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2006

"WHAT IS YOUR DANGEROUS IDEA?"


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CONTRIBUTORS


Alun Anderson

Philip W. Anderson

Scott Atran

Mahzarin Banaji

Simon Baron-Cohen

Samuel Barondes

Gregory Benford

Jesse Bering

Jeremy Bernstein

Jamshed Bharucha

Susan Blackmore

Paul Bloom

David Bodanis

Stewart Brand

Rodney Brooks

David Buss

Philip Campbell

Leo Chalupa

Andy Clark

Gregory Cochran
Jerry Coyne

M. Csikszentmihalyi

Richard Dawkins

Paul Davies

Stanislas Deheane

Daniel C. Dennett
Keith Devlin
Jared Diamond
Denis Dutton
Freeman Dyson
George Dyson
Juan Enriquez

Paul Ewald

Todd Feinberg

Eric Fischl

Helen Fisher

Richard Foreman

Howard Gardner

Joel Garreau

David Gelernter

Neil Gershenfeld

Danie Gilbert

Marcelo Gleiser

Daniel Goleman

Brian Goodwin

Alison Gopnik

April Gornik

John Gottman

Brian Greene

Diane F. Halpern

Haim Harari

Judith Rich Harris

Sam Harris

Marc D. Hauser

W. Daniel Hillis

Donald Hoffman

Gerald Holton
John Horgan

Nicholas Humphrey

Piet Hut

Marco Iacoboni

Eric R. Kandel

Kevin Kelly

Bart Kosko

Stephen Kosslyn
Kai Krause
Lawrence Krauss

Ray Kurzweil

Jaron Lanier

David Lykken

Gary Marcus
Lynn Margulis
Thomas Metzinger
Geoffrey Miller

Oliver Morton

David G. Myers

Michael Nesmith

Randolph Nesse

Richard E. Nisbett

Tor Nørretranders

James O'Donnell

John Allen Paulos

Irene Pepperberg

Clifford Pickover

Steven Pinker

David Pizarro

Jordan Pollack

Ernst Pöppel

Carolyn Porco

Robert Provine

VS Ramachandran

Martin Rees

Matt Ridley

Carlo Rovelli

Rudy Rucker

Douglas Rushkoff

Karl Sabbagh

Roger Schank

Scott Sampson

Charles Seife

Terrence Sejnowski

Martin Seligman

Robert Shapiro
Rupert Sheldrake

Michael Shermer

Clay Shirky

Barry Smith

Lee Smolin

Dan Sperber

Paul Steinhardt

Steven Strogatz
Leonard Susskind

Timothy Taylor

Frank Tipler

Arnold Trehub

Sherry Turkle

J. Craig Venter

Philip Zimbardo

DAVID LYKKEN
Behavioral geneticist and Emeritus Professor of Psychology, University of Minnesota; Author, Happiness


Laws requiring parental licensure

I believe that, during my grandchildren's lifetimes, the U.S. Supreme Court will find a way to approve laws requiring parental licensure.

Traditional societies in which children are socialized collectively, the method to which our species is evolutionarily adapted, have very little crime. In the modern U.S., the proportion of fatherless children, living with unmarried mothers, currently some 10 million in all, has increased more than 400% since 1960 while the violent crime rate rose 500% by 1994, before dipping slightly due to a delayed but equal increase in the number of prison inmates (from 240,000 to 1.4 million.) In 1990, across the 50 States, the correlation between the violent crime rate and the proportion of illegitimate births was 0.70.

About 70% of incarcerated delinquents, of teen-age pregnancies, of adolescent runaways, involve (I think result from) fatherless rearing. Because these frightening curves continue to accelerate, I believe we must eventually confront the need for parental licensure — you can't keep that newborn unless you are 21, married and self-supporting — not just for society's safety but so those babies will have a chance for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.


SUSAN BLACKMORE
Psychologist and Skeptic; Author, Consciousness: An Introduction


Everything is pointless

We humans can, and do, make up our own purposes, but ultimately the universe has none. All the wonderfully complex, and beautifully designed things we see around us were built by the same purposeless process — evolution by natural selection. This includes everything from microbes and elephants to skyscrapers and computers, and even our own inner selves.

