Flavin's Corner  June 2002

The Survival of the Fittest Ideas

Prof. Stephen Jay Gould (Harvard, paleontology) succumbed to a twenty year long battle with cancer on Monday, May 20, 2002.  Thor Heyerdahl, Ph.D. (Hon.) acclaimed adventurer and amateur anthropologist, also recently passed away from cancer.  One was a scientist and the other a crackpot.  The knowledge of ourselves and our universe evolves with time, but as to which opinions, perceptions, guesses, or which model of consensual understanding will achieve widespread acceptence and remain current, is unknown.  Perhaps it’s the survival of the fittest ideas.

Many credit the Presocratic philosopher, Anaximander of Miletus (c. 610-546 BCE), with being the first to disagree with a local religious creation myth and attempt to explain a rational origin of man and life in general.  Commenting on Anaximander’s now lost work, “On Nature,” the first “antipope,” St. Hippolytus of Rome (d. 236. CE), preserves this initial step toward evolutionary theory with: “Living creatures came into being from moisture evaporated by the sun.  Man was originally similar to another creature – that is, to a fish.” [Note: English translation of Hippolytus, Refutation of all Heresies; I, 6, 6, from The Presocratic Philosophers, second edition, by G. S. Kirk, J. E. Raven and M. Schofield; Cambridge: U. of Cambridge Press, 1983, 1995; p. 141.]   It’s good to know that even an antipope can contribute something worthwhile to the history of science.

After Anaximander, another Presocratic philosopher, Xenophanes of Colophon (c. 570-475 BCE), examined fossils and discussed evolution.  Then, Aristotle (384-322 BCE) cut up some fish to facilitate forensic rhetoric, admitted that change could occur within a species, agreed with Anaximander and a belief in the spontaneous generation of some species (mud-flys, sand-worms, and such), and continued to challenge all creation myths, but didn’t put a lot of spice in his sauce.  Still, as in much else, it remained the Church’s way or Aristotle’s way (no matter, as both were unclear) until after the Renaissance, the return of original thinking, and the publication of Historia plantarum; species hactenus editas insuper multas noviter inventas & descriptas complectens (by John Ray; 3 vols.; London: Samuel Smith, 1686, 1704), in which Ray put forth the first definition of a species based upon common descent, followed by his Synopsis methodica animalium quadrupedum et serpentini generis (by John Ray; London: Samuel Smith, 1693), in which he proclaimed an open disagreement of the “spontaneous generation” theory, as held by Anaximander and Aristotle.  The study of evolution was finally starting to go somewhere.

The eighteenth century played psychopomp to the creation myth calculations of Bishop Usher and provided the circumstances which directly led to Darwin and his theory of “natural selection.” [Note: For Usher’s guess that the earth was created on Oct. 26, 4004 BCE, see: Annalium pars posterior, in qua, praeter Maccabaicam et Novi Testamenti historiam imperii Romanorum caesarum sub C. Julio & Octaviano ortus, rerumque in Asia & Aegypto gestarum continetur chronicon: ab Antiochi Epiphanis regni exordio, usque ad Imperii Vespasiani inita atque extremum Templi & Reipublicae Judaicae excidium deductum ("The Annals of the World deduced from The Origin of Time, and continued to the beginning of the Emperour Vespasians Reign, and the totall Destruction and Abolition of the Temple and Common-wealth of the Jews. Containing the Historie of the Old and New Testament, with that of the Macchabees. Also all the most Memorable Affairs of Asia and Egypt, And the Rise of the Empire of the Roman Caesars under C. Julius,and Octavianus. Collected From all History, as well Sacred, as Prophane, and Methodically digested") by Reverend James Usher; 2 vols.; London: E. Tyler, 1650, 1654.]  While naturalists from Linnaeus to Lamarck worked on a better understanding of species, the keenest response to interventionist geology and the Genesis myth was by Charles Lyell and his Principles of Geology, Being an Attempt to Explain the Former Changes of the Earth's Surface, by Reference to Causes Now in Operation (3 vols.; London: John Murray, 1832, 1833).  Darwin took Lyell’s book along on his famous voyage aboard the HMS Beagle, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The concept of evolution went against the Creationist view that all life was designed immutable and not subject to change (except in rare cases of birth defects).  Extinction was regarded as impossible, until the fossil record began to show examples of species that didn’t make it.  Lamarck proposed an evolutionary “tree,” which attempted to connect all life-forms from the simple to the most advanced and proposed that certain learned characteristics could be passed to offspring.  Close, but no Cuaba Distinguidos.  Charles Darwin suspected the correctness of evolution, but in true scientific fashion refrained from speculation until he could propose a testable model with a hypothetical mechanism through which evolution worked, and it was good science, pure genius, and ...someone else thought of it at the same time.

It’s a grand tale, exceeding most fiction, of how Darwin contemplated diversity, believed in Lyell’s gradualism, read a book on economics and made an analogy between one’s ability to pay rent and species propagation.  And, as appropriate for the best of narratives, there was this nice guy, Alfred Russel Wallace, who thought along the same lines, but wasn’t interested in getting any credit for his work.  Darwin advanced a model of “natural selection” to prove the theory of evolution and based it upon a pragmatic survival of the fittest.  One pays their rent, they continue; one doesn’t pay their rent, and it's off to the fossil record.  My favs of the tale: that Darwin shared credit for the model of “natural selection” with Wallace, and that before Chaz went to deliver his first big speech Thomas Huxley told him that “natural selection” was so cool, it didn’t need Lyell’s gradualism to slow it down.  According to Huxley, “natural selection” was sound enough to work slow, fast, or somewhere in between.  Darwin stuck to slow, became a hero for all time, but he should have listened to Huxley. 

Pioneers are known for blazing new trails.  However, as is sometimes the case, a better trail is later discovered not far from the pioneering one.  Freud challenged us to look inside ourselves, but he failed to predict what could be done in an oval office when a cigar is just a cigar.  Likewise, Einstein was outspoken against quantum physics, believed “God doesn’t play dice with the universe,” and has since been proved wrong, as God loves dice games, also billiards and poker.  Darwin was a pioneer, as well, and though much of his work has survived unscathed from nearly a hundred and fifty years of Creationist blather, even Chaz was in need of some fine tuning.  He should have listened to Huxley. 

[Personal Note: In the fall of 1965, while I was a second-grade student at Steelman Elementary in Eatontown, New Jersey, I wrote a short-story entitled “The Origin of the Four Winds.”  My teacher was impressed with my use of the word “origin,” the story was awarded a gold-star (in lieu of a grade), and I decided against mentioning that I was growing up in a household with older brothers who read comic-books and was quite familiar with the origin of this and that superhero.  The receipt of a gold-star inspired me to consider becoming a writer when I was through with childhood.  Shortly afterwards, my class took a field-trip to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.  The dinosaur skeletons had a profound effect upon me.  Though I didn’t know the term, I there and then decided that I wanted to be a paleontologist and study dinosaurs.  A few days later, I spied a large bone in a drainage ditch near my home.  It was the largest bone I’d ever seen; that is, the largest bone I’d ever seen that wasn’t on display at the American Museum of Natural History.  It had to be a dinosaur bone, I reasoned.  Braving broken glass and foul smelling nasty stuff, I seized the bone and made it home with only a few cuts and scrapes.  I washed it, and myself, in the bathroom sink and introduced it to my parents as a dinosaur bone.  My dad said I could keep it in the front-hall closet with the water-heater.  A couple of weeks later he told me it was a cow’s thigh bone and threw it away.  No matter.  For a short time, a very short time, I was a collector of dinosaur bones.  I didn’t become a paleontologist, but I’ve never forgotten the dinosaur skeletons at the American Museum of Natural History.  I still write the occasional short-story, however.] 

Stephen Jay Gould was born in New York City, remained a lifelong Yankees fan (though working in Red Sox territory his entire professional career), and credits a childhood trip to the American Museum of Natural History and seeing dinosaur skeletons with his decision to become a paleontologist.  While studying for his doctorate through a combined program with Columbia University and the American Museum of Natural History, he met a fellow student, Niles Eldredge, who was to become a professional collaborator and lifelong friend (as well as the current curator of the American Museum of Natural History's Division of Paleontolgy).  In 1971, Eldredge published “The allopatric model and phylogeny in Paleozoic invertebrates" (Evolution, 25: 156-167) which suggested a new way of interpreting the fossil record.  The next year, in collaboration with Gould, they introduced the theory of “punctuated equilibrium” to account for the often lack of evidence when an explanation of the evolutionary process is given.  Instead of the steadiness of gradualism, they suggested that various factors combine to cause evolution to entail a process which goes slow, sometimes speeds up, slows back down, speeds up again, and that the fossil record (being, as it, something akin to the results of a lottery) could not be expected to show every nuance (see: “Punctuated equilibria: An alternative to phyletic gradualism,” by N. Eldredge and S. J. Gould, in Models in Paleobiology, edited by T. J. M. Schopf; San Francisco: Freeman, Cooper, and Co., 1972, pp. 82-115).  Punk Eek had arrived..

