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Book review: Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahnemann

The ideas in this book originated in large part from a collaboration lasting many years between Kahnemann and his colleague and friend, Amos Tversky. The central insight on which the book is based is that our minds can function in two ways, which Kahnemann refers to as System 1 and System 2. System 1 gives a quick appraisal of things that is often biased emotionally or in other ways. System 2 is slower and analytical; its operation is effortful, so the default approach to a problem is usually System 1. This is not always wrong, but it often is. Read more

Apocalyptic visions from Martin Rees

Martin Rees is one of the world's leading astronomers and cosmologists and former President of the Royal Society. In 2003 he published Our Final Century: Will the Human Race Survive the Twenty-First Century?. Rees's answer seemed to be "perhaps".

Now he has returned to the same theme in a 'Conversation' published on Edge, with the title Curtains For Us All?, which isn't much more optimistic about our prospects.

Rees envisages various possible global catastrophes, particularly those associated with biological scenarios. The increasing availability of gene-editing techniques is potentially enormously dangerous. It is already possible to produce super-lethal strains of flu that could be used as a weapon. Perhaps governments would not want to do that because it would, in effect, be suicidal (although what about North Korea if it felt itself to be on the verge of defeat?). But Rees's worst nightmare is "an ecology fanatic with the mindset of some of the extreme animal rights people we have in this country, someone who thinks that the world—Gaia—is being polluted or destroyed by too many human beings".


There are many people who think that, but if there's one person who thought that and had this kind of mindset, then they might think it a good idea to try to kill off as many human beings as they can. They wouldn't care who it was. Obviously, this is unlikely. You'd need to have someone with this extreme psychology, but the point is that one such person is too many because the downside could be so colossal. That is number one on my list of not entirely unrealistic scares.


Actually, the Edge piece is not all as gloomy as that. It ranges widely and takes in cosmology (Rees finds the many-universes idea to be becoming scientifically respectable now and more probable than not) and the likelihood of finding intelligent extra-terrestrial life. Here he makes the important point that even if intelligent life does exist out there, the chances that we can find it at just the right moment - when it is neither not advanced enough technoligically to communicate nor too advanced for our comprehension - are pretty small.

If it is advanced it will probably not be biological. The future, if any, for advanced technologies, including ours, is almost certainly mechanical.


Even though the rate of progress is uncertain, the direction of travel is pretty well agreed. It's almost certainly going to be towards a posthuman world, where our intelligences would be surpassed by something genetically engineered from us or, more likely, it will be some sort of artificial electronic device that has robotic abilities and intelligence.


Welcome to the future.

Andrew Marr starts the week badly

Start the Week this morning was chaired by Andrew Marr. It was about the increasing importance of India. Marr, after announcing the speakers, introduced the subject by saying: "This rise of India is jolly good news for we Brits [sic]." I've come to expect this kind of thing from reporters on the BBC, but not from a journalist of Marr's eminence.

Rabbi Lord Sacks and the dinosaurs

In today's Thought for the Day Rabbi Jonathan Sacks was talking about the extinction of the dinosaurs, which he described as 'the greatest mass extinction in history'. Of course, he meant prehistory – some dinosaurs did survive the event for a time but none of them wrote a historical account of what happened – but leaving that aside, it wasn't the biggest extinction event we know of. The end-Permian extinction, about 251 million years ago, was much bigger, wiping out over 90 per cent of the species then alive, compared to about 75 per cent for the dinosaurs.

His talk was triggered by a TV programme this week which described recent research suggesting that it was the site of the impact that made the event so deadly. It released vast quantities of sulphur into the atmosphere. and this in turn led to large-scale loss of plant life and starvation of any dinosaurs who survived the immediate fireball. If the bolide had landed in the deep ocean or on dry land the catastrophe would have been less devastating. So 30 seconds' difference in the timing of the arrival might have allowed the dinosaurs to recover.

Sachs doesn't regard this as chance but as evidence for divine providence. It was God's plan to allow the mammals to take over and, ultimately, humans to emerge. "COME IN, DINOSAURS, YOUR TIME'S UP!" For me, this argument is reminiscent of the old joke about the man who shoots at a barn door and then draws a target round the shots to prove what a good marksman he is. I find it easier to believe that the timing of the event was due to chance.

I don't think there was anything inevitable in the evolution of humans or, probably, in the evolution of complex life, let alone intelligent life. Life is probably widespread in the universe but most of it will be bacterial. (See The Vital Question, by Nick Lane.)
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