Edge.org: What is your dangerous idea?

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The last noodle in the soup asks: why? [Minusbaby /Flickr]

Steven Pinker in our studio [Brendan Greeley]

[Booked for Aired Tuesday, January 24]

For nine years now, the “third culture” people who run Edge.org — a sort of superhero clubhouse for computer scientists and physicists and neurologists and genomists and philosophers and plenty of other people who are actively thinking about the shape of our future (or just plain shaping it) — come up with a provocative question for themselves and the rest of the world. Then they let the clubhouse members loose.

This year’s question, courtesy of cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker, was:


The history of science is replete with discoveries that were considered socially, morally, or emotionally dangerous in their time; the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions are the most obvious. What is your dangerous idea? 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?

They’ve posted scores of fascinating responses, everything from an argument for our soullessness to science’s inability to silence God, from “We shall understand the origin of life within the next five years” to “The world may fundamentally be inexplicable.”

Which ideas grab you? Which ones seem truly dangerous? And, just as important, what are your own dangerous ideas? For the purposes of this show, be concise: we’re not looking for manifestos, just cogent, thought-provoking salvos.

Steven Pinker

Professor of Psychology, Harvard University

Author of The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, and The Blank Slate, among many others

Freeman Dyson

Physicist and professor emeritus, Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University

His dangerous idea: Your kids will be playing with biotech erector sets.

Steven Strogatz

Profefessor of Applied Mathematics, Cornell University

His dangerous idea: Mathematicians have figured out almost everything that’s humanly possible. (Computers will take it from here.)

Lawrence Krauss

Physicist and director, Center for Education and Research in Cosmology and Astrophysics at Case Western Reserve University

His dangerous idea: “The world may fundamentally be inexplicable.”

Geoffrey Miller

Professor of Psychology, University of New Mexico

His dangerous idea: Aliens haven’t contacted us because they’re playing X-Box, too.

Jesse Bering

Professor of Psychology, University of Arkansas

His dangerous idea: God — or the need to believe in Him — is in our genes.

Daniel Dennett

Professor of Philosophy, Tufts University

His dangerous idea: We’re drowining in our own culture.

Leo Chalupa

Professor of Ophthalmology and Neurobiology, University of California at Davis

His dangerous idea: We all need a 24-hour time-out.

Update, 1/24/06 4:25 pm

Nonbeliever just asked for a show with Daniel Dennett. Happy to oblige. Are you a believer now?

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  • OMG, yes, this sight is crack for the thinking mind. How am I supposed to attend to my daughter, my business, my friends when you present me with such intoxicating material?

    So, what’s my dangerous idea? I think I need a little time to determine how to articulate it, but it has something to do with life, the universe and everything being a paradox. That while everything is important nothing is important. While everything is solid, nothing is solid. That there evil and good do exist, but they don’t.

    I’ll think about this more and see if I can flush it out.

    Meanwhile, back to edge.org – I hope you don’t lose me to it!

  • Grumpy

    Oh my 🙁

  • mdhatter

    That everyone everywhere is more same than different.

  • Peter B

    I’m thinking back to a time in America when eugenics was at a peak (and the world, for that matter). At that time, the idea of ‘white’ was Anglo-American, rather than European-American. Those who believed in eugenics went so far to get funding from the Carnegie Foundation, and many others- and they thought their views were correct. It nearly took Franz Boas’ academic career away, and it leaves a scar in American History.

    I don’t think this scar was deep enough, and maybe young people my age don’t realize what happened. We wittnessed, not too long ago, the rise of the Nazi-influenced band “Prussian Blue”, and from time to time, we see young children paint the Swastikas on people’s property. I graduated with a young man who did this, and I wonder now- did he understand eugenics and act on symbolic meaning, or if not, could we make theoretical conclusions that he did it just because it was risky and controversial, or for other reasons.

    Now for my dangerous idea. What if eugenics had a second coming in the United States and throughout the world?

  • shriber

    My dangeorous idea is that the Internet in general and blogosphere in particular is not part of any enlightenment. That they spread ignorance and bias rather than knowledge and tolerance.

  • Eugenics – The idea that one can improve the human race by careful selection of those who mate and produce offspring.

    Well, isn’t this beginning to happen. With genome mapping and artificial insemination and cloning, it won’t be long before we’re controlling the genetic outcomes of offspring.

    And in some ways, this is what happens naturally. When I was in business school we had a course called Management and Behavior. One of the assigned books was called “Men in Groups”. It was a multi-discipline study of the evolution of male behaviors, of sorts. In it, it was discussed that for the sake of survival their was always competition to mate with the strongest male, or the female with the best likely reproductive and nurturing capacities. At the time, I suggested that if women, on the whole, were dissatisfied with the behavioral makeup of men, that we could bond together and select who to mate with in order to produce and different propensity in our male offspring. The professors were horrified.

    Now, the idea that we could use genetic sciences to engineer offspring is quite frightening. I mean, who decides the traits we are looking for? But selection happens innately. Unconsciously. Is it better thay way? Or would it be better if we were conscious about it?

  • shriber: My guess is that it does both. I believe that people espoused the same fears when the printing press was being invented. I don’t think the form of communication is the problem. There are plenty of books, TV shows, radio shows that propagate fear, ignorance and bias. It seems to be human nature to cling to simple, primal ideas in order to quell the fears and feelings of trauma that come with life.

    the choice to pursue enlightenment or not, is a personal one. Whichever path you opt for, you will find the media and community to support.

  • shriber

    “shriber: My guess is that it does both. I believe that people espoused the same fears when the printing press was being invented.”

    I wasn’t around then but from what I read the invention of printing brought with the age old fear that it supplant memory which it actually did.

    “I don’t think the form of communication is the problem.”

    I do, though.

    Yes old technologies bring with them fears because they are an extension of human faculties, or the human body as Macluhan argued, but the internet suppants individual relations.

    When people don’t need to communicate face to face than the individual voice gets lost.

    “There are plenty of books, TV shows, radio shows that propagate fear, ignorance and bias.”

    Books were never a mode of communication between individuals. Rather they were a social phenomenon. The same with TV and radio.

    The internet combines the power of these other media to reach crowds of people as well as the telephone which is a one on one communication medium.

