In a previous post detailing the difficulties and uncertainties of tracing our hominid ancestors, I kind of led up to a question, expressed now in this post: Why should we bother? It’s a lot of effort to determine something that happened in the past, which is highly unlikely to have much affect on anything going on right now. We are what we are, and it doesn’t matter too much what came before, does it?
A similar question is often asked when the topic of NASA’s budget comes up, or when some avenue of expensive scientific research ends without a breakthrough in technology or knowledge. Couldn’t this money have been better spent somewhere else? Are the questionable rewards worth the time and effort expended on them?
While in itself this is a different perspective, stepping back and looking at the big picture as it were, it also comes from its own narrow perspective, in that it reflects the basic concept of capitalism: everything must be regarded as an investment, capable of producing positive returns or it shouldn’t be pursued. The two flaws in this are obvious, once someone pauses to think about them. The first is that we only hold this view when it’s able to be used as leverage in an argument, because the vast majority of human activity can hardly be considered the pursuit of investment returns. The second is the simple economic problem that money spent cannot always result in greater money received unless we simply manufacture money, which isn’t the best financial structure.
The investment of time and effort is another matter, since we can’t expect to get more time, or more energy or whatever, in return, so the payout has to be something else. In the cases outlined above, that payout is knowledge, or at least that’s the goal – failing to find the cure for cancer means the time was wasted, right?
If we could always predict what we were going to find with any research, we’d have accomplished the stunning goal of achieving omniscience; it’s safe to rule this out for the foreseeable future, heh! But there’s even knowledge gained when goals or predictions don’t reach fruition, because at the very least we know not to bother with that avenue again in the future. And this is assuming that nothing else is learned on the way, which is rarely the case. Serendipitous developments do indeed occur, and even just refinements in tasks that improve our abilities or efficiency from there on in.
If we go back to paleontology and the search for hominid history, we find that through these efforts we’ve improved our abilities to extract and preserve fossils, establish accurate dates, evaluate anatomy through skeletal remains, and have even contributed to our knowledge of climate change and geologic processes. In the past century, science went from a collection of separate disciplines to an interconnected understanding of physics as a whole, and knowledge gained in any discipline impacts many others.
Let me provide an example. Many hominid finds are quite small – bone fragments, or an incomplete skull. Let’s say we have a new find consisting of just a big toe bone and a tooth. The tooth, through shape, size, and thickness of enamel, tells us the owner’s diet, development, nutrition, and age. We can even get an impression of how big the owner actually was, without any other bones. The diet can provide a clue as to what conditions were in that location at the rough time the owner lived, since they’re going to eat what’s available. And the minerals within can even tie in with geology, since they’re absorbed from the foods which in turn get them from the soil. The toe, meanwhile, will have a shape specific to its articulation, indicating a contemporary running stance or perhaps a tree climber, which then tells us whether the owner ran a lot to gather their food, indicating hunting on the savannah, or still lived at least part of the time in trees, indicating a significant arboreal climate (it’s unlikely that one individual will live in one tree in the middle of a field – organisms require populations, and tree-dwelling serves the purpose of protection, where one tree isn’t going to cut it. Moreover, it’s probably a temperate to hot climate to maintain foliage all year long, since empty branches also don’t cut it.) And if there’s anything else available to confirm time periods, such as geologic strata, then another data point in radiometric dating can be determined. Radiometric dating determines age of organic remains or rock formations through the routine decay of trace radioactive elements within, but in any given time period the concentrations of these can vary, due to geologic or atmospheric processes. With a couple of confirmed data points we have the ability to judge when such variations have occurred and improve the accuracy of our dating methods.
And then there’s the simple curiosity factor. We are a species that explores, investigates, and learns – it’s behavior evolved into us. While I will be the first to argue that blindly indulging our emotional prods isn’t the wisest of ideas, we cannot deny that the vast majority of improvements we’ve made to our lives comes from this simple trait. Our curiosity over radioactivity a century ago has impacted medical diagnoses and treatments, power generation, cosmology, and yes, even dating fossil finds. Studying both fossil types and geologic strata eventually led to plate tectonics, and thus understanding how and when earthquakes can occur. It would have been easy to say, back when the theory of continental drift was first proposed, “Yeah, but so what? Does knowing the continents were in different positions actually do anything for us?” It would have been impossible to predict then that it would be useful in establishing dangerous areas to build a city, or tell us why Australia and Madagascar have such different species.
Which brings us back to the investment idea. Some things are a gamble, but the jackpots in science are dividends paid in perpetuity – we never stop using what we’ve learned, even when, like Newton’s Laws of Motion, we refine them with new knowledge later on. There’s no way to put a value on those returns, except to say that we’ve exceeded the investments many times over. I’m the first to say that genetic variation is pretty cool, fueling the development of traits through selection, but the development of curiosity was a gold mine, allowing us to actively change our environment rather than waiting for all other forms of genetic change to adapt us to it instead.
The knowledge of our past history, as limited as it is now, is even responsible for a heightened perspective on our place in the ecosystem. We’re no longer the chosen ones, the sole special sapient species destined by god or whatever; we’re one survivor among many forms, all others of which vanished after only a short time on the planet. We have traits that helped us survive, selected out by the algorithm of population numbers, in many cases functional more for our past than our present. And we know that to have a future, we must learn from the past, and recognize that nothing is guaranteed – we can vanish like the others, like the vast percentage of species that once inhabited this planet. Avoiding that fate is another thing that cannot have a price put on it.
Plus, it’s just so damn cool! I’m typing this as the distant ancestor of a species that made simple stone tools and communicated through gestures and singsong vocalizations (something else we found while examining remains.) Our vocabulary is the product of a brain with stunning abilities to make connections, inferences, and emotional impressions; that directly leads to expanded knowledge, because we can communicate what we’ve learned. Can you imagine where this will lead in another million years?