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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

DONALD HOFFMAN
Cognitive Scientist, UC, Irvine; Author, Visual Intelligence

A spoon is like a headache

A spoon is like a headache. This is a dangerous idea in sheep's clothing. It consumes decrepit ontology, preserves methodological naturalism, and inspires exploration for a new ontology, a vehicle sufficiently robust to sustain the next leg of our search for a theory of everything.

How could a spoon and a headache do all this? Suppose I have a headache, and I tell you about it. It is, say, a pounding headache that started at the back of the neck and migrated to encompass my forehead and eyes. You respond empathetically, recalling a similar headache you had, and suggest a couple remedies. We discuss our headaches and remedies a bit, then move on to other topics.

Of course no one but me can experience my headaches, and no one but you can experience yours. But this posed no obstacle to our meaningful conversation. You simply assumed that my headaches are relevantly similar to yours, and I assumed the same about your headaches. The fact that there is no "public headache," no single headache that we both experience, is simply no problem.

A spoon is like a headache. Suppose I hand you a spoon. It is common to assume that the spoon I experience during this transfer is numerically identical to the spoon you experience. But this assumption is false. No one but me can experience my spoon, and no one but you can experience your spoon. But this is no problem. It is enough for me to assume that your spoon experience is relevantly similar to mine. For effective communication, no public spoon is necessary, just like no public headache is necessary. Is there a "real spoon," a mind-independent physical object that causes our spoon experiences and resembles our spoon experiences? This is not only unnecessary but unlikely. It is unlikely that the visual experiences of homo sapiens, shaped to permit survival in a particular range of niches, should miraculously also happen to resemble the true nature of a mind-independent realm. Selective pressures for survival do not, except by accident, lead to truth.

One can have a kind of objectivity without requiring public objects. In special relativity, the measurements, and thus the experiences, of mass, length and time differ from observer to observer, depending on their relative velocities. But these differing experiences can be related by the Lorentz transformation. This is all the objectivity one can have, and all one needs to do science.

Once one abandons public physical objects, one must reformulate many current open problems in science. One example is the mind-brain relation. There are no public brains, only my brain experiences and your brain experiences. These brain experiences are just the simplified visual experiences of homo sapiens, shaped for survival in certain niches. The chances that our brain experiences resemble some mind-independent truth are remote at best, and those who would claim otherwise must surely explain the miracle. Failing a clever explanation of this miracle, there is no reason to believe brains cause anything, including minds. And here the wolf unzips the sheep skin, and darts out into the open. The danger becomes apparent the moment we switch from boons to sprains. Oh, pardon the spoonerism.


ROBERT R. PROVINE
Psychologist and Neuroscientist, University of Maryland; Author, Laughter

This is all there is

The empirically testable idea that the here and now is all there is and that life begins at birth and ends at death is so dangerous that it has cost the lives of millions and threatens the future of civilization. The danger comes not from the idea itself, but from its opponents, those religious leaders and followers who ruthlessly advocate and defend their empirically improbable afterlife and man-in-the-sky cosmological perspectives.

Their vigor is understandable. What better theological franchise is there than the promise of everlasting life, with deluxe trimmings? Religious followers must invest now with their blood and sweat, with their big payoff not due until the after-life. Postmortal rewards cost theologians nothing--I'll match your heavenly choir and raise you 72 virgins.

Some franchise! This is even better than the medical profession, a calling with higher overhead, that has gained control of birth, death and pain. Whether the religious brand is Christianity or Islam, the warring continues, with a terrible fate reserved for heretics who threaten the franchise from within. Worse may be in store for those who totally reject the man-in-the-sky premise and its afterlife trappings. All of this trouble over accepting what our senses tell us—that this is all there is.

Resolution of religious conflict is impossible because there is no empirical test of the ghostly, and many theologians prey, intentionally or not, upon the fears, superstitions, irrationality, and herd tendencies that are our species' neurobehavioral endowment. Religious fundamentalism inflames conflict and prevents solution—the more extreme and irrational one's position, the stronger one's faith, and, when possessing absolute truth, compromise is not an option.

