McEwan on Darwin, Einstein, and Priority

By Mark Trodden | March 24, 2012 6:21 am

In the Guardian, Ian McEwan writes beautifully, as always, about the passion involved in scientific discovery, and the drive to establish priority. While it is a refrain among scientists that they are only interested in the work, and gaining a better understanding of nature, it would be hard to believe that, on a personal level, we don’t care deeply about the recognition of our own contributions. McEwan illustrates this with two of the most revered and successful scientists – Darwin and Einstein. On realizing, surprisingly, his fear of being scooped by Wallace, Darwin wrote

“I always thought it very possible that I might be forestalled, but I fancied that I had a grand enough soul not to care.”

and after Hilbert submitted his formulation of the mathematics of General Relativity, Einstein wrote

“In my personal experience I have hardly come to know the wretchedness of mankind better.”

McEwan also discusses the fascinating question of how rapidly some of our greatest scientific accomplishments became accepted, even though, in the case of General Relativity, many years were required to perform the definitive precision experiments one would typically expect. He puts this down to the beauty of the underlying ideas, and emphasizes the important role this can play, particularly for a theory such as relativity, for which the mathematics is inaccessible to most people, and the implications are, at least seemingly, remote from any everyday experience.

In the example of evolution, the basic concepts are much easier to grasp, and should be within the reach of anyone who chooses to think about them with an open mind. However, here the challenge to acceptance is not one of the inaccessibility of the theory, but the implications that it has for existing powerful world views.

“On the other hand, as Steven Pinker has pointed out, the ramifications of natural selection are multiple. And, relatively, they are easily, if uneasily, understood: the Earth and life on it are far older than the Bible suggests. Species are not fixed entities created at one time. They rise, fall, become extinct, and there is no purpose, no forethought in these patterns. We can explain these processes now without reference to the supernatural. We ourselves are related, however distantly, to all living things. We can explain our own existence without reference to the supernatural. We may have no purpose at all except to continue. We have a nature derived in part from our evolutionary past. Underlying natural selection are physical laws. The evolved material entity we call the brain is what makes consciousness possible. When it is damaged, so is mental function. There is no evidence for an immortal soul, and no good reason beyond fervent hope that consciousness survives the death of the brain.

It is testimony to the originality as well as the diversity of our species that some of us find such ramifications horrifying, or irritating, or self-evidently untrue and (literally) soulless, while others find them both beautiful and liberating and discover, with Darwin, “grandeur in this view of life”. Either way, if we do not find our moments of exaltation in religious awe and the contemplation of a supreme supernatural being, we will find them in the contemplation of our arts and our science. When Einstein found that his general theory made correct predictions for the shift in Mercury’s orbit, he felt so thrilled he had palpitations, “as if something had snapped inside. I was,” he wrote, “beside myself with joyous excitement.” This is the excitement any artist can recognise. This is the joy, not of simple description, but of creation. It is the expression, common to both the arts and science, of the somewhat grand, somewhat ignoble, all too human pursuit of originality in the face of total dependence on the achievements of others.”

It is also true that any scientist can recognize the excitement of a great artist taking on a subject about which he feels deeply. I’m thankful that, for McEwan, that subject is frequently science.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science and Society
  • Ian Liberman

    What worries me, is where are the new scientists and the science supporters going to come from , in the U.S. McEwan states, “the basic concepts are much easier to grasp, and should be within the reach of anyone who chooses to think about them with an open mind” , in regards to evolution. Where is the average preteen, teen and the uninterested adult in the U.S going to extract this information from? According to information from the National Survey of High School Biology Teachers, the most of U.S. biology educators support teaching creationism on par with evolution (60%) and letting the students make up their own mind while 13% explicitly advocate it ; also only 28% teach evolution as recommended in the National Science Education Standards. This from Science Daily. The creationists are pushing through the elementary school curriculum . Scientists like Pinker, yourself, Randall, Greene, Gribbin, Mlodinov,Krauss and Hawking do a great job of informing the motivated educated adult. The school system is becoming a tainted source for this middle group and the media from television to books aim for the educated and the inspired. It is not enough to transform a scientifically illiterate public into appreciating science. Scientists first of all need to go political and become activists in the school system and second , we need a new type of science focus directed to the younger adult outside of school. As a teacher, we need to focus on these young adults with simplified versions of what is happening that is exciting in science.

  • Chris

    @1 Ian
    A few years ago I asked our Chinese postdoc if they had this much debate about evolution and global warming in China. She looked at me and said “No, of course not. It’s treated as fact.”

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  • http://www.thdyoung.com/scrapbook/ Tom

    One of myriad things about evolutions that leads to bogglement is contemplating your own power of vision from the eye ball and inwards – something which for some reason I do in the bath – all of it, all of it, every damn teeny bit of its miraculousness orchestrated by randomness and death.

