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Beyond Animal, Ego and Time: Chap 7 – An Evolutionary Imperative, Chap 8 – Life’s Optional Future, Chap 9 – A Positive Life Experience

Posted on 13 March 2013 by admin

I’ve decided to serialize my book on this website.  As an incentive to readers to return to the site, each month I will post at least one Chapter of the book until the entire book is posted.  Go into the Archives to “Beyond Animal” for earlier chapters.  The book provides context for the blog, clearly explaining the underlying philosophy and identifying critical issues of our time. I believe that Chapter 8 is a pivotal chapter which sets the stage for the remainder of the book.

CHAPTER 7 

An Evolutionary Imperative

Scientists have identified the human brain’s highly developed right prefrontal cortex as potentially responsible for self awareness, empathic emotion, and significant contribution to conscious thought and decision making. These attributes are among the most highly evolved of life. While apparently a result of the brain’s physical evolution, intellect, which includes thought, knowledge, and consciousness, has its own path of development. Intellect also informs emotion contributing to a third area of further evolution. It has led to a higher order of emotions beyond the primitive feelings of fear and aggression. Higher states of emotion include insight into shared circumstance (empathy), recognition of vulnerability to negative events (sympathy), and optimism about future outcomes (hope).

To understand the future potential of life we must look at evolution as the most powerful process guiding its development. Anticipation of future advancements may help us recognize when they occur and position us to contribute to their development. We must admit, however, that we may not be aware of them when we experience them.

For example, the rest of the animal kingdom cannot perceive our development of self awareness nor understand how different it makes us. Consider how recent it was that we learned other animals are also self aware. This should cause us to pause when we encounter life behaviors or characteristics we have never seen before. Since we consider ourselves at the pinnacle of evolution our understanding may be key to future progress. For these reasons we will look further at physical, intellectual, and emotional evolution.

There are at least three forces influencing the progress of physical evolution. The first is random mutation and resulting genetic modification. This occurs when alteration of a DNA sequence results from errors during replication or repair of DNA. Other changes take place through recombination of DNA sequences as a natural result of cell division. They often have no apparent effect until an environmental event selects and favors the change. Even small genetic alterations can have significant impact because they can exist over long periods of time and combine with other unseen mutations until environmental change makes their effect and existence apparent.

The second force shaping evolution is selective breeding. There is an inherent genetic and biological drive within animal species to select breeding mates that exhibit preferred characteristics. This mate selection is based on factors generally specific to the species such as physical stature, dominance, and plumage. Well documented in the animal kingdom, this behavior is also apparent within humans. Mate selection within human kind has a wider set of criteria which can include intelligence, personality, or can be the result from the often inexplicable emotion defined as love. Beyond selective breeding within species, we have practiced selective breeding of agricultural crops, livestock, and pets for centuries. We have done this to produce characteristics we value.

The third force impacting physical evolution came into existence within the last fifty years. This is the human science of genetics, more specifically genetic engineering and its successor synthetic biology. The tools are now in place to alter the genetic code of any life form at will by using the largely cut and paste technology of genetic engineering. This science has led to a multi-billion dollar, worldwide industry seeking to profit from conscious human alteration of the genetic code of numerous existing life forms and new alien life forms it seeks to create.

Random mutations, selective breeding and thoughtful genetic engineering will undoubtedly prove beneficial in a changing environment. To have the widest possibility of beneficial change, broad diversity of species is desirable. When confronting the impending extinction of a living species, most people only consider the utility of the species to human beings. This is a shortsighted view. In the history of life there have been species other than Homo sapiens that have been the dominant life forms of their time. While ours is a privileged present position, evolution and changing circumstance may favor another. Only the right choices and actions will secure our continued leadership of life.

To put human life in perspective, science considers the age of Earth to be about 4.5 billion years. Life is thought to have come into existence some 3.5 billion years ago. The Homo genus or branch of life leading to Homo sapiens is believed to have begun 1.5 to 2.5 million years ago with modern humans first appearing around 200,000 to 300,000 years ago. While we egotistically assume our position as dominant species will continue indefinitely, such may not be the case. It is generally thought we can survive catastrophes that have befallen previous dominant life forms. We may not be able to survive our own actions. As the preeminent species of conscious decision making we may make a disastrously wrong decision, wait too long to correct a bad decision or just fail to decide to do the things necessary to insure survival.

As it has been in the past so it may be in the future. We do not know if there will be a future ascendency of another life form as the dominant species. Not knowing what life must do to insure its survival, we should view all species within the collective gene pool as potential contributors to the future sustainability of life. When we balance the value of our actions to preserve a species from extinction against the costs of doing so, we must consider that any loss of diversity will diminish the possibility that life will survive.

A note of caution, diversity as a result of natural processes has been tested and refined over billions of years by natural selection. As will be discussed in Chapter 13 on synthetic biology, entrepreneurs now have the ability to bypass the protections offered by the slow and steady process of natural selection. They have the ambition, if not the present ability, to create entirely alien life forms that would never and could never evolve naturally on our planet. Our knowledge of the potential risks is so limited and their possible effects so extreme, it may be doubtful this diversity is desirable.

The second domain of evolution is intellect or advances in human thought in all of its various forms. Intellect is one of evolution’s greatest outcomes. With intellect has come the ability to reason or the power of comprehension, inference, or thought especially in orderly rational ways. With reason has come science and the knowledge humanity now possesses. If we accept Pavlov’s view that curiosity is instinctive, curiosity coupled with human intellect has produced all of our scientific breakthroughs. Breakthroughs have been the result of this burgeoning intellect and knowledge base. They give humans extraordinary control over their environment. They also extend their life spans and lessen human suffering.

The power and progress of human thought has been discussed by countless philosophers. Descartes who spoke of it as a proof of existence itself asserted “I think, therefore I am.” Hegel with his theory of the dialectic cited a thesis giving rise to its own antithesis and an ultimate synthesis as the way thought advances.

With the evolution of intellect has come abstraction or the ability to see a quality apart from an object. This has led us to define and classify categories that only have existence in thought. An example is the consciousness of self. It gave us recognition of our own existence and the concept of “I”. With intellect, this consciousness has been raised to progressively higher orders of thought. From “I” came recognition of “We” as the individual perceived the connectedness and relatedness of other human beings and life forms. This progressive abstraction of relatedness brought concepts of nation, race, species and the aggregation we call life itself. These successive levels of consciousness represent the best evolutionary progress of intellect.

The greatest advance of human thought occurs when it rises to the highest levels of abstraction. This level of abstraction is most productive in reaching for the greatest truth and common good. It was from the higher states of consciousness that founding fathers of the United States wrote the Declaration of Independence. The thoughts and phrases, “all men are created equal” and “unalienable Rights” and “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” continue to have profound effect beyond their nation of origin. From an equal level of abstraction, that of a “Community of nations” came a movement to create the United Nations.

The ability to abstract an idealized state to which we can direct our action is one of our most advanced intellectual capabilities. These are examples of the power of thought to shape the destiny and future of humanity. Others could be identified from the systems of thought developed and refined in the fields of science, philosophy, and religion. This evolution is as important as the physical evolution with which we are most familiar. This intellectual evolution will undoubtedly produce more knowledge, more insights, and higher levels of consciousness. As stated at the outset of this book, we have learned that greater knowledge and understanding increase our ability to shape and impact our surroundings to better support our lives. As it is true for our individual and collective lives, so it is also true for all of life.

As observed, intellect informs emotion which has led to a higher order of emotions beyond primitive feelings such as anger and fear. Higher states of emotion include those based on insight into shared circumstance (empathy), recognition of another’s vulnerability (sympathy), and optimism or pessimism about future outcomes (hope or despair). Anyone who has experienced pride at a significant human accomplishment such as our landing on the moon or whose eyes have welled with tears at a wedding or marveled at the sheer beauty of classical music has experienced a higher order emotion. Anyone who has donated to disaster relief in response to catastrophic human hardship or has administered first aid at the site of an accident or has affirmed a relationship “until death do us part” knows the force of a higher order of emotion to commit us to action.

Emotion is the third path of evolutionary development. The behaviors it elicits have long been a source of controversy amongst philosophers and scientists. It has been much maligned, as intellect and its byproduct, reason, have been elevated as the ultimate human capability. Emotion has often been referenced as primitive, inferior, unreliable and something that must be conquered and controlled by reason. Most often viewed as separate capabilities, much research has been devoted to reason and emotion attempting to identify and pinpoint specific sites or regions of the brain responsible for each.

Research involving neurological patients whose social behavior had been altered by various types of brain damage has shown processes in the brain and throughout the body are more complex and interdependent than once believed. It indicates consciousness, decision making and emotion are intertwined.

One significant proponent of this view is Antonio Damasio, the M.W. Van Allen Professor and head of Neurology at the University of Iowa. In his book Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, he observes that brain damaged patients who are unable to process emotion also suffer impairment of their ability to make rational decisions about everyday problems.56 While reasoning and logic skills are shown when patients identify alternatives to be considered in decision making, their ability to resolve an analysis and decide is impaired. Damasio attributes this impairment to the lack of emotional evaluations that provide crucial input to decision-making.

“I propose that human reason depends on several brain systems, working in concert across many levels of neuronal organization, rather than on a single brain center. Both ‘high level’ and ‘low-level’ brain regions, from the prefrontal cortices to the hypothalamus and brain stem, cooperate in the making of reason. The lower levels in the neural edifice of reason are the same ones that regulate the processing of emotions and feelings, along with the body functions necessary for an organism’s survival. In turn, these lower levels maintain direct and mutual relationships with virtually every bodily organ, thus placing the body directly within the chain of operations that generate the highest reaches of reasoning, decision making, and, by extension, social behavior and creativity. Emotion, feeling, and biological regulation all play a role in human reason.”57

Further support for this view is provided by research in cognitive neuroscience, an interdisciplinary approach to investigating the nature of thought, which has increased our understanding of the interaction of various parts of the brain to produce an emotional experience. Joseph LeDoux at the Center for the Neuroscience of Fear and Anxiety at New York University, in The Emotional Brain cites the interaction of subcortical structures, the amygdala, hypothalamus and brainstem, and the cingulated cortex and the prefrontal cortex as the source of an emotional experience.58 These parts of the brain work in concert for example to enable us to feel fear when we see a stranger approaching in a dark alley. Involvement of the cerebral cortex enables us to recall similar circumstances in the past and recognize the danger in the present. Based on our memory of bad past experience, our sub-cortical structures enable us to reflexively experience an increased heart rate, tensing of our muscles and perspiration.

A fundamental question about emotions has been their origin. Are they innate and somehow hardwired as a result of evolution or are they taught and a product of the cultural environment? If a product of evolution and hardwired in the human being, they should be universal across the human species irrespective of culture, language or ethnic background. Paul Ekman, a noted clinical psychologist, focused on observable facial expression looking for commonality across widely diverse cultures.59 His research documents distinctive universal facial expressions for a small list of basic emotions: anger, fear, disgust, sadness, and enjoyment. The research results are somewhat less clear for other emotions such as contempt, surprise, and interest.

Ekman observes this list of “universal” emotions is far shorter than lists most theorists identify and is a much smaller number than the various words that describe different emotions. This suggests that beyond basic emotions resulting from evolution, a different phenomenon is taking place to account for the other emotions human beings report they experience. He speculates there may be emotions not related to specific facial expressions or that grouping emotions into families may offer an explanation or that a number of emotions share one facial expression. It seems likely there may be another explanation, that where physical evolution leaves off, intellect, experience and memory take over.

These findings suggest a small number of evolved emotions serve as a foundation for an intellectual, emotional, and experiential feedback loop that expands the variety of our emotions. It defines a common emotional platform within each human being. We can conceive of coequal intellectual and emotional contexts for each of our experiences that we commit to memory as we live our lives.

An example will serve to illustrate this. As a father runs beside a bicycle, he holds the handle bars and seat steady during his daughter’s first bike riding experience. Sensing the child is ready, he pushes off launching her on her own. At this moment she takes control of forward motion as all of her faculties concentrate on maintaining balance. Her intellect is engaged as she concentrates on the actions she is performing. Her major physical sensory systems record her instinctive reactions as she steers, pedals and maintains her balance. Her emotions surge with her simultaneous fear of falling and thrill of accomplishment. After the initial awkward and scary moments she proceeds to ride around the parking lot for awhile as her dad says “I knew you could do it” congratulating her on the accomplishment. Fear gives way to happiness as the child experiences pride.

There are intellectual, emotional and sensory memories created by this experience. The point of the example is that multiple dimensions of every experience are committed to memory and exist for future recall and use.60As we gain knowledge and further insight, we refine memories creating additional layers of nuanced information and emotion for future recall.

Damasio sees intuition as a sort of shorthand memory of past circumstances. He writes, “Emotion had a role to play in intuition, the sort of rapid cognitive process in which we come to a particular conclusion without being aware of all the intermediate logical steps. It is not necessarily the case that the knowledge of the intermediate steps is absent, only that emotion delivers the conclusion so directly and rapidly that not much knowledge need come to mind.”

He further observes “that the quality of one’s intuition depends on how well we have reasoned in the past; on how well we have classified the events of our past experience in relation to the emotions that preceded and followed them; and also on how well we have reflected on the successes and failures of our past intuitions. Intuition is simply rapid cognition with the required knowledge partially swept under the carpet, all courtesy of emotion and much past practice.”61

When we began this discussion we stated that intellect informs emotion. Our self awareness and ability to project how we would feel if circumstance that happened to another happened to us creates feelings of empathy and/or sympathy for another. At the core of this emotional reaction, which does not appear in Ekman’s universal emotions, is the intellectual recognition that human beings share similar circumstances. While it can be argued empathy and sympathy may be an extension of sadness, the sadness is informed by intellect to represent a higher state of emotion.

Emotions play an integral role in our lives. They have enhanced survival as we have evolved. They are inseparable from experience, intellect, and decision making. They moderate our behavior as they affect our decision making. As our intellect, knowledge, and consciousness evolve so do our emotions. Much of what we know is learned. This is also true of what we feel. Just as the parent congratulated the child on the accomplishment, the parent taught the child to feel pride. We are not as conscious of the need to teach children to experience higher emotions and yet they are as crucial to our continued evolution as the higher states of intellect that enable them.

When exploring human uniqueness we observed our ability to learn vicariously without personal experience is a key human attribute. Experience of art in all its forms contributes to the emotional development of children. Story telling by the written word or in movies provides a vicarious way to experience emotion. It can convey insights that inform emotions and can trigger feeling an emotion not felt before. The beauty of art and music can lift the spirit and raise emotional consciousness.

Parents must recognize that while art can move emotion forward, it can also create regression to more primitive emotional states. While the beauty of art should be sought, gratuitous vicarious violence on television and in movies can move anyone’s emotions to a lower evolutionary level. If a child sees violence, it must be understood through a parent’s lens of interpretation and explanation.

Above all, we must look for evolutionary progress because it can originate anywhere and from anyone. Evolution after all is blind to the humble origins of a patent clerk who conceived of E=MC2, to the physical infirmity of a Cambridge astrophysicist who enlightened us about black holes and the universe, and to the sexual orientation of a musician who moved the emotions of 33 million people bringing us the biggest selling song in history, Candle in the Wind. We cannot predict the origin of future breakthroughs or who will be responsible. For this reason we must help others achieve their full potential and be open to their contributions to future progress.

CHAPTER 8 

Life’s Optional Future

Life and its evolution are extraordinary. Up to now we have spent considerable time identifying basic assumptions to be used in the foundation of our new cosmological perspective. Our investigation of the physics of the universe, life, human uniqueness, and evolution will help us reintegrate our knowledge with our beliefs. We can now draw on these basic assumptions and speculate about future possibilities, as we build the next tier of our belief system.

To do this we must move our focus from knowledge to belief and from what has occurred in the past to what is possible in the future. We advance from the more certain to the hypothetical. As with the articulation of any hypothesis, we define an area of future study posing a new question that once asked launches new investigation.

While all knowledge is based on belief, its categorization as knowledge implies a higher justification,62 such as verification through repeated experimentation or corroborated occurrence as reported by multiple observers. For this reason, knowledge has a higher standing than belief which has not necessarily passed all of the tests to which knowledge has been subjected. A belief is more of a hypothesis. While it may be highly supported by logic, reason, and experience, it does not have the same force and credibility as knowledge.

Similarly, documented events that are known to have occurred in the past have a higher level of certainty than those that are predicted to occur in the future even if they are highly probable. While multiple observers can disagree on the description of a past event because of different perspectives or interpretations, the event is still more certain than that which has not yet happened.

Our objective is not to diminish the value of beliefs or possible future events but merely to recognize the transitions we are making. Beliefs are after all often a precursor of knowledge. We previously identified that new knowledge is frequently the answer to a question that has not been asked before or has been posed but not answered over the centuries. When acknowledging the possibility of a future occurrence we stimulate the human consciousness to think about the possible future event and how it might be accomplished. This in turn is often the first step toward realization. Without the belief that human beings could someday fly and the act of imagining that future possibility, there would have been no airlines to dramatically shorten travel to any place on Earth. In this way beliefs and future possibilities are inextricably tied to human progress.

As we work to construct new hypotheses, our tentative conclusions should seek to be logically consistent and answer basic questions of the meaning of life and human purpose. As we attempt to project known physical processes forward in time, we explore possible future states that challenge our sense of normalcy, increase our intrigue with that which is not known, and stimulate our imagination. We must look for inspiration and an individual vision that provides motivation to sustain a new direction.

