People's fascination for religion and superstition will disappear within a few decades as television and the internet make it easier to get information, and scientists get closer to discovering a final theory of everything, leading thinkers argue today.
The web magazine Edge (www.edge.org) asked more than 150 scientists and intellectuals: "What are you optimistic about?" Answers included hope for an extended human life span, a bright future for autistic children, and an end to violent conflicts around the world.
Philosopher Daniel Denett believes that within 25 years religion will command little of the awe it seems to instil today. The spread of information through the internet and mobile phones will "gently, irresistibly, undermine the mindsets requisite for religious fanaticism and intolerance".
Biologist Richard Dawkins said that physicists would give religion another problem: a theory of everything that would complete Albert Einstein's dream of unifying the fundamental laws of physics. "This final scientific enlightenment will deal an overdue death blow to religion and other juvenile superstitions."
Part of that final theory will be formulated by scientists working on the Large Hadron Collider, a particle accelerator at Cern in Geneva, which is to be switched on this year. It will smash protons together to help scientists understand what makes up the most fundamental bits of the universe.
Steven Pinker, a psychologist at Harvard University, highlighted the decline of violence: "Most people, sickened by the bloody history of the 20th century, find this claim incredible. Yet, as far as I know, every systematic attempt to document the prevalence of violence over centuries and millennia (and, for that matter, the past 50 years), particularly in the west, has shown the overall trend is downward."
John Horgan, of the Stevens Institute of Technology, New Jersey, was optimistic "that one day war - large-scale, organised group violence - will end once and for all".
This will also be the year that we get to grips with our genomes. George Church, a geneticist at Harvard Medical School, believes we will learn "so much more about ourselves and how we interact with our environment and fellow humans".
Simon Baron-Cohen, a psychologist at Cambridge University, focused on autistic children, saying their outlook had never been better. "There is a remarkably good fit between the autistic mind and the digital age," he said. "Many develop an intuitive understanding of computers, in the same way other children develop an intuitive understanding of people."
Leo Chalupa, a neurobiologist at the University of California, Davis, predicted that, by the middle of this century, it would not be uncommon for people to lead active lives well beyond the age of 100. He added: "We will be able to regenerate parts of the brain that have been worn out. So better start thinking what you'll be doing with all those extra years."
NEW YORK The Edge of Computation Science Prize endowed with a hundred housand dollars goes at David Deutsch, the pioneer of quantum computer research. The honor is aimed at scientists, who advance the "computatrional idea" in the past ten years with their work. Deutsch, born in Israel and trained in Oxford and Cambridge, is credited with the development of a set of algorithms on which the theoretical conditions for a recent revolution in computation are based. The Edge Prize, named after the virtual Internet salon Edge, in which an international avant-garde of researchers and philosophers meet, was organized by John Brockman, the New York Guru of the third culture.
The Prize was initiated by the investor Jeffrey Epstein, an inspired promoter of science, who also donated the Prize money. Among the other nominees were researchers such as Tim Berners Lee, Noam Chomsky, David Gelernter, Larry Smarr and J. Craig Venter.
A New Take on Atheism: Armed with evolutionary psychology and inflamed by the 9/11 attacks, these authors--Richard Dawkins, left, Sam Harris, center, and Daniel C. Dennett--treat belief in God as a superstition the modern world can no longer afford
...On the science Web site Edge.org, the astronomer Carolyn Porco offers the subversive suggestion that science itself should attempt to supplant God in Western culture, by providing the benefits and comforts people find in religion: community, ceremony and a sense of awe. "Imagine congregations raising their voices in tribute to gravity, the force that binds us all to the Earth, and the Earth to the Sun, and the Sun to the Milky Way," she writes. Porco, who is deeply involved in the Cassini mission to Saturn, finds spiritual fulfillment in exploring the cosmos. But will that work for the rest of the world—for "the people who want to know that they're going to live forever and meet Mom and Dad in heaven? We can't offer that." If Dawkins, Dennett and Harris are right, the five-century-long competition between science and religion is sharpening. People are choosing sides. And when that happens, people get hurt.
