Evolution and the humanities
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If you’re a panpsychist, if you believe human minds result from mere aggregations of mini-minds associated with elementary particles, shouldn’t you expect to find minds on Mars? Mars and Earth are similar aggregations of such particles.
But I think we’d all agree that, apart from the rovers we’ve planted on the planet, there isn’t any mind on Mars as there is on Earth. What accounts for the difference?
Exploring the origin of mind has a long history. The Ancient Greeks and Romans wrestled with it for over a thousand years until Christianity branded their musing as paganism and suppressed it. But suppose ancient Roman wisdom had grown directly into modern science without Christianity coming along and separating them. We might be a lot wiser. That’s the prospect I pursue in this chapter.
By ancient Roman wisdom I mean Stoicism. Like us, the Stoics of Ancient Rome were materialists, for them a few simple physical elements mixing together could account for everything material. To account for what wasn’t material, that they couldn’t make these elements account for— nature being so well ordered and creative for example—they came up with an extra element coexisting with and permeating all those others. They called this extra element an “essence” or a “World Spirit.” And to account for what made us humans special they imagined their World Spirit embedding into each one of us some of its own powers, some of this essence. As a result, for us to know ourselves better and grow in wisdom we had only to learn more about this special element, and we could do that by studying how that element manifested itself within us, and around us in nature.
By modern science I mean particularly the genome. That’s the molecule or set of molecules in the nucleus of every cell of every living creature’s body that in creatures like us directs our growth from a single cell into an adult, maintains us alive, and equips us to reproduce. For us, it’s the genome that accounts for nature being so well ordered. So to modernize ancient Stoicism I replace its special element or World Spirit with the genome. To understand ourselves we may study the genome, and we may do that by both looking within our selves and at how genomes manifest themselves in the living world around us.
How different is this from how we’re used to thinking? One way is, it’s neither entirely scientific nor entirely spiritual. But if that’s true, how can we study it? I suggest we start with the part of it we know best, that each of us comes with but that science can’t yet account for. Take decision-making. Many animals such as monkeys can’t control urination. But we can. We can decide whether to urinate now or put it off to a later time.
Where do we get mental equipment like this from? We can’t make it ourselves, it appears in us automatically as we grow. It must have originated in the single-celled embryo we started out as, in the part of it that codes for everything else to do with our development, our genome.
If that’s so, if that’s where we get our meaning-managing equipment from, what does that say about the genome? It says the genome can transact, in some way, in terms of meanings. Here we run into a basic limitation in our library of concepts: we’ve few ways of talking about how other kinds of minds might think. Does saying “Transact, in some way, in terms of…” mean the genome itself has a mind, like us? Well, not exactly like us, but in its own way? I'll have more to say about our library of concepts in Triadism 5. For now I’m simply going to resort to saying that us having evolved minds means that, over the lifetime of the Earth, genomes had to have evolved some kind of mind first before they could figure out how to build our minds into us.
Is that even possible? Is it possible for molecules like genomes to have minds and be able to think? What we know about ourselves I think says, yes, they could. We know we get at least some of our thoughts, feelings and behaviors from our genome—in each of us at puberty emerge the feelings and urges readying us for sex. We don’t have to be taught how to generate and navigate those feelings and urges, they develop in us naturally, as a complex and coordinated program of feelings and behaviors. Given that for us to have those feelings they must first exist as code written along our genome, I don’t see how logically we can deny feelings like those to genomes themselves, as part of what corresponds, in us, to mind. If the genome can embed those mental abilities in us, I don’t see why it shouldn’t possess them itself.
I know at first the idea of a molecule having a mind and being able to think can be hard to accept. But it needn’t be. What gives us those abilities is our brains, yet they consist only of molecules. And the genome is by far the most complex molecule we know of, much more complex than any molecule in our brains. In us the genome is written out in three billion units of code. Translate that into a necklace, strung eight beads to an inch, one bead for each of those three billion units of code, and that necklace, three billion beads long, would stretch from New York to Tokyo. 6000 miles. That’s a vast amount of information. Yet at the same time it’s alive. Over thousands of millions of years it’s been passed on as part of one living cell to another, without a break. At the same time, as the living creatures it coded for got more complicated, it grew from less than a million units of code to billions. We’ve nothing to compare that to, to help us judge what it could be capable of.
If that be granted, we now know of two causes for things happening. There’s physics. And there’s mind. Recall my comparison of the Earth and Mars, how different the evolution of living creatures has made the Earth. That difference is because of minds, ours and the genome’s.
Now, what can we build on that foundation? First, an entirely new account of how evolution works, how species evolve, how we evolved and what kind of a creature that’s made us.
Nowadays, biologists identify species by their genes. When one species evolves into another they say, essentially that’s due to changes having occurred in their genes. So for it to be genomes that drive evolution they must be able to make changes in the genes they carry code for, the very same molecules they consist of.
How could genomes do that, make changes to the molecules they consist of? I suggest, by employing the same kind of machinery we do. When we commit something to memory we make changes in “memory cells” in our brains, something purely physical. Later, we can draw on those purely physical brain cells to bring that information back to mind. Since we can do that, we know it’s possible for minds to make changes to their material substrate, and later bring those changes back into mind. In us, that material substrate is our brain. In the genome that would be the molecules it consists of, including the genes that lie along it. So all a genome has to do to drive the evolution of whatever living creature it codes for is just to think about it—draw on code for the genes of that creature to bring it to mind and think about it again, which will make that new thought register back as changes to those genes, changes in that code. Merely by thinking about it, a genome can evolve an old species into a new one. Hey presto! Generation of a new species. A new theory of evolution.
By supposing a genome can think new species into existence, am I invoking anything supernatural? I know that’s how connecting mind and matter can seem at first, when applied to the genome. But remember, it’s something we’re doing all the time as our thoughts register in brain tissue. Our ability to do that, to connect mind and matter as we think, means it’s a feature of the universe we live in, so it can be true of other things in that universe as well, such as genomes. Once you accept that you can’t logically deny to the genome its use of such a connection to evolve new species.
Matter, mind, evolution all accounted for. That leaves only consciousness. And creativity. My speculations about that occupy the next chapter.