Most regard the theory of “punctuated equilibrium” to be an enhancement of Darwin’s model of “natural selection.”  But, not everyone does.  Creationists still quote a 1980 Presidential campaign speech by Ronald Reagan: “Well, it's a theory--it is a scientific theory only, and it has in recent years been challenged in the world of science and is not yet believed in the scientific community to be as infallible as it was once believed.”  This is like John Lennon and the press given the release of The Passover Plot (by Hugh Schonfield, New York: Bernard Geis, 1965).  A feature writer took a comment out of context, records were burned, and some sicko came by years later with a gun and shot John--a sad incident some still connect to Lennon’s earlier out-of-context comments about the commercial success of a book about Jesus.  Reagan, and a legion of Creationist idiots behind him, wrongly argue that the work of such scientists as Eldredge and Gould challenge Darwin and somehow it invalidates evolution.  Nope, such work agrees with Darwin, strengthens it, and helps us understand ourselves better. 

F*ck the damn creationists, those bunch of dumb-ass bitches, 
every time I think of them my trigger finger itches. 
They want to have their bullsh*t, taught in public class, 
Stephen J. Gould should put his foot right up their ass. 
Noah and his ark, Adam and his Eve, 
straight up fairy stories even children don't believe. 
I'm not saying there's no god, that's not for me to say, 
all I'm saying is the Earth was not made in a day.
From "F*ck the Creationists," by MC Hawking.

At this point, I should probably discuss Prof. Gould’s further contributions to science, his profound teaching career, his 300 "This View of Life" columns in Natural History and other writings, his relentless opposition to pseudoscience, and perhaps mention something about the man behind all the incredible accomplishments, but I can’t.  There’s the rest of this column to get to.  If you’ve made it this far and perhaps clicked some hyperlinks, you should have a sense of what we’ve lost with the passing of Stephen Jay Gould.  Thanks for your efforts, sir.

Thor Heyerdahl will be remembered for many things, most involving sea-voyages in modern replicas of ancient water craft to support his various fantastic theories of migration and diffusion.  But, I’ll always remember him as being named after the Norse god of thunder.  It’s kind of like naming a kid “Jesus” or “Apollo.”  Yet, if your father's name is Thor...  I would guess the young Thor Heyerdahl had some interesting times on the playground trying to live up to his namesake.  As an adult, he certainly led an interesting life, though as his last major interest was trying to prove that the Norse All-father, the god Odin, was an actual king in Russia during the first century BCE, maybe he thought he was still back on the playground at the end. [Note: For Thor’s “Odin” theories, available only in Norwegian at this time, see: Ingen Gernser (“No Boundaries”), by Thor Heyerdahl and Per Lillieström; Oslo: Stenersens, 1999; and Jakten på Odin (“The Hunt for Odin”), by Thor Heyerdahl and Per Lillieström; Oslo: Stenersens, 2001.]

An online biography describes Heyerdahl as a University of Oslo student specializing in zoology and geography when he and his bride spent a year living on Fatu Hiva Island in the Marquesas in 1937 and 1938.  There’s mention that Heyerdahl was impressed with the “eternal easterly winds and currents” and he somehow “lost faith” in the accepted theory that the Pacific islands had been populated from the west.  He gave up on zoology (and academia) and turned to writing, penning the travelogue Paa Jakt Efter Paradiset (“In Search of Paradise,” by Thor Heyerdahl; Oslo: Gyldendal, 1938), followed by the articles "Did Polynesian Culture Originate in America?" for the short-lived journal, International Science (No. 1; May, 1941; pp. 15-26) and "Turning Back Time in the South Seas" in National Geographic Magazine (No. 79, Vol 1; 1941; pp.109-136).  And then there was WWII and he had to go fight Nazis.  He was thirty-one when WWII ended, but afterwards he continued fighting in other ways. 

