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  • Simon Blackburn: An Unbeautiful Mind
    Polkinghorne holds the belief that unless some things last forever, everything is futile, a "meaningless empire of accident." This would wipe the smile off the face of many scientists. For science is not good about "forever." It paints a different picture of the world in which we find ourselves. Science teaches that the cosmos is some fifteen billion years old, almost unimaginably huge, and governed by natural laws that will compel its extinction in some billions more years, although long before that the Earth and the solar system will have been destroyed by the heat death of the sun. Human beings occupy an infinitesimally small fraction of space and time, on the edge of one galaxy among a hundred thousand million or so galaxies. We evolved only because of a number of cosmic accidents, including the extinction of the dinosaurs some sixty-five million years ago. Nature shows us no particular favors: we get parasites and diseases and we die, and we are not all that nice to each other. True, we are moderately clever, but our efforts to use our intelligence to make things better for ourselves quite often backfire, and they may do so spectacularly in the near future, from some combination of manmade military, environmental, or genetic disasters.
  • Roger Scruton: The West and the Rest
    "It is thanks to Western prosperity, Western legal systems, Western forms of banking, and Western communications that human initiatives now reach so easily across frontiers to affect the lives and aspirations of people all over the globe. However, Western civilization depends on an idea of citizenship that is not global at all, but rooted in territorial jurisdiction and national loyalty. By contrast, Islam, which has been until recently remote from the Western world and without the ability to project its message, is founded on an ideal of godliness which is entirely global in its significance, and which regards territorial jurisdiction and national loyalty as compromises with no intrinsic legitimacy of their own. Although there have been attempts to manufacture nationalisms both appropriate to the Islamic temperament and conducive to a legitimate political order, they have fragmented under the impact of sectarian or tribal allegiances, usually giving way to military dictatorship or one-man, one-family, or one-party tyranny. Islam itself remains, in the hearts of those who live under these tyrannies, a permanent call to a higher life, and a reminder that power and corruption will rule in this world until the reign established by the Prophet is restored."
  • Adam Smith: Wealth of Nations 1776
    The difference of natural talents in different men is, in reality, much less than we are aware of; and the very different genius which appears to distinguish men of different professions, when grown up to maturity, is not upon many occasions so much the cause as the effect of the division of labour. The difference between the most dissimilar characters, between a philosopher and a common street porter, for example, seems to arise not so much from nature as from habit, custom, and education. When they came into the world, and for the first six or eight years of their existence, they were perhaps very much alike, and neither their parents nor playfellows could perceive any remarkable difference. About that age, or soon after, they come to be employed in very different occupations. The difference of talents comes then to be taken notice of, and widens by degrees, till at last the vanity of the philosopher is willing to acknowledge scarce any resemblance. But without the disposition to truck, barter, and exchange, every man must have procured to himself every necessary and conveniency of life which he wanted. All must have had the same duties to perform, and the same work to do, and there could have been no such difference of employment as could alone give occasion to any great difference of talents.
  • Kishore Mahbubani: Freedom
    But freedom does not only solve problems; it can also cause them. The United States has undertaken a massive social experiment, tearing down social institution after social institution that restrained the individual. The results have been disastrous. Since 1960 the U.S. population has increased 41 percent while violent crime has risen by 560 percent, single-mother births by 419 percent, divorce rates by 300 percent and the percentage of children living in single-parent homes by 300 percent. This is massive social decay. Many a society shudders at the prospects of this happening on its shores. But instead of traveling overseas with humility, Americans confidently preach the virtues of unfettered individual freedom, blithely ignoring the visible social consequences.
  • Harold Pinter: Nobel Lecture
    There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false.
  • Charles Darwin: The Descent of Man
    As man advances in civilization, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all the members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races.
  • Earnest Becker: The Denial of Death
    We have to go the way of the grasshopper even though it takes longer.
  • Johnson, Samuel: Rambler # 121 May 14, 1751
    "To learn is the proper business of youth; and whether we increase our knowledge by books or by conversation, we are equally indebted to foreign assistance."
  • Murray Rothbard: Education Free and Compulsory
    It is evident that the common enthusiasm for equality is, in the fundamental sense, anti-human. It tends to repress the flowering of individual personality and diversity, and civilization itself; it is a drive toward savage uniformity. Since abilities and interests are naturally diverse, a drive toward making people equal in all or most respects is necessarily a leveling downward. It is a drive against development of talent, genius, variety, and reasoning power. Since it negates the very principles of human life and human growth, the creed of equality and uniformity is a creed of death and destruction.
