The year is 2016.
Quantum Evolutius is a man who believes and teaches that his father is a man, and that his distant cousin is a chimpanzee. Searchio is a handsome youth. He has no direct knowledge of any tree-living distant relation in any central African rain forest. His father taught him when considering any matter, never to be hasty in making conclusions, and never to ignore any obvious discrepancies. We join the two in the whale hall of the Natural History Museum in London.
He leans over the ‘Please do not touch’ sign and gently taps the tail flukes of the model of a bottle-nosed dolphin.
“…So that’s about it. Atoms, being neither particles nor waves, are incomparable to anything imaginable. The material universe, including all life forms within it, is nothing but scattered tiny little bits of something separated by huge amounts of nothing much at all”.
He folds his arms for a moment. Then he moves one hand to cup his chin and puts the other in his back trouser pocket like some TV detective as he turns to catch a panoramic view of the great hall with the bones and life-sized models of the huge whales hanging from the ceiling.
“OK, now let me get this straight…what you’re saying is that maybe there was no such thing as the beginning of the universe, since what we see at this moment in time could just be a snapshot of an endless series of cycles in which the universe expands and then collapses upon itself. At the moment we’re part of the expanding part of a cycle.
Once upon a time (say about 15-20 billion years ago), very near where we would ordinarily think a beginning ought to have been, all the matter in the universe was condensed into one tiny dot. Then suddenly, as a result of the immense…whatever forces…all the matter was blasted outwards in all directions. That’s what you call the ‘BIG BANG’. Actually, it was not an explosion as we know it since the tiny dot comprised both all the matter and all the existing space. So there wasn’t any huge empty universe of space for the tiny dot to explode into. Time itself started at the Big Bang, and as the space itself expanded, matter became increasingly separated. You haven’t stated where all the energy that started it all came from, or what existed before time, but only that within the first few microseconds of the ‘start’ of the universe, the energy of this unimaginably immense ‘explosion’ formed a number of the simpler atoms*.
Much later that same epoch, these bits of matter clumped together to form stars, and clusters of stars became galaxies. Atoms of the heavier elements may have been formed later on within stars. Our sun, just one of the millions of stars in the millions of galaxies, expelled some of its matter which then orbited around it, so forming the planets.
A few aeons later still, one of the planets (Earth) found itself with, amongst other things, ammonia, methane and water vapour in considerable quantities. With the addition of energy in the form of very frequent lightning and/or intense ultraviolet light, these gases were converted into simple amino acids.
Also about that time, a number of other chemical reactions were occurring, producing fatty acid molecules (fatty acids combine together to form the molecules that we know of as fats, or lipids). These fatty molecules naturally bonded together and formed simple hollow spheres.
Maybe sometime later, other molecules were reacting together and formed the amazing double helix of deoxyribose nucleic acid (DNA). Amazing, because DNA has the property of self-replication. But there’s nothing magical in it, that’s just the way this molecule behaves chemically. Now, most of these early complex molecules must have broken up again with time, but enough of them must have persisted long enough so that as the molecules became more complex, they bonded together in wonderful and previously unseen ways. New molecules opened the way for newer and more diverse chemical options. Then, the amino acids joined together to produce small proteins which in turn bonded with lipids to form spherical lipo-protein membranes and incorporated the proteins, lipids and nucleic acid fragments inside themselves, along with sodium, potassium and chloride ions, and of course, water molecules.
So, you’re saying that such a complex collection of chemicals, the whole encapsulated by the lipo-protein bag, became the first primitive and very simple single-celled living organism?”
“I like to use the term ‘bio-cule’ instead of the term ‘single-celled organism’ because the sound of the word ‘bio-cule’ more accurately reflects the organism’s true nature, this being simply an ultra-complex chemical conglomeration that just happens to be able to self-replicate. But ultimately, bio-cules are entirely dependent on and directed by the same chemistry that causes reactions in everyday school test-tube experiments. And just as it is (under certain conditions) in the nature of groups of atoms to form molecules and groups of molecules to form bio-cules, so it is (under certain conditions) in the nature of groups of bio-cules to form polybio-cules (or multi-cellular organisms).”
He steps backwards and looks directly upwards at the undersurface of the blue whale’s huge tail flukes.
