Good tidings and well-wishes!
Given the enormous success accumulated by a recent post which begged the question “Why do so many science majors dislike literture courses?”, I’ve decided to ask a similar question which, like its predecessor, compares ‘hard’ science (specifically my subject of choice, paleontology) with the humanities. Rest assured, I fully intend to post a ‘Wednesday Wonder’ sometime tomorrow (I’m considering either Eremotherium or Scutosaurus, does anyone have a preference?) and shall therefore return to more ‘traditional’ paleo topics shortly. However, the discussion I intend to chronicle in this entry is essentially based on your reaction to the question posed in its title: how has paleontology affected your personal philosophy?
Carl Sagan (a man many scientists, including yours truly, from a myriad of fields idolize) frequently asserted that astronomy is a deeply humbling study because of the perspective it casts on our minute impact in the vastness of the universe. Paleontology is equally well-poised to debase our species for our massive sense of self-importance. In his book (which I’m currently reading and greatly enjoying) “Why Evolution Is True” (the accompanying blog to which is available on my sidebar), Jerry Coyne writes:
“If evolution offers a lesson, it seems to be that we’re not only related to other creatures but, like them, are also the product of blind and impersonal evolutionary forces. If humans are just one of many outcomes of natural selection, maybe we aren’t so special after all. You can understand why this doesn’t sit well with many people who think that we came into being differently from other species, as the special goal of divine intention.”
Thus, the study of evolution and the history of life on our planet inspires many of its enthusiasts to rapidly abandon the notion of anthropocentrism. After all, evolution did not grant our ancestors special privileges…they were simply another species living under the conditions of natural selection. Many people who accept evolution nonetheless continue to believe that Homo sapiens is its biological pinacle. As the title character of Daniel Quinn’s “Ishmael” points out, the process did not cease with the birth of our species as these people believe. In fact, an innumerable amount of cases show that evolution is still occurring.
The philosophical implications of this knowledge are obvious: that, scientifically speaking, we aren’t some ‘preferred customer’ of nature and that there will always be room for improvement. This second point is driven further home when one considers the concept of extinction. Aside from the notion’s glaring theological aspects, many early scientists rejected the idea that an entire species could possibly be wiped out because, so far as they had observed, none had done so previously and none showed any indication of falling victim to the phenomenon. However, anyone presently alive who denies the existence of extinction would be thrown out of nearly any institution imaginable (even the most radical) simply because even without the fossil record, we’re acutely aware of its presence. None the less, the fossil record does reveal that extinction is inevitable, for every species either dies out or evolves onward.
With all of this in mind, once again I’ll ask “How does paleontology affect your worldview/personal philosophy?” I think that a discussion on the subject would prove very interesting, so please post your thoughts below.
May the fossil record continue to enchant us all.