EDGE 17 — May 12, 1997


Timothy Taylor , Marc D. Hauser, Kevin Kelly, George Dyson, Clifford Pickover. Pamela McCorduck, Gregory Benford on Jared Diamond's "Why Did Human History Unfold Differently On Different Continents For The Last 13,000 Years?"

Jared Diamond Responds

The End of Horgan? Jaron Lanier, George Dyson, Oliver Morton, John Gribbin on John Horgan's "Why I Think Science Is Ending"

Clifford Pickover on Joseph Traub's "The Unknown and The Unknowable"

(10,142 words)

John Brockman, Editor and Publisher | Kip Parent, Webmaster


Timothy Taylor , Marc D. Hauser, Kevin Kelly, George Dyson, Clifford Pickover. Pamela McCorduck, Gregory Benford on Jared Diamond's "Why Did Human History Unfold Differently On Different Continents For The Last 13,000 Years?"

From: Timothy Taylor
Submitted: 4.21.97

In the earlier part of this century the Egyptologist Grafton Eliot Smith tried to explain many of the same historical facts that Jared Diamond now addresses. He had a race-based view of cultural worth, and argued that the ancient Egyptians were the only significantly gifted people in the world and that they had carried the torch of civilization to the 'sluggish, uncultured' peoples of the globe, sailing in their papyrus boats and evangelizing their religion. Eliot Smith's image has been hard to erase, and has latterly inspired Thor Heyerdhal (and, more recently, Grahame Hancock); academics, as Diamond rightly notes, have not been particularly interested in promoting an alternative theory, and I am sure he is right that this leaves an open field in the public mind for racist interpreations of history. His attempt to promote an easily graspable, historical explanation - geographical possibilism, of the sort H.A.L.Fisher once espoused when reviewing the more limited canvas of European history - is to be welcomed, yet I get little sense from the short presentation that he understands why scholars in the social sciences have left this question alone.

Diamond rightly eshews the race-based approach to explaining the chosen historical facts, but he still retains Eliot Smiths underlying understanding of cultural worth. Diamond talks of the the Tasmanians technological changes through time as 'cultural losses', as if they had become somehow impoverished by their isolation. Underlying his analysis then, is - ultimatley - an assumption of western cultural superiority, and this, of course, underpins the formulation of the whole question he is trying to answer. To compare cultures, one needs to evalute them on a scale. Yet cultures, by their very nature (Gellner), have incommensurate value systems.

Of course it is possible, with a historian's or an archaeologist's eye, to look back and say this culture survived while that other one did not. Although he doesn't quite challenge Adolf Bastian's concept of universally shared 'elementary ideas', he suggests that innovation and response to environmental challenge is damped by cultural isolation. The Tasmanians, according to Diamond, would have been better off if they had fished. In whose terms, and how do we know? The only sure thing is that Victorian explorers came along and shot them for sport. That doesn't mean the Victorian explorers were better in any general way, just that they were more effective in mortal combat.

These musings lead me to two criticisms of Diamond's argument, insofar as I have read it, one 'relativist', the other 'comparitivist'. The relativist one I have already indicated, and it can go for the Americas as much as Tasmania, where there were religious factors connected to the military and epidemiological ones which facilitated Cortes's victory: the Aztecs had a different perspective on their fate and chances of eternal salvation than the ones we back-project today. Here we touch the science versus religion debate. Diamond sees environmental adaptation and an expansion of the resource base as self-evidently good. The Maya saw the location of cities close to subterranean caverns as self-evidently good, whatever the ecological costs in our terms. The Maya behaviour of intensifying monument construction to the point where their system collapsed seems like the 'wrong' decision to us, but their behaviour seemed right to them.

Diamond makes much of animal domestication as a benchmark achievment; in The Prehistory of Sex I suggested it could be construed as a 'bad' move, involving a shift in cultural values from quality of life to quantity of life, and from balanced and sustainable systems to unbalanced, exploitative ones. But I argued not only that pre- and non-agricultural societies might not just have been more enjoyable to live in, but comparatively more adaptive in the long term.

The comparitivist criticism involves simply noting that the jury is still out on the efficient environmental adaptation, as we currently understand it, of particular human cultures. The Tasmanian system may have been the only one that could have lasted the next four million years, and now it is lost and unavailable as a 'resource' (in Diamond's sense of global social evolution). On the other hand, it may only be a spaceage superpower that can divert the next big asteroid impact, fly us out of a naturally dying planet, etc ... the point is, we just don't exactly know what might be, or have been, most adaptive.

I actually don't think that Diamond's arguments will hit home against the 'racist' brigade, clear and thoughtful as they are. This is because the question of cultural value has indeed been hedged.-

Timothy Taylor

p.s. Reflecting on this further, and having now seen Jared Diamond's book, I would like to amplify my comments relating to Tasmania, which Diamond uses as a paradigm case. Firstly, the contention that Tasmanians once fished, stopped fishing, yet should have fished is based on an interpretation of the evidence that is open to serious question. Even from a comparativist viewpoint a strong case can be made to show that what they are known to have done was logical and efficient: the person who has been doing the work on this is Everett Bassett, who is currently based in this department (e-mail via [email protected]).

Turning to fire. The Tasmanians could not, apparently, make it afresh: it was kept burning continuously and passed around communities in fire logs. This does not mean either that fire was unimportant to them, or that they had suffered a cultural loss. indeed the reverse could be argued, viz. because fire was so important they had it organized so it was always there when you needed it. This is similar to the situation with water in modern cities: ie individuals no longer have wells, the water is supplied centrally. Of course, if the central supply fails, we might have to reinvent wells. Not everyone would know how to do that, but not because of stupidity, or from neglecting the importance of water, but because, by valuing it highly, they had organized and delegated, like the Tasmanians had with fire. That is a comparativist argument. From the internal values side, the process of travelling round with the fire logs, relighting fires from time to time, was an opportunity for social contact, story telling, and so on... in short a pretext for valued "higher" activities that would not have been available with more self-sufficient fire making.

TIMOTHY TAYLOR is a lecturer in the Department of Archaeological Sciences at the University of Bradford in the United Kingdom. He has been instrumental in popularizing archaeology on television, acting as a researcher on several BBC programs includingThe Blood of the British , and presenting his work on Down to Earth in an episode that won the British Archaeological Award for best popular archaeology on TV 1991-2. Dr. Taylor is the author of The Prehistory of Sex: Four Million Years of Human Sexual Culture (Bantam, Fourth Estate), and The Invention of Death: Cosmic Belief and Human Evolution (Fourth Estate).

From: Marc D. Hauser
Submitted: 4.23.97

Jared Diamond has written a tremendous book, and it is of course easy enough to point to areas of interest that have been left out. Rather than do this, I would like to raise a topic that fails to surface in the book, but that is, I believe, directly relevant. And that is: the possibility that race, like our understanding of physical objects, language, and psychology, is theory like, with innate principles guiding our navigations through the world. Recently, Larry Hirschfeld, an anthropologist at the University of Michigan, has proposed that children, at an early age, have quite abstract theories about race. Such theories derive, in part, from an early bias to cluster people by color and facial physiognomy (sorting by gender also emerges early on). This sorting appears to be stable cross-culturally, remains stable over historical changes, and even individual experiences. In several tests, Hirschfeld and others have shown that by around four years of age, children have a reasonable understanding of four key aspects of race. First, the concept of race as a category is derived from physical differences. Two, not all of the physical differences we can derive contribute to our racial typologies. Three, the physical properties we identify with racial types are immutable — don't remind me of Michael Jackson! And four, the crucial physical differences come from one's family background, and are fixed at birth. Now, although such comprehension changes over the course of child development, many of the fundamental principles are in place early. This sets a bias, though as in other domains of knowledge, such biases can be overturned, in what looks like a theory change or paradigm shift in science.

I would be interested in hearing what Jared has to say about such apparently universal domains of knowledge, how these have shaped the course of evolution, and how the possibility of innate principles guiding racial typologies may have contributed to the history recounted in his book.


MARC D. HAUSER, is an evolutionary psychologist, and an associate professor at Harvard University where he is a fellow of the Mind, Brain, and Behavior Program. With wide-ranging post-doctoral experience in neuroscience, linguistics, cognitive science, and evolutionary biology, he is a professor in the departments of Anthropology and Psychology, as well as the Program in Neurosciences. Dr. Hauser works on both captive and wild monkeys and apes as well as collaborative work on human infants. His research focuses on problems of acoustic perception, the generation of beliefs, the neurobiology of acoustic and visual signal processing, and the evolution of communication. He is the author of The Evolution of Communication (MIT Press), and What The Serpent Said: How Animals Think And What They Think About (Henry Holt, forthcoming).

From: Kevin Kelly
Submitted: 4-25-97

Question for Jared Diamond: What does your theory of biogeographical origins of cultural differences say about the future? As biogeographical differences are eased by the homogenation of modern technology, would you expect all cultures to converge onto one culture, or will something else keep cultures separate?-

Kevin Kelly

KEVIN KELLY, executive editor of Wired magazine, is the author of Out of Control.

From: George Dyson
Submitted: 4-27-97

I have yet to read Jared's new book but the summary rings true. In my particular field (Aleut ethnohistory) yet another scenario was played out, but it supports the same conclusions, with a slightly different twist. Aleut kayak technology, developed over as many as 10,000 years, proved so superior to any European inventions that the craft (and its builders) survived for 200 years after the onset of colonization, right up until the forced evacuations of World War II.

Russian guns, germs, and steel did wipe out a large portion of the Aleut population in the period following Bering's second expedition to America in 1741, but, thanks to the unequaled capabilities of the Aleut kayak (and its builder-operators), the Russian-American colonial period led to a significant extension of the material culture and geographic range of the Aleuts. Ranging from Northern California to Northern Japan, their success at occupying the entire available ecological and technological niche (on an east-west axis, as Jared so well explains) was an unusual case of an indigenous, stone-age technology holding its own against modern competitors, in testimony to the superb intelligence and skill of the Aleuts. As Jared points out, and the Aleut experience demonstrates, large, centralized populations lead to disease; small, isolated populations lead to stagnation; while cultural and geographical archipelagoes lead to inventiveness, resilience, and success. -


GEORGE DYSON, the leading authority in the field of Russian Aleut kayaks, has been a subject of the PBS television show Scientific American Frontiers.. He is the author of Baidarka, and the forthcoming Darwin Among the Machines: The Evolution of Global Intelligence (Addison Wesley).

From: Clifford Pickover
Submitted: 5.1.97

Your question regarding the effect of geography on the evolution of humanity is an interesting one. I'm also interested in the evolution of humanity's maps of the world. In ancient Western civilizations, the world was considered to be ridiculously small. The Earth was generally believed to be shaped like a flat pancake floating on the surface of the infinitely deep surrounding ocean. This disc was large enough to hold all the land known at that time: the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, with adjacent parts of Europe, Africa, and a bit of Asia. According to Aristotelian cosmology, the entire universe was small, and space was thought to be finite and have a definite edge.

