Brain Pickings

Your Cousin, the Blade of Grass: Brian Cox on the Wonders of Life

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“Deeper understanding confers that most precious thing — wonder.”

With his penchant for exposing the intrinsic mesmerism of everyday life through the prism of science, the charismatic particle physicist Brian Cox is as close to a Richard Feynman of our time as we can hope to get. In fact, it is Feynman he cites in the introduction to his magnificent new book, Wonders of Life: Exploring the Most Extraordinary Phenomenon in the Universe (public library), based on his BBC television series of the same title. Riffing off Feynman’s famous ode to a flower, in which the legendary physicist marvels at how some people can believe that science can detract from wonder of life and insists, instead, that “the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower,” Cox recasts the same lens on another seemingly simple but utterly miraculous wonder of life, the humble blade of grass, and uses it to illustrate Darwin’s legacy:

On its own, it is a wonder, but viewed in isolation its complexity and very existence is inexplicable. Darwin’s genius was to see that the existence of something as magnificent as a blade of grass can be understood, but only in the context of its interaction with other living things and, crucially, its evolutionary history. A physicist might say it is a four-dimensional structure, with both spatial and temporal extent, and it is simply impossible to comprehend the existence of such a structure in a universe governed by the simple laws of physics if its history is ignored.

And whilst you are contemplating the humble majesty of a blade of grass, with a spatial extent of a few centimeters but stretching back in the temporal direction for almost a third of the age of the Universe, pause for a moment to consider the viewer, because what is true of the blade of grass is also true for you. You share the same basic biochemistry, all the way down to the detail of proton waterfalls, and ATP, and much of the same genetic history, carefully documented in your DNA. This is because you share the same common ancestor. You are all related. You were once the same.

Indeed, once both you and the blade of grass were stardust. But Cox goes on to consider the disconcerting implications of this, which challenge the heart of what it means to be human, what we consider our singular and special-case humanity:

I suppose this is a most difficult thing to accept. The human condition seems special; our conscious experience feels totally divorced from the mechanistic world of atoms and forces, and perhaps even from the ‘lower forms’ of life. … [T]his feeling is an emergent illusion created by the sheer complexity of our arrangement of atoms. It must be, because the fundamental similarities between all living things outweigh the differences. If an alien biochemist had only two cells from Earth, one from a blade of grass and one from a human being, it would be immediately obvious that the cells come from the same planet, and are intimately related.

Cox explores the age-old friction between science and scripture, echoing Neil deGrasse Tyson’s depiction of creationism as a philosophy of ignorance and Richard Dawkins’s fascination with the magic of reality. Cox bemoans the “so-called controversy surrounding Darwin’s theory of evolution”:

My original aim was to avoid the matter entirely, because I think there are no intellectually interesting issues raised in such a ‘debate.’ But during the filming of this series I developed a deep irritation with the intellectual vacuity of those who actively seek to deny the reality of evolution and the science of biology in general. So empty is such a position, in the face of evidence collected over centuries, that it can only be politically motivated; there is not a hint of reason in it. And more than that, taking such a position closes the mind to the most wonderful story, and this is the tragedy for those who choose it, or worse, are forced into it through deficient teaching.

But Cox safeguards against secular fanaticism and goes on to consider the possible co-existence of science and spirituality, with a wonderful aside on labels and a gentle reminder that we simply don’t know, that scientific reductionism is as intellectually lazy as religious dogmatism, that science and philosophy need each other:

As someone who thinks about religion very little — I reject the label atheist because defining me in terms of the things I don’t believe would require an infinite list of nouns — I see no necessary contradiction between religion and science. By which I mean that if I were a deist, I would claim no better example of the skill and ingenuity of The Creator than in the laws of nature that allowed for the magnificent story of the origin and evolution of life on Earth, and their overwhelmingly beautiful expression in our tree of life. I am not a deist, philosopher or theologian, so I will make no further comment on the origin of the laws of nature that permitted life to evolve. I simply don’t know; perhaps someday we will find out. But be in no doubt that laws they are, and Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is as precise and well tested as Einstein’s theories of relativity.

Ultimately, in reflecting on the necessarily speculative nature of some of the films in the series, he reminds us that ignorance is what drives science forward and, as Feynman himself memorably put it, it is the scientist’s responsibility to remain unsure. Cox writes:

Some parts are speculative, but that is nothing to be ashamed of in science. Indeed, all science is provisional. When observations of nature contradict a theory, no matter how revered, ancient or popular, the theory will be unceremoniously and joyously ditched, and the search for a more accurate theory will be redoubled. The magnificent thing about Darwin’s explanation of the origin of species is that it has survived over a hundred and fifty years of precision observations, and in that it has outlasted Newton’s law of universal gravitation.

He echoes Robert Sapolsky’s timeless words on science and wonder, returning to the heart of Feynman’s ode to the flower and concluding:

Deeper understanding confers that most precious thing — wonder.

Wonders of Life goes on to explore such fascinating macro-mysteries and micro-miracles as why the world exists, how our senses work, and what the trees of life tell us about evolution. In the concluding chapter, Cox returns once again to our distant cousin, the blade of grass:

Go outside, now, and look at any randomly selected piece of your world. It could be a scruffy corner of your garden, or even a clump of grass forcing its way through a concrete pavement. It is unique. Encoded deep in the biology of every cell in every blade of grass, in every insect’s wing, in every bacterium cell, is the history of the third planet from the Sun in a Solar System making its way lethargically around a galaxy called the Milky Way. Its shape, form, function, color, smell, taste, molecular structure, arrangement of atoms, sequence of bases, and possibilities for a future are all absolutely unique. There is nowhere else in the observable Universe where you will see precisely that little clump of emergent, living complexity. It is wonderful. And the reason that thought occurred to me is not because some guru told me that the world is wonderful. It is because Darwin, and generations of scientists before and after, have shown it to be.

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