Friday, 9 October 2015

Evolved from a monkey - though not very far

Marsha Blackburn may not think she looks like a monkey. 

She also doesn't think that humans are causing global warming. This would not be so alarming, if she wasn't the vice chair of the US House Committee on Energy and Commerce. 

That's a bit like having someone on a medical committee who doesn't believe in the germ theory. 

Where do they get these people?

Of course it's ridiculous to suggest that humans evolved from monkeys. It would be like saying you are descended from your cousin. Actually humans and monkeys evolved from a common ancestor, just like you and your cousin descended from your grandmother. 

And Ms Blackburn may have missed a few other key events in human evolution since our branching away from the other apes. We already share with other primates some self-awareness, social intelligence and mental processes that distinguish us from other parts of the animal kingdom.

Ms Blackburn and the conduits of her DNA were probably part of the cognitive revolution. This allowed humans to indulge in abstract thought. Before this we still roamed around in bands, but could only really communicate about immediate and concrete matters. The cognitive revolution meant that large groups of humans could follow myths, leading to cooperation at scales beyond immediate kin. In the past these myths included worshipping the sun and sacrificing children. More recent myths included growth economics and the belief that a grey-haired old man created the earth for us and that he sent his hippy son to remind us.

Ms Blackburn was probably part of the cognitive revolution, or perhaps she is just aping the other primates in her band, and mirroring them as they jump up and down screaming. 

Around a hundred thousand years after the cognitive revolution, and a couple of hundred years ago came the scientific revolution. This was just another myth, but different in an important way. The scientific revolution provided us with an objective way of reaching facts. No longer were we bound to follow the most popular stories. We could produce hypotheses, test them, and establish facts. The power of science is evidenced daily, in the cars that drive by or the planes flying in the sky. When Nasa gets a satellite to land on a comet we have further evidence supporting science. 

I think Ms Blackburn may have missed the scientific revolution. She is on the house energy committee, but I doubt she even knows what energy is. Representing Tennessee, she probably just thinks energy is coal, and her job is to increase its use. 

But of course we have to remember that science is still just another myth, and the fact that it happens to be a very successful one does not guarantee it will prevail. If the world's richest and most powerful economy can promote people ignorant of science into positions of power, then we have to worry that it may just be a flash in the pan, and we are heading back into the dark ages. 

News of this appeared on 24th September, 2015 in the BBC's Science and Environment coverage, Believing in neither it is unlikely she noticed.