Karl Marx famously predicted that industrial capitalism’s individualist ethos would engender its opposite: a new collective consciousness that would ultimately fuel the socialist revolution. But the old dialectician would probably have been shocked to see how much collectivism has flowered in the hypercapitalist Internet economy of late. First there was open-source software — large-scale digital engineering projects miraculously executed by groups of programmers contributing their intellectual labor for the sheer reward of participation. Then Google took on the seemingly insurmountable problem of organizing the Web’s information by tapping the collective wisdom embedded in the links between Web sites. Then Wikipedia applied the open-source model to encyclopedia production, and — against all odds — built a genuine challenger to Britannica in four short years.
But all the hype over the powers of the so-called hive mind was bound to provoke a reaction, and in May of this year, it arrived in the form of a thoughtful — though controversial — essay by the artist and computer scientist Jaron Lanier. “What we are witnessing today,” Lanier wrote on Edge.org, “is the alarming rise of the fallacy of the infallible collective. Numerous elite organizations have been swept off their feet by the idea. They are inspired by the rise of the Wikipedia, by the wealth of Google and by the rush of entrepreneurs to be the most Meta. Government agencies, top corporate planning departments and major universities have all gotten the bug.” Lanier dubbed this newthink “digital Maoism.” Against this collectivist mythos, Lanier tried to carve out a crucial space for the insight and creativity of the individual mind.
Unlike most counterrevolutionary manifestoes, however, Lanier’s essay aimed not so much to topple the dominant regime as to limit its application. “There are certain types of answers that ought not be provided by an individual,” he wrote. “When a government bureaucrat sets a price, for instance, the result is often inferior to the answer that would come from a reasonably informed collective. . . . But when a collective designs a product, you get design by committee, which is a derogatory expression for a reason.”
In the essay, Lanier grouped everything from his personal Wikipedia entry to “American Idol” under the umbrella of digital Maoism, and many of the responses to the article by assorted Internet luminaries observed that Lanier had elided important differences between these systems to make his point. The entirety of Wikipedia, for instance, is most certainly a collective undertaking, but many articles are written and edited by small numbers of individuals. Wikipedia may be not too far from the historical reality of Maoism itself: a system propagandized with the language of collectivism that was, in practice, actually run by a small power elite.
In any case, culture and technology are increasingly reliant on the hive mind — and whatever its faults, Lanier’s broadside helps us consider the consequences of this momentous development. A swarm of connected human minds is a fantastic resource for tracking down software bugs or discovering obscure gems on the Web. But if you want to come up with a good idea, or a sophisticated argument, or a work of art, you’re still better off going solo.
The great Danish physicist Niels Bohr, it is said, had a good-luck horseshoe hanging in his office. "You don't believe in that nonsense, do you?" a visitor once asked, to which Bohr replied, "No, but they say it works whether you believe in it or not."
If one thing emerged from the "Beyond Belief" conference at the Salk Institute in LaJolla, Calif. it's that religion doesn't work the same way. Some 30 scientists—one of the greatest collections of religious skeptics ever assembled in one place since Voltaire dined alone—examined faith from the evolutionary, neurological and philosophical points of view, and they concluded that some things only work if you do believe in them. Richard Dawkins, the British evolutionary biologist and author of the best-selling book "The God Delusion," said he couldn't have a spiritual experience even when he tried. After another panelist, neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran of the University of California, San Diego, explained that temporal-lobe seizures of the brain create profound spiritual and out-of-body experiences, Dawkins disclosed that he had participated in an experiment that was supposed to mimic such seizures—and even then he didn't feel a thing.
Dawkins obviously feels this loss is a small price to pay for freedom from superstition. But even physicist Steven Weinberg, a Nobel laureate and an outspoken atheist, acknowledged that science is a poor substitute for the role religion plays in most peoples' lives. It's hard, he said, to live in a world in which one's highest emotions can be understood in biochemical and evolutionary terms, rather than a gift from God. Instead of the big, comforting certainties promoted by religion, science can offer only "a lot of little truths" and the austere pleasures of intellectual honesty. Much as Weinberg would like to see civilization emerge from the tyranny of religion, when it happens, "I think we will miss it, like a crazy old aunt who tells lies and causes us all kinds of trouble, but was beautiful once and was with us a long time."
