What are the most serious problems facing humanity?
This is the topic of a collection of essays edited by John Brockman, "What Should We Be Worried About? (Real Scenarios That Keep Scientists Up at Night)" (Harper Perennial, 478 pages).
Topics which vex academics and various intellectuals are presented in this interesting collection.
Professor Steven Pinker takes on the perennial problem of war and the real threats to world peace.
The belief in the final conflict or Armageddon troubles Professor Timothy Taylor who contends that it renders man less likely to preserve this Earth.
Even the belief in an afterlife might inhibit man from acting responsibly according to Taylor. And yes, interpretations of the Book of Revelation are a bunch of ungodly nonsense.
But the older notion that man is to have dominion over the Earth, which, in practical terms meant "anything goes" as far as the environment, is passing in favor of a more protective sense of stewardship with many people of faith.
In another essay related to religion, Matt Ridley is alarmed at the growth in superstition by which he means the argument from authority as opposed to science.
Mr. Ridley is not alone in worrying about the increase in religious fanaticism. Pope Benedict XVI expressed this same idea in saying: "Religion always needs to be purified by reason."
On a related note, Tim O'Reilly is worried that the rise in anti-intellectualism might plunge our culture into another dark age. His argument has merit when one considers that there seems to be a growing tendency of hostility towards very main stream science. (This growth in anti-intellectualism or stupidity is rampant in politics according to Paul Schank who blames the lack of rational political debate on greedy corporations.)
Yet in the realm of technology, there has been tremendous growth which should elicit some societal concern according to MIT physicist Max Tegmark who presents his case that man ought to contemplate the possibility of artificial intelligence eclipsing human reason, thus generating the so called "singularity."
As to the threat of the "singularity," science fiction writer Bruce Sterling takes a much more pragmatic view, dismissing this threat with Pope John Paul II's famous line "Be not afraid" as he is convinced that the singularity lacks commercial value and thus, will not be created.
Even the threat from aliens are considered and Seth Shostak, astronomer with the SETI Institute (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence), weighs in on physicist Stephen Hawking who cautions against attempting to contact other species. The self-described alien hunter, Shostak, has put to bed any worries about belligerent extra-terrestrials.
On the bioengineering front, Seirian Sumner wonders if the proficiency in cloning and recombining genes might generate a "synthetic biology" such that the toys of the future may be a synthetic biological "Lego" wherein children design and create their own pets. Sumner ponders the question of what might happen when bioengineered species interbreed with "natural" species.
Technological journalist Xeni Jardin is dismayed by the lack of progress in understanding cancer; a view shared by Professor of Medicine, Azra Raza,
who cites that the human genome process has not yielded the results in understanding oncogenesis as hoped. (In fairness, this may be premature.)
However, he does argue for an increase in research in the Human Microbiome Project to study the 10,000 species of microbes that live in the human body. He cities the relationship between various infectious diseases and cancer (e.g. Epstein-Barr and lymphoma; HPV and cervical cancer, etc.)
His plea for more research on the role of microorganisms is sound; although this reviewer believes it need not be an either/or situation - both paths of inquiry, the Human Genome and Microbiome projects, should be supported.
The perennial problem between those who cling to the past and those who
embrace change readily is the subject of Stanford University Professor Paul Saffo who compares the attitudes of those hopelessly conservative individuals (whom he calls druids) and those who just love anything new and improved, his engineers.
(A note to Prof. Saffo, perhaps the term druid is inappropriate when one considers that they are more than likely the architects of Stonehenge which demonstrates that the druids possessed a very sophisticated comprehension of engineering and astronomy which suggests they were opposed to acquiring knowledge.)
Nonetheless, the good professor is right to insist one ought to take a more balanced approach between the druid and the engineer. Or to use an analogy from Roman mythology, perhaps humans must act as the Roman God Janus, who is portrayed as looking backwards and forwards, conserving ancient wisdom while being open to accept new ideas and change.
Integrating the old and new, in the form of meditation and yoga with high tech biological sensors, is how Arianna Huffington suggests individuals might target the problem of stress which takes a great toll, physically and economically, on society.
For the reader who wishes to take a break from the troubles of the day, John Brockman has collected an interesting collection of food for thought which probably won't keep you tossing and turning all night.