To borrow a thought from an old riddle, if two galaxies collide and there is no astronomer or physicist to perceive the collision, is it really happening? Scientifically the answer is yes, the galaxies still collide. If there is no life to perceive it however, there is no awe, no majesty, no wonder, no appreciation or interpretation of the event. Beyond life and its animation, we bring meaning and feeling to an inanimate universe.

This is why we are moved emotionally in the classic movie Blade Runner when the Rutger Hauer character, Roy Batty, the combat model and leader of the renegade Nexus 6 Replicants, is dying after having saved Rick Deckard, Harrison Ford, from falling from the roof of a building. “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I’ve watched C beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.” He accepts his fate with a sad smile and his final line, “Time to die”. Without his witness, experience, and interpretation of those events, they have no meaning. Beyond this movie character, it is our life and witness that brings quantitative and qualitative richness and gives meaning to all that surrounds us.

What if Roy’s memories are not lost with his death? What if his memories, and ours for that matter, are indelible, permanently etched on life’s matter so they can be recalled after death when Roy’s and our matter is once again reintegrated into a living system?

To reiterate briefly, we know life’s matter has memory at the person and organism level. The trillions of cells composing each of us have knowledge of us. This cellular knowledge includes the estimated 20,000 individual genes that account for what the Human Genome Project identified as over three billion base pairs.

Beyond genetic information, we remember the knowledge we’ve learned and our experiences because they are stored or encoded somehow on the matter within us. This includes the thousands of faces and places we remember for many years in our lifetime. Sometimes when people cannot remember the details of a past event hypnosis is used to help them recall those details. This is because the memory is there but is blocked from immediate recall.

We are uncertain about the mechanisms that create memory and how our memory is encoded. We also do not know what levels or layers of our matter participate in the storing of this information. It is generally accepted that memory takes place at the cellular and molecular levels and involves neuron cells which are specialized to pass signals to other cells through chemical and/or electrical synapses or specialized connections between those cells. Both the pre-synaptic and postsynaptic sites contain extensive molecular structure that link the two cellular membranes together and carry out the signaling process.

We know memories are encoded at the cellular and molecular levels in the body. We cannot see individual atoms because they are thousands of times smaller than the light waves we can see using our eyes. Even though we can’t see them, with a scanning tunneling microscope we can use an extremely sensitive probe to feel around the outside of solid materials and perceive the bumps that are made by the individual atoms. Computer imaging software can turn these bumps into an image representing the surface of the solid and individual atoms lying there and the patterns they form. Since we cannot see them however, we do not know if and how atoms and/or particles participate in storing our experiences.

It is not reasonable to assume that because we lack the tools for perception at the atomic and particle levels that no storage of memory takes place there. It is reasonable to assume the encoding of memories occurs at the smallest levels of matter in the body and that as with the hologram, the equivalent of interference patterns are etched on atoms and particles. We assume therefore that memory occurs at all manifestation levels of matter; cellular, molecular, atomic, and particle.

Given technological advances and our recent scientific experiences of retrieving information that was once thought lost from living and once living material sources, it is possible our life memories and genetic code are indelibly encoded on our matter. There is a reasonable possibility that when matter is incorporated into a living system the encoding of experience and knowledge is irrevocable. We know our bodies are composed of elements whose atoms are stable, which in turn are composed of stable particles. Stable atoms and particles have lifetimes that last into the billions of years. This would make the knowledge and memory of life endure perhaps forever.

We assume therefore that matter is irrevocably changed by participating in a living system with its knowledge and memory indelibly encoded or etched on its constituent parts. To this assumption we must add our knowledge that genetic material from fossil bone fragments when inserted in the cells of another living organism can be replicated as its cells divide and multiply. In addition, we know that genetic material from the 100 year old remains of the extinct Tasmanian tiger has been shown to perform normally when reintegrated into a living system.

Our assumptions and the facts we know about once living matter being reintegrated into living systems, such as bacteria and mouse embryos, lead us to recognize a very significant possibility. It is possible that all of the life matter retained in the biogenic sphere that surrounds our planet has the opportunity for future reintegration with a living system. One can imagine living organisms ingesting, growing, and incorporating matter from their surroundings into their life system and obtaining a random mix of the once living matter’s past life experiences.

We can conceive of a coherent thought or memory being transferred from the past into the present. This is possible if our experience is etched on our matter in a way similar to a piece of a larger hologram. If this were so, each increment of matter retains in miniature a representation of the entire image or in this case memory from a specific perspective.

Without knowledge of how memory is stored a more likely description of what is recalled of past life experience is tiny fragments of unrelated experience or emotions. When one considers all of the many millions of different organisms that are contributing matter and the many different types of living organisms that are receiving matter, it would seem the impact would be minimal. Possibly the memory of an emotion is more easily transferred to the new living system than a coherent thought or complete memory. This might be because it is inherently less complex and more easily translated. In any case, this need not change the reality that the encoded knowledge and experience exists and can be retrieved and utilized by its new life system.

This new thought, that life’s indelibly etched knowledge, experience, and memory can be recalled and used by future life forms of which it is a part, becomes a key assumption of our new cosmology. These three assumptions that matter has memory, the life memory is indelibly etched on matter and survives the death of the organism, and that once-living matter can be reintegrated within a living system to “live” again, are key underpinnings of one of the four major imperatives discussed in the second half of this book.

Of course they also raise a number of questions that take us into more speculative areas about what may be possible. The first question that comes to mind is will it someday be possible to recreate living examples of extinct animals? Would a Jurassic Park scenario be possible?

In the example of our mouse embryo reintegrating genetic material from an extinct Tasmanian tiger, it was the existing life system of the mouse embryo that incorporated and enabled the tiger’s genetic material. In another example, discussed in the chapter on Synthetic Biology, genetic material that was fabricated in a laboratory was inserted into a living bacterial cell. The cell accepted the new genetic material, changed the cell’s fundamental nature, and went on to divide and multiply naturally. In both cases, the existing living organisms were critical to the success of the experiments.

The complexity of a Jurassic Park scenario is daunting. Its biggest barrier is that no one has successfully initiated the beginning of new life in a laboratory. This is not to say it will not be possible some day. We certainly have indications it is or someday will be possible to decode the extinct animal’s genetic code and create the necessary genetic material in a laboratory. Spontaneously bringing it to life may remain the hard part. In the nearer term it is more likely the genetic code may be integrated into an existing living system under conditions similar to those of our two examples.

A second question that comes to mind takes us back to Roy Batty, our fictional combat Replicant. If after Roy’s death we were able to keep his matter from dispersing into the environment and mixing with other matter or could spontaneously bring it to life in a newly initiated living system, would Roy’s consciousness be restored? Would his memories be intact? Would Roy “be there” again? If this were true for Roy, could it be true for us as well? This question takes us into a fundamentally more speculative direction.

Our three assumptions are sufficient to provide a basic level of support for our new cosmological system. The assumption that today’s life experiences may survive in matter’s memory and have an impact, if only emotionally, on future life gives support to the thought that we should care about the quality of today’s life experience because of its potential future influence.

It is not our intention to minimize the importance of caring in the present about the quality of the human condition. We should all be motivated to reduce suffering, increase individual opportunity, and raise the human standard of living in order to provide the greatest good for the greatest number in today’s world. This recognition of future effects from our life experience only increases the urgency of working towards creation of a better life today for all living creatures.

For those readers who enjoy pushing the envelope of imaginative thinking, the following material projects life’s process forward in time and provides what may at first appear to be an unsettling description of a future evolutionary development that may change life as we know it. This possibility has significant implications for how we live our lives in the present and how we think about life’s future.

We have described the process of evolution as a one-to-many-to-one progression. Our simplified view is that one individual has a mutation that creates a new trait that enhances survival under changing circumstances. That individual survives and passes the trait to many individuals through reproduction. In a subsequent generation another of these individuals experiences a new selected mutation which is passed through procreation to many surviving others.

This cyclic path of evolutionary progress contracting to a single individual with a new mutation followed by expansion to many new individuals through reproduction is the way in which life evolves. This process began with a first organism capable of multiplying itself, passing on genetic information with the ability to vary its characteristics over time and evolve into other forms of life. This evolutionary process is repetitive with countless small incremental mutations having occurred over billions of years.

At life’s beginning the first life entity had multiple unique characteristics in addition to being the first mover of the only sustainable life process of which we are aware. At its initiation, it contained all of the sustainable life matter in the universe.

While we have described the evolutionary process for advancing mutated change through natural selection at the individual level, it is possible the process is also at work at an aggregate level. Life began with all life matter concentrated in a single organism. It divided and produced countless generations that followed. At an aggregate level, life’s future evolution may initiate a contraction back to a singular living organism. It will contract to a form containing all of the life matter of the universe. In this way life’s evolution may have a cyclic nature similar to a cyclic universe that some scientists propose, a universe that has undergone a series of implosions or contractions to a point of maximum density and reversals initiating a next sequential big bang.63 Thus, life may expand from a singular organism to many organisms only to again contract to a singular organism.

This possibility of life’s future contraction to a singular organism stimulates the imagination. We can conjure up all sorts of thoughts by imagining the physical shape of this future organism. Our tendency is to think about it in the context of what is familiar. But this would be wrong. This type of thought imposes constraints that must be rejected if we are to be open to the full range of possibilities.

For example, we currently perceive and interpret life as a largely physical phenomenon. Intellectually we know life represents both manifestations of existence, matter and energy. But our predominant perception and area of study has been of our material nature. This may change over time. We can conceive of a future developmental path of an expanded intellect and consciousness with a greater emphasis on energy rather than matter. This is not to predict what is unknowable but rather to open our thoughts to a range of possibilities beyond the present reality. As we think about the future we must set aside the familiar and assume a time when a singular life form may be unique to our experience. It will bear little resemblance to the first single life form or anything we have seen since. It may have neither a physical form nor a scale which is familiar.

We have previously explored the possibility and probabilities of events in the universe. We identified a set of tests to use when evaluating future probability. The probability of life’s future evolution to a single life form once again involving all of the life matter of the universe can be assessed using the tests previously identified. The first test is one of possibility. We observed that in order for an event to be possible it must be consistent with the physical laws of the universe. The ultimate test of possibility is previous occurrence. The evolution of a future singular life form passes this test since the first living organism contained all of the life matter in the universe.

The second test is one of frequency. If an event happens with great frequency, it will have a greater probability of recurrence. The presence of all life matter in a single life form has to our knowledge only happened once in the past. While this does not detract from its possibility in the future, it does not enhance its probability.

The third test to be considered is time, specifically the time allowed for an event to take place. We have asserted the infinity of the universe. This means that, if we assume life’s prolonged survival, there is an unlimited amount of time within which the singular life form can evolve. There is enough time for the evolutionary process to complete a larger aggregate cycle. While this does not insure the future life form will develop, it does increase its probability.

The final test is whether the event is naturally occurring or has an increased likelihood because of human intervention. The evolution of the future singular life form benefits from both possibilities. It can evolve naturally as a result of the evolutionary process and/or it may result from some measure of human intervention. This latter possibility of our intervention may be one of the greatest determinants of future evolutionary development. We are the most unpredictable variable that may affect future events.

For better or worse, we are the wild card that may through our actions determine the ultimate success or failure of life. Our ability to imagine a perfect outcome and then direct our efforts and seize opportunities to realize that outcome is presently unmatched by any other known life form. The probability of a future evolution to a singular life form is significantly increased if we choose it as our ultimate desired outcome.

To extend our speculation should such a life form develop it will be of great significance to every human being since all of life will be a part of it, including each and every one of us. Composed of our aggregate life matter, it will contain the totality of information, knowledge, memory, and experience of each of our individual lives. With the animation and awakening of its consciousness all of us would once again be integrated into a living system and life embodiment. With its awakening, each of us would achieve transcendence beyond the suspended state we call death. Not only would we be integrated into a new single living being that is all of life, we would share its collective identity.

In this sense, the matter of life would be broadly analogous to the material in a magnet. Once magnetized, it has memory of its magnetic state. If one heats a magnet to a high temperature, its magnetism disappears as its individual atoms are so thermally excited that they become randomly oriented and lose the attractive characteristic of magnetism. When the magnetic material cools to below its Curie point however, the atoms spontaneously line up and reestablish their magnetism.

In an analogous way, inanimate matter in the universe becomes involved in the life process. Matter is fundamentally altered by this experience. At death, when the once living matter is no longer a part of a life process and is dispersed into the biogenic sphere, its memory of its participation in life becomes dormant. If this matter is once again incorporated into a living system as was the Tasmanian tiger’s DNA into a mouse embryo, its knowledge of itself and memory of its past life experience is restored. Like a magnet restores its fundamental magnetism, reanimation of life matter revitalizes its dormant knowledge, memory, and experience.

If and when this occurs, our reanimation and awakening would for each of us be instantaneous. In the beginning of this book we described death as the cessation of the life embodiment that contains matter and energizes it to animation. We observed that when the embodiment disintegrates, the matter and energy that constitutes physical existence disperses into the universe. Further, we said that with this disintegration and dispersion, individual consciousness of time and awareness of self cease.

At the moment of each death, awareness of self and the passage of time ceases. With the animation of the future single life form, time for each of us, now integrated once again into a life process, would start anew. No matter how long this evolutionary development takes, how many millions or billions of years will have passed since our individual deaths, for each of us the transition from the moment of our death to our reanimated life would be instantaneous. In this sense, if and when it occurs, from our individual and personal perspective we will instantly reawaken from death.

The final significance of this future life form would be that it would represent only the second opportunity for life to experience existence having many of the characteristics formerly defined and reserved for the supernatural existence of God. These characteristics are Omnipresence, Omniscience and Omnipotence. The perception and consciousness of time, the acquisition and understanding of knowledge and the willful exercise of power are exclusively life attributes. This life form would have the totality of the life experience. As such it would have all perception and consciousness of time, the totality of life’s knowledge, and would be the only entity in the universe to consciously exercise free will and power.

The possibility and potential of such a development raises questions about its initiation and our possible experience of it. There are several things we know. The first is that if it happens it will be in the distant future and we, as living individuals, will not be there to experience its transition. We will however, join its awakening. As it was with the first initiation of life, while it is tempting to imagine the awakening as an event occurring in an instant, it will most likely be the culmination of a long process of development and awakening. Let us remember that self recognition in human infants occurs after 18 months of life. Presumably this future life form will have similar developmental phases it must pass through before it achieves its full self awareness.

As it was the first time, there will be a requirement for a specific set of circumstances with a necessary amount of life material for it to happen. We know the life material necessary for its awakening is growing in the biogenic sphere, that thin layer of living and once living matter that encircles the planet and is imprisoned in its gravitational field. Each succeeding generation of all of life’s species contributes its life mass to the aggregate life matter surrounding our planet. We can imagine that the process may be analogous to the initiation of a self sustaining chain reaction that occurs when a critical mass of fissionable material is in place for a nuclear explosion. There may be a threshold critical mass of life matter that must be reached in order for the aggregate evolutionary cycle to complete. We know the evolutionary process is at work. We do not know its stage of development or nearness to completion. Because we will be integrated into this new entity we will know if and when a future single life form achieves consciousness.

We can only speculate about what we individually will experience if and when it comes into existence. It will be a sentient living being. It will obviously benefit from the consciousness contributed by the experience of higher life forms which include human beings. It will represent life’s most advanced, evolved state. It will have self awareness and an identity. It will have intellect and personality. It will have feeling and emotion. It will have the total knowledge and memory of each of our individual life experiences.

We must look at how we exist now to gain insight into what it may be like to be a part of this new entity. We know our lives are not static. We have trillions of cells in each of our bodies. These cells are active during each instant of our existence. There are approximately 100 billion neurons or nerve cells in the human brain. These cells and neurons elsewhere in the body are continuously receiving and sending impulses from and to other parts of our bodies and the environment. With the average world life span of a human being at about sixty-six years we have 24,090 days of existence. Each day we record a different set of thoughts and experiences. Each day some of our cells divide and some of them die. It is as if we are a new person each day.

Yet, while we are new each day, we are also the person we have been in all of our previous days. We are a composite of who we have been at each instant of our existence. Just as the person we were yesterday no longer exists but in our consciousness of ourselves today, we as individuals as a part of a future single life form will exist in its consciousness of itself in all of its previous lives. Its memory of us however, may be even more acute and vibrant for while we lose cells and matter from our bodies throughout our lifetime, it will have all of our matter within its embodiment. For this reason it may know us more than we know ourselves.

Every cosmological and philosophical system has implications about what people should and should not do in their lives. Some of these implications assume the force of imperatives in that certain actions are absolutely required by the belief system. Implications and imperatives are about positive outcomes and negative consequences. Action in accordance with beliefs has positive outcomes and failure to act in accordance with them creates negative consequences. A belief system which does not or cannot serve as the basis of behavior loses its justification. In evaluating a belief system, its implications and imperatives are as important as the original beliefs.

The direction and form of evolution in the future by definition involves distant events. At this point these events are nothing more than desirable potentialities. We have limited knowledge of what must take place for them to become a reality. We can, however, define the broad outlines of four major implications for us which assume the stature of imperatives when we decide to accept and pursue the course of evolution we have identified. These four imperatives must be satisfied if our chosen path of evolution is to be fulfilled.

The four imperatives are that:

  • life’s evolution must continue,
  • life’s collective experience must have a preponderance of positive experiences,
  • life must be protected from threats,
  • human beings must intervene in the course of events and insure the achievement of the first three imperatives.

