Where do we come from and where is it taking us?
Lately I’ve been exposed to different, seemingly unrelated pieces of information. However putting them all on the table, a pattern started to emerge. Join me in a philosophical trip making sense out of evolution and what it could possibly have in storage for us. To put a bit of structure in it, there’s the history, our present and the future.
When we talk about evolution we talk about life. But what is life? The only element that is an absolute necessity is reproduction. If something cannot reproduce there is no lineage, there is no evolution. We just have static elements.
Life itself cannot exist at random. You cannot throw a bunch of molecules together and have reproduction. Reproduction is the result of an organization of molecules in such a way that they together not only produce something but actually replicate itself. Such an organization doesn’t come easy. In fact, it has taken a good 1,5 billion years before we saw the rise of the first single-cell life before the right match was found.
And that wasn’t the end of the story naturally. Reproduction requires resources, raw material. Putting things together requires energy. Reproduction thus depends on raw material and energy. As such, life is confronted with another problem. If you just allow unrestricted reproduction, how are you going to obtain that material and energy?
Maybe the material and energy is floating around you but a little bit to far and you miss it so life had to develop the ability to move. If you look at such examples today, you’ll see single-cell life with moving parts. Movement costs energy.
But where do we move to? Just move around? It is going to be hit or miss to find material and energy. We certainly don’t want to be moving out of an environment that is ideal for reproduction. So evolutionary pressure requires the development of environmental sensors, a sense of direction so that the single cell life form can position itself in a more ideal location for reproduction.
The elements that are required for reproduction are not always abundant everywhere. There’s also the problem of competition. As a cell is able to reproduce, more and more start to exist. They all want to reproduce so they compete with each other for the resources. This will create scarcity of resources and life will cease to exist.
Again, evolution comes up with a solution. Cells start to lower their needs when there is a lack of resources. They start to differentiate in state. Grow when there is abundance and wait for more ideal times by reducing requirements.
We are now again millions away from our first reproduction moment and still are primarily focusing on successful reproduction. It doesn’t stop here and will actually never stop.
One more last step before we’ll do a fast forward. As a single cell we have developed a good set of capabilities to succeed in reproduction. Curiously though, cells evolved further. It seems to be beneficial to work together rather than compete against each other. When cells group together and in agreement with each other allow for specialization, the group as a whole develops capabilities that are not possible for an individual cell.
That is interesting, just as the molecules had to come together in the right formation to create the capability to reproduce, now cells do it at their level. Just as the many molecules are different from each other providing a piece of the functionality, so do the cells when they start to work together. They start to differentiate and contribute specific functionality of which the group will benefit. Benefit in what way? Again, improve their ability to reproduce.
A brain, skeleton and muscle are the pinnacle that allows movement, detection, observation etc.. to get the cooperation of cells, that now have formed a body, in a more liberal way to the resources that it so desperately needs to reproduce.
Our more recent history
Fast forwarding now. Evolution has developed many different life forms. They all specialize to ensure reproduction in their living environment.
We’re in the era where Neanderthals are roaming around the world. They managed to survive for a good 400K. Much longer than we as modern humans have been around yet look at what we have done in a much shorter time span.
If you think brain size reflects intelligence, you’ll be disappointed. They had a similar size, if not even bigger. Our own brains have in fact reduced in size since the introduction of agriculture. Never mind brain size, let’s look at what is being done with that brain.
We see that modern humans developed art work and evolved in tools, hunting techniques. Neanderthals did not. We suspect they were able to imitate and have some evidence of that at the point where Neanderthals encountered modern humans. Modern humans did not exterminate the Neanderthals as the interbreeding seems to suggest.
The different elements I’ve read about seem to suggest to me that Neanderthals were missing a creative element. Creativity is an important requirement to resolve problems. It also allows you to explore, discover, run through scenarios, imagine things that do not exist.
There are theories that indicate modern humans have hunted the large mammals to extinction. How would Neanderthals survive in such a situation? Switch over to hunting smaller game? They would have had to adapt their tools, strategies, update their learnings, techniques etc.. and we see no evidence of that.
The fractures of their bones indicate their hunting technique made use of close encounters with their prey. When we look at wild life, the predators are using their own body as weapons. Modern humans, thanks to that creativity I’m guessing, have moved beyond that. Another success story for increasing the chance of reproduction.
Just as cells were at some point in competition with each other for resources, so may Neanderthals and modern humans have been. Again a natural selection of a feature that improves the ability to reproduce has been selected for.
Creativity is not something that emerged from our encounter with Neanderthals though. We already had it when we came out of Africa. Our evolution suggests that we evolved alongside large mammals in Africa. Hunter and prey co-evolved in a way that sparked the development of creativity to overcome problems in obtaining prey.
Another fast forward and we are today. What evolution did to molecules to for a cell, what evolution did to cells to form a body, so does evolution continue and created groups out of those bodies. As humans we have formed groups in many different forms but the same rules continue to apply. The group is the next level of cooperation.
Throughout our history, evolution has experimented with many different groups in many different ways and locations. Societies have risen and fallen. These groups were not able to sustain themselves long enough. Communities emerged and disappeared. The group was not able to secure food and energy to continue reproduction.
What we can see around us today is the latest most successful form.
The bodies (us) specialize to support the existence of the group. Some are specialized at growing food. Some specialize at generating energy. This specialization is freeing up time for others to specialize in their respective area, all for the benefit of the group existence. We have scientists who use their creativity and intelligence to discover how things are working. We have engineers who take those discoveries and combine it with their own creativity to come up with new applications. The group has enabled bodies to specialize in repairing damaged bodies etc.. All these bodies depend on the specialization of the others.
