6 October 2013
What is astrobiology?
I suppose that “astrobiology” could be called one of those “ten dollar” words, but despite being a long word of six syllables and a dozen letters, it can be defined quite simply.
Astrobiology has been called, “The study of life in space” (Mix, Life in Space: Astrobiology for Everyone, 2009) and that, “Astrobiology… removes the distinction between life on our planet and life elsewhere.” (Plaxco and Gross, Astrobiology: A Brief Introduction, 2006). Taking these sententious formulations of astrobiology as the study of life in space, which removes the distinction between life on our planet and life elsewhere, together gives us a new perspective with which to view life on Earth (and beyond).
There are, of course, longer and more detailed definitions of astrobiology. There are two in particular that I have cited in previous posts:
“The study of the living universe. This field provides a scientific foundation for a multidisciplinary study of (1) the origin and distribution of life in the universe, (2) an understanding of the role of gravity in living systems, and (3) the study of the Earth’s atmospheres and ecosystems.”
from the NASA strategic plan of 1996, quoted in Steven J. Dick and James E. Strick, The Living Universe: NASA and the Development of Astrobiology, 2005
“Astrobiology is the study of the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe. This multidisciplinary field encompasses the search for habitable environments in our Solar System and habitable planets outside our Solar System, the search for evidence of prebiotic chemistry and life on Mars and other bodies in our Solar System, laboratory and field research into the origins and early evolution of life on Earth, and studies of the potential for life to adapt to challenges on Earth and in space.”
from the NASA astrobiology website
I cited these two definitions of astrobiology from NASA in Eo-, Eso-, Exo-, Astro- and other posts in which I used parallel formulations to define astrocivilization.
Learning to take the astrobiological point of view
Astrobiology is island biogeography writ large.
This is one of the few “tweets” I’ve written that was “re-tweeted” multiple times (I’m not very popular on Twitter.) After I wrote this I began a more extensive blog post on this theme, but didn’t finish it; the topic rapidly became too large and started to look like a book rather than a post. Then last month I posted this on Twitter:
In the same way that Darwin provided a new perspective on life, astrobiology provides a novel perspective that allows us to see life anew.
Recently I’ve also been referring to astrobiology with increasing frequency in my blog posts, and I referenced astrobiology in my 2012 presentation at the 100YSS symposium in Houston and just last month in my presentation at the Icarus Interstellar Starship Congress in Dallas.
It will be apparent to the reader, then, then the idea of astrobiology has been slowly growing on me for the past few years, and the more I think about it, the more I come to realize the fundamentally new perspective that astrobiology offers on life and its evolution. Moreover, astrobiology also is suggestive for the future of life, and what we will discover about life the more we explore the cosmos.
Astrobiology: the Fourth Revolution in the Life Sciences
The more I think about astrobiology, the more I realize that, like earlier revolutions in the life sciences, the astrobiological point of view gives a novel perspective on familiar facts, and in so doing it potentially orients science in a new direction. For this reason I now see astrobiology as the fourth of four revolutions that instantiated the life sciences in their present form and continue to shape the way that we think about biology and the living world.
Here is my list of the four major revolutions in biological thought that have shaped the life sciences:
● Natural selection Independently discovered by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, natural selection gave sharpness of focus to many vague evolutionary ideas that were being circulated in the nineteenth century. With natural selection, biology had a theory by which to work, that could unify biological thought in a way that had not previously been possible. Of the Darwinian revolution Harald Brüssow wrote, “How can biologists cope conceptually and technically with this enormous species number? A deep sigh of relief came for biologists already in 1859 with the publication of Charles Darwin’s book ‘On the Origin of Species’. Suddenly, biologists had a unifying theory for their branch of science. One could even argue that the holy grail of a great unifying theory was achieved by Darwin and Wallace at a time when Maxwell was unifying physics, the older sister of biology, at the level of the electromagnetic field theory.” (“The not so universal tree of life or the place of viruses in the living world” Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B, 2009, 364, 2263–2274)
● Genetics After Darwin and Wallace came Gregor Mengel, who solved fundamental problems in the theory of inheritance and so greatly strengthened the Darwinian theory of descent with modification. As Darwin had provided the mechanism for the overall structure of life, Mendel provided the mechanism that made natural selection possible. Mendel’s work, contemporaneous with Darwin, was forgotten and not rediscovered until the early twentieth century. It was not until the middle of the twentieth century that Crick and Watson were able to delineate the structure of DNA, which made it possible to describe Mendelian genetics on a molecular level, thus making possible molecular biology.
● Evo-devo Evo-devo, which is a contraction of evolutionary developmental biology, once again went back to the roots of biology (as Darwin had done by formulating a fundamental theory, and as Mendel had done by his careful study of inheritance in pea plants), and returned the study of embryology to the center of attention of evolutionary biology. Studying the embryology of organisms with the tools of molecular biology gave (and continues to give) new insights into the fine structure of life’s evolution. Before evo-devo, few if any suspected that the homology that Darwin and others notes on a macro-biological scale (the structural similarity of the hand of a man, the wing of a bat, and the flipper of a dolphin) would be reducible to homology on a genetic level, but evo-devo has demonstrated this in remarkable ways, and in so doing has further underlined the unity of all terrestrial life.
● Astrobiology Astrobiology now lifts life out of its exclusively terrestrial context and studies life in its cosmological context. We have known for some time that climate is a major driver of evolution, and that climatology is in turn largely driven by the vicissitudes of the Earth as the Earth orbits the sun, exchanges material with other bodies in our solar system, and the solar system entire bobs up and down in the plane of the Milky Way galaxy. Of understanding of life gains immensely by being placed in the cosmological context, which forces us both to think big, in terms of the place of life in the universe, as well as to think small, in terms of the details of origins of life on Earth and its potential relation to life elsewhere in the universe.
This is obviously a list of revolutions in biological thought compiled by an outsider, i.e., by someone who is not a biologist. Others might well compile different lists. For example, I can easily imagine someone putting the Woesean revolution on a short list of revolutions in biological thought. Woese was largely responsible for replacing the tripartite division of animals, plants, and fungi with the tripartite division of the biological domains of Bacteria, Archaea and Eukarya. (There remains the question of where viruses fit in to this scheme, as discussed in the Brüssow paper cited above.)
Since I have included molecular phylogeny among the developments of evo-devo (in the graphic at the bottom of this post), I have implicitly place Woese’s work within the evo-devo revolution, since it was the method of molecular phylogeny that made it possible to demonstrate that plants, animals and fungi are all closely related biologically, while the truly fundamental division in terrestrial life is between the eukarya (which includes plants, animals, and fungi, which are all multicellular organisms), bacteria, and archaea. If any biologists happen to read this, I hope you will be a bit indulgent toward my efforts, though I certainly encourage you to leave a comment if I have made any particularly egregious errors.
Toward a Radical Biology
Darwin mentioned the origins of life only briefly and in passing. There is the famous reference to, “some warm little pond with all sorts of ammonia and phosphoric salts, — light, heat, electricity &c. present” in his letter to Joseph Hooker, and there is the famous passage at the end of his Origin of Species which I discussed in Darwin’s Cosmology:
“Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”
Darwin, of course, had nothing to go on at this point. Trying to understand or explain the origins of life without molecular biology would be like trying to explain the nature of water without the atomic and molecular theory of matter: the conceptual infrastructure to circumscribe the most basic elements of life did not yet exist. (The example of trying to define water without the atomic theory of matter is employed by Robert M. Hazen in his lectures on the Origins of Life.)
Just as Darwin pressed biology beyond the collecting and comparison of beetles in the backyard, and opened up deep time to biology (and, vice versa, biology to deep time), so astrobiology presses forward with the project of evolutionary biology, pursuing the natural origins of life to its chemical antecedents. Astrobiology is a radical biology in the same way that Darwin was radical biology in his time: both go to the root to the matter to the extent possible given the theoretical, scientific, and technological parameters of thought. It is in the radical sense that astrobiology is integral with origins of life research; it is in this sense in which the two are one.
The humble origins of radical ideas
The radical biology of Darwin did not start out as such. In his early life, Darwin considered becoming a country parson, and when Darwin left on his voyage on the Beagle as Captain Fitzroy’s gentleman companion, he held mostly conventional views. It is easy to imagine an alternative history in which Darwin retained his conventional views, went on to become a country parson, and gave Sunday sermons that were mostly moral homilies punctuated by the occasional quote from scripture the illustrate the moral lesson with a story from the tradition he nominally represented. Such a Darwin from an alternative history would have continued to collect beetles during the week and would have maintained his interest in natural history.
Just as Darwin came out of the context of English natural history (which, before Darwin, gave us those classic works of teleology, Paley’s Natural Theology and Chambers’ Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation — a work that the young Darwin greatly admired), so too astrobiology comes out of the context of a later development of natural history — the scientific search for the origins of life and for extraterrestrial life. While the search for extraterrestrial life is “big science” of an order of magnitude only possible by an institution like NASA, in this respect it stands in the humble tradition of natural history, since we must send robots of Mars and the other planets until we can go there ourselves with a shovel and rock hammer. From such humble beginnings sometimes emerge radical consequences.
