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Contingent World, Part 1 of 3

Artist Rendition of the K-T Extinction Event

Artist Rendition of the K-T Extinction Event

A month ago, I wrote here about about Nate Turner and statistical prediction. The post discussed forces big, slow, and predictable. It got me thinking about the opposite side of the spectrum: of forces short, swift, and unpredictable. So for the next couple of posts, I’m going to dig into this a bit, starting with politics.

In the next two weeks, election officials will finally decide Minnesota’s senate race between Norm Coleman (R) and Al Franken (D). Out of 2.8 million votes cast, Coleman and Franken are now separated by about fifty votes. I would like to remain optimistic about this but let’s face it: with such a narrow margin, it’s almost guaranteed that the loser will bring charges of fraud, lost ballots, etc.

Norm Coleman and Al Franken

Norm Coleman and Al Franken

After the fireworks are over, we will see a slow coming-to-terms by the losing campaign, a Kübler Ross-ian transition from bargaining to depression to acceptance. As this occurs, we will also see  “what if” stories blossom like desert flowers. Pundits and reporters will talk about how small changes in events, message, or media would have produced a different outcome.

The last bloom of political “what if” stories followed the 2000  U.S. presidential election. With great wailing and gnashing of teeth, Democrats tried to make sense of an election in which Al Gore won the popular vote yet still lost the election to George Bush. Razor thin victories for Bush in a number of battleground states, most famously Florida where he won by 537 votes of 6 million cast, fueled speculation about the many ways the election could have turned out differently.

Nader the Raider by Bill Day

Nader the Raider by Bill Day

For many, the spoiler was Ralph Nader, leader of the Green Party, who drew votes away from Gore. For others, it was the dysfunctional Florida voting system. Still others blamed Katherine Harris, Florida State Attorney General, who confirmed the official vote count. Or the Supreme Court.  Or Gore himself, who seemed so overstarched as a candidate that he even lost his own state of Tennessee.

In a sense, they are all correct. Any number of factors could have tilted the election in Gore’s favor. In the language of the Academy, we would say that the 2000 presidential election was highly contingent: the outcome wasn’t set in stone. It could have turned out differently.

As an idea, contingency has considerable heft across the disciplines of the Academy. On the science side, evolutionary biologists, have written extensively about the degree to which evolution  depended upon contingencies of the environment, that the concept of fitness does not only apply to the fleetest fox or the brawniest buck, but sometimes to the dumb luck of being well adapted to an unforeseeable event. Steven Jay Gould writes about this in regards to the middle-Cambrian organisms discovered in the Burgess Shale Formation.

Castorocauda lutrasimilis, the "Jurassic Beaver"

Castorocauda lutrasimilis, the "Jurassic Beaver," survivor of the K-T extinction event.

Better known to the rest of us are early mammals who managed to win the Darwinian lottery by being around when a comet the size of Manhattan plowed into the Earth 65 million years ago. Although the evolutionary implications of this event are still hotly debated, few doubt that something big happened to disrupt ecosystems all over the world, ultimately leading to the extinction of the dinosaurs.

comet

The K-T extinction event, as its called, makes clear an important point: even if history of life on earth is based upon slow, incremental changes to species over time, its evolutionary course was unpredictable. Life, like the Cretaceous comet of death, could have taken a different path. Had it done so, perhaps we would all be frightened weasel-like creatures, stealing our food in the shadows of brontosaurs and pteranodons.  (For more on weasels and evolution, visit John Lynch’s Stranger Fruit)

Contingencies do not have to be comet-sized, however, to have big effects. Such was the discovery of meteorologist Edward Lorenz who found that weather simulations produced wildly different outcomes based upon minute changes in initial conditions. From this, Lorenz coined the term “Butterfly Effect,” the idea that the flapping of a butterfly’s wings might change the atmosphere enough to create (or prevent) a tornado from occurring at some future time.

butterfly_08_m

Lorenz’s ideas are now a part of a larger corpus of work on chaos theory which shows the stunning effects of contingency (or as mathematicians call it, a ‘sensitive dependence on initial conditions’) in phenomena as disparate as air turbulence, irregular heart beats, and the eye movements of schizophrenics.

