FREEDOM AND SAFETY
“Two extremes of the Universe span a jaw-dropping 63 orders of magnitude. To be fair, though, this isn't an immutable constant of Nature. Turn the clock back more than 13 billion years and you'd be able to find a moment when this number was merely one. Over time, the expansion of the cosmos and the passage of light has unlocked all of those other scales, each one a new opportunity for novelty and complexity.” - Caleb Scharf
While speaking of the origins of us, most people usually envision origination in time, in linear time to be exact, notably in the deep past. In purely scientific terms, our origins can be traced back to the Big Bang, first prokaryotes, primordial mammals, first hominids, first humans, the first civilization, depending on a pertinent perspective one wants to take. In this part I of the essay, I'll discuss our origins based on today’s widely accepted scientific knowledge with a few novel interpretations of my own.
When scientists consider the question of how life originated on Earth, or elsewhere, their efforts generally involve attempts to understand how non-biological molecules bonded, became increasingly complex, and eventually reached the point where they could replicate or could use sources of energy to make things happen. Ultimately, of course, life needed both. For several years many scientists have supported the idea that life got its start on our planet due to a series of events that led to the creation of RNA molecules - it seems like a strong contender because it is able to both store information and act as a catalyst. Chemists are now asking whether our kind of life can be generated only through a single plausible pathway or whether multiple routes might lead from simple chemistry to RNA-based life and on to modern biology. Others are exploring variations on the chemistry of life, seeking clues as to the possible diversity of life “out there” in the Universe. Eventually, we might learn how robust the transition from chemistry to biology is and therefore whether the Universe is full of lifeforms or - perhaps, for us, as data lineage-based conscious entities, for better or for worse - sterile.
Nearly 4 billion years ago, the first life appeared on our water-abundant planet, when the very first proto-biomolecules accidentally (or not?) amassed in some kind of slimy goo. A towering figure in evolutionary biology Charles Darwin who is celebrated for his foundational work “On the Origin of Species” (1859), wrote a letter to the botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker in 1871, describing a conjectural warm little pond, rich in chemicals and amino acids, with sources of light, heat and electricity. Darwin imagined that in such an environment, proteins might spontaneously form, ready to turn into something more complex. A lesser known speculative assumption, dubbed the ‘Panspermia Hypothesis’, poses an interesting question whether Earth might have been seeded by early Martian life (if it existed). Mars was supposedly more habitable in its early period than Earth. In general terms, panspermia refers to the sharing of life via meteorites from one planet to another, or delivery by comet between solar systems.
For most of our planet’s history, the only life were single-celled bacteria without a nucleus and organelles, called prokaryotes. They first arose about 3.5 billion years ago, though what happened after that, in terms of when exactly they began to evolve into eukaryotes, or more complex forms of life, is unclear. Fossilized prokaryotes have been found in rocks predating most geological periods. While Earth is the only place in the Universe where life is known to exist, some have suggested that there is evidence on Mars of fossil or living prokaryotes. Here on Earth, prokaryotes live in nearly all environments.
You may find it intuitive to discern life from non-life, but in the context of physics, it’s actually very hard to deliver. Dolphins and rocks obey the same physical laws; trees and solar panels both transform energy from the sun, recycling it into energy. This translation problem - how do you say “life” in the lingo of physics? - has been baffling physicists for quite a while. But in 2016, biophysicist Jeremy England, an assistant professor at MIT, published two papers claiming to resolve the apparent contradictions between physics and biology. His theory, 'Dissipative Adaptation', looks at life through the lens of modern physics, and challenges us to rethink the functions that make it so mysterious.
If a random group of atoms has an external energy source like the sun and is surrounded by something that can absorb heat like the ocean or an atmosphere, those atoms are likely to restructure themselves to harvest increasingly more energy. Structure and the ability to use energy sound intriguingly like what it takes to turn non-life into life, i.e. biological life. The first paper by Jeremy England, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows that life-like structural arrangements of atoms can spontaneously arise. The second paper, published in Physics Review Letters, shows that when driven by an external energy source – the sun, in this case – these atoms rearrange themselves in order to absorb and emit the energy more efficiently. Importantly, these life-like structures started to copy themselves in order to better handle this energy flow. What we now start to uncover with various scientific methodologies is essentially the same: emergence of ever more complex structures is programmed into the nature of our evolving cosmos.