I think we are already beginning to see the potentially radical character of astrobiology, and that this development in biology promises a paradigm shift almost of the scope and magnitude of natural selection. Indeed, both natural selection and astrobiology can be understood as further (and radical) contextualizations of the theme of man’s place in nature. When Darwin wrote, he contextualized human history in the most comprehensive conception of nature then possible; today astrobiology must contextualize not only human history but also the totality of life on Earth in a much more comprehensive cosmological context.
As our knowledge of the world (which was once very small, and very parochial) steadily expands, we are eventually forced to extend and refine our concepts in order to adequately account for the world that we now know. Natural selection and astrobiology are steps in the extension and refinement of our conception of life, and of the place of life in the world. Life simpliciter is, after all, a “folk” concept. Indeed, “life” is folk biology and “world” is folk cosmology. Astrobiology brings together these folk concepts and attempts to bring scientific rigor to them.
The biology of the future
Astrobiology is laying the foundations for the biology of the future. Here and now on earth, without having surveyed life on other worlds, astrobiologists are attempting for formulate concepts adequate to understanding life at the largest and the smallest scales. Once we take these conceptions along with us when we eventually explore alien worlds — including alien worlds close to home, such as Mars and the ocean beneath the ice of Europa — it is to be expected that further revolutions in the life sciences will come about as a result of attempting to understand what we eventually find in the light of the concepts we have preemptively developed in order to understand biology beyond the surface of the Earth.
Future revolutions in biology will likely have the same radical character as natural selection, genetics, evo-devo, and astrobiology. Future naturalists will do what naturalists do best: they will spend their time in the field finding new specimens and describing them for science, and in the process of the slow and incremental accumulation of scientific knowledge new ideas will suggest themselves. Perhaps someone laid low by some alien fever, like Wallace tossing and turning as he suffered from a fever in the Indonesian archipelago, will, in a moment of insight, rise from their sick bed long enough to dash off a revolutionary paper, sending it off to another naturalist, now settled and meditating over his own experiences of new and unfamiliar forms of life.
The naturalists of alien forms of life will not necessarily have the same point of view as that of astrobiologists — and that is all to the good. Science thrives when it is enriched by new perspectives. At present, the revolutionary new perspective is astrobiology, but that will not likely remain true indefinitely.
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30 July 2013
One of the most famous thought experiments of twentieth century philosophy of mind is presented in Thomas Nagel’s paper “What is is like to be a bat?” Nagel’s point was that consciousness involves a point of view, and that means that there is something that it is like to be in being some conscious organism. Here is the opening paragraph of Nagel’s paper:
Conscious experience is a widespread phenomenon. It occurs at many levels of animal life, though we cannot be sure of its presence in the simpler organisms, and it is very difficult to say in general what provides evidence of it. (Some extremists have been prepared to deny it even of mammals other than man.) No doubt it occurs in countless forms totally unimaginable to us, on other planets in other solar systems throughout the universe. But no matter how the form may vary, the fact that an organism has conscious experience at all means, basically, that there is something it is like to be that organism. There may be further implications about the form of the experience; there may even (though I doubt it) be implications about the behavior of the organism. But fundamentally an organism has conscious mental states if and only if there is something that it is to be that organism—something it is like for the organism.
The choice of a bat for this thought experiment is interesting. As a mammal, the bat shares much with us in its relation to the world, but its fundamental mechanism of finding its way around — echolocation — is sharply distinct from our primate experience of the world, dominated as it is by vision. Thus while what it is like to be a bat overlaps considerably with what it is like to be a hominid, there are also substantial divergences between being a bat and being a hominid. A bat has a different sensory apparatus than a hominid, and the bat’s distinctive sonar sensory apparatus presumably shapes its cognitive architecture in distinctive ways.
As a philosopher I have a great fascination with the sensory organs of other species, which seem to me both to pose epistemological problems as well as to suggest really interesting thought experiments. In my post on Kantian Critters I argued that if human beings must have recourse to the transcendental aesthetic in order to sort out the barrage of sense perception that the brain and central nervous system receive, that other terrestrial species, constituted as they are much like ourselves, must also have recourse to some transcendental aesthetic of their own (or, if you prefer Husserl to Kant, and phenomenology to idealism, other species must employ their own passive synthesis). This interpretation of Kant obviously presupposes a naturalistic point of view, which Kant did not have, but if we grant this scientific realism, the Kantian insight regarding the transcendental aesthetic remains valid and may moreover be extrapolated beyond human beings.
Distinctive transcendental aesthetics of distinct species would follow from distinct sensory apparatus and the distinctive cognitive architecture required to take advantage of this sensory apparatus. This implies that distinct species “see” the world differently, with “see” here understood in a comprehensive sense and not in a purely visual sense. Although bats rely on sonar, they “see” the world in his comprehensive sense, even if their eyes are not as good as our hominid eyes, and not nearly as good as the eyes of an eagle. A couple of ethologists, Dorothy L. Cheney and Robert M. Seyfarth, have written several books on the Weltanschauung of other species, How Monkeys See the World: Inside the Mind of Another Species and Baboon Metaphysics: The Evolution of a Social Mind.
Does a primate have more in common, Weltanschauung-wise (if you know what I mean), with a flying mammal such as a bat (since any two mammals have much life experience in common) or with a terrestrial reptile such as a serpent? Primates don’t know what it is like to fly with their own wings, but they also don’t know what it is like to move along the ground by slithering. Does a primate have more in common, again, Weltanschauung-wise, with a reptile that has given up its legs or with an octopus that never had any legs? We might be able to refine these questions a bit more by a more careful consideration of particular sensory organs and the particular cognitive architecture that both is driven by the development of the organ and makes the fullest exploitation of that organ for survival and reproductive advantage possible.
Among the most intriguing sense organs possessed by other species but not by homo sapiens is the pit of the pit viper, which is a rudimentary sensing organ for heat. Since pit vipers are predators who typically eat small, furry animals with a high metabolism and presumably also a high body temperature, being able to sense the body heat of one’s prey would be a substantial selective advantage.
Because the pit of the pit viper represents such a great selective advantage, one would expect that the pit will evolve, driven by this selective pressure. To paraphrase what Richard Dawkins said of wings, one percent of a infrared sensing organ represents a one percent selective advantage, and so on. Thus a one percent improvement of an existing pit would represent another one percent selective advantage. While it would be difficult to observe such subtle advantage in the lives of individual organisms, when in comes to species whose members number in the millions, that one percent will eventually make a significant difference in differential survival and reproduction. A statistical study would reveal what a study of individuals would likely obscure.
There is a sense in which the pit of the pit viper is like an eye for perceiving infrared radiation. The infrared radiation spectrum lies just beyond the visible spectrum at the red end, so having a pit like a pit viper in addition to color vision would be like being able to see additional colors beyond red. Having a slightly different visible spectrum is not uncommon among other species. Many insects see a little way into the ultraviolet spectrum (at the opposite end of our visible spectrum from red) and flowers are said to present colorful displays to insects in the ultraviolet spectrum that we cannot see (except for the case I heard about some years ago about a man whose eye was injured and as a result of the injury was able to see a little way into the ultraviolet beyond the visible spectrum).
The eye itself, whatever portion of the electromagnetic spectrum it accesses, is a wonderful example of the power of an adaptation. The eye is so useful that it has emerged independently several times in the course of evolution of life on earth. I don’t know much about the details, but insect eyes, mollusc eyes, and vertebrate eyes (as well as several other instances) are each the result of separate and independent emergence of the eye. The mollusc eye and the vertebrate eye represent an astonishing example of convergent evolution, since the structure of the two instances of eyes is so similar. The eye is of course a provocative evolutionary example because of a famous passage from Darwin himself, who wrote about “organs of extreme perfection”:
“To suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree. Yet reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a perfect and complex eye to one very imperfect and simple, each grade being useful to its possessor, can be shown to exist; if further, the eye does vary ever so slightly, and the variations be inherited, which is certainly the case; and if any variation or modification in the organ be ever useful to an animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though insuperable by our imagination, can hardly be considered real. How a nerve comes to be sensitive to light, hardly concerns us more than how life itself first originated; but I may remark that several facts make me suspect that any sensitive nerve may be rendered sensitive to light, and likewise to those coarser vibrations of the air which produce sound.”
Of this quote Richard Dawkins wrote in The God Delusion:
“Darwin’s fulsomely free confession turned out to be a rhetorical device. He was drawing his opponents towards him so that his punch, when it came, struck the harder. The punch, of course, was Darwin’s effortless explanation of exactly how the eye evolved by gradual degrees. Darwin may not have used the phrase ‘irreducible complexity’, or ‘the smooth gradient up Mount Improbable’, but he clearly understood the principle of both.”
Partly due to this Darwin quote, the evolution of the eye has been the topic of some very interesting research that has helped the clarify the development of the eye. There is a wonderful documentary on evolution, the first episode of which was titled Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (presumably intended to echo Daniel Dennett’s well known book of the same title), which an excellent segment on the evolution of the eye which you can watch on Youtube. In this documentary the work of Dan-Eric Nilsson of the University of Lund is shown, and he demonstrates in a particularly clear and concrete way the step-by-step process of improving vision through the increasing complexity of the eye. When I was watching this documentary recently I was thinking about how the pit of the pit viper resembles the early stages of the evolution of the eye.