To which Dawkins retorted, "I won't miss her at all." Only in the most extreme circumstances would he deign to take account of the consolations offered by religion. He would not, for instance, try to talk a Christian on his deathbed out of a belief in Heaven. He didn't say what he would do if he were the one near death, but it's unlikely he would be calling for a priest. The atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett had been expected to attend, but two weeks earlier had been rushed to the hospital with a near-fatal aortic rupture. At the conference, people handed around copies of Dennett's essay entitled "Thank Goodness," posted on the science Web site Edge.org, in which he described how annoying it was to hear from friends that they had been praying for his recovery. "I have resisted the temptation," he wrote, "to respond, 'Thanks, I appreciate it, but did you also sacrifice a goat?'"
To Lanier, the 'wisdom of crowds' delivers a reflection of the lowest common denominator.
By Steven Levy
Jaron Lanier is a man of many talents—virtual-reality pioneer, New Age composer, visual artist and artificial-intelligence scientist. Now Lanier has taken on another role: dyspeptic critic of the surging trend of digital collectivism, an ethic that celebrates and exploits the ability of the Web to aggregate the preferences and behaviors of millions of people. In a recent essay posted on the Web site Edge.org, Lanier disparages the recent spate of efforts that rely on conscious collaboration (like the anyone-can-participate online reference work Wikipedia) or passive polling (the so-called meta sites like Digg, which draw on user response to rank news articles and blog postings). To Lanier, these represent an alarming decision—rejecting individual expression and creativity to become part of a faceless mob. To emphasize the enormity of this movement, Lanier titled his essay with a fearsome moniker: "Digital Maoism." ...
...Neil H. Shubin, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago, writes of the way living things emerged from the seas and describes the recently discovered fossil specimen of that first terrestrial explorer. Paleontologist Tim D. White of the University of California, Berkeley, lays out the forensic evidence of pre-human descent. Nicholas Humphrey, a professor at the Center for Philosophy of Natural and Social Science at the London School of Economics, muses on how natural selection might have produced human consciousness. Steven Pinker, the Harvard University cognitive neuroscientist, holds forth on the evolution of ethics. Harvard evolutionary psychologist Marc D. Hauser discusses the proper role of evolution in the science curriculum.
Several essayists worry that the passions stirred by the intelligent design debate go well beyond the natural tension between science and religion. They suspect that baser political motives are at work in a strategy crafted to discredit science itself as an independent auditor of political claims about global warming, stem-cell research, pollution and high-tech military systems. ...
In the book's universe, however, Albert Einstein, thinker extraordinaire, still lives. As, indeed, these essays prove he does.
The reader is transported to a space-time continuum much like our own in "My Einstein: Essays by Twenty-Four of the World's Leading Thinkers on the Man, His Work, and His Legacy," edited by John Brockman Pantheon, $25,In the book's universe, however, Albert Einstein, thinker extraordinaire, still lives. As, indeed, these essays prove he does.These essays prove why, as editor John Brockman writes, "Einstein was clearly the most important person of the 20th century."
...More recently I found "Intelligent Thought: Science Versus the Intelligent Design Movement," fascinating brief essays by leading evolutionists and edited by John Brockman.
... Each side of the evolution versus intelligent design debate has tended to draw me similarly, yet there is a winner. I am persuaded that the evolutionists have far the better case. In an essay titled"Unintelligent Design," Scott Atran, in the last volume noted above, points out that "no scientific theory can ever be proved true, but states that "scientific theories are validated when their surprising predictions are confirmed ..." ... (Grael Gannon, of Bismarck, is a teacher at Shiloh Christian School.)
The kind of hard-right thinking found in conservative pundit Ann Coulter's book "Godless: The Church of Liberalism" amazes Bammel, he said. "It drives me up the wall. Evidence is being produced almost day by day in favor of evolution. That to me says it's factual, the way thing happened. How anyone can come along and deny it, it just numbs my mind."
The talk Bammel will give Monday is a distillation of material he used in a course he taught at West Virginia University about the conflicts between science and religion. It will be followed by a question-and-answer session. He said he doesn't necessarily expect to change minds, but he does want to present some facts.
"There's a lot of intelligent people in the Vail Valley, really well-read people," he said. "There are so many good books put out on this topic in the past 10 years, and part of my purpose is to just people to get back to these and examine the evidence out there."
Two books Bammel recommends are "Intelligent Thought: Science Versus the Intelligent Design Movement" edited by John Brockman and "By Design: Science and the Search for God" by Larry Witham.
