Eighteen young authors present their ideas about the future of science in their respective fields. The subjects include physics, cosmology, neuroscience, and 'general science' matters. Here there is space only to single out a few of the contributions that particularly interested me, but the book will repay reading as a whole.
Many of the pieces aim to relate science to everyday concerns and to society. In a discussion of mirror neurons Christian Keysers finds that our ability to sympathise with others depends on the presence of these structures in the brain and has probably been selected for during evolution. Joshua D. Greene approaches the same theme from a different direction when he describes experimental work on different brain areas that operate to influence how we react to ethical dilemmas. He thinks that even utilitarian assessments of a situation (the greatest good for the greatest number of people) depend on emotional biasing, and there is evidence from neuroscience to support this idea.
Humans are not the only social species, of course. Probably the most dramatic examples of cooperative behaviour are found in social insects like bees, wasps, and ants. We have much to learn about them, according to Seirian Sumner, and that may help us to understand our own societies better.
The notion that language helps to shape the way we think about the world and perceive our environment is an old one, perhaps rather out of fashion at present. But Leira Boroditsky cites research which supports it. Quirks of grammar can shape how we picture space, time, colours, and objects, how we reason about causality, keep track of numbers, perceive emotion, and even influence our choice of professions and spouses.
We hear a lot about extinction these days, and Katerina Harvati discusses some aspects of the subject in relation to Paranthropus, (the robust australopithecines) and the Neanderthals. It is not clear why either of these groups became extinct; Harvati suggests that modern humans may have done better than the Neanderthals because they lived longer and, possibly, reproduced more quickly.
Matthew D. Lieberman has an interesting discussion of why certain ideas, such as mind-body dualism, seem to be so deeply ingrained in our consciousness. He suggests that the answer may be found in Terrence Deacon's important hypothesis about the way languages are transmitted. Deacon believes they have evolved to be easily grasped by the human brain, especially the brains of children. In the same way, Lieberman suggests, 'Big Ideas' correspond to brain structure and function and evolve over time to fit even better.
Lieberman goes on to show that there may be genetic differences between East and West in the way such ideas are taken up by the brain. Eastern cultures tend to favour ideas of the interrelatedness of individuals in society, whereas the West inclines more towards individualism. This difference may not be purely cultural in origin but may be connected with genetic differences in the regulatory portion of the serotonin transporter gene. People in the East tend to have a version of the gene that makes them more dependent on a social framework of mental health; if the framework is lacking they become depressed. Westerners, in contrast, mostly have a different genetic make-up which renders them less dependent on social and family support. Lieberman concludes that differences of this kind may help to account for differences in religion.
This book contains a lot of stimulating ideas. The essays are all highly readable, with plenty of witty asides, which is of course to be welcomed, but it is surprising to find that all the authors, without exception, are capable of writing so well for a general audience. I found myself wondering how much editorial input there had been. The tone of the essays is remarkably similar, which makes me think that they have been extensively edited to provide uniformity. This may entail a certain loss of individuality, but that is more than made up for by the broad appeal of the collection. Perhaps it is significant that the final chapter, by Gavin Schmidt, is about ways to counter the tendency to fragmentation in science and improve communication among different scientific disciplines.
25 August 2009