Mostly Harmless

You’d be forgiven for thinking that most of our politicians here hadn’t noticed, but, as today’s Guardian Life section reminds us, revolutionary scientific ideas have repeatedly rocked the foundations on which our hubris is built – (those of a nervous disposition should look away now) we ain’t the centre of the universe or, alternatively, “Humans are just little specks of sentience on an accidental planet in a corner of the cosmos” – in other words, “Mostly Harmless”.Despite the opening paragraphs of the article, the more interesting, and thoughtful, contributions come from those focusing on the human experience: in particular, IMHO, psychologist Steven Pinker, and neuroscientist Nancy Rothwell who suggests, “The previous revolutions haven’t necessarily made our place less significant. We are just discovering the complexity of the natural world.

It’s worth reading through the, in many cases highly speculative, responses from “the world’s top scientists” to the question of “What comes next?”.

As a primer, here are the “Three lessons in humility”, as described by Tim Radford at the end of the article.

Three lessons in humility

Science has a way of painting God out of the picture, and putting humankind in its place. Nicolas Copernicus launched the Copernican revolution in about 1530: Galileo continued it; Isaac Newton completed it more than a century later. It began innocently, when Copernicus tried to make a timetable for the positions of the planets. The calculations added up best if he assumed that the sun was the centre of the universe and that the Earth, like Mars, Venus and Jupiter, was just another planet. This upset the Ptolemaic scheme, which for more than a thousand years placed the Earth at the centre. Christian theology also had the Earth at the centre. So Copernicus offended both the Catholic Church (which listed his book as banned until 1835) and the reformer Martin Luther. Cosmologists now talk of the Copernican principle, which is that there is nothing special about planet Earth, in space or time. Humans are just little specks of sentience on an accidental planet in a corner of the cosmos.

The Darwinian revolution, too, was a 100-year story, and it began long before Darwin. Religious orthodoxy called for a young universe, specially created with its present inhabitants. But miners, canal engineers and natural philosophers kept finding puzzling evidence of creatures that existed long before human history.

Geologists such as Hutton and Lyell proposed an ancient Earth, subject to continuous change. Charles Darwin (and Alfred Russel Wallace, quite independently) went a stage further: life itself was ancient, and subject to continuous change, in which random mutations in inheritance were selected or dismissed by the pressures of the environment. This, too, shocked some churchmen. But humans now see themselves as just another evolutionary by-product, cousin to the apes.

The clinching proof of this has been in the DNA revolution, launched 50 years ago. Where did these mutations happen and how were they transmitted? In 1953, James Watson and Francis Crick began to crack the riddle. They revealed the structure of a long molecule, detectable in almost every living cell, which spelled out the genetic code. Comparison of DNA in living humans provides clues to ancestral kinships. It also confirms that all life is linked to one last universal common ancestor.

Science has exposed the machinery of creation, and taught humans a lesson in humility. None of this, however, yet explains why the universe began, or how and why life started in the first place, seemingly only on one planet.

Tim Radford