Of course, humanity's knowledge of Earth's geography gradually improved through time. However, even in 1544, maps of the Earth still contained some striking anomalies. One favorite example is Battista Agnese's map of the world. Though in many respects accurate, it still portrayed North America as an impressionistic blur, a borderless figment of the cartographer's imagination. Interestingly, even as late as the 1740's, maps often depicted California as an island.

Good maps have always accelerated the pace of civilization. For example, in the fifteenth century, the Turks closed lucrative trade routes from the Orient to Europe. This motivated the development of new routes, primarily by sea, to restore mercantile connections with the Orient. These new routes and avenues of trade, in turn, accelerated cartographic and navigational technologies. These two applied sciences, one of them visual and the other analytical, worked hand in hand to allow humans to circumnavigate the globe for the first time. It allowed Europeans to dominate the globe in less than a century. For the first time, the Earth became a global community. The power of merging visual and analytical technologies transformed humanity.

Let me diverge at this point and ask questions of your EDGE readers:

Consider Big Earth, a hypothetical Earth where the available inhabitable lands are much greater in area, say a 1000 times greater than on our Earth. What effect would this have had on the geopolitical evolution?

How would the world be different today, geopolitically speaking, if the ancient land masses had never drifted apart and, therefore, today's world consisted of a single supercontintent? How would biological life be effected?

What would today's world be like if the land mass which formed the Greek peninsula never existed? Would this effect be lesser or greater than if the Italian peninsula had never existed?

Why do all the major peninsulas on Earth point south? See for example: Italy, Greece, Florida, Baja, and the tips of Africa, South America, India, Norway, Sweden, Greenland, and many other landmasses.

Let me address just a few of these questions here. The profound effects of living on Big Earth, a world with inhabitable lands a 1000 times greater than today, are not entirely clear. Would wars be infrequent because territorial acquisition is unimportant in a infinite world? Would humanity's awesome sense of wonder in Infinity World decrease the occurrence of wars? In my opinion, wars would be just as frequent. Wars were quite common when our Earth was largely unexplored and the Earth had "unlimited" territory. Ancient civilizations have always been at war.

Would space travel evolve on such a large world? Since there would always be unexplored terrestrial regions, why would the inhabitants look to the stars for adventure, national prestige, or scientific advancement?

Would ecological concerns and "green" political movements evolve on Big Earth? Why would inhabitants be concerned with pollution, biodiveristy, and animal extinction with unlimited land and water? No doubt there would be local pollution concerns, but overall interest would be diminished.

Would an organization resembling the United Nations evolve? Would the dinosaurs still be alive today on Big Earth? Would criminals be more difficult to catch? Instead of fleeing to South America, they would only have to hop a plane to any one of a number of "maps". On Big Earth, there are "infinitely" many countries in which to hide.

I also like to imagine the effects of a world where their existed identical, repetitive landmasses. In my opinion, religion would be profoundly affected because the existence of exact repetition would suggest the presence of a creator as opposed to the random assortment of lands that we now have. (Can you imagine what effect the existence of a perfect square or circular continent would have on religion and science?)

Lets switch our attention to a hypothetical Earth that I call "One World". How would the world be different today, geopolitically speaking, if the ancient land masses had never drifted apart and, therefore, today's world consisted of a single supercontintent? How would biological life be effected?

My personal thoughts are that the diversity of languages would be far less in One World, a world consisting of one single supercontinent. For example, linguists such as Johanna Nichols from the University of California at Berkeley have done extensive studies reconstructing the spread of prehistoric languages based on comparative linguistics. Languages multiply more rapidly in tropical areas along coastlines and more slowly in the drier interior of continents. For example, the island of New Guinea harbors 80 families of languages, the greatest density of languages found anywhere in the world. On the other hand, a much larger region such as Australia only contains about 30 families of languages. If the landmasses of our world never divided, language diversity would be much less than we have today on our real Earth.

Most trade on One World would be accomplished by inshore sailing, since there would be little motivation for "blue water" voyages. Technologies driven by the need to cross oceans would be developed more slowly. (Consider the decreased need for long distance sailing, navigation, steam ships, and undersea cables.) Sea Power empires, like the British Empire, would not develop.

If the supercontient never broke up, there would be no totally isolated biomes. Therefore, disparate species such the Australian marsupials, or the old world and new world primates, would not have evolved.

If the continents never separated, the geological effects would cause unpredictable differences in the existence of oil and metal ores. Trade would be much more difficult and politically restricted, since most countries would have no seacoast and therefore wouldn't be able to send their ships out on the high seas. Trade barriers and tariffs would be much harder to circumvent.

In general, there would probably be large deserts and much less fertile land due to the decreased coastlines. Since Antarctica would be joined together with the rest of the world, we would live on an Earth with more accessible land. Historical progress would probably have been faster, due to the increased contacts between civilizations. There would be less diversity. Biological evolution would be slower, due to the reduced environmental variation and less change over geological time.

Perhaps even the entire world would have been united by a common culture very early in its history. Individuals such as Alexander the Great could easily have conquered the entire world

CLIFFORD A. PICKOVER, research staff member at the IBM Watson Research Center, received his Ph.D. from Yale University and is the author of numerous highly-acclaimed books melding astronomy, mathematics, art, computers, creativity, and other seemingly disparate areas of human endeavor.

