Unreal Nature

April 9, 2016

Grubby Little Creatures

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:38 am

… we make our best approach through small curiosities that rivet our attention …

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

… Perhaps the grim reaper works during brief episodes of mass extinction, provoked by unpredictable environmental catastrophes (often triggered by impacts of extraterrestrial bodies).Groups may prevail or die for reasons that bear no relationship to the Darwinian basis of success in normal times. Even if fishes hone their adaptations to peaks of aquatic perfection, they will all die if the ponds dry up.

[line break added] But grubby old Buster the Lungfish, former laughing-stock of the piscine priesthood, may pull through — and not because a bunion on his great-grandfather’s fin warned his ancestors about an impending comet. Buster and his kin may prevail because a feature evolved long ago for a different use has fortuitously permitted survival during a sudden and unpredictable change in rules. And if we are Buster’s legacy, and the result of a thousand other similarly happy accidents, how can we possibly view our mentality as inevitable, or even probable?

We live, as our humorists proclaim, in a world of good news and bad news. The good news is that we can specify an experiment to decide between the conventional and the radical interpretations of extinction, thereby settling the most important question we can ask about the history of life. The bad news is that we can’t possibly perform the experiment.

I call this experiment “replaying the life tape.” … [S]uppose the experimental versions all yield sensible results strikingly different from the actual history of life? What could we then say about the predictability of self-conscious intelligence? or of mammals? or of vertebrates? or of life on land? or simply of multicellular persistence for 600 million difficult years?

… Suppose that ten of a hundred designs will survive and diversify. If the ten survivors are predictable by superiority of anatomy (interpretation 1), then they will win each time — and Burgess eliminations do not challenge our comforting view of life. But if the ten survivors are protégés of Lady Luck or fortunate beneficiaries of odd historical contingencies (interpretation 2), then each replay of the tape will yield a different set of survivors and a radically different history.

[line break added] And if you recall from high-school algebra how to calculate permutations and combinations, you will realize that the total number of combinations for 10 items from a pool of 100 yields more than 17 trillion potential outcomes. I am willing to grant that some groups may have enjoyed an edge (though we have no idea how to identify or define them), but I suspect that the second interpretation grasps a central truth about evolution.

… People, as curious primates, dote on concrete objects that can be seen and fondled. God dwells among the details, not in the realm of pure generality. We must tackle and grasp the larger, encompassing themes of our universe, but we make our best approach through small curiosities that rivet our attention — all those pretty pebbles on the shoreline of knowledge.

… The animals of the Burgess Shale are holy objects — in the unconventional sense that this word conveys in some cultures. We do not place them on pedestals and worship from afar. We climb mountains and dynamite hillsides to find them. We quarry them, split them, carve them, draw them, and dissect them, struggling to wrest their secrets. We vilify and curse them for their damnable intransigence. They are grubby little creatures of a sea floor 530 million years old, but we greet them with awe because they are the Old Ones, and they are trying to tell us something.

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

-Julie

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