TCS Daily

What a Piece of [Ongoing] Work Is Man!

By Robert McHenry - September 19, 2005 12:00 AM

What a piece of [ongoing] work is man! So suggest some scientists who have done some complex statistical analyses of the variations in two human genes. These genes affect brain development, and the scientists believe that they have evidence that the human brain is still evolving.

Well, mine probably is, and maybe yours. But I have serious doubts about some others. Do you suppose Paris Hilton's brain is evolving?

This is silly, of course. But many, perhaps most people will likely manage to understand this new knowledge, if that is what it turns out to be, in vastly oversimplified terms. The idea of a mutation in a gene involved in brain development inevitably calls up the scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey where the ape gingerly touches the great monolith and suddenly understands that he need no longer just screech at his enemies; he can take a bone and beat them bloody. Many thanks to the monolith, by the way.

Pulp science fiction has bequeathed us some pretty specific images of what a more evolved brain will be like. It will be much larger, of course, causing the skull to expand to roughly twice the current normal size and forcing all the hair follicles to die. Fortunately, the bald look has lately become quite fashionable. Concurrently, as side effects, the eyes will take on a piercing, almost malevolent look, and the limbs will tend to become reedy. Surviving unevolved humans will wonder how these superhumans are able to support their own heads.

Telepathy is likely, and possibly also psychokinesis and the ability to inflict horrible pain on rude waiters and bad drivers simply by glaring at them. Fans of the original "Outer Limits" television show will have a head start in spotting the evolved ones among us.

No, but seriously, folks, as Bob Hope used to say. Evolution on this scale has chiefly to do with species and averages, not individuals, and scientists are generally careful about this. The lead scientist in this study threw caution to the winds, however. He proposed tentative, very tentative dating for two recent -- in the evolutionary sense -- mutations and then speculated right off the deep end that these might correlate historically with major cultural advances by the human species: the development of arts and tool-making and the development of writing and urbanism.

There is science, and then there is press-release science. It's a pity when the two are confused, as they so often are. PR science trades in conjecture and hype and is perhaps inevitable in our media- and celebrity-driven culture. Sometimes scientists, too, just wanna have fun. The problem is that PR science isn't always for fun; often it has a political goal. In this, PR science has one distinct advantage over plain science, which is that it can be practiced by just about anyone, irrespective of training, knowledge, or experience. Indeed, sometimes it doesn't need any actual science at all.

Anyway, the announcement will not impress those who already know all there is to know about human nature and destiny. And that is perhaps the best thing about the announcement: It reminds us of the open-ended nature of genuine science. Most of us concede that our understanding of the universe is incomplete, but we have at hand a tool, a method that is very good at finding things out and creating new knowledge. It doesn't work quite as most people think, in large part because most people are never taught it properly. This makes it easier than it reasonably should be for the few to confuse public debate and obfuscate their tactics.

I've been reading Plutarch's Lives this summer, and I ran across this passage in his essay on Nicias, an Athenian leader in the Peloponnesian War. Preparing a nighttime embarkation of his soldiers, Nicias is dismayed by a sudden lunar eclipse:

That the sun might be darkened about the close of the month, this even ordinary people now understood pretty well to be the effect of the moon; but the moon itself to be darkened, how that could come about, and how, on the sudden, a broad full moon should lose her light, and show such various colours, was not easy to be comprehended; they concluded it to be ominous, and a divine intimation of some heavy calamities. For he who first, and the most plainly of any, and with the greatest assurance committed to writing how the moon is enlightened and overshadowed, was Anaxagoras; and he was as yet but recent, nor was his argument much known, but was rather kept secret, passing only amongst a few, under some kind of caution and confidence. People would not then tolerate natural philosophers, and theorists, as they then called them, about things above; as lessening the divine power, by explaining away its agency into the operation of irrational causes and senseless forces acting by necessity, without anything of Providence or a free agent. Hence it was that Protagoras was banished and Anaxagoras cast in prison.

Three of my four grandparents were born before anyone had ever flown in an airplane. Before the last one died several of our fellow humans had walked on the Moon. When I was born the world's first computer, ENIAC, was still under construction, and when finished it would weigh 30 tons. Today...well, you know. Science works generally by increments, but sometimes the increments can be pretty big and can come pretty frequently. This frightens some people and annoys others who prefer to have settled views on things and insist that the rest of us share them, or at least agree to have them made into political principles. Hence Lysenkoism in the Soviet Union; hence the banishment of "Jewish science" from Nazi Germany.

Dogmas and ideologies are static; science is forever upsetting something. There's what we call knowledge because We Just Know It, or there's knowledge that is painstakingly and doggedly teased out of the fabric of the material world and, by the way, is often hard to digest. It's a choice. If these scientists are right about the brain, the stasis-lovers have got some 'splainin' to do. My guess is that they'll choose the sour-grapes tack and sniff that they're perfectly content with their current Design, thank you.

As for me, assuming for the moment that there is sufficient validity in these new findings, then Hallelujah! We're not finished, in either sense.

Robert McHenry is Former Editor in Chief, the Encyclopædia Britannica, and author of How to Know (, 2004).


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