    This is what makes it different. from the othr media you mentioned.

    “It seems to be human nature to cling to simple, primal ideas in order to quell the fears and feelings of trauma that come with life.’

    That may be, but this new medium, the internet, has the ability of simulationg primal fears in ways that are different from that done by movies, TV, etc which counted of fictional forms to achieve its end.

    In any case, I am still thinking through these notions.

  • A little yellow bird

    Despair is the personally most dangerous idea I know. Another dangerous idea is that we do not need to try to get along, or like each other, or accept each other as each is… but we do need to leave each other alone–which ironically might largely help us all get along. I think people who utterly disagree, who can’t begin to imagine why the other feels a certain way, still do not need to have an active, aggressive problem with one another. The fact that some dope wears a Red Sox jersey in Brooklyn should NEVER lead to any trouble. I care nothing about sports, but some live and die by it. I think that’s pathetic, but I envision a world where people are not strangers to themselves and admit to urges and desires, such as the animal need to compete. Maybe two knuckleheads could agree to sit and tear each other’s team, town, mother, highschool, and flavor of pie apart–VERBALLY, even grotesquely, but never resort to physicality. Or if they can’t do that, just go separate ways and do the same thing in their respective livingrooms. It would be ideal to teach children this way–that distaste for another’s choices is no cause for violence; but neither should the child be cajoled into acceptance. In other words, it’s not a choice of “Either yer with us or ag’in’ us!” There’s a third way: each to his own, unmolested.

  • Nikos

    Who said: ‘Violence is the last resort of the incompetent’?

    Having no originality, I’ll post that paraphrased platitude if for no other reason than that I love what it implies of history’s ‘Great Men’.

    Incompetents, every last one of ’em!

    Ramen. 😉

  • Nikos

    OH! But not Ghandi. Or MLK. Or Mandella…

    ok, ok, I retract it!

  • shriber

    “OH! But not Ghandi. Or MLK. Or Mandella…

    ok, ok, I retract it!”\

    No need to retract it. “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven….A time for peace and a time for war….”

    Can you imagine resisting the Nazis with “peace marches?”

    Talking about incompetence.

  • Sean

    It’s “violence is the last refuge of the incompetent” spoken by Savatore Hardin in Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation”. Here’s another, “”Never let your sense of morals prevent you from doing what is right!”

  • Sean

    It’s remarkable how few “new” dangerous ideas there really are. Most of them seem to be reworkings of the same old apocalyptic themes: ultimate demise, inability to comprehend the incomprehensible, powerlessness. Our philosophies used to pay close heed to these but have are ever focused on the microscopic. Perhaps that’s the dangerous idea, that we’re all navel gazing while the cosmos whirls.

  • A little yellow bird

    Addendum to above post @ January 6th, 2006 at 9:39 pm: The idea of individual as sovereign, not subject, and therefore sacrosanct, and not to be molested, is codified in the Magna Carta and later documents, such as our own constitution. This idea is of paramount danger to the powers that have always been in our world, for if they were to be fully implemented and stringently observed as guiding principles, there would, by definition, be no centralized warfare state or other intrusive force in any individual’s life: one could never be conscripted nor aggressed upon, nor forced to pay for war or the imprisonment of others. Here is one of Tom Englehardt’s “Dispatches” on “repealing the Magna Carta”. http://www.lewrockwell.com/engelhardt/engelhardt150.html

  • A little yellow bird

    “Sean”: I’d say the majority are navel-gazing while two small minorities are trying to install a free peaceful existence and the other take advantage of the majority’s inertia to serve its own less desirable ends.

  • Nikos

    Foundation! Cool! No wonder I couldn’t remember (I read it as a young’un in 1970). Still, it must have made an impression to have stuck with me into my senility. Fun stuff, that Foundation series. Asimov employed (and cleverly disguised) so many Roman & British (& American) Empire parallels. Thanks for the wisdom, Sean.

  • shriber: I hear you on the anonymous individual interaction of the internet. I’ll think about that. The first thought that popped into my head was live action fiction writing. Not sure where that leads…

    I still feel that regardless of the tools available people tend toward certain behaviors, philosophies, etc. I’m not sure there is any more or less violence, xenophobia, intolerance now than there ever has been in history. It may be more well documented. As the population grows, it can seem more intense. But as an element of the human experience, I think it might be the same percentage.

    Perhaps the advent of the internet brings more of it out of the closet.

    What I sense most when I cruise the net to see what people are posting: anger. Why is everybody so angry all the time? I know my own answers. My personal angers. I try to keep them personal, though. And I try to work through them to some sort of action or try to melt them to get back to compassion. I’m not sure how anyone thinks they are contributing to a better society with all this anger.

    Perhaps my next dangerous idea is that anger is useless and should be unacceptable. Rage certainly is. And I don’t mean that we should suppress our feelings or deny our experiences. But what if we all learned that when we feel angry we have to stop and work through our anger personally (perhaps with guidance) until it is transformed. Like obligatory time outs for everyone. If you’re angry, you can’t interact with the world until you’ve transformed it without violence; found a more empowering, creative way to resolve whatever issue has triggered the anger. Imagine if we had a cultural imperative to disallow angry interactions, while forcing whatever is causing the anger to be dealt with.

  • Nikos

    shriber & allison: I’m not at all sure, but it seems to me that any a medium as young as the internet/web is bound to attract an ‘unscientific sample’ of people. It brings as many crackpots with vile brands of hatred to spew as sages gently advocating not merely the (passive-aggressive) mesage of ‘tolerance’, but the much more loving and preferable ‘acceptance.’

    Crackpots need places to rant, ’cause they know we’ll ignore them (or arrest ’em) on their curbside soapboxes.

    The internet/web must seem like a paradise of potentially ‘captive audiences’ for the nuts. Thus they come in their (puny) droves, and from the shock of their presence we don’t immediately realize how few they really are in comparison to most other rationally-minded web-surfers.

    Give it time: if web-places like this one rationally repudiate the inevitable kooks, they’ll either go back to their klan rallies or at least learn to leave alone websites whose regulars laugh at their lunacy.

