Monday, February 23, 2009

Darwin’s Birthday

Recently the world celebrated Darwin’s bicentennial birthday. Charles Darwin, a British scientist, is one of the great minds that humanity has produced in its few millions of existence on this planet. What did he do that is so great?

Charles Darwin is one of those individuals whose contribution of Science has changed the way Man has looked at himself. Science has profoundly affected humanity in the last five hundred years though we don’t concede that. Prior that, for nearly thousand years Europe was blanketed in Age of Darkness. Those were the times where there was no room for reasoning or objective thinking. Heresy, witchcraft, superstition, blind belief held sway, and one could be put to death for crimes such as harboring thoughts which were considered blasphemous. Irrationality reigned supreme, and it was sanctioned by the king with support from religion.

When we say Europe was going through Age of Darkness, it does not mean India was under age of light. We were in fact wrapped in Pitch Darkness. Our darkness was darker than in Europe. It is just that we have never seen light later on to compare ourselves with.

Age of Enlightenment

In Post-Renaissance Europe, Art, Religion and Philosophy were back in action and making strides along with Science. Age of Enlightenment also referred to as Scientific Revolution set in motion a set of reforms that would change humanity forever. Rationality and debate, was given a place in society. Law and order based on reasoning, commonsense became a state instrument. Freedom for people, emancipation of slaves, women and ‘inferior’ races was now a debatable topic.

Now, when someone accused the other of witchcraft just because they were given the message in a dream, people started to question the credibility of such a witness. You can imagine why such a reform was anathema to religious people. For centuries, religious people had convinced everyone that a virgin gave birth to a son, which will now be considered implausible. Little bit of reasoning can make the whole story incredible.

Theory of Gravity

One of the greatest landmarks in Science came with Theory of Gravity discovered by Isaac Newton, another British scientist. It changed our perspective on Universe and God. The implications of that theory were far greater than giving equations to launch a rocket into space.

Earlier, humans didn’t know how or why things moved, why planets moved in the empty space, or how Moon revolved around Earth, or why things fell when dropped. The easiest explanation as to who set planets and the firmament in motion was God. Though our ancestors knew something in the earth was attracting the falling objects towards it, they could not explain it. Throughout humanity, anything that was unexplainable was attributed to God. That was easiest thing to do – it also suited the religions who positioned themselves as sole authority on the omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent God.

Newton’s theory changed many things for us. He discovered that there was one underlying law which was the same for objects on earth and for objects in the Universe including planets and stars. That is a mind boggling discovery – stars and planets were no different from a mere apple on this planet – when it came to force called gravity. It was not intuitive – in fact it is counter intuitive – as most laws of nature are.

Is Earth flat?

It is much easier to believe that Earth is flat. Humans believed it for centuries. Even though ancient Greeks calculated the circumference of Earth clearly predicting that Earth is round, that knowledge was lost for many generations.

As a kid, I believed that earth was completely flat – I had constructed many models in my mind to picture it. I imagined the land to be flat, like a thin sheet, and each time I knew a city, I added it the imaginary flat land I had in my mind – the flat land started to become distorted as new cities were being added to my knowledge. When I saw a well being dug, I realized that world cannot be a thin sheet. It had to be little thicker – like a thick chapathi. Many a times I wondered what happens if we reach the edge of our flat world. I thought the edges were gated with barbed wire to keep people from falling. I was enthralled when I saw a globe for the first time in my life. It was an ‘Aha!’ moment which I can never forget. I just kept staring it and moving it. So many of my questions got answered in just few seconds! For many days, I kept imagining the globe in my head, it made all sense now. You can never reach the edge- because there is no edge – there is no need for barbed wire now. May be, that’s the reason why I never saw the edge.

And of course, now I started to have new set of questions. What happens to those people who are on the bottom side of the earth, why don’t they fall off? Since India is somewhere half way why don’t I fall sideways as this globe suggested? Those questions were answered later in my life.

Universal Law of Gravitation

What Newton discovered was more profound. It was not just a special case or an exception that works in a narrow scheme of things. Sitting here on earth, he discovered that the law that governed apples falling from a tree is the same as the one which governed planets in motion. That suddenly meant that there was nothing special about planets and nothing special about apples. They were all guided the same law something which works the same everywhere in the Universe - nothing special about Earth (and therefore nothing special about Man living on it?)

All of sudden, the Nature started to make sense. The flowing rivers, the waves in the oceans, the winds, the rain, the wheels of the chariot, and everything that our eyes could see in our daily life, were governed by one Universal law, which is not complicated but simple and elegant, something which was not beyond human’s comprehension, but something that is very much within the grasp of a thinking and observing man.

What does it mean? Does God work in mysterious ways, or does God work within certain guiding principles never contravening them. If God himself cannot contravene these laws, then either God is not omnipotent as we thought, or may be, God created these laws and left everything else to unfold itself. Either way, it doesn’t look like God created Earth as a special place.