  • J. M. Cameron: Review of Becker's Denial of Death
    Life, for Becker, is a desperate business, in which a steady heroism before the terrors of existence is in general the only thing to be commended.
  • Mark Lilla: The Politics of God
    In the end, though, what happens on the opposite shore will not be up to us. We have little reason to expect societies in the grip of a powerful political theology to follow our unusual path, which was opened up by a unique crisis within Christian civilization. This does not mean that those societies necessarily lack the wherewithal to create a decent and workable political order; it does mean that they will have to find the theological resources within their own traditions to make it happen. "Our challenge is different. We have made a choice that is at once simpler and harder: we have chosen to limit our politics to protecting individuals from the worst harms they can inflict on one another, to securing fundamental liberties and providing for their basic welfare, while leaving their spiritual destinies in their own hands. We have wagered that it is wiser to beware the forces unleashed by the Bible’s messianic promise than to try exploiting them for the public good. We have chosen to keep our politics unilluminated by divine revelation. All we have is our own lucidity, which we must train on a world where faith still inflames the minds of men. NYTimes Magaziine, 8/19/2007
  • Richard Fields: The Land of Opportunity
    Immigration to the United States is not a problem. It is a phenomenon. The only way the United States can stop this phenomenon is by destroying the capitalist economy that draws immigrants here. We need to move in the direction of more open immigration, not in the direction of militarized borders fit only for a police state. Though it's been obscured by layers of cynical campaign rhetoric, the issue of immigration comes down to whether we want to restrict individual liberty to native-born Americans or offer it to everyone. If freedom works for us — and it does — what possible moral reason do we have to offer it to those born in San Diego, and deny it to those born inches away in Tijuana?
  • Edward O. Wilson: Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, 1998
    On the surface it would seem, and was so reported by the media, that the Rwandan catastrophe was ethnic rivalry run amok. That is true only in part. There was a deeper cause, rooted in environment and demography. Between 1950 and 1994 the population of Rwanda, favored by better health care and temporarily improved food supply, more than tripled, from 2.5 million to 8.5 million. In 1992 the country had the highest growth rate in the world, an average of 8 children per woman. Parturition began early, and generation times were short. But although total food production increased dramatically during this period, it was soon overbalanced by population growth. The average farm size dwindled as plots were divided from one generation to the next. Per capita grain production fell by half from 1960 to the early 1990s. Water was so overdrawn that hydrologists declared Rwanda one of the world's twenty-seven water-scarce countries. The teenage soldiers of the Hutu and Tutsi then set out to solve the population problem in the most direct possible way. Rwanda is a microcosm of the world. War and civil strife have many causes, most not related directly to environmental stress. But in general, overpopulation and the consequent dwindling of available resources are tinder that people pile up around themselves. The mounting anxiety and hardship are translated into enmity, and enmity into moral aggression. Scapegoats are identified, sometimes other political or ethic groups, sometimes neighboring tribes. The tinder continues to grow, awaiting the odd assassination, territorial incursion, atrocity, or other provocative incident to set it off. Rwanda is the most populated country in Africa. Burundi, its war torn neighbor, is second. Haiti and El Salvador, two of the chronically most troubled nations of the Western Hemisphere, are also among the most densely populated, exceeded only by five tiny island countries of the Caribbean. They are also arguable the most environmentally degraded.
  • Murray Rothbard: Rights of Animals
    There is, in fact, rough justice in the common quip that "we will recognize the rights of animals whenever they petition for them." The fact that animals can obviously not petition for their "rights" is part of their nature, and part of the reason why they are clearly not equivalent to, and do not possess the rights of, human beings. And if it be protested that babies can't petition either, the reply of course is that babies are future human adults, whereas animals obviously are not.
  • Dr. Kenneth R. Miller:
    When asked, “What do you say as a scientist about the soul?” Dr. Miller's answer is always the same: “As a scientist, I have nothing to say about the soul. It’s not a scientific idea.” Dr. Mller, a Roman Catholic and biologist at Brown University is the author of, “Finding Darwin’s God” (Harper, 1999)
  • Richard Rorty:
    "...if we can work together, we can make ourselves into whatever we are clever and courageous enough to imagine ourselves becoming.”
  • Richard J. Herrnstein:
    "It is easy to lie with statistics, but it's a lot easier to lie without them."
  • Michael Slackman: Quiet Revolution in Algeria
    In Algiers there is a whole class of young men referred to as hittistes — the word is a combination of French and Arabic for people who hold up walls.
  • Albert Einstein:
    Common sense is nothing more than a deposit of prejudices laid down by the mind before you reach age 18.
  • Neil Postman:
    "Children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see."


