Humble scientists with a sense of wonder

July 2, 2007 | By | 3 Replies More

I am tired of reading creationist accusations that scientists are robotic, dogmatic and unfeeling know-it-alls, unredeemable determinists incapable of having any sense of wonder regarding the world. This general accusation that scientists lack any sense of wonder is untrue based upon my own acquaintance with scientists who I know personally as well as those who I know through published writings and videos.

It is certainly true that some particular scientists express themselves with the precision that is devoid of emotion. It is true that some scientists are dogmatic and reductionistic. The same can be said for professionals in any field. The same can be said for most creationists, whose writings display in obedience to perceived authority and a refusal to open their minds to new evidence.

I am creating this page for the sole purpose of collecting writings of scientists who have expressed themselves on scientific topics with humility and wonder. I will jumpstart this page with several quotes, and I invite others to contribute additional quotations in order to create a page to which we can point whenever we hear unfair accusations directed at scientists.

Douglas Futuyma, from Evolutionary Biology, Third Edition, page xviii (1998)

Do not expect to find many pat, dogmatic answers or simple declarations of fact in this book. Very often, the exposition of a topic builds slowly and carefully toward a conclusion, and sometimes the conclusion is that we do not know which of several hypotheses best accounts for our observations. In evolutionary biology, as in every science, achievement of understanding is a continual, perhaps never-ending, process in which old ideas are refined, enlarged, and sometimes entirely supplanted by new ones. In every biological subject, including evolution, the amount we do not know greatly exceeds what we do know. (That is why almost every topic in biology is a subject of continuing research by college professors and other biologists.) It is as important to learn the process by which we achieve partial answers to our questions as it is to learn what those answers are–for the answers will probably be slightly different a few years from now. It is as important to recognize what we do not know as to understand what we think we know, for this divide is where further understanding begins.

Charles Darwin, from The Origin of Species (1859)

It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other and so complex in manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; Inheritance, which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability, from the indirect and direct action of the conditions of life, and from use and disuse: a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to the Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally bequeathed to the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.

Richard Dawkins, from The Ancestor’s Tale, page 613 (2004)

The universe could so easily have remained lifeless and simple–just physics and chemistry, just the scattered dust of the cosmic explosion that gave birth to time and space. The fact that it did not–the fact that life evolved out of nearly nothing, some 10 billion years after the universe evolved out of literally nothing–is a fact so staggering that I would be mad to attempt words to do it justice. And even that is not the end of the matter. Not only did evolution happen: it eventually led to beings capable of comprehending the process, and even of comprehending the process to which they comprehend it.

This pilgrimage has been a trip, not just in the literal sense but in the countercultural sense I met when a young man in California in the 1960s. The most potent hallucinogenic on sale in Haight or Ashberry or Telegraph Avenue would be tame by comparison. If it’s amazement you want, the real world has it all. Not to stray outside the covers of this book, think of Venus’ girdle, migrating jellyfish and tiny harpoons; think of the platypus’s radar and the electric fish; of the horse fly larva with the apparent foresight to preempt cracks in the mud; think redwood; think peacock; think starfish with its piped hydraulic power; think cichlids of Lake Victoria, evolving how many orders of magnitude faster than Lingula, Limulus or Latimeria? It is not pride in my book but reverence for life itself that encourages me to say, if you want a justification for the latter, open the former anywhere, at random. And reflect on the fact that although this book has been written from a human point of view, another book could have been written in parallel for any of 10 million starting pilgrims. Not only is life on this planet amazing, and deeply satisfying, to all whose senses have not become dull by familiarity: the very fact that we have evolved a brainpower to understand our evolutionary genesis redoubles the amazement and compounds the satisfaction.

“Pilgrimage” implies piety and reverence. I have not had occasion here to mention my impatience with traditional piety, and my disdain for reverence where the object is anything supernatural. But I make no secret of them. It is not because I wish to limit or circumscribe reverence; not because I want to reduce or downgrade the true reverence with which we are moved to celebrate the universe, once we understand it properly. “On the contrary” would be an understatement. My objection to supernatural beliefs is precisely that they miserably fail to do justice to the sublime grandeur of the real world. They represent a narrowing-down from reality, and impoverishment of what the real world has to offer.