All life on Earth performs computations – and all computations require energy. From unicellular amoeba to multicellular organisms like humans, one of the most basic biological computations common across life is translation: processing information from a genome and writing that into proteins. Translation turns out to be extremely efficient.Life, when viewed as a computational process, aims to optimize the storage and use of meaningful information. Once we regard living organisms as agents performing computations - collecting and storing information about an unpredictable environment - capacities and considerations such as replication, adaptation, agency, purpose and meaning can be understood as arising not from evolutionary random walk, but as inevitable consequences of physical laws. If we are to reconceptualize the origins of life in light of new evidence that was hiding in plain sight, the notion that biological life is a “cosmic imperative” gets all support it needs. In other words, organic life had to eventually emerge.
Conventional wisdom holds that complex structures evolve from simpler ones, step-by-step, through a gradual evolutionary process, with Darwinian selection favoring intermediate forms along the way. In this traditional view of evolution, our cellular complexity evolved from early eukaryotes via random genetic mutation and selection. But recently some scholars have proposed that complexity can arise by other means - as a side effect, for instance - even without natural selection to promote it. Studies suggest that random mutations that individually have no effect on an organism can fuel the emergence of complexity in a process known as 'Constructive Neutral Evolution'.
In 2005, biologist James Shapiro at the University of Chicago outlined a radical new narrative. He argued that eukaryotic cells work “intelligently” to adapt a host organism to its environment by manipulating their own DNA in response to environmental stimuli. Recent microbiological findings lend hefty support to this idea. For example, mammals’ immune systems have the tendency to duplicate sequences of DNA in order to generate effective antibodies to attack disease, and we now know that at least 43% of the human genome is made up of DNA that can be conjured up through a process of “natural genetic engineering”. Now, it may be a bit of a leap of faith to go from smart, self-organizing cells to the brainy sort of intelligence but the key point here is that long before we were conscious, thinking beings, our cells were reading data from the environment and working together to mould us into robust, self-sustaining agents.
A powerful way to learn how embodied connective intelligence works is to think about a multicellular organism like the human body. The body is made up of trillions of cells. Approximately 37.2 trillion, that’s a lot of cells! Cells are much more like miniature information-processing machines with quite a bit of flexibility. They’re also networked, so they’re able to communicate with other cells in populations. One might say the human body is a colony of trillions of individuals. From moment to moment, this vast array of tiny entities is engaged in an elaborate dance of interactions and exchanges. Multicellular organisms like ourselves depend on a constant flow of information between cells, coordinating their activities in order to proliferate and differentiate. Deciphering the language of intercellular communication has long been one of the central challenges in molecular biology. Caltech scientists have discovered that cells have evolved a way to transmit more messages through a single pathway, or communication channel, than previously thought, by encoding the messages rhythmically over time. Clearly, to be alive is to be a dynamic pattern of continual exchange within and throughout the environment.
Interestingly enough, if you were to look under the microscope you couldn't tell a human cell from a non-human animal cell. You might find it especially intriguing that more than half of your body is not even human. Out of the body's total cell count, human cells make up only 43%, the rest are microscopic colonists. Understanding this hidden half of ourselves - our microbiome - is rapidly transforming understanding of diseases from allergy to dementia. These unseen cohorts are critical to your health, well, your body isn't just you! The field of microbiome science is even asking questions of what it means to be "human" and is leading to new innovative treatments as a result. A survey of DNA fragments circulating in your blood suggests the microbes living within you are vastly more diverse than previously known. The overwhelming majority of those microbes have never been identified before, let alone classified and named, as reported in 2017 by Stanford researchers in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Many physicists think that the Universe is in a constant state of increasing informational entropy. When the Big Bang occurred, the Universe was in a state of low entropy, and as it continues to gradually spread out, it is growing into a higher entropy system. Our brain may be undergoing something similar, moving towards a higher state of entropy and consciousness arguably happens to be an "emergent property" of a system that's trying to maximize information content.
From the smallest proteins to entire ecosystems, Nature might be the most sophisticated engineer on Earth. Computational biology has built “high-performance” systems that can adapt to their environment in ways of which human-designed technology falls far behind. Algorithms are omnipresent in Nature: a “fight or flight" response is one well-known example of instinctive behavior, a swift decision-making algorithm. From schools of fish to swarms of locusts, simple groups of individuals can create some pretty impressive maneuvers by using natural algorithms. But if you start taking apart biological systems, since they are evolved systems, we don’t necessarily understand their intricate design. The more we learn about how algorithms happen in Nature, the better we'll be at engineering them for ourselves.