From: Pamela McCorduck
Submitted: 5.2.97

It must be half a century or more since anybody has attempted a historical synthesis as sweeping as Jared Diamond's, and it's about time. People might quarrel with details (e.g., the Indian subcontinent must be as north/south as Latin America or Africa, but Diamond still counts it as part of Eurasia) but the big picture is wonderfully stimulating.

Here's another puzzle for Jared Diamond to put his considerable analytical skills to: all over the world, men's and women's traditional roles are differentiated, and although the actual tasks men and women do vary from culture to culture (in some cultures, X is men's work; in some cultures X is women's) it is almost universally the case that women's work is considered less valuable than men's.

Well, how come? One obvious answer is the vulnerability women suffer during pregnancy, childbirth and lactation--they are indeed "weaker" and "lesser" then. (Of course, this raises the paradox of all the hopes and prayers people the world over invest in their fertility, not just of their fields but of their tribe, at the same time they consider that state "weaker" and "lesser", but Paradoxes R Us.)

Suppose, however, that thanks to technology, the vulnerability women once suffered owing to childbearing no longer holds true. Now what?

PAMELA McCORDUCK is the author or coauthor of seven published books, among them Machines Who Think, The Fifth Generation, and coauthor with Nancy Ramsey of The Futures Of Women.

From: Gregory Benford
Submitted: 5.6.97

I applaud Diamond's broad, insightful and lucid attack upon one of the major questions of history. It has many excellent points, but let me fix upon a failing.

Several times he says that the only alternative theory to his is racist. But this is false, for he neglects all cultural history and causality in his analysis. To be sure, the geographical and biological levers were powerful, but something more subtle is needed to explain several uncomfortable facts. Only in Eurasia did science appear over millennia as a powerful philosophical and practical movement of staying power. Though China had many advantages and a long civilization, as Diamond points out, one must explain why it had no Euclid or Aristotle, no Newton or Bacon—indeed, why none of the other high civilizations did.

Further, the problem of why China did not lead the world into the modern age requires more than his attempted finesse. Certainly China had a homogeneous and traversible terrain, and Diamond says this lead to the primacy of orthodoxy, and to uniform rule. But why does this argument not work for the Mediterranean Basin, which is easier to cross? This discussion needs work. The persistence of Greek culture into Renaissance Europe is a striking and uniquely powerful cultural transfer. Why the eurasians produced the style and enduring enlightenment we now see as continuous with the modern is an outstanding puzzle, one little illuminated by Diamond's approach.

So something is missing: a theory of cultural history which interacts in a sophisticated way with the blunt factors Diamond highlights. Put another way, a la Dawkins, how did some unique eurasian memes come to have high fitness factors?

GREGORY BENFORD is a professor of physics at the University of California, Irvine and the author of Timescape.

Jared Diamond Responds

From: Jared Diamond
Submitted: 5.10.97

I appreciate the comments that all of you made in response to my EDGE-site talk. Here are my thoughts in further response. Naturally, in trying to explain the contrasting courses of human history on all the continents since the end of the last Ice Age, I had some problems condensing all relevant details into a 480-page book. (The subtitle of the U.K. edition of my book was "A Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000 Years). I had even more problems condensing my book into an account short enough to be readable on the EDGE site. Those of you interested in pursuing your questions further will find more about them in my book itself: Guns, Germs, and Steel; W.W. Norton, New York, and Jonathan Cape, U.K.

Timothy Taylor's comments relate to the difference between history and values. That is, what actually happened in history may not have been "good" for people, may not have made their lives more enjoyable, and may not appropriately be judged by our own cultural values of richness or impoverishment. Yes, some human societies did domesticate wild animals; yes, the Tasmanians did not domesticate animals, did abandon the cultural practices of making bone tools and of fishing, and were unable to light a fire de novo (e.g., with a fire drill) but passed fire around in fire logs. In my book, I was careful to point out that all that didn't make Aboriginal Tasmanian life poorer, less enjoyable, or less good than the life of us moderns or of prehistoric farmers elsewhere in the world. Instead, my book dealt with the economies of Tasmanians and other people from the perspective of their direct relevance to the broadest pattern of history: that peoples of some continents ended up conquering peoples of other continents. Having spent much of the last 33 years of my life living with tribal farmers and hunter /gatherers in New Guinea, I know well that the technologically advanced societies that conquered those New Guineans aren't necessarily more enjoyable to live in.

Marc Hauser raises an interesting issue about the developmental origins of our perceptions of "race." While this subject does not arise in Guns, Germs, and Steel, it did occupy a whole chapter in my earlier book The Third Chimpanzee. Briefly, children do appear to respond preferentially to external appearances of people whom they see around them in early childhood, such as nuclear family members. Those childhood images appear to be particularly influential in imprinting our search images for selection of our sex partners and mates in adulthood. Those geographically variable external "signalling" features, such as skin and eye color and hair form and facial physiognomy, are encoded by only a tiny fraction of our genome but correlate imperfectly with other geographically variable genetic traits. As a result, the usual so-called "racial classifications" based on those readily perceived traits don't have close concordance with classifications of human populations based on the whole genome.

Kevin Kelly asks about implications for the future. For example, do I expect all cultures to converge onto one culture? For me, the big question about the future is whether complex human societies will have any future at all beyond the middle of the next century, in view of the exponentially accelerating problems caused by increasing human population and increasingly potent destructive technology. Until then, jet airplanes will surely continue to produce much more rapid worldwide cultural homogenization than did diffusion between neighboring groups in the past. But one has only to look at the inequalities of the modern world, and the emerging new inequalities (e.g., the economic tigers of Southeast Asia), to realize that the consequences of the last 13,000 years of history still lie heavily upon us.

