What Is Your Dangerous Idea?: A book review by Bob Morris

What Is YourWhat Is Your Dangerous Idea?
Edited by John Brockman
Harper Perennial (2007)

“Yesterday’s dangerous idea is today’s orthodoxy and tomorrow’s cliché.” — Richard Dawkins

According to founder and editor, John Brockman, the Edge Question was first posed in 1998: “What questions are you asking yourself?” There were 110 contributors and then, after editing, their responses were published in this volume. Each year since then, another question was asked and responses to it were published, also be Harper Perennial.

There were 155 contributors and 154 responses to the 2006 Edge Question, suggested by the psychologist Steven Pinker:

“The history of science is replete with discoveries that were considered 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?” What was Pinker’s choice? “The year 2005 saw several public appearances of what I predict will be the most dangerous idea of the next decade: that groups of people may differ genetically in their average talents and temperaments.” (Page 13)

Here are some of the others, each of which is discussed further in the book, context:

o John Horgan: “The dangerous (probably true) idea I’d like to dwell on is that we humans have no souls.” (Page 1)

o Paul Bloom: The idea that “mental life has a purely material basis. The dangerous idea, then, is that Cartesian dualism is false. If what you mean by ‘soul’ is something immaterial and immortal, something that exists independently of the brain, the souls do not exist.” (4)

o David Buss: “The idea that evil has evolved is dangerous on several counts…The danger comes from people who refuse to recognize that there are dark sides of human nature that cannot be wished away by attributing them to the modern ills of culture, poverty, pathology, or exposure to media violence. The danger comes from failing to gaze into the mirror and come to grips with the capacity for evil in all of us.7 & 9)

o V.S. Ramachandran: “An idea that would be ‘dangerous if true’ is what Francis Crick referred to as the ‘astonishing hypothesis’ – that notion that our conscious experience and sense of self consists entirely of the activity of 100 billion bits of jelly, the neurons that constitute the brain.” (22)

o Daniel Goleman: “The dangerous thought: The Internet may harbor social perils that our inhibitory circuitry was not evolutionarily designed to handle.” (75)

o Kevin Kelly thinks that “more anonymity is good; that’s a dangerous idea.” (82)

o Ray Kurzweil: “My dangerous idea is the near-term inevitability of radical life extension and expansion. The idea is dangerous, however, only when contemplated from current linear perspectives.” (215)

o Freeman J. Dyson: “There are two severe and obvious dangers: First, smart kids and malicious grown-ups will find ways to convert biotech tools to the manufacture of lethal microbes; ambitious parents will find ways to apply the biotech tools to the genetic modification of their babies. The great unanswered question is whether we can regulate domesticated biotechnology so that it can be applied freely to animals and vegetables but not to microbes and humans.” (218)

o Howard Gardner: Although sustaining two hopeful assumptions about the prospects for human survival, “Yet I lie awake at night with the dangerous thought that pessimists might be right. For the first time in history (as far as we know), we humans live in a world we could completely destroy.” (290)

o Richard Dawkins: “Dangerous ideas are what has driven humanity onward, usually to the consternation of the majority in any particular age who thrive on familiarity and fear change. Yesterday’s dangerous idea is today’s orthodoxy and tomorrow’s cliché.” (297)

Although taken out of context, as noted, these brief excerpts suggest the thrust and flavor as well as the diversity of perspective of the contributions by these and other cutting-edge thinkers. I envy anyone who has not as yet read this book or any others generated by responses to the annual Edge Question.

By the way, if asked to answer the given question, what would your response be?

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