Brown University biologist and author Ken Miller talks about his new book The Human Instinct: How We Evolved to Have Reason, Consciousness and Free Will.
Welcome to Scientific American's Science Talk posted on April 30, 2018. I'm Steve Mirsky. In this episode –
Ken Miller: The very fact that we contemplate and we debate our own uniqueness makes us unique. And that is what authors who have tried to make human beings just another species of no more significance than any other, that's what they're missing.
Steve Mirsky: That's Ken Miller. He's professor of biology at Brown University. He's known for a couple of his previous books, Only a Theory and Fighting Darwin's God. And his new book is called The Human Instinct: How We Evolved to Have Reason, Consciousness and Free Will. He was in New York City on April 24 and we spoke at Scientific American's offices.
What problem did you see that made you want to address it with this book?
Miller: Well, as you know, I'd written two previous books that basically dealt with the arguments that so-called scientific creationists or intelligent design advocates raise against evolution. And in those books, I tried to answer those arguments point by point. I tried to explain how evolution is well supported by the scientific evidence. Not just fossils, which is what everybody thinks of, but by genetics, by molecular biology, by biology and the fact that we can actually see evolution occurring in the world today.
I'm not the only author who's addressed those issues. And as I said earlier in one of the opening chapters, I don't want to beat that poor horse again. But over the years – and I mean the last few years – it's become apparent to me that there are certain people – many people, actually – who see sort of a cultural interpretation of evolution which some people call Darwinism.
It's kind of a depressing doctrine of something that says, "We, human beings, aren't special. We're mere animals." And then, they set an entire field like evolutionary psychology which seeks – with good reason – to try to explain human emotions, drives, wants and needs in terms of evolutionary imperatives that drove our ancestors and helped to shape our nervous systems, our brains and our reactions to certain stimuli in the environment.
Well, it turns out that a lot of that is very, very good work. But an awful lot of it is overstated. And it's overstated to the point where certain people – many authors, many popular authors speaking for science – they basically presume to tell us why we like certain things, why we hold certain opinions as if they and only they are qualified to understand what's going on inside our heads.
A really good example of that is a book that was published a little more than 10 years ago called A Natural History of Rape. And in that book, two anthropologists basically argue the fact that is that they thought the reasons that we see rape occurring in all cultures in all situations is simply because when our ancestors evolved, men who possessed what they actually call a rape gene – meaning an impulse to force themselves on women to commit sexual assault and so forth – men who possessed that gene driving that behavior probably produced more children than men who didn't. And therefore, the tendency to rape, the tendency to dominate women, the tendency for sexual assault is not a societal problem. It's not a cultural problem. It's a biological problem.
Now first of all, as a man, I find that offensive to say that this behavior—which is absolutely abhorrent and reprehensible thinking of the women in my own life and my own family—that's really insulting to me as a man. The second thing is I wonder, "What's the science behind it?" When someone says there is a rape gene or a gene that predisposes you to behavior. As a molecular biologist, I want to say, "Okay, can I see the DNA sequence of that gene? Can you tell me what chromosome its own? Can we do studies of dominance, partial penetrants, compensation?" And the answer is, "No, this is entirely hypothetical."
And it turns out that other anthropologists provoked by this particular book and tried to find societies that meet our standards of Westerners of primitive cultures and asked the following question, "Is the act of rape really something that would improve a man's reproductive potential of in terms of leaving more offspring?" And what the authors of that book, Natural History of Rape, really failed to think about are some very simple biological facts.
Number one: human females are not fertile at all times. Typically, only three or four days in the monthly period. And because we cannot detect that – and by "we," I mean our species. We're not a species in which there are physiological signs of fertility. There are other species in which there are but we're not one of them. The rapist can't be sure if the rape is even going to have a chance at producing offspring, so that lowers the probably of a rape being successful at producing offspring.
The second thing is the rapist puts himself in considerable danger, not just from his intended victim who may very well fight back but also from the entire social structure in which she lives. Her brothers, her parents, her family which, in these societies which were studied by other anthropologists, immediately exert revenge upon a rapist or upon a suspected rapist. And when actual calculations of biological advantage are carried out, it turns out rape is not a reproductively productive behavior so the whole thing was nonsense.
