12 February 2010

A question of perspective, and the deliciousness of cannibalism

Happy Darwin day!

Let me pose this obtuse question to you; how many generations removed from you do you think it is ok to mate with your relatives? And the follow-up; how many generations removed do you think it's ok to eat them?

Dear friends, and by that, I mean everyone in the world, past, present and future. Again I'm sitting here pondering the big questions in life (it is, after all, lunch time), and I've hit upon a sad but somber note that I wanted to say something about. And I know this is a slight deviation from my normal prose, but some times there are more important things that trickle through my system up to the surface of this blog.

There are some revelations of truth that most people can't bear to think about in daily life, and so we suppress them, hide them away, and make them into someone else's problem; Surgery and blood, butchering of animals for consumption, undertaking, biopsies, most dentistry, philosophy, sewage and drains, rectal operations, and the list goes on and on with jobs you'd rather let someone else deal with. But I want to pick up on one of these for my purposes here, the butchering of animals.

I mentioned in my review of Dawkins latest book the notion of geological time, but we can extend that a bit to include the big bang (which didn't bang) and the formation of stars as well, so we're going some 13.7 billion years back in time. To use Carl Sagans wonderful cosmic calendar metaphor, imagine that all that time from the beginning of our universe (well, from the time just after the singularity until now, as we can't measure nothingness) until now is evenly spaced out across a years calendar. We, the humans and our whole history from when we diverged from some other ape specie, about 5 million years in total, is nothing but a little footnote; the last 10 seconds of the last day of the last month.

Let's go one step further, let's take those 10 seconds, our past history, and slosh that one across another yearly calendar, where January 1 is the first upright (but not humanoid) apes and where every month is about 416 thousand years each (every day is about 14 thousand years). That would mean we meet us, the species Homo Sapiens, at around 21st of December, just in time for solstice. This also means that our recent history, the written one we know about from the first Sumerian tablets 6000 years ago and until today all happens just shy of 12 hours before midnight before New Years.

We humans, as aware Homo Sapiens, are but mere minutes in the great cosmological calendar, and a quick blink in the great scheme of things. You yourself is nothing but a fraction of a millisecond. A macrosecond! And this is the scale from which you observe the universe and try to find answers.

It's worth pointing out that we live in what Richard Dawkins (in another book of his) is a medium sized and macrosecond timed perspective; all that you know about the universe has to be compressed into this tiny perspective. Imagine your tiny perspective as a glass jar in front of you; in you pour cosmological time with all its components of matter and energy. The words you read right now is a structured pattern you recognize as words that your brain translates into meaning, so when we look at huge swaths of time we're looking for patterns, for things that we can find some meaning in. Unfortunately, all of our modern world of patterns you recognize, including our scale social patterns, our technologies, our modern cultures, all those things we have a nominal understanding of (if not at least a record of), all of it is nothing but a mere grain in a large soup of all that's ever been. You can try to find some meaning by looking for that grain, but even the chance of finding it would be hard in the extreme; your perspective of looking for words and sentences no less than 0.7 centimeters high, usually black on white background, is so not fit for the task of looking at microscopic grains all jumbled up, you're simply extremely out of your bounds.

That is cosmological and geological time for you; it's very hard to grasp.

Update: I've added this handy chart in order to try and draw the immense time. On this scale, we - the civilization of the human species, our last 6000 years of trying to understand who we are - are mere three-four pixels, fitted on a small line that you can hardly see to represent our entire human specie! We're so far removed from the scale of the universe to practically render us non-existent;

Now, let's move on to chemistry, how elemental particles are influenced by the various powers of nature such as gravity, viscosity, surface tension, and thermodynamics. If you take all particles around and stir them in a great pot adding heat, how long do you think it will take for certain atoms to form? Well, that's how our billions and billions of suns made matter, and when they exploded in supernovas scattered this material across the universe. So stabilize things a bit, but still you stir the pot. How long does it take for the atoms to form molecules? Remember that in each of these processes there are things that are naturally attracted to each other, and things that naturally repel. So, how long to make molecules. like, say, water? Next step, how long do you stir until you get strings or clumps of molecules? And how long until those clumps gets other clumps attached? We must realize that chemistry on this level is highly complex. Molecule A needs water to form, but water needs the fusion powers to merge two gases into a liquid. But what about molecule B? Well, it may need enough gravitational pull or surface tension of enough molecules A to be able to create a molecule B. And to get molecule C's, we need perhaps 5 other molecules, and it might all be perfectly natural as they all rely on the natural pull and push of attraction with other kinds of molecules. Molecule D might be attracted to molecules A and B, but repel molecule C. And we keep stirring the pop. A molecule F might only form if you have already formed molecules D and you freeze them next to molecules H. How long do we stir this semi-random pot until we get the first multi-molecular things? How long until a cell? How long until a replicating cell? How long until a one-celled replicator? Chemistry basically are interactions between things, so you can add one molecule to a pot of other molecules and use the energy from that chemical reaction to do other things, like moving, replicating, eating, sleeping, repairing damage, having sex, enjoy sunsets and writing long blog entries in the Internet.