Resolution of conflicts between religions and associated cultures is less likely to come from compromise than from the pursuit of superordinate goals, common, overarching, objectives that extend across nations and cultures, and direct our competitive spirit to further the health, well-being, and nobility of everyone. Public health and science provide such unifying goals. I offer two examples.

Health Initiative. A program that improves the health of all people, especially those in developing nations, may find broad support, especially with the growing awareness of global culture and the looming specter of a pandemic. Public health programs bridge religious, political, and cultural divides. No one wants to see their children die. Conflicts fall away when cooperation offers a better life for all concerned. This is also the most effective anti-terrorism strategy, although one probably unpopular with the military industrial complex on one side, and terrorist agitators on the other.

Space Initiative. Space exploration expands our cosmos and increases our appreciation of life on Earth and its finite resources. Space exploration is one of our species' greatest achievements. Its pursuit is a goal of sufficient grandeur to unite people of all nations.

This is all there is. The sooner we accept this dangerous idea, the sooner we can get on with the essential task of making the most of our lives on this planet.


RICHARD E. NISBETT
Professor of Psychology, Co-Director of the Culture and Cognition Program, University of Michigan; Author, The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently. . . And Why

Telling More Than We Can Know

Do you know why you hired your most recent employee over the runner-up? Do you know why you bought your last pair of pajamas? Do you know what makes you happy and unhappy?

Don't be too sure. The most important thing that social psychologists have discovered over the last 50 years is that people are very unreliable informants about why they behaved as they did, made the judgment they did, or liked or disliked something. In short, we don't know nearly as much about what goes on in our heads as we think. In fact, for a shocking range of things, we don't know the answer to "Why did I?" any better than an observer.

The first inkling that social psychologists had about just how ignorant we are about our thinking processes came from the study of cognitive dissonance beginning in the late 1950s. When our behavior is insufficiently justified, we move our beliefs into line with the behavior so as to avoid the cognitive dissonance we would otherwise experience. But we are usually quite unaware that we have done that, and when it is pointed out to us we recruit phantom reasons for the change in attitude.

Beginning in the mid-1960s, social psychologists started doing experiments about the causal attributions people make for their own behavior. If you give people electric shocks, but tell them that you have given them a pill that will produce the arousal symptoms that are actually created by the shock, they will take much more shock than subjects without the pill. They have attributed their arousal to the pill and are therefore willing to take more shock. But if you ask them why they took so much shock they are likely to say something like "I used to work with electrical gadgets and I got a lot of shocks, so I guess I got used to it."

In the 1970s social psychologists began asking whether people could be accurate about why they make truly simple judgments and decisions — such as why they like a person or an article of clothing.

For example, in one study experimenters videotaped a Belgian responding in one of two modes to questions about his philosophy as a teacher: he either came across as an ogre or a saint. They then showed subjects one of the two tapes and asked them how much they liked the teacher. Furthermore, they asked some of them whether the teacher's accent had affected how much they liked him and asked others whether how much they liked the teacher influenced how much they liked his accent. Subjects who saw the ogre naturally disliked him a great deal, and they were quite sure that his grating accent was one of the reasons. Subjects who saw the saint realized that one of the reasons they were so fond of him was his charming accent. Subjects who were asked if their liking for the teacher could have influenced their judgment of his accent were insulted by the question.

Does familiarity breed contempt? On the contrary, it breeds liking. In the 1980s, social psychologists began showing people such stimuli as Turkish words and Chinese ideographs and asking them how much they liked them. They would show a given stimulus somewhere between one and twenty-five times. The more the subjects saw the stimulus the more they liked it. Needless to say, their subjects did not find it plausible that the mere number of times they had seen a stimulus could have affected their liking for it. (You're probably wondering if white rats are susceptible to the mere familiarity effect.

The study has been done. Rats brought up listening to music by Mozart prefer to move to the side of the cage that trips a switch allowing them to listen to Mozart rather than Schoenberg. Rats raised on Schoenberg prefer to be on the Schoenberg side. The rats were not asked the reasons for their musical preferences.)

Does it matter that we often don't know what goes on in our heads and yet believe that we do? Well, for starters, it means that we often can't answer accurately crucial questions about what makes us happy and what makes us unhappy. A social psychologist asked Harvard women to keep a daily record for two months of their mood states and also to record a number of potentially relevant factors in their lives including amount of sleep the night before, the weather, general state of health, sexual activity, and day of the week (Monday blues? TGIF?). At the end of the period, subjects were asked to tell the experimenters how much each of these factors tended to influence their mood over the two month period. The results? Women's reports of what influenced their moods were uncorrelated with what they had reported on a daily basis. If a woman thought that her sexual activity had a big effect, a check of her daily reports was just as likely to show that it had no effect as that it did. To really rub it in, the psychologist asked her subjects to report what influenced the moods of someone they didn't know: She found that accuracy was just as great when a woman was rated by a stranger as when rated by the woman herself!

But if we were to just think really hard about reasons for behavior and preferences might we be likely to come to the right conclusions?

Actually, just the opposite may often be the case. A social psychologist asked people to choose which of several art posters they liked best.

Some people were asked to analyze why they liked or disliked the various posters and some were not asked, and everyone was given their favorite poster to take home. Two weeks later the psychologist called people up and asked them how much they liked the art poster they had chosen. Those who did not analyze their reasons liked their posters better than those who did.

It's certainly scary to think that we're ignorant of so much of what goes on in our heads, though we're almost surely better off taking with a large quantity of salt what we and others say about motives and reasons. Skepticism about our ability to read our minds is safer than certainty that we can.

Still, the idea that we have little access to the workings of our minds is a dangerous one. The theories of Copernicus and Darwin were dangerous because they threatened, respectively, religious conceptions of the centrality of humans in the cosmos and the divinity of humans.

Social psychologists are threatening a core conviction of the Enlightenment — that humans are perfectible through the exercise of reason. If reason cannot be counted on to reveal the causes of our beliefs, behavior and preferences, then the idea of human perfectibility is to that degree diminished.


STEVEN PINKER
Psychologist, Harvard University; Author, The Blank Slate

Groups of people may differ genetically in their average talents and temperaments

The year 2005 saw several public appearances of what will I predict will become the dangerous idea of the next decade: that groups of people may differ genetically in their average talents and temperaments.

  • In January, Harvard president Larry Summers caused a firestorm when he cited research showing that women and men have non-identical statistical distributions of cognitive abilities and life priorities.  
  • In March, developmental biologist Armand Leroi published an op-ed in the New York Times rebutting the conventional wisdom that race does not exist. (The conventional wisdom is coming to be known as Lewontin's Fallacy: that because most genes may be found in all human groups, the groups don't differ at all. But patterns of correlation among genes do differ between groups, and different clusters of correlated genes correspond well to the major races labeled by common sense. )
  • In June, the Times reported a forthcoming study by physicist Greg Cochran, anthropologist Jason Hardy, and population geneticist Henry Harpending proposing that Ashkenazi Jews have been biologically selected for high intelligence, and that their well-documented genetic diseases are a by-product of this evolutionary history.
  • In September, political scientist Charles Murray published an article in Commentary reiterating his argument from The Bell Curve that average racial differences in intelligence are intractable and partly genetic.

Whether or not these hypotheses hold up (the evidence for gender differences is reasonably good, for ethnic and racial differences much less so), they are widely perceived to be dangerous. Summers was subjected to months of vilification, and proponents of ethnic and racial differences in the past have been targets of censorship, violence, and comparisons to Nazis. Large swaths of the intellectual landscape have been reengineered to try to rule these hypotheses out a priori (race does not exist, intelligence does not exist, the mind is a blank slate inscribed by parents). The underlying fear, that reports of group differences will fuel bigotry, is not, of course, groundless.

The intellectual tools to defuse the danger are available. "Is" does not imply "ought. " Group differences, when they exist, pertain to the average or variance of a statistical distribution, rather than to individual men and women. Political equality is a commitment to universal human rights, and to policies that treat people as individuals rather than representatives of groups; it is not an empirical claim that all groups are indistinguishable. Yet many commentators seem unwilling to grasp these points, to say nothing of the wider world community.