  • Tyle Stelzig

    I liked the quote from McEwan. I would have made one change:

    He said: “We may have no purpose at all other than to continue”. I would change this to, “Purpose may be something that we have created for ourselves.”

    The idea that the *world* could coherently have purpose seems to me like a category mistake (or anthropomorphization). Just as it would be a confusion to think that the world has beliefs or desires, it would be a confusion to think that it has purposes.

    EDIT: On the other hand, maybe the idea of ‘purpose which does not come from people’ can be made sense of if you believe in an anthropomorphic entity which acts as the source of purposes. And that’s exactly what a lot of people believe/have believed. So I’ll admit that the idea makes sense.

    But in that case he should say something like: “Purposes may not come from God, but from ourselves.”

  • http://www.darkbuzz.com Roger

    Some scientists fight for priority credit, and some do not. Einstein fought for priority credit. He was lucky that his rivals did not.

  • Neal J. King

    #1, Ian Liberman:

    “What worries me, is where are the new scientists and the science supporters going to come from , in the U.S. McEwan states, “the basic concepts are much easier to grasp, and should be within the reach of anyone who chooses to think about them with an open mind” , in regards to evolution. Where is the average preteen, teen and the uninterested adult in the U.S going to extract this information from?”

    Ian, scientists start out as nerdy kids. Nerdy kids learn things on their own.

    I was reading Darwin’s books in 7th grade, and I don’t think that was extremely unusual.

  • RwW

    Wish he didn’t feel the need to say we are related to all living things “however distantly.”

  • http://juanrga.com Juan Ramón González Álvarez

    This remind me the old dilemma: Do scientists discover new theories or are really the theories which discover to the scientists? :-)

  • http://www.astro.multivax.de:8000/helbig/helbig.html Phillip Helbig

    “While it is a refrain among scientists that they are only interested in the work, and gaining a better understanding of nature, it would be hard to believe that, on a personal level, we don’t care deeply about the recognition of our own contributions. “

    Of course. Otherwise, why not leave names off of papers? This might sound like a radical suggestion, but outside of academia it is not uncommon to contribute a huge amount of work (writing code, say) to a project with no more glory than perhaps some initials in a comment somewhere (and it doesn’t take long before people forget whose initials they are). Of course, such jobs pay better than academia. People don’t go into academia for the money, but rather for the fame and the groupies.

  • http://juanrga.com Juan Ramón González Álvarez

    Phillip Helbig:

    Good point! However, outside academia, your work is almost always protected by copyright and patents. Workers prefer to remain anonymous against the people who need to pay them to use their code/molecule/gadget…

    Moreover, there are fields outside academia where people gets both money and fame. Think of architects, for instance.

  • E.A. Blair

    All it took to bring me around to fully support evolution was for that fifth-grade nun to tell me that, as a Catholic, I was not allowed to believe in it. It wasn’t that long thereafter that I ceased to consider myself a Catholic.

  • http://www.borkedcode.com Thomas Theobald

    I find it mildly disturbing to contemplate that I am distantly related to such lower life forms as Michelle Bachmann, Rick Santorum or Eric Cantor. /shiver

    T

  • http://coraifeartaigh.wordpress.com cormac

    McEwan displays astonishing insights into the scientific mind and the process of scientific discovery. Who can forget his portrayal of the physicist in SOLAR? Or, even more unusually, his description of the Professor of Science Studies? I have never seen a reference to the latter field in popular literature before, and his portrayal was devastating..

  • James M. Martin

    Mr. McEwan should be ashamed of himself, denigrating our sacred images of Eve talking with a snake; God telling Lot to screw his own daughters after God has turned Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt, and transforming a pregnant teenager who would normally be stoned to death into the world’s best liar. How dare you bring up that atheistic science stuff, don’t you know that Adam had pet dinosaurs. I’ll wager Mr. McEwan hasn’t even read the words of our Lord Jesus! He would know that scientists are no better than Simon Magus who had a theory he could fly. That is all your silly Darwinism is, anyway, hocus pocus. God put fossils in the earth to fool people like you.

  • http://www.archidevsys.co.nz Gavin Flower

    @James M. Martin

    I don’t believe in you, therefore you don’t exist!

    Hey if you don’t exist why am I replying to…

    …collapses into into a gibbering heap of existential self doubt…

  • http://forum.hauntercentral.com/index.php?action=profile;u=134517 Toshia Marcinko

    Finally! This was purportedlyBarack Obama’s goal prior to the 2008 election. Have we seen any progress as far as renewable energy goes?

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About Mark Trodden

Mark Trodden holds the Fay R. and Eugene L. Langberg Endowed Chair in Physics and is co-director of the Center for Particle Cosmology at the University of Pennsylvania. He is a theoretical physicist working on particle physics and gravity— in particular on the roles they play in the evolution and structure of the universe. When asked for a short phrase to describe his research area, he says he is a particle cosmologist.

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