    Lastly, perhaps gentle (and relentless) humor, not reciprocal hate, is the best weapon against the hateful.

    Maybe that last sentence is my ‘dangerous idea.’ (Or not…because I could be dead wrong about ALL of this!)

  • A little yellow bird

    This thread about Edge.com makes me think of another deep-think site called The Long Now Foundation: http://longnow.org/. A bit from their “About Us” page:

    “The term was coined by one of our founding board members, Brian Eno. When Brian first moved to New York City and found that in New York here and now meant this room and this five minutes, as opposed to the larger here and longer now that he was used to in England. We have since adopted the term as the title of our foundation as we are trying to stretch out what people consider as now.” I think some “edge” folks may be “long now” folks, too. There’s a thin but dense book about the way different cultures perceive and respond to time called “The Silent Language” by an Edward T. Hall. He was a consultant to the US state dep’t. because of his ability to understand other societies and communicate effectively with them when others couldn’t.

  • shriber

    allison Says:

    January 7th, 2006 at 3:27 pm

    ‘shriber: I hear you on the anonymous individual interaction of the internet. I’ll think about that. The first thought that popped into my head was live action fiction writing.

    Yes anonymity is one of the consequences of the invention of the internet.

    “Not sure where that leads…�

    Me neither, but its worth considering.

    ‘I still feel that regardless of the tools available people tend toward certain behaviors, philosophies, etc. I’m not sure there is any more or less violence, xenophobia, intolerance now than there ever has been in history. It may be more well documented. As the population grows, it can seem more intense. But as an element of the human experience, I think it might be the same percentage.�

    There may in fact be less xenophobia but there is certainly more violence, at least the number of casualties from violence in the last hundred years or so has been much greater than in previous centuries. This is a consequence of the invention of new an more lethal weapons. Speaking of dangerous inventions I am surprised that no one brought up modern weaponry.

    “Perhaps the advent of the internet brings more of it out of the closet.�

    I am not sure the internet creates violence. It certainly helps spread hatred. My point though was also that the internet is not a cure for ignorance and that the communications revolution and the information highway is neither. There seems to be more ignorance today than ever.

    One good teacher is worth a thousand websites.

    “What I sense most when I cruise the net to see what people are posting: anger. Why is everybody so angry all the time? I know my own answers. My personal angers. I try to keep them personal, though. And I try to work through them to some sort of action or try to melt them to get back to compassion. I’m not sure how anyone thinks they are contributing to a better society with all this anger.�

    Well, it is dangerous to suppress emotions. My feeling is that the expression anger on the internet is related to its anonymity.

    “Perhaps my next dangerous idea is that anger is useless and should be unacceptable. Rage certainly is. And I don’t mean that we should suppress our feelings or deny our experiences. But what if we all learned that when we feel angry we have to stop and work through our anger personally (perhaps with guidance) until it is transformed. Like obligatory time outs for everyone. If you’re angry, you can’t interact with the world until you’ve transformed it without violence; found a more empowering, creative way to resolve whatever issue has triggered the anger. Imagine if we had a cultural imperative to disallow angry interactions, while forcing whatever is causing the anger to be dealt with.�

    Again, anger can be a useful emotion depending on how one controls it. Individual anger isn’t as dangerous as organized violence which is often not based on anger but on suppressed hatreds.

  • shriber

    A truly dangerous idea that deserves its own show:

    From today’s Boston Globe:


    “Patriot acts

    The onetime president of SDS calls on liberals of his generation to embrace an older form of patriotism

    By Harvey Blume | January 8, 2006

    IN 1963, Todd Gitlin was president of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the main vehicle for student activism during the ’60s. Gitlin’s landmark account of those years, ”The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage” (1987), along with seven other books-including his 1999 novel, ”Sacrifice”-and innumerable shorter pieces, constitute engagé writing at its best. What you get from Gitlin is the convergence of a deep political culture with a sharp sense of urgency.

    You’ll find both in the title chapter of his new book, ”The Intellectuals and the Flag” (Columbia). Gitlin calls for liberals who came of age, as he did, during the war in Vietnam, to get over their aversion to the stars and stripes. Post-9/11 America, in his view, not only allows for but requires a strong dose of liberal patriotism.

    Now a professor of journalism at Columbia University, Gitlin’s own version of that patriotism is instructive. By the end of the ’60s, as the war in Vietnam continued to escalate, SDS disintegrated into opposing factions. Burn-out and extremism were common responses. Gitlin avoided both by drawing on an older tradition of radicalism, exemplified by the sociologists C. Wright Mills and David Riesman and the literary critic Irving Howe. In the new book, Gitlin shows that despite vast differences among them, these thinkers could make trenchant criticisms of the United States without succumbing to anti-Americanism. Gitlin believes this ability-the absence of which, he argues, fatally disfigures the work of Noam Chomsky, among others-is an essential ingredient of the patriotism he stands for.

    While Gitlin vehemently opposed the invasion of Iraq, he does not believe that ”bring the troops home!”-the key slogan of Vietnam-era protests-is automatically transferable to Iraq now. Gitlin’s is a patriotism that does not dodge complexity.â€?

  • Lip off Sky

    In the same way that Copernicus, Darwin, and Hubble decentralized our role and importance in the universe, further advances in science may continue this kind of entropic trend of decreasing our overall sense of importance and purpose (a sense we are often more comfortable leaving unexamined). It is not inconceivable, for example, that we may someday discover irrefutable evidence that our actions are not only determined, but are, at the very core, driven by random processes; in effect as unconscious as the evolutionary process that afforded us our consciousness. (The notion of free-will is in stark contradiction with all of natural science as it is.) Similarly, it might not be long before we have conclusive evidence of a multiverse reality, wherein it becomes apparent that we cannot understand by any means of discipline or stretch of the imagination the laws of outer universes, such that all of physics, science, and, by extension, human knowledge is essentially rendered arbitrary. Now, this is all speculative of course, and, for the time being, we can content ourselves with a simple notion: there is only one way to find out. But what if the trend does not cease? What if the magnitude of our mediocrity comes out to an obscene order, what is to become of us? How much humility can humanity take?

