11. Evolution: Origin and direction

(continued) Chapter 2.
Long Evolution: Universe Emerging

growing-plantThe meaning of evolution 

“The times they are a’changin,” Pete Seeger tells us – and he is of course quite right, as will shortly become apparent. Evolution means “change.” The two terms are essentially synonymous. I feel this requires emphasizing again and again, for most people do not recognize the truth of it, or the significance of that truth. A religious minority, bearing their own particular mindset and intent on narrowing the meaning of “evolution” to a subset of biology, have succeeded only in further narrowing their own mindsets. As a designator of continuous, never-ceasing change, the term evolution applies quite as equally to the evolving physical universe as it does to evolving life – and quite as equally to the entirety of all past time as to all coming future time, forever. Among evolution’s several aspects, first and foremost it simply means “change” that never ends. This is much misunderstood.


More broadly, evolution’s never-ending change happens – apparently by sheer chance – to be accompanied by bottom-up emergence of ever more complex structures. Out of the  constant, random changing of less complex structures arise more complex structures. Thus evolutionary change is said to produce emergence of self organizing complexity. Hence the universe and life within it has a “direction.” And right here is a living scientific example of why some Southern Baptists get mad over some doctrine or other, split off and start their own church, and take a new name such as Foot-Washin’ Baptists.


Quite a few scientists – but by no means all – disagree with what I just said about “emergence,” “direction” and “self organizing.” And may I just note that many of them disagree as vehemently as any Baptist. There is no such thing, they assert (forcefully), as “direction” or “increasing complexity” in evolution – ye gods, man, admitting of such things might make it seem as if there could be such a thing as “purpose” behind the unfolding of the universe, and that – being of course impossible – might imply a God hovering in the background to decree such purpose! We can’t have that, they cry in unison. Obviously there be mindsets here.


Never mind them. Plenty of other pretty smart scientists will back me up. While I want you ultimately to make up your own mind about this, I hereby assert (rather forcefully, if I may say so) that the scientific story of unfolding evolution quite openly reveals – and rather unexplainably at that – a directional emergence of self-organizing complexity. It quite clearly proceeds from the non-organized chaos of no complexity at all (the big bang), to very considerable complexity (the universe), to exceedingly great complexity (the human brain). And the story of evolution is ongoing, by no means having yet reached its zenith. (What? Are you claiming that Man isn’t the ultimate?)


For now, pending other things we shall consider, simply note that many scientists, and many churchmen, agree with the idea of emerging complexity with an upward direction, as do many thoughtful people who are neither scientist nor churched. We’ve barely started and already we find a controversy where mindsets go binary and choose up sides.


Evolutionary emergence is characterized by change which, though occurring by sheer chance, is building upward from less to greater complexity. And when averaged out overall, notwithstanding many ups and downs along the way, the complexity exhibits an overall upward direction.  The universe began without even any atoms, and just compare that to what we’ve got now.


These are facts. As facts, they are equally obvious in both cosmology (the universe) and biology (life within the universe). They are controversial only as a result of mindset-based thinking that is self limiting for reasons you might not expect. The controversy will be more fully addressed in the next chapter where evolution’s biological phase is discussed in some detail. For the present discussion on physical evolution of the universe, this is sufficient introduction to the meaning of evolution:


Evolution is change, occurring by chance, which proceeds to self organization that emerges upward toward ever greater complexity.


We can round and smooth our new appreciation of evolution’s full meaning by surfacing tidbits from the word’s etymology. The term evolution has, as one would expect, evolved over time. For instance, the Roman statesman Cicero described the unrolling of a scroll as “evolutio” – a usage that meant moving from something simple to something more complex. In the second century the Greek historian Aelianus Tacticus described troop movements as evolution from one position to another. In his book The Accidental Species, the modern Henry Gee tells us that in 1670 the pre-modern British Royal Society’s proceedings recorded: “By the word Change is nothing else to be understood but a gradual and natural Evolution and Growth of the parts.”


Charles Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, referred to “The gradual evolution of the young animal or plant from its egg or seed.” Charles himself did not mention the word in his Origin of Species until the famous final sentence on his very last page: “…from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.” From these first glimmerings of evolutionary understanding, perceptions of emerging complexity and upward direction have come to conscious light only in recent decades. Let us now see why such expanded understandings have arisen, and why the mindsets of some scientists as well as many (but not all) churchmen still resist them.


