152 Big Thinkers Answer the Question “What Should We Be Worried About?”


It’s a new year, which means it’s time for the Edge.org to pose its annual question to some of the world’s finest minds. The 2013 edition asks the question, “What Should We Be Worried About?”. And the replies — 152 in total — feature thoughts by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Daniel DennettSherry Turkle, Lawrence Krauss, and Esther Dyson, plus the ones excerpted below. If you’re willing to go down the rabbit hole, you can access the complete collection of responses here.

What I fear most is that we will lack the will and the foresight to face the world’s problems squarely, but will instead retreat from them into superstition and ignorance. Consider how in 375 AD, after a dream in which he was whipped for being “a Ciceronian” rather than a Christian, Saint Jerome resolved no more to read the classical authors and to restrict himself only to Christian texts, how the Christians of Alexandria murdered the philosopher and mathematician Hypatia in 415, and realize that, at least in part, the so-called dark ages were not something imposed from without, a breakdown of civilization due to barbarian invasions, but a choice, a turning away from knowledge and discovery into a kind of religious fundamentalism. [Read the rest here.]

Tim O’Reilly, Founder and CEO of O’Reilly Media, Inc.

Death is what makes this cyclical renewal and steady advance in organisms possible. Discovered by living things millions of years ago, aging and death permit a species to grow and flourish. Because natural selection ensures that the child-who-survives-to-reproduce is better than the parent (albeit infinitesimally so, for that is how evolution works), it is better for many species that the parent step out of the way and allow its (superior) child to succeed in its place…. So important is death that we have, wired into our genes, a self-destruct senescence program that shuts down operations once we have successfully reproduced, so that we eventually die, leaving our children—the fresher, newer, shinier versions of ourselves—to carry on with the best of what we have given them: the best genes, the best art, and the best ideas. Four billion years of death has served us well. Now, all this may be coming to an end, for one of the things we humans, with our evolved intelligence, are working hard at is trying to eradicate death.[Read the rest here.]

–Kate Jeffery, Head, Dept. of Cognitive, Perceptual and Brain Sciences, University College, London

Most of the smart people I know want nothing to do with politics. We avoid it like the plague… Is this because we feel that politics isn’t where anything significant happens? Or because we’re too taken up with what we’re doing, be it Quantum Physics or Statistical Genomics or Generative Music? Or because we’re too polite to get into arguments with people? …  It’s politics that’s bleeding the poorer nations for the debts of their former dictators. It’s politics that allows special interests to run the country. It’s politics that helped the banks wreck the economy. It’s politics that prohibits gay marriage and stem cell research but nurtures Gaza and Guantanamo…. What worries me is that while we’re laissez-ing, someone else is faire-ing. [Read the rest here]

–Brian Eno, Artist, Composer, Producer

You can dive into the full collection at Edge.org. The photo above was taken by Katinka Matson.

by | Permalink | Comments (8) |

Support Open Culture

We’re hoping to rely on our loyal readers rather than erratic ads. To support Open Culture’s educational mission, please consider making a donation. We accept PayPal, Venmo (@openculture), Patreon and Crypto! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (8)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Hanoch says:

    In our three examples, we have (1) a fear of religion (probably the single most important contributor to the growth and success of western civilization); (2) a fear that human beings may become more adept at staving off disease and death; and (3) the ramblings of a muddle-headed musician who essentially claims that the world’s failure to totally embrace political leftism has caused a litany of perceived injustices.

    Consequently, I feel compelled to add a 153rd worry to the list: that the “Big Thinkers” of the world will begin to influence the common-sense of us “little thinkers”.

  • Steve Davison says:

    The second example provides a common misinterpretation of evolutionary ‘progress’. Given the epidemic of obesity in the western world we can only hope for survival of the fattest.

  • Mark says:

    “religion (probably the single most important contributor to the growth and success of western civilization)”

    Racism, antisemitism, homophobia, the Crusades, the Inquisition, killing in the name of God, endless war, rejection of science — yeah that’s real success.

  • evan wentz says:

    Brian Eno a deep thinker? Sounds like he wants to leave the hard work involved in making this a decent world to someone else. A wuss if I ever heard one.

  • Hanoch says:

    Mark: A fairly obvious point, but one that apparently needs to be made. The fact that something has been a tremendous force for good, does not mean that it cannot be used for evil by the less than scrupulous. Thus, for example, to assert that science has not been a tremendous boon for western civilization because of the numerous examples one could cite involving its abuse, is misguided. Your comment concerning religion makes that same error.

  • Charmin says:

    go to http://goo.gl/xAP2Q for paid android apps in free….hurry up

  • Kathleen Woods says:

    What we technologists and futurists need to worry about is believing “our own press”. Technology changes how humanity views and interacts with the universe, but it does not change the universe nor humanity. Every big technological leap changes everything, yet changes nothing. The singularity may never come, come in a decade, or through a leap of technology, arrive tomorrow. What real difference will it make? Humanity will simply anthropomorthize the machine and utilize the power. The Singularity will not fundamentally change who we are, but only assist us in what we may accomplish.

  • Tim O'Neill says:

    I’m sure Tim O’Reilly, “Founder and CEO of O Reilly Media, Inc.” is a very smart and capable guy, but a historian he ain’t. He somehow leaps from the fact that Jerome turned from non-Christian texts to a claim that “the so-called dark ages were not something imposed from without, a breakdown of civilization due to barbarian invasions, but a choice”. Anyone with any grasp of the intellectual history of the later Roman Empire would see this is gibberish.

    Jerome represented one attitude in early Christian thought toward “pagan” learning – rejection. Tertullian and John Chrysostum had the same attitude. But O’Reilly seems totally unaware that this attitude didn’t prevail. The other approach – the embrace of Greek learning as a gift from God – was the attitude which won out.

    So, contrary to his claim, the “dark ages” *were* the result of the collapse of the Western Roman Empire and its attendant barbarians. The Eastern Empire didn’t collapse, preserved Greek learning, passed it to the Arabs who in turn brought it back to the west.

    And the fact he recycles the hoary old Gibbonian myth that the lynching of Hypatia had something to do with hatred of her learning (it didn’t) and ushered in a “dark age” (ditto) is more evidence he should stick to media and leave history to those of us with a sufficient grasp of the details. Pseudo historical fables are no substitute for genuine understanding.


Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.