  • Lip Off Sky: I’m not sure it matters how insignificant we are in all of existence. We already know that we are less than a speck on the map of this universe. (Though with us crashing rocket ships on the moon and other planets, we’re sure trying to leave a scar (oops, mark). Still, we have to live the life we are living and within the range of impact that we can fathom. For some, it doesn’t matter what happens on the next street over. Our ego-centric psyches create a bubble that we operate in and, even in the face of overwhelming proof that there is more to life, our bubble means everything to us and we assume that we a critical part of it.

    Perhaps the only way for this to shift, is to engineer the removal of the ego. (not just for some, but for everyone…) What if we could engineer it so that there was no such thing as selfishness, only selflessness. I wonder what human existence would be like then? Science fiction has posited that we would all look like meaningless automotrons. We worship the endeavor the individual, even when its selfish. Would a selfless world really be vapid?

    Ironically, as much as I aspire to be self-less and hope to do my part to create a ‘better’ humanity, I’m not sure that this existence is about achieving nirvana. And I do have a hard time imagining that a utopian society would be anything but dull. I lament the sterilizing of the 42nd Street. I may be a meaningless speck in the universe, but I have a vivid imagination that places me in the center of an existence quite vast. And our little Earthly piece of it is so very rich that I don’t need to directly experience much more it yet. Or know that I’m really nothing. So what if I’m nothing? I’m here and now, doing my human thing. Perhaps when I ready for a ‘higher’ plane of existence I’ll hold my meaningless in my consciousness quite firmly. I imagine that won’t be for a few more millenia!

  • Raymond

    Here is an interesting dangerous idea from Edge.org:


    “The Internet inadvertently undermines the quality of human interaction, allowing destructive emotional impulses freer reign under specific circumstances.”

    Daniel Goleman, Psychologist; Author, Emotional Intelligence

    Goleman argues that in personal interactions the prefrontal cortex processes real-time feed back from the other person to inhibit impulses for actions that would be rude, inappropriate, or dangerous. He argues further that disinhibition becomes more likely when people feel strong, negative emotions. Goleman notes that the phenomenon was recognized even in the days of the ARPANET and was then termed “flaming.” He notes that the hallmark of a “flame” is that the same person would not say the same words in person.

    It is interesting that this blog suffers precisely from a lack of real-time feed back, and there has definitely been some disinhibited negative expressions.

    So again, Allison, there do exist credible reasons to think that the inherent nature of the medium may strongly influence its content.

    And the influence not only reduces the quality of the conversation here, Goreman notes that the prefrontal inhibitory circuitry becomes fully mature only in the twenties. As a result there have been cases of adolescents being bullied or exploited sexually strictly through the internet.

    ALYB, I have a request: can we go gently on this last sentence?

  • elphaba

    This is not a particularly dangerous idea, just something that I’ve been mulling over as I’ve been reading things like Jared Diamond’s Collapse and Tim Flannerery’s The Future Eaters. We are at a very interesting point in human history. We have the science and technology to enable us to learn very complex things that never been possible in human history.

    My husband pointed out that we were very fortunate with AIDs. Without our understanding of the microbial world, the ability to see it through microscopes etc. humans would not have been able to learn how it was transmitted. The disease has such a long latency period, how long would it have taken for people to have tied sexual behavior with the disease? AIDs two hundred years ago could have knocked human population down seriously.

    Using many fields of science it is possible to examine environmental challenges that humans have faced throughout history. We can see ways that were sucessful and others that failed.

    We have the ability to project that humans are having a profound effect on the planet. We can see ahead in ways that were impossible 50 or even 20 years ago.

    “God” has given us this brain, will we choose to use it.

  • veracitatus

    The Edge site has been one of the most exciting events on the Web in a while (present company excepted!) I particularly have to agree with Roger Shank’s view about education. The way we teach children (and not just children, but college students as well) through the education system in this country does more to ruin their love of learning than anything I can imagine. I often think it would be better to show them the library and say “go there, read, see what interests you…”

    But my dangerous idea has greater long-term consequences (if true) for the human species. It is simply this. I think evolution of humanity is happening right before our eyes. It is called sympatric speciation, which basically means differential genetic drift within a single population leading to incipient species sharing a niche but starting to breed true to form.

    I think this is happening right now. At least I hope it is happening. Ironically, it is our own cleverness that has created a global environment in which change in technology and culture is happening at a rate that confounds the common Homo sapiens mind. This is Alvin Toffler’s “Future Shock” writ large. More cleverness is not going to help – we’d just find more efficient ways to destroy each other and our selves.

    Rather, Homo sapiens has to fundamentally change. Robert Sternberg has characterized the mind as consisting of Intelligence, Creativity and Wisdom components. The latter are in short supply in the common human (indeed, I would argue it is in short supply in our so-called leaders!) Interestingly the species name chosen by Linnaeus was Homo sapiens – Man the wise. He may have been guilty of hubris.

    A better biological name for humans would be Homo callidus – Man the clever. Wisdom is not a major feature of human behavior. When it does surface it is at a later age, based on years of life experience and too late to be selected for by having an impact on mating behavior.

    But I think the environment Homo callidus has created is starting to have a feedback effect on the species. It has characteristics I am just beginning to appreciate that may actually influence sexual selection at an earlier age such that wisdom (the wisdom gene???) could begin to emerge as a fitness factor.

    There is more to the argument, but that should convey the basic idea. It is dangerous because it lends further impetus to the divisioning that seems to be happening already on several fronts, ideological, religious vs secular, science vs. postmodernism… Stay tuned to see what happens.

  • veracitatus

    This is as good a place as any to lay claim to the right to name the new incipient species arising out of Homo callidus/sapiens. Because sapiens has been taken I christen the new species Homo eusapiens – Man the truly wise!

    Eusapience, most likely the result of some anatomical/functional extension of the prefrontal cortex, should assert itself early in life in some way that results in mate attractiveness (just as we suppose power and aggressiveness in human males resulted in more mating opportunities – Attila comes to mind). Let the sorting begin.

    Those who can effectively adapt to change and information overload on the left, those who react to change by becoming overly conservative and reliant on religious conviction on the right (hint-hint). Those on the left, adapt as the world that humans have created produces incredible stress, leave many offspring. Those on the right… Well, sorry.