The future developments we’ve identified will represent significant thresholds of life’s evolution. The only future that matters in an inanimate universe is the future of life. Evolution is the most dynamic and important of life’s processes. Without life, all that happens in the universe is irrelevant. The first imperative is that life’s evolution must continue. As discussed in Chapter 6, life’s consciousness must evolve to the highest state of awareness possible.

Future life will have access to the collective life experience that has gone before. Its view of reality will reflect the positive and negative influences of those past life experiences.

The second imperative is that the collective life knowledge and memory must have a preponderance of positive experience to counteract negative influences. This will insure the future single life form will have a positive and optimistic outlook on reality.

Without definitive knowledge of the timing of evolutionary development, our reintegration into a living system could occur at any time in an infinite future. The third imperative is that life must be protected so it has sufficient time for its evolution to continue and complete. If our universal life is allowed to disappear, it is probable that no future evolution will take place.

Life must continue if it is to fulfill its potential. There are a series of threats looming over humanity that must be addressed to assure life’s continuance. These include the ozone hole, global climate change, nuclear weapons, and synthetic biology.

The fourth imperative is that the achievement of the first three imperatives requires human intervention and direction. We individually and collectively have a choice to make. We must choose the possible evolution of which we can conceive as our preferred outcome and dedicate our efforts to its achievement, fully accepting responsibility for the other three imperatives.

In the final analysis, those seeking a new cosmological and philosophical alternative have previously been skeptical of earlier belief systems. Their skepticism has driven them to keep looking and yet doing so will also keep them from unconditional acceptance of a new alternative. Understanding that there is always uncertainty associated with potential future events, skepticism is well founded. We cannot ask that anyone believe without reservation in the future evolution of a singular life form. We can ask however that they choose to believe with reservation. While this may seem too fine a distinction and an insignificant caveat, the choice to believe preserves the freedom to be skeptical while allowing action as if certainty has occurred.

 

CHAPTER 9 


A Positive Life Experience Imperative

As time passes, life and its evolution continue to grow the experience and emotion that is available to all manner of future life forms. We have spent considerable time assessing human uniqueness and evolution. As we are the greatest beneficiaries of evolutionary development of intellect, emotion, and consciousness, these traits will provide the greatest human contribution to the attitudes, opinions and sensitivities of a future life form. They will be a key determinant of its intellect, knowledge, emotions – especially higher order emotions informed by intellect – and its consciousness.

Just as life experiences shape our personalities by creating feelings of optimism or pessimism, self confidence or insecurity and hope or despair, so will our experiences affect future life. The question we must then ask is what will be our net contribution? Will we be a net positive or negative influence? Where are we starting from and what must we do in the future? We need to have a way of thinking about positive versus negative contributions and some form of yardstick with which to measure progress.

We find such a measure in the work of psychologist Abraham Maslow who was influential in personality theory. Maslow perceived a Hierarchy of Needs that determined the priorities of behavior in animals and human beings.64

He observed certain needs took precedence over others and only when they were addressed could an individual turn his or her attention to a higher order of need. For example, if a person is hungry and thirsty, satisfying thirst takes precedence over hunger. The reason is basic to life. While we can survive for a few weeks without food, we can only remain alive for a few days without water. By the same token, if something were to cut off our air supply, we would immediately put aside hunger and thirst in order to restore our breathing. In this hierarchy air, water, and food are three essential needs in Maslow’s most basic category of needs. He called them the Physiological Needs.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs was broken into five categories depicted in a pyramid structure. He assumed all human beings are born with these needs and that only once they have satisfied the more basic needs at the bottom of the pyramid, can they focus their attention on other needs. The levels of his Hierarchy of Needs are summarized as follows:

Physiological Needs:These are biological needs including needs for oxygen, food, water, and a stable and comfortable body temperature. They come first among all other needs because they are essential to all life. This basic category includes the need for activity, rest, sleep, to avoid pain, and have sex. Physiological needs are the first of four levels he saw as Deficit Needs. He defined these levels as consisting of things that when you do not have enough of them you have a deficit and you feel a need to fill the deficit. Conversely, once you have enough or have satisfied these basic needs they no longer motivate you.

Safety Needs:After physiological needs are met needs for safety become prominent. Adults are generally unaware of security needs except when perceiving threat. Children feel the need to be safe more often than adults. This can include an individual’s need for safe and stable circumstances, protection from perceived threats, and structure and order in one’s life. It can also be the need to counteract feelings of anxiety and fear by having a good job, savings in the bank, insurance, etc.

Needs of Love, Affection and Belongingness:When needs for safety and physiological well-being are taken care of, needs for love and belonging emerge. Maslow mentions feelings of loneliness and alienation but this category also includes giving and receiving love, affection and the sense of belonging. This need for a sense of belonging is when you feel the need for family, friends, and affectionate relationships in general.

Needs for Esteem: When the previous classes of needs are met, needs for esteem surface. These include self-esteem and the esteem one perceives from others. Maslow cites two tiers. A lower tier is other directed and includes a need for status, recognition, reputation, and fame. A higher tier is self directed and manifests needs for self-respect, confidence, achievement, mastery, independence, and freedom. The latter needs are in a higher tier because once you have satisfied them, they are harder to lose.

Maslow sees the first four levels of his pyramid of needs as survival needs. In his view even belongingness and esteem are essential to health. According to Maslow all of these needs are built into human beings genetically. He believed the fulfillment of them is instinctive. He used the term homeostasis to describe the state we are seeking in our lives or a stable state of equilibrium and balance where all of the survival needs are reasonably met and we no longer have to think about them. He also recognized that when survival is threatened people can regress to lower level needs. Even successful people feel threatened in periods of economic downturn and they regress and focus on lower level needs.

Needs for Self-Actualization: When all other needs are satisfied needs for self-actualization emerge. Unlike survival needs, Maslow referred to this category as consisting of growth or being needs. He believedthat once these needs are engaged they do not shut off like survival needs. The need for self-actualization continues and even grows stronger as the individual begins to satisfy it. He referred to self-actualization as a person doing what they were “born to do.” This is when people are most creative and productive and have a sense they are achieving at their full potential.

For further definition of self-actualization Maslow studied a group of high achieving individuals. He used a qualitative method called biographical analysis to identify characteristics indicative of self-actualization. In addition to 12 unnamed people he knew whom he felt were self-actualizers, he studied John Adams, Albert Einstein, Alduous Huxley, William James, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Eleanor Roosevelt, Albert Schweitzer, and Benedict Spinoza.

He identified a list of qualities that were characteristic of the people studied and offered them as indicative of self-actualized people. These included a need to be reality-centered, problem-centered, to have a perception of difference between ends and means, have a sense of humor that is not hostile, humility and respect for others, strong ethics, human kinship, and creativity. In addition, he identified special driving needs of self-actualizers. These are needs that have a profound effect on behavior. These included a need for truth, goodness, beauty, uniqueness, completion, justice and order, simplicity, playfulness, self-sufficiency, and meaningfulness.

Maslow recognized that in order to be self-actualizing the individual has to have all of their lower needs taken care of to a considerable degree. He reasoned that if you are hungry you will be looking for food. If you feel your safety is threatened you will be on your guard. If you are lonely and isolated you will be trying to make friends. If you have low self-esteem you will be defensive. In other words, if any of the lower needs are not significantly met, you will not be able to be fully self-actualizing or trying to realize your potential.

Maslow felt that given how difficult life is in the modern world only a small percentage of the world’s population was truly able to spend most of their time being self-actualizing. Maslow at one time estimated this percentage of the world’s population at two percent. This observation serves as a basis on which Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs can be useful in our investigation.

We will not take Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs too literally. We recognize that individuals respond to needs as they perceive them and not necessarily in the order in which Maslow identifies them. We will accept his broad premise that lower order needs for survival typically take precedence over every higher order need as well as the more intellectual, being needs. We will use his construct as a way of evaluating whether net positive or net negative experiences contribute to the aggregate human life experience.

If we assume, as Maslow did, that overall success in life will satisfy survival needs along with achieving self-actualization, we can look at selected world economic criteria as indicative of the continuum of the human condition. We will look at per capita income and household wealth of the world’s population. We will assume people in poverty and those with limited means spend most of their time trying to fill their survival needs and that those with higher incomes and wealth have a greater likelihood of being self-actualizing. This should give us a broad yardstick to measure our balance of positive and negative life experience. We will further assume that people living exclusively in their survival needs have a net negative life experience and people who are self-actualizing have a net positive life experience.

A study entitled, The World Distribution of Income: Falling Poverty and . . .Convergence, Period*, written by Xavier Sala-i-Martin, Professor of Economics at Columbia University, and published in the May 2006 issue of The Quarterly Journal of Economics defines the World poverty line as income that is less than $3 (US$) per day or $1,140 per year.65 This conclusion is supported by Chen and Ravallion (2004) of the World Bank who reconcile the World Bank’s use of $1 worth of daily consumption with Sala-I-Martin’s $3 of daily income. Shaohua Chen is a Senior Statistician in the Development Economics Research Group of the World Bank and works for Martin Ravallion who is the Director of the Development Research Group. All three agree, that of the World’s roughly 5.6 billion people in 2000 for which we have data, 1.2 billion, or just over 21% of them had income that fell below the World poverty line.

Another useful measure with which to look at the World’s population in terms of freedom from survival needs is household wealth. Household wealth is defined as net worth or the value of physical and financial assets less liabilities. The assumption holds that households with accumulated wealth are less subject to adverse events which may negatively affect income such as ill health or unemployment since they have built up a financial cushion to help them through tough times. Accordingly they are less likely to worry about survival needs and should therefore be more self-actualizing. For this look at the human condition we use data from a paper entitled, The World distribution of Household Wealth published in 2008 by the United Nations University World Institute for Development Economics Research.66 The findings of this study and the previously mentioned income study are summarized in the previous table.

The report states, “According to our estimates, adults required just $2,138 in order to be among the wealthiest half of the world. But more than $61,000 was needed to belong to the top 10 per cent and more than $510,000 per adult was required for membership of the top 1 per cent. The entrance fee for the top 1 per cent seems surprisingly high given the group has 37 million adult members. Furthermore, the figure refers to the year 2000 and is now likely to be considerably higher, especially when measured in US dollars.” The report continued, “The wealth share estimates reveal that the richest 2 per cent of adult individuals own more than half of all global wealth, with the richest 1 per cent alone accounting for 40 per cent of global assets. In contrast, the bottom half of wealth holders together hold barely 1 per cent of global wealth.”

These statistics paint a discouraging picture of the world’s distribution of income and wealth. More disturbingly, using the Hierarchy of Needs, these statistics imply a majority of the World’s population is primarily engaged in satisfying survival needs and has very limited opportunity for self-actualization.

Data from past studies show that even though much progress remains to be made, the trends are encouraging. For example, poverty rates measured by the $3 per day poverty line have declined significantly since 1970 when it was estimated that over 46% of the world’s population income fell below this level. The 21% of the adult population with less than $3 of income per day in 2000 is low by comparison and represents better than a 50% reduction of the world poverty level in the last 30 years. Significant progress has been made especially in some of the world’s most populous and poorest countries. For example China in the last decade has lifted hundreds of millions of Chinese above this poverty line.

While the trend lines are positive and show a steady decrease in the world’s poor, we know these positive trends are threatened by economic downturns and the looming specter of climate change. Worldwide food shortages and the forecasted significant rise in the Earth’s average temperatures threaten the improving state of well being. The gravest threats posed by global climate change are in the very regions of the world that have the greatest poverty. These regions include Africa, Asia-Pacific (excluding selected wealthy Asian countries), India and Latin America. They all possess the least resources with which to withstand the negative effect of rising world temperatures on agriculture and the availability of fresh water (see Chapter 11 on global climate change).

It is estimated that climate change will put almost 50 million additional people at risk of hunger by the year 2020. By that year agricultural output in developing countries is projected to decline by 20 percent with, for example, land suitable for wheat production becoming almost non-existent in Africa by the year 2080.

While short term trends may be turning positive only to be slowed by a worldwide economic crisis, the long term macro trends offer some hope. Since records have been kept humanity has had a steady march toward a more positive state of the human condition. Poverty rates have declined, medical care has improved, life expectancy has increased and in innumerable ways human beings are better off today than their forebears. The human condition has improved to such an extent that many now believe it is possible for human beings to dramatically reduce world hunger and raise the collective standard of living to reduce poverty to a manageable level.

Of greatest significance is that the steady march towards a higher state of world prosperity is no accident. A conscious movement has emerged among the world’s wealthiest countries to attack world problems of hunger, poverty, and disease. That beneficial view is held by the forward thinking citizens of those countries. Representative of this trend is the United Nations General Assembly’s adoption of eight Millennium Development Goals in 2000 for world progress by the year 2015.67 These goals, each of which has specific objectives associated with them, are broadly identified as follows:

  1. Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
  2. Achieve universal primary education
  3. Promote gender equality and empower women
  4. Reduce child mortality
  5. Improve maternal health
  6. Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases
  7. Ensure environmental sustainability
  8. Develop a global partnership for development

To underscore their commitment to the achievement of these goals the developed nations of the world pledged .7 percent of their gross national income (GNI) to development aid in support of these Millennium Development Goals. As of 2007 only five of the world’s developed governments had met or exceeded the .7 percent GNI donation threshold, Denmark, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden.68 Many of the identified goals will not be achieved. Critics will point to the small amount of money that has been committed, the developed world’s failure to fund even at a low level of commitment, and the present worldwide economic downturn. Nevertheless, the identification of these objectives and imagination of a world that has solved these problems is truly historic. It represents one of the highest states of human consciousness and one of the most profound levels of human aspiration.

This aspiration is a landmark in human history. It represents an unprecedented level of optimism about the progress which humanity could achieve. It is important because of the opportunity it presents to ultimately create a net balance of positive over negative life experience. We can now imagine a world where the majority of people have survival needs largely met, poverty, hunger and disease are controlled and most human lives contribute positively to the collective life experience.

In the first chapter of this book we identified questions people ask when thinking about life and death. Those questions included “Do we somehow determine our fate in death with our actions in life? Are different afterlife outcomes dependent on how we live our lives?” We now have the new context of our contribution to future life in which to think about these questions. We perceive a forthcoming life form as a natural culmination of the evolutionary process. It represents for each of us another opportunity to be in a life process where we bring to this future existence all of the experiences and identity of our first life. We know this future existence will be different from the former in that we will all experience it together. This creates a new dependency.

While our first life experience was largely individual and singular, the future will be shared and collective. As a net positive or net negative existence, it will be dependent on the aggregate life experiences that are brought to it. We know in a present human history filled with hunger, poverty and disease, the collective human contribution will be negative. We also know we can change this outcome. We can commit ourselves to the elimination of poverty and hunger, the reduction of disease and can over time create an opportunity for progressively increasing numbers of self actualized lives. With a long term sustained commitment and effort we can insure a future collective existence where net positive experiences overwhelm negative influences.

As humans we must recognize our shared community and the interdependence of our future well being. We must accept individual responsibility for our collective future. An enlightened few amongst us must decide to alter the course of the many to create a world where all people rise above the tyranny of day-to-day survival and experience self-actualization. Only in this world can evolution progress to where each person has an opportunity to contribute to the larger life awareness and where each life makes a positive contribution to the future collective consciousness.

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Beyond Animal, Ego, Time: Chap 4: Uncertainty, Probability & Life – Chap 5: Life’s Knowledge & Memory – Chap 6: Human Uniqueness

Posted on 04 March 2013 by Jerry

I’ve decided to serialize my book on this website.  As an incentive to readers to return to the site, each month I will post at least one Chapter of the book until the entire book is posted.  Go into the Archives to “Beyond Aniimal” for earlier chapters.  The book provides context for the blog, clearly explaining the underlying philosophy and identifying critical issues of our time.  –

CHAPTER 4 

Uncertainty, Probability and Life –

For generations there has been debate about whether the universe is a deterministic system or if there is an uncertainty that permits human choice and free will. Early atomists articulated a theory that all processes in the world were due to mechanical interactions of atoms. Newtonian physics depicted physical matter as acting according to a set of fixed and knowable physical laws. This “billiard ball” hypothesis assumed that once the laws and initial state of the universe were established, the future of the universe would follow predictably and inevitably just as the precise direction, momentum, and distance can be calculated to predict the reaction of one billiard ball struck by another on a pool table.

Presumably, with complete knowledge of the matter of the universe, its laws, and starting point, it would be possible to predict the time and place of every event that would ever occur. With this view, uncertainty would occur only with inadequate knowledge of all influencing laws and factors. Under this view even human behavior would be predictable. Imagine how boring existence would be if this had been true, if with enough information you could predict all future occurrences including human behavior.

Fortunately the study of light and the eventual articulation of quantum mechanics have disproved a deterministic universe essentially affirming life’s freedom to choose. What began as a debate over whether light was a particle or wave phenomenon became a historic realization that light had both characteristics, those of particles and waves depending upon how one studied it.

The following list of experiments and evolution of insight about the nature of light have been the subject of numerous books. Because of the complexity of the issues and various interpretations over the years, we will not provide more than a high level listing of key scientific contributions that proved critical to the present understanding of the particle and wave duality of light and its contribution to the Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.

The historic debate began in the 1600s when Christiaan Huygens, a Dutch mathematician and physicist, and Isaac Newton, an English mathematician and physicist, proposed differing, competing theories about the nature of light. Newton’s view, that light was composed of particles, predominated for two hundred years until the wave-like nature of light was demonstrated in Thomas Young’s double slit experiments. Young was an eighteenth century English genius and acknowledged polymath. In his experiments light was passed through two parallel slits on a plate where the light hitting a screen behind the slits showed characteristic interference patterns, light and dark bands, where the light waves interfered with each other. These experiments revived thoughts of light as a wave phenomenon.