Edward O. Wilson, Consilience: the Unity of Knowledge, Page 4 (1999)

After listening to me natter for awhile about my lofty goal of classifying all the ants of Alabama, he handed me a copy of Ernst Mayr’s 1942 Systematics and the Origin of Species. Read it, [Ralph Chermock] said, if you want to become a real biologist. The thin volume in the plain blue cover was one of the New Synthesis works, uniting the 19th-century Darwinian theory of evolution and modern genetics. By giving a theoretical structure to natural history, it vastly expanded the Linnean enterprise. A tumbler fell somewhere in my mind, and a door opened to a new world. I was enthralled, couldn’t stop thinking about the implications evolution has for classification and for the rest of biology. And for philosophy. And for just about everything. Static patterns slid into fluid process. My thoughts, embryonically those of a modern biologist, traveled along a chain of causal events, from mutations that alter genes to evolution that multiplies species, to species that assemble into faunas and floras. Scale expanded, and turned continuous. By inwardly manipulating time and space, I found I could climb the steps in biological organization from microscopic particles and cells to the forest that clothe him mountain slopes. A new enthusiasm surged through me. The animals and plants I loved so dearly reentered the stage as lead players in a grand drama. Natural history was validated as a real science.

Franklin M. Harold, The Way of the Cell, Page x (2001)

One response to the question, What Is Life?, is simply, Look around! Note the birds and butterflies, zebras and ammonites, the intricate web of life present and past, and joined the unending struggle to ensure its continuance in the face of human arrogance and mindlessness. This has been eloquently said by others, far better than I could, and it is not what I have in mind here. For the past 40 years, I’ve been immersed in research on the biochemistry and physiology of microorganisms, with emphasis on the fundamental aspects such as bioergetics and morphogenesis. In consequence, the central problems of life present themselves to me at the interface of chemistry and biology. How do lifeless chemicals come together to produce those exquisitely ordered structures that we call organisms? How can molecular interactions account for their behavior, growth, reproduction? How did organisms and their constituents arise on an Earth that had neither, and then diversify into the cornucopia of creatures that can live in each drop of pond water? My purpose is not to “reduce” biology to chemistry and physics, but to gain some insight into the nature of biological order.

Inevitably, then, this is a personal book–one scientist’s attempt to wring understanding from the tide of knowledge. It grew out of the experience of a lifetime devoted to research, scholarship and instruction; but since my purpose is to make sense of the facts of life rather than to expound the facts themselves, this inquiry walks the edge of science proper. The arguments and conclusions presented here seem to me sound, but they are certainly not the last word on the subject. The most valuable lessons that the discipline of science teaches are to play the game of conjecture and reputation, to appreciate the provisional nature of our knowledge, and to prize doubt! If what I have written here encourages a few readers to look up from their gels and genes to peer at the far horizon, I shall be well content. Of my shortcomings as an investigator, scholar, philosopher and expository I am keenly aware . . .

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Category: Evolution, Meaning of Life, Religion, Science

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (3)

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  1. Tim Hogan says:

    I'll never forget the wonder and excitement of a Harvard doc doing research into curing diabetes when she was on NPR talking about stem cells and their applications to possible cures for diabetes.

    I only know that with enthusiasm and excitement as demonstrated by scientists like sher, we'll find amazing cures in the next 100 years.

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    "I am among those who think that science has great beauty. A scientist in his laboratory is not only a technician: he is also a child placed before natural phenomena which impress him like a fairy tale."

    Marie Curie (1867 – 1934)

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    Here's another Scientist who belongs on this list: Carl Sagan:

    If we long to believe that the stars rise and set for us, that we are the reason there is a Universe, does science do us a disservice in deflating our conceits?

    Who are we? We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people.

    Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.

    Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality.

    For more of his quotes, see http://www.quotationspage.com/quotes/Carl_Sagan/

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