by Josef Svoboda
The non-living world is agile in both its micro- and macrostructures, yet its restlessness, while strictly deterministic, seeks order. Physical reality, as we perceive it, is an outcome of the universal evolutionary process of self-organization. The vitalization of this originally inanimate world represents the first crossing or transgression, a stepping beyond the bounds of lifeless matter into a more autonomous, diverse and creative state of being.
The subsequent awakening of a selected group of living beings into consciousness, as we humans experience it, is again a cardinally new phenomenon. It is a stepping out of the material world into a non-physical, intellectual and spiritual realm, and embodies the second crossing. This was a breakthrough into a domain governed by intellect and guided by ethical imperatives which have, lamentably, not always been respected. Even this insubordination appears to be a novel and rationally inexplicable happening in a universe otherwise compliant with law and order.
The higher intelligence of Homo sapiens has helped this complex, yet very young species in vanquishing its competitors. This superb and incomparable ability failed, however, to warn humans against the long-term consequences of their aggression. Until very recently, Homo sapiens, nevertheless, behaved as any other species, profiting from its evolutionary advantages after Darwin’s rule of the survival of the fittest.
During the course of his rather short existence, this „enfant terrible“ of evolution has brought about critical changes in the entire biosphere. Large forest, savanna and grassland ecosystems have been eliminated, and the anthropogenic eradication of species has been going on for centuries if not for millennia. Many more species are currently threatened, especially the evolutionary most advanced groups, the primates. After WWII the population of India was about 300 million. Roughly the same number of monkeys lived in her forests and groves. Fifty years later, the Indian population has exploded to almost a billion souls (projected date is May 11, 2000) while, mostly due to deforestation and animal trapping, the number of monkeys has declined to a few million.
The survival prospects of apes are even more dismal. Unquestionably, the on-going process of species extermination is reaching cataclysmic proportions and has already been labelled as a „sixth global extinction“ (Leakey and Lewin 1995). If it continues, it might truly result in the only known global ecological calamity caused not by cosmic or other external forces but by a single species dominating the biosphere.
The long geological memory of the Earth has imprinted at least five major global disasters, yet the biosphere has always recovered from their effects. In fact, after each disaster, it has expanded into a greater diversity and heterogeneity of living assemblages. The best documented catastrophic event is associated with the extinction of dinosaurs at the end of Cretaceous period. The dominant evolutionary stream of the era, the great reptiles, perished following an asteroid’s collision with the Earth. However, relatively soon after, life started to flourish along many evolutionary side branches. Will this historical experience repeat once again and the most advanced species perish during the ongoing „sixth extinction“, as the great reptiles did before? If Mankind gets its act together and succeeds in establishing a new balance between itself and the biosphere, it may have a chance to continue. It could be evolving further, although more likely along a yet unknown, less biological path. In real terms, humanity would have to free itself from the ingrained hostility towards nature. This would be impossible without developing its ethical dimensions. In other words, humanity would have to arrive from the present crisis transformed and liberated from inherent aggressive predispositions - to be able to cross the threshold of the third crossing. Should this not happen, the outlook for human continuation on this planet is predictable.
I know so little about the stars I have descended from.
Out of that amazing workshop and laboratory of happening
which lasts for thousands of thousand years - and will never cease...
I arose from the heavenly dust of weathered and crumbled stars
snowing through universe. Complying with the only „condition“
to gather the atoms in a protein pap of which a sway of life
will suddenly and unexplainably emerge.
Out of this prime substance I arose, and so did the brother of my brother ,
and grand-dad of my grandpa - in an unending line up to the first spark
which fertilized the restless atom....
I stand under the leaky tent of the universe,
eyes focussed at Orion and see what exists no more ...
Whom may I lean against in this moment of dizziness...?
Does the universe need my ephemeral astonishment,
a testimony of a non-comprehending and its meaning non-grasping spectator
in an unfinished and unfinishable drama?
(Jaroslav Havelka, excerpts from his poem in Breviary of Wondering)
Only the human species is endowed with the capacity for wondering and unveiling, with the awe of life and search for its meaning. Great minds have tried to shed light on the mysteries of the world and human existence. Every thinking being craves reassuring answers to these vital questions.
Cosmic dimensions of evolution. Swimme and Berry (1992) see evolution as an unfolding drama from the primordial flaring at the dawn of the universe’s beginning - to the ecozoic era culminating in human civilizations. And it may not end there! This universal drama is an exciting happening, a reason for admiration and a cause for celebration.
In the non-living universe atoms aggregate into molecules and more complex macro-structures. In living matter, cells, the primary carriers of life, converge in multicellular organisms with specialized organs and tissues. These „higher“ organisms have further differentiated in order to adapt to a myriad of ecological niches. Over millennia, complex assemblages of species and their populations organized themselves within a certain space. Within these multi-specific communities, which constitute synusia, ecosystems and especially biomes, there is minimal adversity and maximal compatibility. Endless interactions among the populations and with the surrounding milieu have resulted in a powerful evolutionary drive. This translated into a realization of all conceivable functional potentialities (i.e. emergence of a new species). Over eons of time this driving force resulted in a hierarchical pyramid of living forms, functions and energy levels as it exists today.
In a short time, relatively speaking, the life forms separated into the autotrophic and heterotrophic branches. To put it simply, they diverged into the realm of green (photosynthetic) plants and the realm of animals and microbes, which are directly or indirectly dependent on plants. Powered by light energy, plants manufacture their own food out of inorganic compounds and are themselves food for the heterotrophic organisms. The evolutionary structuralization of life forms has continued throughout the ages in spite of (and paradoxically, in part, because of) the numerous geo-historical catastrophes up to the arrival of Man.As any other animal species, Homo sapiens is biologically defined and pre-determined by what has been encoded in its hereditary matter by the long line of its ancestors.
Human’s social arrangement is much more complex in comparison with any other species and represents a novel phenomenon in the evolutionary history. Humans are the only animal species which form populations with a large number of diverse niches at one place and in one time period.
Hierarchical structure of reality. Our enlivened planet Earth is characterized by four tiers or „spheres“ of organization. These are 1. The minerosphere, the body of our planet with 92 elements, of which only a small number participate in the biological processes. However, the non-participating elements are important for their proportional representation and determine the mass-to-volume ratio of the planet. Its distance from the sun creates favourable thermal and light energy conditions for the emergence, development and sustenance of life. 2. The biosphere, the thin skin of living organisms adapted to aquatic and terrestrial life. 3. The homosphere, defined by the presence and influence of Man on the planet and far beyond, and lastly, 4. The noosphere, the intellectual connections and communications among the humans occupying the homosphere.
These spheres emerged gradually in geo-historical time. The genesis of each higher sphere epitomizes a „quantum leap“, a qualitative difference in comparison with the previous state of organization. Something new was born while all previous essentials, including subordination to physical and biological laws, were preserved. So the biosphere is determined by the minerosphere and grafted upon it, the homosphere conditioned by the biological processes and dependent on them, and the noosphere circumscribed by the intellectual capabilities and emotional capacities of humans.
As a mammal, H. sapiens continues to be preserved and controlled by mammalian biology. We are further immersed in the supporting milieu of the biosphere and minerosphere which protect and nourish us as a placenta does the foetus. This predetermines our ecology. We cannot exist in a vacuum. Even in space, astronauts must carry a tiny bubble of the biosphere with them.
Still, humans differ from all other creatures. Only our species has crossed the fateful threshold into consciousness. This transition must have been relatively sudden, since the theorists of evolution speak about the „emergence of consciousness“ (Calvin, 1990). Human minds meet and mutually communicate at increasing intensity and speed in the noosphere (Teilhard de Chardin 1969). Positive feedback is triggered: the mind influences the body („mind over matter“).
Early humans soon began to differ from the cousins they left aside - by reshaping their body (larger cranial capacity, upright stance, body hairlessness), as well as behaviourally. Acquired rationality proved to be a commanding evolutionary advantage, increasing their evolutionary fitness significantly. In time, however, they started to upset the ecological balance, first on a local and regional scale (cf Pleistocene overkills), and ultimately in the entire biosphere.
In the course of their relatively short existence, humans have caused the extinction of thousands of species. Their more aggressive or cunning bands eliminated the weaker or meeker ones of their own kind, in fierce intraspecific competition. (This practice is still going on. It is called war or genocide).
At present the conflict between the human race and the biosphere is reaching a state of impasse. Environmentalists and politicians with foresight, supported by a growing segment of the citizenry, are at work on restoring the balance between humanity and nature. Sadly, smaller but powerful lobbies resist any radical change. Reconciliation of humanity with nature, inevitable for our own survival, must be of a new quality. Since the conflict is fundamental, it cannot be resolved without the formulation of a new modus vivendi, or even better, of a concordat between Man and creatures with which we share and cohabit this planet. Nature, of course, can never be an active participant at the negotiating table and so, all the adjustments and fair dealing must come from the human side. If we, as humans, consider ourselves distinct and more advanced than the rest of the living creatures, we must become even more distinct and advanced to be able to break a viable deal which might be acceptable to both sides.
Evolution tends to progress from simple to more complex forms and from rudimentary to more developed ones. It is not a random process as avalanches or wind-stirred waves are. It makes sense. If we observe the compass needle we conclude correctly that there is a remote magnetic pole with which the needle is in mutual attraction and towards which it orients itself. The hypothetical pole of evolutionary orientation has become an object of interest of evolutionary theorists in the past (du Nouy 1947) and more so at present (Kauffman 1995). Based on many symptoms (to be outlined later), we are convinced that in advanced humanity the evolutionary trajectory is approaching another breakthrough threshold, the third transgression.
Our understanding of reality is also evolving. In the not too remote past, people were convinced that the Earth was the centre of the universe and that Man, had been created by a special and instant act of God. Modern science has offered us new and credible information about the origin of the universe, about the evolution of life and about the gradual emergence of Man on Earth. We are also learning more about the cultural evolution, or revolution, to cite Bronowski (1976). All these findings are stunningly different from the beliefs of the past. Currently, the scientific and technological progress is bringing about an information overload, which like a sonic boom is hitting us with a deafening blow. It’s no wonder that a pervasive uncertainty is starting to prevail, and the entire global village of humanity is in a danger of a psycho-sociological shock (Toffler 1971).
In this communications pandemonium the majority of us are hardly able to deal even with events of the present moment. A concentrated effort is needed to extricate and disengage from the all-penetrating barrage of information and disinformation. For a while the mind suffers painful withdrawal symptoms but when we persevere, the obtrusive noise fades away and the habitually fogged horizons clear up. The surrounding reality, and our position in it assume new relationships. The mind is able to discern, choose and respond freely again.
It would be hard to find a reputable scholar of natural sciences today who would deny that living nature evolved into the present spectrum of forms and functions from more simple ones. The paleontological record, deposited in the geological column as in a historical book, is, in this respect, quite convincing. There is also little doubt about the proposition that all living organisms are closer or more remote relatives of each other and represent one extended family (Dawkins 1991). With chimpanzees our closest surviving kin we share 98.4 % of our DNA (Diamond 1992).
Yet, if someone were to attempt to formally accuse nature of a ‘misdemeanour of evolution’, he or she would have a hard time to convince the court and win the case. That’s because a mere time-sequence from less to more complex doesn’t inevitably establish that the simple was the ancestor of the complex. In other words, the correlation between the phenomena does not necessarily constitute a causal connection. The defendant would probably be acquitted for insufficient evidence.
