Book Review

Larissa Tetsch

John Brockman (Ed.):
This Idea Must Die.

Paperback: 592 pages
Publisher: Harper Perennial (26 Mar. 2015)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0062374346
ISBN-13: 978-0062374349
€7.50 (softcover), €11.60 (eBook)

Persistent Roadblocks

New ideas often have to wait until the scientific community is ready to shed their forerunners. So, which contemporary theories are ready for retirement because they are blocking scientific progress?

Scientific progress is predicated on the development of new ideas, which are either confirmed or disproved by experimental testing. However, often existing hypotheses or world views prevent ideas from emerging and thus impede progress. A prominent example is Hippocrate’s influential ‘Theory of the Four Humors’ that, in combination with the extensive ban of dissections in the European middle ages, hindered the development of appropriate ideas about organ morphology and function. It was not until 1628 that the British physician William Harvey scrutinised Galenus’ 1,500-year-old hypothesis of permanent blood production in the liver. Subsequently, Harvey’s own knowledge-based anatomical studies resulted in a description of the blood circle.

Photo: Jarkko Laine

Another roadblock to innovation was Vis vitalis: a vital principle or life force, whose presence was said to separate organic from inorganic matter. Today it seems unbelievable that this notion was valid until 1828, when German chemist Friedrich Wöhler finally proved Vis vitalis to be no more than a legend by synthesising the organic molecule urea from the two inorganic substances ammonium chloride and silver cyanate. (To be honest, he had managed to produce oxal­acetate from cyanogen four years earlier, but synthesis of urea opened the field for biochemistry and served as a compelling coffin nail for the esoteric concept of a life force.)

175 letters of resignation

Wherever you look, you can find wrong but influential theories that were not discarded voluntarily by the scientific community but persisted until their inventors and promotors died. As established ideas generally are not supported by a single opinion maker but rather a whole bunch of more or less influential people, an idea’s death struggle can take its time.

To prevent this in the future, John Brockman’s Edge Foundation asked 175 leading intellectuals from diverse disciplines which contemporary scientific ideas, in their opinion, are ready for retirement today because they are impeding scientific progress. The Edge Foundation was launched in order to bring together “the world’s leading thinkers”, and has posed a provocative question every year since 1998 and gathered the answers in a book.

Some notions seem to be clearly controversial, as they were challenged simultaneously by several scientists. The clear front-runner, with five ‘letters of resignation’: the concept of ‘nature or nurture’ which postulates that genes and environment shape human behaviour independently from each other. All five castigators – among them people as different as the British expert in online publishing and digital science, Timo Hannay and the Canadian-American psychologist and popular science author Steven Pinker – justified their criticism with a different line of argumentation.

Challenging the book itself’s idea

My personal favourite essay in the book was Jared Diamond’s humorous challenge of the book itself’s idea. Diamond elaborates that many new ideas – after having been enabled by new technologies and outlooks (for which he preferred the German word Fragestellung) – fill a knowledge gap instead of throwing over an already existing theory. Certainly, he has a point, but of course his argumentation does not exclude the possibility that some predominant notions hinder progress and, also, was not meant this way.

Palaeobiologist Nina Jablonski criti­cises the concept of race and wants to see it abandoned in science, although, as she states, it will be difficult to find new words to describe human diversity thereafter. And Richard Dawkins, known for his popular scientific books on evolution, turns against modern essentialism, based on the Greek philosopher Plato’s ‘Theory of Forms’ that refers to the belief that our world and everything that we find in it, is only an image of the real and perfect world. According to Dawkins, essentialism makes people look for discontinuous labels in order to describe gradual processes. Two of his examples are the common practise of classifying fossil findings into distinct genera and the problematic definition of human life in the course of embryonic development. How­ever, even in gradual processes developmental leaps can often be observed, making it seem appropriate to define discrete stages for mere practical reasons.

American predominance

You could criticise the fact that most contributions come from US-American authors. This raises the question of whether ‘today’s leading thinkers’ really all reside in the USA and whether scientists from other parts of the world have nothing to contribute. Your Lab Times reviewer speculates that origin and cultural background influence scientific thinking in such a way that the inclusion of intellectuals from other parts of the world might have broadened the spectrum of ideas challenged.

In addition, quality varies between the different essays, which always reflect an author’s personal opinion without furnishing evidence for any of the statements made. Given a length of 2-4 pages at most, the essays cannot present a lot of informative content. Nevertheless, This Idea Must Die delivers many thought-provoking impulses, which help to challenge our own personal world views, and to open up to new and unusual ideas. So, skip the annoying contributions and enjoy the rest!

Letzte Änderungen: 28.06.2017