Advances in genetics and genomics will soon provide the ability to test hypotheses about group differences rigorously. Perhaps geneticists will forbear performing these tests, but one shouldn't count on it. The tests could very well emerge as by-products of research in biomedicine, genealogy, and deep history which no one wants to stop.

The human genomic revolution has spawned an enormous amount of commentary about the possible perils of cloning and human genetic enhancement. I suspect that these are red herrings. When people realize that cloning is just forgoing a genetically mixed child for a twin of one parent, and is not the resurrection of the soul or a source of replacement organs, no one will want to do it. Likewise, when they realize that most genes have costs as well as benefits (they may raise a child's IQ but also predispose him to genetic disease), "designer babies" will lose whatever appeal they have. But the prospect of genetic tests of group differences in psychological traits is both more likely and more incendiary, and is one that the current intellectual community is ill-equipped to deal with.


RUDY RUCKER
Mathematician, Computer Scientist; CyberPunk Pioneer; Novelist; Author, Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul
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Mind is a universally distributed quality

Panpsychism. Each object has a mind. Stars, hills, chairs, rocks, scraps of paper, flakes of skin, molecules — each of them possesses the same inner glow as a human, each of them has singular inner experiences and sensations.

I'm quite comfortable with the notion that everything is a computation. But what to do about my sense that there's something numinous about my inner experience? Panpsychism represents a non-anthropocentric way out: mind is a universally distributed quality.

Yes, the workings of a human brain are a deterministic computation that could be emulated by any universal computer. And, yes, I sense more to my mental phenomena than the rule-bound exfoliation of reactions to inputs: this residue is the inner light, the raw sensation of existence. But, no, that inner glow is not the exclusive birthright of humans, nor is it solely limited to biological organisms.

Note that panpsychism needn't say that universe is just one mind. We can also say that each object has an individual mind. One way to visualize the distinction between the many minds and the one mind is to think of the world as a stained glass window with light shining through each pane. The world's physical structures break the undivided cosmic mind into a myriad of small minds, one in each object.

The minds of panpsychism can exist at various levels. As well as having its own individuality, a person's mind would also be, for instance, a hive mind based upon the minds of the body's cells and the minds of the body's elementary particles.

Do the panpsychic minds have any physical correlates? On the one hand, it could be that the mind is some substance that accumulates near ordinary matter — dark matter or dark energy are good candidates. On the other hand, mind might simply be matter viewed in a special fashion: matter experienced from the inside. Let me mention three specific physical correlates that have been proposed for the mind.

Some have argued that the experience of mind results when a superposed quantum state collapses into a pure state. It's an alluring metaphor, but as a universal automatist, I'm of the opinion that quantum mechanics is a stop-gap theory, destined to give way to a fully deterministic theory based upon some digital precursor of spacetime.

David Skrbina, author of the clear and comprehensive book Panpsychism in the West, suggests that we might think of a physical system as determining a moving point in a multi-dimensional phase space that has an axis for each of the system's measurable properties. He feels this dynamic point represents the sense of unity characteristic of a mind.

As a variation on this theme, let me point out that, from the universal automatist standpoint, every physical system can be thought of as embodying a computation. And the majority of non-simple systems embody universal computations, capable of emulating any other system at all. It could be that having a mind is in some sense equivalent to being capable of universal computation.

A side-remark. Even such very simple systems as a single electron may in fact be capable of universal computation, if supplied with a steady stream of structured input. Think of an electron in an oscillating field; and by analogy think of a person listening to music or reading an essay.

Might panpsychism be a distinction without a difference? Suppose we identify the numinous mind with quantum collapse, with chaotic dynamics, or with universal computation. What is added by claiming that these aspects of reality are like minds?

I think empathy can supply an experiential confirmation of panpsychism's reality. Just as I'm sure that I myself have a mind, I can come to believe the same of another human with whom I'm in contact — whether face to face or via their creative work. And with a bit of effort, I can identify with objects as well; I can see the objects in the room around me as glowing with inner light. This is a pleasant sensation; one feels less alone.

Could there ever be a critical experiment to test if panpsychism is really true? Suppose that telepathy were to become possible, perhaps by entangling a person's mental states with another system's states. And then suppose that instead of telepathically contacting another person, I were to contact a rock. At this point panpsychism would be proved.