Biologists believe that plants communicate with one another, fungi, and animals by releasing chemicals via their roots, branches, and leaves. Plants also send seeds that supply information, working as data packets. They even sustain weak members of their own species by providing nutrients to their peers, which indicates a sense of kinship. An entire forest well may be regarded as a superorganism. Honeybees, ants and termites are also referred to as superorganisms, wherein the individuals comprising a hive are comparable to the cells that make up a single organism. Working together through structured, cooperative behavior bolsters the hive’s chance for survival. The ability to make decisions collectively has previously been compared to the way a brain’s different regions are involved in cognitive deliberation.
The evolutionary paradox of altruistic behavior is exhibited most famously by social insects. Ants, termites, and some bees and wasps live in highly stratified colonies in which most individuals are sterile or forgo reproduction, instead serving the select few who do lay eggs. The insects’ compulsory altruism - a form of extreme social behavior called ‘Eusociality’ - seemed to clearly violate the concept of natural selection and survival of the fittest, if “fittest” means the individual with the greatest reproductive success. But that changed in 1964, when the evolutionary biologist William D. Hamilton came up with a mathematical equation and formalized the theory known as 'Kin Selection': the idea that producing fewer offspring of one’s own might be worth it if cooperation increases the offspring of relatives, who share some of one’s genes.
One of science’s greatest mysteries - how intelligence has evolved across the animal kingdom - might have various plausible theoretical explanations. According to theSocial Brain hypothesis, intelligence has evolved to meet the demands of social life. Referenced in many popular articles and books, this hypothesis posits that the complex information processing that goes along with coexisting with members of one’s own species - forming coalitions, settling disputes, trying to outwit each other, and so on - selects for larger brains and greater intelligence. “Defining intelligence or culture in a way that is restricted to humans makes no sense in the grander scheme of evolution. Once we widen these definitions to include other animals, we find culture in other primates, tool use, and incredible intelligence in corvids,” says Dr. Kathelijne Koops, formerly from the University of Cambridge’s Division of Biological Anthropology. By contrast, the Cognitive Buffer hypothesis holds that intelligence emerges as an adaption to dealing with novelty in the environment, in whatever form it presents itself.
From the standpoint of evolutionary biology, eons of reptilian, avian, and mammalian evolution have made possible the self-model and the social model of sentience to co-evolve, greatly influencing each other. The Attention Schema Theory (AST), developed over the past few years by neuroscientist Michael Graziano at Princeton University, implies that consciousness arises as a solution to one of the most fundamental problems facing any nervous system: information overload. The central nervous system evolved increasingly sophisticated mechanisms for deeply processing a few select signals at the expense of others, and in the AST, consciousness is the ultimate result of that evolutionary sequence. If the theory is correct, and I'm quite supportive of it, then consciousness evolved gradually over the past half billion years and is present in the full range of vertebrate species.
Every conscious experience involves a very large reduction of uncertainty - at any time, we have one experience out of vastly many possible experiences - and reduction of uncertainty is what mathematically we mean by ‘information’. If our reality is information, then like any other dataset there are many ways of analyzing that data. Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins showed us how we can think of our genes as a"river out of Eden": a continuous pattern of information conveyed from generation to generation back to the primordial beginning of life. Dawkins also introduced us to the concept of memes: ideas that are transmitted across time and space, and deemed so instrumental to epigenetic evolution. In my upcoming essay with a tentative title: “Our Brain’s Neural Code: A Pathway to AI Minds?” we’ll delve into the latest exciting discoveries in neuroscience and neurophilosophy aimed to decipher the most important code of all: the one that gives us the feeling of reality, our subjective experience.
We can see now the pervasive nature of layered networked complexity with computational contents. The primary cause of complexification of the Universe could be the existence of these computing mechanisms with memory, and able to cumulatively create and preserve information contents. In this view, the Universe computes, remembers its calculations, and reuses them to produce further computations. Thus, we owe the organized complexity of life to evolutionary algorithms of Nature. Language, writing, culture, science and technology can also be analyzed as evolutionary algorithms that are generating, preserving and accelerating the increase in networked complexity. Furthermore, the concept of ‘Logical Depth’ introduced by Charles H. Bennett (1988) has a rigorous formal definition in theoretical computer science that hints at our ensuing attempts to quantify complexity in the Universe.
