Every year, John Brockman asks his braintrust at The Edge a thought-provoking question and compiles their answers. This year’s question has just been released: What scientific idea is ready for retirement?
I *loved* Richard Dawkins‘ answer: Essentialism. The idea that there’s an “ideal” human and cat and dog. It’s an idea, Dawkins says, that has no scientific basis and that has impeded our understanding of evolution:
… If, like Aristotle, you treat all flesh-and-blood rabbits as imperfect approximations to an ideal Platonic rabbit, it won’t occur to you that rabbits might have evolved from a non-rabbit ancestor, and might evolve into a non-rabbit descendant…
… Creationists are misguidedly fond of citing “gaps” as embarrassing for evolutionists, but gaps are a fortuitous boon for taxonomists who, with good reason, want to give species discrete names. Quarrelling about whether a fossil is “really” Australopithecus or Homo is like quarrelling over whether George should be called “tall”. He’s five foot ten, doesn’t that tell you what you need to know?
He even extends his point to embryos (and when someone is brain-dead and poverty and the Electoral College):
At what moment during development does an embryo become a “person”? Only a mind infected with essentialism would ask such questions. An embryo develops gradually from single-celled zygote to newborn baby, and there’s no one instant when “personhood” should be deemed to have arrived. The world is divided into those who get this truth and those who wail, “But there has to be some moment when the fetus becomes human.” No, there really doesn’t, any more than there has to be a day when a middle aged person becomes old.
This is the kind of writing where Dawkins is at his best, when he’s explaining science to people who may not think about it on a regular basis, leaving very little room for argument. When people rebut the science in an essay like this, they just come off looking like morons. It’s the kind of writing that drew me into his work in the first place (reaching its pinnacle with this book).
Probably because I’m an atheist who deals with the topic daily, his writing about religion doesn’t give me too much to think about. In fact, despite the influence he’s had with The God Delusion, there’s a selfish part of me that wishes he would stick to writing more books and articles about science, since they’ve taught me so much.
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