What is your favourite explanation?

2012-01-18 00:00

FROM Darwinian evolution to the idea that personality is largely shaped by chance, the favourite theories of the world’s most eminent thinkers are as eclectic as science itself.

Every January, John Brockman, the impresario and literary agent who presides over the online salon Edge.org, asks his circle of scientists, digerati and humanities scholars to tackle one question. This year, he posed the open-ended question “what is your favourite deep, elegant or beautiful explanation?”

• Several of the nearly 200 scholars nominated what are arguably the two most powerful scientific theories ever developed. “Darwin’s natural selection wins hands down,” argues Professer Richard Dawkins, emeritus professor at Oxford University. “Never … were so many facts explained by assuming so few,” he says of the theory that encompasses everything about life, based on the idea of natural selection operating on random genetic mutations. 

Einstein’s theory of relativity, which explains gravity as the curvature of space, gets a few nods. As theoretical physicist Steve Giddings of the University of California, Santa Barbara, writes: “This central idea has shaped our ideas of modern cosmology [and] given us the image of the expanding universe.”

Terrence Sejnowski, a computational neuroscientist at the Salk Institute, extols the discovery that the conscious, deliberative mind is not the author of important decisions. Instead, he writes, “an ancient brain system called the basal ganglia, brain circuits that consciousness cannot access”, pulls the strings. Running on dopamine, they predict how rewarding a choice will be. Only later do people construct an explanation of their choices, he said, convincing themselves incorrectly that volition and logic were responsible.

To neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky of Stanford University, the most beautiful idea is emergence, in which complex phenomena magically come into being from extremely simple components. For instance, a human being arises from a few thousand genes. The intelligence of an ant colony emerges from the seemingly senseless behaviour of thousands of individual ants.

Stephen Kosslyn, director of the Centre for Advanced Study in the Behavioural Sciences at Stanford, is most impressed by Pavlovian conditioning, in which a neutral stimulus comes to be associated with a reward producing a response. That much is familiar. Less well known is that Pavlovian conditioning might account for placebo effects. After people have used analgesics such as ibuprofen or aspirin many times, the drugs begin to have effects before their active ingredients kick in.

Science theories that explain puzzling human behaviour or the inner workings of the universe were also favourites of the Edge contributors.

• Psychologist Alison Gopnik of the University of California, Berkeley, is partial to one that accounts for why teenagers are so restless, reckless and emotional. Two brain systems, an emotional motivational system and a cognitive control system, have fallen out of sync, she says.

• Neurobiologist Sam Barondes of the University of California, nominates the idea that personality is largely shaped by chance. One serendipitous force is which parental genes happen to be in the egg and sperm that produced the child.

• Timothy Wilson nominates the idea that “people become what they do”. While people’s behaviour arises from their character “the reverse also holds,” says the University of Virginia psychologist. If we return a lost wallet, our assessment of how honest we are rises through what he calls “self-inference”.

• Psychologist David Myers of Hope College says “group polarisation” explains how interacting with others tends to amplify people’s initial views. In particular, discussing issues with like-minded peers pushes people toward extremes.

• Martin Rees, professor of cosmology and astrophysics at the University of Cambridge, nominates the concept that what we consider the universe “could be hugely more extensive” than what astronomers observe. If true, the known cosmos may instead “be a tiny part of the aftermath of ‘our’ big bang, which is itself just one bang among a perhaps-infinite ensemble”, Rees writes. — Reuters.

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