In legal cases where clear and direct proof is absent, advanced societies developed a justice system which includes the concept of a jury. The jury panel is the modern equivalent of Pilate’s washing his hands over an unconvincing accusation. There is plenty of evidence that even unanimous decisions of twelve jury members do not guarantee that truth and fairness are served. Miscarriages of justice have and will occur relatively frequently. Nevertheless, the jury is a valuable and irreplaceable instrument of the imperfect justice system, where a verdict must be reached even on the basis of indirect evidence.
When we acknowledge that an overwhelming majority of biologists and other natural science theorists are absolutely convinced that evolution has taken place, we are in essence relying upon the agreement of a scientific jury. It is, therefore, very probable that the judgement of this jury gives us a close approximation of the past biological facts and events. Gould (1987) commented on the degree of scientific confidence in evolution: „The fact of evolution is as well established as anything in science (as secure as the revolution of the earth about the sun), though absolute certainty has no place in our lexicon...“
In contrast, no scientific authority exists which would explain with incontestable clarity the mechanism of evolution - although outstanding theories have been forwarded and are being taught at universities. The same jury panel would, therefore, be unable to reach unanimity on the question of how evolution takes place, even less of where it is aiming, or what is its meaning. Is it a spontaneous process, nourished by randomly occurring mutations and controlled by natural selection? (Dawkins 1991, Dennett 1996). Or has evolution been preprogrammed? Has its realization of life from the simplest to the most advanced forms been predetermined? What role has been assigned to humanity in the grand scheme of things? Kauffman (1995) vehemently argues that Man has been an ‘expected’ product of evolution. The emergence and diversification of life, more so of intelligent life, are the giddy realities which fascinate and overwhelm us.
The emergence of life.
Our next question concerns the emergence of life itself. Until very recently, there was no indication that life could exist on any other of the nine planets of our solar system, much less elsewhere in the universe. Recently, however, NASA organized a press conference at which experts from various disciplines made the sensational announcement that a very primitive form of life existed on Mars in the past. The NASA’s habeas corpus was a pebble-size meteorite found on the surface of the Antarctic icesheet. The experts on celestial fragments assured the audience that the particular meteorite originated from Mars, dislodged and ejected into space by a collision of an asteroid with the red planet. This piece of rock harboured imprints of minute rod-like features, believed to be a chain of single cell organisms, alive long ago when conditions on Mars were still favourable for the existence of life (Jaroff, 1966; Goldschmith, 1997). It is, however, one thing to find possible traces of life, albeit already extinct; it is quite another to find out how life came into existence.
Davies (1999) offers several scenarios how life could have come into existence and how it could originate on Earth. However, at the present state of knowledge, if someone dared to declare that they had resolved how life on this planet began, they would immediately become suspect (Kauffman, 1995, Schroeder 1998). The case of the „cold fusion“discoverers’ still lingers in memory. The evidence merely shows that life on Earth began some 3.8 billion years ago, and that it was initially very simple in comparison with the organisms of the present macro-world.
Even in questions concerned with the origin of life there is no shortage of interesting theories, supported by the outstanding experiments of Stanley Miller performed in 1952, and his followers (Margulis 1981). Miller, at that time still a graduate student of professor Harold Urey, filled a glass flask with a mixture of water, methane, carbon dioxide and several other inorganic compounds, and subjected the mixture to electric discharges . After days of bombardment with this artificial lightning, Miller analysed the contents of the flask and discovered a small inventory of amino acids, the building blocks of proteins. In 1950' this was a great accomplishment, showing a promising road to further research on the origin of life. However, how long this road will be can only be crudely illustrated with the following analogy.
A single protein molecule could be represented by a large oriental rug in which an amino acid molecule (such as those which appeared in Miller’s flask) would represent a single knot. If the simplest cell could be compared to a warehouse, all the Oriental rugs presently in stock from Turkey to Japan would fill only a tiny corner of its space. In a living cell there are tens of thousands of protein „rugs“, each with delicately crafted and very specific patterns, all perfectly organized in many structurally and functionally different organelles. As Behe (1996) pointed out, no one has been able, so far, to explain the, rather sudden emergence of this complexity, without which even the simplest cell could not function, much less replicate.
Oparin’s theory of coacervates, tiny protein droplets coated by polysaccharides, still has its followers (Davies 1999). These micro-nodules are able to exist in a solution of more simple compounds, and even swap certain molecules with the solution, imitating metabolic processes. It is difficult to reconcile Oparin’s premise with the astronomical improbability that coacervates emerged from a random conglomeration of atoms in primeval oceans. And yet, coacervates are still light years away in complexity from the most primitive living cell.
The 1996 Nobel price for chemistry was awarded to an American, Robert Curl, and an Englishman, Harry Krot for the discovery of fullerenes. These are complex organic molecules with carbon atoms connected in a shape similar to the geodesic dome of Buckminster Fuller, which was exhibited at Expo 1967 in Montreal. These molecules, nicknamed „buckyballs“, might have something in common with Oparin’s coacervates and therefore, may also relate to the emergence of life. It would be interesting to follow the advancement of fullerene chemistry to see its potential impact on the theories of the origin of life.
After forty years of fruitless experimentation which followed Miller’s discovery, contemporary cellular biology moved Miller’s flask onto a back-burner. Instead, researchers are choosing a more pragmatic approach, to remove, add, replace and manipulate various organelles and genes in order to modify cells for an intended purpose (e.g. use of a genetically altered animal tissue for human transplants). It would not be surprising if in a not too distant future some avant-garde cellular engineering team announced that they have succeeded in assembling a living cell completely out of spare parts. Would this confirm the spontaneity of the emergence of life? Hardly! This living cell would be reassembled by intelligent beings out of parts pre-formed by living organisms. The process would have required long study and experimentation, and the help of sophisticated technology. None of this was available in the primeval oceans where life is thought to have originated.
How life on Earth began we know not, but this lack of knowledge should not discourage us from further reflections. Life does exist, and in countless forms and variants. We can assert unequivocally that at the beginning life forms were much simpler than they are at present. It is also highly probable, objectively almost certain, that present-day life on Earth evolved from these ancient forms. We are all mutually connected in our evolutionary roots.
The Cambrian explosion of life-forms. For longer than three and half billion years, i.e. 85 % of the duration of life on Earth, oceans and water bodies were inhabited solely by bacteria, primitive algae and eventually by simple multicellular organisms. However, the onset of Cambrian era (supposedly exactly 543 Mil. y. ago; Nash, 1995) was marked by an unprecedented evolutionary expansion. In the astonishingly brief period of a few million years, the geological strata became rich with numerous groups of already well differentiated organisms. These have been classified into more than a hundred main taxonomical groups, the Phyla, of which only about a third, 32 to be exact, have stabilized and continued until the present (Kauffman 1995). The enduring Phyla branched into Classes, Orders, Families and Genera. Countless species at the end of branches represent the „foliage“ of the Phylum tree. However, leaves are impermanent organs. Eventually they fall off, or are torn away. Branches of the Genera, Families, and even stronger branches of Orders and Classes live longer. The most enduring, however, proved to be the trunk, the evolutionary Phylum. This evolutionary „Big bang“ cannot be explained. Life on Earth entered a new progressive evolutionary phase.
In contrast to the exceedingly long, and in terms of evolutionary progress rather dull pre-Cambrian epoch, the much shorter post-Cambrian era is characterized by a bumpy ride due to several known cataclysmic events. In addition, organisms were subjected to many less sudden and dramatic but in their selective pressure equally forceful periods. Yet while many of the simple forms prevailed, advancement of the structure and function of selected groups of organisms continued. The process was exponential, and eventually led up to emergence of the species Homo sapiens. Will it continue beyond?
How evolution works is an extremely interesting problem, the solution of which is central to the understanding of the preservation of life, its direction and meaning. The following is an outline of beliefs, hypotheses and theories relating to life diversification and the mechanism of its expansion.
Creationism. One of the oldest exegeses - and that not only of the creation and proliferation of living organisms but also of the Earth and the entire universe - is certainly the Book of Beginnings, Genesis (1:1-31). The drama of the gradual rise into existence is painted here with bold Michelangelo-like strokes on six broad canvasses representing symbolic days (epochs) of the acts of creation. The Genesis narrative vividly articulates...
That „In the beginning God created the heavens and the Earth“, which was „a formless void ...“. The second day he illuminated the Earth. On the third day he separated the dry land from the oceans, and commanded the Earth to produce vegetation with seed- and fruit- bearing plants. On the fifth day he created animals, and, finally, on the sixth day God created human beings in his own image. At the end of the sixth day he praises his entire opus: „God saw all he had made, and indeed it was very good“...
The seventh day God rests. He has completed his work. God blessed the seventh day and made it holy. Shortly after he hands his creation over to Man with prophetic words: „Be fruitful, multiply, fill the Earth and conquer it.“
For millennia, this scenario of creation was accepted word for word. Even today, the biblical story of creation is taken literally by certain fundamentalist religions. I remember an anecdote a friend and colleague told me: One day, his old aunt was listening to a minister preaching about the prophet Jonah who according to the Bible was swallowed by a whale. Jonah survived the ordeal in the whale’s stomach praying to Yahweh, his God, until the whale disgorged him three days later. The preacher tried to interpret the event in symbolic terms but did not succeed. The aunt stood up and said: If the Bible says that Jonah lived for three days in the stomach of a whale, I believe it. And if it were written that the whale lived in the stomach of Jonah, I would believe that too. Clearly, this is a case of faith moving mountains!
The overwhelming majority of modern theologians accepts, or at least theoretically admits that organisms evolved in time. Recently the Pope declared that an evolutionary interpretation of the act of creation is compatible with the Christian faith, as long as God’s primary authorship is not denied (John-Paul II, 1996).
Darwin and his forerunners. It is no surprise that evolution, the new unorthodox theory about the origin of species - Man included - caused such a heated reaction. The author of the intellectual flurry was an inconspicuous, yet incredibly observant and well-travelled Anglican pastor named Charles Robert Darwin (1809-1882).
Darwin was not the first to express the notion that plants and animals change in the course of time. Even his grandfather Erasmus Darwin had written an essay on evolution. Furthermore, concurrently and independently from Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) preoccupied himself with the idea and mechanism of natural selection. In 1858, both authors jointly published a treatise on natural selection in the Journal of the Linnean Society (Darwin and Leakey, 1986). The era was rife with ideas of change and evolution.
Already in 1809 (when Darwin was born) the French naturalist Jean Baptiste de Lamarck (1744-1829) had published a book, „Philosophie zoologique“, in which he presented his ideas about the transformation of living organisms. Lamarck believed that organisms adapt to their environment and that the acquired adaptation becomes hereditary. He even suggested that they have an „intrinsic urge“ (French „besoin“) to evolve into better-adapted forms. The well-known example of Lamarckian reasoning is the long neck of the Giraffe, ostensibly a result of the animal’s repeated stretching to reach the foliage of tall trees. In modern terminology, this would be a change in the phenotype producing a change in genotype.
It is intriguing that in this point Darwin did not differ much from Lamarck. True, Darwin did not use the term „urge or need“ to change, but the more pragmatic „usage or non-usage“ of an organ or a faculty as driving factors in evolution. A contemporary slogan of the time was: use it or lose it! Consequently, even for Darwin the road to the genotype led through the phenotype. Of course, nothing was known about genes and genotypes as yet.
