Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Splendour that is the Historical Sciences

I had the good fortune to attend a lecture on Friday by Dr John Paterson about the Cambrian Explosion, and how good inferences about the behaviour of organisms from that distant springtime of life can be made by considering such things as fossilized organisms that have healed after an injury, fossilized gut contents, and the size distribution of ensembles of organisms fossilised in different environments. The earliest dates for things like predation and herd/school behaviour seem to be being pushed further and further back.
Once again I was inspired by the magnificent beauty and complexity of the vision that is deep time, and how the contingent, irreproducible events of history have shaped the world that we know.

Best of all, I now realise there is an excellent way to push our search for the origins of life back beyond the fossil record. Molecular fossils! While most of the actual molecules that comprise ancient organisms are long gone, in some strata some of these molecules are tenacious and remain, and others have been transformed in systematic ways into compounds that still preserve some information about their origin. Perhaps succeeding generations of proto-life have not truly eradicated all traces of their predecessors as effectively as I thought.

These molecular fossils also seem to be a fantastic way to answer a question of great relevance to the 'Dr Jumba' theory of intelligent design. How closely related to the Cambrian Explosion beasties were the Ediacaran beasties? The Ediacaran world was very different, Dr Paterson told us- flat microbial mats with flat beasties: nothing that dug beneath the mats, nothing that ate anything else. Were those beasties based on the same chemistry as us? Or not? Surely the chemicals associated with them would give us a clue. I will explore the literature and return with a report.


Marco said...

Yes, but what does any of this reaallyy mean for my day to day existence. I can dream about how life was X million years ago, and be angry that almost no scientist is making Dr Jumba answerable to his many errors. I can also be angry about how dismissive mainstream scientists are of the many bits of evidence for "panspermia", and assume that is going to continue for several decades yet.

Klaus Rohde said...

The complexity and beauty of nature is incredible, and almost beyond comprehension is the course of evolution that has led to this complexity and beauty. It would seem to me that mankind has a very great responsibility to preserve all this. Each time an ecosystem is wiped out, we lose a vast amount of diversity, far beyond what we usually read in newspapers about. And once it is gone it is gone. It may not mean much to our day to day existence,if all we are concerned about is our living standard at this moment of time, it may mean a lot to later generations and almost certainly will affect their living standards.

Chris Fellows said...

What does this mean to your day to day existence?! Truth and beuaty are what give your day to day existence any point. They are the ends for which all else in our lives is the means. And all this has truth and beauty in spades, as Klaus points out.

I don't know that I agree that this worldview implies responsible custody of the ecosystem. One can look at the ceaseless flux of species, coming and going over geological time, and argue that the stresses humanity puts on the system is merely hastening the end of those species who would be pushed over the edge anyways. Personally I am 'inordinately fond of beetles' and feel every extinction as a great loss, but I think this is irrational behaviour on my part.

Marco said...

Reminds me of a quote from "Dead Poet's Society". Something about poetry and art (etc.) being what we live for.

I have quite a utilitarian view of science, which is probably why I steered towards engineering in university rather than higher math & physics which I had more of a natural flair for.

I agree that beauty of nature and "truth" do require a basic scientific self-consistency to be worthy, but that it isn't really destroyed by the non-uniformitarianism sciences such as creation science. The non-uniformitarianist denies the scientific confidence we have in the more utilitarian aspects of historical science, but not the "natural beauty we live for" type of science.

klaus rohde said...

"argue that the stresses humanity puts on the system is merely hastening the end of those species who would be pushed over the edge anyways."

Any species will be pushed over the edge when its time comes, but under "normal" conditions there is plenty of time for other species to evolve and take their place. What is happening now is quite different, effects resemble those caused by a very large asteroid impact, and recovery to "normal" may take many millions of years. Quite apart from losses in the aesthetic value of course, there will be unpredictable ecological leading to unpredictable economic consequences. But to get back to ethics and aesthetics: humans are unique in the animal kingdom in the sense that they have much greater intellectual powers than any other animal species has. This implies a much greater sensitivity to aesthetic values as well. Humans need an aesthetically inspiring environment, some to a lesser, others to a higher degree.

Buddhism and a philosopher like Arthur Schopenhauer would further argue that humanity has a moral obligation to "protect" animals.