The Calvin and Hobbes Approach

He had an excellent reason for declining to answer the question: 19th cen- tury science had not progressed to the point where the matter could even be approached. The question of how the eye works—that is, what happens when a photon of light first impinges on the retina—simply could not be an- swered at that time. As a matter of fact, no question about the underlying mechanism of life could be answered at that time. How do animal muscles cause movement? How does photosynthesis work? How is energy extracted from food? How does the body fight infection? All such questions were unanswerable.

Now, it appears to be a characteristic of the human mind that when it lacks understanding of a process, then it seems easy to imagine simple steps lead- ing from nonfunction to function. A happy example of this is seen in the popular comic strip Calvin and Hobbes. Little boy Calvin is always having ad- ventures in the company of his tiger Hobbes by jumping in a box and travel- ing back in time, or grabbing a toy ray gun and “transmogrifying” himself into various animal shapes, or again using a box as a duplicator and making copies of himself to deal with worldly powers such as his mom and his teachers. A small child such as Calvin finds it easy to imagine that a box just might be able to fly like an airplane (or something), because Calvin doesn’t know how airplanes work.

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A good example from the biological world of complex changes appearing to be simple is the belief in spontaneous generation. One of the chief propo- nents of the theory of spontaneous generation during the middle of the 19th century was Ernst Haeckel, a great admirer of Darwin and an eager popu- larizer of Darwin’s theory. From the limited view of cells that 19th century microscopes provided, Haeckel believed that a cell was a “simple little lump of albuminous combination of carbon,” not much different from a piece of microscopic Jell-O. Thus it seemed to Haeckel that such simple life could easily be produced from inanimate material.

In 1859, the year of the publication of The Origin of Species, an exploratory vessel, the H.M.S. Cyclops, dredged up some curious-looking mud from the sea bottom. Eventually Haeckel came to observe the mud and thought that it closely resembled some cells he had seen under a microscope. Excitedly he brought this to the attention of no less a personage than Thomas Henry Huxley, Darwin’s great friend and defender, who observed the mud for him- self. Huxley, too, became convinced that it was Urschleim (that is, proto- plasm), the progenitor of life itself, and Huxley named the mud Bathybius haeckelii after the eminent proponent of abiogenesis.


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