« Is Latin America Finally Waking Up? | Main | Cognitive Dissonance on the Border »

May 12, 2012

Science and Belief

“Connecting the Dots” between what one already knows and new phenomena one has just recognized describes one aspect of intuition, As such, it’s also an important component of cognition and scientific progress. In the Eighteenth Century, Scottish Geologists James Hutton and Charles Lyell, after becoming aware of marine fossils on upland locations in their native land, became convinced that the world was considerably older than previously believed. Lyell’s views, in particular, were already well known to Charles Darwin, when the young naturalist made his brief, but pivotal, visit to the Galapagos Islands during the Beagle’s five year voyage.

That was because, by remarkable coincidence, Lyell had given a copy of the first volume of his seminal Principles of Geology to Robert FitzRoy, Captain of the Beagle, who would become Darwin’s room-mate and companion on their historic voyage. Thus, the fledgling naturalist was intellectually well prepared for the critical intuition that would eventually mature into a theory that, although still scoffed at and actively opposed by many educated people, has reshaped both Biology and modern thought.

Interestingly enough, both FitzRoy and Lyell eventually disagreed with Darwin’s hypothesis as expressed in The Origin of Species. The emotionally unstable FitzRoy, who would eventually take his own life in dramatic fashion, was far more outspoken; and Lyell more reserved. In fact, Lyell may have been a part of the arrangement that eventually protected Darwin's claim to priority over that of the younger and less well connected Alfred Russel Wallace, whose work some find more thorough.

Be that as it may, what Darwin actually intuited was an idea that obsessed him for the rest of his life: namely that a causal relationship existed between the different beak structures he observed on birds of the same species, and the strikingly different climates and growing conditions he found on nearby islands. His intuition was that, over time, the beaks had somehow become adapted to the different environment. Darwin had no knowledge of the multiple other factors that made the Galapagos environmentally unique, such as the the Humboldt current; nor, because SCUBA diving was unknown, that Marine Iquanas would have been even better examples than his (misnamed) "finches."

He also had no way of knowing that other similarly situated large islands adjacent to continents (New Zealand, Madagascar, and Greenland) would eventually be recognized as examples of the same general phenomenon; nor could he have realized how much validation his intuition would receive from other scientific discoveries long after his death.

Indeed, discovery of structure of DNA provided both a logical and biochemical explanation of how natural selection could have been operating over millions of years to produce the species variety exhibited by Earth’s biota, absent any “intelligent designer” but has not convinced the most die-hard theists who continue to flaunt their misunderstanding of both Science and history.

That the same disconnect between factual observation and belief continues to haunt modern American political and “scientific” thought is well illustrated by the continued insistence of several Federal agencies that herbal cannabis (“marijuana”) cannot possibly have “medical” benefits despite a massive accumulation of credible evidence to the contrary. There are several reasons for that anomaly, many of which have to do with what I now think of as federal “M and M’ (Money and Morality) logic: they have a monopoly on tax dollars while reform had to depend on contributions from a disorganized gaggle of medically uninformed activists. Beyond that, he smear of illegality has an obvious effect on belief despite the fact that the federal government position is the one that is both factually and intellectually dishonest.

Doctor Tom

Posted by tjeffo at May 12, 2012 10:01 PM