Scientific cultureFor humans, it is skateboarding; for chimpanzees, nut-cracking; and for killer whales, the beach-hunting of seals. In each case, an individual acquires a particular skill by watching, and learning, from peers.And as zoologist Frans de Waal explains in The Ape and the Sushi Master (Allen Lane, pp433), such assimilation varies according to locality. In some forests, chimps scoop up termites (it’s a sort of simian Pot Noodle) using leaves. Elsewhere they employ sticks. In some regions, killer whales beach themselves to kill snoozing seals.
In other places, they show no such aptitude. And in Western cities, droves of youths risk their anatomies by cavorting on skate-boards. Elsewhere they know better. In short, animals – and humans – show variation in their culture, a point zoologists are only beginning to appreciate. For too long, says de Waal, scientists have considered culture ‘a concept antithetical to nature’ and assumed it to be a human-only attribute. In fact, we are only one of Earth’s many different cultured creatures.
To think otherwise is a harmful delusion, as de Waal makes clear in this intriguing, entertaining work.In Annie’s Box: Charles Darwin, His Daughter and Human Evolution (Fourth Estate, pp331), Randal Keynes – the naturalist’s great-great-grandson – recounts the harrowing story of the scientist’s favourite child, ‘the joy of the household’, who died from tuberculosis at the age of 10. The loss broke her father’s heart, and cast a long shadow over his thinking about the natural world. Darwin found he could no longer believe in a deity that caused the immense amount of suffering in the world’, and so he produced his theory of natural selection, which disenfranchised God from his role in our creation, and has marooned mankind in a moral vacuum ever since.
Darwin’s work set science on a collision course with religion. In the end, the former triumphed, so that researchers, not priests, are now viewed as guardians of the cosmos’s secrets. In The Age of Science: What Scientists Learned in the 20th Century, (Perseus, pp460), Gerard Piel explains just how this grand intellectual takeover happened. Piel is founder of Scientific American, the world’s most stylish science journal, and is therefore perfectly placed to give an overview of science’s grand transformation. At the beginning of the twentieth century, DNA was unknown; liquid-fuelled rockets had yet to be invented; and the idea that atoms could be made of smaller particles had still to be established. A century later, all three billion units of human DNA, the stuff of our genes, has been unravelled; rockets have taken men to the moon; and nuclear energy has been harnessed. Never has an earthly species achieved so much in so little time: and although a great deal of this ‘progress’ has been harmful to our planet, much has also been beneficial, at least to humanity.If nothing else, these achievements show why science is simply the greatest story ever told. Beside it, all other mythologies are eclipsed. Piel’s may not be the first telling of the legend, but it is one of the best.