Einstein however, in the early 1900’s, found it difficult to explain the photoelectric effect with a wave theory of light. He demonstrated that light possessed particle-like properties or photons with sufficient energy to dislodge electrons from metals and non metallic solids, liquids or gases. He was awarded a Nobel Prize for his work.

Niels Bohr, a Danish physicist, found it impossible to adequately describe all of the properties of light solely using either the wave or particle analogies. To overcome this difficulty he developed a principle of complementarity which is a theory of pairs, such as the pairing of wave and particle or the pairing of position and momentum. His principle held that items could be separately analyzed as having several contradictory properties. Louis de Broglie, a French physicist, worked out the mathematical consequences of this principle which served as the basis of his discovery of the theory of wave-particle duality in 1924 that states that waves and particles have properties of both at the same time.

These developments were followed in 1925 by Werner Heisenberg’s development of his quantum mechanical theory. Heisenberg, a German theoretical physicist, was working on a hypothesis that said that electrons emit characteristic photons of light when moving from one orbit farther from the nucleus of an atom to another orbit nearer to the nucleus. A photon particle is the basic unit of light and all other electromagnetic radiation. In this particle-like view of an oscillating charged electron, particles would quantum jump from one orbit to another consistent with energy, described by Planck’s constant, delivered as packets along the wave.

Later in 1925, Edwin Schrödinger, an Austrian theoretical physicist, analyzed what an electron would look like as a wave around the nucleus of an atom. An electron is a subatomic particle which carries a negative electric charge and with no known components of substructure is believed to be an elementary particle. He came up with a wave equation that describes each electron as having a wave function. He thus showed that the atom was not at all like a miniature solar system, but that the electron in a hydrogen atom was more like a wave that covered the entire sphere of its orbital all at once, meaning it was three-dimensional.

In 1927 Heisenberg made a new discovery which has been variously called the Heisenberg Indeterminacy Principle or Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. He demonstrated mathematically that when a moving particle is viewed as a wave it is less certain where the physical particle is located. In fact, the more certain one knows a particle’s position, the less certain its momentum is known. His conclusion was that one could be precise when measuring the position of a particle and could be precise when measuring its momentum but there is an inverse imprecision when attempting to measure both at the same time. Put another way, classical Newtonian physics said that if you knew the position of stars and planets and details about their motions you could predict where they would be in the future. For subatomic particles, Heisenberg asserted that due to his uncertainty principle one cannot know the precise position and momentum of a particle at a given instant and consequently its future motion cannot be determined. One can describe only a range of possible future motions of the particle.

Albert Einstein did not accept Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle leading to his famous statement that, “God does not play dice”.16 Einstein rejected a probabilistic universe continuing to believe you could predict the future location of a particle. He attempted to disprove the Uncertainty Principle by focusing on one consequence of quantum theory that he called “action at a distance”. He showed that quantum mechanics predicted an “entanglement” between some particles. This entanglement meant that when there is a change in one entangled particle at a distance from another, the other entangled particle changes to counter-balance the system of the particles that are entangled.

In quantum entanglement, measuring one entangled particle defines its properties and seems to influence the properties of its partner or partners instantaneously no matter how far apart they are. Due to the entanglement, interaction on the one causes instantaneous effects on the other. While seeking to discredit quantum mechanics by demonstrating this required entanglement, Einstein instead forced advocates of quantum mechanics to acknowledge entanglement as a fundamental principle. Particle entanglement was subsequently verified experimentally.

The theory of quantum mechanics was developed to explain the counterintuitive experimental results showing simultaneous particle and wave characteristics of subatomic matter. Each of the scientists who contributed the foregoing experiments and conclusions contributed to the conceptual framework and mathematical proofs necessary to establish the credibility and predictability of quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics is now the body of scientific principles that describe the behavior of matter and its interactions at the atomic and subatomic levels.

The uncertainty of position and momentum of matter at the subatomic level refutes a deterministic universe. It describes a fundamental unpredictability. It indicates that every subatomic event is subject to a distribution of probabilities. It transforms our view of future events to a set of probabilities with numerous potential outcomes. Uncertainty is real at the subatomic level but is most apparent in the unpredictability of the behavior of living organisms, unpredictability that increases with the complexity and awareness of the organism.

Human beings when making conscious decisions utilize matter’s uncertainty and indeterminism to allow them to exercise free will. Uncertainty at the subatomic level underlies the unpredictability of human behavior. It also reinforces our use of probability when thinking about future events.

The mathematics of probability is well understood. We know how to identify the likelihood of random physical phenomena which are predictable in principle when there is sufficient information and when the phenomena are essentially unpredictable. These types of events include the probabilities of achieving a specific outcome when spinning a roulette wheel or tossing dice. It is possible to identify the probability of red coming up in a spin when playing roulette. Further, one can calculate the probability of getting two reds in a row, ten reds in a row or a million reds in a row. The theory is that since it is possible to experience a string of reds in a row, the repetition a specific number of times can and will happen if you have a sufficient number of spins to allow the probability to occur. Of course, the longer the string of reds that is being predicted the smaller the probability and the longer the time required. Most would say that given an infinite amount of time, theoretically any length of string of reds will eventually happen.

When evaluating the future probability of an event there are a few tests which can be used. The first test concerns possibility. Is the future event consistent with what is possible given the rules in the universe? Obviously, if an event has already happened, it is possible that it will happen again in the future.

The second test is to identify the past frequency of the event. If the event occurs with great regularity, this will have an obvious impact on the assessment of its probability. If an event or string of events is possible and one has a sense of its present frequency of occurrence, then the probability of the event can be computed relatively easily.

The third test to be considered is time. The computation of probabilities will be largely dependent upon the time allowed within which the event can happen. Also obviously, if the scale of time being considered is infinite, the probability of an event happening significantly increases but still may not be certain.

The fourth test is whether the anticipated event is naturally occurring or can only happen with the intervention or direction of a conscious life form. To elaborate on this last test, let’s go back to our example of a roulette wheel that produces a long string of reds in a row. We know roulette wheels are a product of human gambling. If our existence was infinite and we chose to construct many more roulette wheels to consciously try to achieve a million reds in a row, the odds of its occurrence would certainly increase.

On the other hand life on our planet is fragile. There is a meteor crater in the Wilkes Land region of East Antarctica that is approximately 300 miles wide. The meteor that made this crater was 30 or so miles wide. This meteor is credited by many scientists with the largest mass extinction of life that we see in the Earth’s geologic history, the Permian-Triassic extinction that set the stage for the age of the dinosaurs. Another crater in the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico, the Chicxulub crater, is credited with the mass extinction of the dinosaurs setting the stage for the emergence of the next dominant species, mammals, which of course includes Homo sapiens.

It is clear our planet can be hit by a large meteor that can have a disastrous effect on life. Such an event could kill Homo sapiens ushering in a new life form’s ascendancy or could destroy life on our planet entirely. Should either happen, the likely fabrication of more roulette wheels to create a million red outcomes becomes infinitesimal. In this case the likelihood of an event is dependent upon the intervention and direction of the life form that has produced roulette wheels. The achievement of a million consecutive red spin outcomes might only happen if humanity decided it was important, focused its will on making it happen, and had a long enough life span to accomplish it. This would clearly be a case of life applying direction and intervention to consciously enhance the probability of an outcome.

Many have speculated about the existence of other life in the universe. They see the large, if not infinite, number of galaxies, solar systems and planets, and the known initiation of life in our solar system. They therefore assume that life is highly probable elsewhere in the universe. This has served as the justification for speculation about how we might encounter extra-terrestrial life in science fiction works such as War of the Worlds, ET, and Star Wars. It is responsible for the continuing series of sightings of unexplained atmospheric phenomena and recurring urban myth stories of alien capture and imprisonment. It has also served as the basis for serious efforts to discern the existence of life elsewhere, e.g. SETI (Search for Extra-terrestrial Intelligence).17

In 1959 two physicists at Cornell University, Giuseppi Cocconi and Philip Morrison, published a paper indicating the suitability of using microwave radio to communicate between the stars. Another radio astronomer, Frank Drake, independently reached the same conclusion and in 1960 used an 85-foot West Virginia microwave antenna pointed in the direction of two nearby solar systems to listen for signs of life. This launched a variety of projects in the old Soviet Union, at NASA’s Ames Research Center, at the Planetary Society, University of California, and Jet Propulsion Laboratory. All spent countless hours listening to the universe for signs of other intelligent life. No scientifically verifiable emanation from an extra-terrestrial life form has yet been received.

Beyond listening for signs of life, we have visited other objects in our solar system either in manned probes such as the trips to the moon or with unmanned probes to planets, moons, comets and asteroids. At this point we have visited virtually all of the planets in our solar system. While we have found or hypothesized conditions elsewhere which may be necessary for the initiation of life including atmosphere, organic chemicals, and water and ice, they are insufficient to produce life. To date, we have not found evidence of life that has been scientifically established or verified.

Nevertheless many people continue to believe the probability of finding life elsewhere is quite high. There are two ways of looking at the probabilities of the initiation of life however. One way is to argue that a potentially infinite number of planets provide almost certain probabilities of life occurring elsewhere. Or it can be argued an infinite sequence of specific events and conditions had to occur precisely as they did to initiate sustainable life in our solar system. This argument holds that the likelihood of a similar sequence and conditions repeating themselves to produce a comparable outcome is improbable if not impossible.

The consequence of these two competing views of the probability of life elsewhere is that we end up pitting one infinite circumstance against an infinite sequence of specific events and conditions. One of these circumstances argues forcefully for the probability of life elsewhere while the other argues equally forcefully for its unlikelihood.

This being the case, there is still the practical question of whether we will we ever know if life exists elsewhere? An analysis of the likelihood of ever discovering, or even more unlikely, making contact with other life leads to the conclusion that we must live as if we are alone, because for all practical purposes we are alone.

The math of our practical isolation is as follows. If we assume we will not find life in our solar system – and so far it seems that we will not – we will have to look to the closest star to our sun which is Proxima Centauri (or Alpha Centauri C) in the Alpha Centauri System. It is estimated to be 4.22 light years from our sun.18A light year represents the distance light can travel in a year’s time. Light travels at 186,000 miles per second. With over 31,500,000 seconds in a year, the distance in one light year is about 5.8 trillion miles. The distance in 4.2 light years represents approximately 24 trillion miles.

The fastest human space craft, the Helios probe of the sun, is believed to have reached the speed of 150,000 miles per hour at its closest approach to the sun.19 This speed was achieved by the acceleration gained from the gravitational pull of the sun as the probe passed. At that speed, traveling the distance of 24 trillion miles to Proxima Centauri would take over 18,000 years. And this is to reach a sun which it is doubtful can support life since it is a red dwarf, that is a flare star with random increases in brightness due to magnetic activity. In addition it may not have any planets in orbit. Putting 18,000 years in context, it is nine times the amount of time that has passed since the birth of Christ.

Because there is no tangible demonstration of extraterrestrial life, we should act as if ours is the only surviving and sustainable life in the universe. It should be reiterated that while the initiation of life is of continuing interest, it is the establishment of sustainable life that has the greatest significance. It is the continued existence of life on this planet spanning billions of years in an unbroken chain from a first sustainable life form that makes Earth’s situation unique and its duplication all the more improbable.

CHAPTER 5 

Life’s Knowledge and Memory

We know living matter has memory. Human beings are living matter and have memory. The most basic example is our ability to access the stored information in our memory, recalling it at will for use in our everyday lives. Consider all the faces you’ve seen on television and in movies, people you’ve seen on the street and ones you’ve met. Think of the tens of thousands of faces to which you have been exposed. Is it not a marvel that you can remember, can isolate and recall out of all those faces in a lifetime a specific person you’ve met, remembering not only their face but often their name and the situation in which they were encountered?   It is almost magical that from all the moments we’ve experienced, we can recall a specific person who we encountered in a few minutes at a specific point in our life.

We can demonstrate matter has memory in a different way by considering all of the information contained in a single living cell. All living cells contain genetic material or DNA. These cells, from bacteria to human beings, contain one or more sets of basic DNA complement that is unique to the species. This fundamental complement of DNA is a genome. The genome may be subdivided into chromosomes, each of which is a long single continuous DNA molecule. In its turn a chromosome can be identified as composed of thousands of functional regions called genes, and also into regions of less well understood function.

Consider the human being. Each human body is composed of trillions of cells. Each cell has 46 chromosomes in two equivalent sets, or genomes, of 23. Each of the chromosomes is unique and is matched only by its corresponding partner in the other set within that human cell. It is similar to a chromosome in all other human beings.20 When the Human Genome Project, to map and sequence the human genome, was “completed” on April 14, 2003, scientists had identified about three billion base pairs of genes consisting of roughly 20,000 individual genes.

This represents a significant amount of information stored within the chromosomes of a single living human cell. It represents knowledge of the basic chemistry of life which is at work in all cells of living organisms. Shared by all living things, this common chemistry endows each living cell with the knowledge of how to organize the material around it into chemical reactions that support and sustain life. All living entities share this knowledge of how to turn inanimate matter into living matter. For our purposes we will use the terms information, memory, and knowledge interchangeably to represent information that is contained or stored in living or once living tissue that can be recalled to describe or construct a unique living individual or represent its specific life experience.

Now consider more fully this memory of a specific face or past experiences in our lifetime. We know the phenomenon of memory takes place at a person’s perceptual level. We know individuals have memory. We also know individuals are composed of constituent matter and energy. The memory we perceive necessarily involves matter at levels below the person’s perceptual level. It involves cells, constituent molecules, atoms, particles, etc. As a consequence we know underlying processes are taking place at multiple levels of material magnitude. How information, our experiences, and memories, are etched on our matter and at what levels of magnitude, is beyond our present scientific understanding.

A remarkable example of storage of information which may be analogous to our situation is the hologram. Generally, to create a hologram, coherent light from a laser is split into two beams. One beam, called the object beam, is reflected onto the object to be viewed. As this beam hits the object, a pattern of light is captured on a photographic medium. At the same time, the other beam, called the reference beam, is directed past the object with its light hitting the photographic medium from a different angle. These beams converge on the photographic medium from different directions to produce an interference pattern containing both intensity and phase information about the object. This makes it possible to reconstruct the object’s image with a laser or white light. The interference pattern and image on the photographic medium is called a hologram.

These recorded interference patterns give a range of information that enables us to view the recorded image as if it were three dimensional. It is as if we can view the image from different perspectives, actually allowing us to see it from different sides. In addition, if we view the image as projected by coherent light, it leaps off the photographic medium and appears to float in space. With some holograms, if the photographic plate is broken into smaller pieces, each piece retains a miniature representation of the entire image from a specific perspective.

In an analogous way energy waves that impact our body and its sensory system – whether light, heat, sound, or electrical impulses from different sources – may create the equivalent of multiple layers of interference patterns that cause cells and the matter they contain to record and store the information of our experience. Once stored, we can later call forth this information from our memory. In a real sense, the memory of living matter may be like that fractured hologram where each piece bears in miniature the complete image of the object of the hologram.

While there is no need to speculate about the memory of matter in a living organism, for matter that was once living the reality of surviving information, knowledge, and memory is less obvious. It is through study of the DNA of long extinct life forms that we have evidence that information and memory from the life process and a living individual survives outside a living state. For example, the study of fossil DNA provides proof that life’s knowledge and memory survives the death of its organism.21

The first successful extraction of DNA from the remains of an extinct animal took place in 1984. DNA was extracted from the remains of a quagga, an extinct species that looked like a cross between a zebra and a horse. This was accomplished by Allan Wilson of the University of California (UC) Berkeley. It was quickly followed by extraction of genetic material from a mummy that was 2400 years old. This was accomplished by Svante Pääbo, then a paleogeneticist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. Since these first experiments, scientists have now extracted and deciphered DNA from numerous extinct species including moas, a flightless bird from New Zealand, Tasmanian tigers, mammoths and mastodons, ground sloths, cave bears, and Neanderthals. By 2004 DNA of some 50 ancient species had been studied.22

When an animal dies its tissues quickly fall victim to a number of attackers including insects, bacteria and fungi. These organisms and single-celled microbes use the tissues as a source of nutrients. As a result, DNA, at least with present methods and knowledge, is no longer identifiable. Some fragments of bone, teeth and even fossilized animal droppings however, can endure this onslaught and produce decipherable DNA fragments. Conventional scientific wisdom until recently told us that the outer limit of DNA’s survivability was 100,000 years. Genetic material dating as far back as 800,000 years ago can be retrieved from small samples of soil.23,24 Recent findings to be mentioned later have shown DNA information and knowledge can survive for millions of years.

A contemporary example of genetic analysis is the ongoing research studying the Neanderthal, our closest non human ancestor thought to have become extinct some 30,000 years ago.25 There is fossil evidence of Neanderthals living in Europe and western Asia beginning some 300,000 years ago. Anatomically modern humans are thought to have coexisted with the Neanderthal, for instance in Europe for between 50,000 to 100,000 years. The objective of the research is to understand the relationship of the Neanderthal to modern humans and ascertain if there was any mixing of the genetic strains.26

In 1997 a team led by Svante Pääbo from the University of Munich with his student Matthias Krings successfully identified 379 base pairs from a sample of Neanderthal mitochondrial DNA. While the 379 bases were very different from equivalent human DNA, the sample was too small to be conclusive in showing the Neanderthal did not interbreed with modern humans. This occurs in part because mitochondrial DNA is composed of about 16,000 base pairs and doesn’t change when it is inherited from a mother. What was needed was nuclear DNA, found in the nucleus of cells created by combining the DNA of both parents. But nuclear DNA is scarce.