But to me, it's an artifact. It's an edifice, really, that is built upon a just-so story that presumes to know the conditions under which our species evolved in the Pleistocene, perhaps a million years ago. And it extrapolates that it's an occurrence in society.
And there are even more ridiculous examples. My favorite one is a series of articles that appeared a number of years ago proposing an evolutionary explanation for why women like to shop and men don't.
Mirsky: Right. That's in the book, too. Yeah.
Miller: And it harkens to the stereotype that back in the Pleistocene, the women were tending the fires and minding the kids and keeping the caves clean while the really tough males were out hunting down wild beasts and savages and bringing meat home to the fire. And the fact of the matter is we know diddly squat about what human societies were actually like in the Pleistocene. And stereotypes such as these are really built upon modern cultural expectations and not any authentic science. And therefore, I wanted to deal with those issues.
Mirsky: It seems like the takeaway form the discussion just now is that we need a lot more women evolutionary psychologists.
Miller: One of my evolutionary colleagues and personal acquaintances is Sarah Hrdy, a very, very distinguished anthropologist who has fought against this trend. And I believe the title of one of her books is, The Woman That Never Evolved, in which she attacks many of these sort of pseudoscientific stories and gender stereotypes.
To be perfectly honest, the other – another motivating force behind writing this book is the thing that you often hear from people who are concerned about the meaning of evolution, which is that evolution says we are just animals. And I hear that so often when I'm speaking publically at universities or churches or other gatherings to have people say that evolution says we're mere animals, we're just animals. And that degrades the human species.
While we certainly are animals – there's no question about it – we have our ancestry, of course, in the animal kingdom. We know what that ancestry was and we were produced by the same process of evolution that produced every other animal. We know that for sure. We had ancestors and if you go far enough back, those ancestors were not humans. But here's the question: we're animals but we're not just animals.
And there is a tendency – and I quoted several examples of leading evolutionary psychologists in my book of people who tried to minimize what's special about the human species. Henry Gee, former editor of Nature, did this in his book – a brilliantly written book that I'd recommend to anybody – called The Accidental Species. And in that, he emphasizes the fact that there's no quality that we humans possess – tool making, language, standing upright on two feet and so forth – that is not possessed somewhere else in the animal kingdom by some other organism. So what's the big deal about human beings? And that's an important point.
The way that I would answer that, however, is, "Wait a minute, Doctor Gee. You're the one writing a book about this and we, your readers, are the ones discussing it and thinking about it." There is no other organism that engages in that discourse that has the capacity to do it. The very fact that we contemplate and we debate our own uniqueness makes us unique and that is what authors who have tried to make human beings just another species of no more significance than any other, that's what they're missing.
Mirsky: And you talk a lot in the book about various philosophers, modern-day philosophers who have problems with the notion that evolution as a process by itself could have come up with consciousness.
Miller: Well, consciousness has been a problem for philosophers. I'm happy to say as a biologist that in the last several decades, it's also become a problem for neuroscientists. And I'm convinced simply as a scientist that eventually scientific inquiry is going to solve the problem of consciousness. Now, I can't say that for sure. It's just that I can look back, into recent decades or farther back than that and I can list any number of problems that people thought were completely insoluble that people thought that we would never understand. And science has a tendency to unravel those problems and make them work out.
My favorite example of this is in the mid-1940s, there was much speculation on the chemical nature of the gene. And Erwin Schrödinger, the very, very distinguished Nobel laureate physicist, the author of Schrödinger's equations, which every college – equation, which every college physics student has to grapple with and so did I. Decided that he had solved the fundamental problems in physics so now he was going to go over to biology and give biologists the break of his intellect.
And he gave a series of lectures, which became a very influential book called What is Life? I read this as an undergrad and it just blew me away. And I'm not the only person to have been impressed by this. James Watson, the co-discoverer of the double helix, was also impressed and motivated by it. And in that book, Schrödinger speculated as to what the chemical nature of the gene might be. And he basically argued that what we know about physics and chemistry is not sufficient to account for what we know about the biology of genetics. And therefore, in these – this is the language he used – "new laws of physics will have to be discovered to account for the chemical nature of the gene." That was in the mid-1940s.
