(Here at The NatureReligionConnection we are getting serious about a source for our awe. If religion is to have some reasonable foundation and some useful form in this modern age, this is it. The science of Evolution justifies our sense of participation in, indebtedness to, and responsibilities toward, Mother Nature and her magnificent work of living art. If we could now acknowledge that, and conduct ourselves in its light, her accomplishments would be greatly glorified. How about that for some old-timey religious talk? The following post series—“Our Sacred World”— I try to establish what might be truly worthy of awe.)
LET’S TALK ABOUT DISTINCTIONS
“Distinctions” are those big and little differences that color the world in us and around us. One of our first deep thinkers on the topic was Plato, who sought to “carve nature at its joints,” as if it were some roast pig and he the chef making the cuts—drawing the lines—to create the pieces that would truly worked. Let us continue that effort, and, in the end, we will be able to distinguish some wonderous realities.
Let us, also, begin with living things, and ask what kinds of distinctions lie between them. If we do, we will be in for a big surprise, contends Dan Dennett, a philosopher who has written a brilliant account* of the character and implications of Darwin’s great discovery, Evolution by Natural Selection. Mother Nature, in this her great creative thrust, “draws no lines,” he contends. In amazing ways, boundaries are blurred, distinctions are mitigated, the the separateness and unity of living things becomes fluid.
How could this be? For example, we have daffodils and elephants. A clear “line,” so to speak, can be drawn between them. A huge difference exists; one is a modest sized, flowering plant, the other the largest of all land animals. Yet, they are connected in what Darwin called “a great tree” of relationship. He wrote: “The affinities of all the beings…have sometimes been represented by a great tree. I believe this simile largely speaks the truth.” It is in the logic of the growth and structure of this “tree” that we shall find our wonders, according to Darwin and Dennett.
*Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (1995) was a National Book Award Finalist. It was glowingly received by biologists such as Richard Dawkins, John Maynard Smith and E.O. Wilson; along with philosophers such as Richard Rorty—one of my favorites. The noted astrophysicist Carl Sagan called it , “A breath of fresh air.” Incidentally, Darwin’s “Idea” is “Dangerous” because it is so disruptive of our traditional ways of thinking, Dennett contends. Let us see if that is true.
Dendrogram 1 and 2
Two diagrams of the relations of living things; from the Greek dendron, meaning tree.
THE WONDERS IN THE TREE
So what kinds of distinction has life cooked up in over 3,500 million years of existence? And, how clear-cut are they?
As we look at the outer point of extension of each branch in our tree, we see the prolific production of this natural process—many kinds of distinct creatures exist. All the major categories are present: plant is distinguished from animal, animal from bacteria, protist (single-celled organisms) from fungus, etc. But of course, each category in the end comes down to the Individuals of that kind and of all kinds.
In the understanding of Life, the uniqueness of each living thing plays a central role. There is a surprising and complex interplay between an individual creature and its kind, and this will turn out to be the idea of “distinction” at its greatest importance.
So what are the wonders of the distinctions revealed in The Tree of Life?
EVERY LIVING INDIVIDUAL TODAY (OR OF ANY TIME) IS THE OUTCOME OF AN UNBROKEN CHAIN OF ANCESTRY THAT LEADS BACK TO THE ORIGINAL LIVING THINGS. FOR EACH OF US, THAT IS A LONG RUN!
Your great-greatest of all ancestor was possibly among the very first living things (“possibly”—will be explained shortly). So was mine, so was your pet dog’s, so was the cottonwood tree that lives in my backyard or any plant that lives in your yard; in fact, all of us currently living things have the same original ancestor and many others that lie between. Dennett: “All the diversity of life that has ever existed on this planet is derived from this single fan-out; the controversies arise about how to discover and describe in general terms the various forces, principles, constraints, etc., that permit us to give a scientific explanation of the patterns in all this diversity.” What is uncontroversial is that “this single fan-out” is an unbroken chain with a single origin that leads to today.
Our line of ancestry is unbroken, that is uncontroversial, says Dennett. It is almost a logical necessity; by definition ‘living things come from living things’—with only one exception: The Origin. If my chain of ancestry were broken prior to myself, I would not be here. And there is no evidence and even less likelihood of multiple and distinct origins for the life we find about us today. The same unique genetic code runs through us all. We come from the same stalk!
But the possibility does arise that our first ancestor was not the only “first” living thing. Surely Mother Nature conducted various ‘experiments.’ It is probable that other creatures at the same general time, of a similar general character, and likely of the same general environment or situation, were also (what we now call) “alive;” but they or their progeny came to a quick end or relatively quick in geological terms. They left no descendants that are alive today or any trail of evidence that we have found. This topic of “firsts,” first of a kind, will be returned to later. When and how do we draw that line?
How long is this successful run of successors? In human generations (and “generation” is a surprisingly complex term) this means 4 to 5 generations every 100 years, and about 100 going back “to the time of Jesus,” as they say. That means you have about 100 great grandmothers on each side of your family for that span. Every great-grandmother successfully bearing at least one daughter that soon joined that line of your grandmothers, herself, by giving birth to a daughter who gave birth, and that is only the very tip of the chain.