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September 22, 2007

Charles Darwin, Right On Species Origin, Wrong About Us?

Charles Darwin’s words at the very end of the concluding chapter of The Origin of Species, regarding all life forms, are well known and, at least by the scientific community, widely accepted as being the truth about how life forms have multiplied over hundreds of millions of years to reach the present time when they probably number in the tens of millions of distinct forms or species.

“There is grandeur," he says, "in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

There are other words of Darwin, perhaps less well known and certainly not as widely accepted, even by the scientific community, that have been instead widely and tragically resisted, tragically because the resistance has meant an endless series of wars and the accompanying suffering and body counts.

"As man advances in civilization," he writes in the 4th. chapter of Part 1 of the Descent of Man, "and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all the members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races.”

Why the resistance to this insight? What has prevented and still prevents us from extending our sympathies to the men of all nations and races? For in fact the One World idea, which is Darwin's idea no less than the Origin of Species, is still without the powerful draw of the family, the tribe, and the nation.

Today the nation (actually all 192 of them, the current roster of the United Nations) puts up the greatest resistance to our world being one. Any hope that this might not always be so stems from the fact that over time the earliest political units, the family and the tribe, are warring less and cooperating more, and have mostly accepted, although not aways willingly, to become parts of the larger community or nation.

Hope is still that the nations of the world will eventually be willing and cooperating parts of a much larger world community.

For Darwin is no less right about the seemingly different peoples of the earth being more properly integral parts of a single world wide community than he was about the origin of the tens of millions of species presently inhabiting the earth. As he says only "artificial barriers," mostly those of language, culture, and race, prevent the peoples of the world from coming together right now.

Under the skin of the seven billion individuals now inhabiting the earth, in their cells and within the nuclei of the cells, within the spiraling helices of DNA molecules constituted into 23 pairs of chromosomes, the seven billion individuals are 99.5% identical.

Our living together, our living together at peace, may only be a function of how much we look upon one another as being the same, or alternatively how much significance we give to our differences, the one leading to cooperation, the other in extreme instances of our differences, as in Africa and the Middle East, to disputes and ultimately to war.

In our country, up until now, the "one worlders," for example, Woodrow Wilson in the 1920s, Wendell Wilkie in the 1940s, both of whom knew at first hand the devastation brought about by wars between nations, have not been able to bring our country along with them.

Rather up until now the race has been mostly to the "real worlders," to the likes of Ronald Reagan and Henry Kissinger et al., for whom our security lay much more in the mostly material strength of our single nation than in our moral strength, in our belonging and adhering to international and one world treaties and organizations. Will things change? Will Darwin here also be proven to be right? One would like to believe so.

June 27, 2007

Embryo Questions

    Do you want to try your hand at this? Which one's the chicken? the rabbit? the salamander, the fish, the human? 

