Unreal Nature

April 3, 2016

Why Not Knowing

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:53 am

… they nurture our hopes for a universe of intrinsic meaning defined in our terms.

Continuing through Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History by Stephen Jay Gould (1989):

… The familiar iconographics of evolution are all directed — sometimes crudely, sometimes subtly — toward reinforcing a comfortable view of human inevitability and superiority.

… Life is a copiously branching bush, continually pruned by the grim reaper of extinction, not a ladder of predictable progress. Most people may know this as a phrase to be uttered, but not as a concept brought into the deep interior of understanding.

… consider the great warhorse of tradition — the evolutionary ladder of horses themselves. To be sure, an unbroken evolutionary connection does link Hyracotherium (formerly called Eohippus) to modern Equus. And, yes again, modern horses are bigger, with fewer toes and higher crowned teeth. But Hyracotherium-Equus is not a ladder, or even a central lineage.

[line break added] This sequence is but one labyrinthine pathway among thousands os a complex bush. This particular route has achieved prominence for just one ironic reason — because all other twigs are extinct. Equus is the only twig left, and hence the tip of a ladder in our false iconography. Horses have become the classic example of progressive evolution because their bush has been so unsuccessful.

[line break added] We never grant proper acclaim to the real triumphs of mammalian evolution. Who ever hears a story about the evolution of bats, antelopes, or rodents — the current champions of mammalian life? We tell no such tales because we cannot linearize the bounteous success of these creatures into our favored ladder. They present us with thousands of twigs on a vigorous bush.

… I don’t think that any particular secret, mystery, or inordinate subtlety underlies the reasons for our allegiance to these false iconographies of ladder and cone. They are adopted because they nurture our hopes for a universe of intrinsic meaning defined in our terms. We simply cannot bear the implications of Omar Khayyám’s honesty:

Into this Universe, and Why not knowing,
Nor whence, like Water willy-nilly flowing:
….. And out of it, as Wind along the Waste
I know not Whither, willy-nilly blowing.

My most recent previous post from Gould’s book is here.

-Julie

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