Biologist Richard Dawkins estimates that our 50 thousandths great grandmothers were no longer of our species; they were homo erectus with which we, homo sapiens, would not have mated and probably could not have mated successfully (sterile off-spring).
For fruit flies, there is a similar but more extreme story. A female fruit fly can give birth in about 10 days of its own birth and its total life cycle is only about two weeks; that makes for a lot of turnover! For it, there are about 30 generations in a year (!) and that makes around 60,000 generations in two thousand years! That is quite a family tree and quite a line of successful reproduction.
EVOLUTION BY NATURAL SELEDTION IS A PROCESS THAT IS BOUND TO CREATE “WINNERS.”
Barring the destruction of the entire planet (and I mean like the shattering of the planet into pieces as if by The Death Star in Star Wars), evolution by natural selection is a relentless process; it goes on and on. In fact, overcoming challenges is one of its dominant characteristics. Challenges as significant as ice ages, strikes by large meteors, continental drift, climate change and plagues have already been received and responded to. Life continued on; evolution continued.
But “winners,” in what sense? Both Darwin and Dennett use this term and both have faced criticism for it, along with the term “natural selection,” which ‘selects’ the winners, as if nature were some kind of person choosing; like your “Mother Nature.”
In the minimal sense, “winners” are those who succeed in the competition of life, and biologically that means to reproduce. It is worth taking a moment to remind ourselves how powerful a force this is. Reproduction is a chemical chain of reactions. We, humans, with our ‘higher’ goals and wants can sometimes lose sight of this primal ‘urge’ to reproduce. Most species have their entire existence physically and chemically arranged to reproduce. In some animals and at some times, not even the need to eat rivals it. Evolution by natural selection guarantees successful reproducers.
In this minimal sense of a “winner” as reproducer, “there is something strange and trivial,” says Dennett. It is like asking, how proud should I be to have been born? You might want to think (and gloat): ‘I must be very special to be the outcome of such a long chain of success.’ And maybe that is true!
What if I told you that I could produce, on demand, a winner of ten consecutive coin flips. That a person could win in fair coin-flipping at that rate is surely improbable. You might think that this winner was a person of some special ability, or perhaps somehow you were being deceived. Let me up the ante, I can show you a person capable of winning about 28 consecutive coin tosses!
How? Let me organize the entire population of the United States into a giant coin-flipping tournament. I would set up the brackets, massive brackets, especially in the early rounds, but after the first round the population would be cut in half, and in every round thereafter, the remaining winners would also be halved. Finally, by the 26th round (the quarter finals) we would be down to 8 remaining citizens each with 25 straight wins so far! Then the semi-finals, 4 champion “callers” remain; then The National Finals—lights glare, trumpet blare—the remaining two citizens take the stage and the coin is flipped, the call is made, and the anointed one is now apparent; 28 straight victorious tosses! (The math is 2 to the 28th power equals approximately the population of the U.S.) For 10 consecutive correct calls, give me exactly 1024 people and I will arrange them into this coin-tossing tournament. (The math is 2 to the 10th power is 1024.) This is how Evolution by Natural Selection assures us there will be winners.
Dennett is right, there is “something strange and trivial” about the winner of this coin-tossing tournament. First, we are assured a winner with a huge win-streak, that is guaranteed by the organization of the process. It’s is like a machine, and somebody has to win. Second, we do not know before hand who the winners or grand winner will be. In tournaments and contests that involve large amounts of Luck, we have absolutely no way to recognize a winner from a loser at the outset. We only find that out retrospectively, by hindsight, after the tournament is over. As Dennett says, “It is a retrospective coronation.” (We will return to this later.) Thirdly, what kind of champion will this be? In our coin-tossing tournament our grand winner will have exactly zero special abilities or pertinent distinctions by comparison to the other competitors. That is strange; line up that grand champion in a new tournament and their chance of losing in the first round is just as high as anyone’s, 50%.
Even in tournaments that involve skill, as in the basketball tournament (from above) in which we often say— “the best team won”, luck plays its part. In Evolution with its “survival of the fittest,” luck plays a huge role in who survives and luck does this in disregard for any special distinctions—that’s why we call it “luck.” Sometimes “the best die young,” to alter Billy Joel’s lyrics. But, the idea of “luck” is tricky, and we might justifiably argue that “to be skillful” is itself a product of good luck! (This topic of luck will be returned to.)
But, whether by luck or by skill—or a combination of the two—the game of Evolution produces winners.
Let me stop here for this post. So far we have encountered the wonderous reality that each of us has a history of blood descent back to near, or at, the origin of Life. That is a shocking realization: my blood-line goes back to the start—3,500 million years ago! A curious fact is then added, Evolution assures that some living things will always live and pass on ancestors within biological struggles, barring some hugely external interference. So, someone had to do it (survive ands evolve), and it turned out to be you and I!
The next post will offer several more Wonders within The Tree of Life! Stay tuned!