by Robin Datta
The universal motive force is energy flow. These flows are from high concentrations to low concentrations, where the energy is dissipated and has high disorder. Disorder is referred to as entropy.
Biological organisation starts with that assemblage of molecules. Those configurations that enhance energy flows, persist. Separation from the milieu is attained through self assembling molecular membranes. Such discrete configurations of molecules constituted the earliest life forms.
Two characteristics had to be selected from the beginning for the persistence of these life forms. First, maintenance of the identity: survival. Second, replication or reproduction. Both are biological imperatives throughout the evolutionary tree to this day.
With the evolution of multicellularIty, replication was restricted to the germ-cell line. The context for survival became that of the entire organism, and with the evolution of sociality the context extended to the entire group.
With human groups this was workable as long as there was personal connection amongst all members of the group. It is believed that the group size would have to be limited to Dunbar’s number. This is estimated to be about 150 individuals.
Our hominin ancestors on transitioning from an arboreal to bipedal lifestyle were at first hunter gatherers, as a very few of us still are. Control of fire allowed an extension of the dietary range to include items that were previously indigestible such as cereal grains and starchy tubers. Toolmaking extended our physical capabilities.
Once excess production could be stored through agriculture and animal husbandry it was possible to have hierarchical societies to manage and distribute the surplus. With this came the domestication of animals and of humans and the shrinkage of their brains including human brains. Fealty to unseen or unknown agents became a most important characteristic change in human and animal behaviour. When carried to an extreme with skills at surviving the hierarchy and disregard for the individual this becomes psychopathy.
Extrasomatic energy as from wind, water, draft animals and fossil fuels allowed increasing levels of productivity.
Increasingly expansive hierarchical structures resulted in sophisticated systems to control human behaviour.
Human behaviour is mediated by biological drives, soceital influences and intellection. Biology and society work through emotion and values which are nonrational and non-verbal. They are associated with the older parts of the brain, the reptilian brain. Rationality and language are associated with the intellect which is mistakenly assumed to be in control, but emotion and values guide the intellect to do their bidding.
Hence successful leaders aim simple messages to the emotions and values. If repeated enough times even false messages may be accepted. Once accepted, people will seek out their own rationalisation.
The purveyors of messages are also susceptible to the same influences. They also come to believe in the messages they promote. Also, the very attitudes criticised in others tend to taint one’s own character: one’s own templates most used to describe others are recruited to shape one’s own behaviour.
Attempts at persuasion and behaviour modification may have to take into consideration all of these influences and even more. Ultimately the actions of individuals and groups will depend on their attitudes towards future outcomes.
Such attitudes can broadly be divided into two categories: those who believe that some persons will survive the bottleneck and those who do not.
If there are to be survivor after the bottleneck the obvious questions are who would and who should survive. Some may consider it their own survival or that of their lineage. This could be described as Last Man Standing attitude. Others may altruistically seek the survival of better suited individuals and groups. in both cases efforts and resources will be prioritised towards the preferred goals. They are to be considered efforts towards cure.
Under other circumstances a cure is considered to be well nigh impossible. Such a situation may obtain if extinction is considered the only likely outcome for the human species. In such a case the appropriate action is to seek minimisation of human suffering. Both resources and efforts are to be prioritised towards palliation.
1. Palliation involves approaches that diverge widely from cure.
2. To the extent that the prospect of the cure is entertained, the palliative approach is not considered a priority.
3. Increasing the suffering to effect a cure may be quite ethical.
4. In the absence of any prospect of a cure, increased suffering imposed to prolong life has to be considered against the prospect of decreased quality of the prolonged life. This applies both to the individual and the group.
One may take into consideration the possibility that intelligent life unique to humans is not necessarily a feature of this universe.
A comment on NBL a while back expressed conviction that there is no intelligent life anywhere else in the universe.
From the Wikipedia article on the Drake equation:
“In November 2013, astronomers reported, based on Kepler space mission data, that there could be as many as 40 billion Earth-sized planets orbiting in the habitable zones of sun-like stars and red dwarf stars within the Milky Way Galaxy. 11 billion of these estimated planets may be orbiting sun-like stars. Since there are about 100 billion stars in the galaxy, this implies fp*ne is roughly 0.4. The nearest planet in the habitable zone may be as little as 12 light-years away, according to the scientists.”
fp = the fraction of those stars that have planets
ne = the average number of planets (satellites may perhaps sometimes be just as good candidates) that can potentially support life per star that has planets
From the Wikipedia article on the Observable Universe:
“There is currently no way to know exactly the number of stars, but from current literature, the range of 10^22 to 10^24 is normally quoted.
Thus, a reasonable option is to assume 100 billion average galaxies and 100 billion stars per average galaxy. This results in 10^22 stars.”
10^22 x 0.4 = 4 x 10^21
4,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 planets in habitable zones around stars in the observable universe.
So, many scientists now think that the probability that there is intelligent life elsewhere in the Universe is extremely close to 1.
And if the alien life forms use nucleotides to carry genetic information, it does not have to be DNA:
From the Wikipedia article on Nucleic Acid Analogues:
“Nucleic acid analogues are compounds which are analogous (structurally similar) to naturally occurring RNA and DNA, used in medicine and in molecular biology research. Nucleic acids are chains of nucleotides, which are composed of three parts: a phosphate backbone, a pucker-shaped pentose sugar, either ribose or deoxyribose, and one of four nucleobases. An analogue may have any of these altered. Typically the analogue nucleobases confer, among other things, different base pairing and base stacking properties. Examples include universal bases, which can pair with all four canon bases, and phosphate-sugar backbone analogues such as PNA, which affect the properties of the chain (PNA can even form a triple helix). Nucleic acid analogues are also called Xeno Nucleic Acid and represent one of the main pillars of xenobiology, the design of new-to-nature forms of life based on alternative biochemistries.
