For a trait with so much potential power, curiosity itself seems uncomplicated. Psychologists define curiosity as "wanting to know." That's it. And that definition squares with our own commonsense feeling. "Wanting to know," of course, means seeking out the information. Curiosity starts out as an impulse, an urge, but it pops out into the world as something more active, more searching: a question.

This inquisitiveness seems as intrinsic to us as hunger or thirst. A child asks a series of seemingly innocent questions: Why is the sky blue? How high up does the blue go? Where does the blue go at night? Instead of answers (most adults can't explain why the sky is blue, including me), the child might receive a dismissive, slightly patronizing reply like, "Why, aren't you the curious little girl..."

To some, questions like these feel challenging, even more so if you don't know the answers. Rather than answering them, the adult simply asserts his own authority to brush them aside. Curiosity can make us adults feel a little inadequate or impatient—that's the experience of the parent who doesn't know why the sky is blue, the experience of the teacher trying to get through the day's lesson without being derailed.

The girl is left not just without answers, but also with the strong impression that asking questions—innocuous or intriguing questions—can often be regarded as impertinent.

That's hardly surprising.

No one today ever says anything bad about curiosity, directly. But if you pay attention, curiosity isn't really celebrated and cultivated, it isn't protected and encouraged. It's not just that curiosity is inconvenient. Curiosity can be dangerous. Curiosity isn't just impertinent, it's insurgent. It's revolutionary.

The child who feels free to ask why the sky is blue grows into the adult who asks more disruptive questions: Why am I the serf and you the king? Does the sun really revolve around Earth? Why are people with dark skin slaves and people with light skin their masters?

How threatening is curiosity?

All you have to do is look to the Bible to see. The first story in the Bible after the story of creation, the first story that involves people, is about curiosity. The story of Adam, Eve, the serpent, and the tree does not end well for the curious.

Adam is told explicitly by God: "You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die."

It is the serpent who suggests challenging God's restriction. He starts with a question himself, to Eve: Is there a tree whose fruit God has put off limits? Yes, Eve says, the tree right at the center of the garden—we can't eat its fruit, we can't even touch it, or else we'll die.

Eve knows the rules so well, she embellishes them a bit: Don't even touch the tree.

The serpent replies with what is surely the most heedless bravado in history—unafraid of the knowledge of good and evil, or of God. He says to Eve, "You will not certainly die. For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil."

The serpent is appealing directly to Eve's curiosity. You don't even know what you don't know, the serpent says. With a bite of the forbidden fruit, you will see the world in a completely different way.

Eve visits the tree, and discovers that "the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom."

She plucks a piece of fruit, takes a bite, and passes it to Adam, who also takes a bite. "And the eyes of both of them were opened."

Knowledge was never so easily gotten, nor in the end so hard won. To say that God was angry is an understatement. The punishment for knowing good and evil is misery for Eve and Adam, and for all the rest of us, forever: the pain of childbirth for Eve, the unceasing toil of raising their own food for Adam. And, of course, banishment from the garden.

The parable could not be blunter: curiosity causes suffering. Indeed, the story's moral is aimed directly at the audience: whatever your current misery, reader, it was caused by Adam, Eve, the serpent, and their rebellious curiosity.

So there you have it. The first story, in the foundation work of Western Civilization—the very first story!—is about curiosity, and its message is: Don't ask questions. Don't seek out knowledge on your own—leave it to the people in charge. Knowledge just leads to wretchedness.