The Most Dangerous Ideas

Edge, the onine community of “third culture” advocates (the “third culture” is meant to be a bridge of sorts between traditional science and the humanities — in practice, it is largely an invasion of traditionally humanist concerns by scientifistic methods and theories), has released their Annual Question: “What is your dangerous idea?”. Last year’s question, “What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?” produced some really great musings on the nature of science and knowledge, but despite my respect for many of the participants (though I admit that Stephen J. Gould’s presence at Edge is sorely missed), after having dipped into a random-ish sample of contributions, I find this year’s contributions somewhat predictable and even humdrum.

Of course, as far as I can tell, there’s no anthropologists on Edge’s “council” of scientific thinkers (I may have missed one or two — there’s a lot of people associated with Edge), and the handling of culture overall tends to be a little sloppy, with a lot of reductionism and not a lot of nuance. Which is maybe why it makes sense that Steven Pinker would think his contribution — “Groups of people may differ genetically in their average talents and temperaments” — might actually be a dangerous idea. Pinker notes that ideas relating to sex and race differences are widely perceived to be dangerous, citing for example the villification of Harvard president Larry Summers after last year’s comments on women’s under-representation in the sciences. However, I don’t find this to be a very dangerous idea at all — an uncomfortable one, perhaps, but one that most people hold to some degree or other. I would consider dangerous an idea whose ramifications had the potential to drastically alter the way society is structured, and I don’t see that the assumption of innate differences between groups would have that effect. Given the centrality of such assumptions in the history of the modern world, I think it’s fair to say that Pinker’s “dangerous idea” fits quite comfortably with the status quo — it is after all the idea that many of our social institutions are built on.

In fact, I think a far more dangerous idea is that people do not differ genetically on a group basis, at least not in any significant way. Of course, I side with the effort Pinker dismisses with his straw man description of those who would “reengineer” the “intellectual landscape” to rule out hypotheses about race, intelligence, innate predelictions, and so on a priori. But consider the ramifications of an absolute equality of talent, potential, temperament across the human species: if all humans are innately equal in their potential to succeed and to make meaningful contributions to their societies, then the fact of poverty, of small-mindedness, of difference itself has to be explained as cultural, which is to say it has to be considered as something that we create ourselves. The infant with the potential to become a great doctor, physicist, peace activist, parliamentarian, anthropologist, designer, artist, parent, urban planner, minister, author, friend, diplomat, geologist, therapist, singer, gardener, athlete, or diviner but instead ends up dead at 18 of drug overdose or gang shooting or collateral damage or murder conviction or disease or suicide bombing or knife fight or suicide or car accident is our collective fault. And if we are serious about the commitment to “political equality”, to “universal human rights, and to policies that treat people as individuals rather than representatives of groups” as Pinker claims to be, then the ramifications of the prospect that differences in station cannot be attributed to differences in biological makeup implies a radical restructuring of our societies, institutions, and thought patterns. And if we are not committed to equality on these terms, it implies an ever-increasing dissonance between the ethical precepts that supposedly guide our social and institutional efforts and the reality we embrace, or the outright abandonment of those precepts.

That’s what I consider dangerous!

16 thoughts on “The Most Dangerous Ideas

  1. I missed Sperber on the list — I didn’t even notive they had the list in the sidebar, so I was looking at the big block of names on the main Annual Question page, not the best way of organizing a list of some 80-odd names! Interestingly, as I generally am not impressed with SPerber either, he glances on a point similar to mine: “the fundamental goal for a naturalistic approach is to explain how a common human nature — and not biological differences among humans — gives rise to such a diversity of languages, cultures, social organizations.” I would add a diversity of social statuses, wealth distribution, and social power to the list.

    Also interestingly, Sperber adds the same apologia for the biological reductionist arguments that Pinker uses, and that researchers going back to Broca have felt obligated to offer, namely that such arguments almost always end up justifying exploitation but they don’t necessarily have to. I’m sure there’s truth to that argument — but I wonder that researchers have had such difficulty getting it across.

  2. I skimmed them all, excepting a few artists and religiously minded folks, and didn’t find a single idea that wasn’t at least a little familiar, and the redundancy and recurrence of closely related big ideas relating to evolution and the soul and being animals and the unconscious was enormous. What’s going on? I doubt society has become less inventive. I imagine ideas and information now spread far and wide so fast, and theorizing is so professionalized, compared to the 19th-20th century turn, that there might be less diversity of notions or at least fewer surprises. Or are people more proprietary about their ideas than before, so no one with anything worth a book deal would broadcast it in such a forum? Or are people as proprietary as a century ago and this project was doomed undazzling from the start? If none of the above, I’d settle for the conclusion that I’m just exceptionally well read and thoughtful.

  3. Besides anthropologists, some legal scholars and political scientists would have been nice to include. There’s clearly some kind of curiosity bias at work on Edge, although I haven’t put my finger on it and it my just be the interests of the publisher, Brockman.

  4. The only idea on that list that didn’t really seem cliched was Terrence Sejnowski’s idea that the internet might become self aware. A lot of the other ideas seem to just be new iterations of older ideas and debates in the social sciences or politics (and many of the contributors seem to be unaware of these debates).

