Thursday, 14 March 2013

How Trilobites saw the world

John O. Campbell

At lunch today with Anton, one of my Science Buddies, he enquired if I was planning to make a post in the near future. I explained that I was working on one that I had hoped would provide a ‘simple’ explanation of quantum physics but after the first eight pages I had realized that my explanation wasn’t exactly simple; thus the long hiatus.

A main contention in my attempt to simplify quantum theory is that there are large areas of reality that we were not evolved to make sense of; the classical world that we find familiar is only a tiny portion of the wider drama we are involved with. A big part of making sense of theories which explain the larger reality is merely to accept that they may not conform to the same rules as does the reality we can directly experience.

A glory of science is that it provides progressively richer context to our existence within a wondrous reality. No other form of human knowledge even comes close to providing the richness of details that science does of the exquisite drama we are immersed within.

Much of my leisure time is spent surfing science news for discoveries which extend our view of reality. Today’s news highlights emailed from the American Association for the Advancement of Science  included an article on new research concerning the visual system of trilobites. 

Trilobites, which resemble cockroaches, were the dominant form of life on earth for a couple of hundred million years starting about 500 million years ago. Although they are not our direct ancestors they are our cousins in the tree of life. A team of scientists has just learned how to discern the visual system of these fossilized creatures on a near cell by cell basis (

Trilobites had by our standards only a murky view of the world. Their visual system could probably discern only a few items of interest and could process only limited types of information into actionable items able to influence their behaviour. Trilobites were pioneers of the newly evolved faculty of vision. This faculty was a game changer as it provided the potential for a vastly expanded knowledge of the events taking place in an organism's environment. It was a new window on reality and together with the evolution of neural machinery necessary to make sense of the information, it  is a direct ancestor of humanity's lofty abilities to understand reality.

The new insight provided by this research involves details of the lenses, pigments and neural cells of this visual system.Trilobites’ saw the world with a compound eye having a similar design to that of many of today’s insects. In itself this particular insight may not be world shaking but we can well marvel at the tremendous privilege we enjoy of having the details of reality which have evolved over the dimension of time since the beginning of the universe brought more clearly into focus.