Archive: November, 2011
There seem to be two kinds of people in the world – those who feel strongly that there must be a higher purpose to our existence, and those of us who are perfectly content to make our own purpose.
In an unusual piece that ran in the Scientific American Blogs last week, guest writer Clay Farris Naff suggested that you could have a purpose to the universe without having to invoke any supernatural beings. In A Secular Case for Intentional Creation, he wrote that he would like to see middle ground between the religious view that God created the universe, and the atheist view that the universe came into existence with no purpose.
He suggests someone look the possbility that our universe was intentionally created by aliens. Perhaps entropy was destroying their cosmic neighborhood and in an act of reverence for life, they set off our big bang. He says too little effort has gone into investigating such possibilities:
A look into the fossil record suggests that tables may one day be turned on humanity. It probably won't happen the way it did in the original Planet of the Apes, where chimps and gorillas exploit their former exploiters. Instead, our planet could be reclaimed by a more ancient life-form - sulfur-eating bacteria.
Oxygen is poison to them, so they live in shadowy places, such as the bottom of the Black Sea. But when the climate gets disturbed, they can come back with a vengeance.
Some geologists and paleontologists see these once-dominant organisms as the real killers behind several devastating mass extinctions, including an event 252 million years ago that wiped out about 90 percent of the Earth's species.
Earlier this week I chatted with Peter Ward, a paleontologist from the University of Washington, who studies climate changes past and present. The interview was based on his book Under a Green Sky, which I read, and which he says is his best book. Still, he said, he got more attention for another book, The Medea Hypothesis, which is kind of counterpoint to the Gaia idea that came out of the 1970s.
He said he never liked the so-called Gaia hypothesis, which, roughly, stated that the Earth acts like a giant organism. The idea is too new-age, he said, and naming our organism/planet after the nurturing mother-goddess is downright misleading.
The fossil record is rife with disasters, mass extinctions, and long eras when the living world acted suicidal. Periodically complex living things take a beating and are replaced by microbes. We live on Gaia’s evil sister Medea – the sorceress known for killing her own children.
Last week I was pleased to see that evolution and religion were the focus of one of the Inquirer’s most interesting new blogs – The Public’s Health. One of the authors, Michael Yudell of the Drexel School of Public Health, visited Westminster Abbey, which is the site of Darwin’s grave.
Just a few feet from Newton’s gravesite rests who I think it is safe to say is the most controversial figure in modern science: Charles Darwin, author of The Origin of Species and the father of the theory of evolution. That Darwin, a self-proclaimed agnostic, rests in such a prominent church not only honors his legacy but shows that science and faith are not necessarily mutually exclusive; they can coexist!
Just a week after Darwin’s funeral, the Bishop of Carlisle, Henry Goodwin, delivered a memorial sermon in the Abbey during which he said:
Lynn Margulis, who died this week at age 73, was known for one of the most elegant and revolutionary ideas in modern biology – we and all other animals are composite beings.
That is, our cells are not individuals but communities. Through a surprising twist in the tale of our evolution, one type of cell was invaded by a type of free-living bacteria. The invader took up residence as a cell structure known as the mitochondria – the powerhouses of our bodies. The new composite organism produced descendants that evolved, eventually, into us.
This same process, called endosymbiosis, led to the chloroplasts in plants. Here’s a passage from a story I wrote about the surprising origin of the mitochondria:
In 1491, there were hundreds of tribes of Native Americans. Many went extinct, but the Navajo not only survived, their numbers exploded from about 5000 to 300,000, according to a short paper published in Science this week.
I took notice as soon as I got the press announcement on Monday. One of the authors is Jared Diamond, who wrote two of my all-time favorite nonfiction books, Guns, Germs and Steel, and Collapse. Those books changed the way I saw history and current affiars. Every time I see some obscenely useless display of wealth I think of his chapter on Easter Island, where resources were channeled into statues to honor the powerful while ordinary people stuggled to survive. It didn't end well.
When I spoke to Diamond on the phone on Friday, he said the Navajo survival was based on a complex combination of factors – both cultural and geographic. They weren’t sitting on coveted farmland or gold deposits, so Europeans put more energy into slaughtering other tribes. They lived in a remote part of the country and were relatively spread out, making it harder for smallpox to wipe them out. And Navajo tradition allows people to marry outside the tribe and consider their families to be Navajo.
Had Herman Cain drawn a blank on global climate change or stem cells instead of going brain dead over Libya, the science literacy promoters would have gone crazy. The ignorance demonstrated by political candidates isn’t limited to science by any means.
I hear from creationists and climate change skeptics all the time, and some of them spend a lot of time reading about what they think is science. Quick – what percentage of our atmosphere is made up of CO2? I would bet money that most avid climate change skeptics will know right away without having to resort to Google. They’re paying attention all right – but not to the mainstream media.
It’s not that science illiteracy isn’t a problem, but the reality in American is much more complicated and can’t be fixed by making people memorize more scientific facts and figures. We’re being subjected to well-funded propaganda campaigns. People holding advanced degrees and credible sounding titles will tell us that global climate change is a hoax and Intelligent Design is a legitimate scientific theory.
Language Log is a great blog – often pointing out surprising aspects of the way we communicate in our everyday speech and writing. I find myself pondering some posts for hours.
Last week there was a particularly thought-provoking entry by Penn professor Mark Liberman. I know he’s a good guy because the first time I contacted him I asked him whether all languages employ a word for sexual intercourse as a curse word. He didn’t hang up on me and gave me some great material.
In his post, Liberman summarized a talk by another academic, Sarah Jane Leslie, on a linguistic phenomenon known as generic sentences: