From time to time, I’d like to highlight some of the most thought provoking articles on science that I’ve read recently. To me the most interesting ones tend to be ones that have some sort of philosophical implication, either on human nature or the nature of the universe in general. In this entry, I cover two recent articles on human nature, one on the latest attempt at a comprehensive theory of everything and finally one on an extremely speculative theory of what happens to the universe when humans simply observe it.
John Scalzi recently posted a highly entertaining account on his visit to the Creation Museum in Kentucky in the US, complete with 100 photos of the whole thing. Among some of the most ridiculous claims the museum makes is that dinosaurs lived contemporaneously with humans until as late as the Fifth Dynasty of ancient kingdom of Egypt. Even more amusingly, they claim that before Adam committed the original sin of eating the forbidden apple in the Garden of Eden, all animals were herbivores, even some fearsome dinosaurs as the mighty Tyrannosaurus Rex. They suggest that before Adam ate the apple, the T. Rexes used their gigantic fangs and claws to eat coconuts.
Personally, I recall going to Sunday school once at an early age and hearing the story of the Garden of Eden. Even then, my bullshit detectors went off because, well, having read stuff like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, I wondered where were the dinosaurs in the story? As Scalzi writes, you really have to admire the chutzpah of creationists who can insert dinosaurs into Paradise and still claim with a straight face that all the facts fit together just fine.
As ridiculous as this sounds, this is a pretty big deal in the United States. The Creation Museum cost US$27 million and is reportedly attracting crowds of a decent size, while approximately two thirds of Americans believe that creation science should be taught alongside evolution in schools. More worrying still, as The Economist noted earlier this year, the movement is becoming global, with Turkey in particular being a centre for Muslim creationism.
I’m particularly curious about attitudes in Malaysia. From anecdotal evidence, I believe that most Malaysians still harbour significant doubts about human evolution without actually committing themselves to so ludicrous a belief as the 6 day Young Earth Creationism taught by the museum. This is still a shame though because the consensus among scientists is that evolution is probably the most well established and well documented theory in all of science and answers to the most common questions are easily found on websites like the TalkOrigins Archive.
This month’s issue of Popular Mechanics has an article on the latest advances in mind reading technology: using magnetic resonance imaging machines to determine without ambiguity what a subject is thinking about. As a practical matter, the main experiment cited in the article is actually not that impressive since there was a base success rate of 50 percent simply by guessing what the test subject was thinking about. As a foretaste of what is to come however, it is intriguing. As the imaging resolution goes up and the database from which the raw images are interpreted grows, the accuracy of such devices will only increase. It is well within the realm of the possible that eventually such devices may be available in a portable form.
Since a friend of mine, Tan Kien Boon, recently made a post on his blog about an emotionally trying experience that could be related to ghosts, I thought I might write about my closest encounter with the supernatural. This happened several years ago when I was working for a logging company in Gabon in west central Africa. I was sleeping, alone, face up, late in the afternoon, the kind of sleep where you’re not awake but not completely unconscious either.
Contrary to traditional scientific opinion, feelings are just as cognitive as other percepts. They are the result of a most curious physiological arrangement that has turned the brain into the body’s captive audience. Feelings let us catch a glimpse of the organism in full biological swing, a reflection of the mechanism of life itself as they go about their business. Were it not for the possibility of sensing body states that are inherently ordained to be painful or pleasurable, there would be no suffering or bliss, no longing or mercy, no tragedy or glory in the human condition.
-Antonio R. Damasio in Descartes’ Error
Descartes’ error, as meant by neurologist Antonio R. Damasio in this book, and one that has insinuated itself deeply into mainstream thought, is as he puts it: “the abyssal separation between body and mind, between the sizable, dimensioned, mechanically operated, infinitely divisible body stuff, on the one hand, and the unsizable, undimensioned, un-pushpullable, nondivisible mind stuff; the suggestion that reasoning, and moral judgment, and the suffering that comes from physical pain or emotional upheaval might exist separately from the body. Specifically: the separation of the most refined operations of mind from the structure and operation of a biological organism.”
In other words: thinking is inescapably a biological process. It is expressly not true, as many people take for granted, that “thinking, and awareness of thinking, are the real substrates of being.”
My success as a man of science, whatever this may have amounted to, has been determined, as far as I can judge, by complex and diversified mental qualities and conditions. Of these, the most important have been – the love of science – unbounded patience in long reflecting over any subject – industry in observing and collecting facts – and a fair share of invention as well as common sense. With such moderate abilities as I possess, it is truly surprising that I should have influenced to a considerable extent the belief of scientific men on some important points.
– Charles Darwin in The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, Volume 1
His is a name taught in every elementary textbook on biology and for good reason. Creationists have ever been eager to pounce on the fact that Darwin was never the first to come up with the theory of evolution, and indeed it is well-known that his first public presentation of his ideas was shared with Alfred Russel Wallace who developed the same theory of natural selection independently of Darwin. Yet it was Wallace who wrote:
“We claim for Darwin that he is the Newton of natural history, and that, just so surely as that the discovery and demonstration by Newton of the law of gravitation established order in place of chaos and laid a sure foundation for all future study of the starry heavens, so surely has Darwin, by his discovery of the law of natural selection and his demonstration of the great principle of the preservation of useful variations in the struggle for life, not only thrown a flood of light on the process of development of the whole organic world, but also established a firm foundation for all future study of nature.”