Peering dangerously into a future of ageless codgers [1]

[ Fri. Feb. 9. 2007 ]

AN IDEA may be dangerous either to its conceiver or to others, including its proponents. Four hundred years ago, heliocentricity was acutely dangerous to Galileo, whom it led before the Holy Inquisition. Two and a half centuries later, Darwin's notions on natural selection and the evolution of species jeopardised the certainties and imperilled the livelihoods of many professional Christians. To this day, the idea that God does not exist is dangerous enough to get atheists murdered in America.

The editor of this anthology of dangerous ideas, John Brockman, is, among other things, the publisher of Edge, the "Third Culture" website ( [5]). He has already published What We Believe but Cannot Prove, to which this volume is a companion. Each year, Brockman asks a question of his contributors. Last year's was: "What is your dangerous idea?" He meant not necessarily a new idea, or even one which they had originated, but one which is dangerous "not because it is assumed to be false but because it might be true". This volume, with an introduction by Steven Pinker and an afterword by Richard Dawkins, publishes the responses given in 2006 by 108 of "Today's Leading Thinkers on the Unthinkable".

...There is much in many of these brief essays to astonish, to be appalled at, to mull over or to wish for. Some of them suffer from galloping emailographism, that mannerism of the hasty respondent whose elliptical prose can make even the most pregnant idea indigestible. But most of them, from the three-sentence reminder by Nicholas Humphrey of Bertrand Russell's dangerous idea ("That it is undesirable to believe in a proposition when there is no ground whatever for supposing it true") to the five pages of V.S. Ramachandran [6] on Francis Crick's "Astonishing Hypothesis" (that what we think of as our self is merely the activity of 100 billion bits of jelly, the neurons which constitute the brain), are vitally engaging to anyone with an ounce of interest in matters such as being or whatever

...Mind you, there is one glimpse of the future which rings grotesque enough to be plausible, Gerald Holton's [7] "Projection of the Longevity Curve", in which we see a future matriarch, 200 years old, on her death bed, surrounded by her children aged about 180, her grandchildren of about 150, her great-grandchildren of about 120, their offspring aged in their 90s, and so on for several more generations. A touching picture, as the author says, "But what are the costs involved?"