All of this happens at some distance from where I sit in the humanities, surrounded by books on art, maps, and social history. Yet contingency plays a critical role here too,  something I’ll take up in my next post.

Routes Up the Mountain

Mt Everest, 1924 Expedition, by Bentley Beetham

Mt Everest, 1924 Expedition, by Bentley Beetham

Two weeks ago I wrote a post criticizing the modern commercial ethos of Himalayan climbing. As I continue to dig deeper into the history of Himalayan climbing (guided by the excellent book Fallen Giants),  I am beginning to realize what diverse motives brought western climbers into the Himalayas and Karakorum. Nineteenth century climbers, like Arctic explorers, saw climbing in romantic and nationalistic terms, but they also viewed it in other ways as well.

Francis Younghusband

Francis Younghusband

The story of Sir Francis Younghusband, British Army officer, shows the importance of empire in the exploration of these regions. In addition to adding to the West’s geographical knowledge of these distant ranges, Younghusband spent his days outmanovering the Russians and trying to occupy Tibet. Yet Younghusband was, as modern climbers go, rather atypical. He did not seek to summit peaks as much as to survey and move through ranges. As much as he was an agent of empire, he was also deeply affected by the mystical traditions of India and Tibet.

Aleister Crowley

Aleister Crowley

So too was Aleister Crowley, whose role in the failed K2 expedition of 1902 has been eclipsed by his reputation as “The Great Beast 666,” and “The Wickedest Man in the World.” Crowley’s love of mountains was life-long and also an opportunity for spiritual reflection.

Albert Mummery

Albert Mummery

Alfred Mummery, on the other hand, saw mountains as the testing grounds for technical climbing and technological advancement. Mummery, inventor of the Mummery tent, first attempted to climb Nanga Parbat in 1895 and died in the attempt. It seems that Mummery viewed mountains tactically, rather than strategically, and thus, as Steward Weaver tells it, failed to see the Himalayas in their proper scale. For Mummery, the Himalayas were an overgrown version of the Alps.

Alexander Kellas

Alexander Kellas

Still others, such as Alexander Kellas, were “traversers” climbing up one side of the mountain and down the other – an enormously difficult and dangerous thing to do on 8000 meter peaks. Kellas spent his time on the mountain trying to figure out the physiology of altitude sickness, leading to new ideas about mountain acclimatization. One wonders what Kellas would have observed from the Royal Geographical Society’s Everest expeditions in the early 1920s. He died before reaching Everest base camp in 1921.

Readers who find these stories interesting should check out Bill Buxton’s excellent online mountain bibliography.

Darwin in Four Minutes

//darwin-online.org.uk/

Charles Charles Darwin, 1855, courtesy of Darwin Online http://darwin-online.org.uk/

Charles Robert Darwin (1809-1882), expert in barnacle taxonomy, lived his life as an omnivorous reader, letter-writer, and pack-rat. He attended college and traveled abroad, married his cousin Emma, and settled at Down House. There he wrote books, doted on his many children, and suffered bouts of chronic dyspepsia.

We don’t remember Darwin much for these details, eclipsed as they are by his work on evolution. But they are worth noticing if only to make a simple point. Darwin did not live life in anticipation of becoming the father of modern evolutionary biology, a status that seems almost inevitable when we read about Darwin’s life now. Despite the distance of time and culture which separates us from Darwin, he went about his business much as we do: working too much, getting sick and getting better, fretting about others’ opinions, and seeking solace among his friends and family.

In spite of the scrutiny paid to evolution, or perhaps because of it, we continue to see Darwin through a glass darkly, distorted by a body of literature that, despite sophisticated analysis and a Homeric attention to details, reduces his life to the prelude and post-script of the modern era’s most important scientific theory. This is not to beat up on the “Darwin Industry” which has produced a number of superbly researched, balanced portraits of Darwin. But the nuance of such works cannot overcome the weight of Darwin as a mythic figure in the popular imagination.

So what should we remember about Darwin?

