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Reflections on Curiosity: Did it Kill, Not Kill, or Simultaneously Kill and Not Kill the Cat?

02/07/2014 13:05 BST | Updated 31/08/2014 10:59 BST

What a curious thing curiosity is. When we recently moved to our new home in rural Herefordshire we were accompanied by our cat Cokie. After three days he was nowhere to be found. We assumed, sadly, that he had set off on a futile effort to retrace his steps to his native London. Last Friday, after several weeks, he reappeared dehydrated and half-starved, covered in ticks and coal dust. It appears Cokie had fallen foul of his curiosity and got himself locked in a neighbour's coalhole. Small wonder adults invoke the curious cat to discourage inquisitive children. And historically it's not just children who have been warned off too much enquiry. For Edmund Burke, writing in the C18th, curiosity could be dismissed as:

"the most superficial of all the affections; it changes its object perpetually, it has an appetite which is very sharp, but very easily satisfied."

Yet as the C21st unfolds curiosity is promoted as a key virtue and prerequisite for personal and professional success. Indeed according to Ian Leslie, author of Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, not only do curious people, "tend to be much more pleasurable and interesting and just generally better people" they, "are in greater demand than ever before in modern economies." It's certainly true that curiosity is a prominent feature of many contemporary organisational behaviours and performance frameworks. Hardly surprising really, if, as Leslie claims, the curious are more readily drawn to collaboration, to working across traditional boundaries of knowledge and specialty.

We might suppose that the internet would be fillip for both curiosity and collaboration, but Leslie fears the opposite, believing instant access to information corrupts curiosity and renders us lazy and trivialising. He cites the following answer and response on AskReddit:

  • "if someone from the 1950s suddenly appeared today, what would be the most difficult thing to explain to them about life today?
  • "I possess a device, in my pocket, that is capable of accessing the entirety of information known to man. I use it to look at pictures of cats and get in arguments with strangers"

There are, though, for Leslie two varieties of curiosity: diversive curiosity - the self-defeating pursuit of the novel depicted by Burke, the kind that led poor Cokie into such a fix and impels us to click on pictures of pussy cats - and epistemic curiosity, which requires the application of self-discipline and focus, and the desire, if you like, to dig deep and make connections. Leslie also holds that curiosity is not a disposition but a state, and that this state is stimulated when we encounter a "knowledge gap". Where we have no knowledge of a topic, we have no gaps we are drawn to fill; where we know even a little, we want to know more. This conviction helps explain Leslie's contempt for the privileging of thinking skills over knowledge he claims to discern in English education. The more knowledge students acquire, the more gaps they become aware of, and the more curious they will become.

One person who exemplifies epistemic curiosity is Sandy Knapp. In a recent edition of Radio 4's "The Life Scientific", Dr Knapp, a senior botanist at the Natural History Museum, London, described herself as someone for whom each fresh discovery reveals how little she really knows, fuelling a virtual circle of learning and enquiry. She also characterises herself as a pioneering bridge-builder between the worlds of biodiversity and genome science. Both epistemically curious, then, and highly collaborative.

Knapp comes across as warm and engaging. But does this confirm that curiosity and even a collaborative disposition make us "better" people? Well no. Not necessarily. In their 2006 book Sustainable Leadership Andy Hargreaves and Dean Fink make an important observation about another much vaunted C21st capacity, systems thinking. It is they, assert:

"as useful in tobacco industries as it is in pollution control systems and as valuable for a totalitarian government as for a truly democratic one. It has no inherent moral purpose."

Equally it is possible for humans to model effective collaboration in the service of all manner of unedifying enterprise. Or to apply a great deal of epistemic curiosity, and still warrant Knapp's description of us as, "an invasive mammalian weed."

The trouble is even if we undertake to interrogate the implications of our individual and collective enquiry and subsequent actions, we can't fully safeguard against the law of unintended consequences. It's largely for this reason that many would question the wisdom of Knapp's advocacy of genetic engineering, and it's partly why I struggle with Leslie's prioritisation of the quest for knowledge. When the sociologist Robert Merton explored the phenomenon of unintended outcomes in his 1936 paper "Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action" he noted that:

"whereas past experience [i.e. knowledge] is the sole guide to our expectations on the assumption that certain past, present and future acts are sufficiently alike to be grouped in the same category, these experiences are in fact different (and) ... the actual results will differ from the expected."

How much truer is this in the complexity of our globalised and networked C21st? So perhaps we need to learn sometimes to rein in our curiosity; to resist the urge to discover which kitty is the cutest and contemplate instead the day-to-day relevance of a different cat, the one in Schrödinger's thought experiment. Whether it is alive, dead or simultaneously both is open to debate, but the conundrum serves as an apt reminder that our's is an age of unprecedented ambiguity and uncertainty. Of course, we need curiosity and knowledge, but let's not elevate these above adaptability or resilience, qualities so badly needed for the inevitable instances when things don't turn out as we had hoped or expected.

And poor old Cokie? Well sad to say, he seems suspended somewhere between life and death. Laid up at the vet's he shows no sign of curiosity at all. Pumped full of antibiotics and with a drip and feeding tube in place, he's a sorry sight indeed. We're just willing him to find the resilience to pull through, join us at home, and explore his new stamping ground with a little more care for his future.