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If you are interested in education, and what draws different people to different disciplines, you may want to read Curious Minds: How a child becomes a scientist. Edited by John Brockman, this is a collection of reminiscences by prominent scientists of how they came to science through experiences during childhood. It’s amazing what triggers an interest in science. It could be a family friend with an interest in both science and children, the impetus from imagination stirred by a childhood novel, the special interest of a teacher, or a child’s cleaning job in a butcher shop.
My Einstein is a gem of a book that celebrates not only Einstein the scientist but also Einstein the man, even though it is a collection of essays written by scientific figures ... The result is a remarkably well-rounded figure.
If you want to learn more about how Intelligent Design relates to science, get the small 2006 paperback book, “Intelligent Thought: Science versus the Intelligent Design Movement,” edited by John Brockman ...
...And the key to our preeminence is education. The study of evolution has practical benefits: It is the basis for breeding food crops, choosing animal models that can be used to treat human disorders, conserving species and their habitats, predicting which vaccines should be made to prepare for epidemics like avian flu and manufacturing those vaccines.
Science education that incorporates unscientific issues like ID is a sure path to America’s failure against competing countries. Conversely, given its importance for biology and for science in general, evolution deserves to be properly taught in American classrooms.
John Brockman, escritor, editor y animador cultural de la élite científica, ha formulado a un centenar de investigadores la pregunta: "¿En qué cree usted aunque no pueda probarlo?". Las respuestas ya están colgadas en su revista electrónica Edge(www.edge.org), y tienen un morbo indudable: son justo las ideas que los científicos no pueden confesar en sus publicaciones técnicas.
Martin Rees: "La vida inteligente es exclusiva de la Tierra, pero se extenderá por toda la galaxia"
Lynn Margulis: "Todos los sentidos humanos proceden de una bacteria llamada espiroqueta"
Craig Venter: "La vida en nuestro planeta ha evolucionado a partir de microbios llegados del espacio"
Desde el Big Bang, la materia se ha ido organizando en partículas, átomos, estrellas, planetas, moléculas orgánicas y (al menos en la Tierra) bacterias, animales y cerebros conscientes. Eso es lo que los científicos consideran probado. Pero sus creencias no probadas cuentan otra historia, o muchas otras.
"Dudo que el Big Bang sea el principio del tiempo; tengo la fuerte sospecha de que nuestra historia se extiende mucho más atrás", escribe en Edge el físico teórico Lee Smolin. No puede probarlo, pero lo cree. Como cree su colega Lawrence Krauss, también sin pruebas, que "hay un número enorme, tal vez infinito de universos, y algunos pueden estar experimentando Big Bangs en este momento".
Einstein dijo que "Dios no juega a los dados", pero Alexander Vilenkin cree que jugaba demasiado: "Hay buenas razones para pensar que el universo es infinito, luego ha de haber infinitas regiones con historias idénticas a la nuestra". Gregory Benford prefiere creer en una gran cadena ontológica: "Si los seres vivos pueden crear nuevos universos con mejores leyes, nosotros somos una consecuencia inevitable del universo, un eco de inteligencias anteriores que eligieron deliberadamente crear un orden más sostenible".
He aquí lo que cree Craig Venter, el ex contendiente privado en la carrera del genoma: "La vida en la Tierra es con toda probabilidad el resultado de un suceso panespérmico". En la jerga, eso quiere decir que no surgió aquí, sino que llegó del espacio exterior. Venter ha estado últimamente secuenciando los genes de miles de organismos desconocidos y ha concluido que "un número finito de temas se usan una y otra vez y podrían fácilmente haber evolucionado a partir de unos pocos microbios llegados en un meteorito o en el polvo galáctico".
El físico Paul Davies también cree que la vida bulle en el universo, aunque por razones más bien místicas: "La vida es capaz de conectarse con los mecanismos básicos del cosmos, de resonar con el orden matemático oculto que lo hace funcionar".
Pero, si el universo existe para que haya matemáticos que lo entiendan, ¿quién garantiza que la evolución produzca matemáticos? La bióloga Lynn Margulis aporta una idea: que todos los sentidos humanos provienen de una bacteria llamada espiroqueta. Es la parte de su teoría simbiótica de la evolución que (todavía) no ha podido demostrar.