It's really a question of perspective and of time more than asking silly questions about whether life can come from nothing or not. Of course it can as long as we define "nothing" as something that's hard for normal people to understand; it's just natural stuff, but because we can't reasonable imagine cosmological time we come to the wrong conclusions about the origin of life, that it can't just come out of "nothing." The answer is that it most certainly didn't come out of nothing; it came out of the amazing nature of the universe, and of chemistry. And a pinch of luck, probably.

Before I venture back to my original question, we need to define evolutionary time as defined through how long we think evolution of life on this planet has taken place; 3.7 billion years. So, from when roughly the time the earth came to be until life emerged, the semi-random chemical pot was stirred for about a billion years (that is a long, long time nothing much at all really happened) and then one day some multi-molecules did something astounding; it became alive. But what does that mean, alive?

In terms of chemistry, not much. Some define life as a cell able to replicate itself through DNA, but even that's a big stretch. These days lots of people are even talking about an RNA world void of DNA, and this went on for a very, very long time. Stirring the pot changed things around, perhaps made it better or different (even though we find traces of the RNA world still), but if you look at the details of chemistry slowly and carefully, there is no life, there is no one point we can say it starts Here! Because everything evolves sloooowly, so slow, in fact, that just like cosmological and geological time, we can't even phantom evolutionary time. If evolutionary time is mapped to our one year calendar, each day represents over 8 million years, bringing our human existence down to the last two minutes of the whole calendar. That's a long time to stir.

One thing few people grasp with all this is of course that most of the stirring and chance encounters and attraction and repelling yielded nothing, and that it was all this lack of results that made the tiny bit of result ever so interesting! It's again a matter of perspective, but did you know that 99.7% of all species that ever lived on this planet are all extinct? This is on par with; did you know that your body's cells have all be renewed, and that all your memories of a time older than about 13 years are transfered to you, that you are not the same being that was here when those memories formed? Well, it continues to blow me away, and it should blow you away, too;

We are complex molecular machines that somehow got this notion that we are important, if not to something external then at least unto ourselves. These are fine evolutionary traits that probably has saved our bacon from time to time, but think in terms of cosmological, geological and evolutionary time and you quickly forget about the importance of now and rather ponder the importance of all that time that has passed.

We are all connected. Through evolutionary time, life has shaped itself into countless forms, both on land, in the sea and in the air, on rocks, under rocks, everywhere, all shapes, sizes, it did it all in the name of just keep going, of replicating itself at all levels (molecular, cellular, as creatures, and now with Homo Sapiens we can add "ideas" to the mix). We came from chemistry between elements, from the same place. And all the atoms on this planet that was back then are still here, only reassembled a million times over through chemistry. Some times they assemble into water, other times into gases, but some times, under amazing circumstances, they come together and assemble you. You're here because of the continuous process of evolution created more and more complex things that use DNA to put a few trillion molecules together to shape the person that you are. And it only took cosmological time for the universe to become self-aware.

You have billions of cousins. We all do. All our ancestors, millions of generations of slowly changing and adapting to its environment, to a slight stirring of a chemical pot, you end up with the millions of species we know about today. And if we know this many living species, how many countless millions of extinct ones could there be? No one knows, of course. But the question still remains;

How many generations removed from you do you think it's ok to eat your relatives?

We're all connected, we're all descendants from the same primordial soup, and no matter if you eat a carrot or a juicy steak, you're eating a distant cousin. Now it's just a matter of deciding how many generations away you're willing to eat.

Bon appetit!

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8 February 2010

Richard Dawkins "Greatest Show on Earth"

If I wasn't an indoctrinated corporate drone I would be a scientist, and indeed, back when I was a wee boy I dreamed of becoming a geologist. Boy, did I know my gray rocks from the slightly lighter gray rocks and so on. I took great delight in walks in nature finding moraines and tills and other long-gone remnants of geological implication (glaciers, mostly), and I could tell rombeporfyr from feltspat and point out the probable processes involved in creating the shapes and colors. It was a glorious time, and I've still got it I think (and I've passed it on to my kids who always make me carry tons of rocks back home ... there's poetic justice if I ever heard it), but nowadays mostly through the local geography (which is interesting in its own mind as the Kiama area are remnants of several epochs of volcanic activity on top of sandstone, with a strong iron presence. I'll probable make a post about all this in the future sometime).