    (The picture was taken from the Scientific American of February, 1994, from an article by William McGinnis and Michael Kuziora: The Molecular Architects of Body Design)

    The Evo-Devo (evolution-development) biologists tell us that all forms of life have pretty much the same beginnings. And in many, as above, pretty much the same look, at least in the early stages of development. Also we're told that pretty much the same groups of HOX genes in the five examples above, and in all other animal forms, determine exactly what changes will occur throughout the development process, leading to the great diversity of life that we see about us.

    Given that the embryos of the fish, salamander, chicken, rabbit and human (in that order above) are almost identical in the early stages of their development why is it that we humans continue to set ourselves apart from all other life forms as if somehow we were special, and that all other life was there for our benefit?

    Why also is it that humans, developing from identical embryos and who are mostly alike, why do they go on killing each other? And why is it that those who are most alike, as the peoples of the Middle East, kill one another with a particular vengeance and savagery?

October 09, 2006

Nukes and Elephants

Two news reports in today's New York Times, one about elephants, "An Elephant Crack-up,  the cover story in the magazine, and the other, Monday morning's, Columbus Day, big headline, "North Korea detonates nuclear device."

I asked myself which of these stories held the most significance for us humans, North Korea's possession of the Bomb, or elephant packs being seriously deranged if not destroyed by the growing human encroachment on their living spaces?

My vote goes to the elephants, and here's why. The possession of the bomb is, I believe, a civilizing force. It brings with it responsibility. Without it the nation, feeling left out, acts irresponsibly. With it the nation gains respect, although begrudgingly, and now, for its own prosperous future, quickly grasps that it has to act responsibly if it would realize that prosperity. And now as an equal. Strength to strength relationships, my strong arm facing off against your strong arm, are stabilizing forces. Strength to weakness relationships are highly unstable, and the constant source of quarrels leading to wars.
How we treat surviving elephant populations goes much more to what we are. Do we step back and alllow this other animal population to go on possessing a territory and home of its own, beyond our grasp, or do we make its territory just one more property in our own ever expanding possession and exploitation of all the earth's habitable land, disregarding the claims of whatever other animal species were there before us?

"Goes much more to what we are." Are we one among many precious forms of animal and plant life onthe earth? Or are we, as the only valued life form, destined to allow only those other species, such as grasses and livestock, that are now entirely in our service, insuring our survival and continual expansion, to exist alongside of us? Elephants, other than promoting the sale of circus and zoo tickets, do nothing for us. Perhaps an ivory farm? But that's probably not cost effective.

So if ever we take the steps needed to preserve the lives of elephants by allowoing them a habitat of their own we then surmount our own egotism and are better inhabitants of the earth ourselves as a result. This is happening, let's hope not too slowly. For there are many among us who are are trying to give these wonderful creatures space. It's not yet news that we have succeeded, but this is a much more important and on-going story than the nuclear device that was exploded in North Korea yesterday.

September 14, 2006

Why Is It...