In 1953, Watson and Crick interpreted Rosalind Franklin's extraordinary x-ray pattern to unravel the structure of the double helix. And all of a sudden, once one saw the double helical structure and Franklin, herself, said, "This is so beautiful it just has to be true." Once one saw the structure, suddenly we realized we don't need new laws of physics to account for the chemical nature of the gene. And it turns out that hiding there in what we already understood of physics and chemistry were new properties not surpassing science but simply taking the properties that we knew about of matter and showing that matter was capable of things that we didn't think it was before.
Now, I'm absolutely convinced that ultimately the same is going to be true of the problem of consciousness. One of the principal philosophers who has argued against that point of view is Thomas Nagel of New York University. He wrote a very influential, very short but very pithy book a couple of years ago called Mind and Cosmos. And Mind and Cosmos was subtitled Why the Neo-Darwinian Theory of Nature is Almost Certainly Wrong. And boy, did that subtitle get my attention 'cause Nagel is a very well-known philosopher.
And what he meant by the subtitle is that Neo-Darwinian evolution, as he calls it, claims to explain the evolution of everything associated with humanity. Our minds, our brains, our bodies, everything else. He then argued that no consciousness cannot be accounted for by the known laws of physics and chemistry. And since evolution cannot account for the production of consciousness, that means there's something fundamentally wrong with what he called "the Neo-Darwinian theory of evolution."
Now, the first time I read his book, it became apparent to me that he really didn't have a problem with evolution. He had a problem with neuroscience because he basically said, "Neuroscientists haven't figured consciousness out." Well, that's absolutely true. On the day that neuroscientists actually figure out every detail of consciousness, it'll probably be time to close all those departments 'cause we will have solved really one of the fundamental mysteries of how the nervous system works. I don't expect that to happen anytime soon.
But I decided I just had to talk to Professor Nagel. As I was writing my own book, I emailed him and I tried to introduce myself, explain who I was and beg for a few minutes of his time if I came to New York. To my absolute astonishment in an act of incredible generosity, Doctor Nagel said, "Here. Here's a day when you can meet me. Here's the restaurant I like to have lunch at. I'll treat you to lunch and we can talk about my book and yours." And we not only had lunch, he gave me almost two-and-a-half hours of his time. And it was absolutely extraordinary.
And when I drilled down, into Nagel's argument – and it's very important to note, especially to your listeners, that Thomas Nagel's not a theist. He's actually a philosophical atheist so in saying that consciousness is "inexplicable by Neo-Darwinian evolution," he's not making an argument for God. He's not making an argument for spirituality. He's making an argument that there's something about the material description of life that is lacking. And when I – as I said, when I drilled down to his arguments, the most important ones seemed to be this.
And Nagel said he is a "moral realist." And what he means by that is he thinks good and evil, right and wrong are authentic. And as a philosopher, moral philosophy is a major field of philosophy. And to him, what evolution says is that our sense of morality, our sense of right and wrong is not authentic because what evolutionary psychology tells us is what we think is wrong is simply what we have been shaped by the demands of natural selection to think is wrong.
And the reason those values have been favored by natural selection is because they help to form more cohesive human societies so that human individuals who had a sense of morality, had a sense of right and wrong were more effective in doing the things that make a species succeed. And in our case, that would be having babies, growing food and making war.
And all of these things, he argues basically evolutionary psychologists say, were not authentic values. Not real good, real evil but rather they're simply these arbitrary constructs that are favored by natural selection. To Thomas Nagel, that's what evolution teaches us. And since he's a moral realist who thinks good and evil are authentic qualities, to him evolutionary psychology says that they're not, they're just artifacts of natural selection. Therefore, he rejects the whole evolutionary program on that basis.
Mirsky: Understand why – and this kept coming up for me through the book. And I don't have the background, obviously, that a Nagel does in philosophical reasoning, but I've read a lot of Franz de Waal and he really influenced my thinking on the evolution of morality.
Miller: Of course.
Mirsky: And why just because it evolved, why does that make it somehow suspect?