George Dyson's example of the potency of Aleut kayak technology is vivid here in my home base of Southern California. Aleut technology was preeminent in the hunting of sea otters even on the Channel Islands of Southern California, a few dozen miles from where I sit now. Dyson's example is paralleled by a related example that I discuss in the last three chapters of Guns, Germs, and Steel: when Europeans (Norse from Iceland) colonized Greenland in AD 986, Inuit technology proved so far superior to transplanted European technology that, within 500 years, the Greenland Norse were extinct, leaving Greenland to the Inuit.

Clifford Pickover notes the power of maps in driving expansions of peoples. That's a good example of a broader issue, the historical power lent by writing in general, to which I devoted Chapter 12 of my book. While guns, germ, and steel have been the most immediate agents of conquest, so much so as to provide a metaphor for the title of my book about collisions between people, writing and technology and political organization and motivating religion have been equally important forces for which this metaphor stands. Pickover also raises the interesting question why the density of languages varies so greatly around the world: e.g., New Guinea harboring about 1000 of the world's total of 6000 languages, and Indian California also being very rich, compared to a mere 45 languages in western Europe. The answers depend ultimately on history and geography. The incredibly dissected mountainous terrain of New Guinea promoted language diversification by isolating human groups in adjacent valleys (example of a geographical factor). But (example of a historical factor) New Guinea was never homogenized by expansions of farmers and of empire-builders, in contrast to western Europe.

As Pamela McCorduck notes, when one tries to understand the big picture formed by contrasts between human histories on different continents, that relegates some huge intra-continental problems to the category of "details' — e.g., the history of the Indian subcontinent. For example, McCorduck is entirely correct in noting that the Indian subcontinent has a north/south axis as much as do the Americas or Africa, and that Jared Diamond's reflections...axis played a crucial role in Indian history: the southward spread of food production through India, after its quick west-to-east spread from the Fertile Crescent to the Indus Valley in the north of the Indian subcontinent, took thousands of years because of the inevitable delays in adapting crops and livestock to lower latitudes, rederiving them independently, or importing them (notably cotton and millet) from comparatively low latitudes in Africa.

Finally, Gregory Benford notes that racist theories are not the only alternative to biogeographic interpretations of history's broadest pattern. In principle, environment-independent cultural differences could also be a factor. Benford's point is surely correct when applied to history over smaller spatial and temporal scales: e.g., the contrasting histories of Germany and France between 1793 and 1945. But I can find no hint of environment-independent cultural differences between populations of entire continents, contributing to history's different courses on different continents over the past 13,000 years. Naturally, some authors do postulate such differences, depicting Aboriginal Australians in general as living in a Dreamtime of the spirit world, Native Africans in general as inward-looking, and only Eurasians (especially western Europeans) as having the work ethic, scientific outlook, voyaging spirit, etc. In reality, there traditionally were big cultural differences within each continent. Native Australian societies ranged from desert nomads to villagers managing fisheries by constructing elaborate canals — but all of those diverse Native Australian societies were ultimately limited by Australia's paucity of domesticable wild animal and plant species, small area, isolated location, low productivity, and unpredictable climate.

Science was just a late and relatively minor epiphenomenon in Eurasia's world dominance. By 2500 BC, long before the beginnings of Greek science, Eurasians already held a huge head start in metal tools, writing, nasty germs, intensive agriculture, military technology, cities, and empires over peoples of other continents. The comparison of China's and Europe's histories is a fascinating intracontinental question to which Guns, Germs, and Steel devotes parts of several chapters, but I agree that I haven't solved the whole problem. Another book there!

JARED DIAMOND is Professor of Physiology, UCLA Medical School, a MacArthur Fellow, and the author of The Third Chimpanzee (Winner, British Science Book Prize and The Los Angeles Times Book Prize), and the recently published Guns, Germs, and Steel: the Fates of Human Societies; (W.W. Norton, Jonathan Cape).

The End of Horgan? Jaron Lanier, George Dyson, Oliver Morton, John Gribbin on John Horgan's "Why I Think Science Is Ending"

From: Jaron Lanier
Submitted: 5.6.97

(John Horgan said:) But I get frustrated (and I think George Johnson does too) by the excessively fawning stance of much science writing these days

If you can't fawn over Stephen Hawking (who is attacked by Horgan as being an overly conceptual post-scientist), who can you possibly fawn over? Or is fawning too undignified for the stultifying self-consciousness Horgan wishes to import from art theory into the sciences? Are we supposed to succumb to the same arms race of cynicism that has made generations of artists afraid to be comprehensible? The sad thing about Horgan is that we can make his ideas seem to be true on a temporary basis by not funding the superconducting supercollider, for instance, or ruining the motivation of young people who might bring their passions to the study of science mysteries.

All the best,


JARON LANIER, a computer scientist and musician, is a pioneer of virtual reality, and founder and former CEO of VPL.

From: George Dyson
Submitted: 5.7.97

J. D. Bernal, in The World, the Flesh, and the Devil: An Enquiry into the Future of the Three Enemies of the Rational Soul (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1929, p. 28), observed that "we are still too close to the birth of the universe to be certain about its death." Seventy years later, we may still be too close to the beginning of science to be certain about its end. -

George B. Dyson

GEORGE DYSON, the leading authority in the field of Russian Aleut kayaks, has been a subject of the PBS television show Scientific American Frontiers. He is the author of Baidarka, and the forthcoming Darwin Among the Machines:The Evolution of Global Intelligence.