Why is it that in spite of Darwin, in spite of the common cellular origin of all life on our planet, we go on thinking of "history" as that of man's brief time on the earth, a mere 10,000 years or so? Why hasn't "history" become the history of life on the earth and taken its rightful place in our schools? Are we better off, more civilized, more capable of furthering our civilization if we can recount the battles, say, of the American Civil War, and know nothing about, the Miocene period when large numbers of apes, including probably our own blood relatives, roamed the plains of eastern Europe and the near East? Who is more apt to respect human life, the one who can recount what happened at Shiloh, Tennessee, during the first week of April, 1862, or the one who knows that during the Miocene Epoch, roughly 15 million years ago, as many  as 100 species of apes roamed throughout the Old World, including not unlikely human ancestors such as Dryopithecus in Europe and Sivapithecus in Asia?
Furthermore we're told (A Lesson About History’s Lessons) that kids now a days are not even learning man's recent history in the schools. "Each of us who teaches history has been reminded repeatedly in recent years about the "historical illiteracy" of our nation's youth. The Bradley Commission, Diane Ravitch, the evening news, even chance acquaintances tell us that the ‘typical’ American teenager cannot place the Civil War in the correct decade (or perhaps even the correct half century). That same generic seventeen-year-old, we are told, does not know the purpose of Jim Crow legislation, nor recognize the contribution of the Supreme Court's Brown decision in ending that chapter in our history. He or she does not know that England colonized North America's Atlantic coast, and is unaware that Spain's imperial arm extended into the American Southwest."
These comments, of which there are no end, never include mention of the much greater "hole" in kids' knowledge of the history of life on earth. Of that much earlier history, which most certainly tells us much more about ourselves than, say, the Battle of Shiloh, by in large nothing is known by our school children, with only one exception, the Jurassic and Cretaceous Periods when the dinosaurs, then terrible lizards, but now children’s playthings, ruled. So instead of teaching our children the history of life, the life that we share with all living creatures, we teach a few favored periods of history, for young children times of the dinosaurs, for older children, perhaps, the time of the Greeks and the Romans, a bit of the so-called Middle Ages, and then in great detail the modern period, primarily one of battles and wars, of men killing one another and in most instances for no good reason. Wouldn't our children be better served to learn the history of plate tectonics, and the creation of mountains as plates crashed together, the rise of homo sapiens and how we came to be human?
It was George Santayana philosopher, essayist, poet, novelist, and lifelong Spanish citizen, who said that, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Now this statement is often used by history teachers, and even more often perhaps by politicians, to stress the importance of the knowledge of history. But here also they are only talking about man's most recent history, again that of one or two thousand years. Furthermore whereas knowledge of Neville Chamberlain's "appeasement" policy ought to have prevented the subsequent Yalta give-away of Eastern Europe, it didn't. Nor did knowledge of the Vietnamese War prevent our current war in Iraq from taking place. So that one might just as well say that those who remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
But if by "past" we mean the history of past life on the earth the statement is nonsense. Whether we "remember" it or not that life will not be repeated. The dinosaurs are gone forever, as is Pangaea, as is the wooly mammoth. Rather to remember this past is to realize how precious life is. And that's why this past ought to be taught in the schools. Too often remembering our most recent past, which has been one of wars and the slaughter of millions, seems to make us perpetrators of more of the same. Witness the predominance in our lives of Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda-like groups, and the ascendancy of the military industrial complexes within our most developed nations. Knowledge of our recent, tragic past has done nothing to prevent this from coming about, whereas knowledge and understanding of life’s history might have.

February 28, 2006


Not all the time, but from time to time, actually pretty often if I have the time to read widely, I encounter in my reading bits of what I will call new awarenesses, or new truths, "eye openers," things that I really didn’t know before the encounter and that have made my life thereafter a bit richer, by enabling me to see a little bit further into life’s mostly dark and unfathomable depths. I suppose when I ask my grandson what he learned in school I’m assuming that he had had a similar eye opening experience. He never does, or rather he never tells me about it. He must have them. Everyone must. Isn’t this what living and learning is all about? Anyway, my new understanding, or eye-opener as I’m going to call this sort of thing in what follows, may stem from little or nothing at all, from a few words, a brief anecdote, a new application of a well worn idea or image, or it may come from something more substantial, such as the reading of the works of scientists, philosophers, thinkers of all kinds, whose new to me ideas flood my mind as a bright light from a beacon, and whose ideas I immediately steal and make my own. Talk about walking on the shoulders of others, well that’s what I do.

What do I mean by a new understanding stemming from an encounter with just a few words, from “little or nothing at all”? Here’s an example. Earlier today I was reading an article in the Wall Street Journal about how the creators of worms and viruses are now attacking the Mac operating system, and to do so "they use what are called 'social engineering' techniques to trick users into doing things that they shouldn't do, like unwittingly installing programs. The Anna Kournikova worm from 2001, for example, infamously tricked Windows users into installing it by masquerading as photos of the leggy Russian tennis star attached to e-mails.”

