Mama, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Deny Evolution
If adults want to deny evolution, sure. That’s fine. Whatever. But those adults better not make their kids follow in step because we as society need them to be better. Bill Nye, everyone's favorite Science Guy, explains the importance of promoting evolution education for America's future voters and lawmakers.
My Man, Sir Isaac Newton
Are you at least 26 years-old? If so, you are older than Isaac Newton was when he invented calculus... on a dare! (If you're younger than 26, better hurry up.) Big Think expert and overall cool guy Neil deGrasse Tyson explains why Newton is the greatest physicist who ever and likely will ever live.
Will Mankind Destroy Itself?
Theoretical physicist Michio Kaku sees two major trends today. One eventually leads to a multicultural, scientific, tolerant society that will expand beyond Earth in the name of human progress. The other trend leads to fundamentalism, monoculturalism, and -- eventually -- civilizational ruin. Whichever of these two trends wins out will determine the fate of mankind. No pressure, everyone.
Ricky Gervais on the Principles of Comedy
Comedy isn't just about making people laugh, says actor Ricky Gervais. It's about making people think. And while different forms of comedy require different approaches, the crux of any good performance will always be rhythm.
Reading the Bible (Or the Koran, Or the Torah) Will Make You an Atheist
Author and magician Penn Jillette was asked to leave his Christian youth group by a pastor who told his parents: "He's no longer learning about the Bible from me. He is now converting everyone in the class to atheism." The reason? Jillette did his homework and was turned off by the hostilities of the text. It can be intimidating to come out as an atheist, especially in a religious community. Jillette found that having "out" atheist role models helped him feel unalone.
Henry Rollins: The One Decision that Changed My Life Forever
Punk legend Henry Rollins describes the biggest turning point in his life: the moment he decided to leave his job as manager of a Häagen-Dazs store and eventually become the lead singer of Black Flag. It was the courage to take a risk, plus a whole lot of luck, that got Rollins to where he is today.
5 Programming Languages Everyone Should Know
Java is "heavyweight, verbose, and everyone loves to hate it," but programmer Larry Wall still thinks you should know it. In this video, he offers suggestions for people interested in learning languages, as well as suggestions for those significantly less invested in computer programming.
The Importance of Unbelief
If you assume there’s no afterlife, Stephen Fry says, you’ll likely have a fuller, more interesting "now" life. The actor and comedian details the positive influence philosophers have had on his life, as well as his journey of understanding both what he believes and why he believes it.
Why be happy when you could be interesting?
We don't really want what we think we desire, says philosopher Slavoj Žižek.
James Gleick on the Common Character Traits of Geniuses
This video is part of a series on female genius, in proud collaboration with 92Y's 7 Days of Genius Festival.
The personalities of Isaac Newton and Richard Feynman were, on one level, extremely different. Biographer and former New York Times reporter James Gleick says Newton was argumentative, had few friends, and likely died a virgin. Feynman, on the other hand, loved dancing and going to parties, and had many friends in the scientific community. But in regards to their working habits, both men were solitary and had the ability to concentrate with a sort of intensity that is hard for mortals to grasp. At bottom, Gleick says geniuses tend to have a yearning for solitude which, though fruitful for their professional work, made the task of daily living more burdensome.
The Importance of Doing Useless Things
From poetry and ballet to mathematics and being clever, life is laden with frivolous pursuits that hold no bearing on our ability to survive. Yet, insists Richard Dawkins, if it weren’t for the development of these impractical activities, we wouldn’t be here.
Why monogamy is ridiculous
Dan Savage: the idea that one instance of infidelity should ruin a relationship is a new—and misguided—notion.
Dan Harris: Hack Your Brain's Default Mode With Meditation
Dan Harris explains the neuroscience behind meditation, but reminds us that the ancient practice isn't magic and likely won't send one floating into the cosmic ooze. He predicts that the exercise will soon become regularly scheduled maintenance, as commonplace as brushing your teeth or eating your veggies. Harris, an ABC News correspondent, was turned on to mediation after a live, on-air panic attack. His latest book is 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works--A True Story.
