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Interview with Peter Shaver

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What was the impetus for you to research and write Cosmic Heritage?
Initially I just wanted to catch up on the ‘big picture’ provided by current scientific knowledge. I had specific questions I wanted to pursue, particularly in the life sciences. I started doing a lot of relevant reading, followed the scientific journals and attended conferences in fields that were new to me. Many scientists kindly took the time to discuss their specialities in person, over the phone or by email. I found it all extremely exciting, stimulating and rejuvenating.
To identify ‘the big questions’, I assessed the literature, and asked what are the questions to which one would most like to ‘know the answer’ (i.e. the best that current scientific knowledge can provide). The ‘big three’ were obvious – the origin of the universe, the origin of life, and consciousness. To these I eventually added a few other ‘biggish’ questions, including the evolution of cognition and the possibility of extraterrestrial life. To add some discipline to the exercise, I decided to write a book that covered all these topics in a narrative style.
What was the biggest surprise to you that you discovered while researching Cosmic Heritage?
As my career was in astrophysics, it is no wonder that the biggest surprises for me were in the life sciences. One concerned the nature of life – the fact that life is based on ‘information’ (while 98 percent of our atoms are replaced each year, it is the information, encoded in our DNA, that persists, defines us and gives us our lifelong sense of identity and continuity). And that this basis of life is common from bacteria to us – there is one single family of life.
The other surprise had to do with the counter-intuitive nature of consciousness. Is it really caused by the firing of neurons in the brain? It quickly became clear that an understanding of consciousness required some knowledge of cognition and its evolution. The fact that complex innate behaviour is based ultimately on the physical genome was relevant. The modern consensus view in science is that consciousness itself is purely a function of the material brain. It is now clear that consciousness, which had long been considered to be one of the great mysteries of science, is rapidly becoming less of a mystery as neuroscience progresses.
Is it surprising to you that in 2011 there are still arguments and disbelief in evolutionary science?
No and yes.
Arguments in any area of science are normal and healthy. They test hypotheses and lead ultimately to evidence-based conclusions of the highest standard. Vigorous debates, that are rational and based on sound reasoning and evidence, are an essential part of the scientific process. Fifty years ago the debates between the competing Big Bang and Steady State models of the universe provided an example in cosmology. The discovery and properties of the cosmic microwave background eventually gave conclusive proof in favour of the Big Bang theory, and decided the matter.
On the other hand, unwarranted disbelief in something as well confirmed as genetics is totally astonishing. One can only imagine that it reflects a passionate desire to completely and wilfully ignore the facts. Its origins presumably go back to disbelief in evolutionary science at the time of Darwin, but modern genetics confirms the evolution of life beyond question. No objective person could possibly deny what we now know about the workings of life, and the reality of the evolution of life.
The interview was conducted by Jeff Rutherford.