Knowing something about geology makes you somewhat aware of what's known as geological time, a time frame that spans billions of years. And, as some might suspect, trying to get a grip on what 'billions of years' for a mere human is is a daunting and often failed task. But a rudimentary understanding of geological time and processes also rendered me immune to a lot of otherwise human misunderstanding and nonsense that our cultures have built up over time to explain all that which we didn't understand. So if you understand unstable (ie. radioactive) isotopes in rocks and their half-life, how they break down (as a figure of speech) from an unstable to a stable form, you have no problem understanding other processes that also runs across billions of years, and indeed, runs parallel to geological time and processes. And to someone who not only knows a few things about rocks but also those things which you find inside rocks, evolution is not hard to grasp, at least not the tenant that it is right there, in front of you, staring back at you after you chipped that piece of rock off from the rock wall. For me, it was the most natural thing, and indeed sparked my deep interest in all things biological as well.

So for me to read Dawkins book "Greatest show on earth" was more like a dumbed-down defense of something that I thought no one was stupid enough to refute. But, there it was, in the first chapter, a fleshing out that there were indeed idiots out there who just could grasp the most basic notions and evidence, people who actually thought everything we see now has been unchanging for all the time the earth and the universe have existed; about 10.000 years. Huh? *blink* Maybe the sub-title should have tipped me off; "The evidence for evolution", as if we needed more evidence than what was taught in school.

Then I realized that not all the kids I went to school with paid too much attention when such big issues came up. They probably passed the tests and all, but I did not see them engage with (or annoy with too many questions) the teacher the way I think I did, they didn't go out into the woods to climb rocks and find fossils themselves, they didn't deduce the layers of a side of a deep canyon with a river at the bottom who was responsible for the canyon, who dug it, how the shape came to be. I guess they ended up not knowing as much, at least not on these subjects.

And that was the greatest surprise for me; the world really needs to be convinced that evolution is real?

It was like someone pinched me; here I was thinking our human species were going places, and then I found out that the truth somehow is in question, that people were actively disagreeing with the fact that the earth was flat, young and static (and yes, that was satire). Looking at their argument against is nothing short of a laughing matter, all attributed to the fact that their faith is in disagreement with the science. Ouch. So who do we think is right? The people of faith and no facts, or thousands of scientists working together for hundreds of years on the greatest Utopian adventure humankind has ever ventured on? Oh, the irony.

A few observations I need to point out, though, is that when you read the book, try to read it in the voice of Richard Dawkins himself; it will make the book so much better, the arguments come alive and the longer hard words stand out with better diction. When I read some of the things it wasn't until I heard him read it himself that the words obtained a greater sense of beauty, and I'm pressed to say that I prefer him talking.

Another nitpick is how Dawkins repeatedly say that "he won't deal with that anymore" or at all, because he or someone else have written about it elsewhere. That is fine if the reader is an avid fanatic, frantically buying and reading everything the man or those others have ever written, but for the rest of us that stands out as a balloon of evidence just being deflated, making that horrible noise in the process. Don't do that; mention at least the main interesting tidbits that fit in your context, and then provide further references.

But still, for me, in short, is that the book is great; it's well-written, perhaps two notches too intelligent in places (c'mon, references to poetry? Who reads poetry anymore? And it uses a lot of big words, excluding huge parts of the intended audience), but a tad bit too apologetic as there is nothing excusable about being ignorant by choice (although I understand that this angle is mostly for the US market) and, I feel, just way too soft on the "opposition." These people are clearly not just history deniers, they are outright dishonest about their thirst for truth and knowledge, probably wouldn't know epistemology if it hit them over the head, cannot fathom that human traits and physiology only makes sense in evolutionary terms (have you checked your vestigial parts lately?), and since the discovery of genetics the huge amount of science that only works if evolution is true over geological time. I agree that thinking evolution is not true is crazy on a scale of, err, biblical proportions, and as much as I this book wasn't for me, I guess there is a strong need for it if there truly are this many nut cases out there who will deny anything if it doesn't sync with their faith or holy book. Weird and sad, but then that's what happens when you deny truth and, you know, that which sits right in front of you just waiting to be seen.

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