The pit of the pit viper is a depressed, folded area lined with infrared sensitive nerve endings that allows limited directional sensitivity. In the long term future of the pit of the pit viper, which at present seems to correspond to the earliest stages of the evolution of the vertebrate eye, sometimes called a “cup eye,” there would seem to be much room for improvement. Of course, the details of infrared (IR) perception are different than the details of human visible spectrum perception, but not so different that we cannot imagine a similar series of stepwise improvements to the infrared pit that might, in many millions of years, yield sharp, clear, and directional infrared vision. If this infrared vision became sufficiently effective, it is possible that brain and body resources might be redirected to focus on the pits, and the eyes could eventually degrade into a vestigial organ, as in bats and moles. After all, snakes gave up their legs, so there’s no reason they shouldn’t also give up their eyes if they have something better to fall back on.
There is another possibility, and that is the evolutionary advantage that might be obtained through adding a pair of fully functional IR “eyes” to a pair of fully functional visible spectrum eyes. Such a development would be biologically costly, and it would be much more likely that a pit viper would chose one evolutionary path or the other and not both. Yet there are some rare instances of biologically costly organs (or clusters of organs) that have been successful despite the cost. The brain is a good example — or, rather, large complex brains that evolve under particular selection pressures but which later are exapted for intelligence.
Natural selection is a great economist, and often reduces organisms to the simplest structure compatible with their function. This is one of the reasons we find the shapes of plants and the bodies of animals both elegant and beautiful. The economy of nature was resulted in the fact that a large brain, and the intelligence that large brains make possible, are rare. Despite their rarity, and their biological expense, large complex brains do emerge (though not often), and, like the eye (which has emerged repeatedly in evolutionary history), large brains have emerged more than once. Interestingly enough, complex eyes and large complex brains are found together not only in primates but also in molluscs.
The octopus (among other molluscs) is bequeathed a large, complex brain because the octopus went down the evolutionary path of camouflage, and the camouflage of some molluscs became so elaborate that almost every cell on the surface of the organism’s skin is individually controlled, which means a nerve connected to every spot of color on (or under) the skin, and a nervous system that is capable of handling this. It requires a lot of processing power to put on the kind of displays seen on the skin of octopi and cuttlefish, and an evolutionary spiral that favored the benefits of camouflage also then drove the development of a large, complex brain that could optimize the use of camouflage.
The octopus also has remarkably sophisticated eyes — eyes that are, in some respects, very similar to yet more elegant in structure than primate eyes. Our eyes are “wired” from the front, which gives us a blind spot where the optic nerve passes through the retina; mollusc eyes are “wired” from the back and consequently suffer from no blind spot. (“Wired” is in scare quotes here because it is a metaphor to refer to eyes being wired to the nervous system; while electrical signals travel down nerves, the connection between distinct nerve cells is primarily biochemical and not electrical.)
How an octopus sees the world is as fascinating an inquiry as what it is like to be a bat — or a serpent, for that matter. Both the octopus and an arboreal primate live in a three dimensional habitat, and this may have something to do with their common development of sharp eyesight and large brains, although there are vastly greater number of organisms in the sea and in trees with far smaller brains and far less cognitive processing power. (A recent study reported in The New York Times suggests a link between spatial ability and intellectual innovation, and while the study was primarily concerned with the ontogenesis of creativity, it is possible that the apparatus of spatial perception and the cognitive architecture that facilitates this perception is phylogenetically linked to intellectual creativity.) This simply shows us that intelligence is one strategy among many for survival, and not the most common strategy.
A large, complex brain is very costly in a biological sense. In a typical human being, the brain represents less than three percent of total body weight, yet it consumes about twenty percent of the body’s resources — that’s a very big chunk of metabolism that could be directed toward running faster or jumping higher or reaching farther. Nothing as unlikely as the brain’s disproportionate consumption of resources would come about unless this expenditure of resources bequeathed some survival or reproductive advantage to the organism possessing such a high cost of ownership. The brain isn’t a luxury that produces poetry and art; it is a survival machine, optimized (in hominids) by more than five million years of development to make human beings effective hunters and foragers. The brain was so successful, in fact, that it made is possible for human beings to take over the planet entire and convert it to serving human needs. Thus the relatively rare and costly strategy of developing a large, complex brain paid off in this particular case. (One may think of it as a high risk/high reward strategy.)
If the evolution of the brain and the exaptation of intelligence to produce civilization did not result in the disproportionate evolutionary success of a single species, it seems likely that we would see intelligence emerge repeatedly in evolutionary history, much as eyes have evolved repeatedly. On other worlds with other natural histories, under conditions where intelligence does not allow a single species to dominate (possibly due to some selection pressure that does not operate on Earth), it is possible that evolution results in the repeated emergence of intelligence just as on Earth evolution has resulted in the repeated emergence of eyes. On Earth, intelligence preempted another developments, and means that not only human history but also natural history were irremediably changed.
In The Preemption Hypothesis I argued that industrialization preempted other developments in the history of civilization (for more on this also see my post Human Agency and the Exaptation of Selection). This current line of thought makes me realize that purely biological preemption is also a force shaping history. Consciousness, and then intelligence arising from biochemically based consciousness, is one such preemption of our evolutionary history. Another preemption of natural history that has operated repeatedly is that of mass extinction. But whereas historical preemptions such as the development of large, complex brains or industrialization represent a preemption of greater complexity, mass extinctions represent a preemption of decreased complexity.
It seems that “weedy” species that are especially hearty and resilient tend to survive the rigorous of mass extinctions; the more delicate and refined productions of natural selection, which are dependent upon mature ecosystems and their many specialized niches, do not fare as well when these mature ecosystems are subject to pressure and possible catastrophic failure. One could think of mass extinctions, and indeed of all historical preemptions that favor simplicity over complexity, as a catastrophic “reset” of the evolutionary process. Events such as mass extinctions can favor rudimentary organisms that are sufficiently hardy to survive catastrophic changes, but, as we have seen, there is also the possibility of historical preemptions that favor greater complexity. The Cambrian Explosion, for example, might be considered another instance of an historical preemption.
There is a tension in the structure of history between continuity and preemption. In the particular case of the earth, the continuity of natural history has been interrupted by the preemption of intelligence and then industrialization. These preemptions of greater complexity — in contradistinction to preemptions of lesser complexity, as in the case of mass extinctions — may provide for the possibility of the continuity of earth-originating life beyond the terrestrial biosphere. In the case of an otherwise sterile universe, the intelligence/industrialization preemption would be a basis of a new explosion or radiation of earth-originating life in the Milky Way. In the case of a universe already living, it may be only intelligence and industrial-technological civilization that is a novelty in the natural history of the universe.
Whatever happens on the largest scale of life, as long as life continues to evolve on the earth, its development is likely to be marked by both continuity and preemptive developments. In thinking about the pit viper, I suggested above that the pit viper might eventually, over many millions of years, develop a fully functional pair of IR eyes in addition to its visible spectrum eyes. This suggestion points to an interesting possibility. In so far as complex life is allowed to develop in continuity, with a minimum of preemptions, specialization and refinement of existing mechanisms of survival may give rise of species of greater complexity than what we know today. While mass extinctions have repeatedly cleared the ground and given a more or less blank slate for the radiation of resilient weedy species, this may not always be the case.
As our earth and the solar system of which it is a part becomes older, catastrophic events may become less common. For example, stray bodies in the solar system that might collide with the earth, while once common in the early solar system, eventually end up colliding with something or getting swept out of the path of the earth’s orbit by the gravity of Jupiter. If, moreover, civilization expands extraterrestrially and seeks to protect the earth as an existential risk mitigation measure, life on earth may become even more secure and even less subject to disruption and preemption than in the past. New species might eventually come into being with a delicate complexity of sensory organs and accompanying cognitive architecture that facilitates these senses. Imagine species with a whole range of sensory organs that complement each other, without former mainstay sensory organs being reduced to vestigial status, and this might possibly be the future of life on Earth.
Eventually the most interesting question may not be, “What is it like to be a serpent?” but, “What will it be like to be a serpent?”
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The reader can compare my earlier post, The Future of the Pit Viper, which was the origin and inspiration of this post.
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27 April 2013
Fusion: nature got there first
Fusion came very early in the history of the universe, and consciousness came very late in the history of the universe — this pair of natural technologies come so early and so late, respectively, that one could say that they “bookend” cosmological history as the Alpha and Omega of cosmic evolution.
After an initial period of big bang nucleosynthesis in the first twenty minutes of the life of the cosmos, the universe did little in the way of producing more baryonic matter until gravity took over, and the baryonic matter condensed into early stars. Stars began to “light up” about 100 million years after the big bang, which in cosmological terms is not a terribly long time. This “lighting up” of the stars has been said to mark the advent of the stelliferous era.
In the almost 14 billion years of the universe’s history, stars have been shining for all but the first 100 million years — the vast majority of the age of the universe. What this means is that fusion has been around for the vast majority of the history of the universe. Nature innovated fusion technology early on, and fusion has continued to be central to the natural processes of the universe up to the present time and for the foreseeable future.
It has been said that human beings are a solar species. I wrote about this in my post Human Beings: A Solar Species. To say that human beings are a solar species is to say that we are a species dependent upon fusion. All life, and not only our species, is dependent upon the energy generated by fusion, so that fusion is responsible for all (or almost all) subsequent emergent complexity.
