Perhaps We Need to Think More About That

Perhaps we need to think about this.  And a lot harder than we seem to be thinking at present.

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Do you know what the items in the following list are, and what they have in common: Macrostylis villosa, Galapagos Amaranth, Courtallum Wenlandia, Viola cryana, and Fitchia mangarevensis?

All of them are species of plants that once upon a time thrived in, respectively, Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe, and Oceania.  Before the dawn of the twenty-first century, all of them had become extinct.

How about the items in this list:  Acipenser naccarii, Coregonus johannae, Cyprinodon arcuatus, Gila crassicauda, and Platytropius siamensis?

These are species of sturgeon, salmon, carp, smelt, and catfish that, likewise, have disappeared from the face of the earth.  It is beyond obvious to say that we shall never see them again.

Here’s an easier list:  Pachycephalosaurus, Dreadnoughtus schrani, velociraptors, Ankylosaurus, and therizinosaurs.  Do you know what these species have in common?

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As you might have guessed, all are dinosaur species that became extinct more than 66 million years ago.

Try this one:  Dromaius minor, Camptorhynchus labradorius, Pinguinus impennis. Sceloglaux albifacies, and Ectopistes migratorius.

These are bird species that have ceased to exist—in order, the King Island emu, the Labrador duck, the Great auk, the Laughing owl, and the iconic passenger pigeon.

And now, perhaps the easiest list of all:  Balaenoptera musculus, Panthera tigris tigris, Elephas maximus sumatranus, Gorilla beringei graueri, and Diceros bicornis.

These are critically endangered animal species, on the cusp of extinction—the Blue Whale, the Bengal Tiger, the Sumatran Elephant, the Eastern Lowland Gorilla, and the Black Rhino.

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Science estimates that approximately 99.9% of all the species of life that have inhabited this planet of ours since its formation are extinct.  In fact, Charles Darwin theorized that evolution and extinction are not mutually exclusive.

Or, as Annie Dillard put it, more poetically, in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek—

                         Evolution loves death more than it loves you or me.  This is easy to write,  easy to read, and hard to believe.

Still, if we can believe our planet has hosted some sort of life for more than 3.5 billion years, it’s staggering to think that less than one-tenth of one percent of all those lifeforms survive today.

Here’s a final list to ponder:  Homo habilis, Homo ergaster, Homo erectus, Homo heidelbergensis, Homo neanderthalensis, and Homo sapiens.

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These, of course, are all species of human life, the first of which, scientists believe, first appeared around 2.5 million years ago.

Those of us alive today are members of Homo sapiens sapiens, a sub-species of the last one in the list, which is thought to have sprung up almost half-a-million years ago—not too long when compared to the 3,500 million years life has existed on earth.

But here is the critical implication arising from that final list:  of the six species listed, the first five have vanished.  We are the only ones not yet extinct.

Not.  Yet.  Extinct.

Perhaps we need to think more about that.

From Sapiens to Omnipotentus

Science is pretty clear that Homo sapiens has been populating the planet for more than 200,000 years—a considerably longer time than the Christian story would have us believe.  The Garden of Eden was purportedly created some six thousand years ago, and most archaeologists believe it was located near the convergence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, at a spot now submerged in the Persian Gulf.

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But in fact, forms of earlier human life have been documented as far back as two-and-a-half-million years.  Our human predecessors—part of the animalia family, the vertebrata subphylum, the mammalia class, the primates order, the homininae subfamily, and the Homo genus—include, among others, such species as Homo habilis, Homo erectus, Homo heidelbergensis, and Homo neanderthalensis.  All are now extinct.

As a child raised in a Christian home, I was taught, and came to believe, that man was created in God’s own image.  (As an aside, I was also taught that woman was created from a rib of that man—which, if not an original sin, was at the very least an original prioritizing of importance.  As a further aside, I later came to understand that the Christian stories depicting this creation were written by men, which explained that version of events.)

Somewhere along the way, I was also exposed to the tantalizing question: did God create us, or did we create God?

Humans alive today—let me group women and men together as humankind for purposes of this essay—are members of the Homo sapiens sapiens subspecies, which we are told has been in existence for perhaps 70,000 years.  Were we, through some magical time-warp, able to confront some of our earliest sapiens predecessors, we would scarcely recognize them as human.  I cannot imagine what they would think of us.

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Nevertheless, biologically, genetically, we are virtually identical.

Pictures of earlier Homo peoples, reconstructed from archaeological findings, show they looked quite different than we do.  They behaved differently, too, living in an environment quite distinct from ours.  It seems obvious that, over the millennia, humankind has evolved to accommodate the changing conditions.  But beneath the skin, beyond the discrepancies in physical appearance, we are related as a part of the same family in the same fashion that any of us are related to our grandparents.  The earliest humans so far identified through fossil evidence—perhaps Homo ardipithecus or Homo australopithecus—were part of humankind.