It’s quite simple, actually; he should have stayed in school.  Scholars rejected Heyerdahl’s theory of an eastern migration from the New World into Polynesia as ludicrous and so he tried something else.  The so-called “Kon Tiki” voyage of 1947 captured the world’s attention, made Heyerdahl a celebrity, proved that it was possible for six modern Europeans to sail from Peru to Polynesia in a raft, and gave scholars a good laugh.  Bolstered by some serious income generated by an immensely popular book which was translated into dozens of languages, Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific by Raft (Trans. by F. H. Lyon; Chicago: Rand McNally, 1950), as well an Academy Award winning 1952 documentary film, he went digging around the Galapagos Islands in 1952 and Easter Island in 1955 and 1956.  He lectured, published this and that, and seemed to have a lot of fun doing whatever it was that he was doing.  Right.  What was he doing again?  Making money from his wide smile and fantastic theories.  Sounds okay?  Nope.  Just about everything that Heyerdahl did and proposed was unscientific and wrong. 

It began with those “eternal easterly winds and currents,” a quick glance at a map, and the wild idea that Polynesia was populated from the New World.  It didn’t matter that the scholars who stayed in school and became professional anthropologists, linguists, archaeologists, and cultural historians (and, later, geneticists) told him he was wrong, he had sailed aboard Kon Tiki and proved such a voyage was possible.  He deliberately ignored the amazing navigational prowess of the Polynesians and refused to admit the possibility that ...maybe the Polynesians had sailed to Peru at some point.  No, crackpots like Heyerdahl never give up, never admit mistakes, and will never be taken seriously. [Note: As far as “seriously” is concerned, these are strange times we live in.  As if it wasn't strange enough that the renowned National Geographic emulated the National Inquirer by recently connecting Ballard’s work in the Black Sea to Noah’s flood myth, a current webpage actually treats Graham Hancock like his opinion about ancient history means something.  Strange times, indeed!]

As Heyerdahl’s hyper-diffusionist theory of the populating of the Pacific began to collect dust, he turned his imagination to the Atlantic and proposed an Egyptian influence on ancient South America.  A forty-five foot long papyrus reed vessel named “Ra,” after the Egyptian Sun god, set sail from Morocco in 1969 and almost made it to Barbados before they got into trouble and had to be rescued.  Ten months later, “Ra II” successfully completed the voyage, again proving that modern sailors in replicas of ancient vessels can do really cool things if they don’t have full-time jobs.  In 1977, ever the adventurer, Heyerdahl took on the Indian Ocean with a fifty foot long vessel made of Iraqi berdi reeds, sailed down the Tigris River, through the Persian Gulf, made it to Pakistan, but on his way back and trying to get into the Red Sea, he had a rough time at Djibouti because of an ongoing war with Ethiopia, so he beached the ship and set it on fire “to protest what was happening in this war-torn region.''  I’m going to pass on commenting about that one. [Note: See The Ra Expeditions, by Thor Heyerdahl; New York: Doubleday, 1971; and The Tigris Expedition: in search of our beginnings, by Thor Heyerdahl; New York: Doubleday, 1971.]

In 1983 and 1984, Heyerdahl returned to the Indian Ocean and conducted excavations in the Maldive Islands.  A webpage of The Kon-Tiki Museum Institute for Pacific Archaeology and Cultural History informs us the excavations were the result of an “invitation from the President of the Republic of Maldives, His Excellency Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.”  The webpage goes on to say the excavations produced the discovery of a Roman coin, but not much else.  There’s these really cool statues the webpage links to Hindu demons, the “rakshasas,” though always the hyper-diffusionist, in The Maldive Mystery (by Thor Heyerdahl; Bethesda, MD: Adler & Adler, 1986), he teases the statues could be related to ...Easter Island.  I hope the president of the Maldives didn’t spend too much on Heyerdahl’s opinion. 

I’ve no doubt Heyerdahl’s name and some of his writings will be current for many, many years to come.  None of his fantastic ideas, however, have been accepted and I can’t imagine that ever changing.  I've a hunch we’ll better understand ancient migrations at some point and there will more than likely be a few surprises.  History, and likely the period we refer to as “prehistory” as well, does not move ahead with gradualism (and, please, let’s not get into catastrophism), but rather probably advances with something close to punctuated equilibrium.  We just haven’t figured out all the busy periods and have to admit we may never be able to.  It’s the survival of the fittest ideas and I think that science and testing will win out over pseudoscience and a what-if approach.  The contest should be a blast!

On to “Life During Wartime” from the 2002 Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame Awards,
Rick

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