How Intellectuals Betrayed the Poor
For 40 years academics were duped into idolizing the idea of unfettered markets, says Cornel West, and now our society is paying a terrible price.
Why Some Races Outperform Others
A psychologist explains the latest research into education disparity.
Why It's So Hard for Scientists to Believe in God
Some scientists see religion as a threat to the scientific method that should be resisted. But faith "is really asking a different set of questions," says Collins.
Why Facebook Isn't Free
Internet pioneer Jaron Lanier argues that free technologies like Facebook come with a hidden and heavy cost – the livelihoods of their consumers.
How to Tell if You’re a Writer
For John Irving, the need for a daily ration of solitude was his strongest "pre-writing" moment as a child.
Your Behavior Creates Your Gender
Nobody is born one gender or the other, says the philosopher. "We act and walk and speak and talk in ways that consolidate an impression of being a man or being a woman."
Are You a Liberal Snob? Take The Quiz
Charles Mrray designed this quiz to have a salutary effect on bringing to people’s attention the degree to which they live in a bubble that seals them off from an awful lot of their fellow American citizens.
Why You Should Watch Filth
John Waters defends the creation and consumption of obscene films, and recommends some of his personal favorites.
What Are You Worth? Getting Past Status Anxiety.
Writer Alain De Botton says that status anxiety is more pernicious and destructive than most of us can imagine, and recommends getting out of the game altogether.
Sheila Heen on the Psychology of Happiness and Feedback
Sheila Heen, a Partner at Triad Consulting Group and a lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, explains the psychology behind feedback and criticism. Heen is co-author of "Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well."
Are You a Psychopath? Take the Test.
Psychologist Kevin Dutton presents the classic psychological test known as "the trolley problem" with a variation. Take the test and measure you response on the psychopathic spectrum.
Here's How to Catch a Liar, If You Really Want To
It’s very complex as to whether or not we really want to catch a liar. We think we do. What if we find out that both of our presidential candidates are lying? Then what do we do? I’m not saying they are; I never comment on anyone in office or running for office. Only after they’re out that they’re fair game. . . . Clinton said, "I didn’t have sex with that woman" and then gave her name. "That woman" is putting her at a distance from himself.
Why I Came Out at Age 81
As a teenager in the '40s, James Randi "would have gotten stoned" for being gay. But when he outed himself to the world in 2010, the reaction was "wonderful."
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What should you be doing with your money during the coronavirus financial crisis? In this Big Think Live session, Sallie Krawcheck, CEO and co-founder of Ellevest, a financial advisory and investment platform for women, will discuss personal finance and wealth-building career strategies with Bob Kulhan, founder and CEO of Business Improv. What steps can we take to guard ourselves from an uncertain financial future? Find out on Tuesday at 1 pm ET.
Ask your questions for Sallie Krawcheck during the Q&A!
Every summer, children on the Alaskan island of St Paul cool down in Lake Hill, a crater lake in an extinct volcano – unaware of the mysteries that lie beneath.
It was here, on a winter expedition, that scientists uncovered the secrets of what drove some of the world's last remaining woolly mammoths to extinction, and when it happened.
Dr Beth Shapiro is a paleo-geneticist, who co-runs the Paleogenomics Lab the University of California, Santa Cruz.
Using modern genomics techniques, her team looks back at the past to understand how species and populations have evolved through time, based on their DNA. It then applies those lessons to the conservation of endangered species today.
The genetic material from animals that lived in the northern hemisphere during the Ice Age, including bison, wolves, mammoths and horses, is particularly well preserved.
Dr Shapiro is able to extract DNA from samples, such as teeth, to see how species differed genetically and learn when populations were growing, when they were shrinking, when individual animals might have been moving long distances – and when they could not.
"Connectivity is a crucial part of many of these species' extinction stories," says Dr Shapiro.
And this is true of the fate of St Paul Island's woolly mammoths.
