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Every Really Interesting Science Story Is About Human Exceptionalism


Isn’t it, though, in a broad sense? I think our colleague Wesley Smith would agree. Sure, there are scary stories about the Zika virus or hopeful ones about prospects for an Alzheimer’s treatment, and those catch our attention because they play on our anxieties. But the profound ones all seem, explicitly or implicitly, to touch on the question of what a human being is, or what life itself is — cosmic flotsam or something more?

As illustrations take these two headlines from one day in the paper of record:

Scientists Unveil New ‘Tree of Life’

A team of scientists unveiled a new tree of life on Monday, a diagram outlining the evolution of all living things. The researchers found that bacteria make up most of life’s branches. And they found that much of that diversity has been waiting in plain sight to be discovered, dwelling in river mud and meadow soils.

“It is a momentous discovery — an entire continent of life-forms,” said Eugene V. Koonin of the National Center for Biotechnology Information, who was not involved in the study.

The study was published in the journal Nature Microbiology.

In his 1859 book “On the Origin of Species,” Charles Darwin envisioned evolution like a branching tree. The “great Tree of Life,” he said, “fills with its dead and broken branches the crust of the earth, and covers the surface with its ever branching and beautiful ramifications.”

Ever since, biologists have sought to draw the tree of life. The invention of DNA sequencing revolutionized that project, because scientists could find the relationship among species encoded in their genes.

Are you waiting for it? You could probably write this yourself. Here it comes:

It’s a humbling thing to behold. All the eukaryotes, from humans to flowers to amoebae, fit on a slender twig. The new study supported previous findings that eukaryotes and archaea are closely related. But overshadowing those lineages is a sprawling menagerie of bacteria.

The new Tree (pictured above), which looks more like a Leaf, is pretty. I like this styled graphic:


It seems to show human beings are vastly “overshadowed” by bacteria, with the “humbling” implications for our significance against the larger biological backdrop left for the demoralized reader to ponder. And that’s what made this story appear newsworthy to an editor.

Here’s another article, though, suggesting the opposite:

Reaching for the Stars, Across 4.37 Light-Years

In an attempt to leapfrog the planets and vault into the interstellar age, a bevy of scientists and other luminaries from Silicon Valley and beyond, led by Yuri Milner, a Russian philanthropist and Internet entrepreneur, announced a plan on Tuesday to send a fleet of robot spacecraft no bigger than iPhones to Alpha Centauri, the nearest star system, 4.37 light-years away.

If it all worked out — a cosmically big “if” that would occur decades and perhaps $10 billion from now — a rocket would deliver a “mother ship” carrying a thousand or so small probes to space. Once in orbit, the probes would unfold thin sails and then, propelled by powerful laser beams from Earth, set off one by one like a flock of migrating butterflies across the universe.

Within two minutes, the probes would be more than 600,000 miles from home — as far as the lasers could maintain a tight beam — and moving at a fifth of the speed of light. But it would still take 20 years for them to get to Alpha Centauri. Those that survived would zip past the star system, making measurements and beaming pictures back to Earth.

Here’s the human exceptionalism angle:

“What makes human beings unique?” Dr. [Stephen] Hawking asked. He went on to say, “I believe that what makes us unique is transcending our limits.”

Dr. Hawking added, “Today we commit to the next great leap in the cosmos, because we are human and our nature is to fly.”

As far as I know, Stephen Hawking otherwise hews closely to the human-as-cosmic-flotsam thesis. But he’s right: Plunging across the cosmos by means of a fleet of space-sailing iPhones is indeed to transcend our natural limits as Earth-bound bipeds. What a triumph of our unique human creativity, something that should “humble” that vast diversity of bacteria, if bacteria (or any other creature but humans) could feel “humbled.” It’s our “nature…to fly” only insofar as that creativity reflects the touch of a designer who also transcends the universe.

This, of course, is what the whole evolution controversy comes down to. One conclusion you can draw from that debate is supremely elevating, the other equally degrading. The choice is as stark as the one between life and death. It’s very simple.

Image credits: Jill Banfield/UC Berkeley, Laura Hug/University of Waterloo, via UC Berkeley; Zosia Rostomian, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, via University of Waterloo.

David Klinghoffer

Senior Fellow and Editor, Evolution News
David Klinghoffer is a Senior Fellow at Discovery Institute and the editor of Evolution News & Science Today, the daily voice of Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture, reporting on intelligent design, evolution, and the intersection of science and culture. Klinghoffer is also the author of six books, a former senior editor and literary editor at National Review magazine, and has written for the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Seattle Times, Commentary, and other publications. Born in Santa Monica, California, he graduated from Brown University in 1987 with an A.B. magna cum laude in comparative literature and religious studies. David lives near Seattle, Washington, with his wife and children.