    But if natural selection fails, it isn’t fast enough or there is no discernable sexually attractive trait correlate, then what? Some early commentors on this thread mentioned eugenics. What if, instead of preventing the non-adaptive species from reproducing (the bad part about eugenics) we simply make sure that the adaptive incipiants mate and procreate sufficiently to assure a large enough pool to weather the coming storms. Perhaps a genetic test to identify carriers of the eusapience gene (assuming a lot of course) and make sure they meet each other!

    There are probably several scenarios that involve intelligent intervention where Darwinian selection might fail. It is interesting to speculate. The main point, however, is that of all the mental traits that SHOULD be selected for, wisdom ought to be it.


  • tbrucia

    My dangerous idea is that ideas are not dangerous… They are simply patterns in one brain, and therefore threaten no one. ACTIONS can be very dangerous! I suspect the act of saying that Ideas Are Not Dangerous will threaten a lot of people; consider that thinking this heresy (a private act) threatens no one….

  • My dangerous idea is that parasites have evolved us to find ever greater sources of cheap food. Marketers that convince people they should eat more and more of it–till it brings about their death–must then be the equivalent of borgs.

  • keepmoving

    These have been interesting posts. I was intrigued by some of the posts on the edge website. Mostly how to diametrically opposing ideas could be considered the most dangerous. I was also interested in the post by Nikos extolling on the powers of the internet allowing nuts and crack pots a place to be and eventually, they’ll be shut out. I started thinkning, what if the precieved nuts and crackpots are really the sane people? What if the “nuts and Crack pots” are silenced and the precieved “sane” are given free reign? To me, that is the most dangerous idea. And I hate to say it, but it seems like this could be true. People scoff at those who believe in traditional religions and look down on them as people who are nieve (for lack of a better term), yet those who truly stick to what they believe (centralists) have hope. Something this world is sadly lacking. So, who are the precieved crack pots and who are the precieved sane? Can we really tell? Where is the line drawn?

  • Jon

    My dangerous idea is that Senator Byrd may be wrong, with the U.S. Constitution in the end proving inadequate to sustain the meaningful balance of powers central to our democracy. Might we have sustained a “tipping point” in a rightward direction, following which restoration of such balance, for all practical purposes, can no longer be achieved within the system? Is it possible that the combination of presidential elections, congressional redistricting, and, arguably the most potent, a long-term shift within the federal judiciary, have produced an essentially irreversible trajectory?

  • To shriber and allison: the dangerous idea about the Internet fostering anti-social and anti-enlightenment sort of behavior? I’ve write about this regularly, which is why I contributed to the extant I did about the redesign two months back, and

    responded to Mary McGrath on a related thread about the liberal bloggers’ attacks on the media that I could elaborate more on the air.

    Have a long-time listener, caller, and contributor to the forum appear as a guest… would that be such a dangerous idea? 😉

  • dangerous idea:

    the only people worth listening to are those who have nothing to say.

  • A little yellow bird

    Maybe it’s not the worst thing in the world that the USA is breathing its last. Osama bin gone a long time: http://kurtnimmo.com/?p=195 See you in boot camp, homies…

  • A little yellow bird

    P.S. to above post: I think Osama bin Greenspan may beat (the long-dead) Osama “Goldstein” bin Laden at taking down the US. Here is the Alan Greenspan exit speech we’ll never hear, unless he gets all squishy like Robert McNamara did: “I, Greenspan” http://www.lewrockwell.com/bonner/bonner188.html

  • razib

    I believe that rate of change of culture is outrunning our ability to handle it, and distributed information networks are on the cusp of unimaginable higher order dynamic properties because of their sheer scale. Talk of eugenics is all well and good, but the reality is that for selection and evolution to work you need time, that is generation time, and I don’t think humanity has that. We are not “hard-wired” for the enormous tsunami of information that our technological culture is generating, and I think that “Post Modernism” is a natural outgrowth of this as the ability of one individual to known much at all is dwarfed by the sample space of things there are to know. Gibberish and obfuscation are much harder to detect in this sea of information and the very act of collection, retrieval and processing absorb all your time. I have noticed this with the increased sophistication of Creationists (now “Intelligent Design”) who are extracting & concocting ever more elegant and opaque sophistries from the technical literature in evolutionary biology. Information is a tool, but what you do with it is up to your will, and I’m afraid our monkey natures have gotten the better of us at this point. Speciation may be the only hope of technological culture, that is, the memes, that we have generated, either through AI or cybernetic & genetic enhancements.

    On a note about THE EDGE questions I would offer that there are two primary categories you can glean. Ideas which might be shocking to everyone, and ideas which would be shocking outside the intellectual classes. Scientific materialism and the death of the soul and mind-body dualism won’t come as big news in intellectual circles. On the other hand, Steven Pinker’s response that groups may differ in aptitudes is shocking and disconcerting to everyone. Of course, this is an old idea, but so is the death of the soul and the rejection of mind body dualism.

  • redbranch

    My dangerous idea (the dangerousness of which is evidenced by the fact that I am reluctant to even commit it to writing) is : I don’t support the troops. That is, no more than I support any other human beings. Without soldiers, there can be no war. Notwithstanding teary NPR obits, those men and women are there because they have free will, and have chosen to sign up. They knew what they were getting into. No one who picks up a gun is protecting my freedom. We can equivocate about poverty, health care, college money, etc being government coercions, but —I repeat–we all have free will. Buffy Ste. Marie was right: “He’s the universal soldier, and he really is to blame.” Suppose they give a war, and no one comes? Whew…now I’ll watch my back! thanks OS

  • My dangerous idea: God is a God who hides himself.

    I can’t take credit for my dangerous idea. It was written by Isaiah about 2,700 years ago: “Truly you are a God who hides himself, O God and Savior of Israel” (Isaiah chap. 45).

    It’s easy to mock this idea: “There’s an invisible elephant in the room, and he’s an invisible elephant who hides himself.” Yet it’s clear that none of us made ourselves. What if our Maker doesn’t want to impose Himself on us, but instead prefers that we seek after Him? “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart,” Jeremiah says (29:13). What if our Maker hides Himself from those who choose to mock His existence?

