The thing that appalled people most when Charles Darwin published his landmark 1859 book, On the Origin of Species, was their realization he was saying, in essence, humans are animals.
Hamlet, wallowing in his depression, poked fun at his species-mates’ vision of themselves:
What a piece of work is man!
How noble in reason!
How infinite in faculties!
In form and moving
How express and admirable!
In action how like an angel!
In apprehension how like a god!
The beauty of the world!
The mourning Danish prince meant precisely the opposite of what he was saying, but his words reflected what the vast majority off people then believed. That we humans are a cut above lions and tigers and bears. And turtles and slugs and gnats. Hell, bacteria and beetles as well. But especially chimps and gorillas and orangs, the critters who look and act most like us.
In this Year of Their Lord 2022, I’d go so far as to say most people alive today still hold in their hearts the idea that there are the animals and there are humans, and never the twain shall meet. A man running for a Georgia congressional seat named Herschel Walker, a former pro football star, scoffs at the whole idea of evolution. “Why are there still apes?” he asked during a March interview. Walker, BTW, is endorsed by none other than the 45th President of the United States of America. The former president, I’m thrilled to add.
Walker stands a good chance of re-taking the seat for the Republican Party. He’s tied in the opinion polls with incumbent Raphael Warnock (D-GA). That means a hell of a lot of people in his district don’t care that he’s blissfully unknowledgeable about, and even contemptuous of, one of humanity’s bedrock scientific premises.
For pity’s sake, should Walker proclaim tomorrow that gravity is a hoax his poll numbers wouldn’t budge an inch.
We might comfort ourselves by saying evolution deniers and the rest simply are uneducated. Largely, that’s true. There is, as Isaac Asimov and Susan Jacoby have observed, a deep and historical vein of anti-intellectualism and anti-science in this holy land.
Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.” — Asimov
This mindless tolerance, which places observable scientific facts, subject to proof, on the same level as unprovable supernatural fantasy, has played a major role in the resurgence of both anti-intellectualism and anti-rationalism. — Jacoby.
Funny thing was, the people who most loudly and vehemently pilloried Darwin for his groundbreaking idea were the scientists of the day. Same thing happened to a fellow named Alfred Wegener, a German scientist who, in 1912, proposed that the continents were floating around the Earth like life rafts. The science establishment at the time found his hypothesis inane. Some fellow scientists declared his ideas “delirious ravings.”
Nikola Tesla was ridiculed by mainstream researchers also fiddling around with electricity during his time. Tesla, in fact, was squashed by the predatory and insatiable patent acquisitor Thomas Edison, who used Tesla’s unfortunate mental illnesses against him. It was like saying Nina Simone was a lousy singer because she was bipolar and suffered PTSD.
Take the case of a 19th century Hungarian obstetrician named Ignaz Semmelweis. Every OB/Gyn of his day wondered why childbirth was such a risky endeavor for women, all women, poor and rich, educated and not, in every country on Earth. Well, at least all woman whose deliveries were assisted by doctors. Imagine that — having a licensed, trained medical professional guiding you through the process of birth actually put your life at risk. The lightbulb went on over Semmelweis’s head in 1847 when he published a paper suggesting doctors’ dirty hands were responsible for the trouble. He proposed a ludicrously simple solution: doctors should wash their hands! Semmelweis’s advice was pretty much ignored for years. He was incarcerated against his will in a mental institution at the end of his life.
Which, itself, raises the point that many people throughout history who’ve advanced groundbreaking discoveries or advocated for huge social change were either actually mentally ill or labeled as such by the establishment. It often takes, after all, someone who’s been kicked out of “normal” society to be able to proclaim its dearly-held practices or treasured beliefs are wrong. Think John Brown and so many others. But that’s a discussion for another post.
This post, though, was inspired by a couple of gorgeous videos I discovered this past weekend. One covers the discovery that an enormous asteroid crashed into the Earth some 65 million years ago, wiping out many of the planet’s animal and plant species including, famously, the dinosaurs.
It took the combined efforts of geophysicists Antonio Camargo-Zanoguera and Glen Penfield as well as those of Walter and Luis Alvarez, son and father, geologist and physicist, respectively, over a period of a decade to establish that, indeed a massive hunk of rock had crashed into the Earth and thrown up an unimaginably gigantic cloud of debris, blocking out the Sun, causing plant photosynthesis to mostly cease, starving plant-eating animals and, subsequently, meat-eaters. Some 75 percent of the species on Earth died out, leaving tiny, skittering, bug-eating critters like early mammals among those that survived. Those mammals then evolved into more complex forms.
It can be said that had the Chicxulub Crater impact never happened, humans wouldn’t have come into being.
But again, scientists who’d been brought up to believe the Earth and life’s history was a glacially slow process with minute, incremental changes rejected any notion that a catastrophic event bringing about dramatic changes in the land or the critters living on it could have occurred .
Those scientists resisted with all their might Camargo-Zanoguera’s, Penfield’s and the Alvarezes’ findings.
So many times throughout history new discoveries have not been accepted by the old guard until that generation died out. They cling to their old ways of thought as desperately as they cling to their own youth. It still happens today.
So, here’s the first video, an explanation of how the Chicxulub Crater was discovered and the development of the dinosaur extinction theory, followed by a beautiful imagining of what the asteroid looked like, in real time, as it descended from space and crashed into the Earth. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did.