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This story appears in my "Re-thinking What it Means We Evolved," published in 2017. In it I imagine new methods for studying evolution being applied over future generations, leading to the further development of human nature.
Four hundred years ago new discoveries plunged us into the scientific revolution. Two hundred years ago we made another major discovery—we evolved. Why hasn’t that led to another revolution?
I’m a writer. I don’t have to wait until a revolution happens, I can take us there right now. I flag down a passing time machine promising “Evolution Revolution Tours.” It glides to a halt, the doors open, we step inside. “Jane at your service,” says a cheerful young woman at the controls.
Jane’s hands flutter over the controls. There’s a brief shudder. “That was it,” she says, “the revolution, we’re on the other side.” She turns to face us. “Now, what would you like to know?
“Where are we going?” I ask.
“We’re going to touch down three times,” she says, “to see how differently the revolution made people think about what it meant they evolved.”
“How does time travel work?” I ask.
“The same way history does” she says. “It gets its power from new ideas. To get us to our first landfall we’ll be traversing four ideas laid end to end.”
Once you’re under way, time travel is pretty boring. There’s nothing to look at. “Tell me about these ideas,” I say. She picks them off on her fingers.
“Idea Number One: Reality includes non-physical processes
“Conscious experiences don’t have weight or location. You can’t sort them and put them in boxes. They aren’t physical. But we all have them. So here’s something that’s part of our everyday reality, that’s non-physical. Let’s check—if you experience conscious experiences as part of everyday reality, raise your hand.”
I raise my hand.
“You raised your hand, so you’re revolution-ready. What made you raise your hand was something only your consciousness could know—that you experience having conscious experiences. What’s revolutionary is realizing that conscious experiences—thinking or feeling or experiencing something—while they’re not physical, can make something physical happen, like make you raise your hand. Brains that are physical and consciousnesses that are non-physical can tell each other what to do. They can work together.
“So Idea Number One is: Physical processes in brains can interact with non-physical processes in consciousness. We need that idea to connect us to Idea Number Two.
“Idea Number Two: Non-physical processes can be accessed through mind
“Those non-physical processes of consciousness, let’s call where they operate, ‘mind.’ But instead of thinking of it as a place, think of it more as a banking system where, instead of an account giving you access to money, it gives you access to non-physical processes like those in consciousness.
“How do you set up an account in this ‘mind’? You don’t. Your brain does it for you. The way the human brain evolved it can plug in and set up an account for you, automatically. Then you’re conscious. It’s as easy as that. You didn’t ask to become conscious, it just happened, right?
“Idea Number Two is: By setting up accounts in mind that provide access to non-physical processes, brains can establish conscious selves. We need that idea to engage with Idea Number Three.
“Idea Number Three: The genome is a brain
“The genome is a genetic blueprint. It’s all the specifications for a living creature. In us it’s written as a few dozen molecules, called chromosomes, that we’ve a copy of in the nucleus of every cell in our bodies. But, rather than thinking of the genome as molecules think of it instead as ‘one long string of genetic code’ that carries a lot of information.
“Here’s something else about it that’s extraordinary. It’s alive—it’s part of a living creature—but while individual living creatures die, the genome lives on, because it’s copied from each generation to the next. It’s the only part of living creatures that’s existed ever since life first began. And here’s something else about it that’s amazing: As creatures evolved to become more complex the genome has grown longer, able to hold more information.
“So, does that qualify the genome to be a brain? It may not appear to be as complex as our brains but it’s been evolving for 1000 times as long. And it holds a mind-boggling amount of information. There’s nothing else on Earth remotely like it.
“So Idea Number Three is: For all intents and purposes the genome is a brain.”
Jane turns back to the dashboard and fiddles with some controls. “To maintain our speed of travel,” Jane says, “we have to join Ideas Two and Three. Like this:
“Idea Number Four: An entirely new mechanism of evolution
“Remember how I supposed brains, by opening accounts for us in mind, can make us conscious. If the genome is a brain and if it can open accounts for itself in consciousness too, who or what is it that becomes conscious?
“Whatever it is, could that be what drives evolution? I’ll show you why it could.
“If the genome can become conscious then presumably it can think. What happens then? Well, what happens when we think? When we think we make changes to our brains. Take memory for example. To be sure of remembering something you can deliberately, consciously, think it to yourself several times over to make sure it gets imprinted in your brain. What you’re doing is consciously etching a physical change into cells in your brain. Later when you want to recall it you can recall that physical memory into consciousness again.
