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.
. . . . .
. . . . .
. . . . .
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.
. . . . .
. . . . .
. . . . .
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.
. . . . .
. . . . .
. . . . .
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.
. . . . .
. . . . .
. . . . .
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.
. . . . .
. . . . .
. . . . .
. . . . .
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.
. . . . .
. . . . .
. . . . .
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).
. . . . .
. . . . .
. . . . .
12 February 2012
Today is Darwin’s birthday, and therefore an appropriate time to celebrate Darwin by a mediation upon his work. No one has influenced me more than Darwin, and I always find the study of his works to be intellectually rewarding. I also read (and listen to) quite a number of books about Darwin. Recently I listened to Darwin, Darwinism, and the Modern World, 14 lectures by Dr. Chandak Sengoopta. While I enjoyed the lectures, I sharply differed from many of Dr. Sengoopta’s interpretations of Darwin’s thought. One theme that Dr. Sengoopta returned to several times was a denial that Darwin had anything to say about the ultimate origins of life. Each time that Dr. Sengoopta made this point I found myself grow more and more irritated.
To say that Darwin had nothing to say about the ultimate origins of life may be technically correct in a narrow sense, but I do not think that it is an accurate expression of Darwin’s vision of life, which was sweeping and comprehensive. While it may be a little much to say that Darwin ever entertained ideas that could accurately be called “Darwin’s cosmology,” it is obvious in reading Darwin’s notebooks, in which he recorded thoughts that never made it into his published books, his mind ranged far and wide. It is almost as though, once Darwin made the conceptual breakthrough of natural selection he had discovered a new world.
In characterizing Darwin’s thought in this way I am immediately reminded of a famous letter that Janos Bolyai wrote to his father after having independently arrived at the idea of non-Euclidean geometry:
“…I have discovered such wonderful things that I was amazed, and it would be an everlasting piece of bad fortune if they were lost. When you, my dear Father, see them, you will understand; at present I can say nothing except this: that out of nothing I have created a strange new universe. All that I have sent you previously is like a house of cards in comparison with a tower. I am no less convinced that these discoveries will bring me honor than I would be if they were complete.”
Darwin, too, discovered wonderful things and created the strange new universe of evolutionary biology, though it came on him rather slowly — not in a youthful moment that could be recorded to a letter in his father, and not in a fit of fever, as the idea of natural selection came to Wallace — as the result of many years of ruminating on his observations. But the slowness with which Darwin’s mind worked was repaid with thoroughness. Even though Darwin was the first evolutionist in the modern sense of the term, he must also be accounted among the most complete of all evolutionary thinkers, having spent decades thinking through his idea with a Platonic will to follow the argument wherever it leads.
Given that Darwin himself thought that making the idea of natural selection public was like “confessing to a murder,” the fragments of Darwin’s cosmology must be sought in his latter and notebooks as much as in his published works. As for the origins of life, narrowly considered, apart from the cosmological implications of life, Darwin openly speculated on a purely naturalistic origin of life in a letter to Joseph Hooker:
“It is often said that all the conditions for the first production of a living organism are now present, which could ever have been present. But if (and oh what a big if) we could conceive in some warm little pond with all sorts of ammonia and phosphoric salts, — light, heat, electricity &c. present, that a protein compound was chemically formed, ready to undergo still more complex changes, at the present day such matter would be instantly devoured, or absorbed, which would not have been the case before living creatures were formed.”
Darwin’s 1871 letter to Joseph Hooker
What has widely come to be known as “Darwin’s warm little pond” sounds like nothing so much as the famous Stanley L. Miller electrical discharge experiment.
Darwin revealed his consistent naturalism in his rejection of teleology in a letter to Julia Wedgwood, where he indirectly refers to his slow, steady, cumulative mode of thinking (quite the opposite of revelation):
“The mind refuses to look at this universe, being what it is, without having been designed; yet, where would one most expect design, viz. in the structure of a sentient being, the more I think on the subject, the less I can see proof of design.”
Darwin’s letter of 11 July 1861 to Miss Julia Wedgwood
This same refusal continues to a sticking point to the present day, since, like so much that we learn from contemporary science, appearances are deceiving, and the reality behind the appearance can be so alien to the natural constitution of thue human mind that it is rejected as incomprehensible or unthinkable. That Darwin was able to think the unthinkable, and to so with a unparalleled completeness at a time when no one else was doing so, is testimony to the cosmological scope of his thought.
One of the most memorable passages in all of Darwin’s writings is the last page or so of the Origin of Species, which touches not a little on cosmological themes. Take, for instance, the “tangled bank” passage:
“It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.”
Besides anticipating the evolutionary study of ecology and complex adaptive systems long before these disciplines became explicit and constituted their own sciences, Darwin here subtly invokes a law-like naturalism that both suggests Lyell’s uniformitarianism while going beyond it.
