Sunday, August 2, 2009

Daily Kos: Uniformly Catastrophic

by Devilstower

Sun Aug 02, 2009 at 08:00:03 AM PDT

In the first week of October, 1836, Captain Robert Fitzroy married Mary Henrietta O'Brien, the daughter of a prominent army general. Within a few years, the respected naval officer would become a Member of Parliment, then the governor of the British colony of New Zealand — a post he would lose by being so impolitic as to treat with the Maori on a basis of equality. In his public career, Fitzroy would become the head of the British Meteorological Department and be heralded as the father of modern weather forecasting. He would invent a better, cheaper form of barometer and devise the first system of storm warnings. He would be the commander of one of the first steam vessels in the British Navy and the master of the dockyard at which the most innovative ships of the day were constructed. He would invent new techniques of cartography, explore distant lands, and lead some of the most celebrated expeditions in history.

And his fame would be completely overwhelmed by that of a man he took as a passenger on one of his voyages. A man who had recently finished off a bachelor's degree, and who a friend recommended to Fitzroy as a good conversational companion. A young fellow named Charles Darwin.

Even the book we know today as The Voyage of the Beagle was originally the third volume of a set commissioned to record the expeditions led by Fitzroy. Captain Fitzroy himself wrote the first two volumes. Darwin, again at Fitzroy's invitation, wrote the third. It's that third volume that's still in print more than a century and a half later.

Both men were adventurous, intelligent, innovative and well connected. Both were very young (Fitzroy was only 26 when he wrote seeking someone with more knowledge of the natural world to come along on his next journey. Darwin was 22). Over the course of a journey that took almost five years the two men talked, argued, and used each other as sounding boards. They suffered through periods of cold silence and enjoyed occassions of warm friendship. Fitzroy — not only a ship's captain but the nephew of a duke — could be high-handed, officious, and prone to fits of rage his crew nicknamed "hot coffee." More than once he banished Darwin from his sight (as when the two argued over slavery, which Darwin opposed) only to apologize sincerely only a few hours later.

Darwin escaped to the land for over three years of their journey, leaving Fitzroy to carry out the expedition's real purpose: creating detailed maps of the coasts and harbors. But on many occasions Fitzroy delayed the progress of the ship to allow Darwin his observations and excavations, and when possible the two men went off together to share adventures. They were friends.

Both men used the other in working through feelings on theology and on scientific theories to explain the features of the world they observed together. It was during one of these discussions that Fitzroy and Darwin came to an agreement: the world around them could not have been formed in the short time allowed by a traditional interpretation of biblical events. In particular, the placement of fossils and the structure of the land could not have been the result of the single great flood relayed in the story of Noah.

But that was before the wedding.

All during their long journey, Fitzroy held one personal secret that he never shared with Darwin — he was engaged. Within days of the Beagle's return to England, Fitzroy married the general's daughter in a wedding that was a complete surprise to Darwin. As it happened, Fitzroy's new bride was a devout churchgoer, and lest he offend her, the captain censored the "progressive" ideas he had discussed during the journey. So, despite what he had told Darwin, Fitzroy's volumes recording the voyages of the Beagle were careful to present the results of landforms they had seen in terms of how they might have been gouged out by the waters of a universal flood. Even seashells found on the highest peaks were explained in terms of Noah's deluge.

This school of geologic thinking came to be known as Catastrophism — the idea that the world was primarily formed by a series of massive, unique events. Though catastrophism originated among those who traced natural history through biblical stories of creation, it wasn't restricted to only to those who expected the world to reflect their beliefs. In fact, the best known proponent of catastrophism at the time was also the best known scientist, period — Georges Cuvier. Unlike Fitzroy, Cuvier had no ancestral wealth or position in the peerage. A polymath genius whose ideas were shaped by the Enlightenment, Cuvier didn't come to catastrophism as a means of explaining what he had read in the Bible. He was looking for an answer to what he found in the rocks. In particular, Cuvier was looking for an explanation for something that was only then becoming widely accepted — extinction.

