23. Up, from out of non-living matter, Life – and primal life urges

(continued) Chapter 3.           Long Evolution: Life Emerging

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Notwithstanding materialistic scientists’ unease that emergence might unacceptably imply the existence of “a” God, the fact of upward direction is more than obvious to anyone willing to look with an open mindset. The same Henry Gee who so vehemently objects to popularly “misperceived” directionality in evolution’s unfolding admits:

 

            “…such progressive and inexorable improvement seems to have been precisely what has happened. Over the eons, living things really do seem to have become     more complicated. Simple creatures consisting of simple cells, such as bacteria, evolved into complicated creatures consisting of trillions of cells, such as human beings. If “improvement” can be equated with “complexity,” then there seems to have been a general trend, throughout the history of life, for complexity to    increase.”
                                           (Henry Gee, The Accidental Species, 2013)

 

Nevertheless, Gee then spends the rest of his book intent on disproving the fact he has just conceded. In his own words, he waxes “passionate and argumentative” at times. What really exercises him is that so many are the people who misperceive evolution as one straight line of ascent from amoebas up to man, with perhaps a missing link here and there. He doesn’t like religious belief, he doesn’t like ignorance, he especially doesn’t like that anyone can be less informed than his own elevated plateau. All unintended, he ranks himself among the misperceivers by filling so many pages raging that it’s all more random than that. Indeed it is more random than that, but methinks he doth protest too loudly. Gee’s unstated agenda, his closed mindset, cannot abide the implication that where there is direction there might also be purpose. And that purpose might be God’s.

 

Some scientific mindsets, like Gee’s, are so resistant to popularly misconceived human exceptionalism that they feel compelled to disagree with every conceivable trace of evolution ‘s long upward sweep, regardless how obvious that upward direction may be. See how tiny and insignificant and utterly meaningless we are in the grandeur of the universe, they say, see?! see?! – compelled by their own closed minds to ignore the fact that the human brain is by orders of magnitude the most elegantly complex thing ever to be evolved in all the wide universe. Deeply committed to an entrenched line of thinking, their mindsets cannot – cannot – let themselves consider even the possibility that such upward directionality implies that such a superstitious idea as God might exist.

 

Upward evolutionary direction can in fact be readily observed and has in fact been carefully documented in detail for the better part of two centuries now. This is not human exceptionalism, it is observed facts accurately reported. Nor is it too subtle a distinction to be easily understood. Only closed mindsets would deny the distinction – and of these there are a great many, equally on display, in the very broad establishments of both religion and science as we shall increasingly see. See?!

 

Evolution

I have previously noted a point which cannot be overemphasized – that in popular misunderstanding, the term “evolution” is misconceived as referring only to the origin and rise of life on earth. This understanding is grievously incomplete. Life’s unfolding story certainly is included within evolution, but it is only the most recent part – the tail end, so to speak, of evolution’s grand long story that science has revealed to us so far. Life on Earth – the only life we know of so far – is based on prerequisite evolution of events elsewhere across the universe . Those events are called “cosmological” evolution; the subsequent unfolding of life is called “biological” evolution – but it’s all evolution.

 

Have you perchance encountered the religious fundamentalist complaining “I don’t believe Man came from monkeys!”? That such preschool miscomprehension of evolution still exists in the modern world is bald testament to how miserable is our failure to educate our own kind at every level from kindergarten on up. Let us hypothesize two Godly mandates:  1) Help others and 2) Attain knowledge. If we hope to understand even minimally the reality in which we daily live our lives and think we pursue purpose – if we are to attain knowledge – we must first comprehend that everything happening everywhere is a manifestation of evolution. The word is as much verb as noun. Properly understood, evolution includes absolutely everything that has ever happened or ever will – then, now and forever – on earth and across the wide universe. Evolution so far has been unfolding for nearly 14 billion years. That is a “long evolution” indeed.

 

Charles Darwin

For those who don’t already know, evolution is not just a fantastic interpretation of biology thought up by Charles Darwin – a good and thoughtful man of great humility and utmost integrity – to promote Godless atheism. Such ignorance is unknowing of the deep inner struggles over which Darwin anguished in attempting to reconcile his own religious foundation, and his beloved wife’s deep religiosity, with his clear-minded reasoning over the fossil and living evidence which lay compellingly before his eyes. The difference was that he looked – he paid attention and wondered, he pondered what he saw – while others didn’t bother. Charles Darwin had that rare attribute – a fully open mindset. His contributions to advancing human knowledge and understanding are in full rank with humanity’s most notable thinkers from Socrates to Einstein. And his life’s work ran true to the simple, noble, mandates that can reasonably be called human purpose:

 

1: Help others.

2: Attain knowledge.

While you’re at it help others attain knowledge, so they can better help others.

 

People of open mindset do not need to be told that understanding evolution is essential to informed, literate, participation in modern civil society. Every mindset opposed to this understanding is, in some measure, dragging us all down, holding us all back – like a ship that cannot leave the dock until every passenger is on board and knows the words to the song. To understand biological evolution’s long track, i.e., simple life forms constantly changing in ways that facilitate emergence of increasingly complex forms up to and including humanity – so far, we must first be informed of the physical elements and their environment from which those simplest, original forms of life emerged.

