Why one is Needed and How it might be Derived

НазваниеWhy one is Needed and How it might be Derived
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This has been a chapter of denials, where we finally acknowledge that the universe evolves only in obedience to laws that have been in existence since the moment of its birth--the purpose of which, if pre-programmed by some external deity, can never be discovered. We acknowledged also that life can arise and progress with no purpose apparent. The first life (wherever and whenever it arose) formed from atoms and molecules because conditions were conducive, and it has since evolved to become what exists today for exactly the same reason. When our star dies, so will our home, and all life that remains at home.

Some readers may find this Part of the book distressing. Such bold statements about the triviality of life and our species are not enjoyable to read. The real state of affairs is that there is no candy coating. There is no Father-in-Heaven looking down and caring for or about us--our prayers serve only to console ourselves. It is sobering to confront such truths, but are they really that much of a surprise? Haven't we all previously, at least briefly, suspected as much, deep down inside, at one time or another?

Much as we might like it to be otherwise, we are truly alone and adrift. Alone, but accompanied by all the other life forms that this universe contains. Adrift, but slowly finding our way from ignorance to wisdom. Constantly moving from the past, when life knew nothing, to the future, when life will know almost everything. God, if He ever existed, cut us all free when He released the universe. That was when free will began, and this is exactly what free will entails: facing up to the facts, recognizing that we make the bed we lie upon, and taking the responsibility to make decisions rationally as we travel along the evolutionary pathway.284

But, what a journey it is! Especially now, when we are at the cusp of understanding and controlling so much. So many possibilities, so many choices; the future can seem overwhelming--indeed frightening--at times. But life can become glorious and wonderful again, bright from a new guiding light--once we build the beacon.

I think that there is much to gain by adopting life's evolutionary consequence as a surrogate purpose, and using that to guide our decision making. Part Four examines some reasons for thinking so, and suggests what might be done with the visions such a choice generates.

But, before we rush ahead; what if these conjectures about life's outcome are fantasies? No one wants to be misled by yet another set of assumptions, inventions and falsehoods. Although life may well have learned how to control some things, is there any plausible reason to think that it will continue to do so? From where does this ability to learn and to apply such learning come, and is this source a permanent feature of life?

When I was able to step back from my "revelation" (see "A Revelation," a postscript to Chapter Five) a decade or so after it happened, I began wondering what could possibly cause evolution itself to evolve. Why should it change from being just a passive "reaction-to-events" process, to becoming an active "determinator-of-its-own-future" process? I knew of none; however, such a transformation has happened, so there must be a cause to be discovered. Chapter Ten explores one possibility.


Leaving until later a discussion of the many advantages that might be gained by doing so, Chapter Nine concluded by suggesting we adopt as a "meta-purpose" the idea of supporting life's journey to its consequence of becoming an omnipotent entity. But, as it did so, it emphasized that this whole notion might only be a possibility, and cautioned against building edifices upon faulty assumptions.

However, there may well be a reason why life, very probably not a direct descendant of life on this planet, but life, somewhere, will eventually come to possess omnipotent abilities. What we may now think to be simply a fantasy may actually occur--eventually. This chapter looks for and attempts to provide a possible reason why this might be so by reviewing what we know about life's behaviour, then speculating about how it came to be this way.

Speculations usually have little merit beyond suggesting lines of further inquiry, but this one, to the extent that it has any validity, provides something more. It warns us to be wary of human nature, particularly as we accumulate knowledge. Thus Chapter Ten serves two purposes--it offers a theory that might explain why life seems to become ever more complex and proficient, and it reminds us that increasing powers bring increasing opportunities for "bad" as well as for "good" behaviour.