Darwin places this law-governed naturalism in cosmological context in the last two sentences of the book, here also implicitly invoking Malthus, whose influence was central to his making the breakthrough to the idea of natural selection:
“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.”
This famous passage from Darwin reminds me of a perhaps equally famous passage from Immanuel Kant, who concluded The Critique of Practical Reason with this thought:
“Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me. I do not seek or conjecture either of them as if they were veiled obscurities or extravagances beyond the horizon of my vision; I see them before me and connect them immediately with the consciousness of my existence. The first starts at the place that I occupy in the external world of the senses, and extends the connection in which I stand into the limitless magnitude of worlds upon worlds, systems upon systems, as well as into the boundless times of their periodic motion, their beginning and continuation. The second begins with my invisible self, my personality, and displays to me a world that has true infinity, but which can only be detected through the understanding, and with which . . . I know myself to be in not, as in the first case, merely contingent, but universal and necessary connection. The first perspective of a countless multitude of worlds as it were annihilates my importance as an animal creature, which must give the matter out of which it has grown back to the planet (a mere speck in the cosmos) after it has been (one knows not how) furnished with life-force for a short time.”
Both Darwin and Kant invoke both the laws of the natural world (and both, again, do so by appealing to grandeur of the heavens) and a humanistic ideal. For Kant, the humanistic ideal is morality; for Darwin, the humanistic ideal is beauty, but what Kant said of morality and the moral law is equally applicable, mutatis mutandis, to beauty. Darwin might equally well have said of “the fixed law of gravity” and of “endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful” that he saw them before himself and connected them immediately with the consciousness of his existence. Kant might equally well have said that there is “grandeur in this view of life” that embraces both the starry heavens above and the moral law within.
Darwin did not express himself (and would not have expressed himself) in these philosophical terms; he was a naturalist and a biologist, not a philosopher. But Darwin’s naturalism and biology were so comprehensive to have spanned the universe and to have converged on an entire cosmology — a cosmology, for the most part, not even suspected before Darwin had done his work.
There is a sense in which Darwin fulfilled Marx’s famous pronouncement, from this Theses on Feuerbach, such that: “Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” Darwin, however, did not change the world by fomenting a revolution; Darwin changed the world by thinking, like a philosopher. In this sense, at least, Darwin must be counted among the greatest philosophers.
I would be a rewarding project to devote an entire book to the idea of Darwin’s Cosmology. I know that I have not even scratched the surface here, and have not come near to doing justice to the idea. It would be a rewarding project to think through this idea as carefully as Darwin thought through his ideas.
. . . . .
Happy Birthday Charles Darwin!
. . . . .
. . . . .
. . . . .
14 November 2011
Today it occurred to me how ideological crackpots on the right and ideological crackpots on the left share a common disdain for natural history and, apparently, a desire to exempt human beings from the natural processes of the world we inhabit. While both defy a natural historical account of human life, their perspective differs, and the weight of their moral indignation falls in distinct regions. It is possible to be much more specific that this: the moral horror of the ideologically motivated seems to be inspired by the very idea of human speciation, whether in the past or in the future.
Ideological crackpots on the right have a problem with human speciation in the past. They are deeply offended by the idea that hominids split off from a primate ancestor shared with monkeys and apes. They take a perverse pride in ignoring one new science after another — genetics, dendrochronology, paleobotany, paleoclimatology, etc. — as these add to the depth and detail of our knowledge of the long history of life on earth and how it is interrelated.
I find this attitude puzzling, and it doesn’t inspire the slightest moral horror in me to know that human beings are continuous with other life on the Earth, and that this continuity took the form of a common ancestor. I find that, far from being horrified by the continuity of life, I am edified by the idea. This feeling was beautifully expressed by Darwin near the end of The Origin of Species, where he compared the long history of life to an ancient lineage:
“When I view all beings not as special creations, but as the lineal descendants of some few beings which lived long before the first bed of the Silurian system was deposited, they seem to me to become ennobled.”
Ideological crackpots on the left have a problem with human speciation in the future. The ideological left views the idea that the human races represent incipient speciation with moral horror because it implies that there are fundamentally different kinds of people. In Diversity and Pluralism I discussed the idea common to mass society and mass man there is is only one kind of human being. This seems to be one of the sources of moral horror on the ideologically motivated left.
It has become fashionable in some circles to proclaim that race has no biological basis and is exclusively a social construction. This view of the social construction of race continues despite rigorous genetic studies that demonstrate that individuals genetically cluster according to the ancestry into divisions that roughly correspond to the popular idea of racial distinctions. (The work of Neil Risch is relevant here.) It is believed that to concede the idea of race is to fall into complicity with the dark tradition of scientific racism and to somehow support social Darwinism and biological determinism, both of which are believed to be invidious to the creation of a better society. One of the reason that transhumanism has evoked such moral horror in its detractors has been that transhumanism more or less frankly acknowledges human speciation in the future.