People have (mostly) got used to the idea that living things were designed by natural selection, but they have more trouble accepting that human creativity is just the same process operating on memes instead of genes. It seems, they think, to take away uniqueness, individuality and "true creativity".

Of course it does nothing of the kind; each person is unique even if that uniqueness is explained by their particular combination of genes, memes and environment, rather than by an inner conscious self who is the fount of creativity.


ARNOLD TREHUB
Psychologist, University of Massachusetts, Amherst; Author, The Cognitive Brain

Modern science is a product of biology

The entire conceptual edifice of modern science is a product of biology. Even the most basic and profound ideas of science — think relativity, quantum theory, the theory of evolution — are generated and necessarily limited by the particular capacities of our human biology. This implies that the content and scope of scientific knowledge is not open-ended.


ROGER C. SCHANK
Psychologist & Computer Scientist; Chief Learning Officer, Trump University; Author, Making Minds Less Well Educated than Our Own


No More Teacher's Dirty Looks

After a natural disaster, the newscasters eventually excitedly announce that school is finally open so no matter what else is terrible where they live, the kids are going to school. I always feel sorry for the poor kids.

My dangerous idea is one that most people immediately reject without giving it serious thought: school is bad for kids — it makes them unhappy and as tests show — they don't learn much.

When you listen to children talk about school you easily discover what they are thinking about in school: who likes them, who is being mean to them, how to improve their social ranking, how to get the teacher to treat them well and give them good grades.

Schools are structured today in much the same way as they have been for hundreds of years. And for hundreds of years philosophers and others have pointed out that school is really a bad idea:

We are shut up in schools and college recitation rooms for ten or fifteen years, and come out at last with a belly full of words and do not know a thing. — Ralph Waldo Emerson

Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught. — Oscar Wilde

Schools should simply cease to exist as we know them. The Government needs to get out of the education business and stop thinking it knows what children should know and then testing them constantly to see if they regurgitate whatever they have just been spoon fed.

The Government is and always has been the problem in education:

If the government would make up its mind to require for every child a good education, it might save itself the trouble of providing one. It might leave to parents to obtain the education where and how they pleased, and content itself with helping to pay the school fees of the poorer classes of children, and defraying the entire school expenses of those who have no one else to pay for them. — JS Mill

First, God created idiots. That was just for practice. Then He created school boards. — Mark Twain

Schools need to be replaced by safe places where children can go to learn how to do things that they are interested in learning how to do. Their interests should guide their learning. The government's role should be to create places that are attractive to children and would cause them to want to go there.

Whence it comes to pass, that for not having chosen the right course, we often take very great pains, and consume a good part of our time in training up children to things, for which, by their natural constitution, they are totally unfit. — Montaigne

We had a President many years ago who understood what education is really for. Nowadays we have ones that make speeches about the Pythagorean Theorem when we are quite sure they don't know anything about any theorem.

There are two types of education. . . One should teach us how to make a living, And the other how to live. — John Adams

Over a million students have opted out of the existing school system and are now being home schooled. The problem is that the states regulate home schooling and home schooling still looks an awful lot like school.

We need to stop producing a nation of stressed out students who learn how to please the teacher instead of pleasing themselves. We need to produce adults who love learning, not adults who avoid all learning because it reminds them of the horrors of school. We need to stop thinking that all children need to learn the same stuff. We need to create adults who can think for themselves and are not convinced about how to understand complex situations in simplistic terms that can be rendered in a sound bite.

Just call school off. Turn them all into apartment houses.


MICHAEL SHERMER
Publisher of Skeptic magazine, monthly columnist for Scientific American; Author, Science Friction

Where goods cross frontiers, armies won't

Where goods cross frontiers, armies won't. Restated: where economic borders are porous between two nations, political borders become impervious to armies.

Data from the new sciences of evolutionary economics, behavioral economics, and neuroeconomics reveals that when people are free to cooperate and trade (such as in game theory protocols) they establish trust that is reinforced through neural pathways that release such bonding hormones as oxytocin. Thus, modern biology reveals that where people are free to cooperate and trade they are less likely to fight and kill those with whom they are cooperating and trading.