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Out of nothing         

IN THE BEGINNING, from out of nothing whatsoever, a big bang brought forth into existence the entire universe. The whole thing, much more compacted than it is now, emerged out of nothing and from nowhere. After many years of reading the best books and articles that literally dozens of learned cosmologists and astronomers and physicists have written about universal origins, I described it to my wife who, not overly impressed, called it a nice way to start. My enthusiasm undeterred, my excitement over the whole deal undiminished, here for your interest is exactly how it is believed to have happened:


An inconceivably, infinitely tiny dot, of infinite density, from “somewhere else,” or perhaps from nowhere at all  – consisting of…nothing – and known to science as a “singularity” (though in fact no scientist “knows” anything at all about it) – exploded into existence. It did. And when it did it cast forth, into what we now call “our universe,” lots of primordial superhot stuff which would become everything which now exists throughout our universe. You should remember this “nothingness” from whence the Big Bang came. We shall encounter “nothing” several more times as this story unfolds. Nothing could be more important.


At just about exactly 13.82 billion years ago (plus or minus 0.05 billion years, we think), a nonexistent pinpoint of nothing exploded into existence. In six trillionths of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second it expanded from far smaller than a pinpoint to larger than a galaxy. And that was just barely beginning to get started. Do you have any comprehension of just how big a single galaxy is? Our whole universe, containing billions of galaxies, is really big. In that minutest fraction of newly-created time the big bang created all the energy that will ever exist. In a future-to-come, long eons after the big bang, that energy will power the stars and all life that will ever live in this universe.


Energy – the source of everything that is or ever will be – originated with the big bang.


And what is energy? Mark this well:  energy is what makes up everything that exists in the universe. One often hears the phrase “matter and energy.” Don’t believe it. Matter is energy. Einstein understood this when he wrote E = mc2. In all creation there is only energy, nothing else.


“Matter” is just a made-up convenience of an idea because we misperceive ourselves and other things to be “solid.” This is quite literally not true. Everything is energy. Energy can manifest itself in many different forms, all of them quite tiny (except for lightning). And when those energy forms draw themselves close together, as they constantly do – quite tightly compacted like semi-identical little houses in an old subdivision – we call that compactedness “solid matter.” No matter, it really is energy. But what is energy?


What is energy? The question may be more important to you than you had perhaps ever thought about whilst forming your various opinions and mindsets.


We are awed by the very thought of the big bang. At such a stupendous event of creation, far beyond the human mind’s capacity to imagine, the words “Let There Be Light” either were or were not present, either did or did not boom out across time as Genesis claims. Call it 50/50 odds.


We humans believe in cause and effect, and for good reason. From birth to death, when we see an effect, we know it had a cause. And as to that, every cause is itself an effect. We actively disbelieve that there can be an effect which had no cause. Everything that happens proceeds from something else that happened before it. And so from time immemorial, this concept of cause and effect leads our minds back, back, to points of origin. The ultimate such point of origin is the big bang.


Look at the big bang as an effect. On one hand, can we imagine that the big bang, an “obvious effect,” had no cause? Stated another way, can you possibly imagine the big bang as the first and only, ever, “uncaused effect?” The question confronts the limits of the human mind’s ability to reason. On the other hand, arguing over the matter has no importance, no meaning. People who get het up over it become temporary fools until their minds manage to rise above themselves to something higher than an argument which is self evidently pointless, unresolvable. Nobody was there snapping photos. The big bang is one of our several ultimate mysteries – #1 of many.


In that big-bang instant of beginning, spacetime came into being – or, let us acknowledge, there came into being at least the potential for what would soon become space and time. In that moment, that very first-ever moment, the potential which would grow into our unknowably vast universe blasted into existence with the greatest unheard roar of all eternity. If a God didn’t make it happen, then why did it happen?


