Science is too slow

The pace at which scientific ideas are properly explored and accepted by the majority is often too slow. It is true that a sudden discovery can push our understanding forward rapidly, by producing incontrovertible evidence that something happens or happened. But many of the biggest and most important ideas take decades or centuries to become accepted. The hello-centric view of the solar system is a good example, but you could say that was before science got properly established.

Wegener's ideas about continental drift are perhaps a better example. The idea was proposed in 1912 but not accepted because geologists could not conceive of a mechanism to make it happen. It was not until the ideas of plate tectonics were proposed in 1968 that continental drift started to become accepted. The considerable evidence staring geologists in the face, from the matching coastlines of Africa and America, and the way the geology matched on the two sides of the Atlantic, was apparently not enough to make them take the idea seriously. If they had, plate tectonics ideas might have emerged much earlier.

This delay in taking new ideas seriously and putting effort into exploring them slows development of our understanding considerably. It demonstrates a lack of courage amongst our scientists, universities and research funding agencies. For those of us interested in making sense of the world, the pictures we can develop are left incomplete and very probably wrong. Or, if you espouse ideas that are considered outlandish by the mainstream academic communities, you can become considered to be one of the 'lunatic fringe', promoting ideas that have no scientific basis.

The current situation in physics shows the problem. For decades strong theory has held sway, with universities creating posts for scientists exploring string theory and not employing those who wish to explore alternative theories. This is despite the complete lack of experimental evidence to support string theory, or indeed suggestions as to the theories can be experimentally tested. It is only in the last few years that alternatives have slowly begun to be discussed.

In my areas of interest there are two big examples of the scientific community refusing to explore important ideas. The first is earth crust displacement. There is increasing interest in what human development happened in Siberia, before the last glacial maximum. This is centred on the discoveries in Denisova cave in the Altai mountains, that was occupied at different periods by Denisovans, Neanderthals and Humans. It is evident from this, and from the regular discoveries of frozen mammoths with undigested food in their stomachs - plants that could not grow if Siberia then had a climate anything like the climate it has today. The most straightforward answer to this conundrum is that Siberia was not as close to the North Pole then as it now is - an idea reinforced by our well researched knowledge of where Northern Hemisphere ice cover was during the last glacial maximum.

A second example in another area of my interests, though perhaps related to how cultural ideas spread in early human development, is Rupert Sheldrake's theory of morphic resonance. Even though a considerable number of experiments have been done that strongly support that there is a real phenomenon here to be investigated, there is virtually no scientific investigation of his ideas happening.

At the rate science is going, it will take the academic community more than my lifetime to come round to taking these ideas seriously. This leaves me with alternative but to continue to develop my ideas on the basis that these and other 'outlandish' ideas are worthy of taking seriously, and hence worthy of being used to support my developing understanding of how the world works. Which I shall do without apology.

Revealing comments by scientists.

Scientists are trained to be reserved and very correct in the language they use. They have to express precisely what a scientific study shows and must avoid generalisations and statements that could be misinterpreted.

It is therefore somewhat surprising when a scientific author uses words that are emotive rather than dispassionately correct, to describe a finding in a study.

One I found recently in William J Burroughs’ book ‘Climate Change in Prehistory’ is his statement (section 3.11, page 120) “One of the most remarkable features of the last ice age is the success of living on the plains of Russia.” His use of the word ‘remarkable’ indicates a degree of surprise that there is so much evidence of people living quite a good life on the Russian plains and in Siberia at the height of the last glacial maximum. He stresses in many places in the book how cold and grim life at that latitude must have been, when we know that the Laurentide ice sheet extended across all Canada and the North of what is now the USA, and there were glaciers across most of England and the Scandinavian countries. ‘Remarkable’ means that the evidence of human habitation in Russia and Siberia at this period surprises him.

Another example I came across in writing Gods, Genes and Climate is discussion of the DNA of humans relative to that of apes. The phrase used was “...the diversity of human DNA is abysmally low compared to that of apes...”. Again this is an expression of surprise. The author could just have written that diversity of human DNA is very low compared to that of apes. How could have said ‘exceptionally low’. “Abysmally low” presumably is indicative of great surprise at this indisputable fact. The author can presumably find no way to rationalise this finding against their understanding of how animal species evolve. The fact does not fit and cannot be explained by the paradigm of species evolution to which they are working. If I came across something that was so far away from fitting the paradigm I was using to explain my area of study, I would chew on this fact incessantly until I could produce a satisfactory explanation.

A third example was an article in New Scientist about the DNA of modern Europeans and their ancestors. In this case the word used is ‘bizarrely’ - “..the population....ancestral to the early farmers...Bizarrely ...have very different genetic markers from everyone else (ancestral to modern Europeans) who descend from the out-of-Africa migrants.”. In this case the author does attempt an explanation - “The best explanation is that the ancestors of European hunter-gatherers somehow set up a camp on their own in the Middle East and lived apart (from other populations) for millennia - long enough to evolve their own genetic markers. No one knows why and how this happened.”

There a ‘Chinese proverb’ which says ‘It’s the roof tiles with the cracks that let the light in.’ Study of the things that don’t fit your current paradigm is what will lead to generation of a new and better paradigm. This is how good scientists work. When Einstein was puzzling over light there were two competing paradigms for how light travelled, both based on well-checked observations. Einstein decided to ask what the implications were of the facts behind the two paradigms both being right. The result was a completely new paradigm, general relativity.

I have used the examples above in Gods, Genes and Climate as challenges to the current orthodoxy of human origins, and to devise the paradigm the book presents. The three observations that come from these strange uses of language by scientists, that have fed into the book, are:

- It would not be remarkable for people to live successfully on the Russian plains and in Siberia at the last glacial maximum, if these areas were not then at the lattitude that they now are.

- As the diversity of DNA builds up as species evolve, and as we know humans have evolved from some pre-cursor species, somehow diversity has been lost. Which can surely only occur if evolution of the species has gone through an extreme pinch-point, from which only the DNA of a very few members of the pre-cursor species has survived.

- There is another possible explanation for the genetic marker carried by early farmers from the fertile crescent into Europe, rather than a population somehow keeping themselves apart from others for millennia in the Middle East. It is that a population arrived in the Middle East from somewhere from which we have so far not found any examples of ancient DNA containing the strange ‘marker. It must have been somewhere sufficiently far away from Eurasia and northern Africa to make interbreeding impossible.

I will leave you to read the book to see how these play out in constructing the story.