From: Oliver Morton
Submitted: 5.7.97

John's synopsis of his ideas is great — both challenging and revealing. The comments that follow refer to this synopsis, not the book as a whole.

In some ways it has always struck me that John's real issue is "the end of science stories": as in "I've been a science journalist a fair while now, and I seem to have written every big story there is, twice - there ain't much left to do." It's a feeling that I have every sympathy with. But I never had the nous to take it and expand it as john has done. It is from that sense of personal omission I offer these gentle observations.

Lets start with Kuhn. We all know that in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions Kuhn was a slippery bugger who could say more than one thing at once. He uses the terms in his book very loosely, which means that people (like John) who follow him base themselves on shifting ground. For example, my copy of SSR has a necker cube on the cover, and in various places within it Kuhn uses the gestalt shift model of such now-you-see-it-one-way, now-you see-it-the-other optical illusions as an analogy to scientific revolutions. Its a good way of showing the incomensurability of the before and after world views — but at the same time it offers a view of scientific revolutions with no structure at all.

In short, Kuhn's book doesn't actually offer what it describes in the title. It is full of insights into scientific revolutions, but loose on how they are actually built. The one undeniable corollary that I drew from it was that if nature itself cannot be used as a way of distinguishing between before and after views (a point on which K is rightly insistent) then you have to look at some sort of explanation external to science for scientific revolutions.

To continue the niggling about titles, John's should in fact be "The end of scientific revolutions". John downplays Kuhn to some extent (especially when vague ideas of new paradigms are raised as objections — see infra) and says that revolutions are overplayed. but at the same time he has internalised Kuhn thoroughly enough to think that the revolution is the only worthwhile mode of major scientific advance. It is because he thinks that the intensive, massively funded and highly professionalised cadres of modern science have effectively revolution-proof ed their sciences that he sees them as basically coming to an end. He allows that there's lots of good science on the structure of relativistic jets in Seyfert galaxies, the detection of gravitational waves from coallescing neutron stars, the unravelling of secondary messenger pathways, the identification of suspect terranes and so on, but it's a matter of filling in within the established frame rather than changing the frame.

Pre-Kuhn John's analysis would have seemed distinctly odd. People did not accept that world views before and after scientific revolutions were incommensurable. They saw only one sort of science, and it was pretty much what John calls "filling in the blanks". For most of the sciences they saw the frame which held the blanks as being pretty fixed. They knew there were atoms, there were forces, there was natural selection and so on. They saw all science as, in Kuhn's terms, normal science, though they realised its tempo changes.

Nor were they entirely wrong. Kuhn's ideas are very valuable, especially when applied to some aspects of the history of the exact sciences, and when used as a pointer to the importance of external factors in the history of scientific thought. But the bimodal revolution/normalcy model simply doesn't do justice to all of science, and so can't be used to justify John's claims about its end. Take one of the oddest of those claims:

>Darwin's achievement-especially when fused with Mendelian genetics >into the new synthesis-has rendered all subsequent biology oddly >anticlimactic, at least from a philosophical perspective.

Biology, in short, has been over since Fisher and Haldane. Any "philosophical perspective" that forces its exponents to this view seems unlikely to be very interesting or coherent. If we were to accept it, we would be accepting that science can end without a) ceasing to be fascinating; b) ceasing to produce genuine conceptual novelty (introns and exons; action potentials; kin selection; symbiogenesis); c) ceasing to drive immense technological change; d) ceasing to be of vital interest to society at large.

In short, if you never thought that Kuhnian revolutions were the be-all and end-all of serious science, its hard to get too worked up about the fact that the exact sciences don't have them anymore.

That said, the claim that revolutions don't happen any more is not that convincing. The last set of events that might really be called a revolution in particle physics culminated in october 1974. It was before John or I started writing but it's not that long ago. John may think that the establishment of the standard model was a minor revolution or not even a revolution at all — in which case physics ended with QED. I don't think that anyone could deny that plate tectonics was a revolution, and that happened within both our lifetimes. John would point out that I can't induce anything further from these recent revolutions; but I would reply that he can't induce anything from an open-ended lack of revolutions that happens to cover our relatively brief professional careers.

When we look back it may well be that the lull never really existed. It's far from clear to me that cosmology, for one thing, is as stable as John assumes. With 90% of the mass within our horizon not currently observable there seems to be still some possibility for a pretty big rethink of how it all fits together. Its not clear to me that our current cosmological history is that much more convincing than geology before plate tectonics (when the bottoms of the oceans were as uncharted as the missing mass is now).

Meaningless analogy? Then how about a thought experiment or two. Imagine a world with neutrino observatories and gravitational wave observatories; imagine an event "seen" by these and by traditional observatories that emits a gravitational wave signature bluntly incompatible with general relativity. I suggest that this is not inconceivable and would trigger a revolution. If general relativity is correct, then it won't happen. But general relativity, like all theories, is only correct so far. The fact that it is used by GPS satellites, though undoubtedly a Very Neat Thing About The World, does not mean that it is necessarily correct, any more than the fact that Newtonian physics after 1750 produced the most spectacularly accurate lunar tables for navigation means that absolute space and time was correct.