Meanwhile, the man who had just finished collecting some of the best evidence in support of extinction's worldwide reach was a follower of a diametrically opposed idea of how the Earth had been made. The biggest influence on Charles Darwin's geologic thinking was another unlikely character — a former lawyer who had taken to studying rocks when his failing eyesight made it too difficult for him to read the intricate text of legal documents. Charles Lyell's, Principles of Geology would not only shape much of Darwin's thoughts, but dominate geology for the next... ever. In this three volume set, Lyell laid out rules that seem simple (and are), but which are also as essential to geology as a number system is to mathematics.

What Lyell taught can be boiled into a single, intensely profound statement: the present is the key to the past.

Want to understand how ripples were formed in the sands of ancient stones? Look for the places where those same kind of ripples are being formed on sands today. The world of the past wasn't shaped by extraordinary events, but by extremely ordinary events. What to see what made the world? Look at wind. Look at rain. Look at streams. Look at the sea. The only difference between what happened then and what's happening now is time, lots and lots and lots of time in which those streams and oceans had the chance to carry out their actions. Our world was formed by the slow, steady accumulation of tiny features that led to large changes only over the course of millennia. It was a theory that was called Gradualism.

The attraction of gradualism was great, and completely understandable. Gradualism turned natural history into a testable, predictable endeavor. In short, it makes geology into a science. A world built completely around catastrophism would be a world of nightmarish, unpredictable events whose record can only be puzzled over — like a film made up of random clips. Gradualism is a system, a tool, a lens by which past events can be interpreted sensibly. It became the foundation for geology and paleontology, and the basis of Darwin's theories.

The idea that both stones and bones are shaped by step-by-step change became such a primary feature of Darwin's thinking that he defended gradualism against those who proposed more abrupt changes among species.

Mr. Mivart is further inclined to believe, and some naturalists agree with him, that new species manifest themselves "with suddenness and by modifications appearing at once." For instance, he supposes that the differences between the extinct three-toed Hipparion and the horse arose suddenly. He thinks it difficult to believe that the wing of a bird "was developed in any other way than by a comparatively sudden modification of a marked and important kind;" and apparently he would extend the same view to the wings of bats and pterodactyles. This conclusion, which implies great breaks or discontinuity in the series, appears to me improbable in the highest degree.

When Cuvier died in 1832 (in the midst of the Darwin's prolonged trip on the Beagle) catastrophism ruled the day. For years after, respect for Cuvier's genius, and the support of the church, helped to keep the theory at the forefront of scientific thought. (The cult of Cuvier strengthened after his death. When it was discovered that his brain was found to be extraordinarily large, this fact was often cited by those who wanted to make direct connection between brain size and intelligence, including those who misused Darwin's theories to promote ideas of race).

But the attraction of gradualism, and a mass of scientific evidence that accumulated around the idea as steadily as the processes the theory predicted, won the day. So much so that within a matter of decades gradualism had completely supplanted the theory of catastrophism. In both biology and geology, the past was seen the same way: a series of small, minute actions that produced measurable change only over deep time. Gradualism was predictable, measurable, comprehensible — comfortable.

That same love of comfort often pervades economic systems. When economists look at the behavior of markets, consumers, and systems, they don't look at each event as a unique occurrence. They, quite rightly, look for guidance in past events, using the failures and successes of previous cycles to guide actions in the current situation. In doing so, economists are expressing that same connection between past and present that Lyell formulated in 1830 (though they're looking through the other end of the scope — hoping to gain insight into the present by looking at the past, rather than peering at the present for clues to what went before).

It's this kind of steady predictability that was used as a means to replace defined benefit pension plans with that most ubiquitous new instrument: the 401k plan. Within three years of its inception in 1980, more than half of American corporations were offering 401k plan either as a supplement or replacement for defined benefit pension plans. Even though the original legislation targeted executive compensation, by 1993, most corporations offered only these kind of contribution-based plans for all employees. And why not? Seen over the span of decades, the value of stocks increased more quickly than the value of benefits held in pensions. Moving to contribution-based plans saved corporations billions, and employees enrolled in these plans were shown charts demonstrating that they would one day be millionaires... all thanks to that slow, steady accumulation of wealth. Though the basis of the 401k shift was the steady predictability of financial markets, the shift away form pensions itself was so abrupt as to represent an enormous "catastrophic" change. It can be argued that the whole of the economic boom experienced in the 1990s was due to corporations removing the cost of defined pension plans from their books and placing that risk on average workers.

