Some of the great scientific discoveries have been syntheses that emerged more or less organically from the systematic crunching of a compendium of data accumulated over time. Plate tectonics furnishes an illustrative example: the Grand Unified Theory of Geology was made possible by a great many observations made over the course of a couple of centuries, some of them serendipitous (e.g. the discovery of deep-ocean trenches and mid-ocean ranges during the submarine era). Put enough data like that in a room with enough smart people and a really big idea is sooner or later going to take shape, in a manner that kind of resembles abiogenesis.
Others have been leaps of pure intuition so striking as to seem truly original. One of them is Darwin’s theory of evolution. I wish I could have seen the look on his face when the idea of speciation driven by natural selection occurred to him. That’s got to have been one of the greatest OMG moments in history. It must damn dear have stopped his heart: imagine having a single insight that explains everything you’re interested in! He must immediately have recognized how revolutionary an idea that was, and how much resistance and rancor it would incur. No wonder he sat on the idea for two decades before going to press with it – and even then, only out of concern of having his thunder stolen.
Continue reading “Dreaming of Darwin: Fundamentalist Night Terrors”
Imagine a small crowd of people – a hundred or so – in a public place. A few minutes earlier they were all in transit to various other destinations, but a momentary spectacle has drawn them together. They do not, for the most part, know each other and in most cases they’ll never see each other again once they go their separate ways. They include representatives of every age group from infancy to dotage; there are people of various ethnic backgrounds, political and religious persuasions, socioeconomic status and states of mental and physical health. There is little consensus among them with respect to tastes or aspiration. Some are happier than others.
The people in this crowd have come to be together purely by accident, and it is the kind of accident that will never again draw this same crowd: the crowd has no identity, no “meaning.” Many people would be tempted to say of the people who make up that meaningless crowd, “They have nothing in common.”
But that sweeping statement, “They have nothing in common,” is not entirely true is it? They are all human, so they have that in common. Since they are all human, they are all the offspring of two biological parents, even if one of them merely traded his semen for cash at a sperm bank, or if in vitro fertilization was involved. And this makes it possible to list a great many other commonalities: they all have 23 pairs of chromosomes; they’re all bipeds; they’re all mammals; they’re all vertebrates; they’re all mortal; they’re all subject to the laws of physics and chemistry that make life possible, sets its limits, and so forth.
Continue reading “Faces in the Crowd: A Darwinian Family Affair”