John might argue that the change from general relativity to some other theory of space time wouldn't matter to the "basic narrative". General relativity mattered only in the most tiny way to the "basic narrative" of the solar system. But it mattered a lot to science. Scientists aren't that concerned with the basic narrative; they have to have theories that are right. (Journalists communicating with the lay public, on the other hand, have to care about the basic narrative.) Science is not just about the plauers — its about explanation and prediction. You can have science that believes in galaxies, quarks and natural selection for centuries with ever shifting explanations and prediction underneath.

Or imagine an experiment that through some neat insight no one has yet had differentiates between the many-worlds view of quantum mechanics and a copenhagen or allied interpretation. I'm thinking of something like the Aspect experiments here. Now suppose it showed that we do in fact live in one of an infinite number of very loosely interacting parallel worlds. That, I submit, would be a revolution.

They may not happen; but to be convincing John has to argue that they can't happen, and i don't think he does.

A couple of other points: John throws around the idea that things are unverifiable a fair bit. Without going the whole Popperian hog, falsifiability counts too, as the two thought experiments above show. And some of what John sees as irony is falsifiable. Unless I have misinterpreted Jim Lovelock a lot, the discovery of a stable crypto-ecosystem in some Martian nook or cranny that has been there for billions of years but not done much else would be a falsification of the whole Gaia project, which is based on the insight that life is necessarily a planetary phenomenon. Similarly, if the LHC reveals a range of hypercolour particles and no trace of the proposed supersymmetric particles then I would suggest that superstrings, of which supersymmetry is taken to be a low energy manifestation, would be in a lot of trouble. Both Gaia and superstring theory could be rejigged as a result of such discoveries, but all theories can be rejigged to meet the facts, as Duhem and Quine pointed out. And as Lakatos added, such ad hoc rejigging is the sort of thing that loses your research programme its credibility.

And he's also not above egregious appeals to authority. When Stephen Gould ("a real expert on life") says that most reruns of history won't lead to consciousness, he strikes me as indulging in profoundly "unverifiable" "ironic" science. At least the SETI teams are trying to find some evidence. And the fact that Louis Wolpert says embryology is basically over is fine, but my deep fondness for Louis, and my respect for his absolutely vital foundational work in the field, doesn't mean that I don't think he can be wrong. In fact, I think he's very frequently wrong. The idea that Louis Wolpert is more likely to be right than Natalie Angier, regardless of the arguments the two employ, just because he has been a leading light in development research is a bit like saying that John Casti is necessarily right and John Horgan necessarily wrong because John Casti is a leading light of Santa Fe.

Which leads me to a final point. John takes the current lack of novelty in some areas of science as one sort of evidence for his claim; he takes the ferment in others as a different sort. He's entertainingly rude about consciousness and complexity as new areas to look to for the future, and I share some of his doubts. But I also suspect that these areas are exactly what paradigm shifts look like early on. One of Kuhn's most important points was that science — a body of social practise as well as one of reliable knowledge — changes its mind in revolutions not just about the way the world is, but about what tools, practises, concepts and moral stances are necessary to perceive it correctly. Its not inconceivable to me that in 30 years all scientists will see computer simulations in a new epistemological light. Nor is it that strange to me to think that the distinction between objectivity and subjectivity will be radically rengociated in the course of consciousness research. Either of those things would be revolutionary.

Again, they don't have to happen, but they could happen; the nature of what counts as science could change. And that would not be an end of science, just and end to one view of science, the outmoded view in which the new conceptual world made no sense.

In short: John's view of what science is requires revolutions as signs of progress. He argues that these grand conceptual shifts are no longer happening. However, he does not show that they can't happen. He does not show that sciences that have not been subjected to revolutions are moribund in any practical sense — to treat biology as "philosophically" over is just evidence of a poor choice of philosophies. And when confronted with areas of potentially profound conceptual change he does not accept that they may be revolutions in the making, because he does not see how their product can count as useful according to the standards of the pre-revolutionary world view.

He does show that there is something deadened at the moment about the exact sciences allied to physics. And he does show that calling for new paradigms is pointless if the researchers in the field can't be made to take up the call. He shows that science is faddish, and that critical journalism is very entertaining and probably quite useful. And he shows that having been an English major can be turned to profitable use later in life.

OLIVER MORTON is a freelance writer, and a contributing editor at Wired and Newsweek International. He used to edit Wired UK, and previously worked at The Economist, spending almost five years as Science and Technology Editor.

From: John Gribbin
Submitted: 5.9.97

The following are a few relevant comments from my article in the May, 1997 issue of Prospect magazine entitled "Exaggerating the Death of Science:"

The first question to ask the purveyors of the idea of the end of science is how they know that there are no deeper layers of the particle world yet to be probed. Of course, they do not. To put things in perspective, there is some reason to think that the smallest scale on which any particle could have a meaningful existence would be the so- called Planck scale, where quantum effects make even the concepts of space and time fuzzy. I won't bore you with all the zeroes that have to be written out after a decimal point before you get down to the Planck scale, but in terms of ratios the distance we still have to go from the scale of quarks to the Planck scale is the same as the ratio of the diameter of an atom to the orbit of the Moon. The orbit of the Moon was first satisfactorily described by Isaac Newton a little over 300 years ago; quarks were explained a little over 20 years ago. Even allowing for the greater pace of science today (something which is far from assured in these days of financial constraints), it seems to smack of overconfidence to expect as much progress in the next 10 years as in the past 300 years.