It was first the German Biologist August Weismann (1834-1914) who produced the evidence that so called „germ plasm“ (now described as DNA) is passed from generation to generation without change. This germ plasm was seen as inert and unchanged by nourishment, training or learning (Darwin and Leakey, 1986).
Although there were other thinkers, prior to or contemporary to Darwin who wrote about the concept and mechanism of evolution, it was Darwin who worked out these ideas as a comprehensive theory and also applied it to the human species. Charles Darwin thus epitomizes for evolutionary biology what Gregor Mendel personifies for genetics and Albert Einstein represents for modern physics.
Darwin’s ideas shook the philosophical and socio-political foundations of 19th century society. Darwinism was adopted as an official doctrine and a „scientific“ foundation of Marx’ and Engels’ philosophical materialism. Ultimately, Darwin’s evolutionary theory had a cardinal influence on the secularization of modern thought and lifestyles.
Darwin’s ideas about the evolution of species were considerably different from the present day interpretations of its mechanism. He did not know about Mendel, the discoverer of the laws of heredity, nor about genes, and less about mutations, which are the driving monads of modern neodarwinism (Darwin and Leakey, 1986). For Darwin and Wallace, evolution was directed by the „natural selection of fitter populations“. About the perpetuation of acquired characteristics, Darwin believed that individuals of the same species are changeable in all characters. Emerging deviations would survive or perish in the struggle for existence and only the successful ones would establish in the next generation.
An important aspect of Darwin’s concept of evolution is gradualism. Organisms evolve slowly. Evolution does not occur in leaps (Natura non facit salta). In his book „On the Origin of Species“ he wrote: „If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly be formed by numerous successive slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down“ (cited from Dawkins, 1991).
Neodarwinism. Organisms do change, if not by leaps then through infinitesimal steps, the genetic mutations. These changes might show up as advantageous, and would therefore proliferate through subsequent generations. More often, however, they prove to be detrimental and individuals carrying the altered gene usually perish in the process of natural selection. Mutations happen suddenly through unpredictable modifications in the gene code, the genotype. They are permanent and may become hereditary if the offspring survive. They reveal themselves in subsequent generations as changes in the organisms’ appearance and behaviour, i.e. in their phenotype. In modern terminology we would speak about discrete and digital, not continuous or analog changes. Like a sequence of picture-frames in a time-lapse film. After a series of what appears to be identical frames, there emerges a frame with a slightly modified picture.
The ancient Greeks perceived the heavenly display of stars as a harmonious scheme of spheres and called it „cosmos“, full of beauty. The astronomers of the modern era see in the predictable motion of celestial bodies a precision timepiece. For neodarwinists, living organisms, such as a pine tree or a bee, are skilfully arranged mechanisms. However, they derisively add that the „watchmaker“ who constructed these mechanisms is blind. He not only does not see, he does not even realize that he is working. Although blind, he could still be visible or tangible but he is hiding. In fact, he is only a sardonic hypothetical postulate, Dawkin’s (1991) fictitious anti-creationist metaphor. An alias for the blind forces of nature. Johnson (1995) put the blind watchmaker on trial: „in the last analysis, Darwinism is not really based on empirical evidence. Its true basis is in philosophy...“
No wonder Darwin’s followers have been confronted with a determined opposition from theologians as well as some biologists, much as Darwin had been in his own time. The axiomatic postulate that the driving force behind all evolution was random, spontaneously occurring mutations, sorted out by natural selection has become the weak point of the neodarwinists’ theory. Kauffman (1995) suggested that the likelihood of spontaneous, non-directional, micro-incremental changes resulting in modified populations and different species is minuscule. The probability that these changes would further combine to produce new genera, families, classes and orders in the time-scale available, is astronomically small.
New experiments seem to suggest that in a stressful situation bacterial populations generate beneficial mutations more often than detrimental. If proven correct, this finding would violate the central principle of Darwinian genetics, that the occurrence of mutations is random and unconditionally nondirectional. The discovered phenomenon is crucial for explanation of the evolutionary mechanism. It is under intense investigation and the question is long overdue. Since Darwin „there has been an overemphasis on the power of selection as opposed to the generation of diversity“(Beardsley 1997).
Until quite recently it was taught that evolution, from the simplest protists at the beginning of the biological era to the most advanced primates at present, was a long process, more accurately over 3.8 billion years long. It was also assumed that the process was more or less smooth and continuous. It has also become clear that since the ‘Cambrian explosion’ (i.e. during the last 500 mil. years), the complexity of organisms has been increasing exponentially. However, systematic studies of the geological strata and their fossil record convincingly point to anything but a smooth and uninterrupted evolution.
Catastrophism. It is most amazing that since the beginning of life the temperature in the biotic shell of our planet never rose so high or sunk so deep as to kill all the organisms that had already developed. Similarly, other supporting conditions, such as a favourable composition of the atmosphere, remained within the limits tolerant to life as a whole.. However, within these margins, catastrophic events did occur. Some of them caused such damage that few species survived. Was the clock of evolution set back by millions of years by these events? Curiously not. In fact, the exact opposite ensued. After each catastrophe, the surviving life forms burst out with renewed force, and produced ever more diverse and advanced forms (Lewin 1994).
Catastrophism and the associated idea of extinction are older than the concept of evolution itself. It had been already introduced at the end of the 18th century by the French naturalist and founder of scientific palaeontology, George Cuvier (1769-1832). This gentleman recognized that at the end of any of the great geological periods, palaeontological records of the great majority of organisms, characteristic for that period, also end. In fact, the extinction defines the end of the period. The author correctly interpreted this mass extinction as a result of some kind of great natural catastrophe. He was convinced, however, that all life became extinct during the catastrophe and that it emerged again de novo.
Cuvier’s hypothesis was soon criticized by the English geologist Charles Lyell (1797-1875). In his 3-volume Principles of Geology, published in 1830, Lyell vehemently, yet wrongly, opposed the existence of catastrophic events in Earth’s history, and thus opened the door for Darwin’s ideas about the uninterrupted evolution of organisms.
To date, geologists and palaeontologists have identified five greater (and a series of lesser) catastrophes which suddenly terminated the following geological periods: at the end of 1. Ordovician (440 mil y. ago), 2. Devonian (365 mil y. ago), 3. Permian (225 mil y. ago), 4. Triassic (210 mil y. ago) and 5. Cretaceous (65 mil y. ago).
For instance, during the Permian catastrophe, up to 96 percent of species were wiped out. Numerous genera and families, several orders and one class of organisms were afflicted. No catastrophe, however, caused complete extinction of any Phyla (Kauffman, 1995).
There is a growing evidence that less catastrophic, though significant extinctions occur approximately every 26 mil. years (Leakey and Lewin, 1995). Several sudden extinctions took place after the strike of a meteorite with a diameter of only a few kilometres. Such an uninvited guest arrives with unimaginable kinetic energy. The impact blows up a giant crater, causes a continental earthquake and produces a glowing pressure wave which may envelope the entire planet.. Martian meteorites collected on ice sheets of Antarctica are proof of the force of such collisions. They are so powerful that they may result in the ejection of rock fragments into open space (Goldsmith, 1997). Discharged particulate matter hovers in the atmosphere for months, even years, obscuring the sun. The planet cools down (an analogue of nuclear winter!) and photosynthesis may come to a halt. Many organisms which are fortunate enough to survive the impact succumb to cold and starvation. It is wonderful chance that, so far, life on this planet has been spared complete destruction, yet this is by no means a guarantee for the future.
As could be therefore imagined, evolution is not an idyll. Even Darwin said that it is a struggle. The Blind Watchmaker, it seems, is an extravagant master. He uses the ‘trial and error’ method and does not care how long it takes to complete the work. He ceaselessly creates new living forms and shortly afterwards he discards most of them. He never repeats what he has already tried. The development of new prototypes is more attractive to him than maintenance of a well- structured and functional ecosphere. What a strange strategy, and what a malicious treatment of his own creation! In cold blood the Blind Watchmaker destroys in a blink of eye what he has painstakingly fashioned over millennia. Each new evolutionary variant is only an elaborate drawing in a sifting sand, a mandala of his Zen garden, quite arbitrarily placed on this planet.
Punctualism. Thus the evolution of organisms was far from being a ceaseless and unbroken process as Darwin perceived it 150 years ago. However, it took some 130 years before two evolutionary theorists, Eldredge and Gould, finally took the reality of geo-biological catastrophes into account, and in 1972 formulated a new version of the evolutionary process. They called it the theory of punctuated equilibria, now known as punctualism.
These authors proposed that evolution advances in sudden flairs, fits and surges. Each catastrophic event is followed by a relatively fast and prolific speciation which branches from the surviving forms into the emptied ecological niches. When, in time, these are filled, the process slows down. Organisms of the various ecosystems have self-organized into new dynamic equilibrium where each habitat is populated and each niche utilized. There is little new progress and the system winds down almost to a halt. The authors called this phase of relative stagnation a „stasis“. The newly established balance of the well-organized large ecosystems, the biomes (fine-tuned to regional or zonal climates), is sustained by a powerful inertia and idleness resisting any major change. Only micro-modifications are still successful, those which are splitting the already utilized niches and forcing the system to even more narrow specialization.
So the ancient catastrophes had been interpreted as unfortunate and devastating events which terminated the evolutionary achievements of the living universe of a particular era. Unquestionably, they were extremely destructive. Yet, now we can see that, incomprehensibly, from an evolutionary perspective they were also essential house-clearing events, opening new space for the „blind“ grand-designer, the felix culpae of the forces of destruction.
Thus Darwin was complemented by Eldredge and Gould but not substituted. Dawkins (1991) is right when he suggests that while the punctualists do not admit it, they still uphold the concept of spontaneous mutations. They only dispute Darwin’s gradualism.
The recognition that evolution would not and could not progress without periodic devastations is one of the most remarkable, significant and mysterious discoveries of modern science. Two seemingly antithetical agents have been essential in advancing the evolutionary process: the constructive self-organizing ability of life and the random destructive forces from within the universe. Together they allow free realization of potentialities in the limited space and time continuum of our planet. The mythical Phoenix rises renewed again and again from the ashes.
Extinction of the dinosaurs. The most notorious, and best corroborated natural catastrophe was the one which brought about the demise of the dinosaurs. It happened relatively recently, only 65 million years ago. In 1980, Luis Alvarez, the Nobel prize winner in physics, reported that he had analysed a thin stratigraphic layer at the K/T boundary which separates the Cretaceous period from the Tertiary. Alvarez discovered that the fine material scraped from this layer contained elevated levels of iridium. This element is rare in the Earth’s upper crust but abundant in meteorites. From the concentration of Iridium Alvarez calculated that the asteroid which evaporated during its collision with the Earth was about the size of Mt. Everest. Today even the point of its impact is known. It is the Chicxulub crater at the coast of Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico (Alvarez et al. 1980, Kyte 1998).
Dust ejected into the atmosphere by this cosmic superbomb obscured the sun. Those not killed by the fireball and pressure wave of the collision died due to the cold and starvation that followed. Most affected were the big reptiles whose era abruptly and definitely ended (Alvarez 1997). It would have taken many months before the dust settled and the sky cleared up. The only survivors from the higher animals were some small reptiles, birds and early mammals. They all began to re-populate the devastated landscape.