When did mammoths roam the Earth?
Mammoths lived on North America's mainland until about 10,000 years ago, but they survived in two places for much longer: St Paul Island and Wrangel Island, in the Russian Arctic, where teeth have been found that are only 4,000 years old.
St Paul is a volcanic island that until around 9,000 years ago was connected to the mainland by the Bering Land Bridge, which enabled animals to roam freely to and fro.
But as the climate warmed and sea levels rose, it became isolated – and the mammoths were trapped. They were the only large mammal on the island, with no predators and, speaking at a BetaZone session at Davos, Dr Shapiro said it would have been a "mammoth utopia".
How did a lake reveal what happened?
Dr Shapiro explains: "Lakes are brilliant sources of ancient DNA, because they are a sink for genetic material during the summer. Lake Hill is the only source of fresh water on St Paul. So all the animals wander in to drink and the DNA they deposit sinks to the bottom and then freezes.
"Over time, you get accumulation like a stratigraphy of layer upon layer of everyone that was present on the island from the past to the present day. We knew if we could get a copy of this, we could figure out who was there, when and with whom."
On their winter expedition to Lake Hill, Dr Shapiro's team drilled down through the ice of the lake to the gravel at the bottom and extracted a core.
The genetic material, they later learned, dated back to 17,000 years ago.
"We took tiny little plugs of DNA all the way to the top, to the present day, and looked for mammoth DNA. We also looked at the vegetation and components of the lake itself to see if it was changing over time. Microscopic algae and microscopic animals, for example, can tell us whether the lake was salty or not and how shallow it was."
Why did the St Paul Island mammoths die?
All of that data fit together like a jigsaw puzzle to show Dr Shapiro what had happened.
Mammoth DNA was present all the way from the bottom until around 5,600 years ago. Nothing changed with the vegetation, says Dr Shapiro, so they didn't run out of food.
"But everything else about the lake changed: the water chemistry changed; the rate of sediment accumulation changed. And that community of microorganisms completely turned from one that thrives in clear, deep fresh water to a community that prefers to live in very shallow, cloudy and slightly salty water."
All of which meant there had been a severe weather event, a drought, on St Paul Island. The lake started to dry up and the mammoths were left with nothing to drink.
"Had it happened 13,000 years ago, mammoths would have had another option. They could have wandered onto the mainland and looked for another source of fresh water. But they couldn't because they were on an island completely isolated, cut off from the mainland. Stuck. And so they became extinct."
How can we protect isolated habitats today?
Dr Shapiro warns the isolation that killed the mammoths on St Paul is threatening other species and biodiversity today.
"Islandization takes different forms where the habitats that we've chosen to protect are surrounded not by water, but by other things like farms and agriculture. By roads and highways and freeways. And by cities of all sizes.
"This places the plants and animals that live in these island habitats in a precarious situation. An extreme weather event or the introduction of a predator or disease can upset the balance of interactions taking place within these habitats, potentially leading to extinction."
Studies of other ancient animals using the same method, from woolly rhinos to Arctic horses and species of lion, have also shown connectivity is a key factor in extinction.
"The populations that remained became increasingly isolated from each other, both geographically and genetically, with each of these island populations functioning as their own tiny, isolated thing."
Any plan to protect and preserve endangered species must also give animals routes of escape to move between habitats or find new ones as the climate warms.
"This could mean building overpasses where animals can cross highways. We could create greenways, green roofs, city parks, green corridors along rivers and roads, and not just build walls or barriers that further fragment this already fragmented landscape."
The Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative is an example of an organization doing just that – aiming to link Yellowstone National Park in the Western United States with the Yukon in Canada, where Dr Shapiro does most of her work.
"A sustainable future for biodiversity will require creativity," she says. "But it will also require collaboration."