El lingüista John McWhorter ha hallado en una isla de Indonesia los dos lenguajes más simples del mundo, el Keo y el Ngada. Carecen de prefijos, sufijos, tonos y otras complicaciones. La isla se llama Flores. Hace unos meses, cuando McWhorter leyó sobre el diminuto Homo floresiensis, no pudo evitar que le asaltara una creencia: que los humanos de la isla habían simplificado su lenguaje para entenderse con los hobbits. No ha podido probarlo, pero lo cree.
"Creo que la vida inteligente es exclusiva de la Tierra, pero que tiene el potencial de extenderse por toda la galaxia", afirma el cosmólogo Martin Rees. "La idea es un sustituto de la religión, y espero que sea cierta".
¿Significa lo mismo el verbo creer para científicos y creyentes? Este diario le planteó la pregunta a Brockman, y él se la rebotó a cinco estrellas de su elenco. He aquí sus respuestas.
"No", responde el filósofo Daniel Dennett, de la Universidad de Tufts. "Los científicos pueden apoyarse en fórmulas que no comprenden si se convencen de que otros expertos las comprenden. Los creyentes se proclaman incapaces de comprender aquello que creen".
"Los científicos comparten la creencia de Einstein de que 'la naturaleza es sutil pero no maliciosa', y de que podemos usar nuestro poder de razonamiento para descubrir pautas y leyes en el mundo", añade Martin Rees, el Astrónomo Real del Reino Unido. "Pero algunos añaden creencias más peculiares, por ejemplo que las leyes naturales han sido diseñadas por un Creador, o que no podemos comprender la consciencia".
"Yo diría que, en general, el científico dice creo que en el sentido de pienso que, y no en el sentido de tengo fe en", puntualiza el gran evolucionista Robert Trivers, de la Universidad de Rutgers.
Y, curiosamente, dos de los más brillantes psicólogos del mundo discrepan entre sí:
"De ningún modo significa lo mismo", dice Steven Pinker, de Harvard. "En el lenguaje ordinario creer puede significar 'albergar un pensamiento' o 'tener fe en algo'. La primera acepción se usa en vez de saber cuando el hablante tiene dudas".
"No es tan diferente", opina Nicholas Humphrey, de la London School of Economics. "Decir creo es admitir que los fundamentos de la creencia son emocionales además de racionales, que la creencia suena bien estética, moral e incluso espiritualmente. Pero la gran diferencia es que el científico la ve como un desafío para seguir adelante, y el religioso como una señal de que ya ha llegado".
But could anybody who absorbed the Sermon on the Mount write, as she does of Richard Dawkins, "I defy any of my coreligionists to tell me they do not laugh at the idea of Dawkins burning in hell"? Well, I wouldn't want Coulter to roast (there's not much meat there anyway), but I wish she'd shut up and learn something about evolution. Her case for ID involves the same stupid arguments that fundamentalists have made for a hundred years. They're about as convincing as the blonde hair that gets her so much attention. By their roots shall ye know them.
A century and a half ago, Charles Darwin sparked a scientific revolution. Now that revolution has become a culture war. But does the concept of "intelligent design" have validity as an alternative to evolution? Three new books look beyond the rhetoric.
By Robert Lee Hotz
"A teaching moment that encompasses all the ages of the Earth."
Science Versus the Intelligent Design Movement
Edited by John Brockman
...Indeed, the effort to inject intelligent design into science classrooms is an attempt to narrow the common ground of a secular society, writes science publishing impresario John Brockman, who commissioned a collection of essays called Intelligent Thought: Science Versus the Intelligent Design Movement. "[R]eligious fundamentalism is on the rise around the world, and our own virulent domestic version of it, under the rubric of 'intelligent design,' by elbowing its way into the classroom abrogates the divide between church and state that has served this country so well for so long."
In Intelligent Thought, Brockman persuaded 16 distinguished scientists to address the controversy from the pulpit of their technical expertise. The assembled are knowledgeable, humane and deeply passionate about science as a way of knowing the world around us. The result is a teaching moment that encompasses all the ages of the Earth ...
Why Darwin Matters
The Case Against Intelligent Design
...None writes so fiercely in defense of evolution as Shermer, a Scientific American columnist and founder and director of the Skeptics Society. With the sustained indignation of a former creationist, Shermer is savage about the shortcomings of intelligent design and eloquent about the spirituality of science. In "Why Darwin Matters," he has assembled an invaluable primer for anyone caught up in an argument with a well-intentioned intelligent design advocate. ...