I find this attitude equally puzzling as that of the denial of human speciation in the past. While I certainly understand how scientific findings can be both manipulated and misused for evil ends, this is as true for the physics of electromagnetism as it is for evolutionary biology. If those on the ideologically motivated left really believed as strongly in diversity as they claim to believe, then they should be able to honor the diversity of an ethnically distinct population which represents incipient speciation, and they should be able to honor many hominid species in the future, if it comes to that (through transhumanism or any other speciation mechanism).
A continuation of the Darwin quote above proves to be almost preternaturally appropriate here:
“When I view all beings not as special creations, but as the lineal descendants of some few beings which lived long before the first bed of the Silurian system was deposited, they seem to me to become ennobled. Judging from the past, we may safely infer that not one living species will transmit its unaltered likeness to a distant futurity. And of the species now living very few will transmit progeny of any kind to a far distant futurity; for the manner in which all organic beings are grouped, shows that the greater number of species in each genus, and all the species in many genera, have left no descendants, but have become utterly extinct. We can so far take a prophetic glance into futurity as to foretell that it will be the common and widely-spread species, belonging to the larger and dominant groups within each class, which will ultimately prevail and procreate new and dominant species. As all the living forms of life are the lineal descendants of those which lived long before the Silurian epoch, we may feel certain that the ordinary succession by generation has never once been broken, and that no cataclysm has desolated the whole world.”
Darwin’s explicit recognition that, “not one living species will transmit its unaltered likeness to a distant futurity,” is to recognize the same holds true for human beings. Like much in the Origin, Darwin did not explicitly cite human beings, but we are clearly in his thoughts throughout the work. And the same idea, displaced into the past, means that not one living species in the past transmitted its unaltered likeness into the present.
It is interesting to note in this connection that one of the biological consequences of the achievement of what I call a Stage I civilization leads to the arrest of speciation in a globalized species. Recently in The Fundamental Theorem of Geopolitical Thought I wrote the following:
“Even before the world was industrialized, ships were trading around the globe, although only a small minority (sailors, to be specific) actually experienced the continuity of the human condition. When industrialization mechanized the technologies of transportation, distances were largely obliterated and world culture was transformed by the knowledge of human continuity and unity.”
If human society had remained at the level of a Stage 0 civilization, the incipient speciation represented by the adaptive radiation that led to human races would have continued to this day and beyond, and the unity of our species would have become lost in a way no longer possible to deny.
The moral intuitions of the ideologically motivated left constitute the non plus ultra of what I have earlier called “Enlightenment Universalism,” the unintended consequences of which issued in uncontroversial and unambiguous moral horrors. Seen in this light, the moral intuitions of the ideologically motivated right constitute the non plus ultra of human separateness and uniqueness, which is something of the mirror image of universalism: all human beings are distinct, therefore all are the same; all human beings are the same, therefore all are distinct from other animals.
Although I don’t feel any moral horror arising from human speciation in the past or human speciation in the future, I do understand (and it is important to understand) that these forms of moral horror follow from sincere and genuine motives. The ideologically motivated right feels that they are protecting something valuable in the past (the uniqueness and separateness of human beings) while the ideologically motivated left feels that they are protecting something valuable in the future (a better world based on the moral unity of all human beings). There moral concerns have come to override all other concerns, resulting in a willful obscurantism.
Pascal expressed this succinctly:
“Men never do evil so fully and cheerfully as when we do it out of conscience.”
Both left and right, men do evil out of a desire to do good. The same moral conscience that strenuously objects to a theory of human origins or human destiny that implies an idea of humanity that could be put to evil purposes, does not object to manipulating scientific theory to present it as shoring up a preferred idea of humanity. And so the moral conscience that was so concerned not to go down a slippery slope of denying the humanity of man, instead goes down a different slippery slope. Is is as though we were perched on the peak of a roof and had only to choose whether we fall in one direction or the other.
On my other blog, in Can democracy grow up?, I suggested that a crucial component of intellectual maturity is the ability to master counter-intuitive ideas. One way in which ideas can be counter-intuitive is for them to run counter of our deeply held moral intuitions.
It is this intellectual maturity that is largely absent in the world today. Few among us possess the intellectual hardihood to face squarely what Darwin faced more than one hundred fifty years ago.
. . . . .
Note Added 11.25.2011: If you think of evolution as a ladder of progress, it only stands to reason that if there are several hominid species (in the past or in the future), or if geographical races are incipient species, that these distinct species within one genus must also represent stages of progress, and so it is that racism (or even pre-homo sapiens speciesism) is logically derived from an incorrect conception of speciation. When speciation is correctly understood in terms of distinct branches from a common ancestor, the “problem” of grading distinct species on a ladder of progress vanishes, because the problem was illusory.
. . . . .
. . . . .
. . . . .