Randomness is inherent in something so incredibly complex as nature, argued Stephen Jay Gould, Harvard professor of geology and zoology and world-renowned science writer, during his Wednesday night lecture to a sold-out Page Auditorium.
At the turn of the millennium, he explained, people look to science to predict specifics about the future. "When you have predictability, it's only because the system is not too complex," he explained.
Throughout his talk, Gould refuted the deterministic ideas of an 18th-century French philosopher, who argued that the use of probability "is only a mark of ignorance."
But such a theory, Gould said, implies that scientific disciplines are ranked on their ability to predict-putting physics at the top of the totem pole "and squishy sciences like sociology and psychology on the bottom," he said, drawing laughs from the crowd of many University professors.
Instead, Gould argued that life is a contingent event, which the mind tries to fit into patterns. "The mind is a pattern-seeking organ," he said.
He noted that people look at stars, which are randomly distributed in their relation to the Earth's position, and create myths about constellations.
"There are all sorts of patterns in nature that are randomly generated," he argued. "But then we get consciousness and consciousness treats patterns in certain ways.... We tell stories about them.... We refuse to believe that the pattern... could just be random."
For example, Gould said, mammals' survival after the last great mass extinction was also a random event. Before dinosaurs went extinct, "[the smaller mammals] lived in the nooks and crannies of the dinosaurs' world," Gould said. "We are here today because [after] this random bolt from the blue, the dinosaurs died and the mammals got through."
Gould admitted that there was some predictability to mammals' survival because they were smaller than dinosaurs; smaller animals tend to have larger populations, making it more likely that some will survive. However, he continued, there was no way to predict that mammals would be smaller.
While some aspects of human societies-like the evolution of agriculture in mid-latitude regions-are also predictable, Gould said, the spread of European ancestry was another unforeseeable event.
For example, what if Chinese or Islamic leaders had greater expansionist tendencies? "You'd be learning about Jesus Christ as the leader of a [peripheral group] in your third grade class on cultural diversity," he said. "Our history could have been crafted in many different ways."
Details are so difficult to predict because there are unintended consequences of intentional events. For example, he noted, Goodyear produced tires for car transportation purposes-not to be remade into shoes in poorer countries to protect children from ringworm.
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On a biological level, the African heron demonstrates the same phenomenon: "The heron has wings because its ancestors happened to fly for 200 years," Gould said. Now, however, the bird uses its feathers as a shade from the sun, so that it can look into the water and see its prey.
Gould said that if he were to argue that this was the original function of the heron's feathers, "you might laugh at me-unless you're in Kansas." The audience applauded Gould's pointed reference to the recent Kansas State Board of Education's decision to delete virtually any mention of evolution from the curriculum.
Gould said many of his students do not accept the argument that evolution is a contingent event. "We don't want to believe that there really could be ontological randomness," he said.