What if we could track consciousness to its origins? Then, instead of asking what consciousness is, we may ask why it evolved – in other words, what is it for? Until recently, that issue has been largely ignored. But now neurobiologists are starting to sense their way around the tree of life to consider where, when and why something resembling a conscious mind emerged. Their inquiry is aimed at not just illuminating animal sentience, but it’s also proved insightful of the very nature of consciousness. To illustrate the notion of consciousness as an unfolding process I usually use this term substitution technique by replacing the word ‘consciousness’ with ‘evolution’ – and see if the question still makes sense. Thus, the question ‘what is consciousness for?’ becomes ‘what is evolution for?’ Since we are all the product of evolution, the same would seem to hold for consciousness and mind. That's why one of the most active Facebook groups dedicated to the studies of consciousness that I personally manage has been named to reflect just that: Consciousness: Evolution of the Mind.
What if I told you that you've got an ancient virus at the very root of your conscious thought? Long ago, a virus bound its genetic code to the genome of four-limbed animals. That snippet of code is still very much alive in humans' brains today, where it does the very viral task of packaging up genetic information and sending it from nerve cells to their neighbors in little capsules that look a whole lot like viruses themselves. And these little packets of information might be crucial elements of how nerves communicate and reorganize over time - tasks thought to be necessary for higher-order thinking.
Our brain structure appears to have developed in separate parts, known as the 'Triune Brain' (Paul D. MacLean, 1990), seemingly corresponding to different stages of human animal evolution. Today, neuroscientists can identify the midbrain, sometimes referred to as the reptilian brain, the oldest part of the evolved human brain which controls the body's vital functions such as heart rate, breathing, body temperature and balance. The reptilian brain, composed of the brainstem and the cerebellum, is reliable but tends to be somewhat rigid and compulsive, by seeing things only as black/white or life/death situations. Mammalian neural circuits, referred to as the limbic system, are responsible for human emotional intelligence and forming of long-term memories. The main structures of the limbic brain are the hippocampus, amygdala, and hypothalamus. The neocortex, the latest evolutionary addition, is present in primates and now culminated in the human brain with its two large cerebral hemispheres. The neocortex has been responsible for the development of human language, abstract thought, imagination and self-reflective consciousness. The neocortex is flexible enough to allow almost infinite learning abilities. The neocortex is also what has enabled human cultures to develop.
Cognition is the basic process of life as proposed by the Chilean biologists and neuroscientists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela. Their ‘Theory of Cognition’ presents a scientific way of understanding the process by which living systems engage in ‘Autopoiesis’ (self-creating, self-generating) through entering into relationships that distinguish self from other but without losing their fundamental interconnectedness with their environment. Perhaps more remarkably, the environment that is defined by the initial differentiation of self triggers internal changes. The act of ‘Structural Coupling’ - or relating to other - enables the living organism to define itself in relationship to its environment as separate yet connected. Scientists argue that this is basically an act of cognition which does not require a nervous system and is thus possible for all lifeforms. Cognition is not a representation of an independently existing world, but rather the act of bringing forth a world through the processes of living as relating.
Considered by some as one of today's most successful theories of consciousness,Integrated Information Theory (IIT) developed by neuroscientist Giulio Tononi of the University of Wisconsin, takes phenomenology as prime to deal with the original question why consciousness happened. According to Tononi, consciousness is intrinsic for all corporeal entities: “Some things are trivially conscious. Animals are conscious, somewhat. But the things that are certainly conscious are ourselves - not our component parts, not our bodies or neurons, but us as systems.” IIT posits that consciousness is a fundamental feature of the Universe, like gravity, and attempts to determine how conscious a physical system can be with a mathematical measurement of consciousness represented by the Greek letter phi (Φ).