The distance between a neurone and a human mind seems very great, and to many philosophers and scientists quite impossible for science to cross. Even if minds are made from brains, and brains are made from billions of neurones, there seems no way to get from one sort of thing to the other.
Nicholas Humphrey's whole life as a scientist has been spent on that journey: in the 1960s he was part of the first team to discover how to record the activity of single neurones in a monkey's visual cortex; nearly 40 years later, he has reached a grand theory of how consciousness might have arisen in a Darwinian world, and why it might give us reasons to live.
The journey has been like the path of a neurone, full of twists and branchings and decisive contacts that altered its course. He has worked with monkeys in laboratories and in the wild. He has been a media don, a campaigner against nuclear weapons and the holder of a chair in parapsychological research who was dedicated to debunking even the possibility of telepathy or survival after death. He is an atheist, and the man who suggested to Richard Dawkins the analogy of viruses of the mind for religions; yet nowadays he talks as if spirituality were the thing that makes us human.
There is a self-confidence to this rather headlong life which stems, he thinks, in part from his background in the aristocracy of Cambridge. His father was an immunologist and FRS, his mother a psychiatrist and niece of John Maynard Keynes. In all, six of his relatives were fellows of the Royal Society, and one of his grandfathers, AV Hill, had won a Nobel prize. He never doubted he wanted to be a scientist: "It was what everyone around me was doing; the idea that I could have been professional at any other thing never really crossed my mind. I have to say there was a certain snobbishness about our attitudes. Anyone who didn't live in a large house didn't really count. Anyone who didn't have 15 cousins didn't count, and anyone who didn't have tea with a Nobel-winning grandpa wasn't really worth talking to either."
This sounds arrogant, but it is arrogance recollected after chastening. His career, which started out with great promise, has not run entirely smoothly. At first he wanted to be a physicist. At Westminster School, where he was educated, there was an inspired science teacher who devised a way for his pupils to measure the speed of light as it travelled the length of a London street and back. But when Humphrey went up to Trinity in 1961 on a scholarship to read mathematics and physics, he was disappointed in the course. He began to be fascinated by biology instead.
Though to many scientists biology feels messy and incoherent, to Humphrey it was much more logical and elegant than chemistry or physics: "Once I got into biology my eyes were open to a world of phenomena, a world of explanations, which had a kind of perfection I hadn't found before. There is no unifying theory in chemistry like evolutionary explanations in biology." As an ambitious young man, he set his sights on the biggest biological mystery he could find - human consciousness - so he switched to psychology, and began to work with monkeys under Larry Weiskrantz.
Humphrey was part of the team that first discovered how to record the activity of single nerve cells in a monkey's brain. Two other members later got Nobel prizes for this work, which underlies an enormous amount of subsequent research, since it made it possible to trace the ways in which the visual cortex receives and processes signals from the eyes. It was known in principle what was happening, but now the exact brain cells involved in image processing could be found and monitored.
His next discovery was wholly unexpected and is still hard to believe. In the laboratory was a monkey named Helen, who had been blinded when her visual cortex was cut with a scalpel. Humphrey decided to see what contact he could establish with the monkey, and got enough reaction to keep going. Over a period of seven years, he managed to coax out a sort of sense of sight. He played with the monkey, took her for walks, and did everything to persuade her that she could see: "Through this very intense and personal relationship - daily wondering what it was like to be her, and trying to get inside her mind - I began to get, I think, some insights into the general nature of consciousness. "It was like being part of a miracle. It wasn't really as if I had touched her with a healing hand, and made the blind see, but there are all those parables and models - and it was a bit like that."
Even four decades later, his excitement and pain are evident when he thinks of this. "It was a very sad moment when the monkey was killed. Of course she had to be. It was very important to know exactly what the lesion was. So [they] did it while I was away. I found it quite disturbing, though I think the research was interesting and important ... I wouldn't want to criticise anyone else who'd want to do it."
His next project was even more ambitious: to work on the aesthetic senses of a monkey. "It wasn't - not exactly - to make amends, but something like that was on my mind when I decided to work on aesthetics. I thought I would find out what monkeys would like doing if they had the choice."