As mentioned previously, with the destruction of the previous order an opportunity arises for every surviving species. Mutants which had a low chance to propagate in the former, well-tuned ecosystems, suddenly get a green light. They advance with a charge. In the ensuing fiercefully competitive chaos, or more accurately, during the transition to a novel ecosystem arrangement, evolution proceeds in leaps and bounds (Kauffman 1995). Like running waters under melting ice-sheets it carves a new evolutionary topography and soon it reaches new unparalleled plateaus.
If the Yucatan Peninsula meteorite had missed the Earth 65 mil. years ago, the dinosaurs might still roam through the continents. There would be little for us to discuss since no human discussants would be here. But Deus ex machina intervened and the cosmic collision did take place, eradicating the great reptiles. Among the puny creatures which emerged from underground, following the celestial fireball, was an early primate, now called Purgatorius. Since that moment, primate evolution has advanced very quickly:
55 mil. y. ago Lemurs and Lorises emerged; 45 mil. y. ago Monkeys; 35 mil. y. ago Apes; 15 mil y. ago Ramapithecus; 4 mil. y. ago Australopithecus; 1 mil. y. ago Homo erectus and some 1/4 mil. y. ago Homo sapiens emerged, i.e. present human beings.
This is an amazing exponential trajectory, an arrow of evolution released almost vertically towards the sky. The reality of our existence was described by Gould (1989) as „a wildly improbable evolutionary event“. Improbable? From the randomness vantage point quite certainly. However, what if our existence was planned? What if, from the beginning, humans were „expected“ as Kauffman (1995) tries to convince us?
Self-organization of non-living matter. The process of self-organization started at the moment of the Big Bang. Pure energy - possibly released from a latent source, possibly realized de novo from the void- began to „materialize“, first into subatomic specks, soon after into protons and simple atoms, and ultimately into the open-ended series of 92 plus elements, as modern physics has identified or created. This process has continued further at a superstructural level. At a macro-scale it is seen by us as an expanding universe of millions of galaxies, saturated with billions of stars, many certainly endowed with planetary systems. In cooler environments, various atoms joined into molecules, obedient of strict rules of conduct. Myriads of combinations emerged, and many more may still emerge. Chemists arbitrarily divide these atomic conglomerates into inorganic and organic compounds, although many of the latter may still be of non-biological origin. While quantum physics and theory of relativity still have substantial differences to reconcile (Maddox 1998), our understanding of the universe and the nature of energy/matter have expanded immensely during this century.
The genesis of organic life which constitutes the biosphere (and life’s hierarchic ascent from simple ancient forms up to humans) appears, therefore, as a logical progression of evolution beyond the minerosphere (Dansereau 1971). Nuclear physicists and astrophysicists do not attempt to interpret the arrangement of particles within the atomic nucleus, or the shape, fields and movements of galaxies and planetary systems by resorting to an explanation of random encounters. They search instead for laws which define and predict these processes of organization with absolute certainty. Should not the evolutionary biologist seek similar laws?
The heuristic breakthroughs of modern physics, driven mainly by the theories of relativity and quantum mechanics, shattered the ideas about the origin and structure of the universe held by astronomers of the 17th and 18th centuries. It is conceivable that biology and its sister discipline psychology are ripe for similar breakthroughs when the present, purely mechanistic, concepts of life will be revised and newly defined.
Molecular evolution. Students at our universities are familiar with the Darwinist theory of evolution from the first „amoeba“ to Man. Few have been exposed to the ideas of self-organization of matter from the Big Bang to biosphere. Rarely, if at all, do they hear about the increasing complexity of molecules due to the increasing complexity of organisms producing them. The structure, function and complexity are closely related. Thus oxygen molecules (O2) we breathe are simply made of two atoms of the same element. Carbon dioxide molecules (CO2) we exhale are made of three atoms of two elements. Urea molecules, CO(HN2)2 we excrete are made of eight atoms of four elements. Complex protein molecules which regulate various processes in our bodies are made of thousands atoms and a combination of elements.
Proportionately, giant organic molecules represent only a minute component in the biosphere. What Wilber (1996) stated about the holarchic (from „holon“ = the whole used by Arthur Koestler) organisation of the universe holds correct: There are fewer organisms than cells, less molecules than atoms and less atoms than quarks. While the cosmic time frame and opportunity yields itself to it, the universe self-organizes into the temporary „world“ we see and inhabit.
At the chemical level the number of theoretically possible molecular combinations and permutations is virtually infinite. In order of magnitude it surpasses the number of protons in the entire universe. Even the smallest protein molecules are composed of at least one hundred amino acids. For each such molecule there are theoretically 10130 alternative combinations (Dennet 1996). Bacterial DNA consists of several millions of exactly arranged nucleotides. The number of possible permutations of such a single DNA molecule alone exceeds the scope of our imagination.
Fortunately, evolution selects what will serve its purpose. It chose carbon as a cornerstone of all living structures. Did the Blind Watchmaker try to use other elements before? There is no evidence that he did. In primeval oceans, prior to the first traces of C-based life imprinted in rocks 3.7 bill. y. BP, there was not much time available for random experimentation. Let us now part with this virtual designer in favour of a thesis that evolution is a law-abiding process. From the physical aspect it is a continuation of the hierarchical organization of tangible reality, as several modern interpreters of evolution, for instance Capra (1996) and Wilber (1996), have stated.
Even in selecting the building repertoire, evolution has been constrained, if not thrifty. It managed to assemble all its living empire by using only 16 elements out of 92 available. Out of these sixteen „monads“, however, it spins millions of compounds which are still mostly unknown to chemists and even less known, with respect to their purpose and function, to biologists.
According to this thesis, then, it is not only Dawkins’ (1976) „selfish genes“ but much earlier atoms which have been using the vehicle of evolution to agglomerate into the largest possible clusters. With the help of specific organisms they also may seem to climb hills in the surrounding evolutionary landscape. Cells sometimes become a hatchery for viruses. But do they not, likewise, serve as incubators of macromolecules, of which DNA is their implanted camouflaged hen?! Since free-living cells would not have been adequate for such a sophisticated job, they would have had to be first organized into tissue, then in organs and finally into organisms which look and behave quite strangely. All this to manufacture a unique macromolecule! Even absurdity has its logic.
Clearly, macromolecules pay some dividends to the organisms which produce them. Highly specialized molecules of snake venom help to immobilize the bitten prey, and alkaloids in poison hemlock protect this mighty herb from being grazed. Curiously, although atoms under certain conditions spontaneously associate into complex molecules, it is the specific organism which sets up and manipulates such conditions to its own advantage. Another example of the evolutionary immanence and transcendence at work.
Today we know with certainty that of all species which have ever existed, a high percentage have perished. With them, molecules of countless specialized compounds, synthesized by the ancient „host“ organisms must also have perished.
Lately, the „selfish“ molecules have discovered (or developed for themselves?) a new producer. Man has introduced into the world hundreds of new compounds, never synthesized by any other species. The modern chemical industry manufactures plastic materials, latexes, artificial rubbers and other polymers unknown to nature. Many of these are nearly impossible to break down or decompose. Similarly, the pharmaceutical industry synthesizes complex drugs unknown to biota.
More recently, bio-engineers have learned to splice alien genes into microbes and more recently into pigs, fish and other higher organisms. These walking and swimming laboratories then manufacture desired specific molecules. For example, the fish Tilupia has been biochemically harnessed to produce insulin. Now even entire organs can be genetically modified to deliver needed compounds after transplantation into a foreign body. The development and synthesis of new molecular variants is growing exponentially and is limited only by the confines of human imagination. Kauffman (1995) calls this synthesis of new compounds by Man „applied molecular evolution“.
Molecular evolution therefore continues through Man but in a quite new and more efficient way. Under the original rules, for instance, the autumn crocus (Colchicium autumnale) manufactures the alkaloid colchicine, and the poisonous mushroom Amanita muscaria producesa hallucinogenic amatoxin, muscarin. That is, every autumn crocus and every A. muscaria synthesizes these products. The production of various alkaloids may differ from population to population but autumn crocuses are for colchicine and amanitas for muscarin. This is their specific prerogative and often their biochemical taxonomic marker.
As in other plants and animals, human organisms also produce compounds specific to their species. Outside the body, however, these capable creatures have learned to manufacture chemicals, some of which could kill them instantly. Yet not every human individual produces dioxin, DDT, PCB’s or CFC’s. The global population of Homo sapiens organized itself in this respect and entrusted certain specialists - through division of labour - to synthesize thousands of natural (e.g. vitamin C) and artificial (e.g. plastics) compounds. Hence, humans do not only copy nature, they are potentially capable of synthesizing all theoretically possible compounds.
Self-organization through natural selection. Natural selection is a powerful but not an all-powerful instrument of evolution. Not even long-term sorting of genes is able to put together complex systems (Behe 1996, Schroeder 1998). And the suggestion that numerous minute changes in the genotype could be successfully accumulated is also a myth (Kauffman 1995). Just this accumulation of small changes often leads to an „error catastrophe“ (Eigen and Oswatitsch 1992). Spontaneous mutations filtered through natural selection are limited by the very process through which they emerge. They are insufficient to explain the immense complexity of the genome. Even the simplest genome is more complex than can be explained by random gene transformations directed by selection.
As new successful mutations accumulate, populations of the new prospering species keep climbing the nearest peak in the surrounding „fitness landscape“. Surprisingly, however, as time passes, a successful population descends back to the valley where it is energetically more advantageous and safer with respect to the overall population fitness. The acquired genetic information which favoured the privileged population’s advancement slowly fades away (Kauffman 1995). Only when the „fitness landscape“ keeps changing under the feet of the dynamic populations the climbing will continue or be restarted.
Clearly, there is a need for a more convincing explanation of evolutionary mechanisms. The prevailing approach, reducing this process to a combination of random mutations and natural selection was never fully satisfactory. Ken Wilber (1996) is even more radical. He states that no one truly believes the neodarwinistic explanation of evolution through natural selection any more. True, Darwinian selection is part of the process which, however, „selects those transformations that have already occurred by mechanisms that absolutely nobody understands“.
A functional nexus must exist between natural selection which cannot be denied, and intrinsic ability of life to organize itself. Self-organization is, therefore, a primary premise of evolvability. In other words, natural selection is a daily workhorse helping life to organize itself on a small scale after favourable opportunities have arrived through cosmic or other large-scale catastrophes. However, the enigmatic link between the immanence of the mechanism of evolution and the transcendence of its directionality and meaning still escapes our comprehension.
Concurrence of genetic and „para-genetic“ evolutions. In the elucidation of the evolutionary process one important aspect is usually overlooked. For many millions of years, the evolution of higher animals has been occurring at two levels. First there is the emphasis on biological transformation, where modifications in genotype result in changes in phenotype (i.e. in appearance and instinctive behaviour). Less attention is given to the other, psychological level, on which the acquired fitness and survival skills are passed from generation to generation via a learning process.
