Curious Minds: How a Child Becomes a Scientist by John Brockman

“How do we become the people we do?”

This is one of those questions that get trotted out the first day of a class in philosophy or psychology. “Why do we do what we do?” “How do we know right from wrong?” And, of course, “What does it all mean?”

While asking these questions can make you sound really deep, or get you excited about an in-depth investigation, you soon realize that the whole time we’ve been asking ourselves questions like this, we haven’t actually figured anything out. No matter how much we debate the extent to which our genes, or our upbringing, or our peers determine how we end up, when we’re honest with ourselves and get beyond generalizations, the answer is always: “We don’t fucking know.”

Curious Minds is dedicated to exploring (if not answering) this question. After an introduction by the editor, John Brockman, the book launches into essays by 27 prominent scientists, mini-intellectual autobiographies that try to account for how they ended up on the path they eventually chose.

The list of contributors is impressive, including Murray Gell-Mann, Richard Dawkins, Alison Gopnik, Daniel Dennett, David Buss, Steven Pinker. Many have won Nobel Prizes, and most have made enormous contributions to their respective fields, which include physics, biology, cognitive science, mathematics, psychology, and neuroscience. And each scientist earnestly tries to account for why he or she ended up not just in his or her particular field, but also as a scientist in general.

The problem, however, is that our memories are elusive and often unreliable. What we remember of our childhood and adolescence is really a carefully edited story to help us make our own sense of our lives. We like our lives to be a seamless narrative, and it takes a lot of editing to turn the chaotic jumps of experience into a good story. The scientists writing in Curious Minds are well aware of this problem, and they do mention it. Repeatedly. Developmental psychologist Judith Rich Harris says that, “people don’t necessarily know why they turned out the way they did and most simply accept the explanation approved by their culture. Steven Pinker’s entire essay revolves around this point. He begins: “Don’t believe a word of what you read in this essay on the childhood influences that led me to become a scientist.”

Which makes one wonder: why bother at all?

The essays collected do contain a wide range of stories, and some amusing details. Some of the scientists came from families of scientists — economist and psychologist Nicholas Humphrey’s grandfather was a Nobel Prize winner, a friend of Pavlov’s and the brother-in-law of John Maynard Keynes. Anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson’s mother was Margaret Mead. But just as many came from inauspicious backgrounds: biologist Lynn Margulis talks about hiding out to avoid her parents’ loud fights and subsequent sexual escapades. Neuropsychologist Howard Gardner says that “with regard to my development as a scientist, what stands out in my early biography is the absence of the usual markers.” Physicist Lee Smolin recounts, “impressing girls was always more important to me than impressing teachers. And neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux talks about how going to college was mostly an attempt to get the hell out of the small town where he grew up.

Of course, there are some themes that repeat themselves in the essays: intellectual curiosity, love of ideas, being uncomfortable (often physically so) with not knowing something. Many of the physicists and mathematicians talk about an early love of numbers, and the thrill of the discovery that you could do mathematical calculations to actually predict that would happen in real life. All of these are probably important, but often self-serving and, well, a little too obvious to be truly interesting. So that’s it? People become scientists because they’re curious? And while the accounts of the scientists’ early lives are interesting in a “human interest” sort of way, none of them are particularly gripping, and they do all bleed together after a while. Put another way, none of it seems all that useful.

All of which makes me think that a question like “how do we choose our path in life?” is great for introductory philosophy classes or bull sessions in a dorm, that may be about all it’s good for. In college, the thing that frustrated me the most about discussion-oriented (usually humanities) classes was that they consisted almost entirely of discussions that went on and on, but never seemed to actually go anywhere. These essays, taken together, have that same feel.

As for answers, in his essay, Steven Pinker points out that while genetics does have a large influence on our destinies, it is far from the sole determinant (identical twins share many characteristics, but only agree about half of the time on some others). Neither does upbringing explain the rest (Pinker is part of a group that claims the role of parents and socialization can be virtually ignored.) Rather, the enormous factor that no one wants to think about is chance.

So there’s your answer: Dumb random chance. Blind luck. You know, it probably makes about as much sense as anything else.