1. The Behaviour of Living Things

We begin by noting a few facts about life's general behaviour, starting with plants. Outwardly, plant life might appear to be passive and uneventful; endless cycles of germination, development, replication and death, with random mutations--possibly of significance to future species--happening in between. A cursory look at the life of animals might suggest the same pattern. However, as we will soon be reminded, the full story is much more complex. Each one of life's many species is competitive,285 assertive, territorial, and occasionally very aggressive. Each does its utmost to expand into neighbouring territory, wherever it exists and whenever the opportunity arises.286

Plants fit this description, once we look at what happens over several generations. Most gardeners know that any plant will expand its domain unless curbed. Creeping Charlie is a good example; it will sow seeds and extend runners ad nauseam, and is very difficult to eradicate. Mushroom fairy rings graphically and accurately portray this expansionist behaviour, as underground mycelia spread, then fruit. In fact, the history of any plant species may be viewed as one long quest to gain territory, and an outside intercession of some kind or another is always needed to halt the process. Plants invariably enlarge their domain until prevented by an inhospitable climate or by soil that lacks nutrients or is toxic in some way, or until they are overcome by some disease agent or eaten by insects or animals.

Insects exhibit exactly the same behaviour. We have all likely read about calculations showing that the offspring from one pair of flies, unless checked in some way, would number enough to blanket the world after a few weeks. Only impediments such as lack of food, its own excrement, poisons of some kind, parasites, attacks from aggressors seeking to control the same environment--some kind of external force--will stop the population from exploding. Locusts dramatically demonstrate this phenomenon. Every few years, huge swarms of these grasshoppers arise and decimate vast areas. Insects, like plants, multiply, strengthen their control of local food sources, increase again in number, move outward, and repeat the sequence if not halted by an opposing force. In fact, it has been said that if a catastrophe killed most of the life on Earth, insects would survive and evolve to dominate what remained.

Animals, too, behave in this manner, as demonstrated by many animal population-cycle studies. Plant food supplies increase, so the number of rabbits increases; the fox population then builds, and a bunny take-over is prevented. The number of rabbits then decreases, so the fox population declines, and before we know it, we have rabbits galore again. (It is a seven-year cycle, roughly, in this example; eight years for the lemming/stoat cycle.)

No species self-limits its own population. Microbes and mice, birds and bees, fish and flowers, horses and humans; all multiply profusely unless prevented.287 An external agent is always required to stop the expansion. Not infrequently, this external factor is itself living; it stops the growth of another by using this other as a source of food. The net effect of this has been to produce a precarious balance, maintained as our biosphere. The balance is preserved by each species defending what it possesses, and attacking to take what it needs.

Now, let's consider what all this might imply. If every form of life behaves this assertively, then the assertive trait must have been present very early in the evolutionary chain. And, indeed, it was, because exploiting surrounding territory turns out to be the main characteristic that distinguishes living material from non-living material. To understand this more completely, we must again start at the beginning of the story.

2. Energy and Life

Biological life would not be possible without chemical interactions.288 In turn, chemical interactions would not be possible without physical interactions, and no physical interaction occurs that does not involve an energy exchange; consequently, all biological processes depend upon energy exchanges. Clearly it is important to understand a little about this phenomenon if we are to understand how life began and how it proceeds.

We learned in school that almost all life on our planet depends, either directly or indirectly, upon the sun's energy, converted to useable form through photosynthesis.289 During photosynthesis, chlorophyll converts simple molecules of water and carbon dioxide into more complex molecules (particularly sugars). Photons of sunlight provide the energy required to join the simple molecules together. This energy doesn't disappear, it becomes locked within the larger molecules (held within the electromagnetic forces that bind the chemical elements together). Plants utilize these larger molecules as nutrients fuelling other biochemical processes (breaking the molecules apart releases the binding energy). When consumed, these plants in turn fuel micro-organisms, other plants, insects and animals. In this way, the sun provides most of the energy needed by life on this planet.

Before delving a little deeper into what happens during energy exchanges within living entities, it is helpful to review a few features of non-living energy exchanges. The latter have been occurring since the universe began, and they hold the key to understanding life's creation--that instant when energy-processing chemical molecules first became energy-processing living molecules.

All chemical processes, living or non-living, involve energy transfers. Energy is either added to (or taken from) the involved atoms and molecules (by rearranging their electronic configurations). This energy is either taken from (or added to) the external environment. For instance, the energy required to form an iron compound when iron dissolves in an acid solution, is obtained from the energy released as the relatively complex configurations of electron orbitals in the acid are rearranged to form somewhat simpler ones. Forming iron sulphate in this manner needs no additional energy from outside the interacting molecules. (Quite the opposite; this process is exothermic--it releases energy in the form of heat as it proceeds.) Burning wood is another exothermic reaction; once started, the process sustains itself. When ignited, complex organic wood molecules break apart and release energy, only some of which is needed to join carbon from the wood and oxygen from the atmosphere to form carbon dioxide and other molecules. The rest of the energy is radiated away as heat and warms the universe.

