one that is (hopefully) better framed than its antecedant. Reflecting on those that have been cast aside is like sifting through flotsam on a beach, and asking what it tells us. Is there a common thread that might give us a clue to posing better questions in the future?

When we examine questions such as "What is a vital force?", "How fast is the earth moving?", "Does God exist?", "Have we seen the end of science?", "Has history ended?", "Can machines think?", there are some common threads. One is that we never really understood what these questions meant in the first place. But these questions (to varying degrees) have been useful in helping us to formulate better, more focused questions. We just have to turn loose of our pet ideas, and make a careful distinction between what we know and what we only think we know, and try to be more precise about what we are really asking.

I would be curious to hear more discussion about the common patterns and the conclusions to be drawn from the questions that have disappeared.

J. DOYNE FARMER, one of the pioneers of what has come to be called chaos theory, is McKinsey Professor, Sante Fe, Institute, and the co founder and former co-president of Prediction Company in Santa Fe, New Mexico.


Stephen M. Kosslyn

"How do people differ in the ways they think and learn?"

Most Americans, even (or, perhaps, especially) educated Americans, seem to believe that all people are basically the same ‹ we have the same innate abilities and capacities, and only hard work and luck separates those who are highly skilled from those who are not. But this idea is highly implausible. People differ along every other dimension, from the size of their stomachs and shoes to the length of their toes and tibias. They even differ in the sizes of their brains. So, why shouldn't they also differ in their abilities and capacities? Of course, the answer is that they do. It's time to acknowledge this fact and take advantage of it.

In my view, the 21st century is going to be the "Century of Personalization." No more off-the-rack drugs: Gene and proteonomic chips will give readouts for each person, allowing drugs to be tailored to their individual physiologies. No more off-the-rack clothes: For example, you'll stick your feet in a box, lasers will measure every aspect of them, and shoes will be custom-made according to your preferred style. Similarly, no more off-the-rack teaching.

Specifically, the first step is to diagnose individual differences in cognitive abilities and capacities, so we can play to a given person's strengths and avoid falling prey to his or her weaknesses. But in order to characterize these differences, we first need to understand at least the broad outlines of general mechanisms that are common to the species.

All of us have biceps and triceps, but these muscles differ in their strength. So too with our mental muscles. All of us have a short-term memory, for example (in spite of how it may sometimes feel at the end of the day), and all of us are capable storing information in long-term memory. Differences among people in part reflect differences in the efficacy of such mechanisms. For example, there are at least four distinct ways that visual/spatial information can be processed (which I'm not going to go into here), and people differ in their relative abilities on each one. Presenting the same content in different ways will invite different sorts of processing, which will be more or less congenial for a given person.

But there's more to it than specifying mechanisms and figuring out how well people can use them (as daunting as that is). Many of the differences in cognitive abilities and capacities probably reflect how mechanisms work together and when they are recruited. Understanding such differences will tell us how to organize material so that it goes down smoothly. For example, how--for a given person-should examples and general principles be intermixed?

And, yet more. We aren't bloodless brains floating in vats, soaking up information pumped into us. Rather, it's up to us to decide what to pay attention to, and what to think about. Thus, it's no surprise that people learn better when they are motivated. We need to know how a particular student should be led to use the information during learning. For example, some people may "get" physics only when it's taught in the context of auto mechanics.

All of this implies that methods of teaching in the 21st Century will be tightly tied to research in cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience. At present, the study of individual differences is almost entirely divorced from research on general mechanisms. Even if this is remedied, it's going to be a challenge to penetrate the educational establishment and have this information put to use. So, the smart move will probably be to do an end-run around this establishment, using computers to tutor children individually outside of school. This in turn raises the specter of another kind of Digital Divide. Some of us may in fact still get off-the-rack education.

Finally, I'll leave aside another set of questions no one seems to be seriously asking: What should be taught? And should the same material be taught to everyone? You can imagine why this second question isn't being asked, but it's high time we seriously considered making the curriculum relevant for the 21st Century.

