The mediocrity principle

Edge has published the answers it received to its annual question. This year they asked what scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit. I’m still going through them, but I especially like PZ Myers’ answer.

The mediocrity principle simply states that you aren’t special. The universe does not revolve around you, this planet isn’t privileged in any unique way, your country is not the perfect product of divine destiny, your existence isn’t the product of directed, intentional fate, and that tuna sandwich you had for lunch was not plotting to give you indigestion. Most of what happens in the world is just a consequence of natural, universal laws — laws that apply everywhere and to everything, with no special exemptions or amplifications for your benefit — given variety by the input of chance. Everything that you as a human being consider cosmically important is an accident. The rules of inheritance and the nature of biology meant that when your parents had a baby, it was anatomically human and mostly fully functional physiologically, but the unique combination of traits that make you male or female, tall or short, brown-eyed or blue-eyed were the result of a chance shuffle of genetic attributes during meiosis, a few random mutations, and the luck of the draw in the grand sperm race at fertilization.

Jerry Coyne

Jerry Coyne has a very succinct article regarding the inability of science and religion to work together in any viable manner. He primarily focuses his points against two prominent evolutionary theists, Ken Miller and Karl Giberson. Both men are good scientists, but make great stretches to fulfill their desire to marry their science and religion.

The article can be found here. (I would normally give a direct link, but organizes the article far better.)

This would change everything

Edge asked its readers what would change everything. Richard Dawkins has responded.

But such ‘essentialism’ is deeply un-evolutionary. If there were a heaven in which all the animals who ever lived could frolic, we would find an interbreeding continuum between every species and every other. For example I could interbreed with a female who could interbreed with a male who could … fill in a few gaps, probably not very many in this case … who could interbreed with a chimpanzee.

We could construct longer, but still unbroken chains of interbreeding individuals to connect a human with a warthog, a kangaroo, a catfish. This is not a matter of speculative conjecture; it necessarily follows from the fact of evolution.

People often fail to realize this. Of course, humans were magically given souls at some point, so there’s no need to worry about this continuum. A god simply decided, at some arbitrary point, that a mother and father were not human but their offspring were. While the mother and father were clearly underserving of such a gift, the children, being full-fledged humans, were given a pass into an afterlife.

1. The discovery of relict populations of extinct hominins such Homo erectus and Australopithecus. Yeti enthusiasts notwithstanding, I don’t think this is going to happen. The world is now too well explored for us to have overlooked a large, savannah-dwelling primate. Even Homo floresiensis has been extinct 17,000 years. But if it did happen, it would change everything.

But I thought dinosaurs still existed? Oh, wait. He means the real world, not Ken Ham’s world. Indeed, this discovery would be wonderful. How would humans treat this new species? We’ve grown out of the old world notion of slavery, so would grant the species some rights, at least insofar as freedom is concerned. But would we allow them a part of our society? Would they not meet our arbitrary cut for being granted human rights?

4. The human genome and the chimpanzee genome are now known in full. Intermediate genomes of varying proportions can be interpolated on paper. Moving from paper to flesh and blood would require embryological technologies that will probably come on stream during the lifetime of some of my readers. I think it will be done, and an approximate reconstruction of the common ancestor of ourselves and chimpanzees will be brought to life. The intermediate genome between this reconstituted ‘ancestor’ and modern humans would, if implanted in an embryo, grow into something like a reborn Australopithecus: Lucy the Second. And that would (dare I say will?) change everything.

Between this, the discovery of how molecules can replicate and evolve new information on their own, and the discovery of exolife, the future is very exciting, indeed. It’ll hopefully also be very damning to religious zealots who base their lives on prose and poetry rather than reality. No longer will they be able to hide behind the veil of special privilege

What will change everything?

Edge asks us What will change everything? Specifically, “what game-changing scientific ideas and developments do you expect to live to see?”

I’m not so sure it makes much sense to ask what ideas will change the world dramatically, but I think there are two clear-cut scientific developments which will occur within the next 50 years. The first is the creation of life in the laboratory. It’s going to happen. It should, of course, crush creationism and its lying, deceitful bastard cousin intelligent design, but it will just be used as a prop for the claim that life only comes from a creator (which will, of course, be a laughable misunderstanding). I suspect far less than 50 years for this to happen. The next two decades may prove to be the time needed for the greatest discovery since Darwin discovered natural selection.

The second will be the discovery of life on one or more exoplanets. No longer will natural selection be the greatest discovery in the history of man. In fact, it won’t even be remotely close. The discovery of exolife will radically alter the philosophies of the world, deepen our understanding of the Universe, and place humanity in the best perspective it has ever had.

Post your own thoughts here, if you please.