  • A beautiful thought, redbranch. So simple it’s brilliant. But I can’t help wondering: suppose they give a war, and only their guys come?

  • Another dangerous idea: Capitalism’s “creative destructive” necessity, now operating at ever greater speed and distance, tears asunder all social bonds and leaves us all unrooted and hence searching for community. Capitalism is now Katrina to New Orleans.

  • Nikos

    the forester: you’re right: ‘None of us made ourselves’. No one ‘made’ us. We [i]GREW[i]. I know it’s radical, but it’s also simple, elegant, and true. We’re stardust and water powered by sunlight. Individualized manifestations of the third rock from the sun. People aren’t ‘made’, no matter how the language, with its underlying metaphors of construction, tricks us into thinking it.

    We don’t need a ‘maker’. The solar system did it. All by itself.

  • Thank you for illustrating my point, Nikos — that the Maker is hiding Himself.

    Please refer back to the original question: “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?

    You’re assuming my idea is false — not the point of this exercise, which is to explore the possibility of a dangerous idea being true.

  • Nikos

    forester: I think your invisible elephant analogy perfectly backs my counterpoint.

    It’s too bad Douglas Adams died. He’d be the ideal author for a book title that oftentimes, while visiting certain ROS threads, randomly rolls through my mind: ‘The Cautious Galactic Traveler’s Guide to Earth’s Religions and Other Superstitions.’


  • I liked Kai Krause’s answer — that our civilization is slowly coming apart as more and more individuals see that it offers 99% of us nothing but injustice, inequity and empty promises, and is inexorably destroying our planet.

    I posted some more provocative ‘dangerous ideas’ that I have read lately, on my blog. Here are three of them:

    1. Our civilization is in its final century. No civilization lasts forever, and there is no political, economic, social, educational, religious or other ‘solution’ that will make the members of any civilization suddenly and radically change their behaviour. We do what we must do, and nature will do what she must to compensate for our excesses. [John Gray, in his book Straw Dogs]

    2. The crowd is always wiser than the experts. No elite, no godlike president or junta, no priest or CEO, no crack team of managers or consultants or global thought leaders can make better decisions, or predict the future better, than all of us together in our collective wisdom. Leadership of all kinds is a dysfunctional vestige of an era in which that collective wisdom could not readily be tapped. This idea is dangerous enough to change the way all organizations are run, for the better. [James Surowieki, in his book The Wisdom of Crowds]

    3. No one is in control. This is two dangerous ideas in one, though I’m not sure if anyone has realized this explicitly. The first idea is that because no one is in control, the appearance of control that governments and corporations and their handmaidens in the media try to convey is all illusion: This world is far too complex for even the most powerful and complicitous elite to be able to steer or direct. That is the liberating idea: Don’t worry about fighting the ‘bad guys’, because they’re just caught up in the flow like all the rest of us. The second idea is that because no one is in control, everything is out of control. That is the terrifying, personal responsibility-burdening idea: No one can stop global warming, biochemical warfare, [your worst nightmare scenario here]. So now what do you do?

    This third idea plays to Kai Krause’s proposal that we take another run at the Edge question, modified to: “What is your practical idea with the most immediate positive global impact of any kind that can be achieved within one year?” Now THAT would be dangerous.

  • Any edgy idea will do except for the Richard Dawkins fantasy that would absolve murderers of any responsibility.

    See http://www.edge.org/q2006/q06_print.html#dawkins

    Ever the reductionist, Sir Dawkins is a fool bereft of any imagination of the human spirit or of justice. Yes retribution springs from man’s sense of justice.

    “Retribution as a moral principle is incompatible with a scientific view of human behaviour. As scientists, we believe that human brains, though they may not work in the same way as man-made computers, are as surely governed by the laws of physics. When a computer malfunctions, we do not punish it. We track down the problem and fix it, usually by replacing a damaged component, either in hardware or software.”

    That’s it! We’re just machines! We can reprogram murderers!

  • Potter

    Don’t yell at me for this, it’s so dangerous I refuse to even think about the possibilities but what if we gave or allowed every country to have a nuclear weapon? Would that sober things up?

  • redbranch

    good point, forester, thanks. the point was dangerous IDEAS, though–not dangerous solutions; or perhaps you were just dissing me?

  • Potter, brilliant dangerous idea. How about if all the nuclear bombs were allotted according to population?

    If fact perhaps we should simply divide all the earth’s resources (energy, food, real estate) per capita?

  • Point well taken, redbranch — yes, it would be dangerous. Actually I started thinking that your idea really is beautiful in its simplicity. You’re right — it takes soldiers to show up and fight. But all the more dangerous if we were to let our guard down.

    No dissing — only noting impracticality. And, as you right assert (which I did earlier when my idea was challenged) — the point of the original question is WHAT IF.

  • Dangerous idea? Death to private interest groups! Truthometer to see how politicians promises during election track with their actions after election.

  • re: Genes with byproduct effects, if heterozygosity for Tay Sachs confers a non-trivial IQ advantage (as Cochran & Harpending & Hardy suggest) than why wouldn’t a parent want it? The problem is when two people with the one copy come together….

  • Dorian

    I just saw the Charles Darwin show at the Museum of Natural History in New York, and in preparation for seeing the show, I read a review where one is reminded that there is no such thing as “Darwinism”, it is the science of evolution, and only those who try to dispel the notion of evolution ever refer to it as “Darwinism”. I found that an interesting distinction, and after hearing your very first guest refer to evolution as “Darwinism”, i thought it was worth mentioning. Maybe it is a dangerous idea, aferall!

  • Re Darwinist. I see the term “neo-Darwinist.” This use of “neo-” is sometimes a slight dig. Neodarwinists criticize Neostructuralists, and vice versa. It’s less often used to self-identify. And does anybody claim to be a paleo-Darwinist? Unthinkable! It’s funny what offends the sensibilities. I doubt it’s particular to paleontologists. And then we have “new new synthesists” and presumably “old new synthesists”–but who claims for themselves the label “old new synthesist?”

  • The discussion going on right now about information overflow and the pitfalls of it– I’ve mentioned before, but perhaps never gave the link, to my essay series on this, The New Gatekeepers. It’s not the machines which are the new mediators to information, but the people who design the software. That’s the danger. This is is derived from Lawrence Lessig’s argument in CODE.

