An insomniac’s reverie

Nights can be full of adventure for an insomniac living in the country. I recently connected some dots on a side trip from my main journey, thinking about Pierre Teilhard de Chardin for the first time in a while, Dissanayake’s book Homo Aestheticus which I reflect on periodically, and Monod’s Chance and Necessity, which is a daily meditation. When I finally did fall asleep I descended through a lovely vision of Gaia covered with artistic impulses flashing, some darkly and some lightly, strongly sensed by some of us here on earth, perhaps hardly seen from a distance into space. Art has migrated from its inception around communal fires, deep in caves and ‘making special’ many activities and objects (thank you, Ms. Dissanayake for documenting the ubiquity and importance of art) to illuminating the noosphere with its luminous light.

Remember that colorful priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who helped discover Peking Man and whom the Vatican prohibited from writing and teaching philosophy? (See post 12/17/16). He developed a conception of Gaia as first a geosphere, the dynamic rocky planet earth, then a biosphere as life evolved and spread over our planet, transforming it into Gaia, and then the noosphere, where human knowledge analogously covers the planet. Some say his vision contained the world wide web in its view, but at the least he thought that we humans would continuously connect and those connections would self-organize into a more inclusive society. (Never mind about his theory about we are evolving to join with the divine at the Omega point. I don’t think that he would have thought that if he had known about how civilization would foment the conflicts and wars over the last 70 years or the degradation of American politics today).

Monod propounded a brilliant version of the biosphere when he wrote about “an intuitive global picture of living systems whose phenomenal complexity defies assimilation”. Consider the variety and spread of life here from single cell organisms on up through multi-celled ones including us: the soil on our farm is full of microbial fertility (as are we—check your biome), many of our trees are herd creatures needing conspecifics nearby for vital resiliency (see The Secret Life of Trees), fungi inhabit the earth’s surface in a astonishing net of somas and spores, etc. Consider the number of cellular generations over the past 4+ billion years and Monod’s idea “of the extent of the vast reservoir of fortuitous variability contained with the genome of a species—again in spite of the jealously guarded conservative properties of the replicative mechanism” when he estimates for modern humans with a 1970 population of then some 3 billion “there occur, with each new generation, some hundred billion to a thousand billion mutations.” Wow, that is some ‘reservoir’ of chance and necessity that supplies our evolution.

No wonder, then, that he can say, “What doubt can there be of the presence of the spirit within us? To give up the illusion that sees in it an immaterial ‘substance’ is not to deny the existence of the soul, but on the contrary to begin to recognize the complexity, the richness, the unfathomable profundity of the genetic and cultural heritage and of the personal experience, conscious or otherwise, which together constitute this being of ours: the unique and irrefutable witness to itself.” I will only add the comment that Monod here fulfills Chris Hitchens’ dream (before he even had it—see post 11/17/14) of bringing the noumenal out of the supernatural realm into the natural one. If it exists, it is natural; if it is not natural, it does not exist except in our imagination, which of course is natural.

Now remember an image of all the lights we have on earth at night as seen from space, you know, the maps showing cities as bright blotches, rural areas as darker, and North Korea as unilluminated. Now consider that every organism, small and large, comprises many energetic transactions in the course of its life, each a chemical spark of vitality brightening its drops of water, and you can glimpse how Gaia glows in the cosmos, our precious blue ball hurtling through space. Finally imagine all the human endeavors creating art that make the noosphere glow with a luminous aesthetic as we share our complex vital experiences of life’s opportunities and hard exigencies. You might ken then an old farmer-philosopher’s insomniac reverie while watching the land on a snowy spring night.

higher evolution?

A quick post here and now on an important topic.  The NYT had a column 2 days ago about a famous biologist/geneticist, William Hamilton, who speculated half in jest that life on earth might be an entertainment powerful aliens set in motion.  Okay then, this is the guy Richard Dawkins cited so much and with so much respect in his book, The Selfish Gene, showing how evolution progresses in a random manner (sort of, I know that is too simple, but at least without a guiding purpose to an end point).  The columnist for the Stone, Robert Wright, properly points out that this similar to the thought some of our intelligentsia endorse that we are actually a simulation in some being’s supercomputer and to the notion of God as in intelligent design.  (Link here, I hope:  I will throw in Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, an unusual Jesuit born in 1881 who pursued studies in geology and paleontology and developed the idea of the Omega Point.  Evolution and Gaia, he thought, were progressing to the point where life would become so conscious and complex that we would join with the universe or god.  For such ideas and others on original sin, the Catholic church exiled him to China where he participated in the discovery of the Peking Man (from 700,000 years ago roughly).


Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, French philosopher, scientist and priest

I am getting ready after all these long years to re-read one of the seminal books in our history, Jacques Monod’s Chance and Necessity.  A couple of weeks ago I found an old copy (there are none new) and glanced through it at some of my favorite topics, including teleonomy, the notion that life evolves with purpose, that it progresses.  Human attempts to understand our place in the universe most often devolves into misunderstanding that we are the crown of creation.  Ain’t we grand to figure that out?  So life science with the advent of Darwin and evolutionary genetics generally frowns on such notions that God or aliens or whatever directs evolution from some supernatural place or, if alien, some supernormal one.


Jacques Monod, another French scientist and philosopher.

One of the more agreed upon findings is that life on Gaia has evolved to greater complexity, though any understanding why is more speculative.  Monod focuses some on another of my recent favorite topics, invariance.  Life is life because it reproduces itself invariantly and evolution ‘progresses’ because of random imperfections in the invariant reproduction that contribute to or detract from the organism’s adaptive success in its current environment.  And it does seem to be true that this increased complexity has engendered greater minds. (I am looking at you, Mammals).

My own thought here is that life began some 3.5 billion years ago as a self-sustaining chemical conflagration.  To maintain itself invariantly (its soma) until reproduction, life must solve the world problem (SWP) of finding sustenance in the environment for its biochemistry.  This SWP in a more powerful way is the essential path evolution leads us on (along with CR or conspecific relations but that comes some billion years or so later).  Monod’s book is important because he lays out life’s great genius or better, daemon, as he explicates the title, Chance and Necessity.  From this perspective, life’s evolution of intellect is part and parcel of just this, to manage and minimize exigency and to exploit chance.  Remember you read that phrase here first, and as H. L. Mencken said, “We are here and it is now.  All other human knowledge is moonshine.”  Travel on.