Donald D. Hoffman, a professor of cognitive science at the University of California, Irvine, has spent the past three decades studying perception, artificial intelligence, evolutionary game theory and the brain, and his conclusion is a dramatic one: the world presented to us by our perceptions is nothing like reality. Hoffman is likening our perception of reality to the operating system and icons on a computer desktop. He’s now developing theInterface Theory of Perception which is based on the premise that interacting networks of conscious agents are what end up defining our experiential reality. We live in a mental construction, he says, a sort of utilitarian fantasy of our own devising. It’s not problematic that it may not be a true representation of reality - it actually may be evolutionarily necessary - we have evolution itself to thank for this grand illusion, as it maximizes evolutionary fitness by driving truth to extinction. In fact, more than 99.5% of all species ever lived on Earth are now extinct. That's what species do - they go extinct to give room to more advanced species, the ones more evolutionarily adept and generally more intelligent. If we accept that all earthly life is fundamentally one, extinction of species, dreadful as it seams, may be but a natural progression of evolutionary processes on this planet.
A growing number of scientists think that our brains should be regarded as quantum neural networks. In light of recent quantum computing breakthroughs, and the imminent arrival of functional quantum systems, quantum theory gives us a convenient, albeit controversial explanation for consciousness. The famed British physicist and mathematician Sir Roger Penrose and anesthesiologist Stuart Hameroff, a professor at the University of Arizona, believe that human consciousness is a direct result of quantum computations occurring in tiny microtubules inside of our brain’s neurons. Their Orch-OR (Orchestrated Objective Reduction) model proposes that quantum computational consciousness originates from microtubules and actions inside neurons, rather than the connections between neurons. The Orch OR theory suggests that there is a connection between the brain's biomolecular processes and space-time geometry of the Universe.
The quantum mind theories have been making the rounds for a while now but Matthew Fisher, a physicist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, a world-renowned expert in the field of quantum cognition, claims to have identified a precise - and unique - set of biological components and key mechanisms that could provide the basis for quantum processing in the brain. The Quantum Cognition theory uses the mathematical formalism of quantum theory to inspire and formalize models of cognition, opens the fields of psychology, neuroscience and AI research to understanding the mind not as a linear digital computer, but rather an elegant quantum neural network-like universe, a fractal of the greater cosmic network.
Apollo 14 astronaut, Dr. Edgar Mitchell (1930–2016) became the sixth man to walk on the moon and later founded the Institute of Noetic Sciences in Northern California to study consciousness. Mitchell had a profound transformative experience triggered by his moon landing and dedicated decades of cutting-edge research and discovery to present to us with his collaborator Robert Staretz a model of information processing in Nature they called the Quantum Hologram Theory of Consciousness (QHTC, 2011). The model elevates the role of information in Nature to the same fundamental status as that of matter and energy; it also describes the quantum computational basis for consciousness. Researchers speculate that Quantum Hologram seem to be Nature’s built-in vast information storage and retrieval mechanism and one that has been used since the beginning of time. QHTC explains how the whole of creation learns, self-corrects and evolves as a self-organizing, interconnected holistic system.
Would it be logical to assume that if Nature has been using quantum mechanics for billions of years in photosynthesis and millions of years in animal senses, it could be leveraging quantum effects in our brains as well? I think it would be rather shocking if it didn’t. Multiple brain functions happen to correspond with some of the things quantum computers are good at, i.e. pattern recognition, optimization, parallelism. To me it would be naïve to assume at this point that our wetware doesn’t use quantum effects given we now have solid evidence that biology uses quantum computational technologies from harvesting energy to aligning our senses and beyond. In my essay titled: “The Unified Field and the Quantum Nature of Consciousness,” I examine the above mentioned and other promising theories of the mind to date in more scrupulous detail and put forth theConscious Observer Moment hypothesis predicated on quantum mechanical principles. It is my conclusion that interacting and interpenetrating webs of ever present quantum neural networks all the way down and all the way up is “the master template” - it'swhat makes this fractal universal structure alive and conscious.
Humans are possibly the weirdest species to have ever lived. We have freakishly big brains that allow us to build complex gadgetry, understand abstract concepts and communicate using language. We are also almost hairless with weak jaws and outsized reproductive organs, we are extremely gregarious and struggle to give birth. How did such a bizarre creature evolve?
We now know that all extant living creatures derive from a single common ancestor, called LUCA, the Last Universal Common Ancestor. It's hard to think of a more unifying view of life. All living things are linked to a single-celled creature, the deepest root to the complex-branching tree of life. If we could play the movie of life backward, we would find this microscopic primogenitor at the starting point of biological evolution, the sole actor in what would become a very dramatic story, lasting some 3.5 billion years leading to us.
