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Astrophysicist Mario Livio on Blunders of Evolution and the Evolution of Blunders

ByMario LivioThe Secret Life of Scientists and EngineersThe Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers

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We all make mistakes. Nobody’s perfect. Not even some of the greatest geniuses in history, as Mario Livio tells us in part one of this excerpt from Brilliant Blunders: Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe. The book is a marvelous exploration of scientific error and breakthrough that focuses on five scientific giants who made significant advances in their fields through error, proving that mistakes are essential to progress.

Blunders of Evolution and Evolution of Blunders (Book Excerpt: Part 2)

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Charles Darwin, Original Mistake-Maker.
One of the definitions of the word “evolution” in the Oxford English Dictionary reads: “The development or growth, according to its inherent tendencies, of anything that may be compared to a living organism. Also, the rise or origination of anything by natural development, as distinguished from its production by a specific act.” This was not the original meaning of the word. In Latin, evolution referred to the unrolling and reading of a book that existed in the form of a scroll. Even when the word started to gain popularity in biology, it was used initially only to describe the growth of an embryo. The first utilization of the word “evolution” in the context of the genesis of species can be found in the writings of the eighteenth-century Swiss naturalist Charles Bonnet, who argued that God had pre-organized the birth of new species in the germs of the very first life-forms he created.

In the course of the twentieth century, the word “evolution” has become so intimately associated with Darwin’s name that you may find it hard to believe that in the first, 1859 edition of his masterwork, On the Origin of Species , Darwin does not mention the word “evolution” as such even once! Still, the very last word of The Origin is “evolved.”

In the time that has passed since the publication of The Origin , evolution has assumed the broader meaning of the definition above, and today we may speak of the evolution of such diverse things as the English language, fashion, music, and opinions, as well as of sociocultural evolution, software evolution, and so on. (Check out how many web pages are devoted just to “the evolution of the hipster.”) President Woodrow Wilson emphasized once that the correct way to understand the Constitution of the United States was through evolution: “Government is not a machine, but a living thing . . . It is accountable to Darwin, not to Newton.”


My focus on the evolution of life, of the Earth, and of the universe should not be taken to mean that these are the only scientific arenas in which blunders have been committed. Rather, I have chosen these particular topics for two main reasons. First, I wanted to critically review the blunders made by some of the scholars that appear on almost everybody’s short list of great minds. The blunders of such luminaries, even if of a past century, are extremely relevant to questions scientists (and, indeed, people in general) face today. As I hope to show, the analysis of these blunders forms a living body of knowledge that is not only captivating in its own right but also can be used to guide actions in domains ranging from scientific practices to ethical behavior. The second reason is simple: The topics of the evolution of life, of the Earth, and of the universe have intrigued humans—not just scientists—since the dawn of civilization, and have inspired tireless quests to uncover our origins and our past. The human intellectual curiosity about these subjects has been at least partially at the root of religious beliefs, of the mythical stories of creation, and of philosophical inquiries. At the same time, the more empirical, evidence-based side of this curiosity has ultimately given birth to science. The progress that humankind has made toward deciphering some of the complex processes involved in the evolution of life, the Earth, and the cosmos is nothing short of miraculous. Hard to believe, but we think that we can trace cosmic evolution back to when our universe was only a fraction of a second old. Even so, many questions remain unanswered, and the topic of evolution continues to be a hot-button issue even today.

It took me quite a while to decide which major scientists to include in this journey through deep intellectual and practical waters, but I eventually converged on the blunders of five individuals. My list of surprising “blunderers” includes the celebrated naturalist Charles Darwin; the physicist Lord Kelvin (after whom a temperature scale is named); Linus Pauling, one of the most influential chemists in history; the famous English astrophysicist and cosmologist Fred Hoyle; and Albert Einstein, who needs no introduction. In each case, I will address the central theme from two rather different—but complementary—perspectives. On one hand, this will be a book about some of the theories of these great savants and the fascinating relations among those theories, viewed in part from the unusual vantage point of their weaknesses and sometimes even failures. On the other, I will scrutinize briefly the various types of blunders and attempt to identify their psychological (or, if possible, neuroscientific) causes. As we shall see, blunders are not born equal, and the blunders of the five scientists on my list are rather different in nature. Darwin’s blunder was in not realizing the full implications of a particular hypothesis. Kelvin blundered by ignoring unforeseen possibilities. Pauling’s blunder was the result of overconfidence bred by previous success. Hoyle erred in his obstinate advocacy of dissent from mainstream science. Einstein failed because of a misguided sense of what constitutes aesthetic simplicity. The main point, however, is that along the way, we shall discover that blunders are not only inevitable but also an essential part of progress in science. The development of science is not a direct march to the truth. If not for false starts and blind alleys, scientists would be traveling for too long down too many wrong paths. The blunders described in this book have all, in one way or another, acted as catalysts for impressive breakthroughs—hence, their description as “brilliant blunders.” They served as the agents that lifted the fog through which science was progressing, in its usual succession of small steps occasionally punctuated by quantum leaps.

I have organized the book in such a way that for each scientist, I first present the essence of some of the theories for which this individual is best known. These are very concise summaries intended to provide an introduction to the ideas of these masters and an appropriate context for the blunders, rather than to represent comprehensive descriptions of the respective theories. I have also chosen to concentrate only on one major blunder in each case instead of reviewing a laundry list of every possible mistake that these pundits may have committed during their long careers.

Despite their blunders, and perhaps even because of them, the five individuals I have followed and sketched in this book have produced not just innovations within their respective sciences but also truly great intellectual creations. Unlike many scientific works that target only professionals from within the same discipline as their audience, the oeuvres of these masters have crossed the boundaries between science and general culture. The impact of their ideas has been felt far beyond their immediate significance for biology, geology, physics, or chemistry. In this sense, the work of Darwin, Kelvin, Pauling, Hoyle, and Einstein comes closer in spirit to achievements in literature, art, and music—both cut a broad swath across erudition.

There is no better way to end a book on blunders than with an important reminder—a plea for humility, if you like—that nobody can express more eloquently than Darwin:

We must, however, acknowledge, as it seems to me, that man with all his noble qualities, with sympathy which feels for the most debased, with benevolence which extends not only to other men but to the humblest living creature, with his god-like intellect which has penetrated into the movements and constitution of the solar system—with all these exalted powers—Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.