The trouble is, they were all wrong. Lyell was wrong. Darwin was wrong. Cuvier was wrong. Fitzroy was wrong. And the guy who sold you that 401k plan was wrong. They were all wrong because, while they stood on opposite sides of the line of gradualism vs. catastrophism, they were united (to varying degrees) in a philosophy of absolutism.

The truth is that the world is formed both by gradual processes and by disaster. Anyone who adhered too strongly to either theory was likely to miss the evidence that the other was also at work. The affection for gradualism among geologists became so strong that when a physicist named Luis Alvarez suggested that (shades of Georges Cuvier) the extinction event at the end of the Cretaceous Period might have been caused by an object striking the Earth, it took years before geologists would accept the evidence. Biologists had become so wedded to the idea of gradual change that when Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould introduced the idea of "punctuated equilibria" in 1972, it was seen by some as an attempt to return to the pre-Lyell chaotic unpredictability of catastrophism. Market watchers were still predicting ever higher peaks even as the "comet" of the coming disaster hung in the sky.

Lyell was absolutely right on the central point of his great book — the same processes that shape the past also shape the present. But the present isn't only shaped by the drip-drip-drip of gradual change. It's also formed by asteroids, and eruptions, and floods. The fossil record reveals that the kind of slow, steady change of species that Darwin originally proposed does occur, but periods of stability interrupted by times of accelerated transformation is a more typical pattern. Not every change is predictable. Not every change is gradual. And steady contributions to a 401k plan are not a guarantee of eventual wealth.

We all live in a "punctuated" world, one in which gradual processes are occasionally replaced by more momentous actions. To Darwin's great credit, he recognized that the difference between gradualism and catastrophism was often little more than a difference in degree. Bird wings might not appear fully-formed, but he did accept that "everyone who believes in slow and gradual evolution, will of course admit that specific changes may have been as abrupt and as great as any single variation which we meet with under nature." Though his tendency was toward gradualism, Darwin was much less rigid in applying his theory than many of those who would come after him.

But if Darwin was willing to leaven his steadiness with a bit of abrupt change, Fitzroy never again seemed ready to make the move toward accepting gradualism as he had during that long voyage on the Beagle. After Darwin revised his volume on the natural history of the expedition in 1845, Fitzroy wanted no part of Darwin's growing insistence on deep time and gradual change. Instead, Fitzroy expressed great concern that such ideas might influence the next generation of young men, and devoted himself to a defense of literal interpretation of the Bible. In 1860, when The Origin of Species was published, FitzRoy felt crushed by guilt for the role he had played in helping bring natural selection to the world.

Though he was only fifty-five at the time, care and a lifelong struggle with depression had made Fitzroy frail and elderly. He appeared at public meetings holding aloft a huge Bible and calling on people to believe "God, not man." For the most part, he was treated as a kook. Even then, few people seemed to recognize that this was the man who had carried Darwin around the world, the inventor of the storm glass, the former governor, former MP, and vice-admiral of the navy. He had become another face in the crowd, another voice lost in the storm brought about by Darwin's theory.

Perhaps that was on Robert Fitzroy's mind in 1865, when he rose from bed one morning, passed his wife, and took his own life with a straight razor. Or perhaps he was haunted by the fact that his family fortune was exhausted. Vice-admiral Fitzroy, always the good public servant, had taken no money for his inventions and innovations. As governor, he had made no land deals to assure his family's wealth. As MP he had made no arrangements to secure his financial future. As harbormaster, he had taken no bribes when it came to supplying the Navy. In fact, most of his money had gone for public expenses that the government was supposed to repay, but never had.

He died penniless. A personal catastrophe to be sure, and one not softened by any form of pension.

However, following his death, a testimonial fund was established by sailors who had served with Fitzroy. At their urging, the government repaid the equivalent of $330,000 (half of what was owed) to keep Fitzroy's widow and children out of poverty. Another $11,000 came by way of a donation from an old friend of the family — Charles Darwin.

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