When I was first taught that humankind was created in God’s image, I made the completely valid assumption that God, therefore, looked like us.  His many depictions in the magnificent paintings of the masters only proved it—a stern, majestic, bearded being, (male, of course), clothed in white raiment, surrounded by angelic hosts, allowing the tip of one finger to be touched by a mere mortal reaching in supplication.

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But I have long since wondered, can that be so?  If humankind was, indeed, created in his image, perhaps he actually looks like our earliest ancestors, hairy and ape-like—unless, he, too, has evolved across the centuries (which I concede is a real possibility).  This would not contradict the creation story, merely situate it in a much earlier timeframe.

Such speculation, however, leads me to an even more intriguing question.  It seems indisputable that Homo sapiens sapiens is continuing to evolve.  Our marvellous brains have led us to the cusp of some wonderful, perhaps terrifying, advances in medical science—advances which have allowed us to live our full span of years, and more, relatively free of the scourges of premature death, when compared to those who came before us.

Cloning sheep, so astonishing a feat a mere handful of years ago, was just the beginning.  Purposeful studies today in such fields as stem-cell research, human genome-mapping, in vitro fertilization, nanotechnology, and artificial intelligence, to name a few, are moving us beyond the boundaries of what we have always understood to be true of our mortal selves.

Will humankind, in the not-so-distant future, be able to create human life?  And maybe code it to follow a certain, predetermined path of development?  Will our brains, perhaps conjoined with, or replaced by, digital, adaptive intelligence be able to take us to another evolutionary stage?  From Homo sapiens sapiens to, let us say, Homo sapiens omnipotentus?

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Will humankind in that case become, not cast in God’s image, but God?  Is that the evolutionary future of the being that created us in the first place?  To become us?

It has been written that we are one with God.  Perhaps, some day in the future, we shall be so.

Whither Humanity?

The word humanity is a noun, defined thusly:

  • a collective name for all human beings;
  • the state of being human; and
  • the quality of benevolence, kind-heartedness, or magnanimity.

The first may be illustrated by the sentence, That invention will benefit all humanity; the second by, We are united in our common humanity; and the third by, The good Samaritan showed such humanity through his actions.

In the first definition above, humanity—of which you and I as human beings are a part—had its origins in the dim recesses of time past, perhaps 200,000 years ago, when archaeological studies posit the emergence of Homo sapiens.  These studies have demonstrated that several precursors to that species existed, including Homo habilis and Homo erectus, all of which displayed characteristics quite distinct from apelike creatures.  But human beings as we know us today (referred to now as Homo sapiens sapiens) evolved distinctly and irrevocably away from our earliest ancestors, perhaps 50,000 years ago.

It has been estimated by the Population Reference Bureau that more than 108 billion such ‘people’ have lived on our planet since then.  The PRB, founded in 1929, is a non-profit organization that studies issues related to population, health, and the environment.  Its work pegs the number of people living today at something greater than seven billion, which constitutes approximately 6.5% of the total of every human who has ever lived.

Two major demarcations, among many others, distinguish us from the earlier versions of Homo species.  One is the growth of brain size, the other the shrinking of some physical attributes, including brow prominence, mid-face projection, and skeletal structure.  Both eventually enabled the acquisition and refinement of speech, and thus the possibility of sharing thoughts and feelings among each other—the earliest manifestation of humanity in its second definition.

It would be possible, I imagine, to express affinity, empathy, or insight with respect to the emotional or physical well-being of another, even if we were unable to communicate them verbally.  Possible, too, I think, to convey anger, resentment, or disappointment to someone.  Body language and non-verbal gestures could convey such messages adequately.  But it is through speech that we can most accurately articulate our feelings, be they positive or negative, without resorting to physical demonstrations.

The ability to speak depends on both physical and neural capabilities, which we, alone among animals, possess.  And language, which developed from this unique ability, is what has made possible every significant intellectual accomplishment along the path of our development as a species—including both the ability to save lives and prolong them beyond the wildest expectations of a century ago; and the ability to wage war unto death on those we fear or loathe, to the point of wiping them from the face of the earth.

So, at the dawn of another year, the two-thousand-and-seventeenth of the modern era (and maybe the fifty-two-thousand-and-seventeenth of our existence as a modern species), I ask this question:  Whither humanity?

We have a good idea whence we came, thanks to the innumerable studies of our history and development.  The state of humanity all humanity enjoys is well and truly established.  But where are we going?  And what of our inner humanity—our benevolence, kind-heartedness, magnanimity—toward our co-habitants of the planet?  Could it be that our brains are indeed dualistic—in the sense that we want to create and destroy, build up and tear down, co-exist and dominate—at one and the same time?  If so, that is an horrific equation, one that is perhaps the result of centuries of struggle to survive as a species, in order to perpetuate humanity.

