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The Importance of Dangerous Ideas

by Wilson da Silva 10 months ago in Historical
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It took courage to defy the certainties of life and his own faith: but Charles Darwin did it because he knew he had found a greater truth.

Charles Darwin at Down House, Kent (1840) by George Richmond [Bridgeman Art Library]

IT’S ONE of the greatest stories in science: how an inquisitive 22 year-old sails around the world, encounters creatures never before seen and makes an extraordinary discovery that changes his world.

And yet, Charles Darwin never wanted the fame, the controversy nor the ructions the ideas triggered. But once he realised the importance of his discovery of natural selection as the mechanism of evolution, he knew his responsibility as a scientist: to document and divulge his ‘dangerous idea’, whatever the consequences.

It’s an enthralling story. As a teenager, I could not help but be excited to read of his exploits. It was like reading Jules Verne or H.G. Wells, and yet this really happened: a shy, awkward young man, unsure what he wants to do with his life, faces trials and tribulations, finds his manhood and returns to be recognised and celebrated by his peers.

That’s where he could have left it. But slowly, as he documented his five-year voyage, perused and catalogued his vast collection of samples, he began to realise that a powerful natural force pervaded all life.

Evolution is a deceptively simple idea, not immediately obvious to the casual observer. But its effects are complex, and span millions of years. If geology can be summed up as pressure plus time, then evolution is basically genetics and environment plus time.

Did he doubt what he saw? Surely the method by which one species morphs into another cannot be so simple? But the more he studied the concept in species after species, the more he saw the effect.

HMS Beagle in the Galápagos by John Chancellor [HMS Beagle Project]

It was like suddenly recognising a language you had always heard in the background but could never understand. And it t was the language of life itself, whispering its secrets to anyone who took the trouble to listen carefully. And he was the first to really understand it.

But Darwin was also a man of faith: he attended a Church of England school, studied theology at Cambridge and had planned to be a clergyman. The implications of his discovery on his own religion troubled him.

He was not the first to raise doubts about the tenets of Christianity, or of other religions. People of Darwin’s time were discovering that all was not as they had been taught, that the ancients had, in many cases, been mistaken by erroneous presuppositions or a lack of data.

So it was an exciting time, but also a disturbing one. Darwin’s ideas challenged the old shibboleths in Victorian England. And yet, they were based on evidence. And, as a man of science, he could not ignore the evidence.

As science journalist Carl Zimmer writes in his excellent book, Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea:

“Evolution connects us to the dawn of Earth, to showers of comets and death-winds of stars. It produced the crops we eat and now helps insects destroy them. It illuminates the mysteries of medicine, such as how mindless bacteria can outwit the best minds in science…it reveals how our minds were assembled among lonely bands of apes. We may still struggle with what evolution says about our place in the universe, but that universe is all the more remarkable.”

This November marks the 162nd anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species, a thoroughly researched and meticulously argued book that sent shock waves across the world. He did not publish it on a whim: he mulled over the ideas for 23 years, and only really started writing a decade before publishing it.

An original copy of On the Origin of Species [Smithsonian Institution Libraries]

While it did not address the issue directly, the clear implication of evolution is that a God is not needed to create each individual animal; that they can arise naturally and blindly. For Darwin, this implication caused him consternation, earned him enemies and triggered a firestorm of public and private controversy.

Today, we have no shortage ‘dangerous ideas’, some equally challenging as evolution was in its time.

Artificial intelligence is one: It is being integrated across many parts of society, from judicial decision-making to self-driving cars. Many of its uses are beneficial, such as detecting credit card fraud or delivering more useful Google searches. Some are debatable, such as matching singles on dating sites or accurately labelling photos.

But it also portends dangers that are worth discussing. Already we are seeing troubling repercussions from its untrammled use, such as the changing power dynamics between consumers and companies, where more and more of the relationship is mediated by algorithms rather than people — making it difficult to understand how a decision was made, and with often no recourse to address errors, inequities of treatment or outright bias.

And some changes it will bring will be dramatic: many anticipate autonomous vehicles will have widespread effects across the trucking, taxi, ride-share, courier, and food-delivery industries, as well as workers in related industries, such as warehousing and manufacturing.

The assumption is that artificial intelligence is good for humanity, and it has certainly being proven to be effective at large-scale practical tasks that would be unfeasible or impossible for humans. But like any technology, it can be abused.

It doesn’t mean we should halt the large-scale use of artificial intelligence; but we should certainly pay very close attention to how it is being used, and question it carefully, rather than rush to implement it.

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About the author

Wilson da Silva

Wilson da Silva is a science journalist in Sydney | |

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