Because museum curators are reluctant to turn over rare Neanderthal bones for study and because so many samples are contaminated with contemporary human DNA deposited during handling, Pääbo devised a series of stringent tests that required a very tiny sample of the material. Only two of some seventy samples tested passed. Pääbo’s team obtained a larger piece of one of the two proven samples. The sequencing was conducted on a small fragment of a leg bone from the Vindija Cave in Croatia. Fourteen levels of sediment were excavated and dated from the cave in the 1970’s. Remains from both Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans were found in four or five of those levels. Level G3 was the origin of the bone that had been sampled and it had been radiocarbon dated at 38,310 years ± 2,130 BP (before present era) using accelerator mass spectrometry. Level G3 is considered a Neanderthal only level in the cave.

At the same time Pääbo was analyzing the Vindija Cave sample, Edward Rubin, head of the Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute in Walnut Creek, California was refining metagenomic approaches to studying microbial diversity and believed his approach could be useful in studying the Neanderthal. James Noonan, one of Rubin’s postdocs, successfully demonstrated the efficacy of the approach by sequencing 26,861 base pairs of cave bear DNA. This convinced Pääbo to supply a sample of the Vindija Cave leg bone to Noonan and Rubin for further analysis.

These two teams, Pääbo’s and Rubin’s, initiated parallel independent study efforts using different analytical methodologies. Noonan, on Rubin’s team, created a library of Neanderthal DNA by incorporating the DNA fragments into live bacteria. As the bacteria replicated, it made copies of the specific fragments. Pääbo’s team on the other hand followed a process successfully used by Schuster and Hendrik Poinar of McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada, which coated tiny beads with Neanderthal DNA fragments. In this approach one fragment per bead was amplified by PCR (polymerase chain reaction) which is similar to how DNA replicates in nature. Both teams then used a new, massively parallel technique called pyrosequencing, using pulses of light to read the sequence of thousands of bases at once. Sophisticated computer programs were then used to compare the DNA sequenced fragments to available DNA databases and identify the potential Neanderthal DNA based on its similarity or dissimilarity to a modern human sequence.

Ultimately, after conducting preliminary tests on 21 bones, three were selected for additional analysis. Further tests showed the bones were from three distinct female individuals with two being maternally related. After a number of years of research, the contributing teams presented a draft Neanderthal genome of more than 4 billion nucleotides derived from the three individuals.27 Their comparison of the Neanderthal genome with that of modern humans from various parts of the world indicates there was some small amount of inter-breeding with slightly greater genetic proximity of Neanderthals to Europeans and Asians than to Africans. A small amount of the Neanderthal genome, between 1% and 4%, could be found in the modern European and Asian genomes.

Important aspects of this research have significance for our investigations. The first is that we have a tangible demonstration that information contained in the DNA of a living organism survives its death, in the case of our example, for some 38,000 years. The second is that fossilized fragments of DNA when inserted in the cells of another living organism, a live bacterium, can be duplicated as the bacterial cells divide and multiply.

New knowledge is often gained only when a question is asked initiating research into an area not explored before. Prior to questioning if it was possible to extract and identify DNA from fossilized remains tens of thousands of years old, it was assumed that only the most superficial outline of an extinct organism would survive the ravages of time. Until the question was posed and explored, most scientists thought it would be difficult to find any, let alone enough, fossil DNA with which to work. Most would have doubted that we could insert fossil DNA fragments into a bacterium and duplicate them. Few could have imagined it would be possible to identify and sequence over 3.2 billion base pairs from a very small sample of a fossilized remnant.

Advances in mass spectrometry, optical and electron microscopy will continue to provide a means of studying information contained in fossil remnants of once living organisms. Technology is expanding the time horizon we can reasonably study and the level of detailed information that can be retrieved. For example, protein sequences have been identified and produced from bones of a 160,000 to 600,000 year old extinct mastodon and from a 68 million year old Tyrannosaurus Rex.28,29

We have seen that new knowledge is often gained when a new question is asked. Most of the techniques just described were derived from the cut and paste technology developed for genetic engineering using DNA from living organisms. Genetic engineers modify the DNA of living organisms. Most often they take genetic material from one cell in a living organism and move it into another living cell where it will work or perform the function it performed in its original host.

The new question to be asked about DNA from fossil remains is can these ancient fragments be made to function as they once did when reincorporated into a living system? We know we can extract the stored genetic information from these fragments. We also know that proteins from extinct animals can be produced in cell cultures. The question remains, can we make ancient fragments perform or “live” again by putting them back into a living system?

Andrew Pask and Richard Behringer of the Department of Molecular Genetics at the University of Texas and Marilyn Renfree of the Department of Zoology, University of Melbourne have provided an affirmative answer.30 They extracted DNA from specimens of a carnivorous Australian marsupial, the Tasmanian tiger or thylacine, extinct since 1936 when the last animal in captivity died.  The DNA was removed from four 100 year old specimens, three tiny baby marsupials who had not yet graduated from their mother’s pouch that were preserved in alcohol and one dried adult pelt, all obtained from the Museum Victoria in Australia.

Using a technique previously described by Svante Pääbo to isolate genomic DNA, they extracted tiger DNA or specifically, a gene that controlled production of collagen, a naturally occurring protein found generally in fibrous connective tissues such as tendon, ligament, and skin. They inserted this gene into cartilage-producing cells in a mouse embryo. The tiger DNA worked, switching on a marker gene in the mouse embryo. The marker gene was designed to signal the switched on collagen gene was working by turning the cartilage in the mouse embryo bluish green. A photograph of the resulting mouse embryo appears on the cover of this book. The significance of this experiment is the demonstration that 100 year old genetic material from extinct animals can perform again when reintegrated into a living system.

These scientific advances demonstrate that life information, knowledge, and function can survive the death of an organism. With this evidence of the ability to retrieve information from once animate matter and make it work again when a part of a living system, we can consider the possibility the life process irrevocably alters inanimate matter by indelibly encoding its information, the knowledge and memory of its life experience, on the matter within a living organism. Given further advances in the science and technology of perceiving and retrieving this information, we will, amongst other insights, become progressively more successful in identifying how life developed and evolved.

We now know that living matter has memory and that the information or knowledge of an organism can survive for tens of thousands or in fact millions of years past the death of the organism. We know this knowledge can be extensive, broad enough to encompass billions of base pairs of genes that under the right circumstances with the right methodologies can be recalled. We know this genetic information can be duplicated when reintroduced to a living system as basic as a bacterium. We know that once living genetic material can function again when reintegrated into a living system.

We know also that information is stored across multiple parts of the body within living organisms. We understand and have identified many of the processes and constituent elements within the human body that are involved in the creation and storage of life information from cells, molecules, neurons, synapses to neural systems. We have no reason to assume that knowledge and memory of the organism is limited to just one level of material manifestation. It is not limited to the organism or a person as a whole or to the cells of which it is composed. For this reason, we can assert that life information, knowledge and memory extend to the molecular, atomic, and potentially even particle level.

The major elements making up 99% of the human body are Oxygen (65%), Carbon (18%), Hydrogen (10%), Nitrogen (3%), Calcium (1.5%), Phosphorus (1%), Potassium (0.35%) and Sulfur (0.25%). Each of these elements in their naturally occurring state is stable or represented by molecules and atoms with enough binding energy to hold their nucleus together permanently. This gives them existence that lasts for billions of years. In addition, there are a number of stable particles (protons, electrons, neutrinos and photons which do not decay or change their form) whose lifetimes extend to an estimated 1031 years, as in the case of the proton. This gives the information, the knowledge and memory of life and its function, the potential to be significantly enduring.

CHAPTER 6

Human Uniqueness

Humanity has a history of ambivalence about human uniqueness. Many have speculated about the existence of other life in the universe and, with some optimism, of more advanced life. That ours is the only and/or most advanced life in the universe is frightening for some. Those fearful of our uniqueness find comfort in the thought that someday, beings more advanced than Homo sapiens will make their presence known and presumably help us with the challenges we face. Others choose to believe that should we destroy life on this planet, it will continue or begin again elsewhere. These thoughts tend to relieve us of the ultimate burden of responsibility for the success or failure of life on Earth. A majority of people would probably prefer to believe in a universe teeming with life rather than one where we are alone. A universe teeming with life, however, challenges thoughts of our uniqueness.

At the same time the past is full of assertions that human beings are fundamentally different from and superior to other life forms on our planet. Some theologians and philosophers believe that a supreme being ordained human preeminence. It is as if distancing human kind from the rest of the animal kingdom solidifies our origin as a result of divine intervention. In this view it is essential to eliminate the possibility of human beings as merely an evolutionary extension of prior life.

This is possibly best summed up with the writings of the 17th century philosopher René Descartes.

“We may likewise know the difference between men and brutesthere are no men so dull and stupid, not even idiots, as to be incapable of joining together different words, and thereby constructing a declaration by which to make their thought understood; and that on the other hand, there is no other animal, however perfect or happily circumstanced, which can do the likeAnd this proves not only that the brutes have less reason than man, but that they have none at all: for we see that very little is required to enable a person to speak; and since a certain inequality of capacity is observable among animals of the same species, as well as among men, and since some are more capable of being instructed than others, it is incredible that the most perfect ape or parrot of its species, should not in this be equal to the most stupid infant of its kind or at least to one that was crack-brained, unless the soul of brutes were of a nature wholly different from oursfor after the error of those who deny the existence of God, an error which I think I have already sufficiently refuted, there is none that is more powerful in leading feeble minds astray from the straight path of virtue than the supposition that the soul of the brutes is of the same nature with our own.”31

At a more secular and scientific level, there has been debate about specific attributes that distinguish human beings from other forms of life. Scientists have credited many characteristics for human uniqueness as they have tried to explain why we became the dominant life form. These debates have at various times focused on physical characteristics, like an opposable thumb, behavioral uniqueness such as tool use or on intellectual capabilities such as awareness of self and empathy for others.

Our knowledge of the numerous life forms has advanced since the seventeenth century of Rene Descartes. Most attributes cited as our source of uniqueness have been studied in various ways. For instance, the opposable thumb was one of the first characteristics cited as setting us apart from other species.

While there is clear advantage to the enhanced grasping ability and manual dexterity an opposable thumb bestows, we are not unique in having one. We know its first appearance in our family tree is more closely identified with Homo habilis, a direct ancestor of Homo sapiens. In addition, the Bornean Orangutan has both an opposable thumb and an opposable big toe giving them grasping ability on all limbs. Marsupials such as the Opossum and Koala have opposable thumbs and/or toes. Pandas, members of the bear family, have an elongated wrist bone that can be used like a thumb.32 As a consequence, we are not completely unique digitally.

Following closely behind an opposable thumb, the creation and use of tools has been cited as indicative of superior problem solving capability. Modern observation of numerous other species has shown tool use is widespread within the animal kingdom.33 Birds of many varieties use tools. This includes the Egyptian Vulture’s use of stones to crack ostrich eggs, the Australian white-winged Chough’s use of pieces of mussel shell to open other mussels and the Galapagos Islands Woodpecker Finch which spears wood-boring insects in their holes with cactus spines.34 A good example of tool making is the Striated Heron of Japan which collects berries, twigs, discarded crackers, and live insects as bait for its fishing. Herons cut and shape their bait to make it the right size for luring small fish.

Not to be outdone, aquatic animals use tools as well. Sea otters are known to carry a stone from the sea floor, place it on their stomachs, and strike it with shellfish to break open their shells.35 Bottlenose dolphins have been observed putting their beaks through sponges to protect their beaks from abrasion and irritation as they search for fish in coral reefs.36

Primates have been the object of intense study in the area of tool use. Simple examples include chimpanzee use of stones as hammers to crack nuts37 and gorilla use of sticks to measure water depth in ponds and as walking sticks.38 Complex tool use and manufacture by chimpanzees feeding on termites in the Republic of Congo has been extensively documented by Crickette Sanz of the Department of Primatology at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Dave Morgan of the Department of Biological Anthropology at Cambridge University and Steve Gulick of Wildland Security.39

The largest termites in Africa, the genus Macrotermes, are the most commonly sought by chimpanzees. Macrotermes muelleri are found in mound nests protruding above the soil surface and Macrotermes nobilis are found in underground nests. Chimpanzees have been found to use separate methods for feeding off each type of termite nest. They fashion and bring different tools depending on the type of nest they are going to visit.

For above ground mounds, Chimpanzees brought a “fishing probe” and used a nearby twig to poke holes in the mound to access the underlying nest. Chimpanzees were seen preparing the fishing probes. They would select a stalk, break it to the right size, pull off the broad leaf on one end and turn the other end into a brush by pulling it through their clenched teeth several times to fray the end into a “brush” tip. The surface mound is covered by tiny entry and exit holes that have been refilled by termite workers after use. The Chimpanzees would use a small twig to puncture one of these holes accessing the underlying nest. They would insert the fishing probe into the hole. When soldier termites attacked the probe the Chimpanzee would withdraw the probe and eat termites attached to the probe.

For below ground nests, Chimpanzees brought a fishing probe and a stout stick. The stout stick was used to puncture the ground creating an access tunnel to the underground termite chambers. Once the pathway was created they inserted the fishing probe and fished for termites.

In a termite foraging group of 54 individuals, 29 were observed showing these specific behaviors. Of interest is that the behavior was recorded by remote cameras which showed chimpanzees arriving at termite nests carrying puncturing and/or fishing tools on 45 separate occasions. During 714 camera days of surveillance, 69 chimpanzee group visits to eight nest locations were recorded.

Beyond these earlier cited findings, researchers have observed other chimpanzee behavior encompassing tool making or more specifically weapon making. In the first recorded use of a lethal weapon by an animal other than Homo sapiens, chimpanzees in Senegal have been observed fashioning and using a sharpened stick to thrust into holes or depressions in trees to kill a small nocturnal primate called a bush baby.40 In twenty-two recorded instances multiple chimpanzees were observed hunting in this manner. One successful kill was observed where the dead “bushbaby” was subsequently eaten. The significance of these observations is the evident problem solving behavior and construction of tools or weapons with specific characteristics to match the required use. Of significance beyond use of the tools/weapons was the transmission of the knowledge of the tools to a large number of chimpanzees in the various groups.41

While opposable thumbs are subject to physical inspection, tool and weapon construction and use are identified through observation. Intellectual attributes are more difficult to study and verify. Self awareness and empathy for others are clearly intellectual insights and as such are typically not directly observable. These attributes can only be inferred from observed behavior. In these cases what is observable is behavior which implies achievement of an intellectual state.

Self awareness has been characterized in The Cognitive Animal by Gallup, Anderson, and Shillito as “The ability to become the object of your own attention. When you see yourself in a mirror, you are literally the object of your own attention, but most organisms respond to themselves in mirrors as if confronted by another organism. The ability to correctly infer the identity of the image in the mirror requires a pre-existing sense of self on the part of the organism making the inference. Without a sense of self, how would you know who you were seeing when confronted with your reflection in a mirror?”42

This view has led to two of the more widely used methods of detecting self awareness which are the mirror and mark tests developed by Gordon G. Gallup Jr. beginning in 1969. The original mirror test was performed with individually caged chimpanzees which were exposed to a full length mirror outside their cages for ten days. While initially responding to the image in the mirror with a variety of social displays as if seeing another chimpanzee, after a few days the animals transitioned from social to self-oriented actions. Their behavior changed in ways that indicated the animal knew it was looking at its own reflection. This led researchers to form the impression the chimpanzees had learned to recognize themselves.

Following the mirror tests Gallup developed the mark test. In this test an animal is anesthetized and marked on its head, face or shoulders in some way that is visible in a mirror but not visible without a reflection. The mark is put on the subject while it is unconscious so that it is not consciously aware that it has been marked. Then when it is confronted by its marked image in a mirror the researchers watch to see if it is drawn to the marks on its own body in some way demonstrating that it knows it is looking at its own image.

In the original research after anesthesia and marking with non toxic and nonodorous red dye on the brow above an eye and the top half of the opposite ear, the chimps were observed for some days without a mirror. During this time they rarely touched the marked parts of their bodies. When the mirror was reintroduced outside their cages however, their reaction was immediate, the chimpanzees watched themselves in the mirror as they guided their fingers to the marks on their faces and ears. In addition to touching the marks repeatedly, some chimps reportedly smelled their fingers.

As an extension of the initial study of the chimpanzees, the same test was administered to three different species of monkeys: stumptailed, rhesus and cynomolgus macaques. The behavior of the three groups of monkeys never changed from social displays as if they were in the presence of another monkey. Even after exposure for over three weeks to the mirrors, none of the monkeys exhibited self directed behavior. This led researchers to conclude that the capacity for self awareness might be limited to the great apes that are most closely related to human beings.

This conclusion has been supported over the years through a number of additional studies that have included dozens of species. Tests have included numerous other primates including lemurs, bushbabies, squirrel monkeys, marmosets, tamarins, capuchin monkeys, baboons, macaques and gibbons. So far self awareness has been demonstrated in chimpanzees, orangutans and bonobos. Interestingly it has not been seen in gorillas.

