An American adage states “curiosity killed the cat.” If that is correct, why do we celebrate people like Galileo, Lincoln, and Gandhi, individuals who thought about longstanding problems in new ways or who defied conventional thinking to achieve great results?
To my knowledge, curiosity never actually killed a cat. The 1920 Eugene O’Neil play, “Diff’rent,” did include the metaphor, “Curiosity killed a cat!” but more importantly was followed by, “Ask me no questions and I’ll tell you no lies.” If O’Neil had a cautionary message, it was not to limit or discourage curiosity but, rather, to warn against unknown consequences. Possibly, the more apt phrase should be, “Only ask if you are prepared for the answer.” Even if there are consequences to inquisitiveness, these seem not to have been a meaningful deterrent to mankind. From the beginning of recorded time, curiosity has underpinned our understanding of ourselves. History tells us that that curiosity is not likely to be “curbed” or “held in check” but, rather, the opposite is true; we are risk takers. When Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon, he provided an indelible image of curiosity bounded not even by gravity. Adam and Eve, curious enough to bite an apple from the Tree of Knowledge, were banished from Eden. The banishment was a consequence that, according to the Old Testament, spawned civilization. At the cost of human life, early explorers conquered the seas and mapped the globe. In the early 18th century, grave robbers risked arrest to help explore human anatomy. Paul Ehrlich developed a chemical treatment for syphilis on the 606th try; previous treatments often killed patients. It took Thomas Edison over 2,000 attempts to discover a filament that made an incandescent light bulb function. We have been curious, we have been dogged, but we have not been deterred. This curiosity still serves us well today-and not all consequences are dire.During the famine of 1974 in Bangladesh, Muhammad Yunus concluded that the limiting factor his country’s poor was economic means, not ambition or aspiration. He was curious, and began experimenting by providing small loans from his own pocket to groups sharing a common goal or purpose, such as buying a village dairy cow. The vast majority of these joint-responsibility groups repaid their loans and, out of his curiosity, the idea of microcredit emerged, the Grameen Bank was born, and economic and lending theory has been revolutionized. Muhammad Yunus was able to experiment with microcredit because India’s democracy afforded him the freedom to be curious. What if Yunus taught in North Korea? Would Kim Jong II have allowed Yunus’s economic experiment? At the very least, Yunus’s inquisitive nature would have been inhibited. Although curiosity is part of human nature, the freedom to exercise it can not be taken for granted. In the United States, fetal stem cell research has been limited via political means, although based on theological and moral objections. In the past election, eleven states banned gay marriage. It is clear that even in a democratic society, curiosity does not have free reign. Therefore, it is the responsibility of tomorrow’s leaders to foster innovation. Curiosity, creativity, and innovation are unifying forces throughout the world. Scientists collaborate, industry innovates, and artists create. Yet, even in the U.S. where capitalism has rewarded innovation and individualism is valued, the freedom to create is not protected by our Constitution. It is the responsibility, therefore, of those who participate in or value society’s freedoms to aid and abet curiosity, as if it were a fundamental freedom.