Fusion is a basic technology of the universe, a conditio sine qua non of cosmological order and its history. As such, fusion is a robust and durable technology proved over billions of years. Fusion as a natural source of energy is achieved through gravitational containment, and while human technology is not yet in a position to exploit the technology of gravitational containment, we have a very clear idea of its mechanism, as we have sophisticated physical theories to account for it. In other words, we have a good understanding of a technology that is one of the early building blocks of the universe.
Other technologies of nature
It is interesting, in this context, to consider other natural technologies and their place in cosmological natural history. We know, for example, from a 1972 discovery at Gabon, Africa, that fission, like fusion, is a natural technology. At Oklo in Gabon, about 1.7 billion years ago, just the right elements came together with a critical mass of fissionables to produce self-sustaining nuclear chain reactions.
Fissionables are relatively rare, and we know that these heavier elements are created by supernovae, so that natural fission reactors cannot come about until after (at very minimum) generation III stars have gone supernovae and flung their radioactive remnants into the universe. The date of the natural reactor at Gabon makes it quite old, but still not half as old as the earth itself, and nowhere nearly as old as fusion. It has been proposed that there was a “paleo-reactor” on Mars in the distant past, and it is interesting to speculate how widely spread, or how rare, fission technology is in the universe. We will not know until we explore in detail.
Another natural technology of note is life itself. Current biological thought suggests that life emerged on earth not long after the planet began to cool. The Earth is thought to be about 4.54 billion years old, and life may have arisen as much as 3.9 billion years ago. In other words, the Earth has hosted life for much longer than its initial sterility. The earth has, in turn, existed for almost a third as long as the entire universe, so that means that life (at very least on earth, if nowhere else) has been around for a quarter of the age of the known universe. That makes life a well-established and robust natural technology.
A recent paper, Life Before Earth by Alexei A. Sharov and Richard Gordon, suggests that if the complexity of life is extrapolated backward in time we must posit an origin of life at about 9.7 billion years ago, which is almost twice as old as the earth, which suggests in turn that earth was “seeded” with life as soon as its was cool enough to support life, rather than independently arising on Earth. While this thesis is, in my judgment, rather tenuous, its cannot be dismissed out of hand, and if it is correct, it shows life to be an even longer-lived and more durable technology than we now suspect it to be.
Just as we are curious if there have been other naturally occurring fission reactors in the universe, we are intensely interested in the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe: the robust and durable technology of life on earth suggests that this technology may well be replicated elsewhere, as pervasive in the universe, where conditions are right, as fusion technology is pervasive in the universe. The existence of life elsewhere is the cosmos is one of the great scientific questions of our time.
Consciousness: nature got there first, too
In contradistinction to fusion, the technology of consciousness arrives late in the history of the universe. While there were likely rudimentary forms of consciousness prior to the particular forms of mammalian consciousness familiar to us both in ourselves and in the other mammals with whom we often share our lives, and mammalian consciousness is a robust natural technology about 160 million years old (interestingly, not so much more distant from the present as the lighting up of stars was distant from big bang), the intelligent, self-reflective consciousness of human beings seems to be even younger than the bodies of anatomically modern human beings.
The late emergence of consciousness in the history of the universe is interesting in so far as it demonstrates that the universe, even at its present advanced age, is still capable of technological innovation.
In regard to consciousness, we are closing in on the mechanisms of the brain that enable the emergence of consciousness from a material substrate, but, unlike the case with fusion, we have no idea whatsoever what consciousness is and have no theory to account for it. Of course I am aware that many will disagree with me on this — even, if not especially, those scientifically-oriented readers who found themselves nodding over what I wrote above about fusion, and who have convinced themselves of the truth of some reductivist or eliminativist theory of consciousness.
Hugo de Garis, who appeared in the film about Ray Kurzweil, Transcendent Man, said in an interview (Interview with Hugo de Garis: Approaches to AI, Neuroscience, Engineering, Intelligence Theory, Cyborgs interviewed, filmed and edited by Adam A. Ford) that, “…we have ourselves as the existence proof that nature has found a way to [build] a conscious, intelligent creature.” (We could, in the same spirit, say that stars are the existence proof of fusion energy.) This is a perfect evocation of the weak anthropic principle as applied to consciousness and intelligence: we’re here, and we’re conscious, therefore consciousness is possible and the universe is consistent with the emergence of conscious life.
The possibility of conscious knowledge of consciousness
These natural technologies are not just randomly jumbled together, but are in fact closely related. The fusion technology of stars enabled energy production that was exploited by life, which latter grew in complexity until it made possible the even more subtle and complex technology of conscious intelligence. The earliest of these technologies, fusion, we understand well; the latest of these technologies, not surprisingly, still eludes us.
And in saying that a full understanding of consciousness still eludes us, what we are saying is that consciousness so far understands the natural technologies that made itself possible, but it does not yet understand itself in the same way. We may yet attain the full measure of reflexive self-awareness of consciousness when consciousness knows itself in the same way that it understands fusion technology. This will take time, since, as we have noted, consciousness is a youthful technology of nature.
Consciousness may, too, someday become as pervasive in the universe as fusion. Indeed, the fact that we know, that we can see, that fusion is operating everywhere in the known universe, is the first precondition of life, and if life too has been made pervasive by pervasive fusion energy sources, the technology of life may, in the fullness of time, give rise to the technology of conscious intelligence. But consciousness is a late-comer in cosmological order, and has not yet shown itself to be a technology of nature as robust and as durable as fusion. Only the test of time can demonstrate this.
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19 November 2012
An idea that has had a great influence despite being at very least misleading and more often completely wrong is that of recapitulation — also called embryological parallelism or the biogenetic law (the latter by Ernst Haeckel, who was also the originator of ecology). Recapitulation was most famously summed up in the phrase:
Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.
The idea here is that the development of the individual organism recapitulates, or reproduces in miniature, the phylogenetic history of the species to which the individual belongs. The often mistaken idea of recapitulation as it has been applied to biology, however, did have fortunate although unintended benefits, because in looking for evidence of recapitulation biologists began seriously studying developmental processes. Early on this primarily took the form of experimental embryology, but later become more sophisticated. This developmental interest eventually led to the study of evolutionary developmental biology, which is now usually referred to as evo-devo.
Quine took up the theme of recapitulation in order to cleverly skewer metaphysics in the best tradition of Post-Positivist Thought, which he formulated as follows:
Ontology recapitulates philology.
In other words, ontology, in presuming to detail the structure of reality, just gives us back again the structure of language by which we have attempted to describe the world, however imperfectly. The implied corollary here is that different languages with different philologies will yield different ontologies (an idea better known as the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis).
So what has evo-devo and Quinean post-positivism to do with biology in relation to cosmology? We can understand the traditional recapitulation idea as a variation on another ancient human idea, that of the microcosm as a mirror of the macrocosm: the development of the individual as the microcosm mirrors the development of the species as the macrocosm. Similarly, terrestrial biology, as a complex ecological system on Earth, can be understood as the microcosm of the complex ecological system of cosmology, which here becomes the macrocosm. Thus as biology is the microcosm and cosmology the macrocosm, is it the case the biology recapitulates cosmology?
But do we even know, can be even say, what biology is or what cosmology is? Is it possible to make any generalization as sweeping as this without falling into incoherency? Generalizations are made, of course, but there is a question as to the legitimacy of any such generalization. The most common generalization about the whole of biology or cosmology is that they exhibit progress. Because this is one of the most common overall interpretations, it is only the interpretation that has been most refuted and has come under the heaviest attacks.
Stephen J. Gould has most memorably be associated with a consistent refusal to see progress in the history of life, and he expressed this forcefully in one of his later books, Full House: the Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin, in which he returns time and again to the theme that life is overwhelmingly simple, and the human tendency (which we would now call anthropic bias, following Nick Bostrom) to see progress in this history of life is to distort the history of life by interpreting the whole of life in terms of a thin tail of complexity that emerges merely because life has a minimal bound of complexity. Since life cannot become less complex and still remain life, the essential variability of life will, with time, eventually blunder onto greater complexity because there is nowhere else for life to go. But that does not make greater complexity a trend, much less a driving force that results in ever more complex and sophisticated life forms.
“…I can marshal an impressive array of arguments, both theoretical (the nature of the Darwinian mechanism) and factual (the overwhelming predominance of bacteria among living creatures), for denying that progress characterizes the history of life as a whole, or even represents an orienting force in evolution at all…”
Stephen J. Gould, Full House: the Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin
Gould writes a bit like Darwin, who called his own Origin of Species “one long argument,” so it can be difficult to get just the right quote from Gould to illustrate his argument and his point of view, so the quote above should not be considered definitive. Thus the following quote also cannot be called definitive, but it does give a sense of Gould’s “big picture” conception of his work, and even suggests an approach to cosmology consistent with Gould’s ideas:
“…this book does have broader ambitions, for the central argument of Full House does make a claim about the nature of reality… I am making my plea by gentle example, rather than by tendentious frontal assault in the empyrean realm of philosophical abstraction (the usual way to attack the nature of reality, and to guarantee limited attention for want of anchoring). I am asking my readers finally and truly to cash out the deepest meaning of the Darwinian revolution and to view natural reality as composed of varying individuals in populations — that is, to understand variation itself as irreducible, as ‘real’ in the sense of ‘what the world is made of.’ To do this, we must abandon a habit of thought as old as Plato and recognize the central fallacy in our tendency to depict populations either as average values (usually conceived as ‘typical’ and therefore representing the abstract essence or type of the system) or as extreme examples…”
Stephen J. Gould, Full House: the Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin
Gould, as the great enemy of progressivism (and, as we see in the above passage, a passionate advocate of nominalism), may be contrasted with Kevin Kelly’s explicit defense of progress in his recent book What Technology Wants (which I have written about in Civilization and the Technium and The Genealogy of the Technium). In Chapter 5 of his book, “Deep Progress,” Kelly takes the bull by the horns and against much recent thought and much well-justified cynicism, argues that progress is real. Aware of the difficulties his argument faces, Kelly states up from the expected objections:
“Any claim for progressive change over time must be viewed against the realities of inequality for billions, deteriorating regional environments, local war, genocide, and poverty. Nor can any rational person ignore the steady stream of new ills bred by our inventions and activities, including new problems generated by our well-intentioned attempts to heal old problems. The steady destruction of good things and people seems relentless. And it is.”