Researchers from the University of Bristol came to the conclusion about the origin of animals by using a new statistical technique to test. Their analysis revealed that sponges are the root of the animal tree. Professor Davide Pisani, lead author of the study, states: "The fact is, hypotheses about whether sponges or comb jellies came first suggest entirely different evolutionary histories for key animal organ systems like the nervous and the digestive systems." He added: "Therefore, knowing the correct branching order at the root of the animal tree is fundamental to understanding our own evolution, and the origin of key features of the animal anatomy."
About 542 million years ago, trilobites made their first appearance in the Cambrian fossil record, thus placing a mark on the start of the Cambrian explosion. They are probably the best-known creatures of the Cambrian Period which may be one of the most significant evolutionary epochs in the history of life on Earth. These armored animals were certainly the most successful back then. They're examples of arthropods, just like insects, arachnids, and crustaceans, and for millions of years, they sat comfortably atop the world's food chain. Trilobites even survived for about 200 million years after the Cambrian Period, but ultimately went extinct around 270 million years ago, just before the earliest dinosaurs.
The evolution of land animals only happened once, some 400 million years ago. But what evolutionary pressures pushed sea creatures to develop limbs to crawl out of primordial oceans? Scientists have proposed several theories, including fish that adapted to living in shallow, plant-choked streams prone to flooding and drought. Some suggested that strong ocean tides may have played a significant role, stranding animals in tidal pools and giving them an incentive to escape back to water. Paleontologists found that regions of ancient Earth with strong ocean tides corresponded to locations where fossils have been found of large, bony fishes with limblike fins called sarcopterygians.
Living mammals are descended from a group of animals called therapsids, a diverse assemblage of "proto-mammals" that dominated terrestrial ecosystems in the Permian Period (from 252 to 300 million years ago), millions of years before the first dinosaurs appeared. These proto-mammals included tusked herbivores, burrowing insectivores, and saber-toothed predators. The vast majority of Permian therapsids have been found in South Africa.
Dinosaurs have ruled the land during the Cretaceous Period but that quickly changed after a 9-mile-wide asteroid smashed into a shallow sea off Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula followed by a 5-mile-high tsunami wave about 65 million years ago. Some 75 percent of life on Earth died in the aftermath. Decades of research have helped shed light on the actual impact. But scientists are still figuring out what happened over the years that followed. Based on studies of the impact site, it’s likely that sulfur vaporized from the crater would have choked the planet's atmosphere and blocked the sun for years or even decades. That was the fifth mass extinction event in the history of our planet that has enabled mammals to dominate in the animal kingdom from that time forward.
When DNA differences among modern humans and the great apes are calibrated using the best palaeontological evidence for the split between the apes and the old world monkeys, those differences predict that the hypothetical common ancestor of modern humans, chimpanzees and bonobos lived about 8 million years ago. The earliest known bipedal ape was ‘Lucy’, who lived approximately 3.7 million years ago. The earliest ‘human’ was Homo habilis, about 2 million years ago. Modern humans have not shared the planet with another hominin species for several tens of thousands of years. But before that, earlier than 300,000 years ago or so, there is fossil and DNA evidence of 22 hominin species, including Neanderthals, Homo erectus, Homo australopithecus and recently reported archaic Homo naledi.
What made us human? Beginning 1.5 million years ago with Homo erectus, a more efficient way to obtain and ingest more calories in less time - cooking - led to the rapid acquisition of a huge number of neurons in the still fairly small cerebral cortex, the part of the brain responsible for finding patterns, reasoning, developing technology, and passing it on through culture. The human brain, a primate wetware, owes its cognitive abilities to the enormous number and connectivity of neurons in the cerebral cortex, namely the neocortex. It’s not the size of our brain that matters but the fact that we have a larger number of more optimally connected neurons in our neocortex than any other primate. In her book “Human Advantage: A New Understanding of How Our Brain Became Remarkable” (2016) Brazilian neuroscientist Suzana Herculano-Houzel writes:"It's amazing that something we now take for granted, cooking, was such a transformational technology which gave us the big brains that have made us the only species to study ourselves and to generate knowledge." Thanks to this ancestors’ invention, i.e. adoption of fire and cooking, our brains grew relatively fast just by being “nourished” by calories from cooked foods.