The survival of animals endowed with intelligence depends on more than direct programming and cannot be explained by mere instinctive predetermination of every response or behaviour. Newborn turtles and other reptiles, for example, after they leave their leathery eggs, instinctively „know“ how to take care of themselves, although the behaviour of adult animals is less narrowly predetermined. Freshly hatched birds, on the other hand (and there is a level of instinctive behaviour in this as well) must be fed, and later learn from parents how to fly and find food. Even more so, young mammals must be taught by their parents many arts of life. Each kind is trained according to its niche and habitat requirements: hiding, digging dens, building shelter, supporting themselves and caring for offspring. Many animals born in the zoo are not able to survive if returned to their natural environment. In other words, without the specific skills passed on by their predecessors, an individual of these species would not survive. Clearly, raising up young and teaching them has become an indispensable part of evolution for the „higher“ animals. Decades-long observation of chimpanzees has revealed that different populations of these apes adhere to different „cultural“ traditions related, for instance, to the means of food acquisition. These skills are passed onto the young by teaching, they are not genetically transmitted (Whitten et al., 1999)
Newly acquired experiences, if entrenched in memory and applied often enough in analogous situations, become an evolutionary advantage of a similar order as are genetic mutations. However, in contrast to the copying of genetic information at the cellular level, the acquired „para-gene“ advantage is passed from generation to generation by observation and imitation. In animals this mentorship is instinctive and non-rational, yet it represents a evolutionary mechanism, parallel to and concurrent with, even running ahead of, genetic evolution. Thus without abandoning its biological basis, evolution is becoming self-managing and, at the human level, self-directing (Kauffman 1995). Let’s follow this intriguing idea further.
May the speaking creature stand up and declare himself!
Let’s close our eyes for a moment and envision ourselves far back in time in the abyss of a primeval ocean. It is a world of utter darkness and absolute silence, much like the black void far above, with only luminescent phantom-like creatures to substitute for the stars.
Let’s now imagine the Paleozoic nature of the Carboniferous era (some 300 mil. y. ago). It is a period of giant fern and horsetail swamps. Layers upon layers of these mighty plants are accumulating, forming the present-day reserves of black coal. Lungfish (Rhynthodipterus) and primitive amphibians (Ichthyostega) represent the most advanced animal forms of the era. When the winds calm down, hardly a sound can be heard...
Let’s further imagine the Jurassic and Cretaceous landscape of the late Mesozoic era (75-150 mil. y. ago). The fern thickets have yielded to coniferous woodlands. Herds of grazing dinosaurs move over the solid ground, followed by their ferocious predatory cousins. The landscape of these giant reptiles is drier, adorned with the first flowering plants. Comparatively, it is still a rather quiet world, although the menacing hissing and shrieking of excited animals can often be heard.
Finally, let’s transfer ourselves to the end of the Tertiary, only some 5 mil. y. ago. In anticipation of the approaching ice age the climate is already much cooler. In mid-latitudes it is almost temperate and even drier than before. Landscapes are covered by conspicuous, insect attracting flowers. There are grasslands, savannas and now prevalently broadleaf, deciduous forests. Shouts, calls, hollers, screams and quacks of countless birds mix and overlap. The neighing of wild horses and howling of wolves is heard from Eurasian grasslands, while the bellowing of bisons and yelping of jackals carry far distances in the prairies of the New World. The land teems with herds, bands, and colonies of mammalian species which emerged and have populated the world since the K/T catastrophe. A global-scale Serengeti! Even Australia, the only continent where evolution did not progress beyond marsupials, keeps pace with the rest of the world in terms of evolutionary convergence, species richness and niche diversity. The scene of this colourful stage is filled with new actors. It is humming with a noisy cacophony of voices that even Conrad Lorenz would have difficulty recognizing. Yet our main hero who would reveal the point of this tense evolving drama has still not arrived.
Finally, at the dawn of the Tertiary the expected hero appeared on the stage. His role was simple, yet impossible for all others. He spoke. He wondered. He began to call other actors by name, to ask questions. In time he would call himself a human being. Since that day the play would change into a thriller.
‘Look at me,’ said Bagheera; and Mowgli look at him steadily between the eyes. The big panther turned his head away in half a minute.
‘That is why,’ he said,... ‘Not even I can look thee between the eyes, and I was born among men, and I love thee, Little Brother. The others they hate thee because their eyes cannot meet thine - because thou art wise ... because thou art a man’.
‘I did not know these things,’ said Mowgli sullenly; and he frowned under his heavy black eyebrows.
(R.Kipling. The Jungle Book)
The branch of hominids separated from that of apes (Pongidae) somewhere in East-Central Africa 15 mil. y. ago. The exact time interval which would define the metamorphosis of the advanced primate into a human being would be very difficult to determine. Whitten et al. (1999) and de Waal (1999) see signs of humanization even in chimpanzees who display various „cultural“ trades in populations spread across the African continent. Tattersall (1998), in his excellent book Becoming Human, examines human uniqueness and those attributes which distinguish them from their closest kin, such as language, creativity and thoughtfulness. Many speak of an emergence of consciousness (Jaynes 1990, Calvin 1991, and others).
So at first there was a biological evolution. Much later came the cultural history. It has taken two million years for the small, semi-upright Australopithecus with a stone in hand to transform himself into the modern Homo sapiens sapiens. Yet, it took only twenty thousand years for this naked and nomadic creature to become a person with written rights and privileges. The cultural evolution has progressed a hundred times faster than the biological one (rephrased from Bronowski 1976).
Dennett (1996) characterizes this disproportion even more succinctly: Johann Sebastian Bach composed the original version of the St. Matthews Passion in two years, 1727-29. The composer Bach was a creation of Christian civilization, which had shaped people’s cultural identity already for seventeen centuries. However, the biological roots of J. S. Bach extend into the depths of three and half billion years!
The „enfant terrible“ of the biosphere. The awakening of our human predecessors into consciousness was likely a gradual process, although, measured against the slow pace of evolution, it occurred in an extremely brief time span. Bands of primeval humans gathered seeds and insect larvae, collected eggs from bird nests and chewed on young juicy shoots as apes still like to do. They all feared beasts of prey and instinctively dreaded the snakes which had threatened their tree-dwelling ancestors. In terms of life-style, primitive Man did not differ much from his ape-like predecessors. These early groups of nomadic humans were scarce and too inefficient to severely interfere with the ecological balance in their surroundings. This might be termed a „Man in Nature“ stage, because humans were still integrated within the ecosystems’ food and niche fabric. This stage of humans’ original innocence could have been closest to what Virgil described as ‘Aurea aetas’, the ‘golden age’ of mankind.
In not too long a time, however, the biosphere began to feel the human presence. Our bipedal ancestors were always on the move and their aggression towards other creatures intensified. When they learned that the flesh of animals, burned in forest fires, tasted good, they started searching actively for freshly burned places. Later they learned to set tracts of dry vegetated land on fire. Man had become a big game hunter. Large numbers of species, even genera, became extinct, killed by marauding bands of this naked, ever-hungry predator. These first ecological cataclysms occurred more than 50,000 years ago and are known as the Pleistocene overkills.
The evolutionary advantage of the ‘quantum leap’ of higher intelligence which the new primate, contrary to all odds, had acquired, was to make a tremendous difference. Humans first learned to subdue their immediate surroundings, killing or chasing other animals. In time, they became a domineering factor from horizon to horizon. Entire regions changed their appearance. As if according to the Biblical mandate to „subdue the Earth“, an alienation process was also initiated. After a short honeymoon in the „Garden of Eden“, an uninterrupted epoch of polarization began: Man against Nature - but also Man against Man!
Thus, Man - the HUNTER - became a menace for game animals. Since he was smarter than other animal hunters, he soon was able to kill more than he needed to survive and killed without a restraint (cf. hunting by fire, or chasing bisons over the cliff).
Thus, Man - the NOMAD - monopolized entire landscapes and modified them for his grazing herds, excluding all or most other grazers from the claimed grazing range. Overgrazing, which followed, reduced first the original vegetation cover, and subsequently the topsoil was mostly eroded.
Thus, Man - the FARMER - with the help of the „slash and burn“ method, cleared the land of woods and shrubs, and converted the areas gained into fields. There he started growing and harvesting crops exclusively for himself and his domesticated animals. He became a ‘super-competitor’ eliminating his old competitors entirely. This way, the world’s wilderness was „subdued“ in Africa, Asia, Europe and Meso-America. The practice was later introduced by European pioneer settlers in both Americas and Australia and, sadly, it still continues on all these continents.
Ultimately, Man - the INDUSTRIALIST - excluded large tracts of land even from agricultural usage for the expansion of cities, construction of industry, roads and highways and became an insatiable hunter for mineral and fossil deposits. The entire globe has been mapped and parcelled out, including the Antarctic ice sheets. The atmosphere, water and soil have been contaminated by toxic products which may cause yet unknown illnesses and defects. Until very recently it was unimaginable that human activity could drastically change the global climate, or destroy the ozone layer which protects all against ultraviolet radiation. And yet this all has become an ignominious part of modern history.
In the relatively short time of our existence, humans have succeeded in exterminating an untold number of animal species, either through direct killing, or the destruction of their habitats. The extremely low populations of tiger, panda bear, and especially of Man’s closest kin - the chimpanzee and gorilla - are, literally, counted, even named individually.
We hear about this ongoing mass extermination of species which Leakey and Lewin (1995) aptly calls the „sixth extinction“. From the extinction point of view, Sterba (1993) might be right when he suggests that the world is about to enter the fifth geological epoch which he calls „Quintenary“. The probability of a major environmental catastrophe hangs over us as a sword of Damocles. Yet, it is also possible to envision a potential for a breakthrough into a new evolutionary era, fertile with ideas. For both alternatives, the ongoing crisis could become a sensitive trigger-point.
We like to be judgmental about the unsavoury and reprehensible behaviour of the human species on this planet, and perhaps rightly so. In all corners of the world, at every level of the developing civilizations, people, seemingly, could have known and done better. However, we should be reminding ourselves that our instinctively antagonistic relationship with nature is deeply rooted in Darwin’s principle rewarding aggression and promoting survival of the fittest. Darwin himself suggested that natural selection can act only through and for the good of each being, and that all its physical and intellectual endowments will assist in gaining higher perfection (Darwin and Leakey 1986). These Darwin’s words still carry a prophetic charge.
Every evolution-advantaged species, from fast-mutating viruses to rabbits introduced in Australia, would behave alike. It would strive to achieve the maximal propagation of its own species and to fill the earth. The human species is no exception and has instinctively followed this inherited ecological predisposition. It is also true that much of the time people have maltreated the surrounding nature out of sheer unawareness. It has been ignorance which has damaged the biosphere, and the lack of knowledge or means of earlier societies to do more harm should not be interpreted as their friendly attitude towards nature (Wilber 1996).
Meta-genetic evolution. To repeat, life has long been developing through genetic evolution. The organisms’ diversification and speciation have occurred due to gene modifications and new gene additions (or hypothetically but less likely through dormant genes ‘activation’, Schroeder 1998) within the hereditary blueprint. In higher animal species, in addition to genetic evolution, the perpetuation of extant and emerging populations has become dependent on para-genetic evolution (via the training and learning processes).
In contrast to these biological means of species perpetuation, meta-genetic evolution is not concerned with the biological preservation, in this case of the human species, at least not directly. It is preoccupied with the refinement of personal and societal values, and with the progress of civilization. This process can be followed deep into human prehistory when the first microsocieties were formed and rudimentary rules implemented. However, the real outbreak of meta-genetic evolution began with cultural evolution. Humanity embarked on the advancement of its abilities by a direct, non-hereditary transfer of common experience among its individuals. The evolutionary efficiency of these changes has surpassed those of the biological nature (Bronowski 1976, Krupicka 1994).
