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The nightly news and conventional wisdom tell us that things are bad and getting worse. Yet despite dire predictions, scientists see many good things on the horizon. John Brockman, publisher of Edge (www.edge.org), the influential online salon, recently asked more than 150 high-powered scientific thinkers to answer a vital question for our frequently pessimistic times: "What are you optimistic about?"
Spanning a wide range of topics—from string theory to education, from population growth to medicine, and even from global warming to the end of world—What Are You Optimistic About? is an impressive array of what world-class minds (including Nobel Laureates, Pulitzer Prize winners, New York Times bestselling authors, and Harvard professors, among others) have weighed in to offer carefully considered optimistic visions of tomorrow. Their provocative and controversial ideas may rouse skepticism, but they might possibly change our perceptions of humanity's future.
Psychologist; director of the Quality of Life Research Center, Claremont Graduate University; author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.
I am optimistic for the simple reason that given the incredible odds against the existence of entities that can ask such questions, of laptops on which to answer them, and so on—here we are, asking and answering!
Our Species Can Unravel Mysteries
Physicist, string theorist, Columbia University; author of The Fabric of the Cosmos.
As I help raise my two-year-old son, I witness a basic truth familiar to parents through the ages and across the continents—we begin life as uninhibited explorers with a boundless fascination for the ever growing world to which we have access. And what I find amazing is that if that fascination is fed, and if it's challenged, and if it's nurtured, it can grow to an intellect capable of grappling with such marvels as the quantum nature of reality, the energy locked inside the atom, the curved spacetime of the cosmos, the elementaryconstituents of matter, the genetic code underlying life, the neural circuitry responsible for consciousness, and perhaps even the very origin of the universe. While we evolved to survive, once we have the luxury of taking such survival for granted, the ability of our species to unravel mysteries grand and deep is awe-inspiring. I'm optimistic that the world will increasingly value the power of such rational thought and will increasingly rely on its insights in making the most critical decisions.
Good Choices Sometimes Prevail
Professor of geography, UCLA; author of Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.
I am cautiously optimistic about the state of the world, because:
(1) Big businesses sometimes conclude that what is good for the long-term future of humanity is also good for their bottom line (note Wal-Mart's decision to shift its seafood purchases entirely to certified sustainable fisheries within the next three to five years).
(2) Voters in democracies sometimes make good choices and avoid bad choices (note last year's elections in a major firstworld country).
The Decline of Violence
Psychologist, Harvard University; author of The Blank Slate.
In 16th-century Paris, a popular form of entertainment was cat burning, in which a cat was hoisted on a stage and slowly lowered into a fire. According to the historian Norman Davies, 'the spectators, including kings and queens, shrieked with laughter as the animals, howling with pain, were singed, roasted, and finally carbonized.'
As horrific as present-day events are, such sadism would now be unthinkable in most of the world. This is just one example of the most important and underappreciated trend in the history of our species: the decline of violence. Cruelty as popular entertainment, human sacrifice to indulge superstition, slavery as a labor-saving device, genocide for convenience, torture and mutilation as routine forms of punishment, execution for trivial crimes and misdemeanors, assassination as a means of political succession, pogroms as an outlet for frustration, and homicide as the major means of conflict resolution—all were unexceptional features of life for most of human history. Yet today they are statistically rare in the West, less common elsewhere than they used to be, and widely condemned when they do occur.
Most people, sickened by the headlines and the bloody history of the 20th century, find this claim incredible. Yet as far as I know, every systematic attempt to document the prevalence of violence over centuries and millennia (and, for that matter, over the past fifty years), particularly in the West, has shown that the overall trend is downward (though of course with many zigzags). The most thorough of such surveys is James Payne's The History of Force; other studies include Lawrence Keeley's War Before Civilization, Martin Daly and Margo Wilson's Homicide, Donald Horowitz's The Deadly Ethnic Riot, Robert Wright's Nonzero, Peter Singer's The Expanding Circle, Steven Leblanc's Constant Battles, and surveys of the ethnographic and archeological record by Bruce Knauft and Philip Walker.
Anyone who disputes this trend by pointing to residues of force in America (capital punishment in Texas, Abu Ghraib, sex slavery in immigrant groups, and so on) misses two key points. One is that statistically the prevalence of these practices is almost certainly a tiny fraction of what it was in centuries past. The other is that these practices are, to varying degrees, hidden, illegal, condemned, or at the very least (as in the case of capital punishment) intensely controversial. In the past, they were no big deal. Even the mass murders of the 20th century in Europe, China, and the Soviet Union probably killed a smaller proportion of the population than a typical biblical conquest or hunter-gatherer feud. The world's population has exploded, and wars and killings are scrutinized and documented, so we are more aware of violence even though it may be statistically less extensive.
What went right? No one knows, possibly because we have been asking the wrong question: 'Why is there war?' instead of 'Why is there peace?' There have been some suggestions, all unproved. Perhaps the gradual perfecting of a democratic Leviathan—'a common power to keep [us] in awe'—has removed the incentive to do it to them before they do it to us. Payne suggests that it's because, for many people, life has become longer and less awful; when pain, tragedy, and early death are expected features of one's own life, one feels fewer compunctions about inflicting them on others. Wright points to technologies that enhance networks of reciprocity and trade, which make other people more valuable alive than dead. Singer attributes it to the inexorable logic of the golden rule: The more one knows and thinks, the harder it is to privilege one's own interests over those of other sentient beings. Perhaps this is amplified by cosmopolitanism, in which history, journalism, memoir, and realistic fiction make the inner lives of other people, and the contingent nature of . . .
Excerpted from What Are You Optimistic About? by John Brockman Copyright © 2007 by John Brockman. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted August 30, 2011
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