In the intervening decades since the beginning of the mirror and the mark tests, test subjects have included human infants and toddlers. Self awareness behavior is seldom seen before about 18 months of age. Up until this time children show social responses to the images in the mirror which include vocalizations, smiling, coyness and avoidance. Beyond human subjects recent tests have focused on bottlenose dolphins and Asian elephants, both of which have successfully demonstrated self awareness. Dolphins were studied at the New York Aquarium in Brooklyn 43and Sea Life Park Hawaii.44 Three Asian elephants were studied at the Bronx Zoo in New York City.45

Study of avian brains has been relatively limited until a recent finding of self recognition and awareness exhibited by magpies.46 In research conducted by Helmut Prior of Goethe University of Frankfurt, magpies, along with crows and ravens, joined apes, bottlenose dolphins, elephants and humans as the only animals known to see a mirror image and understand they are looking at themselves.47 In these experiments this family of birds, the Corvids, marked with red dots on their necks when placed in front of a mirror tried to touch the dot with their beak or with their foot.

Recent speculation suggests that self awareness is related to the evolutionary development of empathy. Empathy is when an animal demonstrates it is aware of and sensitive to the feelings, thoughts or experiences of another. It is when it can vicariously experience similar feelings without any explicit communication from one animal to another.

Gordon Gallup was first to hypothesize a connection between self awareness and empathy. Research for example shows great apes express “consolation” behavior with each other while monkeys do not. This capability appears consistent with mirror self recognition only in apes but not monkeys. The addition of dolphins and elephants to the small list of animals testing positive for mirror self recognition is striking because both animals are believed to be highly empathic and known for “targeted helping” which is helping that appears to take the specific needs of others into account. There have been numerous reports of both elephants and dolphins physically supporting or trying to lift up other elephants or dolphins which have been injured or incapacitated.

The theory that the two capabilities, self recognition/awareness and ability to empathize, are related is based on reasoning that the ability to recognize or infer the mental states of others is an extension of one’s awareness of one’s own mental state. Under this theory, the ability to empathize comes from an ability to use personal experience of feelings to model the existence of comparable feelings in others. Gallup, Anderson, and Shillito in The Cognitive Animal state that “Knowledge of self is an inductive springboard for an inferential knowledge of others.”

Additional anatomical research points to self awareness and empathy as emanating from the right cerebral hemisphere of the brain, more specifically the right prefrontal cortex. Gallup, et al. cites this area of the brain as appearing “to be involved in self-recognition, self-evaluation, episodic (autobiographical) memory, introspection, humor, and mental state attribution.”

Finally, more recent study of the brain of gorillas shows they have a smaller, less developed frontal cortex (Semendeferi 1999) which is consistent with their lack of capacity for self recognition. Gallup, Anderson, and Shillito further state that “Gorilla brains are not only smaller in areas that have been implicated in social intelligence, but they are also less structurally/anatomically lateralized than those of the chimpanzees and orangutan counterparts.” (LeMay and Geschwind 1975).

While the research leads us to conclude our characteristics put us into a very small group of animals, we are not alone in possessing them. There is no doubt about Homo sapiens’ dominance of all other life on our planet. There should also be no doubt about our kinship with all of the other life. Charles Darwin provided a succinct summary when he said, “There is no fundamental difference between man and the higher mammals in their mental faculties … The difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind.”48

Evolutionary development of self recognition and the consequent ability to feel empathy are fundamental capabilities allowing the formation of societies. Recognition of one’s own feelings coupled with the understanding of how others will and do feel allows people to moderate and overcome more instinctual and animalistic impulses. To the extent a population’s feelings and reactions to a situation are shared these capabilities form the underpinnings of social mores and the development of moral codes that support the inner workings of larger societies. In this context, self awareness and empathy provide a significant basis for the creation of the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”.

It is the confluence of many attributes in humans that enable us to differentiate ourselves from other animals. While other attributes could be argued as powerful contributors to our further progress, language, spoken and written, allows the sharing of information between members of our species. The written or recorded word gives us the unique ability to vicariously learn another individual’s knowledge without need of personal experience, contact with another or observation of another’s action. Today, this is clearly accelerating Homo sapiens’ differentiation.

Georges Anderla, a French economist and statistician, converted knowledge into binary units in order to provide a means of quantifying knowledge to measure its growth and acceleration.49 Using this approach to estimate the growth of knowledge since the birth of Christ, Anderla showed the rate of doubling of human knowledge is accelerating with the passage of time. Using all knowledge in existence at the birth of Christ as his basic unit of knowledge, he estimated the first doubling of human knowledge took 1500 years, the second doubling 250 years, the third 150 years, the fourth 50 years, the fifth 10 years, the sixth 7 years and the seventh 6 years. Anderla’s calculations were performed in 1973. All evidence suggests a continued rate of acceleration. This can be measured by a variety of factors including the number of books written, expansion of internet data bases, patents granted, etc. We are clearly in the information age and our ability to generate it, store it and use it is arguably now the most significant differentiating factor for human kind.

Another aspect of self awareness is how it enables the fully conscious decision making of human beings. We have touched on free will and the debate which preceded acceptance of the uncertainty principle, and yet the uncertainty principle is not as directly and obviously tied to the exercise of free will as is the evolutionary development of mental faculties creating self awareness. Pavlov, Maslow and others have devised intellectual constructs to explain various behaviors. Observing life forms we see a continuum of actions that range from complete randomness at one extreme to conscious decision making at the other extreme.

In the most basic forms of life, single celled organisms, we see continuous movement. Absent obvious external stimulation or proximity to a nutrient source, there is no apparent pattern to actions which appear random. If we introduce an external stimulus, an electrical shock, we see physical reaction to the stimulus with movement away from its source. We can characterize this action as a reflex as the organism seeks to avoid an unpleasant or threatening stimulus. We easily see how random motion becomes reflex in reaction to stimuli. Greater predictability of behavior comes when reflexes become instinctive. Of interest is how and when instinctive behavior gives way to conscious decision making.

With higher life forms behavior becomes more complex. Pavlov experimented with stimulus and response behaviors in dogs. Specifically he defined an innate reflex as something the animal does instinctively in response to a stimulus as opposed to a conditioned reflex which was learned behavior in response to negative or positive stimuli.50

He demonstrated that an innate reflex, salivation in the presence of food, could be associated with another stimulus, the ringing of a bell, after the animal learned that the bell was followed by food. He showed that after the learned association, the ringing bell was sufficient to produce salivation. He documented simple innate reflex behaviors, such as the pecking reflex in newborn chicks, and more complex “chain reflex” sequences such as avian nest building during mating seasons.

He concluded there was no difference between reflexes and instincts stating, “It follows from all this that instincts and reflexes are like the inevitable responses of the organism to internal and external stimuli, and therefore we have no need to call them by two different terms. Reflex has the better claim of the two, in that it has been used from the very beginning with a strictly scientific connotation.”51

Pavlov described a full range of simple to complex reflexes at one point talking about an “investigatory reflex” he called the “What-is-it?” reflex. He observed, “The biological significance of this reflex is enormous. If the animal were not provided with this reaction, its life, one may say, would always hang by a thread. In man this reflex is highly developed, manifesting itself in the form of an inquisitiveness which gives birth to scientific thought, ensuring for us a most reliable and unrestricted orientation in the surrounding world.”52

He also described “the reflex of self-defense” citing “The strong carnivorous animal preys on weaker animals, and these if they waited to defend themselves until the teeth of the foe were in their flesh would speedily be exterminated. The case takes on a different aspect when the defense reflex is called into play by the sights and sounds of the enemy’s approach. Then the prey has a chance to save itself by hiding or by flight.”53 In this way, Pavlov has characterized apparently very complex behaviors as reflexive and not involving conscious decision making.

Accepting these definitions, how do we discern the difference between nonconscious reflexes and instinctual responses and conscious thought that can lead to decision making? Christof Koch, the Lois and Victor Troendle Professor of Cognitive and Behavioral Biology at the California Institute of Technology, has explored consciousness in his book A Quest for Consciousness: a Neurobiological Approach.54 He describes complex reflex behaviors as “zombie agents” or routine behaviors that human beings perform constantly without even thinking. He suggests that conscious decision making is shown when there is a delay between the stimulus and the execution of action. He believes delay demonstrates the involvement of conscious thought as a precursor to an action of a biological organism.  Further, Koch describes the consciousness necessary to deal with situations requiring choices and the self awareness embodied in the notion of the homunculus, the “me” that exists within each of us.

Christof Koch writes, “As I just mentioned, this is one of the pivotal roles of consciousness in the life of an organism. . . .to plan for multi-contingency situations that can’t be dealt with by the non-conscious sensory-motor agents. It is probably the projections to and from the frontal lobes, responsible for planning, thought, and reasoning and the seat of the self, that create the powerful feeling that there is a homunculus inside my head, the true ‘me.’ The little person—the original meaning of the term homunculus—is part of the front of the cortex observing the back. Or, in anatomical terms, the anterior singulate, prefrontal, and premotor cortices are receiving a strong, driving synaptic input from the back of the cortex.”55

Again, we have a researcher pointing to the evolution of the prefrontal cortex as the seat of self awareness and relating it to the thought required to choose between multiple options or conscious decision making.  It is reasonable to conclude this critical integration of a highly developed consciousness of self with the ability to conduct conscious decision making is one of the most significant differentiators setting human beings apart from most, if not all, of the animal kingdom. The abilities to identify a problem, absorb large amounts of information, relate a problem and its consequences to oneself, conceive of options to choose from, decide on a course of action and implement the actions in aggregate, are representative of the highest stage of human development.

In summary, most of the characteristics cited as making humans unique are exhibited by other animals, albeit to a lesser extent than in Homo sapiens. This includes opposable thumbs, tools and weapons making and use, self awareness and empathy for others. We have observed that scientists credit the continued development of the right prefrontal cortex in the right cerebral hemisphere of the brain with setting a small number of animals apart from all others. This is believed to be the source of our self recognition and empathic capabilities. Further it is believed to play a significant role in the consciousness of the human species, the place where self is defined and where conscious decision making is initiated.

Other powerful contributors to human differentiation include language, spoken and written, and the ability to vicariously learn another individual’s knowledge without need of personal experience or actual observation. We discussed George Anderla and his computations documenting the explosion of information to which humans have access. We observed that today’s differentiators from most of the animal kingdom are our abilities to identify problems, absorb large amounts of information, relate problems and their consequences to one’s self, conceive of a number of options from which to choose, make conscious decisions on courses of action, and implement the actions.

 

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Beyond Animal, Ego and Time: Chap 2 – Life, Death, Biogenic Sphere, Chap 3 – The Universe

Posted on 16 February 2013 by Jerry

(I’ve decided to serialize my book on this website.  As an incentive to readers to return to the site, each month I will post at least one Chapter of the book until the entire book is posted.  Go into the Archives for earlier chapters.  The book provides context for the blog, clearly explaining the underlying philosophy and identifying critical issues of our time. )

CHAPTER 2 

Life, Death and the Biogenic Sphere –

Each of us at some point realizes the inevitability of death. When we first confront our mortality we find it a frightening contemplation. Fear comes with imagination of what death or the process of dying will be like. How many of us have held or expelled our breath trying to anticipate the sensation we will experience a moment before or a moment after death? How many have thought of death as nothingness, without sensation, with no sense of time, and an end to personality and memory?

Beyond the physical level, thoughts move to larger questions of the existence of a soul and death as a transition to an afterlife. Is there an afterlife? Do we determine our fate in death with our actions in life? Do we reincarnate, returning to life in another form?

We know living things have two manifestations of existence, matter and energy. Albert Einstein informed us about the interchangeability and mutability of matter and energy. We know that all living things die. Death is the cessation of a life embodiment that contains matter and energizes it to animation. When the embodiment disintegrates, the matter and energy that constitute physical existence disperse into the universe. With disintegration and dispersion, individual consciousness of time and awareness of self cease.

Life is a profound phenomenon. As far as we know there was a time when there was no life in the universe. All was inanimate. Today’s uncertain but prevailing view is that an estimated 13.6 to 14 billion years ago a Big Bang occurred that caused the universe to expand from an infinitesimally small speck to an immense structure in fractions of a second. After an estimated 100 – 300 million years the universe cooled and matter coalesced into the first stars.3 These stars were hydrogen and helium giants that formed from clumps of matter that were between five hundred and a thousand times the size of our sun. Sophisticated computer simulations suggest they burned extremely hot with surface temperatures of 100,000 kelvins or about 17 times higher than our sun’s surface temperature. They burned for no more than a few million years when they collapsed in on themselves and exploded as supernovae. The intensity of the explosions created heavier elements adding carbon, iron and oxygen to the preexistent hydrogen and helium. Several generations of stars came into and went out of existence adding progressively heavier atoms and molecules to the composition of the universe. As heavier elements proliferated, the life span of stars grew and it was possible for planets to coalesce and form around them.

Somewhere between 13.2 and 11.2 billion years ago the window for the development of life opened. At that point stars had sufficient stability, solar systems and planets had formed and the right constituent elements were in place. Today’s prevailing view is life would not begin for another seven to nine billion years.

No one has perfect knowledge of how life began on our planet. There clearly had to be the right physical environment, chemical ingredients, time and repetitive processes for life’s beginning and perpetuation. What follows are descriptions of results from various origin of life experiments conducted over many years that show the circumstances life’s basic constituents could have come from and the possible processes that could have allowed life to begin and flourish.4 It is not necessary for the non scientist to understand each of these experiments and the resulting molecules or chemicals and their specific relationship to the most complex end result which is life. No one has successfully created new life from scratch in a laboratory. They have conducted numerous experiments which show how many of life’s constituent parts could have been created under the right natural set of circumstances in the earth’s history.

First results of the famous 1953 Miller and Urey experiments were criticized because they used the wrong combination of atmospheric components to simulate Earth’s early atmosphere. The experiments did demonstrate however that by mixing together varying amounts of ammonia, hydrogen cyanide, and ketones or aldehydes one could cause the chemicals to combine or synthesize to form molecules and macromolecules found in living organisms.

Subsequent study of experimental results from one Miller apparatus that simulated the spark discharge synthesis of lightening in the steam rich environment of a volcanic eruption showed synthesis of 22 amino acids, some of the chief components of proteins that are synthesized by living cells, and five amines.5 Amines are a class of basic organic compounds derived from ammonia by replacement of hydrogen with one or more monovalent hydrocarbon radicals. In addition, analysis of meteorites showed evidence of amino acids from similar reactions on meteorite parent bodies elsewhere in the early solar system.6 Laboratory shock compression simulations of meteorites hitting Earth’s early oceans yielded a variety of organic (carbon based) compounds, such as fatty acids and amines. When ammonia, which previous studies demonstrated could be produced by such impacts, was added to the beginning ingredients of the shock compression simulations, the experiment also yielded glycine (a simple amino acid).7

We know there had to be concentrations of these non-living molecules that combined with others to form polymers and carbon based compounds. We assume they accumulated in the early oceans and were concentrated in evaporating tidal lagoons or were absorbed onto mineral surfaces. In the laboratory, absorption onto mineral surfaces has been shown to promote concentration and combination of molecules into polymers. Experiments show that clays, metal ions or groups of ions having a positive charge, imidazole derivatives and others act as catalysts initiating prebiotic reactions and polymerization.8

It is thought that as the polymerized molecules became bigger and bigger and consequently more complex, they developed an ability to bind together and interact with each other to expand the number and type of catalysts that could create a variety of reactions. As the variety of molecules and possible catalytic reactions grew, it is thought that a polymer probably developed the ability to catalyze its own duplication.

For some scientists this would represent the first life on the planet, the first appearance of a living organism defined as a molecular entity capable of multiplication, heredity, and variation. It is generally believed the first self-replicating entity evolved in the single stranded world of ribonucleic acid (RNA). RNA is thought to have later initiated the double stranded deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) molecule. While there are suggested alternatives to replace one or more of these hypothesized steps, it is clear that we can propose a series of developments leading to the initiation of life.9

When talking about life in the universe we must differentiate between life as we know it, which began an estimated 3.5 to 4 billion years ago, and any other life that may have developed. It is possible that life has blinked in and out of existence numerous times in the history of our planet. Our life is distinguished by its sustainability and longevity.

Somewhere in a sequence of specific circumstances, our strand of life began and its process was launched. When looking back at the series of circumstances that led up to life, one can arbitrarily pick different points or junctures and identify them as when life began. For this reason our life’s beginning and time of origin will always be subject to debate. Putting aside a description of the first living entity and when precisely it occurred, most people would agree there was a first moment when our strand of life began and further there was a specific first organism.

One can imagine the conditions for the beginning of life on our planet in some geography. We can imagine the first organism as the result of a thunderstorm providing energy to a vast primordial soup full of potential. There may have been a vast number of individual entities poised to make that last change that would initiate life. One entity made the transition to become the first replicating and sustainable living organism.  Its importance is that it initiated the path that we share to the present and beyond. So while there may have been others, this organism was the first member of the sustaining and surviving life sequence of which we have knowledge, the first organism that enabled all that followed. It was our first true life form and the beginning ancestor of us all.

In On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin described the process of natural selection where characteristics that enhance survivability enable some individuals within a species to survive when circumstances change. Darwin described a process where a mutation leads to a trait important to an individual’s survival. The mutated individual survives and through procreation passes the trait to subsequent individuals in following generations. A simplified view suggests that one individual (one) has a mutation and passes the trait to many (many) individuals through reproduction. In a subsequent generation another of these individuals (one) experiences the next selected mutation, which is then passed through procreation to many surviving others.

This is the simple evolutionary process of one-to-many-to-one progression. The relentless variation of life’s genetic options over billions of years produced a sufficiently wide variety of attributes and breadth of characteristics for natural selection to have what life needed to survive.