It took 30,000 years for Cro-Magnon Man to invent the plow. Another 10,000 years passed before the development of the steam engine. However, less than 200 years later, an Apollo rocket lifted a crew of three humans, carried them to the Moon and safely brought them back to Earth. In the span of another 20 - 30 years NASA plans to disembark human spacefarers on Mars and start modifying its conditions for permanent habitation (Fig.1).
Concurrently, with the upsurge of technology, research into the manipulation of human genetics is advancing quickly. Bioengineering (among the already routine intrusions into genetics of non-human organisms) already provides the means for deep invasions into the human genetic makeup. It has already achieved some control of peoples’ mental state but the potential in this direction is beyond imagination. One obvious goal is the creation of a super-intelligent, almost non-aging being, which, in comparison with the present state of human evolution, would be as far from us as we are to the state of a zygote from which we developed (Kelly 1995). One of the possible routes is Wiener’s cyborg: a brain coupled with a computer, built into a mechanical contraption which substitutes for the human body (Wiener 1948, 1950; de Kerckhove 1995). Kurzweil (1999) is, in this respect, quite specific when he pictures the world at the end of the next century: „There is no longer any clear distinction between humans and computers. Most conscious entities do not have a permanent physical presence... Humans who do not utilize implants augmenting their perceptual and cognitive abilities are unable to meaningfully participate in dialogues with those who do... Life expectancy is no longer a viable term in relation to intelligent beings.“
Are these ideas just the megalomaniacal dreams of modern technocrats without a trace of modesty, or do they present a snapshot of a realistic perspective not too far ahead of us? Did not Teilhard de Chardin (1969) as early as in 1950's write about the „ultra man“of the future? Imagination is a strong propeller of human progress but it can as often lead to retrogress and societal breakdown.
Mind and heart. Living organisms are not mere biological machines, as the mechanists of the 18th and 19th century argued, and as modern reductionists still emphasize (Capra 1996). The brain only superficially resembles a computer. The present-day computer is strictly deterministic and its operations must still be directly or indirectly programmed. The nature of the human mind is an antithesis of determinism since its basic features are freedom and curiosity. It searches for causes of an action, and deduces consequences. It asks questions, among others about the meaning of its own existence. Often it seeks knowledge for knowledge’s sake alone as emphasized already by Aristotle. From this perspective it makes no sense to compare a computer program with a human mind. Even the most complex computers lack reflective intelligence (which separates us from even the most advanced animals). Nevertheless, this ingenious human invention is extremely useful to us. After hardly half a century of their existence, computers have become so indispensable that a minute oversight in the original design, known as the „Y2K“ bug has caused a world-wide scare of potential chaos, if not a threat of a collapse of our civilization.
The celebrity computer Deep Blue did not get angry when it lost the chess game to Grand-Master Kasparov in the spring of 1996. Nor did it smile victoriously when it beat Kasparov a few months later. It did not care either way. Deep Blue didn’t even realize that it was engaged in playing. It does not know that it exists. If unplugged, the computer is dead. If under power, it is not alive even though it can respond to commands and execute programmed instructions. It reacts, however, much faster than any living being ever could, thousands and millions of times faster. For this amazing artistry the computers owe credit to their ingenious creators. It is they who invented them, kept improving and expanding their abilities, manufactured them and made them available to other humans as highly useful tools. This is much the same way as our distant ancestors invented a club, a spear and a trap, and ancient Chinese thought out the simple yet ingenious calculation device, the abacus.
Although computers can execute quadrillions of mathematical operations in a very short time, they lack the capacity to reason (i.e. „to think or argue in a logical manner“, Webster’s Dictionary of English Language). They are also impotent to experience joy, grief, enthusiasm, dislike or anger. They have no „emotional intelligence“ (Goleman 1995) which is a personalized version of an otherwise coldly logical and reflective (self-mirroring) intelligence. In an emotional vacuum, even Descartes’ Cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am) would not be able to convince us of our own existence. Sometimes we need to pinch our arms, to believe that we are awake and not dreaming.
Every successful act of intellect is accompanied by a reward and every mistake by a disappointment. Many mental constructs such as games, crosswords, puzzles, mathematical and logical twisters are invented for intellectual satisfaction alone. At a higher plane there are all kinds of arts: literature, music, visual and other artistic expressions. Although nature blazes with colours, only humans are capable of experiencing their beauty. We often seek and indulge in imagination, fictive adventure and wanton entertainment over useful and productive work. Whenever we can, we reward ourselves with these „non-profitable and nonsensical“ activities and even spend extra money to get them. The quality of these intellectual and sometimes less than intellectual pleasures differ, indeed, from person to person. Computers have none of these in common with us, at least not yet. However, research incorporating values and emotional components into artificial intelligence machines is on the way, although these may „not necessarily be the same values and emotions that humans exhibit“ (Kurzweil, 1999).
The ultimate question is on the computers’ thinking ability and their consciousness. Will they always ‘just calculate’ or will they one day master the ‘subtlety and complexity’ of human thinking? Will they ever realize they own existence, could an artificial intelligence ever become a person? „This is a difficult question even to pose“, Kurzweil reflects but what he really means to say is: Never say never!
A special form of ratio-emotional experience is epitomized by humour. It is an intellectual frolic for the sake of mental amusement. Here the intellect provokes itself by arranging two seemingly contradictory theses against each other. The more refined the plot, the higher the intelligence required for its discernment, and the higher the satisfaction gained. Our intelligence is delighted by its own acuteness and shrewdness.
The spectrum of manifestations of emotional intelligence is broad: laughter, joy and excitement - but also grief, sorrow, fear and disappointment. While some of these emotional expressions can be observed in higher animals, only human beings are capable of intellectualizing them, that is, experiencing them, and realizing what they experience. We all need shelter and food. We need challenges to stimulate our mind. Most of all we need to be loved.
Love and passion are the strongest emotional domains in humans. A recent car advertising billboard put it succinctly: ‘Without a purpose there is no reason. Without a passion there is no reason for existence’. Each of us can confirm that the heart and head do not always agree with one another. Le coeur a sa raison que la raison ne comprend pas, says Pascal. Mystics have always considered the heart as the dwelling place of love. In the broadest sense, love is the primary affinity, the glue of the universe, its metaphysical principle of coherence. In the words of Mother Teresa: ‘Love does not have any other mission but to communicate itself’.
This love principle can be traced backwards from animated relationships among people, through the sexuality of living organisms back to the polarity of molecules and the inner and outer forces in atoms. The existence of moral and physical evil in the form of hatred, aggression, pain and annihilation is sometimes seen as the counter-poles of this universal metaphysical quality. Yet, the world still „holds together“, although it is being continuously attacked by this entropic and ethical corrosion. Teilhard de Chardin (1964) postulates that this all-penetrating and all-unifying cosmic quality is realized more forcefully as the world becomes more spiritual. Mind over matter! Love is the primary reason and ultimate aspiration of creation: Sic Deus dilexit mundum...
Human love has been expressed through the three classical concepts of AMOR (passionate corporal love, now often degraded to mere sex), EROS (idealized yearning and infatuation of heart) and CARITAS (merciful altruistic love to the needy). It is clear that this „trinity“of love is a hierarchical concept. The trappist monk, Thomas Merton (1975), shortly before his untimely death, touched upon the subject of love: The goal of our human intimacy is not just communicatio, intellectual exchange of ideas but communio, sharing. Universal unification of heart and spirit.
Personality. None of the attributes mentioned earlier embodies the crossing of the threshold to humanity more clearly than the manifestation of personality. At the dawn of human history a distinctive integration of body and mind took place, which conveyed itself as an absolutely unique behaviour for each human individual. The most fitting expression of this state of being is dignity.
Atoms of the same element, more accurately of the same isotope, are identical. However, at the molecular level, the number of perfect copies is already significantly reduced. With increasing complexity of structure, the absolute number of identical individuals is diminished, while the diversity of shape and function is compounded. No living individual, starting with the simplest protists, is identical with another individual of the same species. (As a matter of fact, even the concept of „species“ is artificial. It has many definitions and there is poor agreement among the authors who are using them.) From subatomic particles to humans one can follow evolution from generality to a level of uniqueness that makes substitution impossible. Bronowski (1976) expressed this dignifying process by a fitting aphorism: From it to who to Ladies and Gentlemen! Each person is an original, a non-reproducible prototype. Not even identical twins or artificial clones are absolutely identical, although they may be very similar in appearance and strikingly alike in behaviour.
With the reduction of phenotypic conformity, the predictability of behaviour also decreases. Higher animals have an impressive degree of indeterminism, demonstrated in complex situations (e.g. documented cases of dogs saving their master) and in playful behaviour; animals are born comedians (Kovalski 1991). Only humans, however, are conscious of their indeterminism. Freedom of thought and action (in a non-political sense) is an important attribute of personality, although not all people are free to the same degree, and all of us are sometimes strongly determined in behaviour by life circumstances (Skinner 1972). The degree of freedom is, therefore, related to the fulness of one’s personality. In an evolutionary sense, the emergence of personality is a new phenomenon on this planet and, possibly, in the universe.
The homosphere. With the growth of the human population, an era, previously not-experienced by nature, began. It was an era of culture. The manifestation of reflective intelligence tipped the previous natural balance in favour of the human species. It caused this singular group of animals to become first less challenged, soon dominant, and finally domineering wherever they appeared in significant numbers.
As other heterotrophs, Man obtains his food through other organisms. However, he eluded the biological controls which ensure that no species takes over any given ecosystem in perpetuity. The organisms which had lived in areas, now urbanized and converted in agricultural lands, were killed, driven away, or stripped of the habitats. Thus, the resources, previously shared among all the inhabitants of the region, were diverted for the exclusive use of humans.
For millennia, humans populated the planet very slowly. However, with the onset of the modern industrial revolution, the population growth curve has become exponential. At present it is already explosive, exceeding the population expansion of any species in any known self-sustaining natural ecosystem (Svoboda 1989).
Besides animals, water and wind, modern humans also learned to utilize energy from fossil and inorganic sources. These skills enable them to colonize ‘en masse’ regions formerly inhospitable, even inaccessible. No wonder then that Man has become a pivotal ecological factor in the entire ecosphere. Currently, no place on this planet can be found which has been spared from substantial alteration, or at least from the traces of human presence. Toxic substances are being deposited even onto arctic and antarctic ice. Moreover, tens of thousands of rocket fragments already orbit our planet. Species diversity of the world’s great biomes is being steadily diminished and their functioning is being adversely affected. The biosphere is under the immense pressure of this singular bipedal species, Homo sapiens. In fact, the entire biosphere is being rapidly transformed into a homosphere, i.e. into a realm where Homo prevails and exerts his direct or indirect influence and control (Svoboda 1999).
Since 1901 when Marconi intercepted the first wireless transatlantic signal, the homosphere has been expanding into the cosmic realm. On October 4, 1957 the first earth-orbiting satellite, Sputnik 1, was launched by the former Soviet Union. The „impossible dream“ of mankind to reach the Moon was fulfilled when American astronauts Neil A. Armstrong and Edwin E. Aldrin, Jr. landed and walked on the moon’s surface on July 20, 1969. The feat has since then been repeated successfully six times, not, however, without a substantial quantity of junk being left behind. Human-proxy robots have already landed on Mars to investigate its environment for human disembarkment in a not too distant future. Scientific probes have reached the planet Venus and photographed several other planets. In 1973, Pioneer 10 passed through the asteroid belt and became the first man-made object to escape our solar system. Two Voyager spacecrafts, launched in 1977, carry into the Milky Way golden placards with engraved hieroglyphics depicting human beings. It was hoped that these might be comprehensible to intelligent aliens, if found by them (Sagan 1994). The envelope of the homosphere is expanding within the expanding universe.
