Thursday, October 31, 2013

Henry Gee's "The Accidental Species"

Henry Gee is a Senior Editor of the science magazine Nature. His latest book is The Accidental Species: Misunderstandings of Human Evolution, in which he aims to correct the many misunderstandings which have crept into popular conceptions of evolution, in particular that of our own species. Previous books of nonfiction include Jacob’s Ladder: The History of the Human Genome; In Search of Deep Time; The Science of Middle-earth; Before The Backbone: Views on the Origin of the Vertebrates, and A Field Guide to Dinosaurs (the last with the artist Luis V. Rey.) He is also the author of science fiction trilogy The Sigil; the gothic horror mystery By The Sea, several short stories, and innumerable articles, mainly about science. His blog, The End Of The Pier Show, continues to delight its three regular readers. He lives in Cromer, Norfolk, England, with his family and numerous pets.

Gee applied the “Page 99 Test” to The Accidental Species and reported the following:
When I turned to page 99 I found that its theme was a kind of pre-echo of the very end of the book. If there is any talent we might call human, it is that of spotting patterns in the world around us. And from the patterns, we create stories. Even if the patterns are nonexistent, and the stories are unreliable.
So, much as we might indulge children who see elephants and railway trains in passing clouds, not to mention scoff at people who see images of Jesus in pieces of toast, everyone is at it – even scientists.
Then follows the tale of the astronomer Schiaparelli, who, peering through a glass darkly at Mars, saw a system of channels, or canali, where there were, in fact, none; an illusion that prompted American Percival Lowell to posit the massive irrigation ditches of an advanced civilization, dying of thirst; thence by easy stages to Wells’ War of the Worlds, Welles’ haunting radio adaptation and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ stirring stories of John Carter and his adventures on Barsoom. All based, as it turned out, on illusion. For the canals of Mars do not exist, and never have existed.
So, not only are we good at spotting patterns, even if nonexistent ones, we tend to weave them into tales of what might otherwise be sets of disconnected and therefore worrying phenomena. This ability is so ingrained that it even haunts our subconscious. Things that go bump in the night are seamlessly woven into the stories we tell ourselves in dreams. It is easy to see how our ancestors, living much closer to nature, the unknown, and the reality of sudden and unexplained phenomena than we do nowadays, would hear thunder in the mountains and console themselves with stories of angry gods.
Seeing patterns. Telling stories.
And because telling stories is what we do, even without conscious intervention, it’s easy to underestimate how the power of narrative undermines our efforts to make sense of the past in any clear, cool or rational way.
Visit Henry Gee's The End Of The Pier Show blog and follow the author on Twitter.

Read--Coffee with a Canine: Henry Gee & Heidi and Saffron.

--Marshal Zeringue