Monday, January 16, 2012

Just Their Imagination

A while back I posted on why I didn't "believe" in evolution.  One of my objections was the theory's heavy reliance on a "back in the mists of time" argument, or on the necessity of the passing of untold billions and billions of years for anything to actually evolve.  Well, it seems even ole Charles Darwin himself was aware of this problem and addressed it in On the Origin of the Species.

After "Rereading Darwin" , Robert Dorit tackles the subject for us in the American Scientist.  As I said, he first notes that Darwin was sensitive to the objection.
What Darwin realized was that a youthful Earth was appealing not only because it adhered to the biblical time line, but also because it was simply easier to imagine. He knew that his own argument for natural selection depended on vast conceptions of time, and he also understood that the time spans required would be nearly impossible to comprehend. In a section of the Origin entitled “On the Lapse of Time,” he wrote:
It is hardly possible for me even to recall to the reader, who may not be a practical geologist, the facts leading the mind feebly to comprehend the lapse of time. He who can read Sir Charles Lyell’s grand work on the Principles of Geology … yet does not admit how incomprehensibly vast have been the past periods of time, may at once close this volume.
Darwin feared that his readers would be unable to understand the deep time over which natural selection acts, and that their failure would be problematic for his argument. Those with limited imaginations might as well put away his book at once. (my italics)
I giggled when I read that last sentence.

First, I've got no problem with criticising those with "limited imaginations", I was just surprised to discover that scientists put any stock in its use, limited or not.  Facts, empirical evidence, matter and the void and nothing in between, that's the stuff of science, right? 

But of course Dorit's piece isn't really about Darwin, or the lapse of time problem, or really anything remotely scientific.  It's a hit piece directed at mouth breathers like me...and maybe you too.  Although I honestly don't think he meant to, Dorit finally gives this all away:
Still, when I recently reread the Origin, I was struck by a subtler blow the book delivers to human hubris. The Origin remains, even in the 21st century, a radical work, which argues that the fundamental forces driving life on this planet occur on timescales that render the span of a human life insignificant. Furthermore, although the effects of natural selection are there for all to see, its daily operation is almost completely hidden from view. Both our life spans and our five senses are inadequate to the task of comprehension: The most powerful mechanism of organic change lies well beyond our everyday experience.
While the Origin may be a blow to ordinary human hubris, it seems not to be similarly successful when it comes to the hubris of scientists.  As Dorit contends, the most powerful mechanism of organic change may well lie beyond our everyday experience, but it most certainly is not beyond the experience, the comprehension, or the unlimited imaginations of our enlightened scientists.

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