STEPHEN M. KOSSLYN, a full professor of psychology at Harvard at age 34, is a researcher focusing primarily on the nature of visual mental imagery. His books include Image and Mind, Ghosts in the Mind's Machine, Wet Mind: The New Cognitive Neuroscience, Image and Brain: The Resolution of the Imagery Debate, and Psychology: The Brain, the Person, the World.


Alun Anderson

"Why are humans smarter than other animals?"

Such a simple question. Many of you might think "Has that question really disappeared?" Some questions disappear for ever because they have been answered. Some questions go extinct because they were bad questions to begin with. But there are others that appear to vanish but then we find that they are back with us again in a slightly different guise. They are questions that are just too close to our hearts for us to let them die completely.

For millennia, human superiority was taken for granted. From the lowest forms of life up to humans and then on to the angels and God, all living thing were seen as arranged in the Great Chain of Being. Ascend the chain and perfection grows. It is a hierarchical philosophy that conveniently allows for the exploitation of dumber beasts — of other species or races — as a right by their superiors. We dispose of them as God disposes of us.

The idea of human superiority should have died when Darwin came on the scene.

Unfortunately, the full implications of what he said have been difficult to take in: there is no Great Chain of Being, no higher and no lower. All creatures have adapted effectively to their own environments in their own way. Human "smartness" is just a particular survival strategy among many others, not the top of a long ladder.

It took a surprisingly long time for scientists to grasp this. For decades, comparative psychologists tried to work out the learning abilities of different species so that they could be arranged on a single scale. Animal equivalents of intelligence tests were used and people seriously asked whether fish were smarter than birds. It took the new science of ethology, created by Nobel-prize winners Konrad Lorenz, Niko Tinbergen and Karl von Frisch, to show that each species had the abilities it needed for its own lifestyle and they could not be not arranged on a universal scale. Human smartness is no smarter than anyone else's smartness. The question should have died for good.

Artificial intelligence researchers came along later but they too could not easily part from medieval thinking. The most important problems to tackle were agreed to be those that represented our "highest" abilities. Solve them and everything else would be easy. As a result, we have ended up with computer programs that can play chess as well as a grandmaster. But unfortunately we have none that can make a robot walk as well as a 2-year old, yet alone run like a cat. The really hard problems turn out to be those that we share with "lower" animals.

Strangley enough, even evolutionary biologists still get caught up with the notion that humans stand at the apex of existence. There are endless books from evolutionary biologists speculating on the reasons why humans evolved such wonderful big brains, but a complete absence of those which ask if a big brains is a really useful organ to have. The evidence is far from persuasive. If you look at a wide range of organisms, those with bigger brains are generally no more successful than those with smaller brains — hey go extinct just as fast.

Of course, it would be really nice to sample a large range of different planets where life is to be found and see if big-brained creatures do better over really long time scales (the Earth is quite a young place). Unfortunately, we cannot yet do that, although the fact that we have never been contacted by any intelligent life from older parts of the Universe suggests that it usually comes to a bad end.

Still, as we are humans it's just so hard not to be seduced by the question "What makes us so special" which is just the same as the question above but in a different form. When you switch on a kitchen light and see a cockroach scuttle for safety you can't help seeing it as a lower form of life. Unfortunately, there are a lot more of them than there are of us and they have been around far, far longer. Cockroach philosophers doubtless entertain their six-legged friends by asking "What makes us so special".

ALUN ANDERSON is Editor-in-Chief of New Scientist.


Denis Dutton

"When will overpopulation create worldwide starvation?"

They cordoned off the area and brought in disposal experts to defuse the bomb, but it turned out to be full of — sawdust. The Population Bomb is truly a dud, although this news and its implications have yet fully to sink into the general consciousness.

Ideas can become so embedded in our outlook that they are hard to shake by rational argument. As a Peace Corps Volunteer working in rural India in the 1960s, I vividly remember being faced with multiple uncertainties about what might work for the modernization of India. There was only one thing I and my fellow development workers could all agree on: India unquestionably would experience mass famine by the 1980s at the latest. For us at the time this notion was an eschatological inevitability and an article of faith.

For 35 years since those days, India has grown in population by over a million souls a month, never failing to feed itself or earn enough to buy the food it needs (sporadic famine conditions in isolated areas, which still happen in India, are always a matter of communications and distribution breakdown).

