Science

Friday Mini Book Review: What is Your Dangerous Idea?

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Mini Book Reviews of yesterday.

What is Your Dangerous Idea?, edited by John Brockman (Harper Perennial, 2007). Dozens of thinkers from the hepcat sciences of evolutionary biology and psychology, cutting-edge neuroscience, artificial intelligence, biotech and computer tech contribute very short essays laying out ideas that might be considered "dangerous," a locution never defined with great sharpness here, but roughly falls into categories such as "politically incorrect," or "could lead to technologies of domination or destruction" or "destructive of certain notions held dear by many of us" (whether religious or philosophical).

Editor Brockman runs the site edge.org, where the science and tech types who he thinks are superseding traditional humanities/literary/social science intellectuals here in the fabulous 21st century gather to think big

Thousand word (approx.) essays are not where anyone expresses their full intellectual effulgence, of course, but this book still manages to be disappointing even when considering that limitation, like an overly long and bloated Wired mag roundtable feature with an ill-defined context.

Some of the essays are mind-blowing, sure, but without the actual scientific reasoning or evidence behind them presented because of lack of space, they tend to come across more druggy-goofy than profound or smart ("what if time doesn't exist?" "What if the Internet becomes self-aware?"). Some of them just drip with scientistic hubris, like Carolyn C. Porco's call for a literal Fritz Leiberesque "church of Science."

A lot of its is basic, and pretty old, religion-baiting: there is no God (and so what if there was?), there is no soul, murder is embedded in our DNA; much of it is a newer variant on same (we have no wills or choices, and are just robots and puppets of our genes and chemicals in our brain). Essays touching on some variation of those two overarching ideas makes up at least a third of the book.

Then there's some chewing over global warming, with a lean toward non-alarmism. Some of the book is quite interesting and relatively fresh (of course, what strikes any individual reader as "fresh" is dependent on how closely he pays attention to various fields), like Judith Rich Harris's declaration that there is "zero parental influence" on children's personality or intelligence or behavior outside the home (environmental influence, not genetic), or the controversial Rupert Sheldrake's thought that our lack of full understanding of how animals navigate may mean we are all wrong about the nature of life itself.

Of course, people come forward to declare both that it's dangerous to think any idea is dangerous; and dangerous to encourage people to think of dangerous ideas. There are encouraging (to the libertarian…) flashes of libertarianism in not just some, but most, of the political entries, including Roger C. Schank's call to end organized public education. It's nice to see libertarianism so casually accepted (generally not self-consciously) among Brockman's science and tech elite.

If the book ultimately feels as if it did not reward the time it took to read, it's more the fault of the length restrictions than the writers or their thinking. Still, the short length does make it a more-than-usually interesting variant on the "bathroom reader."