Anyway, such thoughts were still lingering in the minds of philosophers who saw the implications of such a science, but we still had to wait for future minds to unravel more about ‘The Life, The Universe and Everything’.

Science and Technology

Study of Age of Enlightenment is quite interesting. One guy made observations; another guy published the observations, while another developed a theory around it; someone created technology and the use case for humans to benefit from it. In turn, the gadgets that were developed helped the scientists to make better observations, and so on. Science and Technology fed each other to develop one another – more people contributed to it since the results were being accessible to many others, through books, media, and publications. It just went on an explosive growth resulting in modern times – where we have Electricity, Airplanes, Trains, Telephone, TV, Internet, DVD players, etc.

Origin of Species

Charles Darwin was an ordinary man who went a step further to asked some deeper questions. He made many of the observations himself. When he set sail on Beagle, he had some questions. But after his historic trip which covered many observations including the famous ones from Galapagos Islands, he had many answers.

Many of his theories are mind boggling and counter-intuitive just like any other scientific theory. Nothing is obvious and yet it was the how Nature worked.

Charles Darwin published his famous book Origin of Species after many years of deliberation –he knew implications were quite serious. In that historic book, he observed that the animals and plants evolved over a period of time – not just ordinary time of days, months or years, but mind bogglingly big numbers of millions of years. He observed that certain species on the planet are closely related to each having the same ancestor. He took the step further and explained how this evolution happens. Natural Selection is the mechanism that Nature uses and is the same for all life on earth – plants and animals. Life on earth evolves guided by certain mechanism that Nature imposes on us. Those who survive the onslaught of nature go onto produce future generations while those who cannot cope up will wither away and go extinct. It works at individual level and at species level. Some species just go extinct, while the successful ones survive or in turn evolve further to a different set. Mutations which are far from being perfect, which are in fact anomalies that happen at a genetic level, are actually the whole reason why humans exist on the planet today.

It’s like saying Man is not perfect, which could also mean God was not perfect – since He created Man in the image of God. According to Darwin’s observations, Nature created humans as one more species out of millions of other species on this planet, nothing suggesting we are any special. Also, the eventual discovery that humans are only 7 million years old on this planet while life existed for more than 3 billion years suggests that God was preoccupied with something else for all the time. It’s like God worked on creating other life the whole day and night of 24 hours and has spent only last 3 minutes in created humans.

Is Man special?

Darwin reduced Man to almost nothing like nobody before. Evolution, like Theory of Gravity, has changed our perception of the Universe and our place in it. Nature did not treat humans special. In fact, our journey has not been very different from that our nearest cousins – chimpanzees. Only in the recent past, about 3 minutes ago, did we get separated them. Before that, for nearly 23 hours and 57 minutes, God did not differentiate Humans and Chimpanzees. That is quite a discomforting thought to most religious people who conveniently believed that humans were special beings created specially by God.

Also, his theory further suggested that presence of humans on this planet is a fortuitous event, a lucky chance, reduced to a mere probability. That goes in face of many theists who vouched for the Bible.

Darwin’s Theory of Evolution is another of those counter-intuitive laws of nature amongst many others. It doesn’t follow naturally for humans to come up with something like that. The way it is not easy for humans to believe earth is not flat, that Earth revolves round the Sun, that the same force that makes apple fall to the ground is the one which keeps Moon revolving round the Earth, evolution is counter-intuitive, not easy for humans to accept just like that, and yet that’s how the Nature works.

For some people unraveling Nature is a magical experience. It’s something worth living for. Knowing how rainbow forms, knowing how stars burn for such long time, knowing how planets revolve and how we get eclipses, why we have seasons, etc, are beautiful things worth knowing and pursuing. There are many others who would rather take comfort in now knowing, not understanding, who would rather believe that everything is a miracle something created by God without any adherence to a simple law. Simple law is boring, while thinking that God actually heard his prayers to create wind to bring the clouds, seed it with enough water vapor to make it rain is interesting. Hence the notion that God created Humans as special beings continues to exist in spite of Darwin and his Theory of Evolution. For some of us, Theory of Evolution is another of those great discoveries, a window into understanding how Nature works.


  1. Religious fanatics practised sophistry in Pre-Darwin era. This job was taken over by rationalists in Post-Darwin era.

  2. I do agree on your point that Humans are not special - that we have been living on this planet for a negligible amount of time when compared to most of the other species. Secondly, Darwin succeeds in exceptional observations. To be more precise, he is very good at explaining how things happen or could have happened. But when it comes to why all these things happen, Science as a whole is not quite up to the mark. Isn't it?

    Destination Infinity

  3. @Destination Infinity

    Not every question is meaningful. Why all these happen? is meaningless in the sense that why is water colorless. There's a substance that is colorless and some chemical compostion etc and we chose to call it water.

