Thursday 4 December 2008


One of the biggest lies of history, concerns human progress.

The development of human theories, basically.
And one of the biggest slurs of all time, concerns two of the biggest theories of all time.

The history of human discovery, is largely the history of spotting patterns.

Copernicus suggested in 1540 that it would be far easier to explain the movements of the planets, by assuming everything went round the Sun. The theory then in the ascendant, said everything went round the Earth. The problem with the latter theory, is that the movements of every other planet, excepting the Sun and the Moon, suggested that that theory was too simple. Their apparent movements, just didn't fit in. Long before Copernicus, it had been pointed out that a Universe in which the Sun moved round the Earth would be a far simpler explanation.

Except that...

It couldn't be true.

Simple. The Stars don't move. If the Earth really does move, then the positions of the stars should change. They don't.

Ah, but that's because they are so far away!

Do you realise how far away they'd have to be? To be that far away they'd have to be many, many times greater than the Sun! All of them! No, that theory doesn't fit.

Until Kepler tried an experiment. Holding up pieces of thread against the stars to see just how thin a thread would obscure their light. It turned out the stars were much smaller than they appeared to be. The light we saw, wasn't a true reflection of their size. We didn't actually see the stars, just the light from them. If they didn't shine, they were actually too small to see. Not even the pinpricks we thought we saw. They really COULD be that far away.

The same with evolution. It's often said the main opposition was religious. It wasn't.
It was scientific.

I love the history of how Evolution was discovered. A wonderful history of how a theory progressed.

Contrary to popular belief, Darwin didn't invent the concept of Evolution. Systematists had come up with the idea long before, as they catalogued animals.

The Whale was a Mammal, not a Fish. But more interestingly, it actually had features suggested that maybe it was descended from a design plan common to all mammals. Why else the tiny leg bones, of no use to itself, lurking under that apparently fishy flesh?

Jean Baptiste Lamarck was the first to suggest a theory. He suggested that all animals DID share a common ancestor. But that their environments changed them. The example put forward was the Giraffe. During its life, it stretched it's neck and therefore passed on longer necks to it's children. This theory, was the theory of inheritance of acquired characteristics. The idea was that creatures contained an inner virtue, a kind of malleable gene, which the life the creature led could change.

So creatures strove to advance themselves, creatures really could change themselves.

What was controversial about Darwin's theory, was that it removed even this supernatural vestige.
In Darwin's theory, even the animal didn't determine it's future progress. Nature did. It was all down to basic Economic laws.

What makes this a great theory, is that it was formulated twice, in almost identical ways. And that really, it is so simple.
There the biologists were, pondering Lamarck's theory saying 'Yes, evolution happens' or 'No, all species are created separately', and the real answer wasn't in biology at all.

Darwin got bored on the Beagle. It's that simple. And he had been pondering whether Species really had evolved or not, when he picked up his bedtime reading.

Thomas Malthus' 'Essay on Population'.

A fairly gloomy tract. It basically said that population would always expand at a greater rate than capacity to feed it. Because people liked sex, basically. So populations would expand until the natural economy came in and people died from War, Famine or Poverty.
Cheerful stuff.

Only, Darwin thought; if that's what happens to MAN, surely all animals are affected the same way?
And so then...
Only those survive who are best suited to fit the circumstances...

The environment drives evolution...

All you need therefore, is enough time. Time for random changes, random population movements, geological events, etc...

Now why this theory is so good, is Darwin wasn't a risk taker. He sat on his theory. Didn't tell a soul.

Till, sixteen years later, a naturalist called Alfred Wallace, retired to his hammock in New Guinea, pondering whether evolution could have happened.
He picked up his bedtime reading. Thomas Malthus.

And five minutes later, he had it.
He started writing his letter.
To Charles Darwin, as luck would have it.

Thomas Huxley, as soon as he heard said 'Of course! How stupid no one thought of that before!'

The majority of biologists felt the same way.

The opposition wasn't from religious leaders either. That's a myth.

The opposition was from the physicists.

'Not possible' said Lord Kelvin.