Many chemical interactions do not release energy. These processes, termed endothermic, will not proceed, even after being started, without the continuous addition of energy. Producing plastics from oil, or forming sugar molecules by photosynthesis, are examples of endothermic reactions. In such cases, the final molecular compounds contain more energy than was originally held within the atomic structures of the forming components. This energy must be added before the bonds that hold the more highly structured molecules together will form.

Although every chemical process involves energy transfers, there is a significant difference between non-living (abiotic) chemical processes and living or biological (biotic) chemical processes. Abiotic chemical processes destroy or permanently rearrange the molecular structure of the constituents taking part in the process--the end products are different from those present at the start. However, healthy living cells do not permanently destroy, rearrange (other than when growing, learning or reproducing), nor deplete their own internal molecular configurations to obtain energy. They take what energy they need from their environment, eventually giving all of it back (in degraded form). While molecular configurations change continuously during life's many and varied processes, they are re-established before these processes end. A living entity, at the end of a long day of processing food, is much the same as it was when it started. (Indeed, unless growing, learning or reproducing, any difference between start and end configurations would be due to disease or damage.)

This energy transformation process, whereby molecules gather energy from their environment, utilize it in various ways, yet retain their unique identity unchanged after the energy utilization, distinguishes biotic from abiotic matter. Thus, the first molecular complex able to sustain an energy-transfer process unchanged, using energy extracted exclusively from the external environment, became the first living entity.

3. Life's Beginning

The transformation from non-living to living requires two steps. First, environmental sources must provide the energy needed to add an atom or two (also taken from the environment) to a molecular complex. This changes the molecule, as it now has one or more additional atoms and a little bit more energy (the amount needed to attach the extra atoms). In the second step, this process is reversed; the added atoms and energy have to be returned to the environment--otherwise nothing more than a chemical activity is occurring (or the entity is growing, see below). Movements within the fluid environment surrounding the molecule would bring new nutrients, and the process would repeat. (Fluid environments, liquid or gas, are vital to life's beginnings because life needs a continuous supply of energy and raw materials to survive.290 A point of interest: the complex would be slowly propelled and could stumble upon its own supplies, if its configuration ejected surplus atoms repeatedly in one direction.)

(Where supplies exist to form one kind of molecular complex [see Chapter Eight concerning life's beginning], other kinds of biotic complexes might also arise. Once this happens, the most efficient process would sweep up available resources. Environmental variations would favour the formation of different complexes, however. Thus, right at life's beginning, natural selection seems inevitable.)

Occasionally, different atoms may have become permanently attached to the original molecular complex. Adding extra atoms to any molecule changes its properties; most changes would presumably prevent the complex from continuing its energy processing, and it would "die." However, some additions would not cause "death" and would thereby enlarge the complex, which might eventually grow big enough to split apart or replicate. However, it is not growing, nor even reproducing, that hallmarks life; it is the particular kind of energy transformations that extract from "without" to utilize "within," while the totality within retains its overall identity. Homeostasis first arose at life's beginning, and remains a fundamental property of life, equal in stature to life's ability to process energy.

Only one such molecule needed to form for life to begin. However, it is likely that conditions permitting the formation of the first self-sustaining molecular complex occurred in many places. If so, then many such molecules, identical or differing slightly one from another, could have formed more or less simultaneously.291

The first bounded, self-sustaining, molecular complexes might not have been able to grow and split. Many might have formed only to be broken apart by external forces after existing for a period of time. Nevertheless, this situation would provide opportunities for molecular alterations to occur, and thus a variety of molecular structures to have arisen. Eons probably passed before such complexes became capable of self-replication.292

Replication requires a means whereby each internal physical/chemical process is duplicated in the replicated entity. A bacterium reproduces by binary fission, whereby its single chromosome replicates and the bacterium splits into two. Some one-celled animals and plants also simply duplicate each internal component then split apart (amoebae, for example, replicate this way). At some time, one or more of the prototype living molecular complexes must have developed the ability to replicate (and probably did so by growing, then fissioning).