Even if all the particles and forces are already known, and even if a TOE is found in the next 10 or 20 years, would that leave physicists out of work? Far from it. The great physicist Richard Feynman used to make an analogy with a game of chess. A child of five can learn the rules — how a knight moves, the role of the pawn, and so on. Indeed, a child of 13 has just become an International Master. But the greatest chess player who ever lived can spend a lifetime applying those rules, and still find new ways for them to interact, producing new games of chess. The equation that could be written on a T-shirt would not be the last word in physics, but the basic rule book, from which you would still have to explain the complexity of the Universe around us.

That, indeed, is the key to the next development in physics — complexity. It's all very well speculating about probing deeper into the structure within the atom, but what about the structure in the Universe at large? If the Universe began in the hot fireball of a Big Bang, some 15 billion years ago (as an overwhelming weight of evidence suggests), how did it evolve to produce galaxies and stars, planets and people?

The key word here is "evolve". Forget the books that tell you the end of science is in sight. The most important science book published in 1997 is undoubtedly one which carries the opposite message, and which also carries the rather startling title The Life of the Cosmos. It comes from Lee Smolin, a physicist based in New York, and it elaborates a theme that has been developed over the past few years in serious scientific circles by Smolin himself, Andrei Linde, in California, and a handful of other researchers. Their thesis is that the way the Universe works can best be understood not simply by applying the rules of physics worked out by Newton and Einstein, but by taking account as well of the rules of evolution worked out by Darwin — the theory of natural selection. The Universe itself, and its major components (notably galaxies like our own Milky Way) may literally be alive, on this picture, and, more to the point, may have evolved by natural selection from a simpler state to produce the complexity we see around us.-

John Gribbin

JOHN GRIBBIN is a Visiting Fellow in Astronomy at the University of Sussex. He elaborates on these themes in his books In the Beginning (Penguin) and Companion to the Cosmos (Phoenix).

Clifford Pickover on Joseph Traub's "The Unknown and The Unknowable"

From: Clifford A. Pickover

Like Joseph Traub, I too am interested in the unknown and the unknowable. Perhaps that's why many of the questions I pose in my books are unanswered. Some may be unanswerable. As Stanford psychologist Roger Shepard recently noted at a Santa Fe Institute workshop on the limits of scientific knowledge, even if our computers and mathematical tools continue to improve, we may not understand the world any better. He says, "We may be headed toward a situation where knowledge is too complicated to understand." Princeton astrophysicist Piet Hut has pointed out that the structure of the physical universe may represent the ultimate limit on human knowledge. John Horgan (Scientific American) believes that particle physicists may never be able to test theories that unify gravity and the other forces of nature because the predicted effects become apparent beyond the range of any conceivable experiment.

Our brain is our biggest limitation. We can hardly imagine a chimpanzee understanding the significance of prime numbers, yet the chimpanzee's genetic makeup differs from ours by only a few percentage points. These minuscule genetic differences in turn produce differences in our brains. Additional alterations of our brains would admit a variety of profound concepts to which we are now totally closed. What mathematics is lurking out there which we can never understand? How do our brains affect our ability to contemplate God? What new aspects of reality could we absorb with extra cerebrum tissue? And what exotic formulas could swim within the additional folds? Philosophers of the past have admitted that the human mind is unable to find answers to some of the most important questions, but these same philosophers rarely thought that our lack of knowledge was due to an organic deficiency shielding our psyches from higher knowledge.

If the Yucca moth, with only a few ganglia for its brain, can recognize the geometry of the yucca flower from birth, how much of our mathematical capacity is hardwired into our convolutions of cortex? Obviously specific higher mathematics is not inborn, because acquired knowledge is not inherited, but our mathematical capacity is a function of our brain. There is an organic limit to our mathematical depth.

How much mathematics can we know? The body of mathematics has generally increased from ancient times, although this has not always been true. Mathematicians in Europe during the 1500's knew less than Grecian mathematicians at the time of Archimedes. However, since the 1500's humans have made tremendous excursions along the vast tapestry of mathematics. Today there are probably around 300,000 mathematical theorems proved each year.

On a similar line of thought, a dog cannot understand Fourier transforms or gravitational wave theory. Human forebrains are a few ounces bigger than a dog's, and we can ask many more questions than a dog. Linguist Noam Chomsky once noted that a rat can learn to turn left at every second fork in a maze, but not at every fork corresponding to a prime number. The human mind, limited by the same kinds of biological constraints as the rat, may reach the edge of its ability to comprehend. We are flesh and blood, not Gods. Are there facets of the universe we can never know? Are there questions we can't ask? Our brains, which evolved to help us find food on the African plains, are not constructed to penetrate all the enigmas in the infinite mathematical cloak of our universe.

Note, however, we do have a chance of understanding a great deal about the universe. The fact that reality can be described or approximated by simple mathematical expressions suggests to me that nature has mathematics at its core. Formulas like E = mc**2 , F = m*a , 1 + e **(i*pi) = 0 , and lambda = h/mv all boggle the mind with their compactness and profundity.

The shape assumed by a delicate spider web suspended from fixed points, or the cross-section of sails bellying in the wind, is a catenary — a simple curve defined by a simple formula. Seashells, animal's horns, and the cochlea of the ear are logarithmic spirals which can be generated using a mathematical constant known as the golden ratio. Mountains and the branching patterns of blood vessels and plants are fractals, a class of shapes which exhibit similar structures at different magnifications. Einstein's E = mc**2 defines the fundamental relationship between energy and matter. And a few simple constants — the gravitational constant, Planck's constant, and the speed of light — control the destiny of the universe. I do not know if God is a mathematician, but mathematics is the loom upon which God weaves the fabric of the universe.-


Copyright ©1997 by Edge Foundation, Inc.


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