Sunday, October 10, 2010

There is grandeur in this view of life

Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution. - Theodosius Dobzhansky

One disconcerting feature of studying in IIMA was that (apart from being occasionally sucked into a vicious cycle), everybody seemed to know everything better than me. I then worked in the financial sector which again is full of super brains (at least I thought so till a couple of years ago). So I was always under pressure to keep up with various alphabet soup products so that I don't feel left out of a conversation. This pressure was no longer there after my stroke. My eyes used to glaze over when I used to read some article on finance and I switched to reading something else.

At this time I came across an article on Evolution vs Creationism. I had never heard of creationism and wondered what it was. I found that all it seemed to be saying was 'evolution can't do this or that, hence creationism' which did not make sense. Evidence against one theory is not the same as evidence for another theory. But I couldn't follow their arguments because I didn't know much about evolution so I started reading about it. I soon realised that whatever little I thought I knew about evolution was wrong. As Jacques Monod said, " [A] curious aspect of the theory of evolution is that everybody thinks he understands it."

When the penny finally dropped, I could see why T.H.Huxley exclaimed on reading the Origin of Species: "How stupid of me not to have thought of that." After I managed to overcome the semantic gap, I could understand better the various strands of evidence for evolution. Reading about Deep Time, when different creatures were abundant and when they became extinct was cool. Richard Dawkins writes in The Ancestor's Tale:
The human imagination is cowed by antiquity, and the magnitude of geological time is so far beyond the ken of poets and archaeologists it can be frightening. But geological time is large not only in comparison to the to the familiar timescales of human life and human history. It is large on the timescale of evolution itself.
The nature programs on T.V., which were becoming boring, took on a new meaning, When I saw some program about predators and prey, I thought about evolutionary arms races. When I saw a program about bats, I thought about reciprocal altruism. I had not heard of these terms before. Reading about evolution of complex parts or communication in slime moulds was far more interesting than reading about naked shorts or covered puts. As Keats said, "in spite of all,/Some shape of beauty moves away the pall/From our dark spirits" and I looked forward to reading something new about evolution everyday. And I was glad to know that I am not another data point for the Salem Hypothesis.

The Theory of Evolution is beautifully complicated - it is complicated enough to keep me interested but not so complicated that I will give up in a daze. On the other hand if I had started reading about string theory, I wouldn't know what hit me. I remember reading that it dealt with 11 dimensions. I can barely handle three.

I soon stopped reading about creationism because it was so boring. They keep making silly statements like 'nobody saw it' or using weasel tactics. Perhaps they should be answered like this. I loved this email exchange between an evolutionary biologist, Richard Lenski and a creationist. Lenski's second letter was brilliant. Like the author Terry Pratchett, I concluded that 'I would rather be a rising ape than a fallen angel'. There is a (probably apocryphal) exchange between T.H.Huxley and Bishop Wilberforce that took place in 1860. The incident is described in Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea:
When Wilberforece ended his speech, he looked to Huxley. He asked him, half-jokingly, whether it was on his grandfather's or grandmother's side that he descended from an ape.

Later Huxley would tell Darwin and others that at that moment he turned to a friend seated next to him, struck his hand to his knee, and said, "The Lord hath delivered him into mine hands." He stood and lashed back at Wilberforce. He declared that nothing that the bishop had said was at all new, except his question about Huxley's ancestry. "If then, said I, the question is put to me would I rather have a miserable ape for a grandfather or a man highly endowed by nature and possessed of great means and influence and yet who employs these faculties and that influence for the mere purpose of introducing ridicule into a grave scientific discussion I unhesitatingly affirm my preference for the ape."
Apocryphal or not, it is a good story.


  1. ENIKKU ONNUM MANASSILAYILLA!!What's the connection b/w heading and content??But i liked Huxley's remark....(I understood that...)(Pl note-At this moment I feel like what you felt about the IIM super brains...)

  2. Kesu, inspired by this post, I picked up the audio version of the following book in the library today. In spite of having enjoyed some Richard Dawkins videos on youtube, I have been avoiding this book fearing the onslaught of biology fundas.

    Reg your IIMA comment - this is what happens to people who sit through an International Trade class fooling themselves that unintelligibility equals profundity. (ps: sour grapes!)

  3. Leela - The heading is part of one of the most famous lines in Origin of Species:

    "There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved."

    Kailash - I have not read the book but have read some positive reviews of it especially chapter 4 on dating methods. Dawkins does not use much jargon so it should be ok.

  4. Hi Kesu,

    Got to know about your blog from Prabhakar Sunday night (he wrote to me after a gap of a few years)...I went through all your postings in the past 48 hours. I have to admit that a lot of it went over my head, well I have never been a science guy.

    You were among the more intellectual people at Indbank. Good to know that you have retained your mental sharpness over all these years (am afraid can't say the same about myself).

    I hope to remain in touch with you from now on. My e-mail id is Pls convey my regards to Jaya and love to Sujit.

  5. Dear Mr. Suresh,
    My name is Kialee Anderson and I am an undergraduate Psychology student at Purdue University in the United States. This semester I am working with Professor Greg Francis on a project to develop a faster typing system for locked-in syndrome patients. The basic idea starts with a keyboard entry system that is driven by selecting a cursor when it is over a desired character. Our goal is to identify the optimal arrangement of characters and the optimal speed of the cursor so that users of the device can enter text as quickly as possible. Part of this optimization considers the specific types of text that are being created by the user of the device. We have been working with sample text from the novel The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and we thought that the text posted on your blog at would be another source that would add some real-world validity to our project. If you would like some more information about the details of the project, we would be happy to send you a journal article that is currently under review in an academic journal. We would also be happy to send you the results of our analysis when we finish this project. We would greatly appreciate your allowing us to use your blog entries to guide the development of the project. If you allow us to use the blog entries, any publication we produce will include a full reference to your material.
    Thank you for your time.
    Kialee Anderson

  6. Hi Kialee,

    I have no objection to your using text from my blog. I am just curious about how this would be useful.