Don’t, I repeat do not, simply brush off the question with customary scientific avoidance: Asking why things happen is not the business of science, they say.  Nuts, I say.  It in fact most certainly is everybody’s business. It is our very nature as humans to wonder why. I find it hard to understand a mindset, especially in a well educated mind, that can deny so compelling a question. Yet millions of Americans, including some of our brightest Nobel Laureates, indeed do deny it – and in writing, and fairly frequently at that.


Before the first moment

There was no moment before that first moment. There was no “before” before the first moment, and so neither time nor space nor “before” could yet exist. There did not exist any least thing, not even empty space. There was nothing. Our human minds cannot imagine nothing. Try to imagine nothingness. Go ahead, give it a try. No atoms… no energy… no space… no time… not even emptiness. Absolute … nothingness. It is beyond human ken, we are incapable of imagining nothing at all – before our universe began its existence, before something began. Nothing…to something.


These are profound questions: Why does something exist, rather than nothing? Why was there a big bang? To ask them, then ponder them, confirms your humanness. Many scientists call these meaningless questions, not worth asking – as meaningless, they say, as asking what lies outside the universe, for there is no “outside.”  But I don’t think them meaningless at all. It seems to me the very essence of being human to ask them. Do you think them meaningless? Skepticism has a point, but it sure can be a conversation stopper. Along with it stops the mind’s growth, harboring its own special kind of what has been called “willful blindness.”


Since that first moment, when every-potential-that-was-to-be came into existence, nothing has been added, nothing deleted. Only the form can change. None of it – that first, newly existing, primordial energy – had the form then that it has now, nearly fourteen billion years later. Initially, everything had a very different form. And immediately after it came into existence – within the tiniest possible fraction of a micro-trillionth of the first second after the big bang – changes began. Change. Evolution.


Evolution began.

Everything that then “was” proceeded immediately to begin modifying itself into an endlessly changing series of different forms – evolving – on its way to eventually becoming the stuff of the universe as we now perceive it – stars and galaxies and space dust. Everything that was, is, or ever will be was then launched on its way to becoming our familiar universe. Not a whit has been added or lost since that first micro-instant of existence, but the constant evolving has never stopped, nor ever will.


The evidence apparent to our telescopes and our reasoning minds strongly indicates that universal existence was indeed initiated by such a very big bang. Alas, we cannot go back and directly observe that event, the way we can see the moon. But there is good, credible evidence that it happened. Based on the good credible evidence, a great majority of scientists and other interested people, myself among them, accept that the so-called big bang theory almost certainly does describe how the cosmos began. Almost certainly.


At all times try to keep an open mindset – and seek to attain knowledge.


If the big bang happened 13.82 billion years ago, how big has the universe grown by now? Such a simple sensible question. But that 13.8 billion-year inferred measurement of time refers only to the observable universe. And that means the distance away from us of the universe’s presumed “edge,” from which light has had time to reach us by zipping along at its customary speed of 186,000 miles per second since time began. Beyond that presumed edge we logically know there has to be more universe, but it’s dark to us – so far away that light hasn’t  had enough time to reach us yet.


And today the universe is still expanding, ever faster, so that the oldest light never will get here. In fact “light” didn’t exist for a time after the bang because photons (the tiny energy-specks of which light is said to exist) hadn’t yet come into being. The universe consisted of a “plasma” – a roiling soup of energy which was opaque to photons. Light photons couldn’t have been seen through that primal plasma, even if you’d been there, telescope in hand. Light as we know it didn’t yet exist.


We will never be able to see that far away, that far back in time – out to the real edge, where light had not yet been born. Even with the help of light arriving here 13.8 billion years after it left “there,” somewhere a bit less distant than the theoretical and unseeable “true edge” of the universe, all we can know for sure about the age and size of the universe is that it must be older (our reasoning minds assure us), and larger, than those faraway parts our telescopes can see. Furthermore, the edge of the universe is expanding away from us at a rate of about one light year per Earth year. That’s pretty fast. Even though the technological improvement of our telescopes can see a bit further away every day, that seeable edge will never catch up with the unseeable “real edge” – if there is one. So please consider 13.82 billion years a best guess that we have no choice but to live with. The truth is:  We…Don’t…Know.

            Once you can accept the universe as matter expanding into nothing that is something, wearing stripes with plaids comes easy.
A. Einstein
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…to be continued in one week…


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