My dangerous idea is a solution to what I call the "really hard problem": how best should we live? My answer: A free society, defined as free-market economics and democratic politics — fiscal conservatism and social liberalism — which leads to the greatest liberty for the greatest number. Since humans are, by nature, tribal, the overall goal is to expand the concept of the tribe to include all members of the species into a global free society. Free trade between all peoples is the surest way to reach this goal.

People have a hard time accepting free market economics for the same reason they have a hard time accepting evolution: it is counterintuitive. Life looks intelligently designed, so our natural inclination is to infer that there must be an intelligent designer — a God. Similarly, the economy looks designed, so our natural inclination is to infer that we need a designer — a Government. In fact, emergence and complexity theory explains how the principles of self-organization and emergence cause complex systems to arise from simple systems without a top-down designer.

Charles Darwin's natural selection is Adam Smith's invisible hand. Darwin showed how complex design and ecological balance were unintended consequences of individual competition among organisms. Smith showed how national wealth and social harmony were unintended consequences of individual competition among people. Nature's economy mirrors society's economy. Thus, integrating evolution and economics — what I call evonomics — reveals that an old economic doctrine is supported by modern biology.


CLAY SHIRKY
Social & Technology Network Topology Researcher; Adjunct Professor, NYU Graduate School of Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP)

Free will is going away. Time to redesign society to take that into account.

In 2002, a group of teenagers sued McDonald's for making them fat, charging, among other things, that McDonald's used promotional techniques to get them to eat more than they should. The suit was roundly condemned as an the erosion of the sense of free will and personal responsibility in our society. Less widely remarked upon was that the teenagers were offering an accurate account of human behavior.

Consider the phenomenon of 'super-sizing', where a restaurant patron is offered the chance to increase the portion size of their meal for some small amount of money. This presents a curious problem for the concept of free will — the patron has already made a calculation about the amount of money they are willing to pay in return for a particular amount of food. However, when the question is re-asked, — not "Would you pay $5.79 for this total amount of food?" but "Would you pay an additional 30 cents for more french fries?" — patrons often say yes, despite having answered "No" moments before to an economically identical question.

Super-sizing is expressly designed to subvert conscious judgment, and it works. By re-framing the question, fast food companies have found ways to take advantages of weaknesses in our analytical apparatus, weaknesses that are being documented daily in behavioral economics and evolutionary psychology.

This matters for more than just fat teenagers. Our legal, political, and economic systems, the mechanisms that run modern society, all assume that people are uniformly capable of consciously modulating their behaviors. As a result, we regard decisions they make as being valid, as with elections, and hold them responsible for actions they take, as in contract law or criminal trials. Then, in order to get around the fact that some people obviously aren't capable of consciously modulating their behavior, we carve out ad hoc exemptions. In U.S. criminal law, a 15 year old who commits a crime is treated differently than a 16 year old. A crime committed in the heat of the moment is treated specially. Some actions are not crimes because their perpetrator is judged mentally incapable, whether through developmental disabilities or other forms of legally defined insanity.

This theoretical divide, between the mass of people with a uniform amount of free will and a small set of exceptional individuals, has been broadly stable for centuries, in part because it was based on ignorance. As long as we were unable to locate any biological source of free will, treating the mass of people as if each of them had the same degree of control over their lives made perfect sense; no more refined judgments were possible. However, that binary notion of free will is being eroded as our understanding of the biological antecedents of behavior improves.

Consider laws concerning convicted pedophiles. Concern about their recidivism rate has led to the enactment of laws that restrict their freedom based on things they might do in the future, even though this expressly subverts the notion of free will in the judicial system. The formula here — heinousness of crime x likelihood of repeat offense — creates a new, non-insane class of criminals whose penalty is indexed to a perceived lack of control over themselves.

But pedophilia is not unique in it's measurably high recidivism rate. All rapists have higher than average recidivism rates. Thieves of all varieties are likelier to become repeat offenders if they have short time horizons or poor impulse control. Will we keep more kinds of criminals constrained after their formal sentence is served, as we become better able to measure the likely degree of control they have over their own future actions? How can we, if we are to preserve the idea of personal responsibility? How can we not, once we are able to quantify the risk?

