By BARBARA BOYLE TORREY
Issues in Science and
The Ingenuity Gap is about how to worry
efficiently in the 21st century. Most people worry inefficiently, either with
undifferentiated anxiety about an unknown future or with hypomania about
unprioritized details. This book focuses on what's going right and is likely to
get better in the future -- science and technology -- and on what's likely to be
the fulcrum of our weaknesses -- social systems.
In presenting his
argument, Thomas Homer-Dixon takes the reader from prehistory to 2100, from a
small street in Patna, India, to the boardrooms of international organizations.
He weaves together unrelated disciplines from archeobiology to economics. And in
the process he sifts the wheat from the chaff of our anxieties.
Homer-Dixon is a Canadian political scientist whose previous research dealt
with environmental problems and conflict. As a social scientist, he
unsurprisingly defines some of the major 21st-century issues as human and social
behavior. But it is unsettling that he lacks confidence that the behavioral and
social sciences can solve the problems the book outlines.
The book begins
with a gripping account of a passenger jet whose hydraulic systems had failed at
40,000 feet. Without the ability to control the rudder, the plane with its 296
passengers seemed destined to crash catastrophically. The cockpit recorder
captured the voices of the crew as they tried to relearn how to fly a plane by
varying the power in the engines. The engineers on the ground could offer no help
in such a radical technical failure. After 44 harrowing minutes, the ingenuity of
the crew brought the plane down at the Sioux City airport and saved the lives of
185 passengers. When experts tried later with the help of a flight simulator to
figure out what the crew could have done better, they were unable to create a
scenario in which any passengers survived. This incident is a powerful example of
extraordinary human ingenuity solving a technological disaster.
returns repeatedly to an appreciation of human ingenuity. Homer-Dixon safely
predicts that human ingenuity will continue to make technological and scientific
advances in a range of fields, including genetics, materials engineering,
computation, and nanotechnology. But he also predicts that scientific and
technological ingenuity will not be enough for the 21st century. Humanity's
fine-tuned ability to adjust to local situations that change gradually will be
challenged when the changes are increasingly rapid and global.
passenger plane that suddenly lost its hydraulic systems is only the first of
many examples in the book of the kind of situation that will increase the demands
on human ingenuity in the future. Other examples include the 1987 stock market
crash and the more recent upheaval in Asian financial markets. Homer-Dixon also
expects a growing number of environmental surprises, such as the collapse of the
Peruvian anchovy harvest in Peru in the 1970s and of the New England cod harvest
in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
What all of these examples have in
common is their unpredictability. They represent complex, nonlinear, dynamical
systems that are difficult to understand and manage successfully. Homer-Dixon
assumes, as do many others, that the increasing globalization of human activities
and the increasing velocity of information flow are likely to make unpredictable
crises more common in the 21st century than they were in the 20th. And these new
global crises will present more complex conundrums than human ingenuity has faced
in the past.
Are we smart enough?
Will we have the ingenuity to
solve the nonlinear, dynamical problems that we'll face in the next 100 years? In
order to answer this question, Homer-Dixon begins with recent research in
neurobiology, paleoanthropology, and evolutionary psychology. He selectively
summarizes theories about how the human brain evolved, why it is so flexible, and
how it interacts with the cultural evolution of Homo sapiens. These theories
suggest that our ingenuity evolved to solve problems and to adjust to new
situations, especially in local environments.
The central question of
this book is not whether humans have the scientific and technical ingenuity to
solve the 21st-century challenges. Homer-Dixon and many others assume that we
will. His contribution to the public debate about the future is to distinguish
social from technical and scientific ingenuity. And it is social ingenuity that
he thinks will be in short supply in the future.
Social ingenuity includes
solving collective action problems, developing rules of governance, and creating
flexible institutions for economic transitions. Countries with the best
institutions and flexible policies consistently achieve much more of their
technological and scientific potential than those with dysfunctional
institutions, norms, and policies. But are we smart enough to promote the former
and reform the latter?
If Homer-Dixon is right about the need for more
social ingenuity, then the social sciences should be critical in the 21st
century. But he is not sanguine that these "blunt tools" will be good enough. A
depressing example is the Central Intelligence Agency's State Failure Task Force
that was created at the request of former Vice President Al Gore to develop
predictors of civil violence. Tidal waves of data were assembled and analyzed by
teams of researchers over thousands of hours. The Task Force identified three
indicators that a country was vulnerable to "national state failure": little
international trade, high infant mortality rates, and low levels of democracy. Of
the 161 countries in the study, most would be correctly identified by these three
variables as stable. These variables would also generate two out of the three
true alarms. But the true alarms were buried in the 50 false alarms. The high
false positive rates from these predictors unfortunately raise questions about
our ability to understand the social and political crises of recent human
Many social scientists underappreciate the complexity of the
phenomena they are studying, which makes them bold about causality and casual
about solutions. Homer-Dixon does acknowledge the insights of a few scholars,
such as Elinor Ostrom's work on public management of the commons and Douglas
North's research on institutions. But he argues that social science research is a
long way from developing the intellectual traction of accumulating results that
will eventually contribute to the development of new kinds of social
The dilemmas raised by a social ingenuity gap are also being
raised by other groups. A recent National Academy of Sciences report entitled Our
Common Journey concludes that "a global transition could be achieved . . . what
will be required, however are significant advances in basic knowledge, in the
social capacity and technological capabilities to utilize it, and in the
political will to turn this knowledge and know-how into action." Fifteen national
scientific academies recently identified "improving the capacity of societies to
use knowledge" as one of the 10 challenges for the 21st century. And Kofi Annan,
at the United Nations (UN) Millennium Summit, said, "If we are to capture the
promises of globalization while managing its adverse effects, we must learn to
govern better, and we must learn how better to govern together." But none of the
groups said how the "social gap" should be filled.
Homer-Dixon also seemed
to run out of energy or imagination when he reached the recommendations section.
He stresses that every ingenuity gap can be bridged by reducing the demand for
new ingenuity to solve problems and by increasing the supply of ingenuity. In
order to increase the supply, he suggests that governments need to dramatically
increase funding for science, especially in areas such as energy and agriculture.
He also recommends the reform of international organizations such as the
International Monetary Fund and UN to improve the international financial system
and establish an international rapid reaction force. But curiously, he doesn't
suggest increased funding for research on social ingenuity to better understand
how to promote it. He also doesn't suggest improving education around the world,
which could be the critical foundation for supplying better ingenuity of all
Homer-Dixon rightly points out that reducing the demand for
ingenuity is harder than increasing the supply, because it would require basic
changes in human behavior. In order to reduce the demand for more ingenuity,
Homer-Dixon recommends that people reexamine their own values. This would require
reassessing our environmental consumption norms as well as our self-image in a
globalizing society. But he doesn't say what would have to be done to make it
happen. What is curious is how underspecified these recommendations are for the
ingenuity gaps that took 400 pages to describe.
Ironically, this book is
one convincing piece of evidence that we may, in fact, have enough ingenuity to
address our 21st-century challenges. If a critical step is worrying efficiently
by getting the question right, then Homer-Dixon has demonstrated our ability as a
species to do that. His next book, however, needs to be entitled How to Fill the
Social Ingenuity Gap. And he needs to start writing now.
Torrey (email@example.com) is executive director of the Division of Behavioral and
Social Sciences and Education at the National Research Council, Washington,
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