In Veblen's now famous treatise The Theory of the Leisure Class, he coined the phrase 'conspicuous consumption' to denote the way that material objects were paraded as indicators of social position and status. More than 100 years later, conspicuous consumption is still part of the contemporary capitalist landscape, and yet today, luxury goods are significantly more accessible than in Veblen's time. This deluge of accessible luxury is a function of the mass-production economy of the 20th century, the outsourcing of production to China, and the cultivation of emerging markets where labour and materials are cheap. At the same time, we've seen the arrival of a middle-class consumer market that demands more material goods at cheaper price points.
However, the democratisation of consumer goods has made them far less useful as a means of displaying status. In the face of rising social inequality, both the rich and the middle classes own fancy TVs and nice handbags. They both lease SUVs, take airplanes, and go on cruises. On the surface, the ostensible consumer objects favoured by these two groups no longer reside in two completely different universes.
Given that everyone can now buy designer handbags and new cars, the rich have taken to using much more tacit signifiers of their social position. Yes, oligarchs and the superrich still show off their wealth with yachts and Bentleys and gated mansions. But the dramatic changes in elite spending are driven by a well-to-do, educated elite, or what I call the 'aspirational class'. This new elite cements its status through prizing knowledge and building cultural capital, not to mention the spending habits that go with it – preferring to spend on services, education and human-capital investments over purely material goods. These new status behaviours are what I call 'inconspicuous consumption'. None of the consumer choices that the term covers are inherently obvious or ostensibly material but they are, without question, exclusionary.
The rise of the aspirational class and its consumer habits is perhaps most salient in the United States. The US Consumer Expenditure Survey data reveals that, since 2007, the country's top 1 per cent (people earning upwards of $300,000 per year) are spending significantly less on material goods, while middle-income groups (earning approximately $70,000 per year) are spending the same, and their trend is upward. Eschewing an overt materialism, the rich are investing significantly more in education, retirement and health – all of which are immaterial, yet cost many times more than any handbag a middle-income consumer might buy. The top 1 per cent now devote the greatest share of their expenditures to inconspicuous consumption, with education forming a significant portion of this spend (accounting for almost 6 per cent of top 1 per cent household expenditures, compared with just over 1 per cent of middle-income spending). In fact, top 1 per cent spending on education has increased 3.5 times since 1996, while middle-income spending on education has remained flat over the same time period.
The vast chasm between middle-income and top 1 per cent spending on education in the US is particularly concerning because, unlike material goods, education has become more and more expensive in recent decades. Thus, there is a greater need to devote financial resources to education to be able to afford it at all. According to Consumer Expenditure Survey data from 2003-2013, the price of college tuition increased 80 per cent, while the cost of women's apparel increased by just 6 per cent over the same period. Middle-class lack of investment in education doesn't suggest a lack of prioritising as much as it reveals that, for those in the 40th-60th quintiles, education is so cost-prohibitive it's almost not worth trying to save for.
While much inconspicuous consumption is extremely expensive, it shows itself through less expensive but equally pronounced signalling – from reading The Economist to buying pasture-raised eggs. Inconspicuous consumption in other words, has become a shorthand through which the new elite signal their cultural capital to one another. In lockstep with the invoice for private preschool comes the knowledge that one should pack the lunchbox with quinoa crackers and organic fruit. One might think these culinary practices are a commonplace example of modern-day motherhood, but one only needs to step outside the upper-middle-class bubbles of the coastal cities of the US to observe very different lunch-bag norms, consisting of processed snacks and practically no fruit. Similarly, while time in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York City might make one think that every American mother breastfeeds her child for a year, national statistics report that only 27 per cent of mothers fulfil this American Academy of Pediatrics goal (in Alabama, that figure hovers at 11 per cent).
Knowing these seemingly inexpensive social norms is itself a rite of passage into today's aspirational class. And that rite is far from costless: The Economist subscription might set one back only $100, but the awareness to subscribe and be seen with it tucked in one's bag is likely the iterative result of spending time in elite social milieus and expensive educational institutions that prize this publication and discuss its contents.