Miller: Well, that's actually a point that I tried very hard to make, okay? And my twin examples are mathematics and science. Okay? We're not the only species that's capable of mathematics. There are other species who can count and I suppose engage in a kind of figuring. But I doubt you'll find any other species who have developed the calculus, who are capable of understanding Roman geometry, who have worked with the spacetime continuum or have understood either special or general relativity. Special relativity is the easier of them but I still don't think any other species have mastered it.
Now, if one makes an argument that our sense of morality – it, in fact, our sense of logical reasoning – is not authentic because it's the product of evolution, then you have to ask yourself, "How about math? Is mathematics itself suspect?" Because our ability to do mathematics at the level at which we can do it is clearly the product of evolution and that is certainly true of an entire scientific enterprise.
And if one tries to devalue human reason by saying, "No, reason is not a logical way to find the right answer to a question but what we think is a valid tool was actually merely shaped by the raw calculus of natural selection and, therefore, has no more validity than any others," you have to realize that the very tools that one is using to arrive at that conclusion are themselves suspect.
I heard the author Marilynne Robinson speak at my university just a couple of months ago and she addressed exactly the same question. And she mused – and I wish I could get her exact words right, but they were marvelous – how curious it is to find a group of scientists using reason to argue that reason itself does not exist. And that's the situation into which such people have placed themselves.
Mirsky: I mean, this is college freshman stuff that I'm going to come out with here but a lion is not violating any moral principles when it kills a gazelle. But a human being is violating moral principles that almost all of us accept when he or she kills another human being. It seems kind of obvious to me that a morality for a particular species is an evolved thing.
Miller: I think that's true and I would not argue for a second that evolutionary natural selection has not shaped our value systems, our morality, even our search for spirituality in religion. In his marvelous book In Human Nature, E. O. Wilson several decades ago basically argued that qualities like our universal religious sense was, in fact, the product of evolution and I generally agree with that, even though I'm a religious person myself. And what Wilson argued, basically, is all human societies have a tendency to coalesce around myth and ritual and symbolism. And in a way, that's kind of what organized religion is. Being a Roman Catholic, you go to a Catholic service and you see ritual and symbolism and mythology on display every single time you see a service. And Wilson was quick enough to recognize that these qualities exist even in officially non-religious societies.
One could go back to the old Soviet Union and watch the veneration of the symbols of the revolution, the marching in front of Lenin's tomb or go over to what we used to call "Red China" and look at the veneration of Mao's "Little Red Book" and see, basically, customs that were, in fact, religious without referring to God. I think Wilson was certainly right about that, that this is where this tendency comes from.
But that is also, I would argue, where our other tendencies come from. But again, this includes mathematics and science, so one has to say, "When you explain the origin of religious impulse or the origin of the curiosity that drives the scientific impulse, is that the same thing as explaining either science or religion away?" And that I do not think is the case. And that's one of the arguments I tried to make in the book.
Mirsky: I mean, we've been through this with just the example of the physics of the rainbow. The argument of whether or not understanding the physics decreases our appreciation of its beauty. And –
Miller: Yes. There's a wonderful poem by Keats in which he is responding to Newton and he's a little upset at Newton because he basically says, "One of the things that Newton did was to unweave the rainbow to take the mystery out of it." But I have to tell you – I'm sorry when I interrupt you, but I want to play on the rainbow thing.
I'm in grad school. My wife and I are shopping at the cheapest place in town, which is Kmart, of course. This is in Colorado. While we were in the store, there was a raging thunderstorm coming out of the mountains and moving to the east. And we, frankly, hung around in the store until these really dark clouds had passed off, to the east. Now, it was late afternoon so the sun was about to set in the west. And we stepped out, in front of the store. And there was a crowd of people in the parking lot staring off, into the east.
And what they were looking at was for – was the most beautiful horizon to horizon double rainbow I had ever seen. I stood out there in the parking lot with everyone else just gawking. And then, I heard people talking to each other, "Look at that. The colors in the second rainbow are reversed compared to the first rainbow." And then, the budding college professor in me came out. And I went over to a couple of people and said, "Would you like to know why?" And of course, they said, "Yes."
