Hieroboology: The Study of Sacred Cows

Humans are addicted to cherished principles, certainties that have been expensively acquired and should not be questioned. Science is in this respect extremely human—it is always relieved to feel that however large our ignorance there are some questions that appear to have been settled once and for all. Around these questions it tends to draw the wagons: anyone who insists on reopening them is eccentric, misguided if not anti-scientific. However, if we look at scientific history, the de

Jan 25, 1988
Alex Comfort
Humans are addicted to cherished principles, certainties that have been expensively acquired and should not be questioned. Science is in this respect extremely human—it is always relieved to feel that however large our ignorance there are some questions that appear to have been settled once and for all. Around these questions it tends to draw the wagons: anyone who insists on reopening them is eccentric, misguided if not anti-scientific.

However, if we look at scientific history, the decease of sacred cows is a regular event, and culling the herd an important scientific discipline. This has usually happened by accident. What if one were to deny the postulate of Euclid? Kant said it was impossible—Reimann did it. What if Newtonian mechanics were a special case referring to middle-order events where velocities were «c? It takes either a striking observation or a creative lunatic to do this. What if the inspection were to be more systematic, and there were to be a discipline of hierobooölogy the inspection of sacred cows to see which of them was due for slaughter?

Some of the cows may in fact be sacred and due for a long run. If I had to pick a couple that I think are ailing, I would pick classical evolutionary theory and Hubble’s hypothesis.

Evolutionary genetics is an extremely well-oiled machine. Most attempts to revise the classical model of selection acting on variation and to substitute Lamarkism, Lysenkoism and the like have come to grief. The classical system provides insurance against teleology, vitalism, and people who want to stun us with Genesis 1:1, and it is natural we should want to draw the wagons round it. Like Newtonian mechanics, it works over the range where experimentation is possible, that is, on the micro-evolutionary scale. We cannot experiment with macro-evolution, only analyze what we know of it by retrodiction. In some areas, classical models squeak badly: the evolution of flight through the conversion of reptilian scales to avian feathers is an instance—one cannot half-fly. The evolution of social insects is possibly another.

We normally put up with these difficulties in defense of the general model. Selection variation demonstrably works, so why fool with it.?

Sore thumbs apart, there are two reasons. First, DNA is the specifier of chemical ingredients, and only indirectly of form. It has not been shown that the two are necessarily the same. The second lies in the most intractable of all observables—elapsing time. Both evolution and cosmology use historical or time-based models as a skeleton on which to hang the structures they investigate. They have to, because elapsing time is a fundamental part of human experience. Unfortunately, as Kant realized, elapsing time is factitious—a way of displaying data, not an object of knowledge. Physics has no place for it as a constituent of reality—it should be replaced, as P.C.W. Davies wrote, 'where it belongs, in the human brain” (The Physics of Asymmetry, 1974).

Space-time is a very different animal, it exists en bloc, and we become aware of successive slices of it (de Broglie). The conclusion of this, which is one more example of the crevasse between physics and the life sciences, seems to be that what we read as succession, in both phylogeny and ontogeny, is in the physicist’s terms a coherent superposition, which we invincibly multiply by 1 and rotate through 90 degrees. Cosmology gets over this by recognizing sequential models as a convenient display, and dealing in topological models such as toroidal space-time. Biology is stuck with the middle-order, experimental model—organisms experience sequential time, so why be counterintuitive about it?

The problem with classical evolution is, quite simply, whether we need to postulate any input of information not involved in simple selection-variation—whether the evolutionary surface is configured by anything except selection pressure. Past philosophers have conjectured that it is: the configuration would correspond to Schopenhauer’s “will” or Bergsons’s élan vital, which we tend to identify with vitalism. People like Sheldrake who try to reopen this question, and who have not learned that you shouldn’t let the patient see the needle, tend to get a hot reception.

They might be wiser to ask whether there is any evidence that the quantum interconnectedness extends into biology, and, if not, why not? The sacred cow is still in good health among most biologists, but physicists might want to take a blood culture: the right experiment might make it keel over. We all need to think what precisely the virtual character of elapsing time does to historical models: the consequences are conceptually disturbing.

The second sacred cow whose health concerns me comes from a physical science. Large tracts of cosmology depend directly on Hubble’s explanation of the red shift in distant objects. Are quasars very large and energetic remote objects, or very much nearer and smaller objects whose red shift is not a result of velocity? This question is being vocally raised by people like Arp, who command small audiences at the moment. But if I were looking for a vulnerable and critically important sacred cow whose demise would upset most of conventional cosmology, I would put money on this one. I have a fantasy that some of the new space hardware will uncover an object with a red shift indicating an age greater than the accepted age of the universe. Or that some tiresome investigator may demonstrate a gravitational mechanism for red shifting and put the cat among the cosmological pigeons.

We shall see. But it is the occasions when a sacred cow rolls over with all four hooves in the air that make science interesting.

Comfort is an adjunct professor at
the Neuropsychiatric Institute at UCLA. His
address is The Windmill House, The Hill,
Cranbrook, Kent TN) 7 3AH, UK.


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(The Scientist, Vol:2, #2, p.12, January 25, 1988)
(Copyright © The Scientist, Inc.)

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