Kevin Kelly, What Technology Wants, Chapter 5
Despite these difficulties, Kelly soldiers on finishes his chapter on progress as follows:
“…there will be problems tomorrow because progress is not Utopia. It is easy to mistake progressivism as utopianism because where else does increasing and everlasting improvement point to except Utopia? Sadly, that confuses a direction with a destination. The future as unsoiled technological perfection is unattainable; the future as a territory of continuously expanding possibilities is not only attainable but also exactly the road we are on now.”
Kevin Kelly, What Technology Wants, Chapter 5
It is admirable that Kelly makes a distinction between progress as a direction of development and progress as an end or aim. What Kelly is doing here is to posit non-teleological progress, and this is an idea that deserves attention. Non-teleological progress only partially blunts the force of Gould’s determined opposition to finding progress in history, because Gould often assumes without stating that progress implies a goal toward which a progress of development is developing, but whether or not it answers all of Gould’s objections, it deserves attention if for no other reason than that it confounds expectations and assumptions about historical thought.
Kelly, in arguing for increasing complexity against a tradition denying historical progress or trends as anthropocentric, is himself part of another emerging tradition, that is the growing discipline of Big History. In the works of David Christian, Cynthia Stokes Brown, and Fred Spier, inter alia, the central theme of history conceived as a whole from the big bang to the present day is the theme of increasing complexity.
Does the universe, on the whole, exhibit increasing complexity? We could bring to cosmology essentially the same arguments that Gould used in biology, especially since Gould wrote that he had wider ambitions for his ideas. It would be easy to argue that the universe is overwhelmingly composed of hydrogen and helium, in the same way that life is overwhelmingly composed of bacteria. Just as life has a minimal bound of complexity, and only blunders into higher complexity because it has nowhere else to go, so too matter has a lower bound of complexity — ordinary baryonic matter composed of protons, neutrons, and electrons doesn’t get any simpler than hydrogen — and it could be said that it is only with accidental variation over time that complexity emerges in the universe because matter has nowhere else to go except in the direction of greater complexity.
Thus we can admit the existence of greater complexity in biology or cosmology, but it would be a mistake to argue that this complexity is the telos of the whole, or that it is a trend, or that it is even predominant. In fact, we know that bacteria predominate in life and that hydrogen predominates in cosmology. The later emergence of complexity does not alter the overwhelming predominance of the simple, and to judge of the whole by a long and very narrow tail of complexity is to allow the tail to wag the dog.
Between the inner intimacies of biology that transpire unnoticed within our bodies, and the distant and impersonal life cycles of stars and galaxies and the cosmos, unnoticed by us because it is too large and too slow to play a role in human perception, there lies the broad ground of human history. Even if biology and cosmology can be interpreted in terms of overwhelming simplicity and the absence of any trend or progress, does this have any relevance for human affairs?
It should be evident that human history, the macroscopic doings of human beings on a human scale of time, can be interpreted either according to the Gould model or according to the model of progress that one finds in Kevin Kelly and Big History.
I have mentioned in an earlier post, Taking Responsibility for Our Interpretations, how I came to realize that history can be a powerful method of conveying an interpretation, and it is wrong to understand history in the sense of a list of names, dates, and places in the spirit of what might be called histoire vérité.
This is a sense of historiography most famously attributed to Leopold van Ranke, who wrote:
“History has had assigned to it the office of judging the past and of instructing the account for the benefit of future ages. To show high offices the present work does not presume; it seeks only to show what actually happened [wie es eigentlich gewesen].”
Later historians have endlessly debated what exactly Ranke had in mind when he mentioned showing that actually happened; even if Ranke thought (as he is usually interpreted) that there is a single unique and correct account of history, there is no single and unique account of Ranke.
There is an Hegelian interpretation of Ranke’s much-discussed aside on showing what actually happened (“wie es eigentlich gewesen,” which has, of course, been translated in varying ways), according to which “gewesen” must be understood in an essentialist sense, so that to say what really happened is to give the essence of what happened — and this, I hope you will agree, can be very different from giving “the facts, just the facts.”
This Hegelian-essentialist interpretation of Ranke is illuminated by a famous aphorism of Hegel’s such that, “The real is the rational and the rational is the real.” When this is read through contemporary spectacles it doesn’t make any sense at all, because we tend to think of the “real” as that which really is or really happened, and we know very well that the world as it is has no end of irrationality in it, so that to say that for Hegel to say that the real is the rational makes Hegel look like a fool or worse. If, however, we understand the “real” to be the essentially true, or even the genuine — so that Hegel’s aphorism can be rendered, “The genuine is the rational and the rational is the genuine” — it suddenly becomes clear how the real and the rational might be systematically interrelated.
Here we encounter the deeper ontological substratum of these divergent interpretations of history, whether natural, human, or cosmological. The difference between the orientation of Gould and the orientation of Kelly and others is the difference between nominalism and essentialism. Nominalist historiography can give us all the facts, but ultimately cannot do anything more than sum up the facts. If you sum up the totality of life or the totality of matter in the universe, you are forced to acknowledge that life is overwhelmingly bacteriological in nature, and the universe is overwhelmingly composed of hydrogen and helium.
There is, for the nominalist, nothing to say beyond this. The essentialist, however, finds a narrative buried within the mountain of facts, but there are many essentialists, and they all have their own narratives. And essentialism is weakened by the one thing that can never touch nominalism: underdetermination. All essentialist accounts are underdetermined by the evidence. Nominalist accounts on principle never go beyond the evidence, and for that reason they are not underdetermined by the evidence, but they are also unable to say anything relevant about the meanings and values that constitute the daily bread and butter of human life. And so our strict conscience may suggest to us that we ought to stop with nominalism, but our less-than-strict human conscience suggests to us that there is something more than an undifferentiated mountain of facts.
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9 November 2012
Recently, the largest city in the richest country in the world was hit by a storm of considerable strength (14 Stunning Sandy Statistics). Fatalities for the storm’s entire progress, from the Caribbean to New England, numbered a little less than two hundred; property damage is being quoted in the billions of dollars. It is more difficult to measure the disruption to business and individuals lives, but this too was considerable, and will continue for some time.
Cities are the centers of industrial-technological civilization, and they are vulnerable. Of course cities have always been important in the history of civilization; civilization began with cities like Çatal Höyük in present-day Turkey. Some cities are very old. Damascus has been a city for more than four thousand years. And some cities are quite young, like Brasília, which recently celebrated its fiftieth anniversary.
The city as a center of industrial production, organization, and finance is quite recent, however. Most industrial cities supervene on much older cities, and I have commented elsewhere how the tourist’s introduction to a legendary ancient city often involves a desultory bus trip through uninspiring suburbs and industrial development that seems to have nothing to do with the historical center around which this development took place. The industrial city that lies at the center of industrial-technological civilization almost always consists of those recently built portions of a city of a strictly utilitarian character, not excluding the contemporary research universities where the sciences and technologies that drive industry have their origins.
The cities of industrial-technological civilization are very recent, then, even when they supervene on much older cities, and are the result of the rapid and unprecedented urbanization that began with the industrial revolution and which continues today, even as we have recently passed the threshold of being a majority urbanized species. The oldest industrial cities are only about two hundred years old, many are less than a hundred years old, and many are less than fifty years old. In regions such as East Asia where the industrial revolution only arrived in the second half of the twentieth century, the process of urbanization is still getting underway, and the industrialized cities are very young, even as the cities upon which they supervene are very ancient.
The industrial revolution interpolated (and is interpolating) a radical historical discontinuity into the lives of industrialized peoples and their communities. As the industrial revolution arrives in a given region, an entire generation leaves en masse the countryside with all its ancestral memories going back to time out of mind, joining the steadily growing urban masses where they have established new lives, new homes, new traditions, and new communities. In the process of urbanization, the local knowledge of an entire people is obliterated in a single generation, and those thrust into a new and unprecedented social milieu find themselves daily discovering or inventing the knowledge of the ordinarily business of life that is necessary of industrial-technological urbanism.
In addition to the perennial human needs for food, water, waste disposal, clothing, and housing — all of which have been raised to a new order of magnitude by contemporary urbanization, and therefore in themselves pose an unprecedented challenge — there are more recent utility infrastructure developments that have become essential to contemporary industrial-technological urbanism: electricity chief among them, but also telephone lines, internet connectivity, cell phone signals, and wifi signals. few if any of these recent infrastructure additions have been robustly tested against natural disasters.
