Grand scenarios of cosmic evolution sound angelic, but the devil is in the details. Neil Shubin needs to get real.
Birger Schmitz was almost ecstatic about Neil Shubin’s new book, The Universe Within: Discovering the Common History of Rocks, Planets, and People (Pantheon, 2013), after he was initially mesmerized by his earlier masterpiece, Your Inner Fish. In a book review in Nature Jan. 3, Schmitz looked forward to more “stunning clarity [about] how every aspect of our anatomy goes back to our distant ancestors.” In the new work, Shubin expanded his evolutionary vision into an extensive cosmic story:
Shubin starts with the formation of the Universe 13.7 billion years ago, segueing into that of the Solar System 4.6 billion years ago. Much later, about 200 million years ago, when the supercontinent Pangaea broke up, the continents and ocean basins we know today began to form. This was accompanied by the rapid evolution of more complex life forms — dinosaurs, mammals and birds.
Yet Schmitz was not so utterly inebriated with the new “charming and enjoyable read” to let completely go of his wits:
There is a familiar feel to some of the sections, and the book’s title raises expectations that are not really met. Where are the mysteries of the brain, the laws of thought and our consciousness? These, to me, are the most amazing aspects of the ‘universe within’.…
And what if our view of the Universe continues to change as much as it did in the past century? From Shubin, one gets the impression that much is now solved. But the mystery of why we are here is perhaps greater than ever.
It sounds like Schmitz is not quite ready to advance to the next level in the cult of evolutionary everything-ism. Apparently finding a debunked transitional form like Tiktaalik does not qualify one to play philosopher.
Darwinism thrives on the Glittering Generalities fallacy (see cartoon by Brett Miller). Carl Sagan in Cosmos once spent almost a half hour showing the grand sweep of evolution from molecules to man, then pronounced with a dramatic musical background, “These are some of the things that hydrogen atoms do, given 15 billion years of cosmic evolution.” Uh, sir, there was this Cambrian explosion problem, and the origin of life; and how do you account for consciousness? And like Darwin said, how can you trust the thoughts of a monkey’s mind, if there are thoughts in such a mind? How would you ever know your thoughts about evolution are true if they were derived from an aimless process preserving only survival, even if by deceit? Sorry to ask these devilish questions, but maybe you’re on the wrong side of the looking glass, where the angels only look like devils. Maybe you could explain on what evolutionary basis you would ever know the difference.