LET ME take you to The Edge. Or more specifically, www.edge.org, an intriguing little website set up by John Brockman, the literary agent in New York responsible for catapulting science writers such as the neuropsychologist Steven Pinker into the big time.
The cyber salon styles itself, with unabashed pomposity, as a purveyor of the Third Culture, a potpourri of current science, futurology and philosophy. An annual highlight is the Edge question, posed every January by Brockman to set the theme for the coming year. The 2006 teaser, announced yesterday, is this: what is your dangerous idea? Brockman describes it as “an idea you think about (not necessarily one you originated) that is dangerous not because it is assumed to be false, but because it might be true?”.
The answers have already started rolling in (Edge contributors have a particular disdain for the divine, so they probably haven’t got much to do at this time of year), and how very provocative they are. Here is my pick of the crop:
Kevin Kelly, editor-at-large of Wired magazine, cautions that the preservation of anonymity, usually viewed as admirable in this identity-obsessed world, is not necessarily a good thing. “There’s a dangerous idea circulating that . . . it is a noble antidote to technologies of control . . . Privacy can only be won by trust, and trust requires persistent identity,” he writes. He points to the damage done to the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia by its policy, now abandoned, of allowing anonymous sources to place information on its public records.
Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, the director of the Quality of Life Research Centre at Claremont Graduate University in California, argues that the simplicity of the free market cannot meet the complex needs of humankind. “The dangerous idea on which our culture is based is that the political economy has a silver bullet — the free market — that must take precedence over any other value, and thereby lead to peace and prosperity.
“It is dangerous because, like all silver bullets, it is an intellectual and political scam that might benefit some, but ultimately requires the majority to pay for the destruction it causes.” When health, the environment and public safety are eroded by the free market, he says, we should think carefully about allowing it to reign unchallenged.
THERE IS ONE dangerous idea that still trumps them all: the notion that, as Steven Pinker describes it, “groups of people may differ genetically in their average talents and temperaments”. For “groups of people”, read “races”.
With the advent of genetics, the tinkle of The Bell Curve, reviled for its thesis that whites are smarter than blacks, refuses to fade away. The idea of genetic racial difference — accepted for physical traits such as skin colour and hair texture — is discarded as irrelevant and even dangerous when applied to mental characteristics such as intelligence.
A pair of academics trod this perilous territory recently, when they suggested that the disease-causing genes unique to Ashkenazi Jews — such as those responsible for Tay-Sachs disease and Gaucher disease — continue to be passed on because they offer a counter benefit: enhanced intelligence.
Henry Harpending and Gregory Cochran, from the University of Utah, cite circumstantial evidence for their theory: a handful of papers that link those same disease-causing genes to increased neural growth. This, they suggest, fits with the observation that Ashkenazis favoured “cognitively demanding” jobs, such as setting up businesses.
The Bell Curve, incidentally, suggested that Ashkenazi Jews had the highest average IQ of any ethnic group. Einstein was an Ashkenazi (although it’s safe to assume he was so exceptional as to be untypical). The Utah academics, whose study has been denounced as “bullshit” by some commentators, point out that Jews — not necessarily Ashkenazi — punch well above their weight in the Nobel Prize league. They comprise 3 per cent of the American population but 27 per cent of US laureates.
Of course, others confronted with genius do not invoke genes, brains and diseases — rather a cultural emphasis among Jewish parents on scholarship and academic achievement. What . . . pushy Jewish mothers nagging their precious sons to do well? Now there’s a dangerous idea.