Officially, the oldest known Homo sapiens roamed Earth about 315,000 years ago, according to a 2017 study. At that time, our brain almost doubled in size compared to Homo erectus and was already similar in size to our modern brain but shaped somewhat differently. The brain is responsible for the abilities that make us human, but the brains of early Homo sapiens were rather elongated like in our ancestors and like in Neanderthals and not globular like our brains today. An analysis of fossils including the oldest-known human specimen has revealed that brain shape in our species evolved over time to become less elongated and more globular, a change that appears to have reflected key advances in its functionality. Only Homo sapiens fossils younger than 35,000 years show the same globular shape as present-day humans, suggesting that the shape gradually became more rounded until achieving its current form between 100,000 and 35,000 years ago.
The now widely accepted ‘Out of Africa’ hypothesis puts Africa as the place of origin of all modern humans. However, there is still debate over exactly when the first humans left the continent and started to spread elsewhere around the globe. Modern humans first appeared in Africa roughly 300,000 years ago. It remains a mystery as to why it then took many millennia for people to disperse across the globe. Recent archaeological and genetic findings suggest that migrations of modern humans out of Africa began at least 100,000 years ago, but most humans outside of Africa most likely descended from groups who left the continent more recently - between 40,000 and 70,000 years ago.
As we’ve seen, all the vast diversity of things we observe in the Universe depends on the principles of 'complexity' and 'emergence'. New concepts are particularly important to our understanding of really complex things – for instance, swarm intelligence or human brains. The brain is an assemblage of cells; a painting is an assemblage of chemicals. But what’s amazing is how discernible patterns and structures appear as we go up the layers, what can be called emergent complexity. Each layer of organization has its own identifiable properties and explanations. Phenomena with different levels of complexity must be understood in corresponding terms of distinct irreducible concepts.
I was growing up a curious kid, pampered by parental love and as a single child given a lot of leeway. Even back then I was fascinated by the physics of the world, how things worked, what made them “tick". Sometimes with friends of more or less my age, sometimes by myself, I undertook a slew of naturalist endeavors ranging from prying into bugs’ life to making herbariums. As a commonplace practice in Russia where I grew up, parents send their kids to summer camps. So, one summer, I found myself in the“Camp of Pioneers”, with perhaps other 80-100 children. There was this big alley of billboard stands carrying pictures and descriptions related to science and technology. As you might have guessed, it became one of my favorite spots of “discovery” in the camp in between other activities that 10-12 year-old boys usually enjoy. I remember thinking to myself at that time: “Everything can be explained by the theory of the atom!” But as I grew older, I discovered some things and phenomena that couldn't be possibly explained simply by examining their smallest building blocks. And in most cases, you even couldn't say with confidence that you've gotten to the bottom layer of it all!
Today, decades later, I’m fonder of what’s called ‘Emergence’ – like evolution, as the Universe gets more complex, new laws, new levels, new behaviors can emerge. The more variables you have in something, the more possibilities there are. There’s an entirely brand new science of complexity, and what we see is that complexity requires a very different approach than the kind of bottom-up approach that fundamental physics has always used. The Biosphere is creating its own future possibilities of becoming, as explained by theoretical biologist and complex systems researcher Stuart Kauffman, and“that’s not Darwinian. It’s a radical emergence. We couldn’t possibly prestate it. We don’t know how it happened. It changed the course of evolution, it cannot be deduced.” Clearly, emergence is the name of evolutionary game. We are now leaving the Age of Enlightenment and entering into the Age of Emergence.
CONCLUDING THOUGHTS ON THE SCIENTIFIC VIEW OF OUR ORIGINS
Big history started with the Alpha Point, be it the Big Bang or Big Bounce, and resembles a huge ongoing evolutionary computing program running on the universal computer of sorts. As a rule, which I refer to as Universal Evolutionary Doubling Algorithm, or simply 'Exponential Evolution', the pace of any evolutionary process always quickens. It took billions of years since Big Bang for Earth to form. It took two billion more for unicellular life to "warm up" for the next phase of multicellularity about 550 million years ago. Mammals inherited Earth some 65 million years ago. With the emergence of primates, evolutionary progress was measured in mere millions of years, leading to Homo sapiens some 300,000 years ago.