Artificial nucleic acids include peptide nucleic acid (PNA), Morpholino and locked nucleic acid (LNA), as well as glycol nucleic acid (GNA) and threose nucleic acid (TNA). Each of these is distinguished from naturally occurring DNA or RNA by changes to the backbone of the molecule.”
There may be non-standard amino acids forming non-standard proteins.
From the Wikipedia article on Xenobiology:
“It also focuses on an expanded genetic code and the incorporation of non-proteinogenic amino acids into proteins.”
Even the alien chirality may be different:
From the Wikipedia article on Chirality (chemistry):
“A chiral molecule /ˈkaɪərəl/ is a type of molecule that has a non-superposable mirror image. The presence of an asymmetric carbon atom is often the feature that causes chirality in molecules.”
“Many biologically active molecules are chiral, including the naturally occurring amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) and sugars. In biological systems, most of these compounds are of the same chirality: most amino acids are l and sugars are d. Typical naturally occurring proteins, made of l amino acids, are known as left-handed proteins, whereas d amino acids produce right-handed proteins.
The origin of this homochirality in biology is the subject of much debate. Most scientists believe that Earth life’s “choice” of chirality was purely random, and that if carbon-based life forms exist elsewhere in the universe, their chemistry could theoretically have opposite chirality. However, there is some suggestion that early amino acids could have formed in comet dust. In this case, circularly polarised radiation (which makes up 17% of stellar radiation) could have caused the selective destruction of one chirality of amino acids, leading to a selection bias which ultimately resulted in all life on Earth being homochiral.”
Something as strange might be under (or in) our noses. Wikipedia article on Biological Dark Matter:
“Biological dark matter is uncategorized genetic material found in humans and throughout Earth that does not fall under the three existing domains of life: bacteria, archaea and eukaryotes. Its presence suggests that a possible fourth domain of life may yet to be discovered.
According to research by US virologist Nathan Wolfe, 20% of the genetic material in a typical human nasal swab is biological dark matter that cannot be attributed to any of the existing categories of living organisms on Earth. Biological dark matter accounts for up to 40% to 50% of the genetic material in the human gut and between 1% and 2% of genetic material in the relatively sterile human blood.”
Finding a living organism with a different triplet code (three nucleotide bases in sequence specifying each amino acid) or with a different chirality would be as much of a paradigm shift as receiving an intelligent signal from, or evidence of a Dyson sphere at, another star.
Just don’t expect to get there anytime soon.
If we shrink the universe:
Sun to a grain of sand:(1,391,684 km)
0.2 mm in diameter
Earth: (499 light-seconds, 149,600,000 km)
53.75 mm from the sand-grain
Proxima Centauri (4.22 l.y)
570,357.72 km away from the sand-grain
Galaxy size (100,000 l.y.) =
13,515,585,714.3 km in diameter
Therefore, human intelligence should not be considered something quite unique in this universe.
Also, humans, vertebrates and indeed all life have only a finite time remaining in the biosphere of the earth:
Causes and timing of future biosphere extinction
There are varying levels of acceptance of finitude, both individual and of the group. Firstly, there is a distinction between intellectual and emotional acceptance. The intellect is associated with the mammalian brain, particularly the cortex and more so the frontal cortex. It is both rational and verbal and to all intents and purposes appears to be in the driver’s seat. Yet it is the chauffeur to the older, reptilian brain. This is concerned with emotions (short-term) and values (long-term). It is associated with a number of structures called the limbic system. It is nonrational and non-verbal.
For those who have emotionally accepted their own finitude, a vicarious continuation through their descendants is often a workaround. Events such as the end of the sun and the associated incineration of the earth are too far in the future to be of concern. But near-term extinction upsets the applecart and therefore is not accommodated in that world-view.
For those who do not resort to a vicarious extension to their own existence, near-term extinction is not different from ultimate extinction.
Such persons can base their actions on rational anticipation rather than on expectations. In the absence of both elation and dejection there is true hopelessness which has nothing to do with thwarted expectations. It includes kindness and compassion to all, which in its perfection includes no others, since then there are no “others”.
Some may manifest such characteristics even in a Mad Max scenario. Let’s hope that each of us is one of them.
Born In Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan in (then West) Pakistan a year and a half after the end of the British Raj in the Indian subcontinent. Both parents were commissioned officers in the Royal Indian Army. Father spoke Bengali and mother spoke Telegu. TheIr common language was English and as a consequence my native language also. Father was then (one of three Hindu officers) in the Pakistan Army and was stationed in Quetta at that time. Also, natively speak Urdu, the lingua franca of the region. Also acquired Bengali as a secondary language in medical school perforce to take a medical history from patients in Dacca (now Dhaka), East Pakistan (now Bangladesh).
Worked as an emergency physician for 26 years in the United States, having retired in 2009. Now converting aliments to ordure, but open to suggestions.
McPherson was interview 20 June 2014 via Skype. The result is here.
The opening minutes of a presentation I delivered at the University of Rhode Island are embedded below. The event occurred 12 April 2014.