As we’ve seen, layer after layer new capabilities start to emerge. What are those group capabilities. As a group we first of all protect the survival of the group because now we have moved reproduction up to the level of the group. We are currently worrying about climate change. The group has advanced enough to overcome this problem. Either that or the group will disappear.
Currently our focus is to secure our energy need as a group. We started out with burning wood, then charcoal. Then we invented electricity and use charcoal, wind, water etc for it but our energy need continues to grow and we know the resources to produce that energy are finite.
Thanks to the group, that problem is being addressed by bringing solar fusion within the reach of the group. There are several initiatives to create a sustained hydrogen fusion reactor which will deliver more energy than the amount that is needed to keep it running.
More incredible group stuff is happening. We are actually preparing a trip to Mars. We are upscaling our knowledge of everything at an immense rate. What we can discover, know, build… as a group far exceeds what can be done by an individual body.
The capabilities of the group is however determined by the capabilities of the layer beneath. What the group is doing is going through another level of selective pressure to favor intelligence in the bodies that make up the group.
Some people may not like this from a moral or ethical point of view but intelligence is being rewarded more than anything else in our current groups. It is not a matter of fairness, it is a necessity. The group needs to survive. Just as a single cell was floating around and had to adapt, so does the group. Raw material and energy remain limited.
The group needs to develop methods now to become more efficient to reduce the need for raw material. And we are doing that by continuously improving the scale of our devices and tools. I’ve already pointed out to securing energy via the fusion reactor. More and more is the group in need of bodies who can come up with solutions that enhance the survivability of the group and when possible allow it to reproduce.
Intelligence is selected for in favor of raw muscle power. Intelligence is more important and can overcome the lack of muscle power by inventing robots which will replace the shortcomings of diminished muscle power.
This group level existence allows me to have a positive outlook. As each next level in evolution shows us that cooperation rather than competition is the best way forward, we can expect war, tribalism, religion, country borders.. whatever we have done in the past to separate us from others will disappear as it doesn’t help the group to advance.
Our current group configuration may not be the final last form but it may evolve, through trial and error, to the most optimal form to sustain reproduction because that is what life is about.
The group will have specialized in preservation, in creating a sustainable eco-system for the group. It will have specialized in mastering the vast amount of energy that is available in the universe. The group will know intrinsically that cooperation is the way forward.
With such lessons learned we will move out into outer space.
How will we look like when we evolved our intelligence to a high enough level? In order to have a brain that can improve the way we think we actually may need more volume. I’ve discussed before with the Neanderthals that brain size is not necessarily related to intelligence but that is as an absolute parameter.
There is however a rule in life that requires a balance within the organs. In our own evolution, our gut size had to shrink to allow a bigger brain. The brain is very energy hungry so growing a bigger brain means that something else has to reduce consumption. This may lead us to optimize food intake further, shrinking more of the gut or some other solution like reducing our muscle mass which we can only afford if our brain can compensate the lack of muscle. We can afford a reduction in muscle if we have a smaller skeleton.
Does that sound familiar? A big head and skinny body? Maybe you are laughing now but realize that I’ve not stated anything unreasonable 😉
Keeping in mind those lessons learned and understanding how we evolved, how would we travel through space? As hungry pirates completely stripping every planet of the resources that we can use or do you think it is more closely to something like Star Trek where we just observe.
Putting the science fiction aside for a minute. I see us supporting development of other life forms with a minimal interference. Self-development with a little kick in the right direction if you will and from time to time come back and see how it is going. Just like we do lab research. Probably we’ll make some errors at this level as wel but over time will improve. We will inspect other planets other galaxies out of curiosity just to see what is out there and if we can further improve our understanding.
As a group we will seek cooperation with other groups if we find any so that we can get to the next level. From molecules to cells to bodies to groups to whatever comes next.
Does that sound like a plausible future? Could it then be feasible that life on an other planet already got to this point and kicked us in the right direction?
Back to the present
I’m fascinated by Göbekli Tepe. This place has been dated around 11 500 before present. It is an enormous structure of which only a small portion has been excavated. What makes it so special is that, following our modern day thinking, there are some elements that don’t really seem to fit. For example, given the size there must have been a huge organization to get everything in place. This requires a society of workers, others who provide food for the workers. You need local storage facilities, some form of containers for water and so on. No signs of any of that.
We can see an evolution of tools and buildings throughout history, yet for this location none of that. It just seems to have popped into existence.
So I let my imagination mix in with the future outlook I just described earlier. What if there was life on another planet that gave us that kick in the right direction? What if that kick was to put a monument? How would we respond to it with our creativity, curiosity and intelligence?
We would gather around it, not understanding what it is. Inspect it and start using our creativity. These blocks of stone are huge. A small person like ourselves cannot lift these stones so whoever did it must have been huge and strong, very powerful. Who are they? Maybe this has led us to the concept of gods. Where are they? Maybe they’ll come back so we’ll come back as well to meet them.
It becomes a meeting place where people exchange their ideas. Because it is a unique reference point, unique like we need them to navigate the landscape and remember our routes, routes establish themselves to and from the monument. Trading and exchange of goods increases. A few individuals start to settle locally to support the trade and local needs. Whoever travelled from far away may be hungry when they get to this point so we feed them.
Some of those grains collected by the gatherers falls on the ground unnoticed but due to increased return they notice the same plants as those that they got the grains from elsewhere. And the rest is history..
Reproduction is at the core of life, evolution is the result of a cooperation to improve the outcome of a common goal. With every new layer of cooperation, capabilities emerge that were not possible before, further securing reproduction and thereby sustaining life.
How will life be for us in a few thousand years from now? I bet we’ll still play by the same rules 😉
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