The Descent of Man

June 18, 2007

Jack Ganssle-June 18, 2007

And all of science I don't understand. It's just a job five days a week. - Elton John, Rocketman

Steven Pinker reviewed Natalie Angier's "The Canon" for the NY Times. Though the book sounds interesting, Pinker's review starts with a near-diatribe against what he sees as a growing scientific illiteracy in the USA. He believes that our aversion to learning science boosts "New Age nostrums, psychic hot lines, creationist textbook stickers and other flimflam."

He goes on: "The costs of an ignorance of science are not just practical ones like misbegotten policies, forgone cures and a unilateral disarmament in national competitiveness. There is a moral cost as well. It is an astonishing fact about our species that we understand so much about the history of the universe, the forces that make it tick, the stuff it's made of, the origin of living things and the machinery of life. A failure to nurture this knowledge shows a philistine indifference to the magnificent achievements humanity is capable of, like allowing a great work of art to molder in a warehouse."

We engineers tend to stay reasonably current with technology and science. It seems that engineers have an inherent curiosity in many subjects, plus the mental discipline ingrained by rigorous college classes to read widely. But what about non-techies? Is Pinker right? Does it even matter?

Taking the second question first, of course it matters. We're embedded in a world that is defined by and constantly reshaped by science. No aspect of our lives hasn't been revolutionized by it, from the food we eat, medicines we take, understanding of infection, waste management and cleanliness, to the fruits of technology that enhance, and sometimes frustrate, billions of us.

It matters more today than in years past, when science almost seems to outrun our understanding of the ethical implications. In vitro DNA testing. Global warming. Genetic engineering. Stem cells. A hundred other issues clamor for our attention, our votes and critical analysis.

<>Incendiary columnists and blogs (both on the left and the right) substitute ad hominem attacks for reason. Sophistry abounds; logic is scarce. Yet there have never been so many books about scientific subjects that are so accessible to so many. Bookstores are awash in titles that explain the latest ideas in physics, biology, math and more.

Any literate teen or adult can, with little effort, get a pretty good sense of how the universe works. Some of these texts are so current that the interested amateur can stay nearly in lockstep with the very latest developments in the scientific world.

Presumably these books have a healthy market, so is Pinker right? Have intelligent, educated people abdicated their right to staying educated? How many people feel schooling ends with school?

Sometimes I think TV has obliterated the world of ideas, whether the subject is dialectical materialism or special relativity. There was a time when it was common to have discussion salons. Now American Idol or the latest celebrity excess gets splashed across page 1; the Shuttle makes news only when something goes wrong, and progress on the Webb telescope is left to specialty magazines like Sky & Telescope or Aviation Week.

Till fairly recently educated people were expected to have a wide knowledge of, and corresponding interest in, all subjects. Are we intellectually devolving? I sure hope not, and remain encouraged by the young folks I see who do chose to pursue the difficult fields science and engineering, when other, much less demanding areas can be so much more financially rewarding.

But it sure seems that a great number of educated adults have abandoned any attempt to stay scientifically literate. There's no way to stop a conversation faster than to tell a new acquaintance you're an engineer. How many non-techies have any sense of what engineers do? (Hint: it has nothing to do with driving a train).

What do you think? Is Homo Sapiens giving way to Homo Hollywood?

Jack G. Ganssle is a lecturer and consultant on embedded development issues. He conducts seminars on embedded systems and helps companies with their embedded challenges. Contact him at His website is

It's true. We here in the USA (and it Europe from what I can tell) are satiated and opiated by entertainment. We've achieved the critical needs (food, clothing, shelter, heat) for most (while some still suffer in poverty) and we are content. Whiny, but content. Meanwhile other parts of the world are eating our lunch because they are hungry, aggressive, and smart.

Think this is new? Look at Rome (especially the recently ended HBO series. Sorry, couldn't resist). I don't think there's anything new here.

The intellectually curious have a bounty of information, as you point out. The dnger to use the the siren song of 24x7 entertainment, with more on the way. Eventually, either bugs or robots will rule the planet. At least until they invent the Internet and start their own decline.

- Steve Leibson

The problem is not so much that people don't want to know what's going on, the problem is how do you keep up? The amount of information available is staggering compared to even a short 10 years ago (before the web). My company is in the process of moving, and we wound up ditching so much paper because:

it takes up too much room,

its obsolete about 5 minutes after its printed, and I connect to and I can have the latest and best info possible.

Robert Heinlein once wrote that if people lived to 100-200 yrs or more, that we'd have to invent new ways to store memories, because the average person couldn't keep it all straight in his head. Perhaps it is not the longevity of man that going to be the trigger for this, but the increasing amount of information available. As far as evolving, evolution appears to make abrupt changes at certain >points in time, perhaps as a result of changing climate or conditions.

