Not all the time, but from time to time, actually pretty often if I have the time to read widely, I encounter in my reading bits of what I will call new awarenesses, or new truths, “eye openers,” things that I really didn’t know before the encounter and that have made my life thereafter a bit richer, by enabling me to see a little bit further into life’s mostly dark and unfathomable depths.
I suppose when I ask my grandson what he learned in school I’m assuming that he had had a similar eye opening experience. He never does, or rather he never tells me about it. He must have them. Everyone must. Isn’t this what living and learning is all about? Anyway, my new understanding, or eye-opener as I’m going to call this sort of thing in what follows, may stem from little or nothing at all, from a few words, a brief anecdote, a new application of a well worn idea or image, or it may come from something more substantial, such as the reading of the works of scientists, philosophers, thinkers of all kinds, whose new to me ideas flood my mind as a bright light from a beacon, and whose ideas I immediately steal and make my own. Talk about walking on the shoulders of others, well that’s what I do.
What do I mean by a new understanding stemming from an encounter with just a few words, from “little or nothing at all”? Here’s an example. Earlier today I was reading an article in the Wall Street Journal about how the creators of worms and viruses are now attacking the Mac operating system, and to do so “they use what are called ‘social engineering’ techniques to trick users into doing things that they shouldn’t do, like unwittingly installing programs.
The Anna Kournikova worm from 2001, for example, infamously tricked Windows users into installing it by masquerading as photos of the leggy Russian tennis star attached to e-mails.” My “eye opener” in this instance was just this one sentence from the article: “These approaches exploit a bug in peoples’ brains, which is much harder to patch.” Wow, weaknesses in my brain that are virus and worm prone and that are hard to patch, no less so than computer operating systems. Makes you wonder how many “bugs” you carry about with you during your daily activities. Makes you certainly less sure of yourself because suddenly you know that your brain probably does contain a number of bugs (downloaded from where?) that do interfere with what should be normal brain (whatever that is) activity.
I wonder what “bug” it is in the suicide bomber’s brain, placed there by a fanatical Imam, and that then permits the terrorist’s message to enter the brain, take root, and eventually destroy that brain and others along with it in the single mad action of blowing himself or herself up. Now that is a deadly virus. The ultimate worm of all worms. And how are we to correct faulty operating systems of this kind? We don’t yet even know how they enter and take root in someone’s brain. In this case our Norton or McAfee anti-virus software are our intelligence services but so far these services have not proved up to the task of finding and destroying the suicide bug.
Here’s another example, this time not a few words, but a simple anecdote, of how something you thought you already knew comes alive again and with a new force, bringing new life to old knowledge as it were. For me this was another eye opener. The old knowledge was that similar, very much alike features of our anatomy closely relate us to all other mammals, as well as to other organisms even further removed from us in the Linnean order of living things. For we’ve known for a long time, well before Charles Darwin even, that many seemingly very different species belong by their common anatomical structures, to the same biological class of animals.
Here’s the example of how a simple anecdote can make this old truth come alive again. I encountered this one in last Sunday’s Times in Chip Brown’s account of a Taliban at Yale (see my last Blog entry). The Taliban, Rahmatullah, who will eventually enroll as a freshman at Yale College, asks his benefactor Mike Hoover a question:
“Do you believe people are related to dogs?” (Dogs are not favored in Afghan society; the question dared him to contradict common sense.) “Yes,” Hoover said. The Taliban all laughed in amazement. “How can you possibly believe that? We are so different.” “You see only differences. I see similarities.” “Similarities! Like what?” (Hoover wanted his first example to be an intellectual bunker buster, so he thought carefully.) “Bilateral symmetry,” he said. The laughter stopped, which pleased him. “What does that mean?” “It means dogs have eyes on either side of their nose, just like humans. Dogs have two nostrils, just like humans. They have two lungs. They have toenails. They have a heart in the center of their chest. Dog blood and human blood are indistinguishable.”
No new knowledge, but oh did that old knowledge come alive in this exchange between the American, Mike Hoover, and the young members of the Taliban.
Then there are the eye openers that bring new knowledge. And as long as one seeks to learn there is no end to this kind of experience. Here’s just one of many examples of new knowledge that I have acquired from reading Robert Wright’s books, in this case, Nonzero, or The Logic of Human Destiny. Wright is discussing the growth of complexity during the evolution of biological organisms on this earth. How much can we conclude from this? Is it the meaning of life to grow in complexity, reaching at some far off point in time, what,… God, a “mind” straddling the entire Globe, as thinkers such as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin have imagined it?
Wright asks the question, does the growth in complexity represent progress? Then he reminds us that Stephen Jay Gould rejected the idea of progress, as well as the importance of man’s place in life’s history. Run it again from the beginning and there’s a good chance that man would not even appear.