 

Life in the universe

Life is here, therefore it began somewhere, of this we can be certain. But why? Did God create life as Genesis claims, in two different versions? Did life “just happen” accidentally in an evolutionary sort of way, as many scientists claim? Our questioning intellects, functioning in the image of God, quite appropriately wonder not only how it began, and when and where, but most of all why. Such reasonable questions.

 

Consider where. Well, probably not in the raging million-degree heat of a star. Also probably not in the cold empty space between stars or, colder still, between galaxies. Maybe on a planet orbiting some star? Seems reasonable. But, the odds makers insist, it’s a big universe – are there enough planets out there for this life thing to maybe begin on?

 

Planets orbit stars, and most stars are in galaxies. In the preceding chapter we noted there are roughly 200 billion galaxies in the universe (estimated range 100 to 500 billion). Each galaxy has maybe 200 to 400 billion stars, like our Milky Way (estimated range a bit less to a whole lot more). So, multiplying, we discover there are some quintillions or sextillions – maybe even septillions – of stars in the wide universe. Quite a few, say.

 

Planetary cradles

Now, science has recently learned that a substantial percentage of these quite-a-few stars are orbited, just like our sun, by at least one planet. Many stars have a half dozen or more. So, roughly, how many planets are there in the universe that life might begin on?

 

Suppose a low-ball guesstimate that fifty percent of all stars have, on average, only two planets (among those discovered, most in fact have more). Multiplying again to get a rough total number of planets; you get a real brain buster of a number. But planets are quite a mixed bag – some covered with methane ice, some too gaseous, too big, too cold, too something. Many could not possibly support anything we’d recognize as life. So:  on how many of these zillions of planets might life have begun? Guesstimate again: say very, very few – call it 0.001 percent – may support life. And multiply again…  You likely cannot get your mind around the heavenly host of planets that could support life.

 

The fact is, increasingly precise observations over recent years suggest that most stars in all galaxies are surrounded by several planets. As we learn more each year, “suggest” is becoming “strongly indicate.” It makes sense, considering how stars and their planets form simultaneously within a condensing ball of hot gas and debris. Several thousand “exoplanets” orbiting other stars have now been identified, and the number grows daily. Additionally, there are said to be trillions of “rogue” planets roaming space, unattached to any star, in the Milky Way alone – not to mention the other billions of galaxies. Some of these roaming planets generate their own heat. Approach it as you will, there are a lot of planets available to serve as cradles for the appearance of life.

 

A significant minority of these are reasonably similar to Earth, and that minority is a Very Big Number. Factual data support the prospect of a truly astonishing number. If the minutest fraction of these are characterized by conditions even minimally amenable to life, the odds that life must exist on some of them becomes a sure thing. Ask any bookie. The upward trajectory of evolution will make it happen on average, just like the house odds at Reno.

 

We can’t yet examine faraway exoplanets up close to see if life has actually come into being on them (though we’re slowly getting there). Our sophisticated telescopic spectrometers may tell us there are some carbon compounds in the atmosphere around some of them, but going beyond that stretches too far, so far. We do, however, have very good evidence that life exists on the planet we call earth, and so, as a practical matter, we must acknowledge that just could be where life began – unless life started elsewhere and was carried here by a comet or something. But when, and how, might that have been? For that matter, how would we know it was “alive” if we saw it?

 

What is alive?

What does it mean to say something is “alive?” As a recently evolved component of the self-organizing universe, aliveness clearly requires, at minimum, some degree of self organization. No single atom displays characteristics we think of as being “alive.” But when atoms bind together into organized combinations known as molecules, some of the very large molecules have properties whereby they seem to be alive. Maybe. Maybe not. We call such molecules viruses. However, organization alone does not constitute “alive.” Two features fundamentally define life, and we shall name the more interesting one first.

 

Reproduction (the second life drive)

We have seen that many features of the natural universe, especially galaxies, stars and planets, “organized” themselves into being as a response to the universal tug called gravity. As it happens, living organized things embody a characteristic that non-living organized things do not. That characteristic is re-production of themselves. After having been “produced,” each living entity can in turn produce again. Re-production, once commenced, produces a continuity of the original entity, and that continuity will be ongoing, endless, unless some event or malefactor stops it by killing or seriously damaging it. One cannot kill a non-living thing – to be “killed” a thing must first be alive. Non-living things can merely be “destroyed” (i.e., their organization, not their atoms).

 

Unless killed or seriously damaged, each living thing will probably reproduce itself and set in motion subsequent generations, each of which  will produce more living things pretty much like the original living thing. All living things exhibit this primal urge to re-produce themselves. We don’t know why they (and we) have this primal urge (though we shall consider why later).