Like so many of the doomsayers of the twentieth century, we left crucial factors out of our glib calculations. First, we failed to appreciate that people in developing countries will behave exactly like people in the rest of the world: as they improve their standard of living, they have fewer children. In India, the rate of population increase began to turn around in the 1970s, and it has declined since. More importantly, we underestimated the capacity of human intelligence to adapt changing situations.

Broadly speaking, instead of a world population of 25 or 30 billion, which some prophets of the 1960s were predicting, it now looks as though the peak of world population growth might be reached within 25 to 40 years at a maximum of 8.5 billion (just 2.5 billion above the present world population). Even without advances in food technology, the areas of land currently out of agricultural production in the United States and elsewhere will prevent starvation. But genetic technologies will increase the quantities and healthfulness of food, while at the same time making food production much more environmentally friendly. For example, combining gene modification with herbicides will make it possible to produce crops that induce no soil erosion. New varieties will requires less intensive application of nitrogen fertilizers and pesticides. If genetic techniques can control endemic pests, vast areas of Africa could be brought into productive cultivation.

There will be no way to add 2.5 billion people to the planet without environmental costs. Some present difficulties, such as limited supplies of fresh water in Third World localities, will only get worse. But these problems will not be insoluble. Moreover, there is not the slightest chance that population growth will in itself cause famine. What will be fascinating to watch, for those who live long enough to witness it, will be how the world copes with an aging, declining population, once the high-point has been reached.

The steady evaporation of the question, "When will overpopulation create worldwide starvation?", has left a gaping hole in the mental universe of the doomsayers. They have been quick to fill it with anxieties about global warming, cellphones, the ozone hole, and Macdonaldization. There appears to be a hard-wired human propensity to invent threats where they cannot clearly be discovered. Historically, this has been applied to foreign ethnic groups or odd individuals in a small-scale society (the old woman whose witchcraft must have caused village children to die). Today's anxieties focus on broader threats to mankind, where activism can mix fashionable politics with dubious science. In this respect alone, the human race is not about to run out of problems. Fortunately, it also shows no sign of running out of solutions.

DENIS DUTTON, founder and editor of the innovative Web page Arts & Letters Daily (www.cybereditions.com/aldaily/), teaches the philosophy of art at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand and writes widely on aesthetics. He is editor of the journal Philosophy and Literature, published by the Johns Hopkins University Press. Professor Dutton is a director of Radio New Zealand, Inc.


Steven Pinker

"What are the implications of human nature for political systems? This question was openly discussed in two historical periods."`

The first was the Enlightenment. Hobbes claimed the brutishishness of man in a state of nature called for a governmental Leviathan. Rousseau's concept of the noble savage led him to call for the abolition of property and the predominance of the "general will." Adam Smith justified market capitalism by saying that it is not the generosity but the self-interest of the baker that leads him to give us bread. Madison justified constitutional government by saying that if people were angels, no government would be necessary, and if angels were to govern people, no controls on government would be necessary. The young Marx's notion of a "species character" for creativity and self-expression led to "From each according to his ability"; his later belief that human nature is transformed throughout history justified revolutionary social change.

The second period was the 1960s and its immediate aftermath, when Enlightenment romanticism was revived. Here is an argument the US Attorney General, Ramsay Clark, against criminal punishment: "Healthy, rational people will not injure others ... they will understand that the individual and his society are best served by conduct that does not inflict injury. ... Rehabilitated, an individual will not have the capacity-cannot bring himself-to injure another or take or destroy property." This is, of course, an empirical claim about human nature, with significant consequences for policy.

The discussion came to an end in the 1970s, when even the mildest non romantic statements about human nature were met with angry denunciations and accusations of Nazism. At the century's turn we have an unprecedented wealth of data from social psychology, ethnography, behavioral economics, criminology, behavioral genetics, cognitive neuroscience, and so on, that could inform (though of course, not dictate) policies in law, political decision-making, welfare, and so on. But they are seldom brought to bear on the issues. In part this is a good thing, because academics have been known to shoot off their mouths with half-baked or crackpot policy proposals. But since all policy decisions presuppose some hypothesis about human nature, wouldn't it make sense to bring the presuppositions into the open so they can be scrutinized in the light of our best data?

