If Ideas Had Shapes

A quoteblog ranging from philosophers in bathrobes to galaxy-rises

Tag: carl sagan

Carl Sagan & Ann Druyan – Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1992)

Out of randomly changing nonsense, the accidental bits of sense are preserved and copied in large numbers. Eventually, a great deal of sense emerges.

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Carl Sagan & Ann Druyan – Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1992)

If asked to choose between the human experimenters offering the macaques this Faustian bargain and the macaques themselves–suffering from real hunger rather than causing pain to others–our own moral sympathies do not lie with the scientists. … Among the macaques, at least in this case, heroism is the norm. If the circumstances were reversed, and captive humans were offered the same deal by macaque scientists, would we do as well? In human history, there are a precious few whose memory we revere because they knowingly sacrificed themselves for others. For each of them, there are multitudes who did nothing.

Carl Sagan & Ann Druyan – Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1992)

Eleven thousand successive generations of paramecia have been carefully nurtured in the test tube, with no senescence or aging apparent. (In humans, eleven thousand generations would take us all the way back to the dawn of our species.) Except for the slow buildup of mutations, the paramecia at the end of this train of generations were genetically identical to those at the beginning. In a way, the longing for immortality, so characteristic of Western civilization, is a longing for the ultimate regression into the past–to our single-celled ancestors in the seething primeval ocean.

Carl Sagan & Ann Druyan – Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1992)

The case for special creation has not been strengthened by this new balance. Catastrophism is an awkward business for biblical literalists: It suggests imperfections in either the design or the execution of the Divine Plan. Mass extinctions permit the survivors to evolve quickly, occupying ecological niches formerly closed to them by the competition. The painstaking selection of mutations continues, catastrophes or no catastrophes. But the wiping out of whole species, genera, families and orders of life, and the slow evolutionary fiddling displayed in the fossil record–of trilobites, say, or crocodiles–all reveal a tentativeness, a hesitancy, an indecision that hardly seems consistent with the modus operandi of an omnipotent, omniscient, “hands-on” Creator.

Carl Sagan & Ann Druyan – Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1992)

Since favorable mutations are served up so slowly, major evolutionary change will ordinarily require vast expanses of time. There are, as it turns out, ages available. Processes that are impossible in a hundred generations may be inevitable in a hundred million.

Carl Sagan & Ann Druyan – Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1992)

This is a principal means by which life evolves–exploiting imperfections in copying despite the cost. It is not how we would do it. It does not seem to be how a Deity intent on special creation would do it. The mutations have no plan, no direction behind them; their randomness seems chilling; progress, if any, is agonizingly slow. The process sacrifices all those beings who are now less fit to perform their life tasks because of the new mutation–crickets who no longer hop high, birds with malformed wings, dolphins gasping for breath, great elms succumbing to blight. Why not more efficient, more compassionate mutations? Why must resistance to malaria carry a penalty in anemia? We want to urge evolution to get to where it’s going and stop the endless cruelties. But life doesn’t know where it’s going. It has no long-term plan. There’s no end in mind. There’s no mind to keep an end in mind. The process is the opposite of teleology. Life is profligate, blind, at this level unconcerned with notions of justice. It can afford to waste multitudes.

Carl Sagan & Ann Druyan – Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1992)

In a shaft of sunlight, even when the air is still, you can sometimes see a tribe of dust motes dancing. They move in zigzag paths as if animated, motivated, propelled by some small but earnest purpose.

Carl Sagan & Ann Druyan – Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1992)

Why He thought we needed hundreds of distinct species of ticks and roaches, when one or two would have been more than sufficient, why there are more species of beetles than any other kind of being on Earth, no one could say. No matter; the composite effect of life’s extravagant diversity could only be understood by postulating a Maker, not all of whose reasons we could grasp, who had created the stage, the scenery, and the subsidiary players for our benefit. For thousands of years, virtually everyone, theologian and scientist alike, found this, both emotionally and intellectually, a satisfying account.

Carl Sagan & Ann Druyan – Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1992)

Each of us is a tiny being, permitted to ride on the outermost skin of one of the smaller planets for a few dozen trips around the local star. …

… If the Earth were as old as a person, a typical organism would be born, live, and die in a sliver of a second. We are fleeting, transitional creatures, snowflakes fallen on the hearth fire. That we understand even a little of our origins is one of the great triumphs of human insight and courage.

Carl Sagan & Ann Druyan – Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1992)

Our story begins here in the dark, pullulating, dimly illuminated disk: the story as it actually turned out, and an enormous number of other stories that would have come to be had things gone just a little differently; the story of our world and species, but also the story of many other worlds and lifeforms destined never to be. The disk is rippling with possible futures.