This semester, like the preceding three or four semesters, my general biology class is reading ‘Your Inner Fish’ by Neil Shubin. Every week, we cover one chapter and my students write an essay with their thoughts before we discuss that chapter in class.
Last week was our first week with this book, so I’ve just completed reading several essays on chapter 1 from my students. Overall, I’d say that the book seems to be getting a good response and at least interests most people. I’ve had a wide variety of responses with respect to accepting the author’s interpretations of Tiktaalik, his find of a ~375 million year old fossil species that shows evidence of being a transition species for the first quadrupeds to come onto land.
This is always a fun group of essays for me to read because it challenges students to consider their perception of science as a way of viewing the world. Or, perhaps I should say, ‘science, as a way of understanding the world around us.’ A scientific view of the world is actually a fairly unnatural one. It is easy to see how it is even evolutionarily disadvantageous to have a scientific view of the world. If you have been a victim of a crime (you get mugged walking down a city street) don’t you always expect that crime to happen again? It doesn’t matter that this happened only once out of thousands of times you walked the same route home, you now feel convinced that this is dangerous and are more alert and cautious. You may even find a new way home. And who would blame you? We’re programmed to look out for our own safety. This often means over-exaggerating our fears and assuming the worst. It also means that we will now overestimate the real danger.
The other thing this discussion brings up is: what does science do for us?
The answer is supposed to be, ‘it enables us to learn from the past and have a better ability to predict the future.’ We can make predictions about things if we closely observe the world and learn its laws. The corollary to this is, if you can’t learn from the evidence you see about you, how can you ever know what to expect from the world?
All of these are interesting questions. All of them challenge how we look at the world, what we take for granted and what we can expect to get from our experiences. I’m really looking forward to reading more of my students’ reflections on this text and hope that you (anyone reading this) feel free to engage in a dialog about either this book, or the questions it brings up.