Full House: Homo Sapiens as a Cosmic Accident

In 1999 I read a book by Stephen Jay Gould, a palaeontologist who died recently (May 2002) of a disease that was supposed to kill him 20 years ago. The book was called Full House, and it presented some controversial hypotheses about the history of life on Earth, drawing on our planet’s fossil history and on the theory of probability.  Some of these hypotheses are as follows:

  • Darwinian selection favours species that are fierce and intelligent over gentle, stupid creatures.  That is a simple law of nature. As occurred with the dinosaurs, or as occurs at a microscopic level with cancers, the cycle of life is inexorable, tragic, and amoral:
  1. Fierce, intelligent creatures squeeze out the rest, decreasing biodiversity and biocomplexity.
  2. The result is fragility of the ecosystem to the point the dominant creatures destroy the system’s ability to support other life, and ultimately any life. The dominant creatures then quickly and suddenly die of starvation, suffocation or opportunistic diseases, taking other species with them. Sometimes an external catastrophe (like the meteorite that brought the demise of dinosaurs) accelerates the process.
  3. The disappearance of the dominant species removes the stress, so ecological equilibrium is gradually restored, biodiversity and biocomplexity again explode, and the system thrives in ever-shifting balance until the next fierce, intelligent creature evolves.
  • Natural selection favours short-term prosperity of organisms that, in the longer run, are probably detrimental or even catastrophic to the ecosystem as a whole.  There is no reason for this, no spiritual or scientific reason why these rules should apply and not others.  That’s just the way it is.
  • Evolution is not an ‘onward & upward’ process, but a cyclical one.  Homo sapiens is not the culmination of 60 million years of evolution, but merely a small, extremely recent branch of an incredibly complex profusion of species.  Nor are we (as DNA sequencers are now confirming) a particularly unusual or complex branch.  We just happen to typify the fierce/intelligent combination that is the undoing of ecosystems under the rules above.
  • The next cycle will produce (as inevitably all others everywhere that supports what we call ‘life’ have produced) species that are so different from us as to be unimaginable: the probability of vertebrates (which most larger Earth creatures and all sci-fi aliens improbably are) emerging from any primordial soup is infinitesimally small.  But whatever it looks like (if it’s even ‘visible’ or otherwise discernible by our species), if it’s fierce and intelligent it’s likely to exterminate itself before it visits us in UFOs, or vice versa.  So hoping for aliens to rescue us from our cloddishness, or hoping to find a new habitable world before our time runs out, or hoping to find answers in SETI, are all just a foolish waste of time and energy.  We’re in this all alone, and there’s no deus in this machina, no matter how much we pray for one.

Gould’s theories have earned him the enmity not only of creationists and the religious right (for obvious reasons) but also of other evolutionists who would like to believe evolution and the dominance of the human species is a progression with perhaps some deeper purpose, result or guiding hand. Gould disdained what he considered the muddling of natural philosophy (science) and moral philosophy (religion and ethics) as he explained in his final book Rocks of Ages, in which he argues there is room for both philosophies, but that attempts to integrate them (as Edward O. Wilson did in his book Consilience) are both futile and unnecessary. (Gould ‘s view is shared by Wade Rowland, who, in his book Ockham’s Razor and in his 2001 radio interview with Rick Vassalo says that both natural and moral philosophy have answers to important, but mutually exclusive questions.)

Many people find Gould’s theories cold, mathematical, and unsatisfying, but to me they were a revelation.  Instead of looking for meaning in science, he said we should look at science as an interesting, and sometimes useful, exercise in pattern-recognition and model-building, and an imperfect and incomplete attempt to understand the relationships and nature of the ‘natural’ physical world. Nothing more.

The obsession with single integrating theories about the physical universe strikes me as way too serious, forced and illogical. It seems to me that the physical universe is incredibly simple (even bacteria can figure out how to cope with it very successfully) and at the same time infinitely complex. It seems counter-intuitive that there should be a beginning or end to space, or time, or any ‘dimension’ of our universe, that there should be a finite number of universes or dimensions, or that more than a tiny piece of the physical universe should be within our physical perception or our intellectual comprehension.

The perception that the world was made of earth, air, fire & water, and later ‘elements’, and later ‘atoms’ and later ‘sub-atomic particles’, were all valid, useful, interesting models of reality that served us very well.  Each of these models involved a small and finite number of basic constituents of matter, and within our limits of perception accurately described our universe in useful and interesting ways.  But now we have scientists contriving staggeringly complex, tortuous theories (like string theory) hammering ever-squarer pegs into ever-rounder holes and expounding that theirs is, or will soon be, the ultimate expression and explanation of the entire physical universe.  I don’t think so.

Scientific observation is human nature and natural to all sentient creatures. Our dog Chelsea will sit alert and motionless for hours on the hill behind our house just observing life on the nearby ponds and wilderness forest. For her this is an exercise of scientific investigation, not motivated by any survival instinct; the combination of sights, smells and sounds are endlessly interesting, and the data are clearly studied, learned and memorized for potential future application.