Science, the next generation [1]

[ Mon. Jun. 8. 2009 ]

Fallout from the amazing advance in neuroscience dominates this fascinating foray into the future

By Amanda Gefter

FOR PROPHETIC visions of the future, some people turn to horoscopes or fortune tellers. But if you really want to know what the future holds, ask a scientist.

Not just a renowned, seasoned scientist, but a fresh mind, someone who is asking themselves the questions that will define the next generation of scientific thought.

That's precisely what Max Brockman [4] has done in this captivating collection of essays, written by "rising stars in their respective disciplines: those who, in their research, are tackling some of science's toughest questions and raising new ones".

The result is a medley of big ideas on topics ranging from cosmology and climate change, to morality and cognitive enhancement.

The collection is diverse, but one theme resounds: when it comes to the human race, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. We owe our evolutionary success to our unique modes of social behaviour.

Social species

In their essay "Out of our minds", journalist Vanessa Woods [5] and anthropologist Brian Hare [6] suggest that it wasn't intelligence that led to social behaviour, but rather social behaviour that paved the way for the evolution of human intelligence. "Humans got their smarts only because we got friendlier first," they write.

We are a social species, and we have our brains to thank. As Harvard University neuroscientist Jason Mitchell [7] writes: "The most dramatic innovation introduced with the rollout of our species is not the prowess ofindividual minds, but the ability to harness that power across many individuals."

Language allows us to do this in an unprecedented way — it serves as a vehicle for transferring one's own mental states into another's mind. Lera Boroditsky [8] — a professor of psychology, neuroscience and symbolic systems at Stanford University — has an interesting piece about the ways in which our native language shapes the way we think about such basic categories as space, time and colour. ... [9]