Gould showed clearly that the multicellular biological organisms now living on the earth, and in particular man, were not at all the principal form of life on the earth, nor did he make up more than a tiny part of the history of life on earth. For in regard to numbers of individuals, biological mass weight, and probably even numbers of distinct species, bacteria were, and are, far more remarkable.
Man is just one species, and even today when he numbers in the billions, he is bested not only by bacteria, but also by the ants and termites in respect to total biological mass weight, and he is bested by most other life forms in regard to total time on the earth, that being so far well less than a million years, or a tiny instant in the 4.5 billion year history of the earth. So if we look at the huge place of single celled bacteria among living things we can’t then make too much of the relatively small place taken up by the multi-cellular organisms including man. For these forms make up only a small segment of life’s history and presence on the earth. Bacteria have always dominated the whole picture and still do. And bacteria have shown no movement towards more complex forms. They are much the same today as they were 2 billion or more years ago.
Here are, for me, some of the eye opening passages from Wright’s book, Nonzero:
“Yes. Gould is saying not only that bacteria are pretty simple creatures; he’s saying that they outnumber us. Or, as he puts it: “modal” complexity shows no tendency to grow; the level of complexity at which the greatest number of living things resides—the mode—has not changed noticeably since at least 2 billion years ago. Back then, most living things were about as complex as a bacterium. One billion years ago, ditto. Now, ditto.
“Indeed, not only do bacteria outnumber us; they outweigh us. In fact, they outweigh just about anything, if you add up all the underground bacteria. Also, they can survive under lots of weird conditions. “On any possible, reasonable, or fair criterion, bacteria are—and always have been—the dominant forms of life on earth.”
To go on, what about the numbers of different species? Do we know how many there are? Do we know that there are more bacterial species than all others combined? No, we don’t yet know the answers to either question. The biologist E. O. Wilson estimates known species at approximately 1.4 million, while another study estimates the number at approximately 1.5 million. And there are scientists who say that there could be tens of millions more of spiecies still unknown.
When I think about it it’s probably biology more than any other academic discipline that has opened my own eyes to things previously unseen. I learn, from this same investigation that began while reading Robert Wright’s Nonzero, that while it is relatively easy to classify mammals and plants, this is not true in regard to bacteria, hence one source of our ignorance in regard to their total numbers.
Another source of our difficulty in determining the number of species living on the earth is that biodiversity is not evenly distributed throughout the world. There are many imbalances, skewing the counting process. For example, over half of all described species are insects, including approximately 300,000 known beetles, a fact which led biologist J. B. S. Haldane to remark that God has “an inordinate fondness for beetles.”
Also seventy percent of the world’s species occur in only 12 countries: Australia, Brazil, China, Columbia, Ecuador, India, Indonesia, Madagascar, Mexico, Peru, and Zaire. The tropical rain forests, common to these countries, are believed to contain more than half the number of all species on Earth.
To return to our bacteria we learn, still from Edward O Wilson, that “the vast majority of bacterial types remain completely unknown, with no name and no hint of the means needed to detect them. Take a gram of ordinary soil, a pinch held between two fingers, and place it in the palm of your hand. You are holding a clump of quartz grains laced with decaying organic matter and free nutrients, and about 10 billion bacteria. How many bacterial species are present are present in that gram of soil?
How many species of bacteria are there in the world? Bergey’s Manual of Systematic Bacteriology, the official guide updated to 1989, list about 4,000. There has always been a feeling among microbiologists that the true number, including the undiagnosed species, is much greater, but no one could even guess by how much. Ten times more? A hundred? Recent research suggests that the answer might be at least a thousand times greater, with the total number ranging into the millions.”
Wilson wrote those words in 1992.
Much more recently, just last year, in 2005, a group led by William Whitman at the University of Georgia made a direct estimate of the total number of bacteria, not the number of species, but the number of individuals, and as you would expect that number makes the number of humans look downright puny. Their estimate of that number is five million trillion trillion, that’s a five with 30 zeroes after it.
Or, if each bacterium were a penny, the stack would reach a trillion light years. The team also found that the total amount of bacterial carbon in the soil and subsurface, where over 90% of the bacteria live, to be yet another staggering number, 5 X 10**17 g or the weight of the United Kingdom, a quantity nearly equal to the total carbon found in plants.
All eye openers. My final “eye opener” is taken also from the Georgia study in regard to the rate of mutations and how bacteria operate in nature. The authors point to the fact that “events that are extremely rare in the laboratory could occur frequently in nature. … And because the number of bacteria is so large in nature, events that would occur once in 10 billion years in the laboratory would occur every second in nature. New species, anyone?”