Dreaming of Darwin: Fundamentalist Night Terrors

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.
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