Natural disasters of the greatest scope occur infrequently, say one in one to five hundred years, and so we have a well-known phrase like, “100 year flood,” although hydrologists don’t use this terminology. Instead, hydrologists speak in statistical terms of “recurrence intervals” or “return period.” Similar considerations hold for other natural disasters besides floods: great fires, earthquakes, and the like. Pre-industrial civilization has been around long enough to have been exposed even of long recurrence intervals on the order of five hundred years, and if you see an area recently devastated by a natural disaster, you will often see that the oldest structure that pre-date industrial-technological civilization are still largely standing, even while recent construction has been leveled by the event. There is a reason for this.
Ancient cities were built, and devastated, and built again, and devastated again, and eventually people learned their lesson and figured out how to build cities that would not be leveled by likely local natural disasters. This is not true for industrial cities, as I have described industrial cities above. The whole of industrial-technological civilization has emerged in such a short period of time, and industrialized cities are so young, that many have not experienced a single natural disaster of any scope, because their entire history to date lies within a recurrence interval — just as the whole of human civilization lies within the present interglacial period.
The unparalleled opportunities brought by electricity, telecommunications, and internet connectivity come with associated risks and vulnerabilities. It is likely that at some point in history to come, a catastrophic outage of the internet could result in social unrest, or, at very least, the disruption of commerce sufficiently severe that ordinary people feel in going out the ordinary business of life. Of course, outages are restored, and cities are rebuilt, but it all comes at a cost since industrial-technological civilization is still very young, its learning curve is very steep.
It is also like that in some future war a major urban area will be subjected to an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) that will destroy all but the most robust and hardened electrical appliances, and this will be an outage that will not soon be made good. But that is a subject for another post.
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29 October 2012
Parochialism, ironically, knows no bounds. Our habit of blinkering ourselves — what visionary poet William Blake called “mind-forged manacles” — is nearly universal. Sometimes even the most sophisticated minds miss the simple things that are staring them in the face. Usually, I think this is a function of the absence of a theoretical context that would make it possible to understand the simple truth staring us in the face.
I have elsewhere written that one of the things that makes Marx a truly visionary thinker is that he saw the industrial revolution for what it was — a revolution — even while many who lived through this profound series of events where unaware that they were living through a revolution. So even if one’s theoretical context is almost completely wrong, or seriously flawed, the mere fact of having the more comprehensive perspective bequeathed by a theoretical understanding of contemporary events can be enough to make it possible for one to see the forest for the trees.
Darwin wrote somewhere (I can’t recall where as I write this, but will add the reference later when I run across it) that from his conversations with biologists prior to publishing The Origin of Species he knew how few were willing to thing in terms of the mutability of species, but once he had made his theory public it was rapidly adopted as a research program by biologists, and Darwin suggested that countless facts familiar to biologists but hitherto not systematically incorporated into theory suddenly found a framework in which they could be expressed. Obviously, these are my words rather than Darwin’s, and when I can find the actual quote I will include it here, but I think I have remembered the gist of the passage to which I refer.
It would be comical, if it were not so pathetic, that one of the first responses to Darwin’s systematic exposition of evolution was for people to look around for “transitional” evolutionary forms, and, strange to say, they didn’t find any. This failure to find transitional forms was interpreted as a problem for evolution, and expeditions were mounted in order to search for the so-called “missing link.”
The idea that the present consists entirely of life forms having attained a completed and perfected form, and that all previous natural history culminates in these finished forms of the present, therefore placing all transitional forms in the past, is a relic of teleological and equilibrium thinking. Once we dispense the unnecessary and mistaken idea that the present is the aim of the past and exemplifies a kind of equilibrium in the history of life that can henceforth be iterated to infinity, it becomes immediately obvious that every life form is a transitional form, including ourselves.
A few radical thinkers understood this. Nietzsche, for example, understood this all-too-clearly, and wrote that, “Man is a rope stretched between the beasts and the Superman — a rope over an abyss. A dangerous crossing, a dangerous wayfaring, a dangerous looking-back, a dangerous trembling and halting. What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not a goal..” But assertions as bold as that of Nietzsche were rare. Darwin himself didn’t even mention human evolution in The Origin of Species (though he later came back to human origins in The Descent of Man): Darwin first offered a modest formulation of a radical theory.
So what has all this in regard to Marx and Darwin to do with the great filter, mentioned in the title of this post? I have written many posts about the Fermi paradox recently without ever mentioning the great filter, which is an important part of the way that the Fermi paradox is formulated today. If we ask, if the universe is supposedly teaming with alien life, and possibly also with alien civilizations, why we haven’t met any of them, we have to draw that conclusion that, among all the contingencies that must hold in order for an industrial-technological civilization to arise within our cosmos, at least one of these contingencies has tripped up all previous advanced civilizations, or else they would be here already (and we would probably be their slaves).
The contingency that has prevented any other advanced civilization in the cosmos from beating us to the punch is called the great filter. Many who write on the Fermi paradox, then, ask whether the great filter is in our past or in our future. If it is in our past, we have good reason to hope that our civilization can be an ongoing concern. If it is in our future, we have a very real reason to be concerned, since if no other advanced civilization has made it through the great filter in their development, it would seem unlikely that we would prove the exception to that rule. So a neat way to divide the optimists and the pessimists in regard to the future of human civilization is whether someone places the great filter in the past (optimists) or in the future (pessimists).
Human beings are the only species (on the only biosphere known to us) known to have created industrial-technological civilization. This is our special claim to intelligence. But before us there were numerous precursor species, and many hominid species that have since gone extinct. Many of these hominids (who cannot all be called human “ancestors” since many of them were dead ends on the evolutionary tree) were tool users, and it is for this reason that I noted in Civilization and the Technium that the technium is older than civilization (and more widely distributed than civilization). But now we are only only remaining hominid species on the planet. So in the past, we can already see a filter that has narrowed down the human experience to a single sentient and intelligent species.
Writers on the technological singularity and on the post-human and even post-biological future have speculated on a wide variety of possible scenarios in which post-human beings, industrial-technological civilization, and the technium will expand throughout the cosmos. If these events come to past, the narrowing of the human experience to a single biological species will eventually be followed by a great blossoming of sentient and intelligent agents who may not be precisely human in the narrow sense, but in a wider sense will all be our descendants and our progeny. In this eventuality, the narrow bottleneck of humanity will expand exponentially from its present condition.
Looking at the present human condition from the perspective of multiple predecessor species and multiple future species, we see that the history of sentient and intelligent life on earth has narrowed in the present to a single hominid species. The natural history of intelligence on the Earth has all its eggs in one basket. Our existence as the sole sentient and intelligent species means that we are the great filter.
If we survive ourselves, we will have a right to be optimistic about the future of intelligent life in the universe — but not until then. Not until we have been superseded, not until the human era has ended, ought we to be optimistic.
Man is a narrow strand stretched between pre-human diversity and post-human diversity.
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17 October 2012
It is ironic, though not particularly paradoxical, that the earth sciences as we known them today only came into being as the result of the emergence of space science, and space science was a consequence of the advent of the Space Age. We had to leave the Earth and travel into space in order to see the Earth for what it is. Why was this the case, and what do I mean by this?
It has often been commented that we had to go into space in order to discover the earth, which is to say, to understand that the earth is a blue oasis in the blackness of space. The early images of the space program had a profound effect on human self-understanding. Photographs (as much or more than any theory) provided the theoretical context that allowed us to have a unified perspective on the Earth as part of a system of worlds in space. Once we saw the Earth for what it was, What Carl Sagan called a “pale blue dot” in the blackness of space, drove home a new perspective on the human condition that could not be forgotten once it had been glimpsed.
To learn that our sun was a star among stars, and that the stars were suns in their own right, that the Earth is a planet among planets, and perhaps other planets are other Earths, has been a long epistemic struggle for humanity. That the Milky Way is a galaxy among galaxies, a point that has been particularly driven home by recent observational cosmology as with the Hubble Ultra-Deep Field (UDF) image (and now the Hubble eXtreme-Deep Field (XDF) image), is an idea that we still today struggle to comprehend. The planethood of the Earth, the stellarhood of the sun, the galaxyhood of the Milky Way are all exercises in contextualizing our place in the universe, and therefore an exercise in Copernicanism.
But I am getting ahead of myself. I wanted to discuss the earth sciences, and to try to understand what they are and how they have become what they are. What are the Earth sciences? The Biology Online website has this brief and concise definition of the earth sciences:
The Earth Sciences, investigating the way our planet works and the mechanisms of nature that drive it.
Earth Science is the study of the Earth and its neighbors in space… Many different sciences are used to learn about the earth, however, the four basic areas of Earth science study are: geology, meteorology, oceanography and astronomy.
For a more detailed overview of the earth sciences, the Earth Science Literacy Initiative (ESLI), funded by the National Science Foundation, has formulated nine “big ideas” of earth science that it has published in its pamphlet Earth Science Literacy Principles. Here are the nine big ideas taken from their pamphlet:
1. Earth scientists use repeatable observations and testable ideas to understand and explain our planet.
2. Earth is 4.6 billion years old.
3. Earth is a complex system of interacting rock, water, air, and life.
4. Earth is continuously changing.
5. Earth is the water planet.
6. Life evolves on a dynamic Earth and continuously modifies Earth.
7. Humans depend on Earth for resources.
8. Natural hazards pose risks to humans.
9. Humans significantly alter the Earth.
Each of these “big ideas” is further elaborated in subheadings that frequently bring out the planethood of the Earth. For example, section 2.2 reads:
Our Solar System formed from a vast cloud of gas and dust 4.6 billion years ago. Some of this gas and dust was the remains of the supernova explosion of a previous star; our bodies are therefore made of “stardust.” This age of 4.6 billion years is well established from the decay rates of radioactive elements found in meteorites and rocks from the Moon.