He was not the “father” of evolution. The idea that species could change over time had a long history that predates Darwin. “Transformism,” as evolution was called, had many adherents including French naturalists Comte de Buffon and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. Even Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, took up the cause, defending the idea in his book Zoonomia (1794-96). But by the mid 19th century, transformism carried with it the whiff of quack science and radicalism. For the empirically-minded European naturalist, accepting transmutation of species was akin to believing in Sasquatch, an idea made all the more unpalatable because it brought with it an uncomfortable proximity to lower social classes and leftist political causes.

Darwin’s reputation rested on different grounds.  He did not become the buzz of London because he supported transformism. Rather, he brought to the defense of transformism a stunning, almost overwhelming, body of evidence. In Origin of Species, published in 1859, Darwin gathered his data from a number of different fields: comparative anatomy, taxonomy, biogeography, geology, and embryology. Darwin had come to the idea of evolution relatively early in his scientific career. A sketch of an evolutionary tree appears in Darwin’s notebook in 1837. But Darwin kept his views close to his chest, amassing arguments and pieces of evidence over the next twenty years.

//darwin-online.org.uk/

Darwin's 1837 sketch of an evolutionary tree. Courtesy of Darwin Online

But this wasn’t the only reason why Darwin’s monograph flew off bookshelves faster than The Da Vinci CodeOrigin of Species posited an entirely novel mechanism of evolution, natural selection, which explained why species change over time. According to Darwin, all populations quickly outgrow the ability of their environments to sustain them. Ultimately individuals of a species are forced to compete with one other for limited resources, winnowing the ranks of survivors to those who are best adapted to the conditions around them. These survivors pass on their successful traits to their offspring and change the constitution of the population accordingly.

Sounds tidy enough, but natural selection had to compete with a number of other possible mechanisms for evolution. For Buffon, species “degenerated” over time, moving away from their original form. For Lamarck, species changed when individual organisms become modified during their lifetimes and passed down these modifications to their offspring (also known as the inheritance of acquired characteristics). For others, evolution showed the handiwork of the Creator who nudged species, humans in particular, up the ladder of perfection.

In today’s world of creationist parks, polarized school boards, and dueling fish decals, the battle line has been drawn over the idea of evolution. Do species change over time? This is the question that sends evolutionists and biblical literalists charging down the hill at each other like the kilt-clad armies of Mel Gibson. But this was not always the case. In Darwin’s day, evolution had broad (though not universal) support from naturalists as well as liberal members of the clergy.

A meeting of the Kansas Schoolboard

A meeting of the Kansas Schoolboard

It was not evolution but natural selection which ruffled feathers. For many nineteenth-century Britons, natural selection seemed Deist at best and nihilist at worst. After all, what room did Darwin allow for God if nature was doing all of the selecting? As a result, many chose to believe in a theistic or “teleological” version of evolution which accepted Darwin’s evidence for evolution but rejected the mechanism he thought lay behind it.

To be fair, even Darwin had his doubts about whether natural selection could explain all aspects of species change. Later editions of Origin of Species left the door open to other mechanisms of evolution, particularly the inheritance of acquired characteristics. Only in the early twentieth century did natural selection finally win the day among professional scientists.

All of this had led some modern critics of Darwin to point out that his work falls short of certainty, that gaps in the evidence, particularly in the existence of intermediate fossils, doom the ideas of Origin of Species to the status of theory. Nothing about this charge would have upset Darwin. Indeed, he said as much himself in Origin of Species, devoting sections of the book to  “Difficulties on Theory,” and  “The Imperfection of the Geological Record.”

Where critics see lemons, Darwin saw lemon meringue pie (recipe circa 1847). While Renaissance scholars once aspired to certainty in the study of nature, this had changed by the 19th century as naturalists realized that the “see it with my own eyes” standard of proof worked poorly in trying to understand phenomena that took place far away or in the deep past. Indirect evidence could never yield certainty, but it could be used to develop provisional ideas that gained or lost strength on their ability to account for new data.  By this standard, Darwin’s two theories, evolution and natural selection, have held up amazingly well over the past 150 years.  That Darwin was comfortable in accepting his work as “theory” may seem like evolution’s Achilles heel to Creation Scientists and Intelligent Designers, but it is exactly this feature which places his research firmly within the era of modern science.