My “eye opener” in this instance was just this one sentence from the article: “These approaches exploit a bug in peoples' brains, which is much harder to patch." Wow, weaknesses in my brain that are virus and worm prone and that are hard to patch, no less so than computer operating systems. Makes you wonder how many “bugs” you carry about with you during your daily activities. Makes you certainly less sure of yourself because suddenly you know that your brain probably does contain a number of bugs (downloaded from where?) that do interfere with what should be normal brain (whatever that is) activity. I wonder what “bug” it is in the suicide bomber’s brain, placed there by a fanatical Imam, and that then permits the terrorist’s message to enter the brain, take root, and eventually destroy that brain and others along with it in the single mad action of blowing himself or herself up. Now that is a deadly virus. The ultimate worm of all worms. And how are we to correct faulty operating systems of this kind? We don’t yet even know how they enter and take root in someone’s brain. In this case our Norton or McAfee anti-virus software are our intelligence services but so far these services have not proved up to the task of finding and destroying the suicide bug.

Here’s another example, this time not a few words, but a simple anecdote, of how something you thought you already knew comes alive again and with a new force, bringing new life to old knowledge as it were. For me this was another eye opener. The old knowledge was that similar, very much alike features of our anatomy closely relate us to all other mammals, as well as to other organisms even further removed from us in the Linnean order of living things. For we’ve known for a long time, well before Charles Darwin even, that many seemingly very different species belong by their common anatomical structures, to the same biological class of animals. Here’s the example of how a simple anecdote can make this old truth come alive again. I encountered this one in last Sunday’s Times in Chip Brown’s account of a Taliban at Yale (see my last Blog entry). The Taliban, Rahmatullah, who will eventually enroll as a freshman at Yale College, asks his benefactor Mike Hoover a question:

"Do you believe people are related to dogs?" (Dogs are not favored in Afghan society; the question dared him to contradict common sense.)

"Yes," Hoover said.  The Taliban all laughed in amazement.

"How can you possibly believe that? We are so different."

"You see only differences. I see similarities."

"Similarities! Like what?"  (Hoover wanted his first example to be an intellectual bunker buster, so he thought carefully.)

"Bilateral symmetry," he said. The laughter stopped, which pleased him.

"What does that mean?"

"It means dogs have eyes on either side of their nose, just like humans. Dogs have two nostrils, just like humans. They have two lungs. They have toenails. They have a heart in the center of their chest. Dog blood and human blood are indistinguishable."

No new knowledge, but oh did that old knowledge come alive in this exchange between the American, Mike Hoover, and the young members of the Taliban.

Then there are the eye openers that bring new knowledge. And as long as one seeks to learn there is no end to this kind of experience. Here’s just one of many examples of new knowledge that I have acquired from reading Robert Wright’s books, in this case, Nonzero, or The Logic of Human Destiny. Wright is discussing the growth of complexity during the evolution of biological organisms on this earth. How much can we conclude from this? Is it the meaning of life to grow in complexity, reaching at some far off point in time, what,... God, a “mind” straddling the entire Globe, as thinkers such as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin have imagined it?

Wright asks the question, does the growth in complexity represent progress? Then he reminds us that Stephen Jay Gould rejected the idea of progress, as well as the importance of man’s place in life's history. Run it again from the beginning and there's a good chance that man would not even appear. Gould showed clearly that the multicellular biological organisms now living on the earth, and in particular man, were not at all the principal form of life on the earth, nor did he make up more than a tiny part of the history of life on earth. For in regard to numbers of individuals, biological mass weight, and probably even numbers of distinct species, bacteria were, and are, far more remarkable. Man is just one species, and even today when he numbers in the billions, he is bested not only by bacteria, but also by the ants and termites in respect to total biological mass weight, and he is bested by most other life forms in regard to total time on the earth, that being so far well less than a million years, or a tiny instant in the 4.5 billion year history of the earth. So if we look at the huge place of single celled bacteria among living things we can’t then make too much of the relatively small place taken up by the multi-cellular organisms including man. For these forms make up only a small segment of life’s history and presence on the earth. Bacteria have always dominated the whole picture and still do. And bacteria have shown no movement towards more complex forms. They are much the same today as they were 2 billion or more years ago.