Perhaps most importantly, the new investment in inconspicuous consumption reproduces privilege in a way that previous conspicuous consumption could not. Knowing which New Yorker articles to reference or what small talk to engage in at the local farmers' market enables and displays the acquisition of cultural capital, thereby providing entry into social networks that, in turn, help to pave the way to elite jobs, key social and professional contacts, and private schools. In short, inconspicuous consumption confers social mobility.
More profoundly, investment in education, healthcare and retirement has a notable impact on consumers' quality of life, and also on the future life chances of the next generation. Today's inconspicuous consumption is a far more pernicious form of status spending than the conspicuous consumption of Veblen's time. Inconspicuous consumption – whether breastfeeding or education – is a means to a better quality of life and improved social mobility for one's own children, whereas conspicuous consumption is merely an end in itself – simply ostentation. For today's aspirational class, inconspicuous consumption choices secure and preserve social status, even if they do not necessarily display it.
The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class by Elizabeth Currid-Halkett is out now through Princeton University Press.
- In their 2017 book, "Warnings," R.P. Eddy and Richard Clarke warned about a coming pandemic.
- "You never get credit for correctly predicting an outbreak," says science journalist Laurie Garrett in the book.
- In this interview with Big Think, R.P. Eddy explains why people don't listen to warnings—and how to try to get them to listen.
If only we had a warning.
Well, besides this 2007 review from a team at the University of Hong Kong warning about a pandemic coming from a wet market in southern China. Or President Obama warning about the potential for a pandemic in 2014. Or journalist Laurie Garrett, who has been covering diseases since reporting from Africa in the late seventies, where she noticed that measles killed way more citizens than war. Her 1994 book was aptly titled "The Coming Plague."
Garrett is what Richard Clarke and R.P. Eddy call a "Cassandra" in their 2017 book, "Warnings." The term honors the Greek priestess who was cursed to utter prophecies that no one would believe. A Cassandra, they write, has "the ability to detect danger from warning signs before others see it." Their book covers seven warnings we should have seen—Hurricane Katrina, Bernie Madoff, Fukushima, ISIS—and seven that are coming.
True story: a few weeks ago, I finish reading Sam Quinones's exceptional reporting on the opioid epidemic, "Dreamland." The next book on my desk is "Warnings," which I planned on re-reading in order to cover the chapter on pandemics. I open Twitter to find a private message from R.P. Eddy randomly sharing their chapter on pandemics. Either my laptop is listening a little too closely or it's a fortunate coincidence. I choose the latter and request an interview with Eddy, which he graciously accepts.
If anyone knows how governments respond (or don't respond) to crises, it's Eddy. The CEO of global intelligence firm, Ergo, Eddy previously served as Chief of Staff to Richard Holbrooke, Senior Adviser to Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson, and Senior Policy Officer to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. He was an architect of the Global Fund to Prevent AIDS, TB, and Malaria. He's lived, breathed, and studied pandemics for decades. He is the man that, if we had a functional government, would be helping lead us through this mess right now.
When I mention COVID-19, his first reply is not reassuring: "We're at the most foreseeable catastrophe I can think of."
EarthRise Podcast 92: Predicting the Pandemic (with R.P. Eddy)
Being a Cassandra isn't about assurance, but taking a broad look at the facts—he champions orthogonal thinking in "Warnings"—and piecing together a story. Eddy says it begins by noticing the "invisible obvious."
He mentions a 1970s-era conference designed to address the role of women on Wall St. The highly-touted gathering took months of planning. Hundreds of people were in attendance. It wasn't until everyone was on stage that someone noticed not a single woman was invited to speak. Once pointed out, no one could unsee it.
The invisible obvious.
In every "warning" chapter—the rise of AI, the challenge of sea-level rise, the dangers of gene editing—a Cassandra is detailed. Garrett fulfills that role for pandemics. She claims public health experts are placed in an impossible situation. "You never get credit for correctly predicting an outbreak." When they implement effective countermeasures that stop the spread of a virus, critics believe "that you exaggerated the threat."