A non-biassed observer of these busy clothed animals, whose numbers have doubled every thirty years during this century, would probably acknowledge that lately, their activity is not always destructive. He would notice that recently, some humans have been trying to preserve, protect and rescue creatures which would have been mercilessly killed in the past. They have even been observed trying to restore certain devastated areas to their former natural state - although these attempts have been often inadequate, even futile.
With their increasing domination over the rest of creation, humans are starting to realize their responsibility for its survival. They study and assess their own behaviour. The feedback between human action and its constant self-evaluation has become an established process in modern society. Albeit slowly and inefficiently, corrective and preventive measures are now being implemented at all levels of human activity. Sadly, however, the large majority of the world’s citizenry care about their planetary responsibility as much as an average American worries about his country’s trillions of dollars in debt. Sooner or later, however, full responsibility for the increasingly dysfunctional biosphere will have to be accepted. In contrast with national and international economies, debts towards the biosphere cannot simply be written off. On regional and global scales, the disparity between the rich and poor is enormous and still increasing. Similarly, disparity is growing between the relatively few who advocate and practise principles of sustainable economics and nature conservation, and the overwhelming majority of mankind, which out of starvation, greed, apathy or sense of helplessness do not care. In the meantime, our planetary bio-economical indebtedness is further increasing. It is not difficult to imagine the consequences.
In this essay, however, we are following a long-term evolutionary perspective. As a process of structuralization and increase in complexity, evolution has crept ahead through endless hurdles and catastrophes, owing its success to the individuals who survived. This process of an uphill struggle is aptly symbolized in a medieval ikon: the Ladder of Divine Ascent, kept in the St. Catherine monastery at Mt. Sinai. In the ikon, the monks are climbing the ladder of virtues into heaven, but only some make it to the top. Many are drawn by demons to the abyss below because they were unable to withstand the trial (McManners 1990).
Human genius has always outrun the reality of the present time. At this very moment, a great number of individuals are conceiving science fiction scenarios which are, to a large extent, still unrealistic. At the same time, however, specialized futuristic institutions and brain trust teams are independently charting realistic venues of societal development for decades even centuries ahead. In spite of Horgan’s (1996) rather numbing perception that all that needed to be discovered has already been discovered, further breakthroughs in physics, astronomy, biology, psychology and even on the socio-political scene are predicted and expected (Maddox, 1998). The obvious challenge of Mankind is the control and management of the biosphere. We witness the extermination of former plagues such as polio and smallpox, the stabilization of human population (one hopes soon), and population growth of species threatened by extinction (Dubos 1974). Serious attempts are contemplated for a reconstruction of species already extinct via retro-breeding and gene manipulation, as well as the development of artificial intelligence and the synthesis of living matter, although in that last item there has been no progress since the seminal experiment by Miller 45 years ago (Horgan 1996). Such an ambitious program, together with the expanding space program, would not fare well without the economic and political globalization. Inevitably, it will also bring about further curtailing of personal rights and freedoms.
The rule which makes us drive on one side of the road is useful and reasonable. Rarely do we, however, realize that by adopting this, and many other useful rules, we have been giving up piece by piece our basic right to free movement. Similarly, to be electronically registered and evaluated in terms of a personal eugenic, health, economic and criminal history could have practical advantage for the society and the healthy/wealthy law abiding citizen. But the availability of this information could also easily be abused by criminals or the state. Personal I.D. cards containing all possible confidential information, much of it unknown to the holder, are already in circulation. A non-removable implant, furnished with a computer chip and emitter, could identify and locate everyone instantly anywhere on the planet. In this way a person’s history could be tracked as well as where the individual was this morning, yesterday, a month or a year ago. Where he stopped, what he bought, where he slept and with whom he socialized. This is not a fantasy about a far distant future. Such technology already exists (Quittener 1997). These hi-tech gadgets are being used, for instance, to check on offenders confined in-house, or on those who must comply with a curfew. This litany of modern micro-technological achievements has its own dark side: the electronic penetration into private space and life, electronic pirating, blackmail, terrorism and similar. All new crimes which have already entered into the vocabulary of modern law-breaking dictionaries (Stephenson 1997).
The science fiction of Jules Verne appears childish in comparison with present-day deep-sea diving or lunar transport technology. Similarly, the relatively recent Orwellian saga of Big Brother pales in comparison with the already practised silent control over citizens by some modern states and various influential interest groups. Current technological and sociological inventions all have their potential benefits and drawbacks. Once people experience their sweet taste, they find it difficult to be without them, often disregarding the side-effects. Yet an even greater need is that of the ethical progress which would keep pace with the ever-advancing technology. Unfortunately, developments in the spheres of justice and equitable social arrangements have shifted in the legalistic direction instead. Will the letter of the law, substituting for the discarded moral norms, be able to hold human society within the limits of civilized conduct? Certainly, this is a legitimate question.
The noosphere. Matter around us exists in three states: as solid, liquid or gas. For the sake of analogy let’s now imagine that the non-living crust of our planet, the minerosphere, represents the solid state and the biosphere the liquid state. What in this analogy could be represented by the gaseous state? It would be the noosphere, a domain of interconnected and mutually communicating human minds. Allegorically, we could consider the noosphere as the brain of mankind (Krupicka 1994) where the nerve cells, the neurons, are human minds and the dendritic synapses are various communications channels. Le Roy, Teilhard de Chardin and Vernadsky contemplated the noosphere as a new planetary envelope (‘neo-envelope’), a thinking layer of the biosphere (cf. Svoboda and Nabert, 1999). We see the noosphere as an intellectual-spiritual „emanation“ of the biosphere through its human elements. However, not even this analogy is adequate. The noosphere enriches, fertilizes and stimulates individual minds, but it does not exist independently apart from them. It is immaterial. Concepts such as ‘global supermind’, Vernadsky’s ‘collective personality’ and Teilhard de Chardin’s ‘collective consciousness’ or ‘thinking membrane’ are perhaps more accurate allegories. The noosphere does not emit any measurable radiation (discounting telepathy and other parapsychological topics here) and does not create any ‘field’. It is, therefore, scientifically unprovable. While the homosphere expanded into a three-dimensional space, the landscape, the noosphere is introverted. It occupies a non-dimensional domain of our minds, the inscape, which is, in the most proper sense, extraterritorial. For the present it remains also a strictly personal domain with the connections to the external world under the control of the individual. Nonetheless, it is a real sphere, self-evident to itself.
The rampant growth of communication systems, such as e-mail and the world wide web which is a new way of sharing information and ideas among human minds, causes the heuristic capacity and productivity of the human race to magnify explosively. It is as if the evolutionary process of ‘cerebralization’ of the human species were transformed into a process of cerebralization for the entire planet. The noosphere is also now experiencing exponential expansion. Unlike human population growth with its inherent limits, the expansion of the noosphere may continue indefinitely. It will, inevitably, influence biological evolution, particularly with respect to humanity itself.
The noosphere is not involved in the ‘real’ world only. It spins and conceives worlds of a ‘virtual reality’, and lures many into these worlds. This artificial cyberspace will soon become a powerful factor in our thinking and imagination, and will, no doubt, affect our understanding and defining of ‘reality’ itself (Kerckhove 1995).
Doom or boom. Since its appearance mankind has diversified into races, linguistic groups and cultural regions. The present drive leads, inevitably, to integration: one planet Earth, one mankind, one common language and one global civilization. A New Order of things! This may be logical and practical but not to everyone’s liking. There is value in diversity. A pluralistic society is more resourceful and definitely happier than a regimented society with apparently the only goal of expanding intellectually and materially.
Visionary thinkers are convinced that future journeying won’t be „business as usual“. In its highest aspirations, mankind aims to abandon the antiquated trodden paths and even strives to bypass the laws of nature. The process itself is morally neutral. It becomes, however, morally accountable through the intent and means of the involved society and its leaders. Globalization is an important step towards achieving these ambitions and might benefit the entire human race, if realized in a form that respects all peoples’ rights and traditions. Yet globalization by means of unilateral force and a single ideology, that pushes established cultures over their resistance, must inevitably, be inefficient, counter-productive and ultimately oppressive.
As an eternal pilgrim, Mankind journeys towards his remote haven, Teilhard de Chardin’s „Point Omega“. This point will embody the fulfilment of self-organized evolution, from the flash of pure energy at the moment of the of the universe’s birth, through the materialization of the tangible worlds, through humanity and ultra-humanity - to a state of pure consciousness (Figure 2). At this meta spiritualis, consciousness will reach its full independence from the material world, which is ever changing and ultimately subject to decay through entropy (Kurzweil 1999)
The imminent great calendar divide, we are just about to cross, could become a historical milestone. The past and future events might be referred to as taking place „before“ or „after“ the break of the Third Millennium. Not so much because this significant transition period is, as expected, electrifying the atmosphere by resurrecting messianic hopes for the, all renewing Parousia (Kingwell 1996) - but due to an ongoing deep scientific, economic and, hopefully, spiritual transformation of the entire human race. That the societal transformation unfolds at the rare calendar divide is itself an intriguing coincidence.
Globalization itself is a step towards cosmization, i.e. towards the theoretically unending physical and intellectual expansion of mankind into the universe (Sagan 1994). Do not science fiction novels speak about intelligent aliens? Why not become one of them, possibly the only one? Yet seemingly insurmountable difficulties lay ahead. How can we break or bypass the physical barriers to reaching other worlds within a time span compliant with the human dimensions? Even the light from the closest star, Alpha Centauri, travelling at its phenomenal speed, needs four years to reach us. Our imagination should never be less daring than are the possibilities of its realization. However, the realization of these far-reaching dreams depends on one basic premise: that the amazing, enlivened boat of our planet Earth will be able to sustain its crew and will not capsize. With this caveat in mind, what alternatives are there then for the mankind?
The thunderbolt alternative. Life on this planet could easily be paralysed for ages, even destroyed by just another collision of the Earth with an asteroid. The probability of such an encounter is relatively low, but not insignificant. Our planet is dotted by many craters, some of them blasted by cosmic projectiles much larger than the one which precipitated the extinction of the dinosaurs. To counteract such an eventuality, astronomers have started a program monitoring the movements of several thousands asteroids. The trajectories of about 200 of them are close to the orbit of our planet. Of those about 20 percent will sooner or later collide with the Earth (Sagan 1994). A defence system is being contemplated which would avert such a deadly collision by destroying the incoming asteroid of deflecting it in order to cause it to miss our planet entirely. The realization of such a system, however, will be beyond our technological and budgetary means for a long time, and even then, such a defence system could hardly ever become ‘bulletproof’.
The self-annihilation alternative. For the first time in the history of the planet one prospering species has become able to deliberately turn its evolutionary advantage towards itself. This species has acquired immense knowledge about the environment from which it has evolved, and about itself, so much so, that it attached the laudatory attribute ‘double-wise’ (H. sapiens sapiens) to its generic name. All evidence, however, shows that this species has not yet grown to a full realization of the claimed attribute, at least not to the degree of self- preservation.