Work it out, he said. You're implying a fairly random sequence of events. Well, we physicists can now TELL YOU how old the Earth is. We worked it out. Because now, we understand Thermodynamics. The Sun, we now know is a big ball of Hydrogen, burning away.
And the temperature of the Earth's rocks tells us physicists, it is sixty million years old.

It can't have been around for anything over sixty million years. So that should show you, evolution has happened far faster than would have been possible, were it left to purely natural selection. There MUST have been some other agency involved.

Evolution had happened, yes, everyone agreed on that.
But evolution by natural selection alone? There hadn't been enough time.

Only- there was something nobody knew.

Nobody knew, till Rutherford split the atom.
Nobody knew till Einstein proved that E=MC squared.

And now it was seen that the sun isn't just a burning ball of gas. That the sort of reaction it was could last BILLIONS not MILLIONS of years. And that the Earth's temperature could have been kept warmer, far, far longer than anyone realised, due to radioactive decay.
The Earth was old enough for Darwin to be right.

And that really was all Darwin needed to be right.
Enough time to have happened.

Because really, that is all his theory says. It really is the simplest theory ever.
It just says 'The Earth was around long enough to account for this diversity'.

And it's true. If the Earth had been around as long as it has and life DIDN'T show the variety it did, then that would be very strange indeed.

To me, this theory HAS to be the most central theory in the history of humanity, period.
We understood NOTHING until we grasped this theory, we grasped EVERYTHING thereafter.

It really is the dividing line between ignorance and understanding, between a positive understanding of what we are, and a negative backward outlook. It is the most important paradigm shift in human concepts ever.

It is the faith that humanity has searched for in the wrong places, since it first learned how to make fires.

But human advance doesn't stop there.

Max Planck was told when he was a boy 'Don't bother going into physics- it's pretty much solved'.

How wrong they were that told him that!

There are many things we probably think are solved, that aren't. Many strange new discoveries that will open up to us things we never thought of.

I'm sure the coming century will show us that photons, quarks, neutrinos, Higg's Bosons, etc, are all really the SAME particle, just doing different things.
But those different things it's doing...

A whole new world of multi-dimensional space. Certainly not three, maybe way more than the eleven we now dimly conceptualise. And I think it's a panorama we only dimly grasp now.
There will be many things that physicists now battle their minds against, thinking 'How?'
The answer will seem beyond conception.
Till one day a physicist looks up from his papers and something on 'The Simpsons' makes him think 'Of Course! Just like Moe's Tavern! That's the answer!'

And he'll put forward his theory and everyone will say 'Great'.
Till a mathematician says 'No. The maths doesn't add up'.

And years later, another mathematician will show that no one EVER could have known of this strange unknown fact about the fundamental ways dimensions themselves are composed which means...

That the Moe's Tavern theory can actually now be made to fit with the mathematics.

Science is actually the greatest of all faiths.
Because it is the faith that people can be wrong.

But that ultimately PEOPLE will get to the right answer.


Anonymous said...

You are correct on Darwin. Actually he was pressured to publish The Origin of Species because someone else was about to beat him to it.

That is interesting in what you say about the stars. I'm trying to look at various holy writ from different religions to see how the stars were set when the writings were done. It can be crucial to understand dates.

Anonymous said...

The interesting thing, Crushed, is that it is very easy to prove (in the mathematical sense) that it is impossible for science to say anything definitive about this universe that we inhabit. And I say that as a scientist myself. Fortunately, the few things that it can say, it says about the things important to us about humans. But it is still sorely lacking.

Anonymous said...

That was like reading Bill Bryson. Well done sir.

Anonymous said...

Mankind has always been saying, no more, we've discovered it all, seen it all, etc, etc. Only to find out there is always more.
I hope I get to be around for one or two of the next big discoveries...

Anonymous said...

The Church was against the theory as well, though. And much of it still is. Witness the ridiculous attempts to get "intelligent design" taught as an equal to evolution.

You also contradict yourself on economics by declaring that science isn't solved yet. You often say that we have reached the peak of productivity but how can that be so if we don't know everything about science? How can we know that the next giant leap in science isn't right around the corner and that it can be harnessed to make ourselves richer than ever?