And I said, "Well, what's happening with the initial rainbow is the internal reflection of light inside the misty raindrops that are still up there in the sky. And what produces the double rainbow is an additional reflection inside the raindrop. And as you know, every time you bounce off a mirror, you have this appearance of reversing symmetry from left to right. When you get that additional refraction and reflection inside it, it comes out at a higher angle and that's why the colors are reversed. And if the sun was just a little bit stronger and the sky just a little mistier, we'd have a third rainbow. And the colors would be reversed yet again."
Now, does that take the mystery and the wonder out of it? Are you kidding me? As far as I – when I explained this to people, and I guess I really was a budding professor at that time, they looked at it again and said, "Wow." And I belonged to that goofy school of people who practiced science not because it takes the mystery out of nature but because it makes nature seem that much more wonderful to understand it.
Mirsky: Yeah, that's the way I certainly feel, as well. You talk about a lot of different people in the book who are – and you're very gentle about it. But I think some people are going to be a little miffed, maybe, at some of the things that you bring up and then try to deal with various philosophers and other evolutionary biologists.
Miller: I don't bring up the arguments of anyone whom I don't respect. And therefore, if I am as you say "gentle" or kind or courteous to people, there's good reason for that. And that is I'm not mad at them. I simply want to analyze their ideas and say where I might disagree with them.
Mirsky: So writ large, why isn't it apparent to some of these people – well, you can't speak for them. But given enough time – somewhere in the book, you have the line – you're quoting somebody and they say, "Be patient," or, "Just give it a chance. We're all standing around a microwave hoping that after the minute and it beeps, the potato will have all the secrets in it."
Miller: I know exactly the part that you're talking about. I started off my academic career as a junior faculty member at Harvard and it was a marvelous place. And one of the people that I was really privileged to make a friendship with was the late Stephen Jay Gould. And Steve and I were on a couple of committees together, just dreary academic committees. And all I knew about him at the time was that his name was Steve and he worked in the museum on snails. And of course, I wasn't very impressed with that being a cell biologist using high-tech electron microscopes.
I didn't realize who Steve Gould was until I left Harvard, went to Brown and started to read up on evolutionary biology. And at one point, I go into the bookstore, I bought every one of his books that was there and I had read two or three of them. And I decided, "I've got to call him up." And I called him up and basically apologized. And he laughed. And I remember him saying that, "Frankly, Ken," that, "part of your charm was that you obviously didn't have the faintest idea of who I was."
Now, when people ask me what should they read to learn about evolution, my answer is, "Any book by Stephen Jay Gould." Not only did he have an incredible understanding of evolution but he was a marvelous storyteller and just a gifted writer, just extraordinary. And one of his most popular books is called Wonderful Life. And Wonderful Life takes its name from the Jimmy Stewart movie of a similar name It's a Wonderful Life.
And I won't go through the plot of the movie but if you remember George Bailey, who's the lead character, suffers from financial reversals in the credit union he runs.
Mirsky: That's a great way to put it.
Miller: Is despondent. I'm trying to be polite, man. He's despondent and he's ready to take his own life because he wishes he had never been born. And at that point, Clarence, his guardian angel, intercedes, keeps him from killing himself and decides to show him that he really has had a wonderful life by showing him what the little town would be like if, indeed, he had never lived. And indeed, lo and behold, things would have been really, really different.
Now, Gould uses that as an example of what he calls "historical contingency." And he argues that contingency is a major force in evolution. I certainly agree with that. And he talks about the emergence of human beings and he basically says that human beings are not the pre-ordained result of evolution. Evolution is not a climb from lower to higher that then produces a species like us at the pinnacle.
In fact, he argues in that book that if the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs had missed the Earth, maybe the descendants of dinosaurs would still dominate the Earth, human beings would never have appeared and us, mammals, would be confined to scurrying about in our boroughs. Because prior to the extinction of the dinosaurs, there really were no large mammals on Earth and maybe the primates would never have evolved.
Now, Gould is right about that in terms of detail. We, human beings, we hairless, bipedal primates with 10 fingers and 10 toes were certainly not the pre-ordained products of evolution. I would not argue otherwise and I don't think most biologists would argue otherwise, either. But one of the points that Gould made was that as far as we know in the entire history of life, intelligent, self-aware, reflective organisms have evolved just once and, therefore, we have no reason to believe they would ever have evolved again.