Criminal law is just one area where our concept of free will is eroding. We know that men make more aggressive decisions after they have been shown pictures of attractive female faces. We know women are more likely to commit infidelity on days they are fertile. We know that patients committing involuntary physical actions routinely (and incorrectly) report that they decided to undertake those actions, in order to preserve their sense that they are in control. We know that people will drive across town to save $10 on a $50 appliance, but not on a $25,000 car. We know that the design of the ballot affects a voter's choices. And we are still in the early days of even understanding these effects, much less designing everything from sales strategies to drug compounds to target them.

Conscious self-modulation of behavior is a spectrum. We have treated it as a single property — you are either capable of free will, or you fall into an exceptional category — because we could not identify, measure, or manipulate the various components that go into such self-modulation. Those days are now ending, and everyone from advertisers to political consultants increasingly understands, in voluminous biological detail, how to manipulate consciousness in ways that weaken our notion of free will.

In the coming decades, our concept of free will, based as it is on ignorance of its actual mechanisms, will be destroyed by what we learn about the actual workings of the brain. We can wait for that collision, and decide what to do then, or we can begin thinking through what sort of legal, political, and economic systems we need in a world where our old conception of free will is rendered inoperable.


DAVID G. MYERS
Social Psychologist; Co-author (with Letha Scanzoni); What God has Joined Together: A Christian Case for Gay Marriage

A marriage option for all

Much as others have felt compelled by evidence to believe in human evolution or the warming of the planet, I feel compelled by evidence to believe a) that sexual orientation is a natural, enduring disposition and b) that the world would be a happier and healthier place if, for all people, romantic love, sex, and marriage were a package.
In my Midwestern social and religious culture, the words "for all people" transform a conservative platitude into a dangerous idea, over which we are fighting a culture war. On one side are traditionalists, who feel passionately about the need to support and renew marriage. On the other side are progressives, who assume that our sexual orientation is something we did not choose and cannot change, and that we all deserve the option of life within a covenant partnership.

I foresee a bridge across this divide as folks on both the left and the right engage the growing evidence of our panhuman longing for belonging, of the benefits of marriage, and of the biology and persistence of sexual orientation. We now have lots of data showing that marriage is conducive to healthy adults, thriving children, and flourishing communities. We also have a dozen discoveries of gay-straight differences in everything from brain physiology to skill at mentally rotating geometric figures. And we have an emerging professional consensus that sexual reorientation therapies seldom work.

More and more young adults — tomorrow's likely majority, given generational succession — are coming to understand this evidence, and to support what in the future will not seem so dangerous: a marriage option for all.


HAIM HARARI
Physicist, former President, Weizmann Institute of Science

Democracy may be on its way out

Democracy may be on its way out. Future historians may determine that Democracy will have been a one-century episode. It will disappear. This is a sad, truly dangerous, but very realistic idea (or, rather, prediction).

Falling boundaries between countries, cross border commerce, merging economies, instant global flow of information and numerous other features of our modern society, all lead to multinational structures. If you extrapolate this irreversible trend, you get the entire planet becoming one political unit. But in this unit, anti-democracy forces are now a clear majority. This majority increases by the day, due to demographic patterns. All democratic nations have slow, vanishing or negative population growth, while all anti-democratic and uneducated societies multiply fast. Within democratic countries, most well-educated families remain small while the least educated families are growing fast. This means that, both at the individual level and at the national level, the more people you represent, the less economic power you have. In a knowledge based economy, in which the number of working hands is less important, this situation is much more non-democratic than in the industrial age. As long as upward mobility of individuals and nations could neutralize this phenomenon, democracy was tenable. But when we apply this analysis to the entire planet, as it evolves now, we see that democracy may be doomed.