“OK. At some point the sum of the chemical and electrical activity inside these conglomerations could be recognised as what we call LIFE. Over the past millions of years, gradual alterations (mutations) in the DNA inside these bio-cules, along with natural selection, have resulted in the evolution of all species from simpler chemical forms. And this whale appeared simply as a result of mutations in the chromosomes of some ancient pig- or dog-like animal. In other words, the increasing complexity of the chemical conglomerations (bio-cules) allowed an increasing complexity and variety in subsequent chemical conglomerations and their possible interactions.”
“Just so. We ourselves are no more than just one type of polybio-cule, a massive conglomeration of molecules. In reality, all polybio-cules only differ from simpler molecules by their size and by the degree of complexity of their interactions.”
(Aside) So, ultimately, my great, great…great grandfather was an…amino acid!
“Fine. So to summarise your thinking, subatomic particles and forces are responsible for the characteristics of atoms and molecules, that is, the reactions of nuclear physics and chemistry. Atomic and chemical forces are responsible for the characteristics of biological cells (the ultra-complex chemical conglomerations that you call bio-cules).
And further, living cells are dependent solely upon atomic, chemical and biological (or bio-cular) forces which dictate each and every one of their characteristics. So, in terms of their physical and chemical attributes and the forces that govern their existence and interactions, there is no distinction between particles or molecules described as ‘non-living’ when they are isolated in a test-tube (for example, water, free amino acids, free proteins and free strands of DNA) and the more complicated chemical conglomerations described as ‘living’, when these same chemicals come together with other chemicals inside a lipid-protein membrane to form a cell (or bio-cule). Is that it?”
“No, I mentioned the business of thought, intellect and behaviour.”
“Ah, yes! What you’re saying is that just by being, groups of nerve cells naturally create spontaneous electrical discharges between themselves. So thought is as much a natural and unavoidable consequence of how nerve cells inter-react as it is with water molecules inter-reacting to form ice if the temperature is right. It’s in their nature (whatever that is). And therefore, intellect and behaviour only and merely reflect the degree, complexity and style of the physical/chemical/bio-cular interactions in operation within an ultra-complex chemical conglomeration.
If the brain is big enough you get thought. If the brain is really big as in humans, you get more complicated thoughts, ideas, and dreams…or even a voice from God. You’re saying that all this is one and the same process, electro-chemical ‘tricks’ in the mind (whatever that is).”
“And morals…and death?”
“Morals?… You have already said that there is no such thing as LIFE as it is commonly understood, but there exist only degrees of molecular complexity. It follows that if there is no such thing as LIFE, there simply cannot be any such things as morals. How can a (purely and only) physical/chemical unit itself define Right and Wrong in any given situation?
Since everything that exists is merely the result of random and arbitrary subatomic, atomic and chemical interactions, you’re saying that it is as natural and acceptable to destroy a polybio-cule (for example, a human being) as it is to annihilate a subatomic particle. Both are of no ultimate value. Both comprise some of the matter originally formed after the BIG BANG. Literally, mere stardust. Your view on life implies and requires that anger, love, hate, like and dislike are just innocent consequences of fundamental electro-chemical interactions within a complex blob of bio-cules (the brain), and are therefore beyond criticism. Who are you…or more precisely, what are you to criticise thoughts inside anyone else’s head, or the outworkings of those thoughts reflected in behaviour or action? Thus it is as natural and acceptable for nitric acid (whose innocent behaviour towards other chemical structures is dictated purely by its chemical make-up) to dissolve the skin of your hand, as it is for one man (a particular polybio-cule, whose nerve cell interactions and therefore whose thoughts and behaviour towards other polybio-cules are ultimately dictated purely and simply by its very complicated chemical make-up) to destroy another man.
So, you’re saying that when a man deliberately kills a number of innocent people we should not call him evil or deranged. Instead we should accept that this man’s brain chemistry is not abnormal, but simply different. Our (‘normal’) brains might not like what this man has done, and indeed we might in all probability make a judgement and impose a punishment, but ultimately, our views and actions could not be construed as Right, and his as Wrong.”
“Exactly. There is no difference between a man and chemicals in a test-tube. And if there is no such thing as LIFE, there can be no such thing as DEATH – what we call death is only an alteration of a high energy bio-cular state to simpler chemical structures with a lower energy state. Furthermore, it follows that if there is no such thing as LIFE during life, there can certainly be no LIFE after life. So you can throw things like religion straight out of the window, along with cathedrals and temples.
