Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

The Seed Media Offices recently sent a book to me to review. This book, What We Believe But Cannot Prove: Today’s Leading Thinkers on Science in the Age of Certainty (2006, Harper Perennial) is edited by John Brockman, publisher of Edge. The book is a collection of essays written by more than 100 scientists and other leading scholars in response to the question, “What do you believe even though you cannot prove it?” Each essay is blog-length, ranging between five and approximately 800-1000 words, so it makes for interesting thought experiments that you can easily read and contemplate while waiting for the bus, for example.

I enjoyed this pleasant little book and its bite-sized essay format. Even though the writing can be rather dry in places, and it is sometimes repetitive, the topics discussed are very interesting. The contributors discuss everything from mathematics, computer software and the Big Bang to evolution, consciousness and whether there is a God.

I was particularly intrigued by linguist John McWhorter’s essay. He says that human languages evolve towards complexity rather than simplicity, unless they are a blend of two or more languages. He also observes that subjugated peoples tend to modify the dominant people’s language, creating a sort of “pidgin” form that is a simplified form of the dominant language combined with strong influences from the subordinant language(s). One example is the Afrikaans language, which is Dutch modified by several local African languages spoken by the Khoikhoi, Xhosa and later, by the Zulu peoples.

So, based on these data, McWhorter believes that three strangely streamlined languages spoken on the Indonesian island of Flores resulted from blending the language(s) spoken by humans with the language(s) spoken by the so-called “hobbits“, an extinct species of Homo that were recently described. He writes;

So isn’t it interesting that the island those [unusual] languages are spoken on is none other than Flores, which had its fifteen minutes of fame last year as the site where skeletons of “little people” were found. Anthropologists have hypothesized that this was a different species of Homo. While the skeletons date back 18,000 years ago or more, local legend recalls “little people” living alongside modern humans — little people who had some kind of language of their own and could “repeat back” in the modern humans’ language.

But wait, there’s more. If interspecies communication doesn’t interest you, there is a smorgasbord of topics to read about. For example, Professor of Cognitive Science, Alison Gopnik, believes that babies and young children are actually more conscious than adults. George Dyson, an Historian of Technology, believes that bird dialects correspond to indigenous human language groups. Philosophy Professor Daniel Dennett believes that acquiring a human language is a necessary precondition for consciousness. Terrence Sejnowski, a Computational Neuroscientist, believes that memories are stored in the connective tissue located in the extracellular space within the brain. Independent Scholar and Theoretician, Judith Rich Harris, believes there are three processes (not two) involved in human evolution; natural selection, sexual selection and parental selection. Robert Sapolsky, a Neuroscientist at Stanford University, believes that there is no god(s) nor such a thing as a soul (whatever the religiously inclined of the right persuasion mean by that word). Psychologist David Buss believes that true love exists.

Each belief is well-argued using both existing data and as well as speculation, or “flights of fancy”, if you will. One thing that I wish could have been part of this book was a discussion between contributors who wrote about the same topics, particularly when their beliefs conflicted. But maybe that’s something best left to blogs, instead.