We can now expand upon the point made in section one of this chapter: life assertively reaches for and grabs hold of new territory because it needs the energy this territory contains to continue living. Life began as an energy-exploiting process and continued in that manner. It later developed the ability to replicate and hence to evolve in the sense we use that word. Subsequent beneficial mutations conferred an increasing ability to exploit different environmental energy niches, leading, slowly but inexorably, to the complexities of the many different life forms we see all around us today.

The phenomenon of life turns out to be just the behaviour of a bunch of complex molecules, co-operating within one body in order to exploit the many various environments inside and outside that body, to obtain the energy they need to sustain and replicate themselves. The whole body is said to be "living," but it is so only because each one of its constituent processing molecular complexes is living. In essence, biology is chemistry-in-action, and chemistry is physics-in-action. Feynman knew, decades ago, that life's basis had to be this simple.293

4. Exploiting

Now to return to where this discussion began. Living entities, like automobiles, need constant refuelling to run. Competition for resources, pitting one life form against another, is the inevitable result. The most able become parents to offspring that genetically inherit their parents' capabilities. In this way, the "exploiting" trait was strengthened as it self-selected down through the ages. The urge to exploit must by now be genetically encoded.294 The natural world of plants and animals is not a paradise where every living thing exists in peaceful harmony with every other living thing. It is a battleground of constant aggression, each species against all others,295 and within a species, one member against another. (In fact, it is precisely because species members compete against each other that species evolve into different species, as the Grant's work with the Galápagos finches showed.) Nature only appears peaceful because we rarely notice the underlying conflict. Expansion and conquest take place slowly, as with plants; or unnoticed, as is usually the case with insects; or hidden in the underbrush, as happens mostly with birds and animals. When we eulogize the peacefulness and serenity of nature we do not recognize the irony we mouth. All species compete for territory to obtain resources. As these resources become depleted it is inevitable that this competition will become more and more intense, most particularly between members of the same or closely related species, for they eat the same types of food and prefer the same kind of habitat.296

It may not be pleasant to think that life aggressively exploits its surroundings,297 battling with any life form that gets in its way, but that is the nature of the beast. (In fact, as Dawkins stated, animal speed, eyesight, hearing, and so on, increases precisely because they are taking part in "arms races."298)

The notion of a non-evolving, non-varying, non-exploiting, life form is non-sense. Non-exploiting life forms are dead life forms--living and exploiting are one and the same process. Further, much as we might dislike the idea that we humans exploit, we can find plenty of evidence that even the best of us live via exploiting and protecting what we have.299 Who does not eat? Who would not buy stock if a genuine opportunity to gain presented itself? Actions such as these ably demonstrate that we all exploit when given the opportunity. Humans may not exploit every time, and we are usually selective in what, and who, we exploit. But some people are less circumspect than others, and some of their exploiting activities cause extensive grief and trouble to many.300 (This is a topic to be discussed further, in Part Four, when we explore how excessive exploitation might rightly be identified and constrained.)

5. Complexity, Intelligence and Evolution

Once begun, life continued--exploiting, growing, replicating and diversifying, extracting energy from disorder, being occasionally knocked back many stages as environmental catastrophes occurred, eventually to arrive as we find it today. This continuous pattern is all that has been needed for life to become first, ever more complex, and second, ever more intelligent, as we will see.