STEVEN PINKER is professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT; director of the McDonnell-Pew Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at MIT; author of Language Learnability and Language Development, Learnability and Cognition, The Language Instinct , How the Mind Works, and Words and Rules.


Brian Goodwin

"Where Does Love Come From?"

What does science have to say about the origins of love in the scheme of things? Not a lot. In fact, it is still virtually a taboo subject, just as consciousness was until very recently. However, since feelings are a major component of consciousness, it seems likely that the ontology of love is now likely to emerge as a significant question in science.

Within Christian culture, as in many other religious traditions, love has its origin as a primal quality of God and so is co-eternal with Him. His creation is an outpouring of this love in shared relationship with beings that participate in the essential creativity of the cosmos. As in the world of Shakespeare and the Renaissance Magi, it is love that makes the world go round and animates all relationships.

This magical view of the world did not satisfy the emerging perspective of Galilean science, which saw relationships in nature as law-like, obeying self-consistent logical principles of order. God may well have created the world, but he did so according to intelligible principles. It is the job of the scientist to identify these and describe them in mathematical form. And so with Newton, love turned into gravity. The rotation of the earth around the sun, and the moon around the earth, was a result of the inverse square law of gravitational attraction. It was not a manifestation of love as an attractive principle between animated beings, however much humanity remained attached to romantic feelings about the full moon. Love was henceforth banished from scientific discourse and the mechanical world-view took over.

Now science itself is changing and mechanical principles are being replaced by more subtle notions of interaction and relationships. Quantum mechanics was the first harbinger of a new holistic world of non-local connectedness in which causality operates in a much more intricate way than conventional mechanism. We now have complexity theory as well, which seeks to understand how emergent properties arise in complex systems such as developing organisms, colonies of social insects, and human brains. Often these properties are not reducible to the behavior of their component parts and their interactions, though there is always consistency between levels: that is, there are no contradictions between the properties of the parts of a complex system and the order that emerges from them. Consciousness appears to be one of these emergent properties. With this recognition, science enters a new realm.

Consciousness involves feelings, or more generally what are called qualia, the experience of qualities such as pain, pleasure, beauty, and ŠŠ. love. This presents us with a major challenge. The scientific principle of consistency between levels in systems requires that feelings emerge from some property of the component parts (e.g., neurones) that is consistent with feeling, experience. But if matter is 'dead', without any feeling, and neurones are just made of this dead matter, even though organized in a complex way, then where do feelings come from ? This is the crunch question which presents us with a hard choice. We can either say that feelings are epiphenomena, illusions that evolution has invented because they are useful for survival. Or we can change our view of matter and ascribe to the basic stuff of reality some elementary component of feeling, sentience, however rudimentary. Of course, we could also take the view that nature is not self-consistent and that miracles are possible; that something can come from nothing, such as feeling from dead, insentient matter, thus returning to the magical world-view of the early renaissance. But if we are to remain scientific, then the choice is between the other two alternatives.

The notion that evolution has invented feelings because they are useful for survival is not a scientific explanation, because it gives no account of how feelings are possible as properties that emerge in the complex systems we call organisms (i.e., consistent emergent properties of life). So we are left with the other hard choice: matter must have some rudimentary property of sentience. This is the conclusion that the mathematician/philosopher A.N. Whitehead came to in his classic, Process and Reality, and it is being proposed as a solution to the Cartesian separation of mind and matter by some contemporary philosophers and scientists. It involves a radical reappraisal of what we call 'reality'. But it does suggest a world in which love exists as something real, in accord with most peoples' experience. And goodness knows, we could do with a little more of it in our fragmented world.

BRIAN GOODWIN is a professor of biology at the Schumacher College, Milton Keynes, and the author of Temporal Organization in Cells and Analytical Physiology, How The Leopard Changed Its Spots: The Evolution of Complexity, and (with Gerry Webster) Form and Transformation: Generative and Relational Principles in Biology. Dr. Goodwin is a member of the Board of Directors of the Sante Fe Institute.


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