I still haven't said anything about why panpsychism is a dangerous idea. Panpsychism, like other forms of higher consciousness, is dangerous to business as usual. If my old car has the same kind of mind as a new one, I'm less impelled to help the economy by buying a new vehicle. If the rocks and plants on my property have minds, I feel more respect for them in their natural state. If I feel myself among friends in the universe, I'm less likely to overwork myself to earn more cash. If my body will have a mind even after I'm dead, then death matters less to me, and it's harder for the government to cow me into submission.


BRIAN GOODWIN
Biologist, Schumacher College, Devon, UK; Author, How The Leopard Changed Its Spots


Fields of Danger

In science, the concept of a field is used to describe patterns of order in systems that are extended in space and show regularities of behaviour in time. They have always expressed ideas that are rather mysterious, but work in describing natural processes. The first example of a field principle in physics was Newton's celebrated gravitational law, which described mathematically the universal attraction between bodies with mass.

This mysterious action at a distance without any wires or mechanical attachments between the bodies was regarded as a mystical, occult concept by the mechanical philosophers of the 17th and 18th centuries. They condemned Newton's idea as a violation of the principles of explanation in the new science. However, there is a healthy pragmatic element to scientific investigation, and Newton's equations worked too well to be discarded on philosophical grounds.

Another celebrated example of a physical field came from the experimental work of Michael Faraday on electricity and magnetism in the 19th century. He talked about fields of force that extend out in space from electrically charged bodies, or from magnets. Faraday's painstaking and ingenious work described how these fields change with distance from the body in precise ways, as does the gravitational force. Again these forces were regarded as mysterious since they travel through apparently empty space, exerting interaction at a distance that cannot be understood mechanically.

However, so precise were Faraday's measurements of the properties of electric and magnetic fields, and so vivid his description of the fields of force associated with them, that James Clerk Maxwell could take his observations and put them directly into mathematical form. These are the famous wave equations of electromagnetism on which our technology for electric motors, lighting, TV, communications and innumerable other applications is based.

In the 20th century with Einstein transformed Newton's mysterious gravitational force into an even more mysterious property of space itself: it bends or curves under the influence of bodies with mass. Einstein's relativity theory did away with a force of attraction between bodies and substituted a mathematical relationship between mass and curvature of space-time.

The result was a whole new way of understanding motion as natural, curved paths followed by bodies that not only cause the curvature but follow it. The universe was becoming intrinsically self-organising and subjects as observers made an entry into physics.

As if Einstein's relativity wasn't enough to shake up the world known to science, the next revolution was even more disturbing. Quantum mechanics, emerging in the 1920s, did away with the classical notions of fields as smooth distributions of forces through space-time and described interactions at a distance in terms of discrete little packets of energy that travel through the void in oscillating patterns described by wave functions, of which the solutions to Schrödinger's wave equation are the best known.

Now we have not only action at a distance but something infinitely more disturbing: these interactions violate conventional notions of causality because they are non-local. Two particles that have been joined in an intimate relationship within an atom remain coherently correlated with one another in their properties no matter how far apart they may be after emission from the atom. Einstein could not bring himself to believe that this 'spooky' implication of quantum mechanics could possibly be real.

The implied entanglement means that there is a holistic principle of connectedness in operation at the most elementary level of physical reality. Quantum fields have subverted our basic notions of causality and substituted a principle of wholeness in relationship for elementary particles.

The idea that I have pursued in biology for much of my career is the concept that goes under the name of a morphogenetic field. This term is used to describe the processes in space and time that organise and coordinate the various activities involved in the emergence of a whole complex organism from a single cell, or from a group of cells in interaction with each another.

A human embryo developing in the mother's womb from a single fertilised egg, emerging at birth as a baby with all its organs coherently arranged in a functioning body, is one of the most breathtaking phenomena in nature. However, all species share the same ability to produce new individuals of the same kind in their processes of reproduction.

The remarkable organising principles that underlie such basic properties of life have been known as morphogenetic fields (fields that generate form) throughout the 20th century, though this concept produces unease and discomfort among many biologists.This unease arises for good reason. As in physics, the field concept is subversive of mechanical explanations in science, and biology holds firmly to understanding life in terms of mechanisms organised by genes.

However, the complete reading of the book of life in DNA, the major project in biology during the last two decades of the 20th century, did not reveal the secrets of the organism. It was a remarkable achievement to work out the sequence of letters in the genomes of different species, human, other animals, plants, and microbes, so that many of the words of the genetic text of different species could be deciphered.

Unfortunately, we were unable to make coherent sense of these words, to put them together in the way that organisms do in creating themselves during their reproduction as they develop into beings with specific morphologies and behaviours, the process of morphogenesis. What had been forgotten, or ignored, was that information only makes sense to an agent, someone or something with the know-how to interpret it.

The meaning was missing because the genome researchers ignored the context of the genomes: the living cell within which genes are read and their products are organised. The organisation that is responsible for making sense of the information in the genes, an essential and basic aspect of the living state, was taken for granted. What is the nature of this complex dynamic process that knows how to make an organism, using specific information from the genes?

Biology is returning to notions of space-time organisation as an intrinsic aspect of the living condition, our old friends morphogenetic fields. They are now described as complex networks of molecules that somehow read and make sense of genes. These molecular networks have intriguing properties, giving them some of the same characteristics as words in a language.

Could it be that biology and culture are not so different after all; that both are based on historical traditions and languages that are used to construct patterns of relationship embodied in communities, either of cells or of individuals? These self-organising activities are certainly mysterious, but not unintelligible. My own work, with many colleagues, cast morphogenetic fields in mathematical form that revealed how space (morphology) and time (behaviour) get organised in subtle but robust ways in developing organisms and communities.

Such coordinating patterns in living beings seem to be at the heart of the creativity that drives both biological and cultural evolution. Despite many differences between these fields, which need to be clarified and distinguished rather than blurred, there may be underlying commonalities that can unify biological and cultural evolution rather than separating them.

This could even lead us to value other species of organism for their wisdom in achieving coherent, sustainable relationships with other species while remaining creative and innovative throughout evolution, something we are signally failing to do in our culture with its ecologically damaging style of living.


IRENE PEPPERBERG
Research Associate, Psychology, Harvard University; Author, The Alex Studies


The differences between humans and nonhumans are quantitative, not qualitative

I believe that the differences between humans and nonhumans are quantitative, not qualitative.

Why is this idea dangerous? It is hardly surprising, coming from someone who has spent her scientific career studying the abilities of (supposedly) small-brained nonhumans; moreover, the idea is not exactly new. It may be a bit controversial, given that many of my colleagues spend much of their time searching for the defining difference that separates humans and nonhumans (and they may be correct), and also given a current social and political climate that challenges evolution on what seems to be a daily basis. But why dangerous? Because, if we take this idea to its logical conclusion, it challenges almost every aspect of our lives — scientific and nonscientific alike.

Scientifically, the idea challenges the views of many researchers who continue to hypothesize about the next human-nonhuman 'great divide'…Interestingly, however, detailed observation and careful experimentation have repeatedly demonstrated that nonhumans often possess capacities once thought to separate them from humans. Humans, for example, are not the only tool-using species, nor the only tool-making species, nor the only species to act cooperatively.

So one has to wonder to what degree nonhumans share other capacities still thought to be exclusively human. And, of course, the critical words here are "to what degree" — do we count lack of a particular behavior a defining criterion, or do we accept the existence of less complex versions of that behavior as evidence for a continuum? If one wishes to argue that I'm just blurring the difference between "qualitative" and "quantitative", so be it…such blurring will not affect the dangerousness of my idea.

My idea is dangerous because it challenges scientists at a more basic level, that of how we perform research. Now, let me state clearly that I'm not against animal research — I wouldn't be alive today without it, and I work daily with captive animals that, although domestically bred (and that, by any standard, are provided with a fairly cushy existence), are still essentially wild creatures denied their freedom.

But if we believe in a continuum, then we must at least question our right to perform experiments on our fellow creatures; we need to think about how to limit animal experiments and testing to what is essential, and to insist on humane (note the term!) housing and treatment. And, importantly, we must accept the significant cost in time, effort, and money thereby incurred — increases that must come at the expense of something else in our society.