    I tried calling… but the phone lines in are closed tonight, it appears.

  • Zeno

    Even the scientists haven’t really dealt with the basic premise of quantum physics, which flowed from understanding of Heisenberg’s principle of uncertainy. The Alain Aspect experiments way back in 1982 proved that one of the following of two possibilities is true: Either objective reality does not exist and it is meaningless for us to speak of things or objects as having any reality above and beyond the mind of the observer. or faster than light communication with the future nad the past is possible. String theory, indeed. We begin to validate the realities which have come out of the shamanic, indigenous cultures who learned how to ride these “un-things”.

    The mind is only one of the human functions. The emotions of humans seem to get more and more uncontrolled and immature in this world.

    We need to return to that integration of mind and emotional progress one finds glimpses of in ancient Egypt (cf. Schwaller de Lubicz),, or the issues of human mechanicilty raised by PD Ouspensky (cf. Gurdjieff). This isn’t a return to an antropomorphic or doctrinal God, at all. Egypt, for instance, had an integration in the very language, which is too rigid for these days, but that yet clued a young mind to the principles behind reality. The word for weaving– the notion that something stayed stationary and something else moves thru it, is almost the same word for writing.

    I agree w/ those who deplore the growing dominace of ‘la machine”– and I have to work online often. Techonology is a growth of mechanicality. It is not science. It is not art. It is not passion. It is not the development of ral joyous will. The power that comes from blind materialist manipulation, leads to hubris, of course. That is only reasonable. Of course microbes would be bred by rogue states (large or small).

    In short, core small groups have to develop their own ways of being as precise, creative and conscious about emotional and spiritual development, which is as strong and counterbalancing as the tech. Some willbe agnostic, some mystic. Anything that will counter the mediocrity, the lack of nobility (because the subtle assumed goal, by refault is always comfort)

    There is good evidence now in holosync technology to speed brain changes. For past lives and out of body projection. THe stuff coming out of plant spirit medicine. But the Enlightenment (the first new speak, if ever there was one) leaves its bias still on what research is acceptable.

    I’m a writer who lives of little resource, out of the intellectual loops. Out in the provinces, there is less and less soul food– whether among biz owner or the poor. When the culture dies (and continues as the undead), people get restless and violence is next. Let’s hope everybody’s country music and blues keep going.

    Other note– the guy looking for genetic bases to intelligence needs to check the research which looks at the interrelatedness of the worlds races. E.g. Czech and South Sea Islanders more closely related than Czech and anyone else in Europe. To return to my first comment. The paradigm shift necessitated by the dethroning of rationalistic thought would have to mean environmental and even human intentional effect on what it is we call genes– the latter being, after all, only well organized patterns of energy.

  • Henry

    Thanks, first of all, to the bloggers who followed my trail of crumbs back to this board; you all make being a research intern here at Open Source gratifying every day, and you do yourself and the rest of us a great service by making good on the power of communication that you have accepted.

    I haven’t listened to tonight’s show yet, but a lot of these ideas seem to connect to each other in telling ways. My particular spin on the dichotomous suggestions (free will is an illusion, we are all different, we are out of control, we are animals like everything else) is that they may seem to work on very simple and complex levels, but they actually have just as much application smack-dab in the middle. The “what if there was a war and no one showed up” comment drew this out: clearly, observable behavior suggestions that a failure to show up for war, on some level, is going to work out pretty badly for the Merkin Muffly character. We can understand consequences in general, and yet we also know the searing helplessness when “some part of ourselves gets the best of us.”

    Perhaps it isn’t a dangerous idea at all, but this set of topics seems to ask, “in which direction– toward hopelessness, the degradation of civilization, and irresponsibility, or towards austerity and optimism– does these fundamental queries push us?”

  • Nikos

    Great show. And thanks for booking Dennett for another!

    I have to say that I find Jesse Bering’s idea that the human belief in god(s) is genetic not merely ‘dangerous’ but ‘daft’. I guess my lack of belief (and my hope that others besides me will learn to see through the hoax) therefore makes me, what — unnatural? A miscreation? A freak? An abomination? Satan?

    Thanks, Jesse. Check, please, waiter.

    To paraphrase: “Since all peoples (except the Buddhists and atheists, but they don’t count, right?) have gods, religious belief must be hard-wired.” (And there’s that absurd man-is-a-machine/computer metaphor again. Ugh.) It reminds me of older (and thankfully discredited) notions that since all women used to be consigned to home, they were obviously ‘natural homemakers’ (i.e., servants of men). Or any other number of seemingly ‘nature-based’ stereotypes that racists and elites (like slave-owners) employed to prop up their heirarchies and atrocities.


    Disabuse me someone, please. Tell me that I’m misunderstanding the idea. I’m not joking: I hope I got it wrong, and will welcome a correction.

  • Potter

    The last noodle: I don’t know why, but that photo above gives me the creeps. The background looks like a crawling black glaze, but the noodle looks like a worm… the whole effect is creepy.

    Anyway, Dorian thanks for your post above regarding “the science of evolution” ( or “evolutionary science”) the proper term, not “Darwinism”. We got caught once again. We do have to be careful about our language these days.

    Great show… worth another listen! Thanks!

  • I guess my lack of belief (and my hope that others besides me will learn to see through the hoax) therefore makes me, what — unnatural? A miscreation? A freak? An abomination? Satan?

    i don’t agree with the details of what bering is trying to get at, but, have you ever heard of the normal distribution? of natural = modal +/- 2 standard deviations, yeah, we might be unnatural (speaking as another unbeliever).

    “Since all peoples (except the Buddhists and atheists, but they don’t count, right?) have gods, religious belief must be hard-wired.�

    operationally buddhists do believe in gods, their religious elite simply rejects the creator god (in thereavada buddhism buddha becomes a god on the popular level). even atheists can believe in gods, the cult of leader that you saw in stalinist russia or maoist china seems nothing so much as a god-king phenomenon. the cult of leader in north korea, where the birth of kim jong il was reputed to have resulted in flowers blooming in winter, has the same features.

