Evolution and the humanities
- Published: November 10, 2010 November 10, 2010
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In my story evolution is primarily about the birth, development and maturation over the lifetime of the Earth of a self associated with the genome. Our species and our selfs are only secondary products of that primary self. To learn about our own self it makes most sense to start with the 4 billion year old genome self, only then move on to the self of our species that this other self came up with just 200,000 years ago, so we can appreciate where our own individual selfs fit into the nature of things. In this scheme matter is shadowy, it's selfs that occupy the foreground, that have the most piercing reality.
I actually can't pull this off, not all by my self. But if I make a brave show perhaps I can conjure up enough of the possibilities for you to fill in the rest yourself. Here goes!
An evolution proceeded, here's what happened. For the first billion or so years, the chemistry of life got increasingly complex, and increasingly that complexity got shunted over to DNA, for DNA to take care of. Which it did, developing greater and greater competence, until it became intelligent, intelligent enough to conceive of itself. What it knew was, it consisted of intelligence embedded in blobs of.... well , something. We know that something was living cells.
As it thought, using its intelligence, the blobs it was attached to changed. Sometimes how they changed made it more robust, sometimes less robust. By studying how to become more robust, that is by thinking thoughts that got written into genes coding for better-adapted creatures, it learned what the world was like. Just by thinking it could dream up a living creature able to survive boiling water or high acidity. Just thinking such a possibility wrote out the necessary genes, as we by deciding to do something write all the necessary chemical changes into our brain cells.
Why bother? Because it was fun. You can appreciate that, right?
Fun up to a certain point. Then it got serious. How can I make more of my self? How can l make these blobs I'm attached to much better at adapting themselves to the whatever-it-is out there? And how can I make myself a much better writer of changes into this new kind of blob? And the result was the eukaryotic cell reproducing by meiosis. Now this intelligence could dream up more and more wonderful creatures faster and faster. You can see proof of that just by looking at what's happened since.
And that's pretty much the story of evolution. Once the genome self could create more elaborate creatures as its vehicles it could build into them some of its own intelligence, which manifested itself in them as brains, and finally some of its own volition into us, newest kids on the block.
You may wonder how I can know that "this was fun" and "that was serious." The reason is, it was this self that made us up, so it would have built into us what it knew about itself. We've little choice but to project our experience of our self back onto the agent of evolution's experience of itself. Until we know differently, anyway.
What does this tell as about our selfs? Not very much, yet. It tells us that our purpose is secondary to whatever that agent wants. How can we figure that out? By looking for meaning in nature as a whole, I guess. Besides that, you can figure it out as well as I can. It wants us to explore on its behalf, to develop ever better tools and instruments, to work together in harmony... Uh-oh! Now I'm reading my assumptions back into it.
We can't even tell what a self is. Do all the genomes in existence support a single self? Is there a self for each order of living creatures, for each species? I'd say, there probably is. Our sense of one-body-one-self may be unusual. The rest of nature may consist of hierarchies of overlapping selfs.
Study this story for 150 years, and who knows how much we'll have learned from it about ourselves?