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Tuesday, January 31, 2023

On the shoulders of giants

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Recently, I have taken an interest in learning and exploring science through the lens of history, and I was drawn to the origin of various species and their evolution.

To my pleasant surprise, the Noble Prize for Medicine was awarded to Swiss scientist Svante Paabo for sequencing the genome of Neanderthals.

By studying DNA from a small piece of bone discovered in a cave in Siberia, Paabo discovered the Denisovans, a previously unknown hominin group distantly related to Neanderthals. This news further piqued my interest in origins and evolution.

When I try to recollect my first bit of knowledge on the origin of species, I am reminded of Charles Darwin and what I learned of his work through the school curriculum.

But questions about the origin of species, of life and of evolution had been asked long before… even before Charles Darwin’s work and they continue to be pondered on. Many have been curious on the subject and have made significant contribution to the area of study. Darwin himself had made a list that began with Greek philosopher Aristotle.

Aristotle was the first to dissect, observe and record species and think those things were worth doing. He had a school established in Assos, Turkey. He also explored Lesbos, Greece, on the suggestion of a pupil, who was a botanist. Together, they explored the island and took notes on different species that later became part of his written work.

A remarkable thing about Aristotle is that he was the first to practise empirical science rather than settle for a large-scale hypothesis. He insisted on gathering and collecting facts, only those he verified with his own eyes.

Another great intellectual meticulous about documentation was Al Jahiz of Basra. As a boy, he sold fish to support his family and was fascinated by animal life. Even when he attended elementary school, he involved himself in intellectual discussions with scholars.

Jahiz read widely and listened to the folk tales of Bedouins of the desert in Mirbad. His written work is a great attempt to combine ancient Greek and Arabic knowledge in one place.

It is not only the study of animals that has helped our understanding of evolution. Geology and meteorology too played a great role.

Take the work of Italian polymath Leonardo da Vinci, for instance. Once a family of peasants wanted to meet him in Milan. They had brought him the red rocks famous in their mountains, flecked with oyster shells and corals. As a collector of rocks, Leonardo was unable to answer the questions about the red rocks. He was puzzled over how the seashells had washed up in the mountains.

This drove him back to books and he also went through Aristotle’s Meteorology. The puzzle over the red rocks troubled Leonardo for the greater part of his life though his attention was taken up by many creative pursuits, such as the painting of “The Last Supper”, “The Battle of Anghiari” “Mona Lisa” and his ambitious flying machine experiment. Leonardo also documented his observations on the movement of water and tackled early questions on fluid mechanics.

Speaking of water, a study about a creature collected from pondwater created a sensation in the 18th century. Abraham Trembley, a 32-year-old tutor, taught the children of the Count of Bentinck in the Netherlands. Trembley studied insects and water species and, inspired by him, the Bentinck boys too conducted experiments.

One such experiment on a polyp/hydra performed by the Bentinck boys and Trembley made them famous in Europe. When they dissected the polyp into two, the creature did not die; rather, it multiplied. This observation by Trembley and the Bentick boys created a sensation among naturalists and philosophers. Thanks to the amazing technology of the microscope, they discovered polyp/hydra regeneration.

Travel and visits to other countries offered the intellectuals and scholars an opportunity to expand their knowledge.

In the late 17th century, diplomat Benoit de Maillet moved to Cairo in Egypt to protect and ensure order among the French community residing there.

Once he moved to Cairo, he started to collect data, facts and information about Egypt. He began his investigations into Egyptian history by reading the works of Herodotus and exploring his travel routes. His study and exploration persuaded him to believe in the idea that the sea receded forming lands and that species evolved from sea creatures.

After his consulship came to an end, Benoit moved to Leghorn, Italy and authored Description of Egypt based on the information he collected during his time in the country. His love for learning only doubled after leaving Egypt as he continued to travel the length and breadth of Europe studying riverbeds and searching for shells on mountaintops.

Benoit planned to write a book comprising his ideas, facts, reports and stories collected from across the world and from different cultures and traditions. He named the work Telliamed, or Conversations between an Indian philosopher and a French missionary. It is said that Benoit was trying to imitate the style of a best-selling work by Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle’s titled Conversations on the Plurality of World.

When copies of Telliamed started to circulate in Paris, the book started gathering fame but was also seen as a “dangerous” book. The book is even referred to in a correspondence between Isaac Anderson-Henry, a Scottish horticulturalist, and Darwin.

A common pattern we can see in any discovery or invention is that it did not happen all of a sudden. There have always been predecessors who have made significant contributions, thereby creating a better platform for the next generation.

Standing on the shoulders of giants we get a much better view that helps us to stay curious, observe closely and continue questioning things.

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