Well, the quote that you're referring to, I think, comes from David Sloan Wilson – although I'd have to look that up to be sure. But Sloan Wilson reacted to that and said, "Wait a minute. It took three-and-a-half billion years for us to evolve before asserting that intelligence could never evolve again. Have some patience, for God's sakes. Wait another 100 million years or so and see what could happen."
And the example that I then plugged in from that as to where intelligence might evolve again, give us 100 million years, is the octopus. And there's a couple of marvelous books and papers that have been written about intelligence in the octopus. I think one of them is called Other Minds. And my colleague, Simon Conway Morris, has also written about the octopus in one of his latest books.
These are incredibly intelligent creatures. They have a kind of intelligence that we can only begin to understand because they have distributed nervous systems. Every tentacle of the octopus in effect has a little brain that does some of its own thinking. They're amazingly adaptive. They often escape from their enclosures. They can interact with their human keepers.
Give them 100 million years in the absence of human beings and I can't guarantee anything. Neither can anybody else. But certainly, there's raw intelligence there certainly of the sort that could easily evolve to the point that we, humans, have today. I don't think the evolution of intelligent organisms like us is a one-off that could never happen again. Quite the contrary.
Mirsky: I mean, I always think, "Maybe whales are the most intelligent creatures on the planet and they're in a state of constant meditation." They just, "We don't need this rat race thing that you humans have gotten into." I'm being a little facetious.
Miller: Yeah, but I think you're being a little facetious because if they were that smart, they'd know what we're doing to 'em.
Mirsky: Yeah, that's true.
Miller: And they'd be working on countermeasures.
Mirsky: Well, maybe they are. We don't know.
Miller: But the swimming mammals are extraordinarily intelligent.
Mirsky: Yeah, absolutely.
Miller: Whales, dolphins, orcas. There is absolutely no question about that.
Mirsky: I have to recommend a hilarious science fiction book called Blonde Bombshell, by I believe the author's name is Holt. And in that book, intelligent aliens who are visiting the Earth pluck octopuses out of the sea to use as CPUs in their computers. Whenever they use a CPU, they go, they get an octopus and just jam it in. And because of the neuronal complexity of the octopuses, they work as the CPUs.
Miller: Yeah, to use the Star Trek reference there, they're using the octopuses as the Borgs.
Mirsky: Yeah, exactly.
Mirsky: We've really dealt quite well with why you felt compelled to write the book. Now, am I wrong in thinking that you want to reach some people who have issues with evolution because they're afraid of its effects on society?
Miller: I think I am. I think that is a target audience for readers. And one of the points that I wanted to make – and I said this in several ways throughout the book – is that evolution doesn't demean or degrade us. Evolution actually confirms our status as not just a special species, not just the creators of culture and art and music, architecture and all the things that our human civilization has put together. But it also defines us as the only species that has a special responsibility to this planet.
And what has happened in the last 10,000 years is astonishing. We went from being a species small in numbers hunting, foraging – not too many of us – many times on the verge of extinction, which is something that genetic evidence suggests. Two, by mass the largest land mammal on the planet in terms of sheer biomass. As you know, geologists and anthropologists have started to talk about the current age of the Earth as being a new geological age variously called the Anthropocene or the Anthropocene. And that's a good term because this is, indeed, the age of man, the age of humankind. We are not just dominant biologically but we are changing the geology of the planet, as well, in a way that future generations or future space aliens will be able to detect in terms of a fundamental change on this planet.
Now, of all the organisms on this planet, we're the only ones who are aware of this. We're the only ones who know what we are doing on this planet. And that, even if you sort of make human beings – even if you try to relativize human beings and say, "We're just one species among all others." In this respect, we are not. We are the only species that's aware of these trends. We're the only species who knows basically how we're changing the CO2 balance in the atmosphere and other greenhouse gases. And therefore, we're the only species that has a responsibility not just to know what we're doing but to basically correct it in a way that will preserve the biodiversity of this planet.
