Thursday, May 26, 2011

To Adam and Back with Occam's Razor

Down in the arid coastal deserts of Peru between the towns of Nasca and Palpa, the ancient Nasca Indians constructed a huge complex of intricate figures in the desert. The images, stretching over 50 miles, were made my removing the reddish-brown iron oxide coated pebbles that cover the surface thereby showing the lighter colored earth beneath. Early theories included claims that the lines were runways of an ancient airfield that was used by extraterrestrials mistaken by the natives to be their gods. Other theories claimed that the lines were a complex method of calculating star declinations. My interest in the lines began with the book, Däniken, Erich von. Chariots of the Gods?: Unsolved Mysteries of the Past. New York: Putnam, 1970.

Subsequent archaeological investigations in the area dated the lines to between 400 and 650 AD. Even among the scholars, particularly those from the United States, theories abounded with connections to solar and stellar events. During the flurry of theories about the lines, apparently no one bothered to ask the local inhabitants what they knew about the lines. Finally, in about 1985 European archaeologists did some ethnographic studies and heard the local versions of the reasons for the lines. Despite the fact that similar geoglyphs exist in other parts of the world, even here in my own state of Arizona, the fantastic theories of the lines origin continue to dominate both the popular culture and the academic world.

In 1639 John Ponce from Cork, Ireland wrote the most popular version of Occam's Razor, Numquam ponenda est pluralitas sine necessitate, “Plurality must never be posited without necessity." Although this statement is commonly and inaccurately summarized as "the simplest explanation is most likely the correct one" (See Wikipedia) essentially the statement means that we should tend towards simpler theories. (The "Razor" part of the name is a mistranslation of the German word messer or knife in English). The idea is that we cut through or shave away unnecessary assumptions. If you would like to read Occam's book, Summa Totius Logicae, it is on Google Books, see Summa totius Logicae By Guilelmus de Ockham

The principle of Occam's Razor certainly applies to the fantastic theories propounded in conjunction with the Nasca lines. But as genealogists, we are subject to similar fantastic theories and unsupported assumptions. One of these theories that keeps poking its head into our world is that of the creation of the world in 4000 B.C. How does that theory impact genealogists? Simple. Those early pedigrees that purport to provide a pedigree line "Back to Adam" are all based on the presumption that Adam lived in approximately 4000 B.C. This particular theory is complicated by its obvious religious connotations and involvement with the controversy between Evolutionists and Creationists.

What do Nasca lines and Occam's Razor have to do with genealogy? Bear with me and I will explain in detail, although it might take me a few posts to do so.

The lesson from the Nasca lines is that the easiest way to discover the best possible information is to go to the source or in other words, if you want to know what is going on in the neighborhood, ask your neighbors. None of the fantastically contrived theories about the origin of the lines took into account what the locals knew about their origin and purpose. Positing alien intervention for a purely local and explainable phenomenon is a gross violation of the principle that we should tend towards simpler theories. Extending a pedigree line back to Adam invites the inclusion of the same kinds of fantastic theories.

I will keep going on this in the next installment and I will get around to talking about Bishop Ussher.

1 comment:

  1. A good definition of Occam's Razor is at