The progression of successive generations is a unique aspect of life. The relatedness of succeeding generations binds all living things into one family of existence, an unbroken chain of absolute connectedness from the first surviving individual through cell division and procreation to today’s myriad of individuals.

A biogenic sphere, a thin layer of animate matter, encapsulates our planet. It began with the infinitesimally small contribution of the first living organism and, through procreation and growth, multiplied with each succeeding generation – a simple example of the power of the life force. Since the first infinitesimally small organism, life has exponentially expanded its physical mass to include the billions of human beings and all the plants, animals, and organisms that inhabit the planet. From its infinitesimal beginning, life has evolved through an unbroken progression of generations to a combined living biomass of incredible proportions. This exponential geometrical progression of life incorporates more and more of the inanimate universe into the life process.

We can clearly see and experience the immediate impact of living matter on this planet. We need only venture outside to see the wondrous diversity of life; walk barefoot in the grass or marvel at the beauty of a hummingbird or the perfection of the flower that provides its nectar. This is in sharp contrast to the surfaces of other planets, moons, asteroids, and comets that human beings have examined. We have seen the wonder of the earth as our colorful planet with its life producing ecology rises over the horizon of the monotonous grayscales we experience on the moon. We have electronically stared out across the rocky expanse of the uniform brown and orange hued surface of Mars. We have seen satellite images of the rings of Saturn, the misshapen cratered surfaces of a number of distant moons, collected samples of a comet and have witnessed the disruption of the atmospheric swirls of Jupiter as a comet careened into its surface. While marvelous to behold across the vast distances of space, we can only be struck by the stark sterility and enormity of the inanimate universe.

Beyond what we readily perceive is another manifestation of life’s existence that becomes a part of the biogenic sphere. This is the contribution of once living matter.  This life matter has been dispersed into the planet’s environment as living organisms die. When a living organism dies its life embodiment ceases and disintegrates. The matter and energy that constituted its physical existence disperse into the environment as a constituent of the biogenic sphere. And there it stays. It is imprisoned in the planet’s grip by the gravitational field. This life mass is added to the biogenic layer of living matter that surrounds the earth.

Each once living organism has dispersed its matter and energy into the gravitational field of planet Earth. All of the matter and energy that has ever been involved in the sustainable life process encircles our planet. The matter from every living thing from the lowliest bacteria or fungus to the most intelligent mammal is here surrounding us. Adding together the collective material mass of matter and energy involved in all present and past living organisms we have a truly incalculable volume of life matter surrounding our planet.

To briefly summarize, we know the life process animates an inanimate universe. Life incorporates progressively more and more matter unto itself as an organism grows and species proliferate. Sustainable life began with a single individual capable of passing its genetic code and life knowledge on to subsequent individuals. Through a continuous one-to-many-to-one process, mutations occurring within single individuals enabled them to better adapt and survive and pass their genetic code through procreation to subsequent generations. All of the animate matter of all living organisms and that of once living entities is caught in the Earth’s gravitational field and contained within a thin biogenic sphere that encircles the planet.

 

CHAPTER 3 

The Universe

Much scientific activity has focused on determining the fundamental nature of the universe. Human perception has always been limited by our sensory capabilities. As a consequence, expanding our perceptual abilities through the use of technology has become an ongoing pursuit. Since our first sight of stars in the night sky and speculation about constituent elements of matter, we have tirelessly expanded our perceptual abilities to see farther out into the universe and deeper into its matter.

We have looked into all things small and far in the universe since the early 1600’s with Zacharias Janssen’s development of the compound lens microscope and contribution to the invention of the refractor optical telescope with Hans Lippershey and Jacob Metius, with subsequent refinements by Galileo. From our initial use of the visible light portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, we have progressed from refracting to reflecting telescopes using visible light to infrared, ultraviolet, x-ray and radio; from earthbound to space bound and from the naked eye to computer enhanced to improve our abilities to explore outer space.

Similarly, we have moved past traditional optical microscopes to electron and scanning tunneling microscopes. We have gone from particle accelerators, such as linear accelerators and synchrotrons, to colliding particle machines of ever increasing electron volts having now passed a trillion electron volts or TeV level. The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) outside Geneva, which crosses back and forth between France and Switzerland, has boosted the energy of moving protons to about 7 TeV (teraelectronvolts). At full power, the LHC will propel trillions of protons around its 17 kilometer ring (~10.5 miles) 11,245 times per second at 99.99% the speed of light.10 At four intersection and collision points the LHC will produce more than 600 million particle collisions every second.11 The Large Hadron Collider was built by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) to test various predictions in physics, including the existence of the Higgs boson which now has been identified.  Researchers are still investigating a large family of new particles predicted by supersymmetry. The term Hadron refers to particles composed of quarks.

Recent investigation of the inner universe has increased the credibility of the Standard Model of particle physics which describes the particle structure of visible matter around us.12 Developed and defined in the 1970s and subject to significant experimental verification in the 1980s, the Standard Model has largely been substantiated. Its description of 17 particles, fermions and bosons, explains the preponderance of phenomena observed in the immediate universe. It describes three generations of fermions (quarks and leptons) where the difference between the generations is in the masses of the particles. In the first generation are the up quark, down quark, electron, and electron neutrino. In the second generation are the charm quark, strange quark, muon, and muon neutrino. In the third generation are the top quark, bottom quark, tauon, and tauon neutrino. These represent the matter particles.

In addition the model describes the bosons or force carrier particles. These are the Higgs, w, z, photon and gluon particles. The bosons integrate and relate three of the four known forces. Electromagnetism is represented by photons. The weak force, which contributes to the formation of the chemical elements, is accounted for with the w and z bosons. The strong force, which holds protons, neutrons and nuclei together, is explained with the gluons. The Higgs boson interacts with the other particles to give them mass.

On a universal scale we have gone from physically observing our solar system’s planets and moons to perceiving the shape of our galaxy, the Milky Way, and our position within it. Not only have we seen other galaxies in every direction, we have recognized galaxy clusters and ultimately super galaxy clusters. We have also discovered pulsars, quasars, black holes, neutron stars and a myriad of other space phenomena. We have extended our perceptual abilities billions of light years beyond our inherent perceptual limitations as human beings.

We now understand that obvious effects of occurrences at our normal perceptual level have related affects at other perceptual levels. For example, we know the physics of a meteor hitting the earth is more complex than our superficial perception of a rock moving through the atmosphere and hitting the ground. We understand the myriad of forces at the molecular and atomic levels in both the meteor and the surface of the Earth, from the heat generated to the explosive force at impact. We also know that very large meteors can even alter the planet’s magnetic field. Anomalies in the magnetic field are one of the effects scientists look for when searching for large meteor impact sites.

When compared to the span of life’s existence, the recognition of multiple levels of magnitude and perception is a very recent development. We are only in a beginning phase of recognizing the connectedness and interdependency of the various levels of existence. What happens at our perceptual level has interrelated impacts at the subatomic, atomic, molecular, maybe planetary, solar system, and galactic levels. Of course it requires an event of significant magnitude to simultaneously and measurably affect all of these levels.

This exploration has continued to frame a recurring question about the nature of our universe. Is it finite or infinite? This question has occupied thinkers through the centuries and has crossed many people’s minds at one time or another. Mathematicians, philosophers, and theologians have given much thought to infinity as they have tried to determine if it is merely an intellectual construct or something actually occurring in the universe. Some have thought of infinity as if it were a thing in and of itself sometimes referring to it as an infinity or the infinity.

Astrophysicists and cosmologists have debated whether infinity is a physical reality. Theologians have approached infinity as an attribute of an eternal being. It has also been described as a characteristic of something else, such as time. In addition, infinity has been dismissed by others as something beyond human comprehension and experience. David Hume observed that “Tis universally allow’d, that the capacity of the mind is limited, and can never attain a full and adequate conception of infinity: And tho’ it were not allow’d, ‘twou’d be sufficiently evident from the plainest observation and experience.”13 Aristotle described infinity as having only a potential for existence.

Infinity is more easily dealt with in the precision of mathematics. Studied in the context of a mathematical abstraction, mathematicians have defined many types of infinities, of integers and rational numbers, of cardinal and ordinal numbers. We are all familiar with the notion of a sequence of numbers and generally accept the proposition that one could continue to count for an infinite period of time, continually creating and naming progressively larger and larger numbers. Gautama Buddha, thought to have lived sometime between 563 BCE and 400 BCE (before the Common Era a.k.a. before Christ), is said to have written a number beginning with the number one followed by seventeen zero’s. He named this number an achobya.

Edward Kasner, an American mathematician who lived from 1878 to 1955, reportedly asked his nine year old nephew, Milton Sirotta, what to call a number with a one followed by 100 zeros. Milton is reported to have said the number could be called a googol whereupon Kasner named it a Googol. Building on the googol, others defined a number which begins with one and has a googol of zero’s or naughts after it (10100). This was called a Googolplex. The question remains whether infinity is more than simply a mathematical abstraction. Does it describe a core attribute of the universe?

It is difficult to think about infinity with the tool of language which is subject to interpretation and contradiction. Our language is problematic when trying to discuss or describe an infinite universe because so many words have a finite context. The word universe itself implies a single thing. One definition of universe is that it is the entire space-time continuum in which we exist, together with all the energy and matter within it. These words and phrases define the universe as finite. The word universe is often modified by words such as observable or known or visible. At least these terms refer to only the finite part we can perceive and leave the unseen or unknown to be infinite.

For centuries we have employed every available technology to explore our surroundings. As previously described, we have probed our surroundings using every known form of electromagnetic wave. In addition, we have availed ourselves of every achievable vantage point going so far as to look at the cosmos from instruments placed in outer space, such as with the Hubble space telescope which avoided the distortion caused by the Earth’s atmosphere and produced extremely sharp images with almost no background light. Furthermore, we have sent space missions hurtling into progressively farther reaches of space to extend our knowledge and indirect experience.

These investigations have produced more and more evidence that something always lies beyond our present perceptual limitations. Our experience is like a hallway that keeps elongating as we walk down it. We do not perceive a limit or an edge that is coming closer as we travel towards it. A limit to the known universe has been hypothesized however. With each extension of our perceptual ability we are theoretically looking farther and farther into the past at light that began its journey to our perception at a point and time closer and closer to a hypothesized big bang which many believe to be the beginning of the known universe. There are alternate hypotheses, however, that suggest for instance a cyclic universe.14 These theories propose a universe which has undergone an endless series of implosions or contractions reaching a point of maximum density and a reversal leading to a big “bounce” or expansion phase representing the next sequential big bang.15

That the universe is infinite is by definition unverifiable, since it is impossible to experience or absolutely verify an infinite state.  Even at that hypothetical point where we would see no further light, when we are looking at entities and light very near a hypothesized big bang or an absoute beginning of the known universe, the fact that we may not perceive light further away does not indicate a finite universe.  In an infinite universe it will only indicate a limitation in our perceptual ability.

Even the scale of the universe is beyond anything we could verify.  It is inconceivable that we will ever travel to the limits of our present perception or a distance sufficient to look back at a finite universe so as to develop a mental image of its existence. This is especially true given a present hypothesis within the scientific community that our universe is expanding and its expansion is accelerating. Finite or infinite, the scale of our universe is and surely will remain beyond direct human experience.

Since physical inspection is not possible, our resolution of the question of the nature of the universe must be an intellectual hypothesized perception. It must be driven by inductive reasoning and the scientific method. An inductive approach starts with observations of nature to find a few, powerful statements about how nature works. These statements become the basis for powerful laws and theories. In the scientific method, observation of nature is the authority. If an idea conflicts with what we understand happens in nature, the idea must be changed or abandoned or our knowledge of what happens in nature must change.

While it is impossible to directly prove or disprove the universe is infinite, it may be possible to come to the inverse or negative conclusion that the universe is not finite. There can be no greater reservoir of observations of nature than the entire collective human experience. That experience shows, with no known exception, that there is no single point, object or phenomenon beyond which nothing exists. There is no human experience of a finite end to our surroundings. Every single thing we are aware of has limits and boundaries. Also, beyond each finite thing is something else, and indeed an incalculable number of something elses. In the face of this overwhelming body of experience we cannot postulate an end or terminus anywhere. While intellectually it may be difficult to visualize, conceive of or accept infinity, given our experience, it is impossible to conclude there is any contradiction to virtually every human experience of there being no end to the universe.

In summary, the universe may be either finite or infinite but we will never be able to verify either conclusion. Its scale is beyond our perceptual limits and what we will ever be able to navigate. The totality of human experience supports the infinity of the universe because that which surrounds is clearly not bounded. Therefore we assert and accept an infinite universe.

There are cosmologists that have speculated about all manner of different structures for the universe. Some have conceived of a curved universe in a saddle shape. Some have focused on String Theory which tries to reconcile quantum mechanics and general relativity leading to thoughts of many new dimensions with multiple universes. Some have surmised that within an infinite universe there would of necessity be duplicate universes. While all of these intellectual pursuits provoke challenging discussion, and may even suggest further areas for investigation, they go beyond the bounds of human experience and presently verifiable science. We must not be swept up in the novelty of an intriguing thought as if it has some measure of reality or even possibility simply by virtue of its articulation.

Accordingly, these speculations should have little or no impact on our conclusions. When we use the phrase infinite universe, it is used in the broadest possible context. It subsumes thoughts of alternate dimensions, other universes and any other manifestations of which we may conceive.

 

 



[1] Albert Einstein, referring to his Special Theory of Relativity, indicated there is no such thing as simultaneity. He proposed that in order to ascertain the simultaneity of two events there would need to be a rigid body of reference that would produce spatial co-ordinates that other events could be compared to. Further there would have to be an ability to ascertain a measurement of the difference in time of multiple points of local time with some facility to set multiple clocks relative to each other. He concluded these conditions cannot be met and as a consequence there is no such thing as simultaneity. Such is the fundamental nature of relativity. Following this premise, absent the possibility of simultaneity, we assert there was a first moment when sustainable life began and a specific first individual.

[2] The phrase “life matter” refers to life’s material and energy states interchangeably and inclusively.

[3] It should be recognized that an extremely small amount of animate or once animate matter may have escaped the planet’s gravitational field on human space craft sent into outer space.

 

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Beyond Animal, Ego and Time – Contents, Preface, and Chapter 1: Our Search for Understanding

Posted on 04 February 2013 by Jerry

I’ve decided to serialize my book on this website.  As an incentive to readers to return to the site, each month I will post at least one Chapter of the book until the entire book is posted.  The book provides context for the blog, clearly explaining the underlying philosophy and identifying critical issues of our time.

The Photo to the left appears on the cover of my book.  It is of a mouse embryo with working DNA from an extinct Tasmanian Tiger.  Collagen DNA from tiger museum specimens was microinjected into the embryo by Andrew Pask and Richard Behringer, University of Texas, and Marilyn Renfree, University of Melbourne, Australia.  A marker gene was also injected to turn cartiligage green if the tiger DNA switched on, living once again when reintegrated into a living system.  Pask AJJ, Behringer RR, Renfree MB (2008) Resurrection of DNA Function In Vivo from an Extinct Genome.  PLoS ONE 3(5):e2240,doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0002240

Please feel free to comment or ask questions in the Reply block below.  I will read and respond.  I am interested in your feedback and open to your thoughts.  I hope you find these chapters thought provoking.

Beyond Animal, Ego and Time: The Human Odyssey

Table of Contents

Preface

Chapter 1: Our Search for Understanding

Chapter 2: Life, Death, and the Biogenic Sphere

Chapter 3: The Universe

Chapter 4: Uncertainty, Probability and Life

Chapter 5: Life’s Knowledge and Memory

Chapter 6: Human Uniqueness

Chapter 7: An Evolutionary Imperative

Chapter 8: Life’s Optional Future

Chapter 9: A Positive Life Experience Imperative

Chapter 10: Protect Life Imperative – Ozone Hole

Chapter 11: Protect Life Imperative – Climate Change

Chapter 12: Protect Life Imperative – Nuclear Weapons

Chapter 13: Protect Life Imperative – Synthetic Biology

Chapter 14: A Human Intervention Imperative

Chapter 15: Enhancing the Life Experience

Chapter 16: Transcending Egocentricity

Afterwords: The Significance of Insignificance

Addendum: Intervention Opportunities

Index

Sources

 

 Preface

I was in my late teens when I first wondered what life was all about. Raised in an irreligious environment, I was told I was baptized Episcopalian. But there were no prayers, no church services, and no blessings. While I received instruction on right and wrong and good and bad, there was no discussion about life, death or human purpose. Whenever those topics were approached, even obliquely, I was told I would have to figure it out for myself. That left me adrift in my own sea of uncertainty.

Over the years I explored various religions only to discover I was incapable of crossing the chasm of belief in the supernatural. I continued to feel an urgency to find answers to life’s questions however. I believed in the rational application of knowledge. I wondered if all of our knowledge about science would ever reveal our purpose, our reason for being or our unique usefulness in what has been called an indifferent universe. Was it something we could figure out like a complex formula? Or would our purpose be more like a nugget found while panning for gold, waiting to be discovered if only we looked in the right place. I remained convinced that answers to life’s great questions would only come from our knowledge. Answers would eventually emerge to satisfy those like myself who were seeking them. They would give us a new understanding of our place in the cosmology of the universe.

I always felt that rational answers would not have a supernatural foundation. They would neither support nor refute established religious views for they would be on an entirely different plane of thought. They would be based on the scientific assumptions of their time and would, once again, align our beliefs with our knowledge to minimize cognitive dissonance.

