On What's Happening

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ON WHAT’S HAPPENING

 

The Evolution of the Human Mind

 

Robert Scantlebury – July 1991


Preface. 5

Part 1 - Themes. 6

1 - Introduction. 6

2 - Questions and Answers. 7

3 - The Human Condition. 8

Philosophers Old and Young. 8

The Strategy of Helplessness. 9

The Roots of Faith. 10

In Two Minds. 10

The Age of Reason. 10

4 - History. 12

5 - Origins. 14

Evolution. 14

Animals. 14

Learning. 15

Conditioning. 15

A Theory of Mind. 16

6 - The Future of Mankind. 17

Synopsis. 17

Part 2 - New People. 19

1 - Limitations. 19

Spiritual Growth. 19

2 - Human Potential 21

Success and Failure. 21

3 - The Newborn. 23

4 - The Infant Genius. 24

Early Learning. 24

Language. 25

The Unconscious. 25

5 - Layers of the Mind. 26

Transactional Analysis. 26

Psychology versus Philosophy. 27

6 - The World Without Words. 28

The Inquiring Spirit 28

The First View of the World. 28

Where Does 'I' Come From?. 29

Love and Hate. 29

7 - Sex and Gender 31

Sex. 31

Female Gender 31

Male Gender 32

Families. 32

Morality. 32

8 - Truth and Beauty. 34

Intuition. 34

Models. 34

Beauty. 35

Right 35

Crises. 36

9 - Growing up. 38

One or Many?. 38

Reality. 38

Part 3 - The Story So Far 40

1 - The Evolution of Life. 40

Classical Evolution. 40

Lack of Purpose. 40

The Path to the Top. 41

2 - Genetics. 42

The Biochemistry of the Gene. 42

Genetic Control 43

Embryology. 43

Genes and Evolution. 44

Mutation. 45

New genes. 46

3 - The Origin of Life. 47

The Early Days. 47

What is Life?. 48

A Genetic Fable. 48

4 - Order out of Chaos. 50

Entropy. 50

Probability. 50

Inevitability. 51

Energy. 52

Geometric Growth. 52

5 - Behaviour 53

Movement 53

Stimulus and Response. 53

Plants Become Animals. 54

Neural Networks. 55

Hard or Soft 55

Patterns. 56

Memes. 57

6 - Memetics: What are Genes?. 58

Why Now?. 58

Genes. 58

Immortality. 59

7 - Memetics: What are Memes?. 61

What Genes Do. 61

What Memes Do. 61

The Genetic Paradigm.. 62

Reflection. 63

Why Behave At All?. 63

Reprise. 63

Part 4 - Synthesis. 65

1 - Models of Reality. 65

The Origin of Language. 65

Viral Memes. 66

Memetic Disease. 67

Paradigms and Metaphors. 67

2 - Summary. 69

3 - So What?. 70

The Universe. 70

The Creation. 71

That Just About Wraps It Up For God. 71

Getting Okay. 72

Conclusion. 73

 


Preface

I wrote the first draft of this essay in longhand between 9 June and 19 June 1991.  This second draft is the first fair copy of it, which I have written mainly so that it can be reviewed (my writing is somewhat difficult to read).  The text of the essay is more or less as per the first draft, with some typographical and stylistic changes.  However, its structure has been radically changed, particularly Part 2, in order to present my ideas in what is, I think, a more logical order.  This has necessitated some rewriting where the flow of the piece would have been disjointed otherwise, and also the insertion of many new sections - the word count just keeps getting higher!

 

Another note on the style of this essay.  I have deliberately avoided references to any modern work, although in many cases it is clear that I am basing my ideas on such work, and it may even be clear to the reader which works and authors these are.  There are a number of reasons for this: I wrote the whole thing off the top of my head and didn't look anything up (apart from how to spell Nietzsche!), so to keep it consistent I didn't include references; I do not regard this essay as an academic work, and I find the abundance of footnotes and references in such works as clutter which gets in the way of a clear presentation of ideas; good ideas stand on there own without the support of a famous name; finally, there are two possible books that I could turn this essay into - a short one, say 50,000 words without references (but a list of 'further reading')  - and a long one, 100,000 words plus, with references and quotes galore, which would require a lot more work, which I don't want to do now and delay review.