And if there can be no LIFE in any creature, the distinction between all life forms becomes completely blurred and a man cannot be of any greater importance than any animal. Since apes are self-aware in time and space, can perform complex tasks, have emotions, and can communicate in sign language, they have all the characteristics of a ‘person’. And since under this definition of ‘person’, healthy adult apes exhibit more features pertaining to personhood than healthy human foetuses and healthy new-born human babies, it would be more correct morally to destroy or experiment on human foetuses or new-born babies, than to destroy or experiment on adult apes.”
“So, if pigs can perform better than chimpanzees in some intelligence tests, maybe pigs should also be considered as persons. Therefore, we should stop experimenting on pigs or eating them, or using their skins for shoes or coats.
All that heartache about helping the starving humanity in its millions on some distant part of the globe…why bother? They are all merely and only inconsequential stardust. And saving endangered species…save the whale, save the recently discovered lesser-spotted Outer Mongolian snow kangaroo etc…mere stardust…
And why worry about a dolphin and not a tuna fish – haven’t tuna fish got equal rights in biological terms, because surely any difference in worth is arbitrarily imposed by our human classification? So why worry about the extinction of some rare birds because of some man-made ecological change in some estuary? In fact, why be concerned about the destruction of a human foetus or a chimpanzee when both are essentially only a couple of variations amongst billions of molecular conglomerations? Since there’s no purpose in anything, why make a fuss at all? When you’ve seen one clump of atoms, you’ve seen them all!
So, from ashes to ashes, stardust to stardust, nothing is of any ultimate value…”
(Aside) Hmm…methinks there is much mischief in such thinking.
“If we have evolved by a process of survival of the fittest, rather than striving to treat illness and congenital abnormalities, it would be more consistent to let the weakest of us die so as to preserve naturally only the healthiest individuals in subsequent generations. Furthermore, any man-made destruction of ecosystems or man-induced extinctions should not be reviled, since they represent merely the latest in a chain of events that have been going on ever since life began. In this light, man-induced climatic changes, extinctions, suffering and death are entirely normal and natural.
But…your morals are based on your assumption that all life forms have appeared as the result of an undirected and unconcerned evolution and that animals are equal to human beings. Yet you have not shown me any convincing physiological, genetic, biochemical, neurological or fossil evidence to demonstrate that human beings are simply evolved apes.
Hypothetically, even if, for example, there is found evidence showing conclusively that australopithicines walked fully upright, made sophisticated tools, and communicated by speech – none of this in itself would constitute evidence that ancient apes evolved into humans. It would simply show that humans have not been the only bipedal, tool-making, speaking creatures to have lived. To show that humans evolved from apes requires conclusive evidence that the ape anatomy and brain function could have changed (based on data producing a complete logical series of fully functional modifications) and did change (based on real fossil, biochemical, genetic and other biological evidence showing a complete series of intermediaries) into the human form.
From the limited evidence you have given, it is quite possible that human beings (despite sharing a common biology with other animals) have no ancestor-descendant or distant cousin relationship to any ape, and may in some unique way be different from other living things. In science you cannot reject a notion just because you dislike it…
And another thing: what are subatomic particles made of? And what makes up the things that subatomic particles are made of? And what made the things that make up the things that subatomic particles are made of? How did the information by which the very physics and mathematics on which the universe depends come into being? Is not information a more fundamental essence than even matter or energy itself? So, does not the necessity for information to have existed prior to the appearance of the universe demand the pre-existence of an intelligence…?”
We can leave these two to carry on with their discussion at this point. But, is Quantum Evolutius correct when he describes the origin of all current life forms as being the result of sequential changes to ancestral early molecules and primitive cells over unimaginable stretches of Earth time?
In our search for the truth, we must not be hood-winked or blinkered. We must take care to remember that when we talk about a fact in science, this represents simply the accepted or the most fervently promoted wisdom at a particular time, so that if and when more knowledge or insight is gained, yesterday’s fact may be discarded in favour of a new wisdom. Therefore, we must not disregard any information when formulating our understanding. Everything must be weighed and every inconsistency must be acknowledged.
And we must try resolutely not to be biased.