The majority of life forms that populate this planet today are incredibly more complex than those that existed a billion years ago.301 Of course, ever since Darwin proposed his theory of evolution we have known why organisms become more complex. Since most changes are merely modifications to an existing structure, their incorporation adds another layer to that structure. Complexity results, simply because amendments are necessarily added to what has existed before.302 Many of the old abilities remain, most still active underneath--the new ones simply extend the entity's capabilities.303

But before they can serve any useful purpose, many changes in body structure and functioning have first to be controlled and directed. A slight increase in finger length or joint flexibility, for instance, offers no survival benefit at all unless the animal can manipulate the modification to gain an advantage over its competitors. This almost always calls for an increase in physical or body-activating skills, which in turn call for an increase in the mental skills needed to manipulate body parts, or to utilize improvements in sensory perceptions.304

Motor ability does not come out of the blue; in the modified finger example above, the change requires controlling by finger, wrist, and/or arm muscles, which in turn have to be exerted in new ways. As an example, random poking into crevices to extract bugs or maggots would flex and train these muscles, and this activity feeds information to the brain. Over time, the brain learns which incoming stimuli have been produced by which finger movements. Sooner or later, the brain reverses this process, sending impulses to a specific finger to produce the desired results. Thus, a genetic mutation that caused a body change has led to a new skill being learned, a result noted in the previous chapter in the suggestion that the evolutionary process itself has evolved due to an animal's ability to learn.

Yet the increased mental capacity is not inheritable. The animal's offspring learn, through observation, repetitive play and practice, how to use their body's abilities. Other times, as often with humans, they are deliberately taught. What is learned is stored via synapse development between the brain's neurons, and becomes part of one or more of the animal's mental constructs. Infants' brains explore the body's capabilities and limitations; they learn what can be controlled by attempting many movements and activities. Additional, mutation-created, physical capabilities require additional, learned, mental capabilities, to obtain this control. As noted in Chapter One, learning (linking the information held within neural networks) and intelligence are different aspects of the same phenomenon. Thus, evolution trends toward intelligence simply because a greater intelligence is needed to control a more complex body.

Intelligence is the ability to solve problems, i.e., in earlier terms, the ability to recognize new relationships amid the memories and stimuli present within the mind, to make new neural connections, then to apply this new understanding in some useful way.305 It is not the mere possession of a large storehouse of facts, theories, or knowledge. These are just the material, the nuts and bolts, with which intelligence works to build theories and constructs, to solve problems and make decisions. Knowledge can be lost in one generation; intelligence cannot.

Two points must be emphasized. First, evolution trends toward complexity and intelligence, not toward humans. There is nothing inevitable or sacrosanct about our current dominance on this planet. Any language-using species will develop a similar intelligence, given time, although that species' morphology and history would likely nudge its intelligence to develop in different directions from ours. Second, the fact that intelligence develops is not evidence that life has been directed toward it. Life evolves the way it does solely as a consequence of the physical parameters present at the universe's birth, those that have structured every item and every event since that time. This accounts for all that exists and all that occurs. Intelligence is no different from other phenomena and needs no other kind of explanation.


Once again we have attempted to ascertain where we are directed by an analysis of the facts, and once again we are brought to the same conclusion. Nothing other than the universe's inaugural physics has been needed to bring into existence everything that lies about us. It has taken more than a dozen billion years to produce us. We cannot predict what billions of years more will bring, but we can predict that life's evolution will continue for as long as the universe has energy sources to exploit. And we can predict that life will continue its trend toward greater intelligence,306 because we can foresee that the energy it needs to survive will become progressively harder to procure. Thus, the universe's initiating conditions alone seem to demand the eventual formation of an entity possessing what we would today call omnipotent abilities.

Barrow and Tipler reach the same conclusion. In The Anthropic Cosmological Principle they do their best to prove that life must continue to expand until it can regulate everything within every universe that exists.307 I do not think that we can categorically state that such a life form must evolve, but I do think that its eventual appearance is highly likely. This is why I suggest making this consequence the "purpose" we are seeking. An artifice, certainly, but a necessary one, in the absence of any more-irrefutable purpose. A "surrogate purpose" if you like, but one that is more than adequate for, as we will see, it offers a profound morality-guiding potential.

Feinberg, in The Prometheus Project,308 suggests that we deliberately choose the goal of creating a universal consciousness, then work toward its realization. It is preferable and more realistic, I think, to let life develop its own way to its ultimate "goal." All we need do, to survive and grow, is to support, rather than hinder, life's progress. Life's "goal" may not be to possess god-like abilities. But it seems likely that evolution's trend toward intelligence will bring such a being (or, at least, such a capability) into existence. I'm simply proposing that we consider this eventuality, think about adopting it as a surrogate "meta-purpose," and--if we think it useful to do so--use it to guide certain aspects of our global decision making. For just as long as it suits our needs. If it turns out later, when we know more, that life's evolution is trending toward some other outcome, then that will be the time to re-evaluate our choice of guiding "purpose."

