When I was a grad student, I had romantic notions about how knowledge was gained, how science was done and how democracy worked. Little by little, those notions have changed.
One blow came when I was doing field work at a 19-million-year-old fossil site in Africa. This wonderful site had six different species of fossil hominoids all living in the same place at the same time. It had been declared a national monument, and yet the shoestring budget couldn’t muster the funds to bring all the fossils back to the museum. Many had to be left to erode into dust, along with all the knowledge they could have offered.
I had the notion that scientific investigation was always well planned-out, with reasonably clear and specific expectations for how knowledge would advance. This view was challenged when my adviser at Yale explained how a crucial discovery in human evolution actually came about. They were in the field in Africa, he said, and they were really bored. No one had found much of anything and it was too hot to breathe anyway. The only thing they kept finding were piles and piles of fresh elephant dung. It’s not clear how it got started, but at some point somebody chucked a handful of elephant dung at someone, and pretty soon they were in the middle of an elephant dung slinging contest. At one point, he hit the deck to avoid getting plastered, and right in front of his eyes was a fossilized footprint. The dung-slinging escapade led to the discovery of a trail of 3 million-year-old footprints made by three individuals of the same species as the fossil hominid Lucy. Three million years ago, a volcano had erupted, and before the ashfall had hardened, these three had crossed the tuff. Two of the individuals were walking together, and the third, a tiny child, was stepping into the footprints of one of the adults. This wonderful find was the result of serendipitous elephant dung.
That’s not exactly how I thought science worked. But it turns out that gaining knowledge and doing science is a messy business, impinged on by all sorts of prosaic issues like funding and elephant dung. And I’ve come to love seeing how embedded science is in the rest of human endeavor. I’ve learned to value such stories as going to the heart of science as a very creative and very human enterprise.
But what about democracy? What about the noble Constitution? I used to think the US Constitution was fixed, an absolute guarantee of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press in this country. The past five years have shown me that the Constitution is valuable only insofar as people are willing to stand up for the rights it protects. Our freedoms are guaranteed only as long as ordinary, everyday people are willing to claim them–indeed, to insist on them.