Monday, April 25, 2011

Challenging accepted wisdom

We had a good week away.  We were at the Physical Anthropology meetings in Minneapolis, albeit briefly, where it was great to see old students and friends, including Holly -- who so ably kept MT hopping last week.  Not to mention gave an excellent talk in which she, and co-authors, systematically, carefully and convincingly dismantled a widely accepted hypothesis about the size of the human pelvis and why human infants are so altricial.  She nicely made the point that long-standing ideas can be basically completely wrong but accepted, put in all the textbooks, and so on.  Holly and her collaborators have a different idea about this subject, but like most evolutionary stories, it is hard to prove and opens other questions.

We went from snowy and grey Minnesota to sunny New Mexico and the Santa Fe Institute, where people sit around and think about complexity.  Ken's been an external faculty member there for some years, and has had a number of good visits.  True, all academics are in effect paid to think, but there are major distractions -- classes to teach, students to advise, committees to sit on, plus often those thoughts must have some practical side.

Not so at SFI.  Trying to think out of the proverbial box is in a sense what they are there to do.  Of course, that itself can become another 'box' to think inside of.  Explaining complexity in physical, biological, and social Nature is their objective, and it is certainly relevant to our concerns in genetics and evolution.  So it was fun to spend hours talking science, mostly agreeing, sometimes not, but converging on shared ideas that we hope to build on in the months to come.

We try consistently to ask the question: "What if the accepted wisdom is not true?  What would that imply?", and we hope to keep asking it. Most who ask this question come up with zero new answers, because accepted wisdom is always based on a lot of truth. Yet new or better answers are almost always possible, at least in the history of science so far.  So we keep on trying, and trying to be (constructively) skeptical about current stories--especially those advanced with great confidence, hubris, or vested interests.  But to assert that working with the excellent people at SFI will lead us to do better--it would be the same of hubris, so we won't!

We took advantage of a free day to hike at Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument, southwest of Santa Fe, where we took this picture.  The whole area was formed by multiple volcanic eruptions, with prominent distinct layers still visible.  The 'tent rocks' or 'hoodoos' were formed when a harder rock on top of lower softer layers of rock didn't erode when the strata around it did, thus protecting the lower layers.'

Besides great fun, every trip West leaves one awed, wishing s/he could have become a geologist, and wondering at Nature.  It is an important reminder of the nearly imperceptible slowness and complexity of Nature, perhaps the greatest challenge in evolutionary science and genetics.

No comments: