Tuesday, August 05, 2008


Incremental Thoughts

Just watched about half of Neil Tyson's lecture from last February on CSPAN. He runs the planetarium at the Natural History Museum in New York. He seems a very good guy and a good thinker. I've always liked the scientists who could explain it to me so I actually understood. The late Stephen Jay Gould was a particular favorite. Neil gave a televised lecture with a big rip in the right knee of his khakis. Here is his 'big finish' thought with my twist at the end.

The difference in the DNA we have and the Chimpanzees have is less than 10%. That is, we share at least 90 plus % of our DNA, perhaps 98%, and they are our closest relatives on Earth. But think of the gulf between us and them on the intellectual level. We create symphonies, poetry, invent Calculus, engineer huge building projects, etc. The chimps can't.

On just one level, our language skills are hugely different. Jane Goodall tells us the chimps have a 'vocabulary' of about 100 sounds but no real grammar. We have several thousand words and a complex grammar so that the combination of words is nearly infinite. One could talk and never repeat oneself for a lifetime. Even a 6 year old could do that. The chimps can't. And this huge difference in ability comes just from less than a 10% difference, probably a 2% difference, in DNA. So imagine an alien with just a less than 10% betterment (if that's the right term) in DNA from us. The same gulf would exist between us and them that exists, intellectually speaking, between us and the chimps. The increment of ability the slightly better alien would have would be difficult for us even to imagine.

OK, if that's not humbling enough. The chances that there is an intelligent alien race which has just the less than 10% difference of DNA are infinitely small. They would be completely different from us. We would share no DNA with them and the gulf of incremental ability might be startling wide, probably is vastly wide. We might not be like a chimp to them, but more like a paramecium.

Have a pleasant evening.

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Now if only Neil Tyson could explain global warming to you, we'd be all set.
I'd certainly listen to him, but he's not a climatologist so I am unaware of his opinion on the issue. Thanks, Andy.
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