But now, we live in an age where the baser half of that equation can have disastrous results, not just for those we choose to see as our enemies, but for us all.  And if we allow fear to draw us back into protective enclaves of our own kind—those who look, think, and act like us—to the exclusion of those who don’t, we risk diminishing our fundamental humanity.  At a time of great peril to our entire race, surely it is better to reach out, to join hands, than it is to lash out and smash humanity asunder.

We belong to numerous nations inhabiting this long-suffering planet, each of which harbours its own patriotic aspirations.  But every one of those nations depends upon the same planetary host, and all humanity is travelling on the same interstellar vessel.  Will we collectively steer our ship to safe harbour, or scuttle it with all hands on board?

I have long admired these words from the second inaugural address of Abraham Lincoln, which I excerpt here—

          With malice toward none, with charity for all, [let us] achieve and cherish a

just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Happy New Year—free of malice, full of charity—to all humanity!

Intelligence and Change

If the history of our planet and the existence of life upon it were to be displayed as a clock-face, with its beginning at twelve o’clock, the appearance of the first humanoid beings—our distant, distant precursors—would not occur until the hands had swept around to the merest sliver of time before twelve again.

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Life itself, however, in its earliest, most basic form, would have begun much earlier, when the hands were approaching two o’clock.  The difference in real time is about four billion years, based on the fossil record so far uncovered.  Bacteria, for example, are a subset of prokaryotes, the earliest type of life on earth.

Life existed, in other words, for four billion years before the first hominim stood up on hind-legs, discovered oppositional thumbs, and (possibly) wondered who or what (s)he was.

All this time later, modern humans claim supremacy over the planet and everything living in its embrace.  Such foolhardiness, as we shall see.

We do so, I suppose, out of a belief that we are the most highly-intelligent life-form yet evolved.  Our basic intelligence—distinct from other species because of our imagination and curiosity, which allow us to ask such questions as Why?, How?, and What if…?—varies widely among individual humans, but is demonstrably more advanced than that of other species.

If the specie-specific intelligences of all life-forms, as we measure them, were arrayed on a graph, the human sort would be a tiny triangle at the very top of a much larger triangle, the lower intelligences of inferior life-forms spreading out below ours.

But that ranking may be misleading because of the definition of intelligence we apply in order to do the grading.  If the essential purpose of every known life-form is to perpetuate the species, to survive, and if each group’s success at doing so is the ultimate measure of intelligence, then our ranking would certainly be much different on the graph.

Very recently, a study undertaken at Indiana University posited that the earth might presently host almost one trillion distinct species, of which less than one-thousandth of one percent have been identified.  We might imagine that we are one of the very few species among them to possess an awareness of the others’ existence, but that awareness may not matter much.

A parasite life-form, firmly attached to a host, may not be cognitively aware of its host, but it thrives and reproduces because of their symbiotic relationship—even as the host dies.  The trillions of bacteria that live on our bodies, most of them in the intestinal tract, may have no cognitive awareness of us, but they are essential to our survival, and they reproduce exponentially.

In fact, it has been argued that our human bodies are nothing more than carrying-cases for our microbiome, a coalition of genes from several different species, only one of which is human.

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Most bacteria are beneficial to us, but certain types, pathogenic or disease-carrying, can be harmful.  They exist in three main forms—cocci, bacilli, and spirilla—and reproduce so quickly that they can overrun an otherwise-healthy organism, causing illness and even death.

Another species posing a threat to us, perhaps the smallest and simplest life-form of any on earth, is the virus.  By themselves, viruses are inanimate, requiring a host in which to multiply and grow—which they do by invading a host-cell, causing it to produce infected cells that attack other cells, and eventually killing the host.

The drive to survive among bacteria and viruses is relentless.  Human intelligence has inspired the development of methods to combat them—antibiotics, such as penicillin, amoxicillin, and tetracycline for bacteria; vaccinations and antiviral drugs, among them acyclovir and interferon, for viruses.  For a long time, these have been effective.

There is some evidence, however, that pathogenic bacteria and viruses are evolving into organisms with an immunity to the drugs we administer.  This comes as no surprise, really, because all living things evolve over time through a process of random mutation and selection.  The alarming thing is that these ‘superbugs’ may be outstripping our ability to develop new drugs to combat them.

Imagine, for instance, if all our defenses against bacterial infections and viral illnesses were to be rendered useless.  Which species would survive, the highly-intelligent one of which we are a part, or the simple, ruthless ones that have existed for the better part of four billion years?

And if not us, then which of the species is truly the most intelligent?  The human one that spawned Newton and Marie Curie, Mozart and Dylan, Indira Gandhi and Mother Teresa?  Or the simple ones that have ensured their survival over billions of years on the planet?

As Einstein once wrote, “The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.”

But history tells us that, although humans are not naturally resistant to every bacterial and viral infection that might assail us, we are naturally resistant to change.

That is a problem.