Intuitively, we would say that the earth sciences are those sciences that study the Earth and its natural processes, but the rapid expansion of scientific knowledge has made us realize that the Earth is not a closed system that can be studied in isolation. The Earth is part of a system — the solar system, and beyond that a galactic system, etc. — and must be studied as part of this system. But we didn’t always know this, and this comprehensive conception of earth science is still in the process of formulation.
The realization that the processes of the Earth and the sciences that study these processes must ultimately be placed in a cosmological context means that contemporary earth science is now, like astrobiology, which seeks to place biology in a cosmological context, a fully Copernican science, though not perhaps quite as explicitly as in the case of astrobiology. The very idea of Earth science as it is understood today, like planetary science and space science, is essentially Copernican; Copernicanism is now the telos of all the sciences. Copernican civilization needs Copernican sciences. As I said in my presentation to this year’s 100YSS symposium, the scope of an industrial-technological civilization corresponds to the scope of the science that enables this civilization.
What this means is that the sciences that generations of Earth-bound scientists have labored to create in order to describe the planet upon which they have lived, which was the only planet that they could know prior to the advent of space science, are all planetary sciences in embryo — all potentially Copernican sciences that can be extended beyond the Earth that was their inspiration and origin. Before space science, all science was geocentric and therefore essentially Ptolemaic. Space science changed that, and now all the sciences are gradually becoming Copernican.
In the case of earth science, this is a powerful scientific model because the earth sciences have been, by definition, geocentric. That even geocentric sciences can become Copernican is a powerful lesson and provides a model for other sciences to follow. I have often quoted Foucault as saying that “A real science recognizes and accepts its own history without feeling attacked.” I think it can be honestly said that the geosciences recognize and accept their history as geocentric sciences and this in no way inhibits their ability to transcend their geocentric origins and become Copernican sciences no longer exclusively tied to the Earth. I find this rather hopeful for the future of science.
Another way to conceptualize earth science is to think of the earth sciences as those sciences that have come to recognize the planethood of the Earth. This places the Earth in its planetary context among other planets of our solar system, and it also places these planets (as well as the growing roster of exoplanets) in the context of planetary history that we have learned first-hand from the Earth.
To a certain extent, earth science and planetary science (or planetology) are convertible: each is increasingly formulated and refined in reference to the other. What is planetary science? Here is the Wikipedia definition of planetary science:
Planetary science (rarely planetology) is the scientific study of planets (including Earth), moons, and planetary systems, in particular those of the Solar System and the processes that form them. It studies objects ranging in size from micrometeoroids to gas giants, aiming to determine their composition, dynamics, formation, interrelations and history. It is a strongly interdisciplinary field, originally growing from astronomy and earth science, but which now incorporates many disciplines, including planetary astronomy, planetary geology (together with geochemistry and geophysics), atmospheric science, oceanography, hydrology, theoretical planetary science, glaciology, and the study of extrasolar planets. Allied disciplines include space physics, when concerned with the effects of the Sun on the bodies of the Solar System, and astrobiology.
The Division for Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society doesn’t give us the convenience of a definition for planetary science, but in its offerings on A Planet Orbiting Two Suns, A Thousand New Planets, Buried Mars Carbonates, The Lunar Core, Propeller Moons of Saturn, A Six-Planet System, Carbon Dioxide Gullies on Mars, and many others, give us concrete examples of planetary science which examples may, in certain ways, be more helpful than an explicit definition.
The “aims and scope” of the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters also give something of a sense of what planetary science is:
Earth and Planetary Science Letters (EPSL) is the journal for researchers, policymakers and practitioners from the broad Earth and planetary sciences community. It publishes concise, highly cited articles (“Letters”) focusing on physical, chemical and mechanical processes as well as general properties of the Earth and planets — from their deep interiors to their atmospheres. Extensive data sets are included as electronic supplements and contribute to the short publication times. EPSL also includes a Frontiers section, featuring high-profile synthesis articles by leading experts to bring cutting-edge topics to the broader community.
A recent (2006) controversy over the status of Pluto as a planet led to an attempt by The International Astronomical Union (IAU) to formulate a more precise definition of what a planet is. The definition upon which they settled demoted Pluto from being a planet to being a dwarf planet. While this decision does not have complete unanimity, it is gaining ground in the literature. Here is the IAU of planets, dwarf planets, and small solar system bodies:
(1) A planet is a celestial body that (a) is in orbit around the Sun, (b) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, and (c) has cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit.
(2) A “dwarf planet” is a celestial body that (a) is in orbit around the Sun, (b) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, (c) has not cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit, and (d) is not a satellite.
(3) All other objects, except satellites, orbiting the Sun shall be referred to collectively as “Small Solar System Bodies.”
With this greater precision of definition than had previously been the case in regard to planets, we could easily define planetary science as the study of celestial bodies that (a) are in orbit around the Sun, (b) have sufficient mass for their self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that they assume a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, and (c) have cleared the neighbourhood around their orbits. Of course, this ultimately won’t do, because a comprehensive planetary science will want to study all three classes of celestial bodies detailed above, and will especially want to study the mechanisms of planet formation, dwarf planet formation, and small object formation for the light that each shines on the other. Like the Earth, that is part of a larger system, all the planets are also part of a larger system, and how they relate to that system will have much to teach us about solar system formation.
This more comprehensive perspective brings us to the space sciences. What is space science? The Wikipedia entry on space sciences characterizes them in this way:
The term space science may mean:
●The study of issues specifically related to space travel and space exploration, including space medicine.
●Science performed in outer space (see space research).
●The study of everything in outer space; this is sometimes called astronomy, but more recently astronomy can also be regarded as a division of broader space science, which has grown to include other related fields.
It is interesting that this definition of space science does not mention cosmology, which is more and more coming to assume the role of the master category of the sciences, since it is ultimately cosmology that is the context for everything else, but we could easily modify that last of the above three stipulations to read “cosmology” in place of “astronomy.” As the definition notes, the space sciences have grown to include other related fields, and in the future it may well be that the space sciences become the most comprehensive scientific category, providing the conceptual infrastructure in which all other scientific enterprises must be contextualized.
Since the Earth is a planet, and planets are to be found in space, one might readily assume that the Earth sciences, planetary sciences, and space sciences might be arranged in a nested hierarchy as follows:
Conceptually this is correct, but genetically, i.e., in terms of historical descent, it is obvious that the sciences that we have created to study our home planet are the sciences that, when generalized and applied beyond the surface of the Earth, are the sciences that become planetary science and space science.
Before space science and planetary science, there were of course the familiar sciences of geology (later geomorphology), atmospheric science or meteorology (later climatology), oceanography, paleontology, and so forth, but it was only when the emergence of space science and planetary science placed these terrestrial sciences into a cosmological context that we came to see that our sciences that study the planet that we call our home together constitute the Earth sciences in contrast to, and really in the context of, space science and planetary science. Great strides have been made in this direction, but further work remains to be done.
We know that the Earth and its solar system is about 4.6 billion years old, and most recent estimates for the age of the known universe put it at about 13.7 billion years. This means that the Earth has been around for almost exactly a third of age of the entire universe, which is not an inconsiderable length of time. Our sun and its solar system stands in relation to other stars of a similar age, and these stars and solar systems with significant traces of heavier elements stand in certain relationships to earlier populations of stars. The whole history of the universe is present in the rocks of the Earth, and we have to keep this in mind in the expanding knowledge base of the earth sciences.
While geological time scales are essentially geocentric, it would be possible to formulate an astrogeography and an astrogeographical time scale, extrapolating earth science to planetary science and thence to space science, that not only placed Earth’s geological history into cosmological context but also placed all planetary bodies and planetary systems and their geology in a cosmological context. For such an undertaking the generations of stars and planetary formation would be of central concern, and we could expect to see patterns across stars and solar systems of the same generations, and across planets within a given solar system.
This work has already begun, as can be seen in the above table laying out the geological histories of the Earth, the Moon, and Mars in parallel. Since one of the major theories for the formation of the Moon is that most of its substance was ripped out of the Earth by an enormous collision, the geological histories of the Earth and the Moon may ultimately be shown to coincide.
Stars and planets formed from the same dust and debris clouds filled with the remnants of the nucleosynthesis of earlier poulations of stars. This is now familiar to everyone. Galaxies, in turn, formed from stars, and thus also reflect a generational index reflecting a galaxy’s position in the natural history of the universe.
Since we now also believe that all or almost all spiral galaxies (and perhaps also other non-spiral or irregular galaxies) have a supermassive black hole at their centers, I have lately come of think of entire galaxies as the vast “solar systems” of supermassive black holes. In other words, a supermassive black hole is to a galaxy as a star is to a solar system. As planetary systems formed around newly born stars, galaxies formed around newly born black holes (if their gravity was sufficiently strong to form such a system). This way of thinking about galaxies introduces another parallelism between the microcosm of the solar system and the macrocosm of the universe at large, the structure of which is defined by galaxies, clusters of galaxies, and super clusters.