  5. I think some of the homogeneity may be attributed to the self-selecting nature of Edge itself — it’s an organization created to espouse a particular view (or, rather, a set of ideas around a particular view) roughly parallel to Wilson’s “consilience”. That many of these ideas may seem familiar is probably a testament to the success of Edge in advancing them. Like MT, I found most of the pieces I looked at were continuations of the main body of work of their authors — and perhaps it’s flattering to think of one’s own work as the most “dangerous” around. Also, though, the question played into this — last year’s question explicitly challenged Edgists to reflect on their own ideas, and to explicitly recognize at least some of their ideas as “beliefs”. This year’s question doesn’t seem to offer much room for self-reflection, and the tunnel-vision of most Edgers re: sociocultural context hampers many of the entrant’s consideration of why their ideas might be dangerous.

  6. There is, I think, a fairly strong historical basis for your claim that it is a dangerous, socially revolutionary idea, to maintain that there are no significant differences between human groups – this is one of the key revolutionary convictions that emerges in 18th century political economy and political theory, and its historical impacts were transformative on an unprecedented scale.

    I wouldn’t, though, jump to the conclusion that the belief in absolute human equality necessarily requires us to acknowledge our collective responsibility for individual tragedy. It is just as possible to conclude that human equality implies that all individuals are therefore responsible for their own fates (and should, therefore, properly be left to face the consequences of their individual choices) – and, in fact, politically, the recent resurgence of political economic notions of equal individuals has often been accompanied by just this sort of claim.

    So, just as Pinker claims that an acknowledgement of racial difference need not inevitably lead to, e.g., eugenics policies, I would also caution that the radical belief in human equality by itself does not necessarily or inevitably lead to policies of collective responsibility for social outcomes. If we want to promote policies of collective responsibility, it may not be effective to argue for them indirectly, by putting forward a particular hypothesis about human nature, and then assuming that the desired policies will “naturally” follow from that premise.

  7. I would also caution that the radical belief in human equality by itself does not necessarily or inevitably lead to policies of collective responsibility for social outcomes.

    In fact, when associated with market fundamentalism, it fits nicely with the idea that the poor are poor only because they’re too lazy. They’ve got the same natural endowment as everyone else. If they don’t get off their asses and use it, it’s no fault of the rest of us.

    I do not, of course, believe this and I do note the absence of how social structures and positions within them affect the chances of success, even if all endowments were equal. But N. Pepperell’s point is a good one. Just want to underline another reason why.

  8. You know, that’s true (what NP and J McC said), to an extent — although it doesn’t explain why some people would be lazy and others, many of whom seem just as lazy, manage to do quite well for themselves. Another objection, though I’m having trouble getting my head around it completely, is that given the free marketeers’ reliance on a humanity driven by individual interests and rational choices, it would be well-nigh impossible to explain why some people make stupid choices with the same set of intellectual equipment that others use to make smart ones. Although a lot of free market ideology centers around a libertarian sense of equality, it seems that the propensity for some people to make bad choices is necessarily grounded in a view of innate inequalities.

    However, whether this is right or wrong, it bears noting that a shift to an entirely free market-based social order would be just as much of a radical change as the shift to a system recognizing and embracing collective responsibility. Radical equality remains a rather dangerous idea, whichever direction its ramifications are traced.

  9. Apologies, oneman – our posts seem to have crossed in the mail… Like John, I have my criticisms of economic liberal philosophy – but one of those criticisms is not that it isn’t a revolutionary philosophy. So I wasn’t trying to undermine your basic point – only to caution that people have often tried to ground their political ideals on various concepts of human nature, and I think this can be a very risky proposition. The “positive” side of this caution is that, fortunately, it remains possible to advocate for progressive political goals, even if scientific research invalidates a particular vision of human nature.

  10. Sean Carroll has a post in which he catches Pinker’s misrepresentation of what is really dangerous in the Larry Summers episode (fiasco?).

  11. If you wish to see examples of the small-mindedness of which you speak, out there is Kansas, visit It will scare you.

  12. oneman writes,

    it would be well-nigh impossible to explain why some people make stupid choices with the same set of intellectual equipment that others use to make smart ones.

    Simplest thing in the world. Assume that choices are distributed along a normal curve. They are, in fact, absolutely random, but depending on outcomes some will appear to be smart while others appear to be stupid.

  13. I can kinda see where you’re coming from, John — like Durkheim’s distribution of criminality in which one “tail” of the bell curve of human behavior is always outside the legal norms of a society — but the thing is, human decision-making is not “absolutely random”, it is purposive and guided (in theory, anyway) by intelligence. The only way such a curve would fall into place is if we assumed that a certain percentage of decisions will always result in failure to meet whatever criteria for “successful/intelligent decision-making” we were to decide on. For instance, consider 10 men who each want to get an apple from the tree. Each works out a process of getting an apple, and since each is equally intelligent and there is no unfairness, each plan is presumably as good as the next. Each gets an apple. Where’s the curve?

    Now, consider that each is equally intelligent, but one is an asshole — every time he goes into a tree, he takes two apples. (Assume that each tree only makes 10 apples at any given time.) Over time, each of the other men will find their plan unsuccessful, as there is no apple to get. Statistically, the asshole will appear to have better plans, while the others will appear to create lesser plans — making it appear that one is smarter than the others. This produces the outcome you describe, but is not an “absolutely random” distribution either.

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