Eddy is talking to me from Idaho, where his family is sheltering. He noticed something odd while driving across America. On the east coast, everyone was vigilant about distancing and masks. As the Eddys encroached upon the heartland, even they started loosening up the rules. No human is distinct from their environment. Eddy speaks about the pandemic daily—Ergo is behind the highly-regarded COVID-19 Intelligence Forum—yet even he was being lulled into a false sense of security while stopping in communities that believe the coronavirus is a hoax, or at least not as dangerous as it is.
I ask why we're so prone to disbelieve the science behind public health efforts.
"Humans have 130,000-year-old computers stuck between our ears. We are designed for a world much less complex than the one in which we find ourselves, and we are driven by biases and heuristics. We make mistakes all the time because we use these shortcuts that worked really well 100,000 years ago, but don't work well now."
Shortcuts that served tribes, not nations. Shortcuts that cause us to rely on the quick satisfaction of hearsay, not the slow complexity of science. Shortcuts that cause people to believe an invisible god has a plan for everyone and disbelieve a visible virus is ravaging our nation's broken health care system. Shortcuts that cause tens of millions of Americans to vote the worst possible person to the presidency when a pandemic was inevitable.
Eddy attends an event hosted by GLG to welcome Richard A. Clarke and R.P. Eddy, authors of "Warnings: Finding Cassandras To Stop Catastrophes" at GLG (Gerson Lehrman Group) on May 30, 2017 in New York City.
Photo by Craig Barritt/Getty Images for GLG
I mention conspiracy theories. Eddy sighs—an appropriate response. We compare anti-maskers to anti-vaxxers, which are often cut from the same cloth. We both know plenty. He says it's best to first identify and acknowledge the base fear behind their "anti." Consider the idea that vaccines are a mechanism for microchipping the population.
"Conspiracies are all based in some healthy place. These people are probably concerned about government surveillance and personal freedom. They believe every aspect of the Edward Snowden story; they believe this microchipping story is the next step. They're not wrong that we should watch and be aware, but they're wrong in thinking that we're falling for it right now."
Because we should be aware. Our government is corrupt to the bone. The challenge is distinguishing between incompetence and malfeasance.
"I don't believe in government conspiracy theories because I don't think government is that competent. I've had every security clearance anyone could ever want in the U.S. government. Way above top secret. We do not have the capacity to pull off a 9/11 conspiracy or to microchip people. Everything leaks, especially in this era."
We've reached this strange era of mass hypnosis, where elected officials like Rand Paul can actually state during congressional testimony, "We shouldn't presume that a group of experts somehow knows what's best." Then who to actually trust? An uncertified ophthalmologist playing an epidemiologist on TV?
We're in serious trouble when people that have spent years studying and decades working in public health are usurped by charlatans at YouTube University. But here we are.
Sadly, optics matter. Cassandras aren't necessarily charismatic. They're concerned with data, not adoration. Then they run into animals with 130,000-year-old operating systems being exploited by captivating characters. Truth becomes secondary. Suddenly, germ theory isn't real, masks are a sign of indoctrination, and the virus will "magically disappear."
Eddy's advice is important.
"You need to recognize when you're out of your depths and find an expert. It's not the blowhard on Fox News. It's probably, by the way, someone who probably does not have good presentation skills. But they likely have answers."
This is always true, especially during times of crisis. Times like now, when we need a unifying message and expert guidance, both of which America lacks. At least this much we know: we've been warned.
- An all-star cast of Big Thinkers—actors Rainn Wilson and Ethan Hawke; composer Anthony Brandt; neuroscientists David Eagleman, Wendy Suzuki, and Beau Lotto; and psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman—share how they define creativity and explain how our brains uniquely evolved for the phenomenon.
- According to Eagleman, during evolution there was an increase in space between our brain's input and output that allows information more time to percolate. We also grew a larger prefrontal cortex which "allows us to simulate what ifs, to separate ourselves from our location in space and time and think about possibilities."
- Scott Barry Kaufman details 3 brain networks involved in creative thinking, and Wendy Suzuki busts the famous left-brain, right-brain myth.