Welcome to the 15th edition of Giant’s Shoulders!
On 25th August Google celebrated the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s first public presentation of his telescope an anniversary that is also commented upon in the latest addition of the Guardian Weekly, a compendium of the English daily newspaper The Guardian for ex-patriots like myself. It’s kind of nice to see the world paying a bit of attention to the history of astronomy but unfortunately they both got the date wrong! I suspect that both of them relied on the same news agency report and didn’t bother to check the facts. Well for those that care and even for those that don’t I have put together a short chronology of the early days of the telescope.
So, why was “eppur si muove” such a big deal? Didn’t we know about this second possibility? Didn’t people at least consider it?
The answer, shockingly, is no, not really. Why didn’t we consider it? Because looking up and noticing that the heavens rotate predated our idea that the Earth could be round. If the Earth is flat, then it wouldn’t make sense for it to rotate, would it?
The huge mistake is that once we discovered the Earth was round (in about 300 B.C., by the way), we didn’t reconsider this problem. We didn’t go back and say, “Hey, you know what? Instead of this celestial sphere idea, maybe it’s just us that’s spinning!” And so we held onto the idea of a fixed Earth for nearly 2,000 more years.
I can’t help but wonder, if we went back and critically re-examined our assumptions and conclusions based on what we know now, if we would uncover some fantastic possibilities that could challenge our current scientific views of the Universe? Or, if everything we have concluded to this point really is the scientific best we can do with what we know?
By the way, the video of the rotation of the sky and the stars that this piece links to is a must-see!
… the Halifax Explosion represented one of the first modern disasters to be studied from a sociological and psychological perspective. Several years after the explosion, Samuel Henry Prince completed his Ph.D. at Columbia University. His thesis, titled Catastrophe and Social Change: Based on a Sociological Study of the Halifax Disaster, represented the first systematic study of relief efforts following a major disaster. As a scholar, pastor, and social activist, Prince’s own experience dealing with disaster was considerable. Not only was he part of the rescue effort following the Titanic sinking five years earlier, but he narrowly escaped being injured in the Halifax explosion himself (despite the risk of flying glass, he arrived on the scene just minutes after the blast to help with rescue efforts). After the explosion, Prince helped mobilize international relief efforts and continued to work on behalf of survivors and their families for years afterward.In his book, Prince described the “shock and disintegration” that followed the explosion as well as the massive relief effort needed and the complex social issues that were linked to aiding survivors. He also emphasized the long-term consequences of the tragedy by stating: “The Halifax Disaster will leave a permanent mark upon the city because so many of the living have been blinded or maimed for life. But it is possible that the disaster may leave a mark of another sort, for it is confidently believed by those who took part in the relief work during the first few weeks that Halifax will gain as well as lose. The sturdy quality of its citizens will bring “beauty out of ashes”"”. Prince also stressed the role that disasters can play in bringing about meaningful social change to prevent future loss of life.
Although there had certainly been previous disasters and major relief efforts, Catastrophe and Social Change represents one of the first attempts at studying disasters from a social science perspective and is still considered a classic in the field. While emergency management would eventually become a well-researched topic after World War II, the lessons learned from the Halifax Explosion continue to be applied in rescue efforts around the world.
Osborn was not suggesting that his “aristogenes” were macromutations that were then acted upon by natural selection. The new traits were already fine-tuned to what the creature needed to survive. Thus, for Osborn, “artistogenes” were by definition adaptive. Later in the same paper he wrote;
A new aristogene is readily distinguished from a new D. mutation [i.e. a sudden, large-scale mutation that gives rise to a new trait] by invariably obeying the eighteen principles of biomechanical adaptation; D. mutations on the contrary may or may not be adaptive.
This may seem straightforward now, but let me assure you it took a lot of careful reading to tease this much out. While Osborn did make many important contributions to paleontology his ideas about evolution, especially in his later years, were often presented in a tangle of new terms and references to certain laws or principles. It seemed like he was trying to make his hypotheses more law-like by forming new terms and trying to boil them down to the workings of chemistry and physics, but it seems to me that this approach backfired.
Over many generations Wilson and Swenson continued to collect the bacteria laden soil from under the largest and smallest plants and grow more plants of the same species. What they found was that plants grown in the two soil ecosystems grew the same as previous (genetically unrelated) plants had. By selecting groups of bacteria, rather than the individual plants, Wilson and Swenson demonstrated how group selection could give rise to the most fit individuals. Since the network of soil bacteria thrive so long as their host plant thrives, the mutualistic relationship promotes each individual bacteria in the network, but they are only able to thrive because of the selection that occurred at the level of the group. This is how multilevel selection operates.
At this time, multilevel selection theory is in its infancy and it’s currently unknown how widespread this kind of selection is in the natural world. However, I believe the research shows great promise and deserves to be taken seriously. It’s unfortunate that Dawkins has often been as stridently against this line of research as he has been with religious conservatives. Referring to this research as the “group delusion” and Wilson’s interest in it as a “weird infatuation” demeans his role as an advocate of cutting edge scientific research. Multilevel and group selection theory is not ideologically driven and the primary interest is to advance knowledge of evolutionary history not condemn it. Unfortunately, Dawkins has made the issue personal when the focus should be on the merits of the research itself.
However, all of this is commonplace in the history of science. Dawkins, like Newton before him, is passionate about his topic and will defend his perspective vociferously. I don’t believe the life sciences equivalent of Einstein has entered the stage just yet, but I do think that such an arrival should be anticipated and welcomed as we continue to expand our knowledge about the natural world.
The following three pieces might be a bit of stretch of Giant’s Shoulders’; but, hey, they are interesting; so, here you go!
Have fun; and, the next edition will be published at Quiche Moraine.