The Most Dangerous Idea (Apparently)

So, Edge has a new question for 2006 for its All-Stars of Academia to answer: What is your dangerous idea? (Suggested to Edge by Steven Pinker, who perhaps got the idea from a colloquium series at his old haunting grounds.)

Offhand, one might expect a broad range of perceived dangerous ideas, varying by research interests and such. What’s surprising is that many of the luminaries think that the “most dangerous idea” is this particular, same idea: As neuroscience progresses, popular realization that the “astonishing hypothesis” — that mind is brain — will create a potentially cataclysmic upheaval of society as we know and have profound (negative) moral implications as people claim less responsibility for their actions.

Of course, this just isn’t true. But, would you believe that
Paul Bloom,
VS Ramachandran,
John Horgan,
Andy Clark,
Marc Hauser,
Clay Shirky,
Eric Kandel,
John Allen Paulos,
and, in a more genetic context, Jerry Coyne and Craig Venter
are all very worried about this issue? (And I didn’t even read 50% of the Edge dangerous ideas… there might be even more… ) Is this really the most dangerous idea out there to all of these talented thinkers?

I feel strongly that science and morality have always been separate domains and that any worry that, by “debunking” the mind, we automatically become immoral machines is just ridiculous. Through this scientific knowledge, we might gain some humility, maybe better see our close relatedness to nonhuman primates and place in nature, etc., but we’re not going to flip out and become crazed zombies. This just isn’t going to happen.

Does anybody else think that this just isn’t a truly dangerous idea (although certainly an “astonishing” one, in the Crick sense)? Or am I wrong here?

Samples of academic worrying after the jump.
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Humans imitate humans more than chimps do

This nytimes article describes an experiment in which

1) In front of chimps, human researchers demonstrate opening a box, but they throw in some unnecessary steps. The box is constructed so that an onlooker can figure out which steps are unnecessary just by watching. The chimps learn to open the box, but skip the unnecessary steps.
2) In front of human children, the researchers do the same thing. The children learn to open the box, but are careful to do exactly what the demonstrator did, including the unnecessary steps.

The children’s awareness of which steps were unnecessary in condition (4) is shown by having some children who do not get to see a demonstration of how to open the box. These children are able to figure out how to open it (without the unnecessary steps, of course).

Thus, human children, as compared to chimps, are more likely to imitate exactly what they see.

Victoria Horner, Andrew Whiten. Causal knowledge and imitation/emulation switching in chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and children (Homo sapiens), Animal Cognition, Volume 8, Issue 3, Jul 2005, Pages 164 – 181

Wild gorillas using sticks for measuring water depth and as walking stick


“We’ve been observing gorillas for 10 years here, and we have two cases of them using detached objects as tools,” said Thomas Breuer, from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), who heads the study team in NouabalĂ©-Ndoki National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“In the first case, we had a female crossing a pool; and this female has crossed this pool by using a detached stick and testing the water depth, and trying to use it as a walking stick,” he told the BBC.

The second case saw another female gorilla pick up the trunk of a dead shrub and use it to lean on while dredging for food in a swamp.

She then placed the trunk down on the swampy ground and used it as a bridge.


BBC article

Monkeys can do simple grammatical rules but not rules with hierarchial structure

“For example, the monkeys could master simple word structures, analogous to realising that “the” and “a” are always followed by another word. But they were unable to grasp phrase patterns analogous to “if… then…” constructions.”

(actually, in the study, the grammar that the monkeys could do was “A is always followed by B”, and what they couldn’t do was “Repeat A for some number of times, and then repeat B the same number of times”)

New Scientist article

Article in Science

Commentary in Science, with a list of some types of intelligence differences between humans and monkeys.