What is a dangerous idea?

The terms Googles almost half-a-millions results, top-of-mind are a 1955 book by American philosopher Daniel Dennett on Darwin’s theory of evolution. Dennett argues that natural selection – a central concept in Darwin’s theory – is nothing more than an algorithmic hogwash. In another Googled pointer, an article entitled Transhumanism: The World’s Most Dangerous Idea?, Nick Bostrom – Director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, argues against the notion that Transhumanism is a dangerous idea.

Bostrom tells how, a few years ago, the editors of Foreign Policy Journal posed the following identical question to eight prominent intellectuals: “What idea, if embraced, would pose the greatest threat to the welfare of humanity?” One of those asked, Francis Fukuyama, professor of international political economy at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, argued that Transhumanism aims to “nothing less than to liberate the human race from its biological constraints.”

Bostrom disagrees. In his introduction to the concept of Transhumanism, on the World Transhumanist Association website, he says: Transhumanism is a way of thinking about the future that is based on the premise that the human species in its current form does not represent the end of our development but rather a comparatively early phase. We formally define it as follows:

(1) The intellectual and cultural movement that affirms the possibility and desirability of fundamentally improving the human condition through applied reason, especially by developing and making widely available technologies to eliminate aging and to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities.

(2) The study of the ramifications, promises, and potential dangers of technologies that will enable us to overcome fundamental human limitations, and the related study of the ethical matters involved in developing and using such technologies.

Paging through 75% of Google’s top results page, a prime location, one finds that the top of a list of almost Half a million results for the search phrase “dangerous idea” include repeated references to human evolution, namely – Darwin and Transhumanism. Nuclear terror? World Economy? Cloning of human embryos (for and against)? Nope. Not there.

On Page 3 of the Google results we find “RICEPEC: Thailand’s Dangerous Idea.” The piece argues that “Prime Minister Samak wants to create a regional rice cartel for Southeast Asia… In a misguided attempt to protect Southeast Asia’s rice growers, Thailand’s Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej wants to bring Vietnam, Burma, Cambodia and Laos together to create a cartel of regional rice exporters. Though not quite like OPEC, its aim to keep global prices high”, or at least keeping prices from slipping back. This, argues the piece, together with actions such as Brazil’s ban on rice export is a recipe for a global disaster. The following Google pages return to Darwin.

So far, we have Darwin, Transhumanism and manipulation of food supply as dangerous ideas.

A few years ago, Edge grappled with the notion of a dangerous idea. 20 years old Edge Foundation “aims to promote inquiry into and discussion of intellectual, philosophical, artistic, and literary issues” and in doing so, to foster a “third culture”, consisting of “those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are.”

In 2006, Edge posed a question to a host of scientists, the question was “what is your dangerous idea?” The Guardian described the scientists who were invited to take on the Edge Question as “the intellectual elite, the brains the rest of us rely on to make sense of the universe and answer the big questions.” The task’s rationale, as proposed by The Edge editor was:

“The history of science is replete with discoveries that were considered socially, morally, or emotionally dangerous in their time; the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions are the most obvious. What is your dangerous idea? An idea you think about (not necessarily one you originated) that is dangerous not because it is assumed to be false, but because it might be true?” the question resulted in 119 essays, which are “indications of a new natural philosophy, founded on the realization of the import of complexity, of evolution. Very complex systems – whether organisms, brains, the biosphere, or the universe itself – were not constructed by design; all have evolved. There is a new set of metaphors to describe ourselves, our minds, the universe, and all of the things we know in it. ”

The list of essays – and their contributors – reads like the dream-team of modern science, and they tackled diverse issues, from laws requiring parental licensure and the notion that everything is pointless, to arguing that social psychologists have discovered over the last 50 years that people are very unreliable informants about why they behaved as they did, made the judgment they did, or liked or disliked something, to claiming that “Nothing can be more dangerous than nothing“, or arguing that “The evidence that tribal peoples often damage their environments and make war” is dangerous, as is the notion of retribution as having ethical merit – the world according to Basil Faulty, or that “Many behaviors of modern humans were genetically hard-wired (or soft-wired) in our distant ancestors by natural selection“, and – surprisingly, for me at least, the dangerous idea that Government is the problem not the solution.

Looking at this wealth of ideas on the issue – what is your idea of a dangerous idea? I listed a few, then narrowed it down to the following:

  1. Formal education is the main source of and most relevant purveyor of learning opportunities
  2. “True” culture exists, issues, topics, works, ideas and concepts may be included or excluded by “connoisseurs” for the some sublime, sacred “cultural higher good.”

Send me your lists of dangerous ideas — all are welcome!