And to me, that's at once a warning but it's at once a hopeful and optimistic message. And it means, basically, because we are self-aware, we're also aware of what we can do to this planet. And anything we can do, we can un-do. And we better be quick about it 'cause the changes are coming rapidly.
Mirsky: I think the last paragraph of your book – if you don't want to give it away – is something that might be worth you reading.
Miller: Are you actually inviting me to read it?
Miller: Okay, cool. But I'm going to go a little farther and I'm going to read part of the first paragraph.
Mirsky: Do it.
Miller: And then go to the last. And the last chapter of my book is called "Center Stage." And you'll see why in a second. And I was trying, as I was wrapping up the book – and this was in the summertime. I'm trying to figure out, "how do I sum everything up?" And it turned out to be on an afternoon in August when I was aware that that evening if it was nice and clear I could see the Perseid meteor shower.
Now, I actually gave a reading from my book about a week ago at a local bookstore. And because it was where I live, both of my daughters were there in the front row. It was very nice to see them there. And as I began this, I told the people there that I was the sort of father who was so taken by astronomical events, even though I'm a biologist, that if there was a lunar eclipse, if there was a meteor shower, I would wake my daughters up in the middle of the night, 2:00 or 3:00 AM, and I would drag them outside to watch it – at first, unwillingly. And then, later on, with great delight.
As I'm contemplating this, I thought, "This is why humans are special." And I'm going to read just a couple lines from the opening. And then, I'll read that last paragraph.
"I'm hoping for a clear sky tonight. It's expected to be the peak of the annual Perseid meteor shower, a chance to glory in streaks of sudden fire as fragments of a comet come crashing through the Earth's atmosphere. In between those moments of spectacle, there will be a chance to lie still in the darkness and absorb the quiet beauty of the nighttime sky. The experience has always made me feel small against the vastness of space, but it's also one that has helped me as a biologist appreciate what it means to be human." And now, I'm going to skip a bit.
"Of all the creatures, of all the forms of life that grace the surface of this small planet, there is only one that looks this way into the nighttime sky. Only one knows the Perseid spectacular is coming. Only one plots the distances to stars. Only one contemplates the age of its universe. Only one is aware of the mysteries to be solved in starlight. While all of life is one, while all of life is linked by ancestry, structure and design, only the human creature seeks answers to questions in the stars. This is what makes it worthwhile to consider how this creature came to be and what its presence on this planet means."
That's how I started this out, this chapter. And I'll read that last paragraph now that you asked me to. And this refers specifically to a collection of essays by Marilynne Robinson called The Death of Adam. And the longest essay in that book is called "On Darwinism" where she inveighs against sort of an interpretation of evolution that she calls "Darwinism" that, to her, is grim and demeaning and even chilling, as she says. And she talks about the death of Adam as being carried out by evolution, not because she believes in literal Adam and Eve but because she believes in evolution in killing the Adam myth has basically helped to dehumanize society. Here's that last paragraph:
"We may have started as just one branch on Darwin's tangled riverside bank of life but we are the branch that emerged to make sense of it all. Some may take a certain mild satisfaction from reflecting upon this view of life, but I will argue that the more appropriate emotions are joy and delight. Joy that we are approaching a genuine understanding of the world in which we live and delight at being, perhaps, the first stirrings of true consciousness in the vastness of the cosmos. Far from diminishing us, knowing the details of Adam's journey ennobles each of us as a carrier of something truly precious: the genetic, biological and cultural heritage of life itself. Evolution describes not the death of Adam but his triumph. And that is the great truth of our story."
Mirsky: Ken Miller and I also talked about his experience as an expert witness in the 2005 evolution trial, Kitzmiller v. Dover, a modern-day Scopes Monkey Trial as well as about one of the most fascinating, molecular examples of human evolution. How all the other great apes have 48 chromosomes and we only got 46. Or in a few cases, even just 44. I'm going to share those short conversations with you in the coming weeks.
That's it for this episode. Get your science news at our website, www.scientificamerican.com or you can check out the special report in the May issue of the magazine on emerging infectious diseases and how they're influenced by social and environmental change. And follow us on Twitter where you'll get a tweet whenever a new item hits the website. Our Twitter name is @sciam. For Scientific American Science Talk," I'm Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.