  • I believe questions like this from Edge offer us opportunities to use social media and build communities that may actually bring these dialogues to life. Because we must integrate our social contract into our commercial worlds here in Europe, we have a very different perspective on possibilities.

    If our dangerous idea was to put the health, education and welfare of a child at the heart of every government’s core development strategy, wouldn’t that begin to evolve our societies in all cultures into socio-economic growth. Over time, wouldn’t this kind of strategy also resolve so many of the issues and contradictions inthe world because we would have an educated and knowledgeful citizenship. Wouldn’t those citizens over time and through generations begin to emerge as more aware of how to handle and transform the world instead of trying to conquer it?

    TEchnology-enabled human communications and social media are already using dialogue to build new kinds of communities, which are democratizing publishing and organizations. This kind of evolution has the chance to really transform the world.

    Aren’t we already participating in one of the most daring and dangerous ideas – building communities with shared common purpose.

  • MaxEntropy

    Steven Pinker might not have been the best choice of interlocutor for this show. A self-described optimist, he apparently felt compelled to look at either the bright — or irrelevant — side of many of these dark, disruptive possibilities. I sense that Pinker, rather than be a thinker, preferred to tinker with the ideas thrown his way to minimize their gravity or consequentiality, for reasons I fail to fathom.

    Danile Dennet came up with the most captivating concept, for me at least. The thought that the political right and left might be able to find common ground to rally against corporate-driven consumerism tickled me pinker than anything else I heard. What if the idea that commercial speech cannot be permitted to undermine moral, family, educational, ethical, civic, and environmental values took root in our culture? Suppose conservatives and liberals started to take aim at corporate mentalities instead of one another’s? Wouldn’t this mind shift help us to zero in on root causes of some of our most troubl;ng concerns?

    Were this to happen, might not be necessary to to (re)regulate industries; citizens at large could simply learn how to regulate their desires to achieve a more balanced and satisfying moral, ethical and sustainable future. Since Pinker didn’t make such a comment, I had to chime in.

    Great show! Do it again!

  • Potter

    ColbyStuart: Yes! Good comment!

    How do we get more people on board,those who are wrapped up in taking care of their daily lives ( getting and spending, pushing on ) to stop and think, no less think in a more enlightened way and from a larger perspective? Most people are not participating in this dialogue. How DO we integrate our social contract into our “commerical worlds”.

    Do we need to discuss what the social contract is?

  • A little yellow bird

    I think another world’s population is outsourcing some production activity to our “lesser� world–a “third world�, if you will, that they cannot or don’t want to do for themselves; and they are going to take our product(s) somehow at some point. I do not know what we’re supposed to get out of it, if anything. I like Kurt Vonnegut’s idea, put forth in his novel “The Sirens of Titan�, that all of human history has been directed from a distant world to build enormous structures, such as the Great Wall of China, that are actually written messages when viewed from a great distance by a lone traveler from that distant world. Possibly…

  • A little yellow bird

    Response to “redbranch, January 24th, 2006 at 10:51 am”: “Don’t Support the Troops”: http://www.lewrockwell.com/orig6/snider1.html

  • Rycke

    Two dangerous ideas:

    The State is a Church, and can be nothing else. Religious freedom can exist only if government is restricted to the proper use of force, securing rights. The February issue of Liberty (libertyunbound.com) has a great article about it, “The Opiate of Almost Everyone,” by Robert H. Nelson. Nice to see other thinkers saying what I’ve been preaching for 15 years.

    The “red shift” in light from stars, taken to be a doppler effect, is actually an intrinsic quality of light that is measurable only at interstellar distances. Light loses energy, and therefore frequency, as it travels. Truly, it’s hard to believe that it wouldn’t.

  • amazinggrapes

    What’s the question again? Most dangerous idea? The most dangerous idea is not my idea. However, I do wonder who had the idea first. Let me start by saying, I believe the only way to any idea first starts with a question. Therefore the question becomes what is the most dangerous question that leads to the most dangerous idea. Follow? Great!

    I regretfully must bring this message to humanity, and it isn’t good news. Not by choice but as a function of my genetic code. For some unknown reason my preprogrammed genes have opened a “window� (I’m speaking metaphorically using simple computer terms) and brought to the forefront of my “operating system� a message as bleak as bleak can be. The message ironically has to do with the Edge question of 2006.

    Science is on the verge of discovering what we are. It will use all kinds of fancy terms and complex mathematic formulas and tests which will be empirically proven. The bad news is; the implications of such will ultimately destroy who we are. Maybe this is something that our ancestors, the leap frogs, discovered 600 billion years ago and as a result of their discovery, found themselves back in the pond. I fear our fate is sealed to such an unfortunate outcome. Because when we finally discover what we are we will have no choice but to systematically dismantle who we are and how we define existence. In other words, the one discovery science so desperately seeks, when achieved, will seal the fate of all humanity. I’m talking about the extinction of the species, the extinguishing of man kind!

    Let me put it this way. When you’re sitting across from that person at the banquet table and you look them square in the eye and you both realize that which is so obvious it requires no elaboration. You look at each other the same way that the people on the Titanic looked at each other moments before they were nothing more than a ripple on the surface of the ocean.

    What does all this have to do with the Question proposed? The most dangerous idea can only come from the most dangerous question. What if?


  • Fossil fuels are metaphisically, metaphorically and actually burning the dead. Drive your cars to Washington, leave the engines running and walk away. At least five billion people want world peace, so we’re talking democracy, right?

  • IggyG

    Here’s a dangerous idea. Confront the Bush administration with the evidence currently circulating on the internet with regards 9/11. Just the simple stuff like the melting point of titanium being 1600 degrees C but there wasn’t any melted alloy in the Pentagon. Titanium’s heat of vaporization is 425 kJ/mol and that’s hot. Why, the walls of the pentagon would have exploded at those temps.

    Shocking evidence is clearly and calmly presented here:


  • tbrucia

    Most dangerous idea? Actually, ideas are harmless little guys… it’s the actions that flow from them that can be dangerous! If one is a harmless bacterium, unconsciously drifting along, the thought of amoxycillin is simply an idle daydream. But when genocidal humans manufacture and deploy amoxycillin, the resultant extermination spells the death of you and all your fellow bacteria!

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