    I know I may not have made sense there because I'm really at loss of words to put it into words.

    That being said, science or anything for that matter doesn't have to explain why all these things happen because it is of no useful purpose.

    While religion may say think it has answers but they amount to nothing more than God said so that's why.

    Science may not be perfect, but it's the best tool we got.


  4. Destination Infinity:

    I agree with AV here.

    Science may not answer all questions - we have to live that handicap, but it is still the best tool we have.

    Is Science in the best interest of man? Every new discovery or invention was received ambivalently by humans.

    Taming of Fire, Use of Wheel, etc, all have dubious record. Was it in the best interest of humans? Didn't we get wars and massacres out of these inventions?

    Such topics are debatable. Like education, one can put it to use to create something constructive or something destructive.

    Once we bring in morality, Science may not take a side - and that could be a problem for some people - hence religion!

  5. Sujai, I enjoyed what I read! But, Darwin's theory does not answer all the questions which comes to my mind about nature and our existence in this nature.

    One famous 'point-of-view' which raises questions over interpretation of Darwin's hypothesis can be seen through the following thought experiment.

    'Suppose, in distant future, all living species on earth's surface become extinct, because of a newly found deadly virus. The virus completely removes any evidence of life from the face of earth, affecting all the plants and animals and insects in similar manner. At this time a alien space shuttle lands on earth surface, which has now become a silent lonely planet. Soon the intelligent aliens who discovered Earth start to study our possessions, trying to piece together the history of their new discovery. They might notice that all of our cookware the pots and pans and plates and bowls and observe that all seemed to be related some how. And the older ones were quite different from the newer ones. The earliest among them were crude bowls, all somewhat similar, generally made of clay or stone. Over time, the bowls evolved into plates and coffee cups and stainless-steel frying pans. Eventually, the aliens would create compelling charts showing how the dishes evolved. The teacup family would look like its own species, related closely to the beer mug and the
    water glass. An observer who looked at the charts would clearly see a pattern that could not be coincidence. The cause of this dishware evolution would be debated, just as we debate the underlying cause of human evolution, but the observed fact of dishware evolution would not be challenged by the alien scientists. The facts would be clear. Some scientists would be bothered by the lack of intermediate dishware species—say, a frying pan with a beer mug handle—but they would assume it to exist somewhere undiscovered. As it makes sense to fill in the gaps of our knowledge based on patterns that we observe.'

    There are many questions which you may raise against this point-of-view but please remember that I am just presenting a hypothetical scenario. Unfortunately, people's beliefs are based on information present to them under the limitation of their own knowledge of the nature. So, if a person does not believe in Darwin's theory they just aren't comfortable with the thought. But, this is just a fraction of knowledge which is available to us and there is so much more left to explore.

    I just want to point out that a person's admiration of Darwin can make them believe in his theory blindly just like another person's perception of a invisible god. And if in future, another theory is proposed, they will find the new views cockeyed and incoherent with their previous view of evolution. Such newer theory will always struggle to find acceptance.

    When evolution is concerned, this theory is compelling not because of the quality of the evidence but because of the quantity and variety of it, every year scientist come up with observations with various species of plants and animals which confines to the original theory proposed by Darwin. In the similar context the aliens would feel the same dilemma.There would be so much evidence for their theory of dish-
    ware evolution that opponents would be mocked. The alien scientists would theorize that forks evolved from spoons,
    which evolved from knives. Pots evolved from bowls etc.The sheer quantity and variety of the data would be overwhelming. Eventually they would stop calling it a theory and consider it a fact and base their beliefs on it, which like any other belief (religious or non religious) will behave rigidly.

  6. @cxzaq123

    I'd like to add something apart from what Sujai wrote in his next post.

    Confirming the Theory of Evolution by observing the evidence, such as fossils, is one part of "proof" for the theory. Another part is actually "seeing" it.

    But to actually observe evolution in any species, we have to observe the species for thousands of generations, which is clearly not possible in case of humans. But scientists were able to "see" evolution in bacteria since their lifespan is so low. Details can be found here.

    In your hypothetical scenario, would aliens be able to "see" it in cookware?

    -- AV

  7. AV:
    Thanks for that comment and that link.

    Helps a lot.

    Having said, there are enough numbers of people ready to discredit any such evidence and continue to believe what they want to believe.

    Recently, I was talking to a lady who believes in lot of superstitious rituals - and reads enough material to back it up with all kinds of pseudo-scientific explanations.

    The topic came to a simple thing - that of eclipses. I said there are people who still continue to think that one supreme being actually gobbles up Sun for a while and then lets it go.

    She said, 'why not?' after which she said, 'how do you know about rotation of Moon and Earth and how can one be sure about it? May be, these Western Scientists are all creating this hype just to discredit Indian mythology'.



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