October 02, 2005

On Thinking; Bill Bryson, Aquatic Apes, Etc.

For many people, the subject of science brings visions of sterile environments filled with people in white coats and thick-rimmed glasses. For others it’s a horrific nightmare of numbers and codes lost in a never-ending state of experiment. And for another group it rings of controversy that sometimes borders heresy. For any of these groups, the idea of science is either boring or beyond their sensibilities. However, thanks to Bill Bryson, most noted for his travel literature, and his book A Short History of Nearly Everything, science has not only been treated to an easy-to-read guide, but also has been turned into fascinating historical tale. I picked this book up in the summer after reading John Ralston Saul’s The Collapse of Globalization. Being that I’m very particular when it comes to reading fiction and Saul’s book was the 5th or 6th political piece I had read in a row, I was looking for something very different. Bryson’s offering was just what I was looking for. A Short History places the largest scientific theories into simple language without over-simplifying either their ideas or significance. Covering every major scientific branch, from mineralogy to chemistry and astrophysics, this book has (almost) everything a person needs to know about science. The book even includes, for a greatly added benefit, back-stories about many of the scientists and researchers that developed these scientific theories and often their relationships to each other. These tales are often as humourous as they are intriguing. I would even go as far as to say that these are the real driving force behind the book, the parts of the book that actually makes you want to know what happened next. In hindsight, if this were only a book of theories, it may have become tedious. However much this was about to turn into a book review, I merely wanted to point out how enjoyable, informative, and easy the book is to read. In fact, Bryson’s writing is fluid and agreeable that I have decided to put off my return to political pieces and have started reading his travel pieces. So what then, if this is not a book review, is this blog entry about? It’s about an omission in Bryson’s section on evolution. Let me just start that I am in no way qualified to make any resounding judgments, especially where science is concerned. However, I do think Bryson got caught up in the problem that science is often dealing with and that is the exclusiveness, the possible elitism that is found in scientific circles and in doing so omitted some theories from his book. The theory that comes to mind for me is the Aquatic Ape Theory. This is a theory that I first was introduced to when I was taking Environmental Studies at York University. The Aquatic Ape Theory argues that in the gap of human evolution the pre-human apes left the Savanna and moved into a remote corner of Africa and took to a life of semi-aquatic living, before returning to the mainland, out of necessity. It is here that these apes evolved many physical traits that are still found in modern humans, and that mainstream evolutionary science has had some difficulty explaining. It is an interesting theory that does have some merit but it has faced some strong criticism. While the original theories date back to the early 1900’s, the latest version is credited to Elaine Morgan. This is where much of the modern criticism is also focused, on the author. Morgan is by trade a playwright, feminist activist, and not a scientist. It is because of this much of the criticism is based more around the merits of the author than the merits of the theory, despite having its origins developed by at least one legit scientist. From what I recall from my lecture about the theory Morgan was first laughed at because she was a feminist and the theory was first published in such a book when times (1972) were less open to women than they are currently. Afterwards, when the theory wouldn’t disappear Morgan was rebuked because she was not a scientist, despite her working at the theory for almost 30 years in a scientific manner. I am not writing this in hopes of pushing any specific theory, to criticize science or Bryson (especially), or to even bring attention to the plight of women or feminists, in the past or present. Rather, I just wanted to bring attention to an amazing book that brings science to masses and to maybe have people think about what sometimes is not mentioned in what we read, hear and/or see. Essentially, this was about just making people think. Whether this means you might think about reading Bryson’s book – which you should – or if you want to read more about the Aquatic Ape Theory or maybe even get into a discussion about the plight of women over the years. Whatever it may be that this post with no clear written focus but with a clear goal, I hope it has you thinking.

Bill Bryson: Official Site Aquatic Ape Theory c/o Wikipedia

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Quotes from people smarter than me...

"If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich" ~ JFK

"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. " ~ Martin Luther King Jr.

"Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety. " ~ Benjamin Franklin

"First it is necessary to stand on your own two feet. But the minute a man finds himself in that position, the next thing he should do is reach out his arms. " ~ Kristin Hunter

"When you're a mayor and you have a problem you blame the provincial government. If you are provincial government and you have a problem you blame the federal government. We don't blame the Queen any more, so once in a while we might blame the Americans." ~ Jean Chretien

"Which is ideology? Which not? You shall know them by their assertion of truth, their contempt for considered reflection, and their fear of debate." ~ John Ralston Saul

"It is undoubtedly easier to believe in absolutes, follow blindly, mouth received wisdom. But that is self-betrayal." ~ John Ralston Saul

"Everybody dies, Tracey. Someone's carrying a bullet for you right now, doesn't even know it. The trick is to die of old age before it finds you." ~ Cpt. Malcolm Reynolds (Firefly, Episode 12)