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A limited view of the future

Nature volume 459, pages 511512 (28 May 2009) | Download Citation

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What's Next? Dispatches On the Future of Science

Edited by Max Brockman

Vintage Press: 2009. 256 pp. $15 9780307389312

Now is the time for a broad and critical look at the future of science. Just as US President Barack Obama has vowed to “restore science to its rightful place”, Max Brockman has published this collection of future-oriented essays.

People who inherit the sickle-cell trait are protected from malaria — could other traits hold promise as genetic treatments? Image: C. PENN/PANOS PICTURES

Brockman, a literary agent whose firm represents popular-science authors such as Jared Diamond, Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker, has access to some of the most established thinkers. But in compiling What's Next?, Brockman chose instead to work with “the coming generation of scientists”. Readers might wonder whether these young people have enough experience to provide the long view, but their biographies and publication records are impressive. For instance, climatologist Laurence C. Smith, 15 years out of a PhD, has more than 50 papers to his credit and briefs Congress on global climate change.

What's Next? is slim and readable, but lacks detailed references. Technical language is kept to a minimum, so it is accessible to a general audience. But it did not strike me as an arresting view of the future — its scope is unimaginative, covering more about what we already know than what we don't.

A pervasive theme in the book, which is heavily slanted toward psychology, is the scientific basis for ethical behaviour. Neuroscientist Christian Keysers explains that mirror neurons are activated when we perform certain activities, and when we watch others do those same activities: “The emotions of others are contagious because our brain activates our own emotions at the sight of them.” This facilitates both learning and empathy. “Our brain,” he concludes, “is ethical by design.”

Psychologist Joshua D. Greene sees morality as a tension between the opposing forces of intuitive emotion and cognition. “If I'm right,” he says, “this tension between competing neural systems underlies not only centuries-old disagreements ... but also contemporary tussles over ... stem-cell research and the torturing of suspected terrorists.” When issues are personal, the parts of the brain associated with emotional response tend to dominate, whereas in less personal situations, those regions associated with cognition are stimulated.

Philosopher Nick Bostrom tackles human enhancement. He is concerned because humans “are a marvel of evolved complexity”, something with which we tamper at our own risk. So he proposes a “rule of thumb, for identifying promising human enhancements”. Bostrom sees some of our limitations as resulting from selection pressures that no longer exist for most humans. Today, for instance, we can feed the higher metabolic demands of a larger brain, whereas in our recent past, we could not. We might also overcome evolutionary restrictions. Bostrom suggests that genetic 'medication' could be administered to confer an advantage, such as the protection a mutant haemoglobin gene offers against malaria in people with the sickle-cell trait. Alternatively, embryo screening could promote favourable genetic profiles. Thus, Bostrom sees the morality of human enhancement as an issue of what is achievable rather than what is acceptable. His heuristic is useful from the scientific point of view, offering us a test for whether we should even consider a particular kind of enhancement, but it probably won't be accepted by the ethics community.

In a global society, we must all live alongside people who hold different beliefs to our own. Psychologist Matthew D. Lieberman believes that some ideas are more 'sticky' than others, and that the ideas that persist differ from one cultural group to another. He argues that “Big Ideas sometimes match the structure and function of the human brain such that the brain causes us to see the world in ways that make it virtually impossible not to believe them.” Lieberman thinks that East Asian cultures stress interconnectedness among individuals, whereas Western Europeans tend to be more independent. He suggests that this tendency might be genetically influenced by a serotonin transporter gene, found twice in its 'short' variant in two-thirds of East Asians, but in only one-fifth of Western Europeans. “These cultural Big Ideas appear to have migrated until they found the populations with the right neurochemistry to make them sticky,” Lieberman says.

Psychologist Lera Boroditsky asks how language influences the way we think: “People who speak different languages do indeed think differently and ... even flukes of grammar (such as the particular gender assigned to a noun in different languages) can profoundly affect how we see the world.”

Modern science is highly specialized, but many scientists agree that interdisciplinary research is crucial to future work. Climatologist Gavin Schmidt asks why specialization has not led to the complete Balkanization of science, remarking that “It has been suggested that the physicist, physician, and Egyptologist Thomas Young (1773–1829) was the last person to 'know everything'.” Schmidt seeks to distinguish between those fields that are separate out of necessity, and those that are mere artefacts of the way we organize our institutions. Fields become established because “the older, pioneering generation wants to employ and promote successors in its own mold; the younger generation wants to emulate its mentors”, he says. But then “jargon excludes most of those outside the subfield”. Schmidt warns us of the barriers that will have to be broken down, but he does not provide a good solution for doing so.

What's Next? covers other ground, including global climate change, virus metagenomics, dark matter, entropy, the perception of time and the question of what makes us human. But there is surprisingly little coverage of computing or computational biology, engineering, space travel and colonization, personalized medicine, biotechnology, stem-cell biology, human cloning or artificial intelligence. The authorship is biased toward US male psychologists, and other voices might have broadened the perspective. Ideally, the book should have been twice the size, laden with references and with less repetition, and really pushing the edge. Scientists must not leave the future entirely in the hands of science-fiction writers.

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  1. Michael A. Goldman is professor and chair of the Department of Biology at San Francisco State University, California 94132-1722, USA.  goldman@sfsu.edu

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