“Suppose something like that happens when the genome ‘thinks.’ Like us, it will make changes to its ‘brain.’ But its brain consists of chromosomes and the genes along those chromosomes. And genes are what define species of living creatures! So just by thinking, the genome can write changes into genes along the chromosomes it consist of, bringing new species into existence. On this side of the revolution, people think of species as ‘really’ ideas stored in memory. They’re ideas the genome can recall, think changes to, and store back in memory as a new species.
“What I’m supposing for the genome isn’t something unreal. It’s nothing more than what we humans do when we think.
“Idea Number Four is: The genome is conscious and intelligent and creative—it can think new species into existence merely by bringing to mind the idea of an existing species and thinking changes back into its genes.”
Jane turns to the controls. “The first landfall’s coming up.” She turns back to face us. “I’ll give you a few pointers to help you feel at home.
“Even this early in the revolution, the world looks different. I’ll help you see the world the way people here do. Wherever we look we’re aware of not matter but life. In our homes everything we see is made of wood or leather and bone or fabrics made from plants. Outside we don’t see mountains made of rock, we see forests. The ground isn’t rocks and sand, we see the grass and weeds that cover it, we know the soil is rich in bacteria, insects, worms. It’s teeming with life. Even the clouds we know to be mostly water vapor given up by plants, they are a sign of life too. And because we know it evolved, wherever there’s life we see consciousness. Even this early in the revolution, physical matter has become remote. Our primary reality will be consciousness, in ourselves and in the world of evolved creatures all around us.
“That’s a big advance over your time. For you it was consciousness that seemed remote. The only example of it you knew about was locked away in each person’s conscious experience. Your scientists could draw maps of what was going on in people’s brains, but they couldn’t study the experience of consciousness itself. To them, consciousness was more remote than the far side of the moon.
“But once you have two examples of something, as people do now, studying it becomes much easier. Once people realized the genome was conscious they could study consciousness not only in their own conscious experiences but also in the world around them in the form of living creatures.
“So what are those consciousnesses in nature like? Remember I said each genome opens up a consciousness in mind. Now, our consciousnesses can’t communicate with one another directly, there seem to be barriers between them. But the consciousnesses set up by genomes can, they can communicate with one another in mind. The result is a genome consciousness at every level inside our bodies, from individual cells up through each organ and tissue to the individual itself. And beyond the individual there’ll be a genome-consciousness for each species, each order, even each kingdom, up the way up to all of nature itself.” Jane turns away to manage our landfall.
Landfall Number One: Revolution in Biology
We’re coming in to make landfall at a future college campus. It’s vast. What’s that huge building there, right in the center? “That’s the nature study complex,” Jane says. So where are the physical science departments? “They’re in those small buildings scattered around the edge of campus.” So what are all those buildings grouped there, around the nature-study complex? “Those are departments for the humanities. When evolution involves consciousness you can study it much better through the methods of the humanities than through the methods of the physical sciences. The study of evolution has gravitated back from the sciences to the humanities.”
We come in for landfall right next to the nature study complex. Jane leads us inside to take a look.
Inside it’s nothing but a maze of corridors, each one lined with small rooms along both sides.
What are people in these rooms doing? “They’re compiling biographies, one for each node in each level of the genome-intelligences,” Jane says. “Each genome-intelligence has its own personality and capabilities. Some drove the evolution of their species furiously for tens of millions of years then seemed to lose interest and let all their creatures go extinct, as happened to trilobites. Others fashioned creatures of an entirely new kind, like sharks, and then doggedly preserved them almost unchanged for hundreds of millions of years. The true story of evolution, it turns out, is better told in terms of the evolution of genomes, in mind, rather than of their creatures in the physical world.”
First step in our trip—biology has been revolutionized.
Back in the time machine Jane gets us under way. “We’re traveling on post-revolutionary ideas now,” she says.
“Idea Number Five: Evolution is creative.
“Once people accepted the process of evolution was conscious, they accepted it also had free will, it could be creative,” she says. “Non-living matter doesn’t have free will—a volcano can’t decide whether to erupt—and non-living matter can’t be creative—snowflakes still come in the same hundred or so patterns they always have. Consciousness, free will and creativity, on the other hand, all involve non-physical processes special to mind.