 

After that first living thing self organized, self organizing of life stopped. The very first living thing obviously had to self organize itself out of nonliving elemental minerals and liquids. But then, being now organized, it re-produced – and handed its already-organized “pattern” down to its descendants. They each in turn passed the same organized pattern (or slightly modified versions of it) on to theirs. From that point to the present day, it’s all been nothing but constant modifications. You can modify a Chevrolet so many times that it looks like a Studebaker, but the original Chevy got created only once.

 

Continuing the first living thing’s initial pattern through subsequent generations replaced self organizing. For life to produce successive generations, reproduction became more fundamental than self organizing, and it proceeded with changes occurring by chance. Continuity entered evolution. Just as the universe exhibits self-organizing continuity, biological evolution is continuity of life – rather like carrying around a bit of original fire with which to start new fires.

 

…“life” is not a thing, a separate entity. It is a word used to describe the properties and activities of living substance, as observed in animals and plants; and their basic distinguishing property is their capacity for self-reproduction. …reproduction depends on continuity of substance. New individuals develop from portions of the living substance of other individuals. The original individual may simply split in two, or it may detach a portion of its substance to serve as a basis for the new individual’s development.                                                                                                                                                 Julian Huxley, Evolution in Action

 

Survival  (the first and primal life drive)

Reproduction may be called the second fundamental property of living things, because there is another even more fundamental. This other property that all living entities exhibit manifests even before an entity has encountered its urge to reproduce. From its first moment of existence, every living entity exhibits a drive to survive, to stay alive – to stay organized. In every living creature from microbes on up to you-know-who, this survival drive urge manifests in two ways: an urge to consume energy and an urge to avoid danger – danger being anything, foe or fire, that might un-organize it. We have given these drives and urges a name: we call them “instinct.” Most people have not thought much about the huge implications of that word, instinct, but we shall do so in this book, more than once.

 

Energy is attained by eating/ingesting/absorbing whatever nutritious sustenance is available in the entity’s accessible environment. Such sustenance may variously be sunlight, minerals in the dirt, mother’s milk or oysters on the half shell with white wine, but if a living entity doesn’t eat in whatever way it can, it soon starves, its aliveness ceases and it shortly becomes noticeably non-organized. Each living entity seems to “know” this by virtue of the observable fact that it instinctually seeks to eat shortly after being produced (coming into existence; being born; germinating; hatching; whatever way it begins). Danger is typically avoided by instinctually moving away from the danger, if the entity can move, or by various devices (often involving stinky chemical defenses) if it cannot move.

 

We thus can reasonably surmise that that very first living entity – the first thing that became alive – had two characteristics that had not previously existed in the universe: a built-in urge to survive and a built-in urge to reproduce. If a thing doesn’t have these two urges, it’s not alive. What do we mean “built-in?”

 

The primal urge to survive can be seen in each living thing’s behavior until it has reproduced itself one or more times. The two-part survival urge – eating and avoiding danger – is sometimes called “survival instinct,” but we really should be more careful in throwing around that word “instinct” until we’re a bit more sure what it implies. Until we better understand what instinct is – indeed whether the concept we call instinct even exists other than in our uninformed imaginations – perhaps some other word would better describe what’s really happening, as we shall explore in this book. In any case, all living organisms eventually reach a point where the urge to survive diminishes, then fades and finally is gone. This point is not normally reached until the organism has reproduced at least once. Sometime after that point, often fairly soon thereafter, organisms in fact die.

Some species (and a few people I’ve known) do indeed seem to live only to serve their earth-bound reproductive instinct. The mayfly, for example, is born ready to breed, has no mouth parts for wasting time on distractions such as eating, does in fact breed as soon as it possibly can, and is then dead before the day is ended. Without much joy a next generation of mayflies is assured. But we know of course that things are often a bit more involved. Many other species, as we observe, prefer to breed again, and again, and even yet again – producing over a span of some years several batches of eggs or litters or babies before deciding that’s enough and turning their attention to the inevitability of dying. A female mouse, for example, can produce five to ten litters a year with a dozen or more in each litter, each pup reaching maturity and readiness to breed more generations in about thirty days. Like mice and dandelions, most species use their urge to breed to indirectly cover their urge to survive – put a lot of seeds out there so at least some will survive you.

 

But two species that we know of – humans and bonobos – exhibit the very unusual pattern of coupling just for the fun of it, without any least intention of breeding or reproducing, certainly not making babies. In humans this odd behavior, uniquely in the zoo of life, sometimes becomes even more oddly associated with a strong emotional attachment which is called “love” by some word in every language. In some humans (though certainly not all) it is difficult to distinguish between this emotional love and the primal urge to reproduce – i.e., they seem to exhibit both at the same time. In certain human mated couples (but by no means in all), the love aspect seems to be primary and possibly dominant over the sexual-reproductive aspect. This suggests that the mysterious love attachment might somehow be of a higher order than the sexual-reproductive instinct. This in turn reminds us of the upward directionality of evolution whereby higher-order complexities emerge out of less organized lower-order things. And so this unusual pattern evidenced by humans and bonobos will be explored a bit further on in this book

*          ©          *

 

…to be continued in one week…

 

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