"Darwin's Hawk Moth (Xanthopan morganii praedicta)" by Bernard Dupont / CC BY-SA 2.0

The Orchid and the Moth | Why Scientists Are the True Prophets

October 8, 2020

In 1862, Charles Darwin received a sample of orchids from Madagascar. Among them, he noticed, was a flower with an unusually long nectary, the orchid’s nectar-producing gland. At nearly a foot in length, this would keep the nectar from any known insect looking to partake. It got Darwin wondering.

Days later, Darwin made a prediction: In Madagascar, there must be moths with tongues long enough to feed on that flower. Through his knowledge of evolution and ecology, he knew that the orchid and this moth must have co-evolved—but no one had ever seen the moth.

Twenty years after Darwin’s death, the moth was discovered. In 1992, it was photographed feeding on that unusual orchid, confirming Darwin’s hypothesis more than a century after he proposed it.

In his honor, the moth was named Xanthopan morganii praedicta—the moth that was predicted.

Prophecy is as old as we are. Our myths dating back millennia have been replete with prophetic visions and theories about the natural world. Many believers argue that their holy books contain a multitude of fulfilled prophecies. Given how those books were composed and compiled through the centuries, however, it’s difficult not to suspect some hindsight bias has crept in here and there.

Postdiction aside, many biblical prophecies simply did not come to pass at all. Jesus himself was an apocalypticist, and many of his gospel quotations preached an imminent end of the world:

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in this good news.” (Mark 1:15)

“Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.” (Mark 13:30)

“When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.” (Matthew 10:23)

As even the most devout among us have surely noticed, the world didn’t end. It is usually upon making this point that metaphor and poetry begin conveniently working their way into the Good Word. Cloak Jesus’s speech in symbolism, tweak the definition of “generation,” and you’ve granted yourself unlimited wiggle room for unsubstantiated prophecy.

Believers can’t even get their scoreboards straight between them. The Abrahamic religions, for instance, share a number of prophets but disagree on which prophecies have come to pass. Jews are still waiting on their messiah, while Christians and Muslims are keeping an eye out for Jesus’s second round. Meanwhile, from Simon Magnus in the first-century Near East to Alan John Miller in present-day Australia, the line of messianic claimants gets longer every year—all with little fanfare from the big three faiths. Given the facts on the ground, I can’t blame them.

The medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides delved deeply into the nature and function of prophecy, dedicating seventeen chapters of his Guide for the Perplexed to its examination. In it, he wrote:

The spirit of prophecy only rests upon the wise man who is distinguished by great wisdom and strong moral character, whose passions never overcome him in anything whatsoever, but who by his rational faculty always has his passions under control, and possesses a broad and sedate mind.

He is unlikely to have intended it, but Maimonides couldn’t have written a more scathing rebuke of traditional, faith-based prophets if he tried. To my ear, his description is far more befitting of modern scientists such as Darwin, who despite being a man of faith engaged his study of the world with a rational mind and scrupulous scientific rigor. 

In another passage, Maimonides describes prophecy as “an emanation sent forth by the Divine Being through the medium of the Active Intellect, in the first instance to man’s rational faculty, and then to his imaginative faculty.” Substituting the wonders of the universe for this “Divine Being,” what better description could we compose of the scientific method and the way imagination fuels our desire to explore the natural world?

Scientists are our true prophets. Their hypotheses are real prophecies. By understanding and harnessing the laws of nature, scientists unlock the secrets of the universe for us, one carefully reasoned revelation at a time.

In 1868, James Clark Maxwell published four equations that not only predicted the existence of an electromagnetic spectrum, X-rays, gamma rays, and radio waves—they also laid the groundwork for Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity. In 1916, as he crafted his famous theory, Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves—invisible ripples in space-time caused by massive cosmic events—nearly a century before we had the technology to measure them. In 1964, Peter Higgs proposed a theoretical field responsible for giving particles mass and the existence of an elementary particle implied by that field. Nearly fifty years later, in 2012, CERN’s large hadron collider detected the particle—honorifically named the Higgs boson.

That is true prophecy. No hindsight bias, no metaphors, no appeals to nonsense. Only predictions about the workings of the cosmos, proven true when our knowledge catches up to the brilliant minds that foretold them. No bronze age vagaries or hackneyed holy scriptures could hope to compare.

We live in a world of wonders, foreseen only by our greatest scientific prophets. It’s easy to forget that. Scientists reveal such wonders, so often, that we can lose sight of how truly monumental their discoveries are. Arthur C. Clarke famously noted that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Similarly, I’d argue that any sufficiently ubiquitous magic is indistinguishable from the mundane. We would do well to stop every now and then, look around at our ever-expanding breadth of knowledge, and revel in all that’s been revealed.

Let’s just make sure to save a little awe for the revelations yet to come.