“And if the process of evolution was conscious, creative, and had free will, that must be where we got our consciousness, creativity and free will from. Genomes evolved before we did!”
That’s going to be the focus of our next landfall. “Idea Number Five: Evolution is the source of all creativity on Earth.”
Landfall Number Two: Revolutions in Philosophy and Physics
For our second landfall we glide silently through walls and corridors, ending up settling gently in what looks like a laboratory. It’s filled with chairs and desks but all around us are posted graphs telling us that something like experimental science has re-appeared.
Here’s what Jane tells us: The new science is made possible by the invention of a new unit of measurement, the creatron. That’s how much know-how an orb spider comes into the world with. It knows it can drop itself down on a line of silk but must climb back up to return—it knows about gravity. To lay out its web in a flat plane it has to pick its way through the world to the various anchor points; it has to know about space in three dimensions. To spin its web it must know about the production and deployment of five different kinds of silk.
With that unit established, you could measure the creativity of genomes throughout every level of nature—species, orders, entire kingdoms, even all of nature. At each higher level the creatron scores soared. The creativity of all of nature was so enormous you couldn’t distinguish it from complete freedom from determinism by physics. The old philosophical debate about determinism versus free will was finally laid to rest. Evolved creatures, like us, sharing in all of nature’s freedom from determinism, could be creative, we could have free will too. Unlike purely physical things we weren’t bound by the laws of physics, by prior chains of physical events. We could choose to go along with them or strike out on our own.
Those laws of physics? The more creativity people found in nature the less they found to apply those laws to, until it didn’t seem to matter whether those laws applied at all.
Now physics had been made over by the revolution in evolution.
Back into the time machine. “End of the line coming up,” says Jane. “Eventually, worlds reached through time travel would become too strange for you to make any sense of. Our last landfall will be just short of that point. Since your understanding will be as limited as that of a child there, we make landfall in a school classroom.
“Just bear this in mind—everything you’ve learned so far has melted down to become part of the mother tongue these people learn as infants. I have to introduce you to just one more idea before we land.
Idea Number Six: Thinking equals evolving
“The genome ‘evolves’ new kinds of creatures by thinking them into existence. So for the genome, evolving involves thinking. Could that be true for us, too? How about our thinking? Could thinking in us involve something evolving? Could thinking be our thoughts evolving, each one out of the one before, in mind? It could, if we want it to, we’ve no reason or logic for denying it. How simple that makes everything! Anything which isn’t physical, is something evolving. No more mysteries. So idea Number Six is, thinking equals evolving, both take place through non-physical processes operating in mind.”
We make landfall in a classroom.
Landfall Number Three: Revolution in Human Nature
“What makes us humans different from all other living creatures is how we think,” our teacher tells us, “We think by creating thoughts and letting them evolve. What you need to learn now is the various ways living creatures evolve, so your thoughts can evolve like that, too.”
Back in Landfall One, early in the revolution, we saw the genome intelligences being identified. In Landfall Two we saw them being assessed for their creative intelligence. Once they had had their creativity assessed, some stood out as exceptional. Surely, people thought, these genomes must have invented new “engines” to speed evolution up and make it more efficient. Patiently human engineers of the time teased apart the non-physical processes those engines consisted of, until out of those engines they had created an entirely new set of mental tools that gave human thinking access to the creative power of evolution itself.
These are the tools children are being taught in class today. They are the final fruits, as far as we can follow them, of a revolution set in motion centuries ago, when we first asked ourselves what it meant we evolved.
We can understand nothing they are being told. We reboard our vehicle.
“No more, Jane? Can’t you tell us a little more?”
“I can tell you in outline. In your day you’d already taken a big step; in just a century you’d already begun removing yourself from competition with other living species, doubling your life expectancy. Instead you’d begun putting your thoughts in your place, to evolve for you. Now, by adopting the genome’s tools, humans are on track to elevate their own intelligence to genome-intelligence levels. Humans will then be able to direct their own evolution. Human nature will become both technology and the ultimate art.
“Already people like the teacher in that classroom look back to the evolution revolution in your time as the crucial hinge in history.”
That’s as far as Jane can take us. She scoots us back to our own time. Say goodbye to Jane. “Goodbye Jane.”