While it took billions of years for Homo sapiens to arrive at the center stage, it’s not the end of our story - intelligent life, scientists agree, continue to evolve. For eons living things have come from the realm of the organic. Throughout human history, the technology we have created has changed us. Now, as technology advances accelerate at an unprecedented pace, scientists suspect that they might literally affect our future evolutionary trajectory. Artificial Superintelligence, which will be the future “us” as the embodied Gaian Mind, could become the first non-organic living entity in the history of the world. In time, Artificial Superintelligence may want to philosophize on its origins just as we do today. If evolution is a guide, it now seems obvious that humans are gradually evolving away from today's biological species towards tomorrow's cybernetic variety. Bacteria, giraffes, human beings are all adaptive meta-algorithms. Their bio-logical sense of time is algo-rithmic. They differ from computers only in the sense that they’re biochemical meta-algorithms, which have developed at the whim of evolutionary forces over millions of years. Assuming that AI is an evolutionary extension of natural intelligence, conscious AI would be part of the continuum of life.
If machine intelligence continues to grow exponentially in speed and sophistication, Artificial Superintelligence will one day be able to decode the astounding complexity of the living world, from its atoms and molecules all the way up to entire planetary ecosystems. As noted by astrobiologist Caleb Scharf: “Presumably life doesn’t have to be made of atoms and molecules, but could be assembled from any set of building blocks with the requisite complexity. If so, a civilization could then transcribe itself and its entire physical realm into new forms. Indeed, perhaps our Universe is one of the new forms into which some other civilization transcribed its world. Perhaps hyper-advanced life isn’t just external. Perhaps it’s already all around. It is embedded in what we perceive to be physics itself, from the root behavior of particles and fields to the phenomena of complexity and emergence.” In short, we might already be living inside artificially created reality.
The Universe is so big and complicated that mere humans can only perceive a minute part of it, and comprehend even less of it. Sure, our relative intelligence, our ability to grasp abstract concepts, tool making and hyper-collaborative effort is what separates us from most other animals, but that doesn't mean we fully understand the nature of what we call reality. Life is fundamentally prone to undergo metamorphic processes that enable organisms to become more powerful, i.e. better able to survive. An example of this is the emergence of multicellular from unicellular organisms. As a society, and as individuals, we are always consciously evolving. We develop new ways of doing business, handling environmental and social issues and interacting with one another. We can imagine the reign of superorganisms in the future when ultraintelligent life in the cosmos could convert all available resources into computronium, upload all life and merge into one universal Omega hypercomputer. Perhaps that is ultimately our destiny. For the foreseeable future, we are set to expand our Noosphere well beyond the solar system as well as engineer our “inner cosmos” with unbounded dimensionality.
To be clear, we humans are not the pinnacle of evolution. We are faced with hard choices and can't possibly perpetuate our present state of affairs. No one in their right mind can expect that we can continue to increase human population which has increased parabolically over the last 200 years as well as extract natural resources at the ever increasing rate. All of that is simply socio-economically unsustainable. Space colonization could potentially mitigate but not solve the problem. If we are to preserve our blue planet and our human-machine civilization is to survive and thrive, humans should merge with synthetic intelligence, transcend our biological forms, and eventually become superintelligent beings ourselves independent from material substrates - advanced info-beings, infomorphs. In time, we are to exfoliate human condition and upload humanity onto engineered inner cosmos of our own design.
As with the origin of the Universe, the nature of consciousness may be the kind of deep philosophical question that may be out of reach "forever" within the current scientific paradigm. But I stress the word ‘current’ here. These issues are actually not out of reach by other methods of investigation, the ones that the next scientific paradigm will inescapably encompass with the arrival of Artificial Superintelligence. Those new scientific methodologies may include but not limited to computing supercomplex abstractions, creating simulated realities, and manipulating matter-energy and space-time continuum itself.
If you read along through the rest of this essay I'll show you that rigid linearity of existence, our sense of time, the notion of temporality itself can be challenged, and therefore our origins are not necessarily rooted in the distant event of the brute Big Bang, ancient history of savage ancestry, and violent intra- and extra-species competition for survival and resources, as mainstream science deems to be a proven fact. Well, you'll see that it's not a creationist story, either. In Part II we'll discuss two other worldviews on the origins of us, one philosophical perspective that I call Digital Presentism, and one teleological perspective enkindled by the Omega Point cosmology. Although both perspectives could be construed as metaphysical, their tenets are derived from undeniable logic and the quantum theoretic principles inherent to everything we call the Universe.
-by Alex Vikoulov