By now it’s likely that most of you have received a cutesy chain-letter e-mail about a philosophy professor, a jar, and some golf balls (I even heard it recited in a college course at one time). While the story is easily accessible and gives the impression of being deep (a sure-fire hit for chain-letter happy coworkers and friends), it actually evolved from a strikingly similar story used by Thomas Henry Huxley to describe the “filling of the earth” with life! While the credit for the contemporary story seems to go to Laura Bankston, I can’t help but wonder if this is a case of convergent evolution, co-option, or something else. What tipped me off to this discovery is the following passage in George Gaylord Simpson’s The Meaning of Evolution (3rd ed., 1950);
Yet if you look with speculative eye at the unknown age when life was just beginning, the Cambrian age of life already represents an increase which throws into shade the increase from Cambrian to Recent. Credit is given to Thomas Henry Huxley for an analogy for the filling of the earth with life. He likens it to the filling of a barrel with apples until they heap over the brim. Still there is space into which quantities of pebbles fit before they overflow. Again sand is added, and much of it packs down between the apples and the pebbles. The barrel is not yet full and quarts of water may be poured in before at last the barrel can hold no more.
Unfortunately, Simpson does not cite his source for this story and an internet search has so far yielded nothing. Regardless, I don’t think Simpson would have made such a reference up, and even if mistaken the similarities between the inspirational story and the evolutionary story are striking to say the least. If Huxley’s analogy is so obscure it’s likely that Bankston came up with a similar idea on her own, but I would still very much like to track down Huxley’s original statements (if they even exist in the printed medium), as it gives a wonderful counter to all the people who seem to think that I’ve become so uninspired as to need another copy of Bankston’s story sent to me.