Similar recommendations have been made by others, but perhaps none are as appropriate to the theme of this book as one made by Ursula Goodenough. She saw the need to have and be guided by a planetary ethic and proposed "The Epic of Evolution."309 Yes, indeed. This is exactly what we need.

How we might go about developing such an ethic and what it might entail are topics that will be discussed in Part Four.


That life evolves, and increases in complexity and in intelligence, is a fact. Why it does so is a theory, and natural selection is a very good one indeed. Life's exploitation of nature is a fact. The way it may have begun doing so, sketched in Chapter Ten, is little more than speculation. While we can ignore theories and speculations (all we lose is a degree of understanding), if we ignore facts we may lose our species' survival.

All life needs energy, and all life, wherever it exists throughout the universe, will be following the same steps; surviving if able to exploit an energy niche, dying if not, with survivors who possess the ability eventually moving out to exploit resources of neighbouring environments.

Life learns what it can about its environment in order to better exploit what is available. Increases in knowledge are accompanied by increases in the ability to control, a necessary feat if life is to extract all that is available from a declining resource.310 This results in what has occurred on this planet--life becomes more complex, and its problem-solving ability or "intelligence" develops. In retrospect, humans of past cultures appear primitive. So will we, when looked back upon by life in the distant future.

A million years, even a hundred million years, is nothing to life. It has already existed on this planet for more than three billion years; our sun will still be providing life-giving energy another four billion years from now. Life here and further out in the universe, appears to have all the time it needs to reach its full potential.

To reiterate; the possibility that life will eventually evolve into an omnipotent being is not life's purpose (unless we return to imagining a god pre-designing the universe toward this end). Life needs no purpose to evolve; all it needs is the ability and freedom to exploit environmental resources. Nonetheless, possession of god-like or omnipotent abilities seems very likely to be life's eventual outcome.

(I will be referring to the idea of life evolving to become an omnipotent Being several times. This entity needs some kind of name. [As noted in endnote 281, de Chardin called a similar culmination to life's evolution the Omega Point.] As an irreverent convenience, I'll call it oB, short for omnipotent Being.)

It might be simpler to believe that a god existed before the universe began, that it started the universe and that its laws created all that we find within. By believing so, all our unknowns are rolled into one, and we feel less driven to find the evidence required to support such an assumption. It would also be especially comforting to believe that this god plays some ongoing part in humankind's existence. However, miracles are rare and highly suspect to anyone with a logical mind. No rational person sits down and waits for a miracle to get them out of a predicament.

Furthermore, it is irrational to believe that solely one's own religion, and no other, holds the truth. Humans have thought this way for long enough, and, after centuries of disagreement, culture clashes, fighting and wars, have ended up where we are today--amid much religious bitterness, baggage, and confusion.

We can make a fresh start. We can learn from and apply, rather than deny or distort, the scientific facts we have uncovered. We can start by being rational, just as people tried to be hundreds or thousands of years ago when founding the religions we have inherited. We can consider what evidence there is to support the proposed meta-purpose, the conjecture that life itself will evolve to possess omnipotent abilities. Those for whom the evidence is strong enough may, if they also think the suggestion has merit, adopt it as the purpose they use to guide collective decision making (possibly in the manner suggested in Chapter Thirteen).

That many, even most, of the world will continue to follow the dictates issued by their current religion is inevitable. It also matters little, and is not unwelcome. Rather, it is desirable, for individual freedom (in all actions that do not harm others) is essential to life's vitality. The universal religion (whose development is touched upon in the last chapter of this book) does not replace existing religions. It is best regarded as an "umbrella" doctrine whose principle use is to provide moral guidance relevant to the collective action of communities and nations when guidance is otherwise confused or non-existent. With careful development, the old and the new tenets need not compete; they can reinforce each other, with one lending a hand when the other calls for aid.

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