Here are, for me, some of the eye opening passages from Wright's book, Nonzero:

“Yes. Gould is saying not only that bacteria are pretty simple creatures; he’s saying that they outnumber us. Or, as he puts it: “modal” complexity shows no tendency to grow; the level of complexity at which the greatest number of living things resides—the mode—has not changed noticeably since at least 2 billion years ago. Back then, most living things were about as complex as a bacterium. One billion years ago, ditto. Now, ditto.

"Indeed, not only do bacteria outnumber us; they outweigh us. In fact, they outweigh just about anything, if you add up all the underground bacteria. Also, they can survive under lots of weird conditions. “On any possible, reasonable, or fair criterion, bacteria are—and always have been—the dominant forms of life on earth.”

To go on, what about the numbers of different species? Do we know how many there are? Do we know that there are more bacterial species than all others combined? No, we don’t yet know the answers to either question. The biologist E. O. Wilson estimates known species at approximately 1.4 million, while another study estimates the number at approximately 1.5 million. And there are scientists who say that there could be tens of millions more of spiecies still unknown.

When I think about it it’s probably biology more than any other academic discipline that has opened my own eyes to things previously unseen. I learn, from this same investigation that began while reading Robert Wright's Nonzero, that while it is relatively easy to classify mammals and plants, this is not true in regard to bacteria, hence one source of our ignorance in regard to their total numbers. Another source of our difficulty in determining the number of species living on the earth is that biodiversity is not evenly distributed throughout the world. There are many imbalances, skewing the counting process. For example, over half of all described species are insects, including approximately 300,000 known beetles, a fact which led biologist J. B. S. Haldane to remark that God has "an inordinate fondness for beetles." Also seventy percent of the world's species occur in only 12 countries: Australia, Brazil, China, Columbia, Ecuador, India, Indonesia, Madagascar, Mexico, Peru, and Zaire. The tropical rain forests, common to these countries, are believed to contain more than half the number of all species on Earth.

To return to our bacteria we learn, still from Edward O Wilson, that "the vast majority of bacterial types remain completely unknown, with no name and no hint of the means needed to detect them. Take a gram of ordinary soil, a pinch held between two fingers, and place it in the palm of your hand. You are holding a clump of quartz grains laced with decaying organic matter and free nutrients, and about 10 billion bacteria. How many bacterial species are present are present in that gram of soil? How many species of bacteria are there in the world? Bergey’s Manual of Systematic Bacteriology, the official guide updated to 1989, list about 4,000. There has always been a feeling among microbiologists that the true number, including the undiagnosed species, is much greater, but no one could even guess by how much. Ten times more? A hundred? Recent research suggests that the answer might be at least a thousand times greater, with the total number ranging into the millions.”

Wilson wrote those words in 1992. Much more recently, just last year, in 2005, a group led by William Whitman at the University of Georgia made a direct estimate of the total number of bacteria, not the number of species, but the number of individuals, and as you would expect that number makes the number of humans look downright puny. Their estimate of that number is five million trillion trillion, that’s a five with 30 zeroes after it. Or, if each bacterium were a penny, the stack would reach a trillion light years. The team also found that the total amount of bacterial carbon in the soil and subsurface, where over 90% of the bacteria live, to be yet another staggering number, 5 X 10**17 g or the weight of the United Kingdom, a quantity nearly equal to the total carbon found in plants. All eye openers.

My final “eye opener” is taken also from the Georgia study in regard to the rate of mutations and how bacteria operate in nature. The authors point to the fact that “events that are extremely rare in the laboratory could occur frequently in nature. … And because the number of bacteria is so large in nature, events that would occur once in 10 billion years in the laboratory would occur every second in nature. New species, anyone?”