Script for class three in a series of classes presenting new thinking in evolution and a new natural philosophy based on it.
Summary of classes one and two:
The new wisdom is built around ways to improve and enrich conscious experiences over the course of our lifetime. Here are ideas I’ve covered so far.
We can enrich future conscious experiences by what we make ourselves aware of today.
For us to control what we’re conscious of we must have free will.
The new thinking allows for only two kinds of processes: physical forces acting on things made of matter that make them physically determined, and processes special to living creatures that give them some degree of free will. In the new wisdom, living creatures are not entirely determined by physical forces.
Consciousness runs on meanings. To know what will enrich conscious experiences we must understand meanings.
Meanings originate in how we evolved so we need to understand how we evolved. In the new thinking it’s the genome that evolves. Once the genome evolved to become intelligent, conscious, and creative it could create us. To understand meanings we need to study both how the genome evolved, and why it created us.
That brings us up to today’s class. I’m going to start by asking, how wonderful are we? This matters because the new thinking has us trying to enrich our conscious experiences. How rich can we imagine making them? I think that’ll depend on how wonderful we think we are, in general. What were we taught in school? According to the scientific theory of evolution, we’re the result of two purely physical processes: first, our genes are continually being damaged at random, then the worst damage gets eliminated as our struggle with one another to survive weeds out losers. If that’s how we evolved, it’s hard to imagine us being wonderful at all. If we can make consciousness only as wonderful as we think we are I think we need to think of ourselves differently. To do that we’ll need new meanings, and I’m going to say we can look for them in the genome. That’s today’s agenda: how wonderful we really are, and how that reveals to us meanings lying in the genome.
So, first, how wonderful we are. Compared to other animals we don’t look very wonderful. Besides a lot of skin and a little hair there’s not much to see from the outside except our eyes. So let’s see how wonderful they are, and assume that everything else about us is just as wonderful.
Mostly the eye is filled with a kind of jelly and light goes straight through it. For light to form an image at the back of an eye it gets bent twice, once at the cornea at the front of the eye, and again by a lens inside the eye. Amazingly, although all this is living tissue it’s all transparent. That’s amazing for a start. Then, although images made by a glass lens have colored fringes, because the lens in the eye grows more dense in the center the image it makes has no fringes, it’s sharper. The lens grows as we age, but as it grows it becomes less dense in the center so the image it forms remains sharp. That’s also amazing. The body constantly replaces most of the chemicals in consists of and the cornea, which does most of the bending of light, gets replaced every few days, yet our vision stays sharp. This is all wonderful.
But something even more amazing involves fine muscles that run from the rim of the lens to the inside surface of the eye. By the tightening and relaxing of these muscles the lens becomes more bunched up or flatter, changing how close or far away the lens focuses. And what I find most wonderful of all is, we have conscious control of these muscles. As we consciously shift our attention from one object to another, these muscles tighten or relax, bringing what we’re paying attention to into sharp focus. Something physical in our bodies, these fine muscles, all the time track and respond to what we consciously make ourselves aware of. Our physical bodies have evolved to respond to how we make ourselves aware of things. The processes of evolution know about consciousness, they make us able to be conscious, and they’ve equipped us with bodies responsive to what we make ourselves conscious of. Free will results from a fusion of body and mind.
This response of the muscles around the lens of the eye to our conscious attention illustrates another principle of the new wisdom we’ve already hinted at—the processes of evolution “know about” consciousness. We see it in how these muscles respond as we consciously choose what to look at, moment by moment. And we see it in how creative evolution is over billions of years. Nothing could be more creative than the evolution of new kinds of living creatures, for example in a few million years a creature like a cow evolved into an ocean-going whale.
So this is another reason why we have to abandon the scientific theory of evolution. It leaves us no room for imagining ourselves to be wonderful. Unless we find ourselves wonderful in some ways we’ll struggle to imagine being able to make our conscious experiences wonderful.
So now let’s turn to how wonderful we could be if our origin consisted of, first, the genome evolving to become intelligent and creative, and then it deciding to create us.
Last class I supposed the genome to actually consist of a mind like ours supported, as our minds are, by a physical organ. In our case that organ is our brain, in the case of the genome it’s the strings of DNA molecular units that make up the genes along our chromosomes. Could molecules support a mind? Well, our brains are made of molecules yet it supports a mind.
The genome isn’t as complex as our brains. But it’s been evolving for a thousand times as long as our brains have, so it’s hard to set a limit to how complex it can have become. The genome is just long strings of molecules, could they be intelligent? Well, they’re extremely long. If you translate the units of code in our genome into a necklace of beads strung eight to an inch it would stretch from New York to Tokyo in Japan. 6000 miles. It’s hard to imagine how much information that could code for.
Is it all useful information? Doesn’t most of it vary at random? Some of it varies over time, but some of it, such as definition of the spine, is reproduced with 100% accuracy. Whatever variation there is may exist because the genome lets it happen, or because the genome makes it happen.
The human genome codes for 20,000 proteins. Proteins are made by translating stretches of genes into corresponding strings of amino acids. How could a process like that, each unit of DNA being translated into the corresponding amino acid, code for something like consciousness?
Let’s look at what we know the genome does code for, in other species. Take a web-spinning spider. It comes into the world knowing about gravity—it knows it has to drop down on a line of silk but to get back up it has to climb up that line. It knows about space—it has to locate point all lying in a single plane to place attachments points for its web. It already knows how to spin the web distinctive of its species, and how to hide, and then rush out when it detects movements in the web indicating it has trapped some prey, and how to inject it with poison and immobilize it with a silk wrapping. It knows how to recognize members of its opposite species, and what to do to mate and have its eggs hatch. All this information must be coded for in its genome, it has no other source of information. So the spider comes into the world knowing a great deal about the world that it’s hard to imagine being coded for in linear strings of amino acids.
How is this information coded for in the genome? Science doesn’t yet know. I conceive of the genome consisting of a one-dimensional hologram, from which some reading process can harvest complex information as it slowly advances over the genome. The same gene may participate in many readings of the hologram. That’s no more than a mental crutch but something like that has to be true for living creatures to be as wonderful as they are.
I talk about “the genome.” Which genome? The one in a certain cell of a creature’s body? Logic suggests to me instead that genome’s can work together, reading each other’s “minds” and arriving at decisions at every level from a single cell, up through entire organisms, to species and all the way up to entire Kingdoms of life. Why can’t we read their minds? We can’t even read each other’s minds, why should we expect to read theirs? It seems highly implausible at first. But it solves some knotty problems. As a whale grows from an infant to an adult 100 feet long it stays in perfect proportion. What else but a community of genomes could do that, could maintain its two flippers in perfect symmetry across a distance of many feet? And they must, else we’d see whales swimming in circles. Mammals and crustaceans have developed very similar eyes, how could that be unless information could be exchanged between the entirely different branches of the tree of life? The living world can be imagined as directed by a community of intelligence operating at every level of living Kingdoms. Given our time frame, our own lifetimes, we may have to assume such a theory as I’ve described, to make sense of meaning in our conscious experiences.
Next week, how to extract meanings from the new thinking we can use in our own lives.