The idea, taken to its logical conclusion, is dangerous because it should also affect our choices as to the origins of the clothes we wear and the foods we eat. Again, I'm not campaigning against leather shoes and T-bone steaks; I find that I personally cannot remain healthy on a totally vegetarian diet and sheepskin boots definitely ease the rigors of a Massachusetts winter.

But if we believe in a continuum, we must at least question our right to use fellow creatures for our sustenance: We need to become aware of, for example, the conditions under which creatures destined for the slaughterhouse live their lives, and learn about and ameliorate the conditions in which their lives are ended. And, again, we must accept the costs involved in such decisions.

If we do not believe in a clear boundary between humans and nonhumans, if we do not accept a clear "them" versus "us", we need to rethink other aspects of our lives. Do we have the right to clear-cut forests in which our fellow creatures live? To pollute the air, soil and water that we share with them, solely for our own benefit? Where do we draw the line? Life may be much simpler if we do firmly draw a line, but is simplicity a valid rationale?

And, in case anyone wonders at my own personal view: I believe that humans are the ultimate generalists, creatures that may lack specific talents or physical adaptations that have been finely honed in other species, but whose additional brain power enables them — in an exquisite manner — to, for example, integrate information, improvise with what is present, and alter or adapt to a wide range of environments…but that this additional brain power is (and provides) a quantitative, not qualitative difference.


MIHALYI CSIKSZENTMIHALYI
Psychologist; Director, Quality of Life Research Center, Claremont Graduate University; Author, Flow


The free market

Generally ideas are thought to be dangerous when they threaten an entrenched authority. Galileo was sued not because he claimed that the earth revolved around the sun — a "hypothesis" his chief prosecutor, Cardinal Bellarmine, apparently was quite willing to entertain in private — but because the Church could not afford a fact it claimed to know be reversed by another epistemology, in this case by the scientific method. Similar conflicts arose when Darwin's view of how humans first appeared on the planet challenged religious accounts of creation, or when Mendelian genetics applied to the growth of hardier strains of wheat challenged Leninist doctrine as interpreted by Lysenko.

One of the most dangerous ideas at large in the current culture is that the "free market" is the ultimate arbiter of political decisions, and that there is an "invisible hand" that will direct us to the most desirable future provided the free market is allowed to actualize itself. This mystical faith is based on some reasonable empirical foundations, but when embraced as a final solution to the ills of humankind, it risks destroying both the material resources, and the cultural achievements that our species has so painstakingly developed.

So 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.

My dangerous idea is dangerous only to those who support the hegemony of the market. It consists in pointing out that the imperial free market wears no clothes — it does not exist in the first place, and what passes for it is dangerous to the future well being of our species. Scientist need to turn their attention to what the complex system that is human life, will require in the future.

Beginnings like the Calvert-Henderson Quality of Life Indicators, which focus on such central requirements as health, education, infrastructure, environment, human rights, and public safety, need to become part of our social and political agenda. And when their findings come into conflict with the agenda of the prophets of the free market, the conflict should be examined — who is it that benefits from the erosion of the quality of life?


JEREMY BERNSTEIN
Professor of Physics, Stevens Institute of Technology; Author, Hitler's Uranium Club

The idea that we understand plutonium

The most dangerous idea I have come across recently is the idea that we understand plutonium. Plutonium is the most complex element in the periodic table. It has six different crystal phases between room temperature and its melting point. It can catch fire spontaneously in the presence of water vapor and if you inhale minuscule amounts you will die of lung cancer. It is the principle element in the "pits" that are the explosive cores of nuclear weapons. In these pits it is alloyed with gallium. No one knows why this works and no one can be sure how stable this alloy is. These pits, in the thousands, are now decades old. What is dangerous is the idea that they have retained their integrity and can be safely stored into the indefinite future.