This work was, very largely, a failure. He found that monkeys were strongly affected by colour, but shapes and sounds meant little to them. His first marriage was breaking up (he is now married, with two children, to an American psychologist), so in 1972 he went off to Rwanda for three months, to study mountain gorillas with Dian Fossey. Again, the question of what made us different arose: what had been the spur, or the reward, for human evolution, for our language and our consciousness. The answer he then came up with has been very influential. Variously known as "Machiavellian" or "social" intelligence, it is the idea that our brains evolved to cope not with the world around us, but with the people - or proto-people - of our ancestors' social groups.
Consciousness, in this theory, is a knowledge of what is going on in our own minds, and we have it so that we can better understand what is going on in the minds of those around us, so that we can manipulate them and avoid being manipulated in our turn. This fits human consciousness into a normal biological framework: it offers the possessor of bigger and better brains the kind of advantage that natural selection can see and work on.
For most of the 20th century consciousness had been out of bounds for scientists, and even for behavioural psychologists. Humphrey's original theory was one of the first signs that it could become a legitimate and fruitful area of scientific study. By the late 1970s he was a rather glamorous figure, living with the actress Susannah York, agitating against nuclear weapons - "We were always up on plinths in Trafalgar Square" - and in 1982 he was invited by Channel 4 to write and present a 10-part series on his theory. So he asked for leave of absence from the university and, when it was refused, resigned to make the programmes.
"I have tended to think that life's there as an exploration - don't pass up opportunities, whatever they are - and to have a certain sense that I'll be OK. At certain points I haven't. I've taken risks and then I'm very nearly not OK." He likes to quote Lord Byron: "The great object of life is sensation - to feel that we exist, even though in pain."
When the television series was finished, he could not get another academic job in England. Margaret Thatcher had come to power and the universities were shrinking. He was rescued by his friend Daniel Dennett, who found him a job at Tufts University, near Boston, and the two men worked closely together for years. In the mid-1990s he was able to move back to Cambridge, to a chair devoted to parapsychological research: since the whole burden of his interest in the subject was that he did not believe in it, he wrote Soul Searching, a book arguing that telepathy must be in principle impossible, and that Jesus was a conjuring charlatan like Uri Geller.
Yet, at the same time, he was developing a new and more complex theory of consciousness, which puts something like the soul at the centre of human existence. In his new theory the clue to the "hard problem" of consciousness - the problem of why and how minds appear from matter - is attacked head-on. The fact that we find it so difficult and so threatening to believe, as he says, "that there is nothing more to human experience than the churning of chemicals and electrons within the brain" seems to him to contain the kernel of the solution to the hard problem. If it is so difficult for us to think that way, then the difficulty might in some sense have been designed by natural selection.
Human beings, he writes, "have a self that seems to inhabit a separate universe of spiritual being. As the subjects of something so mysterious and strange, we humans gain new confidence and interest in our own survival, a new interest in other people, too. This feeds right back to our biological fitness, in both obvious and subtle ways. It makes us more fascinating and more fascinated, more determined to pursue lives wherever they will take us. In short, more like the amazing piece of work that humans are."
The theory is, like every other theory of consciousness, extremely controversial. After 200 years in which science has appeared to dethrone God and deny the possibility of the soul, Humphrey is the first man to claim that science can agree that we have souls - but that it was natural selection, not God, which gave us them.
John Tyler Bonner reviews Intelligent Thought: Science Versus the Intelligent Design Movement edited by John Brockman
27 July 2006
For the defence
In his book Intelligent Thought: Science Versus the Intelligent Design Movement, John Brockman marshals the case for evolutionary science against its 'ID' detractors.
Contributors include Richard Dawkins, saying among other things that "The supernatural explanation fails to explain because it ducks the responsibility to explain itself". And Steven Pinker: "An evolutionary understanding of the human condition, far from being incompatible with a moral sense, can explain why we have one." This book should draw the fire of the ID web sites for a while
John Tyler Bonner
Destroying the argument that intelligent design has a scientific basis.
John Brockman's edited volume Intelligent Thought is largely a series of essays by scientists that make clear, often eloquently, how untenable the scientific basis of intelligent design really is. ...
If intelligent design has anything to say in its favour, it is that it spawned this book. Many of the essays are fascinating and fun to read, and tell us something new.
Intelligent Thought is a book for scientists; that is, for those who see evolutionary biology as a science. If you are a creationist you will be unmoved; there is no point in looking at the evidence.