Maybe the overload of information will cause the species to evolve - but in which direction? In one of the oroiginal Start Trek episodes, there was an entire planet devoted to play, because "the more superior the mind, the more the need for simple play...". We can have Homo Superior or Homo xbox360....

- Tom Mazowiesky

When very loud emotional arguments and outright mis-truths supplant the scientific method and reason ... then that is when we need to be concerned.

When making a dollar supplants learning and enlightenment through the use of careful guidance and hard work ... then that is when we need to be concerned

When street jargon, slang-talk and shutdowns supplant educated discourse and good communications ... then that is when we need to be concerned

When talk of Paris Hilton, Pamela Anderson and American Idol supplant talk of well written stories and poetry ... then that is when we need to be concerned.

You know what? I am concerned!

- Ken Wada

From my observation as an engineer, it is clear that "normal" people demonstrate, and follow the thermodynamic law that states that organized systems proceed in the direction of chaos. That is, their brains actually follow this thermo law, and therefore take the easy road, and chaos is the result. They ignore detail because that would involve "work."

The engineer on the other hand is given a genetic flaw at birth, where the thermo law does not actually work in their brains. The work(for no money) is the call or urge driving this poor soul. Some engineers feel they should have been investment bankers, and properly followed the thermo law we have all come to know.

- Pat Smerek

I don't think we're devolving at all. From what I see, as information (knowledge) grows at a seemingly exponential rate, the ability of finite humans to grasp it all is taxed beyond reason. Rather than attempt to grasp everything, we are becoming specialists - just like the folks who treat one type of disease, or one portion of the body.

The generalists (jacks of all trades, masters of none) have an advantage, even as I personally have with mechanical, mathematical, electronic, and computer science training over those who were trained in only one area. They may excel in their area beyond what I could expect to achieve myself, yet they do not have the insights available from other disciplines that allow problems to be solved in a more-general, elegant manner.

We must maintain a balance - generalists and specialists - and not consider one "more important" than another. To put it in terms too many will understand, we need more History and Discovery and less A&E and HBO.

- Andy Kunz

Regarding Mr. Kunz' statement: "To put it in terms too many will understand, we need more History and Discovery and less A&E and HBO", I hardly think The Discovery Channel is a model for scientific and/or rational thought processes! They seem to pander to more base instincts with their "Killer..." and "Jaws..." format "specials, and their infernal attempts to popularize the notion of ghosts & poltergeists!

- Harry Jones

From an european point of view I agree with Steve Leibson: yes, modern civilization is in saturation mode, and yes, the roman empire went down with similar characteristics and only 1000 years later Italy resurfaced as (western) world cultural leader during the Renaissance. Ever since Europe considered itself the cultural leader, a role it lost together with WWII. From cultural point of view we see Asia catching up on the intellectual side and the US as leading culture for businnes, food, and entertainment.

- Bernhard Kockoth

Is man deteriorating? Not sure, but here's an alternative thought...

Technology (created by engineers) makes our life easier, but with an easier life comes a "fatter" society. A fatter socieity is likely to produce fewer engineers, so how will this affect future generations?

I think it's really difficult to analyze the current situation and the trends that may be derived from it (ask me again in 20 years). The "schooling" process has been dramatically affected by the internet.

Think about it...

Half of what we learned through our schooling was "how to learn" and "how to work hard doing it" (i.e. discipline). It took a lot of time and research to complete a 10-20 page paper. First you had to gather all the data, then organize it on scratch paper, then type the whole thing out with a borrowed typewriter. Finish the report, then re-read it and find an error (or missing concept) on page 8, and you gotta re-type the whole thing! That may sound tedious, but that (in my optinion) was part of the learning process... It forced us to think ahead and organize our thoughts before we put it into print.

Nowadays, a 12-year old can cut-n-paste a 10 page paper in an hour! Mix and match a bunch of google-retrieved data into a report and put their name at the top and they're done. Worse than that, just find one already done on the web, download it and change the name!!!

Aside from the ease of information retrieval, students have a lot more "sexy" distractions than we had. Lets face it, a good many of us probably would have been playing video games if we had the alternative. We didn't, so we improvised (some played ball, some went in the basement and built something, some read a book), and in doing that we were nurturing our brain and not even realizing it. Is a video game doing that now (rhetorical question)?

It's horrible; but its here to stay. Somehow, this is progress, and somehow we have to figure out how to deal with it, because it isn't going away. This stuff was put in place because engineers were smart enough to figure it out tecnically and make it accessible to everyone. Now is the time for folks to figure out how to make sure it doesn't turn us all into a bunch of "googling idiots"!!

- Ed Sutter

Loading comments...