 

In this second draft I have tried to shape the essay into a bookish form, but this is not a fixed form, and it may even be better to write the book from scratch using a totally different structure - I'm open to suggestions.  But there are two questions I am keen to have answered: Are these good ideas?  and Have I put them well?  If the answer to both of these is YES, then I need no encouragement to write the book.  If the answer to either is NO, then can anything be done about it?

 

If this strikes you as a damned silly way to write a book about anything, you'll have to let me know what you would have done - as for me, I'm just making it up as I go along!

 

Bob Scantlebury, July 1991


Part 1 - Themes

1 - Introduction

This 'impromptu' essay expands my ideas on philosophy as they apply to humans and the universe these creatures ('we') seem to me to inhabit.  It is by way of an outline and is somewhat dogmatic and terse, since its purpose is to serve as the basis of a more detailed working out later, in book form.

 

In Part 1 I introduce the themes which will recur in later Parts and relate these themes to the the central one of understanding what Man is, who we are, and what it is to be human.

 

Part 1 is about Man today, what sort of state we are in, how we got here, and how we might do something about it.  It concentrates on the human race, rather than the individual person, this being the subject of Part 2, which is mainly about babies.  Part 3 is an excursion into the origins of Man, and therefore of each of us, as explained by evolution and genetics.

 

Part 4 is an attempt to explain the conclusions reached in Part 2 in terms of evolution, specifically the evolution of the mind.  In conclusion, I speculate upon the potential ramifications of this explanation.

 

Note: I use the word 'human' rather than 'man' to avoid seeming sexist, but I shall most often say 'we'.  When I use 'Man' I wish to evoke its classical sense.  When discussing the human infant I will use the term 'he' for convenience, to distinguish the child from the mother, 'she', who is invariably female.


2 - Questions and Answers

It seems that certain questions are amenable to 'scientific' investigation, and others are not.  Their was once a branch of philosophy called 'Natural Philosophy', the philosophy of Nature, which has disappeared today; its role has been taken over by what we call 'Science'.  What remains, the rest of philosophy, concerns those questions which science appears to be unable to answer.  Why not?  If science cannot answer these questions, are they therefore unanswerable?  Is a question which cannot be answered a question at all, or is it just nonsense?  With the advent of science, what remains for philosophy to do?  Is science a branch of philosophy, or philosophy a branch of science, or are they quite separate disciplines, or do they 'overlap'?  Why am I asking these questions?

 

I can only answer the last question: I'm pointing out that the division between science and philosophy is arbitrary, or at least that there is no agreement as to what the division should be.  And there is no consensus as to what the answers to the first few questions should be.  As a fervent adherent of both disciplines, I most often find myself wandering about in the murky area between the two.  To a 'pure' scientist, this habit fairly and squarely brands me a 'philosopher' since pure science is about facts, observations, experiments, theories which can be tested, ideas which are useful, meaningful propositions, and so on.  It is not about a lot of airy-fairy speculative nonsense, or systems of pure ideas, or trying to find questions we can't answer, or trying to undermine the very basis of everything we believe in.  I find this attitude somewhat blinkered.  To a 'pure' philosopher, my love for science might also seem suspect, because science is incomplete; it can only supply half the answers since it deals with the 'outside world', the empirical world, and has almost nothing to say about the 'inside world', about Man.  I have more sympathy with this viewpoint, but I hope its wrong.  I say this because if its right, then some questions are genuinely unanswerable, and I'd like to think they're not.

 

Interestingly, there is one academic discipline which also straddles the border between science and philosophy, and between the inside and the outside worlds; Mathematics.  I note this in passing and shall have no more to say on it here.

