Two of the books (by Edward O. Wilson and Simon Winchester) that I am currently reading are based on two of the most robust and important scientific theories that humans have discovered to explain two different sets of natural phenomena, namely the origin of the species, and origin and movement of crustal plates. Charles Darwin conceived the idea of evolution by natural selection (along with Alfred Russell Wallace), and the theory of plate tectonics emerged in the 1970’s through the work of a number of geologists such as Harry Hess and J. Tuzo Wilson.
Each theory revolutionized the thinking and the research in the respective fields of biology and geology, and have continued to be supported by continuing research. Both ideas have a robust simplicity to explain a wide range of facts and observations. The creative process in the development of these ideas is not very much different than the creativity that we often associate with art. And finally we might add, that each new idea resulted in a paradigm shift in their respective fields of science.
I was reminded about a play that I read many years ago which was written by Jacob Bronowski entitled the Abacus and the Rose: A Dialogue on Two World Systems. The play explores the similarities between art (rose) and science (abacus) and suggests that there is a great deal of similarity between an artist’s painting (say of Rembrant), and a scientific theory (say of Rutherford), and links the two systems by claiming that the both the painting and theory reflect the creativity of the the artist and the scientist.
In a recent book From So Simple a Beginning: The Four Great Books of Darwin edited by Edward O. Wilson, Wilson points out that great scientific discoveries such as evolution by natural selection (and I would add, the theory of plate tectonics), are like “sunrises” illuminating first the steeples of the unknown, and then its dark hollows. Darwin’s ideas, which first appeared in 1845 with his publication of the Voyage of the Beagle, followed by On the Origin of Species in 1859, and then completed in 1871 and 1872 by The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex and The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, respectively. You can read each of these books in Wilson’s edited compendium.
The idea of natural selection, according to Thomas Huxley, is such a simple idea, he thought himself stupid that he didn’t think of it himself. Wilson, in one of the essay’s introducing the book, writes that evolution by natural selection is perhaps the only one true law unique to biological systems. The simplicity of the idea suggests that if a population of organisms contains multiple variations in some trait (say tall versus short necks, or perhaps red versus blue eyes), and if one of these variants suceeds in contributing more offspring to the next generation than the other variants, the overall compostion of the population changes, and evolution has occurred. The power of Darwin’s theory of natural selection was that it was a phenomenon of populations, not individuals. Creation of subpopulations and the emergence of new species that descended from existing populatiions was part of his theory of evolution by natural selection.
The idea of plate tectonics, as envisioned by Harry Hess, J. Tuzo Wilson, and a few other theorists, resulted in the New Geology, which looked at the whole earth, rather than bits of rocks and minerals here and there. Alfred Wegener had suggested that the continents might have drifted to their present locations, but he did not have observations and facts to suggest how this might have happended. Like evolution by natural selection, plate tectonics emerged as a simple idea when one realized that the earth was one very gigantic system of ocean basins and continents that move, dive and collide due to radioactive decay within the earth that results in very large convection currents that push up new and drag down old parts of the crust. As in evolution by natural selection, the geological cycle of creation of new crust and the decay of old goes on endlessly.
For further reading:
From So Simple a Beginning: The Four Great Books of Charles Darwin, Edited by Edward O. Wilson, Norton, 2006
A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906, Harper Collins, 2005
For further surfing:
Understanding and Teaching About Evolution by Natural Selection
The Story of Plate Tectonics