Thanks to Dr John van Wyhe, Director of The Complete Works of Darwin Online, for permission to use Darwin Online images for this post.

Other posts on Darwin:

Digital Archive: Charles Darwin

The Beagle Project

Announcements

Darwin Sites and Blogs:

Darwin Online

The Dispersal of Darwin

The Beagle Project Blog

History of Science in the 19th Century:

Ether Wave Propaganda

Laelaps




Less is More

NASA officials petition Congress, 2009

NASA officials petition Congress, 2009

No one can predict what next year’s federal budget will hold in store for NASA. A medium-term recession will put pressure on Congress and the next president to make cuts in the space program. Neither John McCain nor Barak Obama have spent any political capital embracing President Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration, though McCain’s on the record as supporting it. Obama has made sounds about delaying it, diverting funds into science and engineering education. Whether there is any money left to divert, cuts at NASA are now a likely scenario. After all, it’s hard to imagine a trillion-dollar program for space exploration holding up during a prolonged economic downturn. Meanwhile, reports from the Ares rocket research and development program have not been promising. The shuttle fleet is scheduled to go into retirement by 2010 and American astronauts will become dependent upon third parties to get them into space.

But perhaps there is something positive to be gleaned in all of this bad news. As the Mars rovers and Phoenix lander have proven, unmanned exploration is comparatively cheap. Moreover it has been productive to space science. Relying upon the Russians Soyuz to shuttle Americans to the International Space Station may not be in the best interests of the United States long-term, but it has paid off in other ways already. As John Schwartz wrote in the New York Times last week:

Those who work side by side with their Russian counterparts say that strong relationships and mutual respect have resulted from the many years of collaboration. And they say that whatever the broader geopolitical concerns about relying on Russia for space transportation during the five years when the United States cannot get to the space station on its own rockets, they believe that the multinational partnership that built the station will hold.

A Russian Soyuz transport in low earth orbit

A Russian Soyuz transport in low earth orbit

Among many free-market thinkers, economic downturns are useful insofar as they eliminate, albeit painfully, failing or inefficient businesses and modes of production. If this is a viable model for business, might not it also hold true for the U.S. space program? Forced to downsize and become more efficient, NASA would turn its attention to those lower cost projects that had been secondary priorities during the boom years. Perhaps with all of this talk of international space collaboration, depleted budgets will finally provide the incentive for long-term collaboration. I do not know enough about economics or NASA politics to know if this will happen, but it’s good to have sunny moments when the forecast is calling for so much rain.

Mission to Mercury

Regard fleet-footed Mercury, Roman god of travel and trade, the one-man postal service of Mt Olympus. It’s ironic that he has come to represent the solar system’s densest planet, an object consisting of 70% nickel and iron. Still Mercury is quick, speeding around the sun at a rate of 47 km/second, faster than any other planet.

This week Mercury Messenger will pay a visit to this world of metal. Messenger lifted off on 3 August 2004 in hopes of, among other things, figuring out why Mercury is as dense as it is. It will also measure the planet’s geology, magnetic field, atmosphere, and core composition. After a brief fly-by this week, Messenger will prepare for its final insertion into Mercury’s orbit in 2011.

Messenger’s price tag comes in at $446 million, a steep price when compared to other terrestrial transport vehicles of the same name. One Mercury Messenger would buy 15,379 Mercury Sables, fully loaded with satellite radio and heated front seats. But Messenger is actually rather cheap when placed up against the leviathan craft of the Constellation Program developed for travel to the Moon and Mars. At slightly under half a billion dollars, Messenger works out to $1.50 for each U.S. resident, about the same cost per person (accounting for inflation) as Mariner 10 in the 1974. Indeed, this seems a reasonable price for a planet that has only received one visit in 35 years.

2008 Mercury Sable

2008 Mercury Sable

Happy travels Messenger.

See more here at the NASA Messenger Website


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