Just as many established religions teach that good behavior in the present is tied to a rewarding afterlife – going to heaven or a reincarnation to a higher status – I believed similar reinforcing behavioral mechanisms would emerge from a new, more knowledge-based cosmology. The resulting mechanisms would lead to human behavior that was necessary to the next phase of our existence. My intuition suggested this new cosmology would be simple and easy to understand, readily familiar and acceptable because it reflected what we already knew and believed. My quest for answers was a lifelong journey. No matter how involved I became in furthering my career, I never strayed too far from the search.

Beyond Animal, Ego and Time moves from a description of the physical nature of the universe, to life, human uniqueness, and the role only humans can fulfill in the future. It confronts life threatening developments from the ozone hole, global climate change, and nuclear weapons to synthetic biology. It ranges across a diverse array of topics and conveys a large amount of information leading to a series of conclusions that form the foundation of the philosophical beliefs I will present to the reader. For this reason, the individual facts are less important than the message expressed in each chapter.

As the chapters progress the topics generally move from the hard sciences, for example physics and genetics, to the humanities, human behavior and values. For this reason, people who are less comfortable with science should read the beginning chapters to understand the general context but avoid getting bogged down in the detail.

Finally, when we describe the beliefs people hold we invariably reduce them to a particular and unique set held by a single individual. This is the only way to think about what people believe because no two people hold identical views. Each of us, while we may fall into broad categories, shapes our beliefs to conform to our individual views of the world.

During my years of seeking, I went through various phases in my thinking. I was an aggressive atheist who was convinced there was no God and was intent on persuading those around me to see it my way. I became an intellectual bully, aggressively attacking the beliefs of others, not willing to recognize their right, and possible need, to believe in something I could not. Looking back I am embarrassed by my immature arrogance and I offer my apology to those who knew me then.

In the sixth Chapter of this book which investigates human uniqueness, I quote Ivan Pavlov who talked about a full range of simple to complex reflexes at one point describing an “investigatory reflex” he called the “What-is-it?” reflex.1 He observed, “In man this reflex is highly developed, manifesting itself in the form of an inquisitiveness which gives birth to scientific thought, ensuring for us a most reliable and unrestricted orientation in the surrounding world.” Pavlov describes this human inquisitiveness as a reflex that is instinctive and hardwired in our genetic code. He credits our inquisitiveness as an essential element of our ongoing survival.

Pavlov’s insight offers us an explanation as to why we have such a powerful need to make sense of it all. Embracing an offered cosmological, philosophical or religious system may satisfy a strong genetic drive deep within each of us. Those who can find an acceptable belief system among all the offered alternatives make modifications that allow their choice to fit their individual requirements. Their decision to choose and embrace a belief system may in turn satisfy a strong biological need.

In retrospect, this insight causes me to look back at what I was doing many years ago. I realize now that if I had argued successfully and caused someone to discard their belief system, while it certainly would have validated and reinforced my views, it would have been a harmful accomplishment. I would have been taking away something I could not replace. The net result for those I was assaulting would have been they might have the same emptiness and uncertainty in their life that I was feeling in mine. This conclusion has caused me to redouble my efforts to find an alternative that is personally acceptable. In brief I will attempt to provide an alternative that redefines human purpose.

CHAPTER 1

 Our Search for Understanding

 If you have ever looked into a clear night sky while lying on your back you have seen the broad outline of our galaxy, the Milky Way. You know the objects you see above you are most likely stars like our sun or other galaxies and that around and within them, in the darkness, are countless planets similar to those in our solar system. While you know you do not fully comprehend the distances involved, you can only be struck by the enormity of the universe. The wonder and curiosity you feel are a natural human reaction as old as we are. It results from one of the most basic human behaviors, our need to understand and through understanding bring an intellectual order to all that surrounds us.

One piece of the puzzle that most human beings, our stargazers, struggle with is their search for the purpose of life in general and their life in particular. Why are we here? Is there something we are meant to do? What am I to do? How can I bring value to my life and is that my purpose?

For most of us, these questions are daunting and their pursuit difficult. For many, the chosen alternative is to subordinate questions of purpose to the task of overcoming the challenges inherent in our daily lives in effect making survival or success our purpose. After this, the time that is left for true contemplation is often overwhelmed by the day-to-day distractions and minutiae that surround us. This makes recognition and pursuit of higher purpose illusive if not impossible. This book seeks to redress this failure and help all the stargazers find higher purpose for our lives.

So how should we describe our challenge to find meaningful answers to life’s questions? At a fundamental level, life organizes the matter around it for its survival. It uses hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, carbon, sulphur, phosphor and other trace elements (sodium, potassium, etc.) to assemble the protein, nucleic acid, carbohydrate, and lipid molecules necessary to sustain its existence. In this way the matter of an inanimate universe is organized and metamorphosed into a life sustaining state.

Since inception, this process has occurred naturally as a consequence of the life process. Inherited instinct allows an organism to make a complex and specific response to environmental stimuli without involving reason. If we take our instinct to organize and alter our surroundings we can understand our desire to achieve more mastery over our environment. We are the principal beneficiaries of the evolution of intellect. Early in our existence, possibly before but certainly at birth, we perceive the universe as chaotic, a mass of random and meaningless stimuli. At some point, recurring stimuli coupled with a capacity for pattern recognition enable the beginning perceptions of order. In a short time we begin to accept things by their constancy in our environment. We see faces that look at us with love and tenderness. We come to know them. We experience the frequent embrace. We feel safe and secure.

Amongst a myriad of things we perceive, we categorize. We experience one of our early insights as we begin to recognize family. We learn there are things to know, things to do and things that have purpose. As time passes, we sift, sort and make sense of, looking for a larger understanding of relationships between things and seeking more complex truths. We are taught numerous lessons, some of which we accept, others of which we test. We test the meaning of “no”. We try what we’ve learned to verify insights and complete our understanding. We create hypotheses about our environment which we seek to validate and confirm.

Along the way, we become the object of our attention. We act on our environment and assess our impact. We experiment and then refine our actions as we seek power over what we perceive. We learn to reach. We learn to grasp. We learn to crawl and in time take our first step. We try to divine how we fit into the world and our place amongst others. At the simplest level, we want to join, fit in or be accepted. We set goals for ourselves. We find something we want to accomplish; to ride a bicycle, to master math, or play a musical instrument. Eventually we ask ourselves what we want to be when we grow up and wonder how to bring meaning and value to our life. And so our life is launched. We love, we laugh, we cry. We work, we live, and die. And through it all we try to understand and ask the question, why? In this way we follow our instinct to understand as we try to impose order on our part of the universe.

At some point on our path each of us, as have all people over time and throughout history, attempt to tie our beliefs together and construct systems of thought for a more comprehensive understanding of reality. In the early stages of human civilization, in each society, there was one knowledge base consisting of everything human beings believed to be true. It wasn’t separated into the disciplines of science, philosophy, or religion. At various times the world was flat, earth was at the center of the universe, illness was the result of evil spirits and there were multiple gods fighting to exercise control over their different domains. All of these elements were the best attempt in their time to describe what each society thought was true.

As time passed, formal methods for systems of thought such as logic in philosophy and experimentation in science were developed, adopted and refined. They brought greater levels of certainty to some of what we knew and introduced doubt about other things we had thought we knew for certain. They also led to differentiation within the human knowledge base and specialization of the work of the scientist, philosopher, and theologian.

When a system of thought describes the natural order of things and our place in the universe from a scientific perspective, it is called a cosmology. When that system attempts to define reality and values by more speculative than observational means using logic, aesthetics, ethics, and metaphysics, it is called a philosophy. When it revolves around a faithful devotion to an acknowledged ultimate reality, deity, or supernatural being, with specific attitudes, beliefs, and practices, it is called a religion. These terms and definitions represent our efforts to define larger realities.

With ever increasing specialization and explosive growth of the knowledge base, divergence and contradiction have grown. Human systems of thought are not absolute or immutable. They begin as an attempt to describe what is believed true at a given point in time. Often these beliefs must eventually give way to new knowledge or thought that forces their modification.

As time passes, specific systems of belief are modified or their acceptance wanes because they no longer describe what is believed to be true. With perceived obsolescence they lose the power to justify and motivate behavior. This failure is a result of change. It can be the relentless expansion of scientific knowledge where new theories are proven displacing or diminishing older theories. This was the case with Newtonian physics, much of which was replaced by Einstein’s relativity.

It can be the logical evolution from one complex and antiquated belief system to another that is more contemporary, often (but not always) with greater simplicity. Such was the case with the polytheism of the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans which was ultimately displaced by the monotheism of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

It can be older philosophic or religious beliefs whose fundamental assertions are directly challenged by our evolving science. Such is the case with many of today’s religious and philosophical systems which are in various stages of decline because they no longer describe what science asserts or humanity believes to be true.

Conflict between beliefs and knowledge creates cognitive dissonance – the intellectual and emotional distress caused when observation and actions are inconsistent with beliefs or when long held beliefs are convincingly contradicted by new information. Static philosophic or religious beliefs are particularly vulnerable to evolving scientific knowledge. The world largely acts consistent with its science because science produces repeatable and consequently predictable outcomes.

When beliefs are contradicted and not followed, reaction to the inconsistency shows itself in a number of ways. One sign of conflict occurs when adherents of a faltering belief argue to have it ratified by secular institutions. This is a way of seeking society’s further endorsement and affirmation. It often represents a desperate attempt to reverse the growing weakness of a belief system. Such is the case when religious groups pressure a nation state to declare a religious bias or push to legitimize, for example, the teaching of “intelligent design” to counter belief in evolution or try to legislatively reverse legal rulings supporting a woman’s right to choose.

Another manifestation of dissonance occurs when groups physically isolate themselves from society, creating compounds to limit exposure to prevailing knowledge or beliefs which challenge their beliefs. Typical of many cults and sects, they withdraw from the contemporary world seeking to create an isolated island of stability. Benign examples of this are the Amish Mennonites who practice their Christian beliefs in segregated communities. Similarly the early Mormons sought the isolation of the Utah wilderness.

More troubling examples include the splinter group of Warren Jeffs whose Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints built a compound in Eldorado Texas. Similarly, the People’s Temple Agricultural Project led by Jim Jones established a colony in Guyana. Also notable were the Protestant Branch Davidians, a spin off from the Seventh Day Adventist Church, which established a compound in Waco, Texas. These are examples of groups that sought to remove and isolate themselves from the prospect of contradiction.

When the challenge to beliefs is perceived as severe and isolation not seen as possible, adherents have a more extreme reaction. This is the rejection of an entire society and the way of life it represents. Much of the world’s terrorism results from groups defending themselves from what they perceive as the all out assault of the developed world on their beliefs, culture, and/or way of life.

Another reaction relevant to this discussion is simple failure to address conflicts. This happens when individuals profess conflicting views with no resolution of dissonance or commit actions which conflict with their professed beliefs. Simple examples include an avowed atheist who does not believe in a controlling force in the universe and yet believes he or she has a destiny to fulfill or a person who believes that smoking is bad for them and causes cancer and yet smokes. Religious examples include a person who believes in the infallibility of the Pope and yet believes he is wrong to forbid divorce or abortion.

These types of conflict create ambivalence and uncertainty as to which belief to accept or act upon. It causes a value paralysis where, when faced with a choice, no choice is made and no behavior is motivated. Conversely, it can lead to inconsistent decisions which magnify the cognitive dissonance that is created. A classic example of a nation’s failure to choose one conflicting belief over another was the “Don’t ask, Don’t tell” policy of the American military between 1993 and 2010 vis-à-vis allowing homosexuals in the armed forces. They could join, fight and die but not disclose their sexual preference. As challenges to historic beliefs grow, their failures increase and motivational force declines. Witness the decriminalization of homosexuality and legalization of divorce in previously predominately Catholic countries. This type of failure will be magnified many times as the world becomes increasingly interconnected and interdependent.

This is not to say older belief systems had no value. There has been much criticism of religion and reprehensible actions taken in its name. This ignores the fact that religion provided a framework of values to govern societies without order, wracked by individual violence and uninhibited aggression. It set out a moral code to guide how people should conduct themselves and live in peace with their neighbor. This improvement of human relations was high on the list of priorities that many early religions attempted to address. The moral codes they provided served as a basis for humanity’s body of law which in most countries now defines the standard of conduct that people, by force of law, are required to follow.

Let us not forget that for many people their religious beliefs define the “good person” to which they aspire. The values religions represent in many places in the world make the difference between order and a chaotic and often barbaric existence. While we can perceive shortcomings in their dogma and distortion of their principles by unscrupulous people seeking to take advantage of others, these beliefs give value to those who can hold them.

What we see today is a clash between the old and the new at both the individual and societal levels. There is a concept of a “Worldview” that derives from the German word, Weltanschauung. It is useful to describe each individual’s quest for understanding. Defined as a “look onto the world”, it refers to the framework of ideas and beliefs with which an individual (or society) interprets and interacts with the world. A worldview contains the systems of thought we have referenced, a view of cosmology, philosophy, and religion.

A society’s worldview includes the shared life experience and history of its people. This provides a level of consensus that brings the people together. A worldview is the body of thought the society uses to teach its new members the values to be held and the rules to be followed. It is the frame of reference that is consulted when confronting life situations. It is the compass that points a direction that should be followed. It is the standard by which things are measured and as such, it is of critical importance to people.

“Global village,” as a term was first used by Wyndham Lewis in America and Cosmic Man, and was later popularized by Marshall McLuhan in his book The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man.2 McLuhan used the term to describe how electronic media eliminate barriers of time and distance in human communication and enable people to interact on a global scale. Much has been said about “globalization,” principally in discussion of trade among international markets. But that use of the term is much too narrow. If we consider multiple societal worldviews being challenged by globalization, we see the broad outline of one of our major contemporary challenges.

Historically a worldview has worked best when it was held within a homogeneous society bounded by all of the various barriers represented by geography, language, ethnicity, religion, etc. This is not to say that homogeneous societies have not gone to war with their neighbors or have been free from violence as a result of internal political power struggles. It is to say that countries or regions with shared ethnicity, language, religious values, and history, tend to have less internal instability and conflict. The shared worldview tends to define their group membership. Putting aside their geopolitical boundaries, it is for example what makes the French, French, the Australians, Australian and the Japanese, Japanese.

Problems develop when a society’s worldview is challenged by other, unfamiliar, and competing worldviews. Unfortunately, homogeneous societies in today’s global village are doomed to become casualties of an interconnected and interdependent world. Ours is a time of transition. It is marked by a clash of different worldviews competing for a leading role on a new global stage.

Worldviews are challenged by change. Our knowledge is growing, challenging old beliefs which no longer hold true. Many contemporary issues are novel and unfamiliar. As human problems become global they become ever more complex. Some result from the world’s burgeoning population and the effects we have on the environment. Others arise from new technologies which offer novel options from which we must choose. Older paradigms, which in more familiar contexts usually gave us a means of discerning good from bad and right from wrong, are failing to provide useful frameworks with which to analyze and evaluate new alternatives. We knew the morality of theft, adultery, and murder. We are uncertain of the morality of genetic engineering, cloning, and stem cells.

Knowledge and understanding will continue to evolve because we have accepted the premise we will get ever closer to the true nature of reality. Experience has shown that greater knowledge and understanding increase our ability to shape our surroundings to better support our lives. Knowledge has prolonged our lives, enabled us to set foot on the moon and unleashed the power of the atom. As knowledge changes so must our systems of belief and our worldview. Each generation produces individuals who attempt to add to our perspective, who seek to modify or extend our worldview to more accurately reflect advances in our knowledge, or to encompass new situations or issues that individuals and societies need to confront.

In order for human beings to overcome the challenges of this century and beyond there must be a new reconciliation between what we know and what we believe. This reintegration of our knowledge and beliefs must provide a modern foundation for a contemporary worldview to support our interconnected and interdependent planet. It must motivate necessary action against a reordered set of priorities and insure we make investments of time and treasure to collectively address the challenges facing humanity and life.

The challenge of the new millennium is to construct a compelling cosmological belief system which has its basic assumptions rooted in our knowledge of the universe. Its conclusions must be logically consistent and offer answers to basic human questions of existence. In addition, it should project known processes of the universe forward in time and articulate a future state that satisfies the human yearning for meaning and purpose. It must be responsive to questions of life after death and the inherent value of an exemplary moral life. This cosmological system should provide beliefs people can consciously choose to accept because they are obviously beneficial to the common good. Finally, it should pass the test all cosmological or philosophical systems are subject to, that if everyone’s actions were consistent with its premises, the world would be a better place.

In due course we will trace the path our knowledge has taken. We will identify a number of basic assumptions that describe the origin and basic processes of our universe. These assumptions will form a common foundation on which our cosmology is established and will lead to a set of conclusions that will bring new insights into the human condition. Further, we will examine some of what we know about life, evolution, and human uniqueness. We will consider life’s potential. Humans are unique and that suggests a role and purpose that no other living being can fulfill. We will challenge humanity to embrace this purpose and role with all the responsibilities they entail.

Finally, our conclusions will suggest four imperatives that human beings must include in a new global worldview. Consistent with these imperatives, there are global issues that must be addressed if we are to fulfill our full potential. Clearly we need insight into the actions human beings must take as we plot a course for future generations. This book is intended to speak to you, the child of the scientific age, our stargazer, who has been raised to believe in tests of reason, experience, logic and the scientific method. It asks you to analyze offered systems of belief, weigh consequences, and consciously choose. It asks you to become a guardian of life and take the identified actions necessary to enhance and protect it.

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