Richard Dawkins complains that a healthy enthusiasm for the unknown is being abused by the media's obsession with the paranormal. To fight back, real science must move from the laboratory into the cultureby prospect / February 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
Published in February 1997 issue of Prospect Magazine
Richard Dimbleby lecture (BBC TV)
12th November 1996
aristotle was an encyclopedic polymath, an all time intellect. Yet you know more than he did about the world. You also can have a deeper understanding of how everything works. Such is the privilege of living after Newton, Darwin, Einstein, Planck, Watson, Crick and their colleagues.
I am not saying you are more intelligent than Aristotle, or wiser. For all I know, Aristotle was the cleverest person who has ever lived. That is not the point. The point is only that science is cumulative and we live later.
Aristotle had a lot to say about astronomy, biology and physics. But his views sound weirdly na?ve today. He could walk straight into a modern seminar on ethics, theology, political or moral philosophy, and contribute. But let him walk into a modern science class and he would be a lost soul, because science advances.
Here is a small sample of the things you could tell Aristotle, or any other Greek philosopher, and surprise and enthral them, not just with the facts themselves but with how they hang together so elegantly.
The earth is not the centre of the universe. It orbits the sun-which is just another star. There is no music of the spheres, but the chemical elements, from which all matter is made, arrange themselves cyclically, in something like octaves. There are not four elements but about 100. Earth, air, fire and water are not among them.
Living species are not isolated types with unchanging essences. Instead, over a time-scale too long for humans to imagine, they split and diverge into new species, which go on diverging further and further. For the first half of geological time our ancestors were bacteria. Most creatures still are bacteria, and each one of our trillions of cells is a colony of bacteria. Aristotle was a distant cousin to a squid, a closer cousin to an ape (strictly speaking, Aristotle was an ape, an African ape, a closer cousin to a chimpanzee than a chimp is to an orangutan).
The brain is not for cooling the blood. It is what you use to do your logic and your metaphysics. It is a three dimensional maze of a million million nerve cells, each one drawn out like a wire to carry pulsed messages. If you laid all your brain cells end to end, they would stretch round the world 25 times. There are about four million million connections in the tiny brain of a chaffinch, and proportionately more in ours.