Anonymous said...

Hmm... just to be pedantic, but Darwin's theory isn't the perfect explanation on evolution. Ever heard of punctuated equilibrium? It's a theory proposed by Eldredge and Gould to explain the lack of transitory forms in the fossil record. What they basically said was that there were long periods where no, or little, evolution occured, then a period where some extreme event happened, causing rapid evolution (comparatively speaking to Darwin's timeline though), followed by periods of no/little evolution again.

Completely missing the point of the blog, but just wanted to say it.

Anonymous said...

You are entirely right in your main thrust- science advances slowly by better and better errors.

Anonymous said...

Enemy of the Republic- Alfred Wallace.

Interestingly, it turned out that a third person had come up with it AND PUBLISHED IT before Darwin. And he was quite annoyed that no one gave him credit.
He actually wrote to Darwin and pointed out that HE had first published the theory in a Scottish Magazine devoted to fertilizers.

8xyzzy8- Well, this I suppose, is a strand of thought not much pursued any longer, though Descartes and Kant liked to dwell on it, the limits of Empirical understanding.

I suppose ultimately, the most we can say is as Descartes said 'I think, therefore, I am'.

Bill- I think you can only really understand science, when you have followed the working.
I never understtod science at school. It's only since I got to grips with HOW we decided these things were so, it made sense.

I got into an argument at work with a fundie who asked me 'How do you KNOW the Big Bang happened.
So I told him. It was a great little monologue. The rest of the office was actually pretty rapt, as I explained Red shift and Cepheid variables and Cosmic background radiation, to explain how it was we could confidently state a date for the Big Bang.

Fusion- I actually think it will have to do with hyperspace.

I once had a little look at some of the strage implications of multidimensional space and I realised that we must be looking at something that it will take a conceptual leap to figure- a bit likewave particle duality and the fact that solidity is an illusion.

One obvious implication of mutidimensional space is that points which appear to be separate may not be. Space could fit together in ways we don't quite get. We might actually be wrapped up in ways we don't see.

Blue Eyes- Not my Church :)

The Catholic Church was always quite Pro-evolution, because it fits nicely with free will.
It officially endorsed the theory in 1908, just a year after Rutherford split the atom.

You won't find any creationists in the Catholic Church. In fact, the Catholic Church even in the Middle Ages, tacitly accepted Genesis to be allegory, not historical fact.

In fact, that was something Luther objected to, that the Catholic Church privately held Genesis to not be literally true.

You miss my point.
I think we are far from our technological peak.

What I say, is that we no longer have virgin territory to add to the economy.

Of course we can increase our standard of living. we will always be able to do that.

What we CAN'T do, is continue to sustain an economic arrangement geared up to having a perpetual surplus of consumers over producers.

What we CAN'T do is 'grow the economy' any more, not in that way.

Because now, we're all in the same economy, and always will be.

Akai- Well in some sense, that has always kind of made sense.
Look at the Paleocene, In a matter of ten million years, mammals pretty much acheive the diversity of today.

The point where the punctualted equilibrium theory REALLY comes under debate, is the so called 'Cambrian Explosion'.
The apparent rapid appearance of most major phyla in about six million years.

Of course, the theory still follows Darwininian parameters, its merely the rate it happened at.

Myself, I think the 'Red queen' hpothesis the most significant addition to the theory in recent times.
Basically, it's to do with the increasing complexity of predator-prey relationships.

Gracchi- Right now those seem to be vis a vis the cosmological constant, or lack of it and dark matter.
And whether string theory is on the right lines- which I think it is.

Interestingly, many of the great theorists have been wrong in a major way.

For example, Bede wprked out why we have tides. His theory was correct.
Galileo decided Bede was wrong. That his theory was ignorant supersition and that tides are caused by the earth slopping about as it moves.

Lavoisier insisted that meteorites were NOT from outer space and to say so was ignorant supersition.

And darwin was totally wrong on how genetics works.

And Einstein- refused to accept the Uncertainty Principle.