Saturday, July 13, 2013

Stephen Jay Gould - A perspective on Darwinism

It is a cloudy and windy evening here in Salt Lake City. I returned from work at 5.30, took a swim, ordered in a Pizza from a local Pizzeria called the "Big Daddy", pulled up a couple of pillows behind me and continued my reading of a wonderful book of essays by Stephen Jay Gould - an evolutionary biologist. Dr Gould is arguably the best known and widely read scientist of our generation. A Paleontologist by profession, but is widely recognized for his path breaking views on Darwinian theory of evolution and the articulate essays that he regularly wrote for the "The Natural History" magazine for a period of thirty odd years till his death in 2002. All his known essays have been collected in individual volumes edited by and prefaced by Gould himself.

Since the time Darwin published his seminal work “Origin of species" in 1850, scientific thinking, buttressed by religious authority has been vociferously advocating, establishing and pontificating on an anthropocentric view of evolution. That Man is the pinnacle of creation, born to rule the word; and the entire march and purpose of evolution has been an unremitting journey to produce an organism called man ; has become the refrain of the scientific community in every sphere of Human life, and taught in every biology class throughout the world. It is curious though that Darwin himself never mentions any such need for human supremacy in the pages of his epochal book. Nonetheless, his theory of Natural selection suited our vain human needs. To break the stronghold of this theory, the world needed a brain of the finest quality and it produces a Stephen Jay Gould.

Dr Gould repudiated the theory that evolution has any purpose at all. His study of Microorganisms in the Burgess shale , where unicellular organism still thrive alongside genetically complex organisms, led him to postulate a radically different view of evolution. He called it the state of "punctuated equilibrium". In simple terms, it means that it wrong to think of evolution as ladder that needs to be climbed, but rather as a chance necessity. The traditional diagram on textbooks that depict the transformation of Man from ape is a biased view not tenable with facts.
In Gould's words, in his wonderfully readable account of his findings on the Burgess shale, he writes :
"if we could somehow "rewind the tape" of evolution and let it play again, chance would favor a different selection of that original multitude, and the world would be a very different place from the one we see around us. There is nothing "preordained" about the appearance of humanity or the human level of awareness"
, or in his wonderful collection of essays called "the eight little piggies”, he passionately advocates:
“we talk about the march from monad to man’ (old-style language again) as though evolution followed continuous pathways to progress along unbroken lineages. Nothing could be further from reality. I do not deny that, through time, the most ‘advanced’ organism has tended to increase in complexity. But the sequence [allocated in most texts] from jellyfish to trilobite to nautiloid to armored fish to dinosaur to monkey to human is no lineage at all, but a chronological set of termini on unrelated evolutionary trunks. Moreover life shows no trend to complexity in the usual sense — only an asymmetrical expansion of diversity around a starting point constrained to be simple.”

Increased complexity need not mean growth. This is the point of divergence from the Darwinian Theory. It is not my intention in this essay to get into more detail, but only to point out the findings of Dr Gould has led scientists to think differently about Man's place in this universe.

I have read most essays of Stephen Jay Gould not only for his incisive thinking, but also for the beauty of his language. Not many in the scientific world can write with such aplomb and grace. I can only think of the renowned Astrophysicist Carl Sagan and writer Isaac Asimov, who could bring intricate scientific knowledge within the realms of non-specialist, as well Dr Gould did.

I am currently reading his book "Rock of ages", perhaps, one of his last collection of essays, where he writes about religion and science. Nothing gives more pleasure than to spend time with these great minds, in their hallowed company, where they lead me into exciting news labyrinths of thought.

God bless..........

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Thursday, July 4, 2013

Will and Ariel Durant - A personal tribute and remembrance

Will and Ariel Durant - A personal tribute and remembrance

Mel Gibson’s great and controversial movie “Apocalyptic”, released in 2006, fictionalized the decline and fall of the famed Mayan civilization: it begins with the following graphical quote:

‘A great civilization is not conquered from without, until it has destroyed itself within’.

These are the words of Will Durant, written nearly fifty years ago in the hallowed pages of his epic work “The story of civilization” in eleven volumes. In nearly thirteen thousand pages of immaculate writing, poetic audacity, delectable idioms and sweeping generalizations; both Will and his wife Ariel Durant spans the lifetime of human civilization in all its principal aspects with a finesse, grace and erudition that has never before been attempted , and In my opinion , can never be bettered in its execution. The work took them fifty years to plan and complete, and during that period, the husband and wife traveled the globe a dozen times, saw and read every classic in its source, met and interacted with some of the finest minds of the generation, taught innumerable students the appreciation of History as a holistic study of Human endeavor, popularized Philosophy as the greatest refinement of the mind and character possible, Parented a beautiful and intelligent girl and loved each other so deeply that they died two weeks after each other. Such lives are truly blessed. The result of their passionate labor has and will continue to educate and enthrall generations to come on the progress of Man in his episodic march of cultural, social and political advancement.

The first book of this series (Our Oriental Heritage) was published in the year 1935 and remaining ten volumes came out every five years, culminating their mammoth effort in the year 1975, with the final masterpiece “the age of Napoleon”. This was no easy task, considering that every book condensed nearly five hundred to thousand years of recorded history in all its manifestations. The compelling rationale behind this entire work was the need to present history comprehensively, not broken up into pieces. The authors had to embrace, synthesize and tie together numerous strands of knowledge, without losing the central theme of the book and equally holding the reader’s interest. These volumes were intended for the general educated reader and no background or qualification was required to approach them. That makes the task even more arduous and overwhelming, because complex ideas need to presented in a language, style and metaphor that should be easily accessible, without taxing the reader and letting interest dwindle. In some of the most breath taking passages in the work, the Durant’s would summarize a life time within a single paragraph or sometimes even a single line. Consider this brilliant synopsis of the fate of Rome:

‘Rome remained great as long as she had enemies who forced her to unity, vision, and heroism. When she had overcome them all she flourished for a moment and then began to die.’ (Caesar and Christ, 3rd volume).

To me, personally, these eleven volumes have been nourishment that has forever transformed the way I look at the march of Man through the ages. The calm wisdom and penetrative insights of the Durants have taken me on journey that I would have never willingly walked, if not, for the gentle assistance and the painstaking patience of Will and Ariel Durant. For nearly a year, I have read pages of these volumes every night before I went to bed. Each volume has produced new insights and perspectives and has helped me sharpen my capacity to cut through the inessentials and head straight to the center of a thought process, and the art of articulating it in a succinct and meaningful fashion.

I finished the last volume yesterday night, and as I closed my Kindle, I was flushed with emotion. A friend has left me, leaving behind a perfume, a trace that will forever be with me as long as I am intellectually alive.

God Bless…..