Review by Daniel McCormick
It has been said that there is non-overlapping magisteria confining the world of scientific inquiry outside the the realm of “human purposes, meanings, and values.” (Stephen J. Gould) John Keats once said science presents a “cold philosophy” with a “dull catalogue of common things” that reduces life to terms insufficient to the subjective needs of man. Upon this assertion they then heap arguments of moral relativism, theology, and social revision which are based on their personal feelings and beliefs. This is common for religious or political figures but one also encounters this thinking in artists as well. In conversation one can easily find an artist prattling on about how x-piece speaks to man’s soul, or how true beauty lies in one’s personal interpretation, and that judgement is merely a subjective experience, that art itself communicates on levels that can not be directly observed or defined. All manner of feeble logic can you encounter, yet there is at heart a mirroring of intention. What they attempt is to self insulate from reproach, to self aggrandize through idealizing, and to manipulate your willingness to believe comforting thoughts. Because, to them, empirical definitions inundate the mind with a materialist philosophy that somehow cuts out the beauty from the universe around them. They say life is “too mad for mere material chains to bind” (Alexander Pope), and that “knowledge is not happiness, and science but an exchange of ignorance for that which is another kind of ignorance.”(Lord Byron)
There is a fundamental flaw in this anti-science rhetoric which stems from its untenable premise: that methods of inquiry lessen the artistic value of a ‘thing’. My view is much different; when I understand something (a process, an object, etc.) it allows me to observe with keener insight the object as it actually is. For instance, I am no less able to appreciate viewing the sky because I understand that the color I see is the result of lightwaves interacting with molecules, that these molecules are held in the atmosphere by gravity, that what I am seeing is the projection of the information my senses feed my mind, and that my mind and my senses are a direct result of millions of years of evolving characteristics. Like Darwin himself, I believe “there is grandeur in this view.” There is magnificence in grasping the chain of events, that all complexity today is directly a result of the low entropy state of the Big Bang some fourteen billion years ago, or that all life today is a direct descendant from a common ancestor that happened to have evolved billions of years ago on this watery green rock.
Of the untold bounty of scientific progress there are a few ideas more open to criticism than others but none seem as targeted as evolution. This theme of biological descent with modification and/or natural selection is an important idea, so important in fact that it is to our benefit to communicate this effectively, because its importance draws in so much unsubstantiated criticism. In other words, it is an imperative to communicate the theory and evidence effectively so as to combat its antagonists who are ever reproaching science and the philosophy of inquiry for some perceived wrong it has done them, or their group. Because of this constant willingness to attack empiricism, it usually falls to the popularizers of science to keep public opinion from drifting over the precipice and into the cult of the faithful and superstitious. It also becomes an imperative to demonstrate that works of art are in no way diminished by focusing on scientific research.
From this perspective I find myself listening to the eighth full length album from Finnish power metal band Nightwish. Endless Forms Most Beautiful focuses on artistically communicating the understanding of science in a very easily approached manner. Musically, this is what I have come to expect from Nightwish: a sound that is overly popular with a power metal base that drifts between heavy metal, hard rock, and light classical influences. Female vocals drive the bulk of the music, and the structural variations add a bit to what may otherwise falls into the formulaic. The performances are all flawless, over produced, and nearing the mechanical with over the top choruses, strings, keys, acoustic guitars, etc. You could simply say the album is extraordinarily inoffensive, mainstream, and essentially a work of metal music accessible to all ages, and potentially those not traditionally in the category of metal enthusiast.
What makes this interesting is the underlying premise carried through out the album. You can derive it from the album title which is itself a fragment from the ending chapter of The Origin of Species:
“There is grandeur in this view of life, …whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.” – Charles Darwin
The work is presented in a layman, artistic, fashion but emphasizes many specific ideas underlying the theory of evolution. This is furthered by the addition of narrations from Professor Richard Dawkins which includes the rather famous beginning passage of Dawkins’ own book, Unweaving the Rainbow. The sung lyrics may bear at times an odd nonlinear sappiness, a positivist’s perspective on the war of nature, but they also paraphrase words from scientists like Carl Sagan, Richard Feynman, and Stephen Hawking. While the general theme may be summarized as awe the presenting of this includes the happenstance of self replication, the scale of space time in which we exist, the chance of beneficial mutations, etc. Hefty complex subjects which are admittedly not delved into with expert authority, but presented in a way which will hopefully draw some scientifically illiterate person to partake the grand art of autodidacticism.
Collectively, there are issues to be taken with this method of communication, at least if you’re a die hard metal enthusiast like me, but as an expression bent on the popularizing of science I can see where this album has value. It in no way replaces the dozens of books I have on the subject, but it does build from and give insight into the substance of the information. The greatest show on Earth may well be the greatest show in the universe, and we know the party doesn’t go on forever so I urge you to make good use of what little time you have to expand your understanding and to appreciate things for what they offer to more than just yourself.
“We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones.”