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another title for the reading list

Thank a friend for this - she commented that she liked my reading list :-)

Anyway, I've just started reading David Mindell's book The Evolving World: evolution in everyday life. Still in the intro, actually, but it's shaping up to be another worthwhile addition to my shelves.

Mindell's introduction sets out to explain what it takes for a new, potentially unpopular, scientific theory to make it into the mainstream. He looks at Copernicus' heliocentric theory (the idea - highly unpopular at the time - that the planets orbit the sun), germ theory (the idea that many common diseases are caused by bacteria & viruses) - and the theory of evolution. And he explains first (bear with me, I'm still reading this section!) why they were unpopular in the first place.

In the case of heliocentrism, nobody liked it when it was first proposed because it ran against religious doctrine: the Earth was at the centre of the universe. Copernicus himself never suffered the backlash because the book was published as he lay dying, but his work was blacklisted (placed on the 'Index of Prohibited Books') by the Catholic church. (And it stayed there - until 1835. Mind you, Mindell points out that many contemporary scientists didn't much like this particular theory either.) Galileo, of course, was threatened with all sorts of unpleasantness & placed under house arrest for promoting a Copernican view of the universe. Eventually the weight of evidence swayed public and official opinions & it's now generally accepted that the Earth is not at the centre of the universe.

The germ theory? Another example of how understanding of the natural world moves from supernatural to natural explanations. Diseases have been variously put down to vengance (or simple annoyance) on the part fo the gods, to witchcraft, to 'bad air' (the original meaning of 'malaria'). Understanding of how disease actually work took a long time to achieve, not least because of religious prohibitions on cutting people up to see what was happening inside. For instance, John of Aragon granted professors at the University of Lerida the privilege of dissecting one dead criminal every three years (Mindell, 2006) - think how long it would have taken to come to an understanding of anatomy & physiology if we'd gone on working at that rate! And John of Aragon was being quite daring in doing even this; he was running the risk of excommunication, and that was a pretty serious penalty in 1391. It took a lot of solid experimental work and practical demonstrations of the health benefits of knowing how diseases were caused, and applying this knowledge appropriately, before acceptance of germ theory took off. (Even with that, the bearers of useful information weren't always greeted with open arms. Ignaz Semmelweis demonstrated conclusively that childbed fever could be almost completely eliminated if doctors and midwives washed their hands and their instruments after examining each patient. And what happened? He got the sack.)

And evolution? You may well be familiar with some of the back-story already. And... I'm going to tell that in another post. I'm giving a public lecture on Darwin (his journey through life, his trip on the Beagle, and his voyage of intellectual discovery) in Tauranga in early September, so I thought I might post the text of that as an extended article. Watch this space :-)

Reference:

D.P. Mindell (2006) The Evolving World: evolution in everyday life. Harvard University Press.

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