To these we must add the regrettable fact that authoritarian multinational corporations, by and large, are better managed than democratic nation states. Religious preaching, TV sound bites, cross boundary TV incitement and the freedom of spreading rumors and lies through the internet encourage brainwashing and lack of rational thinking. Proportionately, more young women are growing into societies which discriminate against them than into more egalitarian societies, increasing the worldwide percentage of women treated as second class citizens. Educational systems in most advanced countries are in a deep crisis while modern education in many developing countries is almost non-existent. A small well-educated technological elite is becoming the main owner of intellectual property, which is, by far, the most valuable economic asset, while the rest of the world drifts towards fanaticism of one kind or another. Add all of the above and the unavoidable conclusion is that Democracy, our least bad system of government, is on its way out.

Can we invent a better new system? Perhaps. But this cannot happen if we are not allowed to utter the sentence: "There may be a political system which is better than Democracy". Today's political correctness does not allow one to say such things. The result of this prohibition will be an inevitable return to some kind of totalitarian rule, different from that of the emperors, the colonialists or the landlords of the past, but not more just. On the other hand, open and honest thinking about this issue may lead either to a gigantic worldwide revolution in educating the poor masses, thus saving democracy, or to a careful search for a just (repeat, just) and better system.

I cannot resist a cheap parting shot: When, in the past two years, Edge asked for brilliant ideas you believe in but cannot prove, or for proposing new exciting laws, most answers related to science and technology. When the question is now about dangerous ideas, almost all answers touch on issues of politics and society and not on the "hard sciences". Perhaps science is not so dangerous, after all.


RAY KURZWEIL
Inventor and Technologist; Author, The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology

The near-term inevitability of radical life extension and expansion

My dangerous idea is the near-term inevitability of radical life extension and expansion. The idea is dangerous, however, only when contemplated from current linear perspectives.

First the inevitability: the power of information technologies is doubling each year, and moreover comprises areas beyond computation, most notably our knowledge of biology and of our own intelligence. It took 15 years to sequence HIV and from that perspective the genome project seemed impossible in 1990. But the amount of genetic data we were able to sequence doubled every year while the cost came down by half each year.

We finished the genome project on schedule and were able to sequence SARS in only 31 days. We are also gaining the means to reprogram the ancient information processes underlying biology. RNA interference can turn genes off by blocking the messenger RNA that express them. New forms of gene therapy are now able to place new genetic information in the right place on the right chromosome. We can create or block enzymes, the work horses of biology. We are reverse-engineering — and gaining the means to reprogram — the information processes underlying disease and aging, and this process is accelerating, doubling every year. If we think linearly, then the idea of turning off all disease and aging processes appears far off into the future just as the genome project did in 1990. On the other hand, if we factor in the doubling of the power of these technologies each year, the prospect of radical life extension is only a couple of decades away.

In addition to reprogramming biology, we will be able to go substantially beyond biology with nanotechnology in the form of computerized nanobots in the bloodstream. If the idea of programmable devices the size of blood cells performing therapeutic functions in the bloodstream sounds like far off science fiction, I would point out that we are doing this already in animals. One scientist cured type I diabetes in rats with blood cell sized devices containing 7 nanometer pores that let insulin out in a controlled fashion and that block antibodies. If we factor in the exponential advance of computation and communication (price-performance multiplying by a factor of a billion in 25 years while at the same time shrinking in size by a factor of thousands), these scenarios are highly realistic.

The apparent dangers are not real while unapparent dangers are real. The apparent dangers are that a dramatic reduction in the death rate will create over population and thereby strain energy and other resources while exacerbating environmental degradation. However we only need to capture 1 percent of 1 percent of the sunlight to meet all of our energy needs (3 percent of 1 percent by 2025) and nanoengineered solar panels and fuel cells will be able to do this, thereby meeting all of our energy needs in the late 2020s with clean and renewable methods. Molecular nanoassembly devices will be able to manufacture a wide range of products, just about everything we need, with inexpensive tabletop devices. The power and price-performance of these systems will double each year, much faster than the doubling rate of the biological population. As a result, poverty and pollution will decline and ultimately vanish despite growth of the biological population.

There are real downsides, however, and this is not a utopian vision. We have a new existential threat today in the potential of a bioterrorist to engineer a new biological virus. We actually do have the knowledge to combat this problem (for example, new vaccine technologies and RNA interference which has been shown capable of destroying arbitrary biological viruses), but it will be a race. We will have similar issues with the feasibility of self-replicating nanotechnology in the late 2020s. Containing these perils while we harvest the promise is arguably the most important issue we face.