Consequently, a much more probable and therefore worrisome alternative for Mankind is the likelihood that it will destroy itself. And the possibilities for our destruction are numerous: a global nuclear, bacteriological or viral holocaust, epidemics arising from an experiment going astray, the poisoning of the biosphere through general neglect or terrorism, or a combination of several causes occurring simultaneously.... Every year a new threat can be added to those already on the list.
Even more probable, and more compatible with our evolutionary history, is the possibility of partial annihilation. It is a perspective of hi-tech wars, genocides and self-destructing revolutions while the world’s living conditions in the affected regions sharply deteriorate. Global chaos, anarchy, despotic dictatorships, total failure of reasonable communication (modern confusion at the tower of Babel) are all props readily available to future manipulators of the world’s affairs and destiny.
The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness ;
Knowledge of speech , but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to God.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
Bring us farther from God and nearer to the Dust.
(T. S. Eliot. Excerpt from the poem: The Eagle soars in the summit of Heaven. Choruses from ‘The Rock’.)
Ahead with the breakthrough alternative. The history of evolutionary accomplishments can be compared to a multi-tiered pagoda where the floors are widest at the base and progressively narrower towards the top. Furthermore, every higher floor is farther from the previous one. So, in terms of the degree of acquired intelligence, humans are more distant from apes than are apes from monkeys, monkeys are more distant from Prosimians than these are from lower primates, etc. - down to the first sentient being. To extend this analogy, the Man of the future (the „post-human“, according to some futurists) will be better equipped functionally than we are now. Should biological evolution not meet our expectations, bioengineers will try to push it in the desired direction and improve what is necessary. And should the body show signs of aging or other deterioration, the individual may be ‘reincarnated’ by simply transplanting his „chip“ containing all his information into another body, possibly one grown in advance just for this purpose. Immortality secured - at least for the prominent individuals! Every new born child would become a cyborg. If this sounds too mechanistic, as it in fact is, read Darling (1996). This is how the modern Jules Vernes fantasize. But do not chuckle in disbelief. Verne’s fictions were outdone by reality in less than a century. Conceptual designs coupling human and artificial intelligence, and followed by experimental programs are firmly on the way (Hardison 1990; Kurzweil 1999).
In the meantime, we are changing the world around us by small but frequent steps. Transgenic species are now being routinely generated and quickly applied in the agriculture and livestock industries. A large portion of the corn, canola, soybean and cotton grown in North America has been already genetically modified. Responding to public distrust of genetically modified organisms as potential long-term hazards to human health, Europe has imposed a ban on the import of transgenic livestock and some crop plants.
Are visions of this kind out of the range of moral norms engraved in us over millennia? Are we trying to play God? The Human Genome Project in progress is closest to such an idea. A powerful fruit of knowledge is being seized upon by Mankind: the blueprint of its own existence. Let’s pray that it won’t prove to be that from the God’s forbidden tree. There will be a great temptation to manipulate the pearl necklace of our DNA, to keep changing the beads, to transfer some into animals. Organs for human transplants, for example, are badly needed. And, perhaps more curiously, which transferred genes would make a chimpanzee a human? These are all exciting and daunting prospects for scientists, theologians, ethicist and politicians, and ultimately for the entire human race to deal with. Any identity crisis of the past will pale in comparison with those mankind is about to face. „Learn to know yourself“, Socrates prompted his disciples. We must have misunderstood him too. Neo-Darwinists may not have a problem with all the hasty and aimless invasions into the genetic code, since the clearing house of natural selection will take care of the future. What will prove fit will survive - the less suited will perish in the process. Sorry!
Not only genetic manipulation and our all-life penetrating technology worries many concerned people. Many erroneous and harmful ideas are gaining ground and winning. They may do lots of damage and cause great suffering before they are abandoned or defeated. Among the most recent ones we could mention Nazism and Communism. With their demise, however, the silhouette of a new potential oppressor of freedoms can be seen on the horizon: the autocratic state. Moreover, in the current excited pre-millennial atmosphere, the deviant fantasies of new-messianic leaders have already brought about unprecedented waves of group suicides in Jonestown and Waco, from Solar Temple members in Quebec and Switzerland to Shoko Asahara in Japan. We truly live in extraordinary times!
Intricate projects of modern engineering are now being tested on computer-generated models. In a similar way, the collective intelligence of the noosphere can serve as a potent instrument of verification for newly introduced ideas. Only through free global discussion may it be possible to avoid great errors of judgement. This may, one hopes, prevent or at least expose the malevolent actions of future conspirators and aggressors.
The preservation and cultivation of a healthy Ethos is therefore conditio sine qua non for our survival. An old Latin adage comes to mind: Serva ordinem et ordo servabit te (Serve the order and the order will serve you). A logical requirement for preservation of humanity in an orderly, self-organizing universe. However, reason alone cannot be the sole arbiter determining the ways of the future. The unity of ‘head and heart’ has historically proven to be the most reliable pilot on any road, even the most perplexing one.
The external deterministic world and the non-conformist world of our interior are now drawing closer together resulting in an urgency to renew our relationship with nature our fellow man. Yet there is no absolute certainty about anything any more, only high statistical probability. Not a clear transparency only translucent „opacity“ (Prigogine and Stengers 1984).
What then are the driving forces in our evolving human society? From the very beginning our cultural evolution has advanced by following the meta-genetic path. Ideas have been complementing the biological role determined by genes. Competition, leading to the elimination of aberrant ideas, and to the ultimate survival of brighter, more potent ideas is the current form of natural selection. Since the human race has not self-destructed as yet, this intangible mechanism has, so far, worked.
Curiously, in Dawkins’ upside-down world the ‘selfish gene’ has progressed one step further - for what selfish benefit one can only guess - and through the human proxy has procreated a new replicator, the ‘meme’. According to memetics, claimed to be new emerging science, our minds are shaped by memes as our anatomy and physiology is patterned by genes. Memes constantly invade our mind and spread further through high-tech devices such as telephones, computers and means of mass communication (Blackmore 1999).
The mind will always find the means to satisfy its intellectual yearning. Thus future progress will be hindered only by the boundaries of our imagination. However, wouldn’t the human individual get lost in the unfolding fabric of „cosmic“ humanity? Historically, such has been the case with many societal grand-designers. In Plato’s Politeia, the individual is valued only as a citizen. The family is dissolved because it would lessen loyalty to the state. Needless to say that Plato’s political ideas have never realized but there have been many unsuccessful attempts to institute alternatives of traditional societal arrangements. Clearly, the prosperous continuation of human race will depend on the degree of dignity, freedom and respect for every person.
The cosmic perspective for humanity is a more familiar concept among theoretical physicists and viewers of science fiction movies than it is among traders, farmers or even clergy, but the number of its adherents is steadily growing. The third crossing is well on its way and everyone is involved, no matter what their level of awareness or attitude. Man has mapped the land and sea , made an inventory of non-living and living things on Earth, deciphered some of the fundamental laws and forces of nature (Horgan 1996) and is now „reaching for the stars“. Mankind is being pushed against the ceiling of the limiting Newtonian world, weighing its future possibilities of stagnation or breakthrough - collapse due to implosion or an explosive rupture into a new dimension of existence. This intellectual outburst is already taking place. Just reflect on the acceleration of the discovery process since WWII. True, the expansion of this intellectual fireball must be measured on a historical rather than human life time-scale but the cutting edge of its pressure wave is moving ever faster. It is gaining rather than losing momentum. The impacts will be more profound and consequential than those of any previous cultural processes. Humanity is growing out of its „teen“ years and is becoming more mature. People have always reflected on the meaning and ultimate goals of their individual existence. Now humanity as a whole is starting to search for the meaning of its global existence, realizing the „superhuman“ responsibility flowing from its predisposed role in the evolutionary process. Yet, the philosophical postulate stemming from the notion of ‘predisposition’ intrinsically anticipates the existence of a pole towards which evolution is moving. If this is the case, the fate of Mankind is not entirely in our own hands.
The Apostle Paul wrote: „When I was a child, I used to talk like a child and think like a child, but now I am a man, all childish ways are put behind me...“(1 Cor.13, 11). These words could be applied also to the maturing human race. The existence of Man is not only biological but also transcendent. The self-organizing universe, with biological evolution as a ladder towards new levels of existence, is itself a transcendental process. It crosses barriers and establishes itself on higher and higher planes. It is not a random process. In spite of the past cramps and convulsions which almost destroyed all development on the Earth, it continues and is picking up new wind in its sails. It is directed and it makes sense. Still, not everyone is convinced. The astrophysicist Stenger (1995) dedicated many of his writings arguing that „the universe is about as simple as it could possibly be, with no evidence for design at its origin and structure arising spontaneously as the natural course of events...“ Even consciousness, he feels could be explained by quantum fluctuations which result in somewhat indeterministic processes in the brain and in „non-Newtonian behaviour“.
The logic of this reflective essay brings up a vision of a far-reaching and ascendent trajectory of developing Mankind. Nothing from this perspective is carved in stone, of course, and its individual variants of prosperity or decline exist as switches on a very long railroad. Where justifiable extrapolations end, there faith begins.
The ever innovative evolutionary artistry of nature, so convincingly recognized by analytical reasoning is now accepted as a undeniable fact by the majority of evolutionary theorists (Wilber 1966). The inevitability of the First Mover, evident already to Aristotle, is again recognized by many as the most plausible hypothesis of the universe’s existence. It was He who brought about the Big Bang and furnished it with laws so that its immense quanta of exploding energy would not vanish into entropy and chaos. It was He who made pure energy organize itself into civilizations of atoms, galaxies, solar systems, ecosystems, ultimately, into historical human civilizations (Swimme and Berry 1992) and one day, let’s firmly believe, into a spiritual civilization of love (Anonymous 1985). Humanity is changing. The raw principle of the survival of the fittest is being softened by a new understanding of authentic power based on the „perception of the spirit“. This perception opens new horizons of opportunities and prosperity, and it becomes a necessity if we are to survive (Zukav 1989). Evolution requires that we make an „investment in a harmonious future..“ and that depends on our ability to „invest psychic energy into the future“ (Csikszentmihalyi 1994).
The reality of the world which surrounds us, and includes us, is mysterious but not gloomy or dispiriting. Although its dimensions exceed and extend beyond us, they also allow, even enable us to orient ourselves and find the right bearing. Lifting veils is a never-ending adventure. The resulting revelations excite, inform and liberate us. In time, they may also transform us. This most essential mandate, to seek understanding and to wonder, for which humanity seems to have been commissioned, carries its own reward. It deeply satisfies our intellectual appetite and resounds in our heart. With each new piece of knowledge the world around us is more comprehensible, but also cosier. We feel more at home in the universe now (Kauffman 1995), and there is still so much to be done.
The work is not upon us to complete
but neither are we free to pass it by.
(Wisdom of Old Fathers)
The author is immensely grateful to Mrs Doris Nabert for styling and polishing the text and insightful suggestions, and to Trevor O’Dowd for a meticulous proofreading of the manuscript and invaluable comments.
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Figure 1. The crosshair of time. The present can be envisaged as an envelope of a pressure wave which carries us from the past into the future. The time scale is logarithmic.
FIGURE 2. Three historic steps (transgressions) of evolution. The cosmic evolution began by the surge of pure energy (Big Bang) which has condensed and structured itself in the material non-living and finally enlivened universe. This evolutionary structuralization accelerates through biota and spiritualises through humanity.