All of this falls within a single natural history of which we are a part.
Our history and the history of the universe are one and the same.
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2 August 2012
The idea of a continent is inherently ambiguous because it is ultimately derived from accounts of the world that preceded any scientific understanding of the structure of the world’s land masses; it is an informal concept, and it can only be formalized in a quantifiable scientific account if we adapt conventions that were no part of the original meaning. I can still remember learning about continents in my earliest elementary school education and how confused I was by the disconnect between the apparent principle and its putative application to the map. When I was asked, as part of a test, to approach the map and point out the various continents, it was with considerable trepidation that I pointed to somewhere near Lisbon to indicate “Europe” and somewhere near Vladivostok to indicate “Asia.” The distinction between Europe and Asia was not at all clear to me given the idea that continents were contiguous land masses separated by water. If anyone had taken the trouble to explain to me the profound cultural and historical difference between Europe and Asia I might have been a little less confused, but now I know that my confusion was justified, and no one at the time attempted to clarify the problem. As with much elementary school education, the function of the teacher was to exploit the ignorance of confusion of children in order to control them. The way to get good marks was not to understand, but to repeat conventions that have been established by authority figures.
The purely convention decomposition of the world’s land masses into continents is revealed by the history of geography’s different ways of accomplishing the task. Peter Heylin defined a continent in his book Cosmographie of 1657 as follows:
“A Continent is a great quantity of Land, not separated by any Sea from the rest of the World, as the whole Continent of Europe, Asia, Africa.”
Emanuel Bowen was willing to take the next step in his 1752 Atlas, in which he declared that a continent is:
“…a large space of dry land comprehending many countries all joined together, without any separation by water. Thus Europe, Asia, and Africa is one great continent, as America is another.”
Thus making all the Old World a single continent and all the New World another continent.
It is a mere accident of history that we refer to “Europe” as a continent while we do not generally refer to “Scandinavia” as a continent. Both Europe and Scandinavia are peninsulas of the Eurasia land mass, and each with its distinct cultural and demographic histories, and in this respect we are as justified in identifying a Scandinavian continent as a European continent. That we do not generally do so is, as I said, an accident of history.
If we take Europe to include France, Germany, Holland, Belgium, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Austria, Andorra, Lichtenstein, Luxembourg, the UK and the Czech Republic (roughly equivalent to Western Europe during the Cold War, but not exactly, as my division is as arbitrary as any other convention), then the geographical area of Europe is about 2,288,955 square kilometers.
If we take the geographical division sometimes called Fennoscandia including Norway (in which I will include the area of Svalbard), Sweden, Finland, Karelia, the Kola Peninsula, the geographical area of Fennoscandia is 1,491,587 square kilometers, or 65% of “Europe.” If we include along with Fennoscandia the culturally and commercially connected regions of Denmark, the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania), Iceland, and Ireland and Scotland (as we would typically include the British Islands with the European continent), the total geographical area of the Scandinavian continent comes to about 1,961,458 square kilometers, or about 86% of “Europe.” If we include the 2,166,066 square kilometers of Greenland in the Scandinavian continent, it is almost twice the size of Europe. So, depending on what conventions we establish, either the European or the Scandinavian continent could be the larger.
Note: It has been observed that one of the consequences of the Norman conquest of 1066 has to shift Scotland and Ireland into the orbit of continental Europe, whereas they had previously been part of the Nordic region of Northern Europe, with their primary trading and cultural links (including genetic links between populations) being to Scandinavia. I read this recently but cannot remember the source.
My point here is simply that on geographical terms, Europe and Scandinavia are more or less on an equal footing. Tom Paine’s conception of a continent as formulated in his pamphlet Common Sense is relevant here:
“Small islands not capable of protecting themselves, are the proper objects for kingdoms to take under their care; but there is something very absurd, in supposing a continent to be perpetually governed by an island. In no instance hath nature made the satellite larger than its primary planet, and as England and America, with respect to each other, reverses the common order of nature, it is evident they belong to different systems: England to Europe, America to itself.”
Paine passes beyond mere geography to incorporate a dimension of political economy into his understanding of a continent (as I understand his reference to “systems”), and this seems entirely justified to me, as I have pointed out above the separate and distinct cultural and demographic histories of Europe and Scandinavia. Europe and Scandinavia also belong to different, albeit related, systems.
I must also point out, however, that it is not entirely an accident of history that the cooler climate and shorter growing season of the Scandinavian continent produced less wealth and a smaller population than that of the European continent. France has about 33.46% arable land; Norway has about 2.70% arable land. These are differences that make a difference. The Scandinavian continent, being poorer and less populated before industrialization, was not in a position to assert its cultural difference to the extent that the European continent was able to do so in the same time period. (With the consolidation of industrialization, Scandinavia is now more wealthy, per capita, than Europe.) But, ultimately, this too is an accident of history, but an accident of of geology and plate tectonics and climatology. Presumably during the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum climatic conditions on the Scandinavian continent were considerably different, but this did not happen to correspond to the rise of homo sapiens, which, once again, is mere historical accident on a grander scale.
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21 July 2012
On the drive today inland from Florø toward the fjord country of Sogn and Fjordane, my sister and I detoured from the main road to see a group of petroglyphs at Ausevik. This was not at all far from Florø, and well worth the detour. There is a large, flat rock sloping down toward the fjord that is covered with a variety of carvings in the rock, some of them recognizably representative of familiar objects, and some of them not representative at all. I often marvel how the oldest art works of human beings are the most robust and likely to outlast the civilizations that superseded them. The petroglyphs, geoglyphs, and megaliths to be found around the world have been exposed to wind and weather for thousands of years longer than civilization has existed, and they remain today a vivid reminder of our prehistoric past. Similar considerations hold for the earliest monuments of human beings: the pyramids are likely to outlast anything that came, and is still to come, after them.
To mention other forms of robust ancient art like the petroglyphs at Ausevik reminds me of seeing the Nazca lines in January of this year — another perfect example of aesthetic simplicity and mystery likely to far outlast any subsequent constructions of civilization. The petroglyphs at Ausevik and the geoglyphs at Nazca remind me of each other for other reasons besides their robust character: the hypnotic patterns of lines is similar between the two, and the difficult of interpreting that which is not naturalistically representative poses the same dilemma in both cases, and in many other cases as well. Perhaps there is no better proof of ideas in the Kantian sense (as Husserl called them) than non-naturalistic, non-representative art. Such works of art have not correlate in nature; they spring from the mind of man, and are natural only to the degree that the mind is natural (and this is a matter of some disagreement).
It has been an invariant feature of the human mind since the advent of cogntive modernity that the mind of productive of non-naturalistic, non-representative ideas. This is a reminder to us of the conceptual sophistication of our prehistoric ancestors, and of the similarity to us. In other words, we are right to recognize ourselves in them, as they would be right to recognize themselves in us, their descendents. Of course, there are limits to this identification over time, but as I tried to show in my discussion of our intimacy with the past, it is partly a matter of perspective.
In thinking about these petroglyphs at Ausevik I realized that there is both a phylogenetic and an ontogenetic aspect to our intimacy with the past, i.e., there is also a personal version of the historical quest to understand the past. This is precisely what I was getting at in describing my pilgrimage to Kinn, where my fraternal grandmother came from. Personal pilgrimages to discover one’s own origins are the ontogenetic correlate of phylogenetic inquiries into history that privilege the impersonal, the universal, the objective, and the abstract — that is to say, the traditional ideal of history as a rigorous intellectual discipline.
My visit to Kinn recontextualized my personal history in a greater expanse of time than that I had previously understood; the life of my fraternal grandmother, whom I never met, is real to me in a way that it was not previously real to me. I have been to her home and walked in her footsteps and to a limited extent seen the world from her point of view. This is the first step in recontextualizing one’s past in ever greater expanses of history. The more we can expand our concepts to a generalization of our life that eventually coincides with the lives of our ancestors, the greater our intimacy with the past and the greater our understanding of the past. If we continue to extrapolate this process backward through history, the entire universe becomes implicated in our personal existence. In this way, we come to live the interconnectedness of all things. One’s personal history becomes impersonal and ultimately indistinguishable from the history of the world entire.
I see this effort as a way toward formulating a philosophy of history that is as personal as conventional philosophies of history — be they Augustinian, Kantian, Hegelian, Marxist, positivist, or anything else — have striven toward being impersonal, objective, universal, and abstract. I am not suggesting that philosophy or historiography abandon the pursuit of these admirable intellectual ideas, but what I am suggesting is that a personal conception of the world need not be unrigorous. While it is true that most personal visions of life are parochial in the extreme, this is not necessarily true, and it strikes me as an equally admirable intellectual ideal to formulation a personal philosophy of history.
One obvious question that follows from this intellectual exercise, and the question that demonstrates the profound practicality of the philosophy of history, is whether this coincidence of personal and universal history extrapolated into the past also holds when extrapolated into the future. I can intuitively see how this might be the case, or how it might fail to be the case. It would be a further intellectual exercise to try to answer to this question in a rigorous and still personal way. Such an answer — if indeed such an answer is even possible — would point the way to a naturalistic eschatology that might be sufficiently vivid as to supplant the supernatural eschatologies that have fascinating human beings since the beginning of time (and which have probably constituted the greater part of the non-naturalistic, non-representative ideas that human beings have entertained).
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