Some people see these prospects as dangerous because they threaten their view of what it means to be human. There is a fundamental philosophical divide here. In my view, it is not our limitations that define our humanity. Rather, we are the species that seeks and succeeds in going beyond our limitations.


MARC D. HAUSER
Psychologist and Biologist, Harvard University: Author, Wild Minds

A universal grammar of [mental] life

The recent explosion of work in molecular evolution and developmental biology has, for the first time, made it possible to propose a radical new theory of mental life that if true, will forever rewrite the textbooks and our way of thinking about our past and future. It explains both the universality of our thoughts as well as the unique signatures that demarcate each human culture, past, present and future.

The theory I propose is that human mental life is based on a few simple, abstract, yet expressively powerful rules or computations together with an instructive learning mechanism that prunes the range of possible systems of language, music, mathematics, art, and morality to a limited set of culturally expressed variants. In many ways, this view isn't new or radical. It stems from thinking about the seemingly constrained ways in which relatively open ended or generative systems of expression create both universal structure and limited variation.

Unfortunately, what appears to be a rather modest proposal on some counts, is dangerous on another. It is dangerous to those who abhor biologically grounded theories on the often misinterpreted perspective that biology determines our fate, derails free will, and erases the soul. But a look at systems other than the human mind makes it transparently clear that the argument from biological endowment does not entail any of these false inferences.

For example, we now understand that our immune systems don't learn from the environment how to tune up to the relevant problems. Rather, we are equipped with a full repertoire of antibodies to deal with a virtually limitless variety of problems, including some that have not yet even emerged in the history of life on earth. This initially seems counter-intuitive: how could the immune system have evolved to predict the kinds of problems we might face? The answer is that it couldn't.

What it evolved instead was a set of molecular computations that, in combination with each other, can handle an infinitely larger set of conditions than any single combination on its own. The role of the environment is as instructor, functionally telling the immune system about the current conditions, resulting in a process of pairing down of initial starting options.

The pattern of change observed in the immune system, characterized by an initial set of universal computations or options followed by an instructive process of pruning, is seen in systems as disparate as the genetic mechanisms underlying segmented body parts in vertebrates, the basic body plan of land plants involving the shoot system of stem and leaves, and song development in birds. Songbirds are particularly interesting as the system for generating a song seems to be analogous in important ways to our capacity to generate a specific language. Humans and songbirds start with a species-specific capacity to build language and song respectively, and this capacity has limitless expressive power. Upon delivery and hatching, and possibly a bit before, the local acoustic environment begins the process of instruction, pruning the possible languages and songs down to one or possibly two. The common thread here is a starting state of universal computations or options followed by an instructive process of pruning, ending up with distinctive systems that share an underlying common core. Hard to see how anyone could find this proposal dangerous or off-putting, or even wrong!

Now jump laterally, and make the move to aesthetics and ethics. Our minds are endowed with universal computations for creating and judging art, music, and morally relevant actions. Depending upon where we are born, we will find atonal music pleasing or disgusting, and infanticide obligatory or abhorrent. The common or universal core is, for music, a set of rules for combining together notes to alter our emotions, and for morality, a different set of rules for combining the causes and consequences of action to alter our permissibility judgments.

To say that we are endowed with a universal moral sense is not to say that we will do the right or wrong thing, with any consistency. The idea that there is a moral faculty, grounded in our biology, says nothing at all about the good, the bad or the ugly. What it says is that we have evolved particular biases, designed as a function of selection for particular kinds of fit to the environment, under particular constraints. But nothing about this claim leads to the good or the right or the permissible.

The reason this has to be the case is twofold: there is not only cultural variation but environmental variation over evolutionary time. What is good for us today may not be good for us tomorrow. But the key insight delivered by the nativist perspective is that we must understand the nature of our biases in order to work toward some good or better world, realizing all along that we are constrained. Appreciating the choreography between universal options and instructive pruning is only dangerous if misused to argue that our evolved nature is good, and what is good is right. That's bad.



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