SCOTT SAMPSON
Chief Curator, Utah Museum of Natural History; Associate Professor Department of Geology and Geophysics, University of Utah; Host, Dinosaur Planet TV series


The purpose of life is to disperse energy

The truly dangerous ideas in science tend to be those that threaten the collective ego of humanity and knock us further off our pedestal of centrality. The Copernican Revolution abruptly dislodged humans from the center of the universe. The Darwinian Revolution yanked Homo sapiens from the pinnacle of life. Today another menacing revolution sits at the horizon of knowledge, patiently awaiting broad realization by the same egotistical species.

The dangerous idea is this: the purpose of life is to disperse energy.

Many of us are at least somewhat familiar with the second law of thermodynamics, the unwavering propensity of energy to disperse and, in doing so, transition from high quality to low quality forms. More generally, as stated by ecologist Eric Schneider, "nature abhors a gradient," where a gradient is simply a difference over a distance — for example, in temperature or pressure. Open physical systems — including those of the atmosphere, hydrosphere, and geosphere — all embody this law, being driven by the dispersal of energy, particularly the flow of heat, continually attempting to achieve equilibrium. Phenomena as diverse as lithospheric plate motions, the northward flow of the Gulf Stream, and occurrence of deadly hurricanes are all examples of second law manifestations.

There is growing evidence that life, the biosphere, is no different. It has often been said the life's complexity contravenes the second law, indicating the work either of a deity or some unknown natural process, depending on one's bias. Yet the evolution of life and the dynamics of ecosystems obey the second law mandate, functioning in large part to dissipate energy. They do so not by burning brightly and disappearing, like a fire torching a forest, but through stable metabolic cycles that store chemical energy and continually reduce the solar gradient. Photosynthetic plants, bacteria, and algae capture energy from the sun and form the core of all food webs.

Virtually all organisms, including humans, are, in a real sense, sunlight transmogrified, temporary waypoints in the flow of energy. Ecological succession, viewed from a thermodynamic perspective, is a process that maximizes the capture and degradation of energy. Similarly, the tendency for life to become more complex over the past 3.5 billion years (as well as the overall increase in biomass and organismal diversity through time) is not due simply to natural selection, as most evolutionists still argue, but also to nature's "efforts" to grab more and more of the sun's flow. The slow burn that characterizes life enables ecological systems to persist over deep time, changing in response to external and internal perturbations.

Ecology has been summarized by the pithy statement, "energy flows, matter cycles. " Yet this maxim applies equally to complex systems in the non-living world; indeed it literally unites the biosphere with the physical realm. More and more, it appears that complex, cycling, swirling systems of matter have a natural tendency to emerge in the face of energy gradients. This recurrent phenomenon may even have been the driving force behind life's origins.

This idea is not new, and is certainly not mine. Nobel laureate Erwin Schrödinger was one of the first to articulate the hypothesis, as part of his famous "What is Life" lectures in Dublin in 1943. More recently, Jeffrey Wicken, Harold Morowitz, Eric Schneider and others have taken this concept considerably further, buoyed by results from a range of studies, particularly within ecology. Schneider and Dorian Sagan provide an excellent summary of this hypothesis in their recent book, "Into the Cool".

The concept of life as energy flow, once fully digested, is profound. Just as Darwin fundamentally connected humans to the non-human world, a thermodynamic perspective connects life inextricably to the non-living world. This dangerous idea, once broadly distributed and understood, is likely to provoke reaction from many sectors, including religion and science. The wondrous diversity and complexity of life through time, far from being the product of intelligent design, is a natural phenomenon intimately linked to the physical realm of energy flow.

Moreover, evolution is not driven by the machinations of selfish genes propagating themselves through countless millennia. Rather, ecology and evolution together operate as a highly successful, extremely persistent means of reducing the gradient generated by our nearest star. In my view, evolutionary theory (the process, not the fact of evolution!) and biology generally are headed for a major overhaul once investigators fully comprehend the notion that the complex systems of earth, air, water, and life are not only interconnected, but interdependent, cycling matter in order to maintain the flow of energy.

Although this statement addresses only naturalistic function and is mute with regard to spiritual meaning, it is likely to have deep effects outside of science. In particular, broad understanding of life's role in dispersing energy has great potential to help humans reconnect both to nature and to planet's physical systems at a key moment in our species' history.



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