Saturday, August 7, 2010

Biology essential question: Were humans inevitable?

The essential question of the year is already up on the board:

Were humans inevitable?

But now I'm thinking (and thinking) that it's not personal enough, so I may change it to this:

Were you inevitable?

(Sophomores love chatting about themselves, and they love big questions. Not necessarily because they're budding philosophers, but rather because the Big Question discussions spool away a lot of class time that would otherwise be used doing boring school stuff.)

At first blush, textbook science says no, you were not inevitable, you're a happenstance--a particular sperm got to a particular egg because of some random thunderstorm occurred 20 years ago and your parents accidentally met up in a phone booth seeking shelter from the rain.

And the discussion ends.

That's why I like asking whether humans were inevitable--it avoids a class full of sophomores imagining their parents having sex, which usually destroys any thinking about anything else....

Still, it's an interesting question, and the answer is not a dismissive "No, humans were not inevitable."


If you have not advanced beyond Newtonian physics and a mechanistic view of the universe, well, then, everything indeed may have acted in predetermined fashion since the Big Bang's inception.

(I hate the term "Big Bang"--the model does not allow for a bang and it was hardly big--a point is a point, really no space at all. The model proposes something extraordinarily powerful happened, but "big" is a misnomer"....and the model has so many holes in it to be nearly useless, but it does help hold things together, and science is all about making models.)

Quantum physics came along--the universe did not change, merely our view of it, a hugely important concept for students to grasp, and with it, predetermination. Well, this subatomic event may have gone this way, maybe that way--independent of other events around it.

Ha, now we have chance! Maybe God does play with dice!

*Whew* Pretty lucky thing we're here, eh?

Well, maybe the universe will ultimately stop expanding and start collapsing on itself again then expand when it reaches a certain concentration--the Big Bounce.

And maybe this happens over and over again.

And if it happens over and over again and has for infinity, then any combination of matter/energy that is possible will at some point happen (and happens an infinite number of times....)

If you get this far in the discussion, and it must be a discussion, you cannot force kids through this kind of nonsense, a few of them will be so dazed they may walk into walls.

But you have them.

Because you know as little as they do, and you just showed them that science is alive.

And the answer to our essential question is unanswerable.

Skulls are from the BBC Radio 4 website, "In Our Time,"
which, by the way, proclaims
"there was nothing inevitable about the course of human evolution."

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