 

It seems to me that the 'inside world' is just as amenable to scientific investigation as anything else.  We have already made a few stabs at it: animal behaviour, psychology, neurology, psychiatry, linguistics, logic, and so on.  There are also the so called humanities: history, geography, sociology, anthropology, and so on; but these fields deal with large numbers of people, and I think we should try to understand individuals first, and groups later.  The proper study of Man is Man himself.  And the best is example we each have of Man is ourselves.

 

Here is the nub of the problem: self reference.  How can the subject of an investigation also be the investigator?  Surely there will be a 'conflict of interest'?  We will only reveal to ourselves the things we want ourselves to know! And we are unlikely to agree to the performing of experiments upon ourselves.  Similar arguments hold (in a free society) with regard to the collection of data from other individuals.  For these reasons the study of Man has proceeded fitfully at best, and many of our ideas about ourselves are based upon almost anecdotal evidence, or superstition, or myth.

 

The approach I have adopted is to gather information from as many fields as possible which deal with individual humans, and particularly with how they interact with the world, and to try to relate this information with my own experience.  Over the years, a pattern has emerged; and it is this pattern I shall be discussing here.  There are a number of key features which I can spell out now in order to make understanding the main text easier.

 

Man is an animal, a 'super-ape', a species which has evolved on Earth just as all species have, from out of the 'primordial soup' which covered the planet billions of years ago.  To understand Man as animal we must study Biology, Zoology, and animal behaviour.  The 'secrets' of Man lie in his origins, and the secrets of each individual lie in his or her origins.  Complexity increases with time, so the further back in time one goes, the simpler things become.  To understand the complexity, start with the simple origins, run the film forward slowly, and incorporate the complexity piece by piece as it arises.  This is what one does in order to understand Man as individuals; the study of Psychology.  Only when we have a grasp of the basics, Man as animal and as individual, can we go on to look at 'modern' Man: civilisation, culture, art, religion, society, politics and so on.

 

This is the broad plan I have followed herein.


3 - The Human Condition

The term 'human condition' implies that there is some attribute characteristic of humans, some 'state of being', which distinguishes them from other creatures.  We do not use the terms 'life condition', 'animal condition', or 'mammal condition' (though we presumably experience these states too) because the attribute is peculiar to humans, we uniquely possess it.  What is this attribute?  There are several aspects to it, but central to our condition is our awareness of our existence, and of our predicament, and our unceasing quest to explain and control our lives.  In other words we are (fully) conscious, and we never stop asking questions.  But what is consciousness, and what is it to be conscious?

 

These are deep questions, about which whole books could be written.  For my current purposes, though, I propose to use a working definition of consciousness which is, I hope, not too far from what most people would assume consciousness to be.  A human being, and indeed any animal, is conscious insofar as it is able to 'record' experiences and feelings which it is then able to use, in some way, to cope with life.  On this definition, consciousness alone is not sufficient to distinguish humans from higher animals, which are in all probability just as aware (in terms of recording experience) as we are.

 

The extra element possessed by humans is that they are supremely capable of using the information they record to, as I have put it, 'cope with life'.  They don't just record naked experience, they try to structure it, to ask questions about it, to use it to predict future events and to solve problems.  This ability is usually given the name 'intelligence', and humans possess this to a degree not even approached other animals.  Our intelligence supports our prodigious abilities, to use tools to shape our environment, and to use language to build and maintain complex societies.

 

But whilst most people would agree that humans are conscious and intelligent, they imply a lot more than this by the phrase 'human condition'; they imply that tragedy and pain are fundamental to us, that in some way this is the price we pay for out gifts, that to be human is to 'know too much', and that this knowledge is dangerous and unbearable.

 

Perhaps it is not that we know too much but that we know too little.  Though blessed with intelligence, we are also cursed with insatiable curiosity.  We want to know, and we want to know the truth - we are not interested in wild guesses, or half answers, or incomprehensible theories.  There are periods in our lives during which we seem to be happy, 'without a care in the world', enjoying life.  Sometimes these periods last a lifetime, but more often they last a few years, or even a few days - some people never have them at all.  At the end of one of these interludes, we often conclude that we were just kidding ourselves, that we were really living in a fool's paradise, in blissful ignorance, and that life is actually hell.  Life's a bitch, and then you die.

 

There seem to be two fundamentally opposing viewpoints.  One is that there is an Answer, if only we could find it.  The other is that this is just a con, something for us to strive for, something to do so we don't just end it all now.  Adherents of the Answer follow religion or mysticism or humanist doctrines.  The other camp contains pessimists, sceptics, pragmatists, realists, or whatever name they wish to adopt who have resigned themselves to living without an Answer, and adjusted their attitudes to cope.  Many people seem to swing from one camp to the other depending what day of the week it is, what hat they have on, or what their horoscope says.

 

What is to be made of all this?  They can't all be right, can they?  Surely, either one camp is right, or neither camp is?  If neither then what do we do?  It is to get a grip on these questions that the discipline of Philosophy has arisen, though it can't necessarily always provide an answer.

 

Philosophers Old and Young

One way to look at it is that philosophy is an attempt to address the question 'What's Happening?'.  Whilst a large part of this endeavour has been taken over by the disciplines we call Science, we still turn to philosophy to supply us with the 'ground rules' and to answer some of the more difficult and personal questions.  I believe that each of us is a philosopher, and the time at which we really do answer our difficult questions is the time we first ask them: when we are born.  It is to this person, the Newborn, that philosophers should address their questions, both to find out what the 'true' answers are, and to find out why it is that philosophy has so far not come up with these answers.

 

There is an unfortunate tendency in our societies for one person or type of person to set themselves up as somehow 'better' than another person or type of person.  This happens whenever some luckless individual, for whatever reason, needs help or assistance in any way.  Suddenly there is a polarization - the Helper and the Helped; the Can-Do and the Can't-Do.  There are many examples: Doctor and Patient, Teacher and Pupil, Expert and Layman, Preacher and Flock, Parent and Child.  When someone adopts this 'better than' attitude, we say they are 'patronizing'; acting as if they were the father.  But actually, both father and mother are also being patronizing (in its negative sense) towards their children, and it is no more 'right' for them to be so than it is for the Helper to patronize the Helped.  I believe that this attitude, 'I know best - you need to be helped', is a great sickness in our societies and is the cause of much misery and strife.  I will not pursue the point, though, except in the case of philosophers.

 

Just as parents imagine they know better than the children, so philosophers think they know better than the rest of us, at least about philosophy.  They would think it quite absurd if one were to suggest that the primitive ideas in the unformed mind of a baby of but a few months old were as valid as their own massive and profound theories concerning the meaning of life, the nature of reality and the existence of God, of Good and of Evil.  But I think that the baby's ideas are not only as valid, they are in many ways more valid, more profound and a good deal more 'true' (whatever that might mean) than the reams of verbiage churned out by philosophers.

 

The Strategy of Helplessness

It is easy to see how the patronizing attitude of philosophers arose, grounded as it is in the attitude of the parents towards their children.  Clearly, the newborn infant is completely helpless; he does need help.  But this is not accidental; it is not a mistake that nature has somehow made, that we are born 'too soon', before we are ready for life.  The relationship of the caring parent and the helpless infant has evolved over millennia because it is the best way (or rather the 'optimal' way) for humans to learn and to be adaptable.  The adaptability of humans to the countless possible situations and environments that they might encounter is the chief reason for their success and the dominance they currently enjoy over the rest of the animal kingdom.  I discuss this in more detail elsewhere.  The point I'm trying to make here is this: if the human infant was born more 'ready' than he is, in other words with a more extensive set of built in behaviour patterns or instincts (just as insects and birds have), then he would be less adaptable, the period of learning he had to go through would be shorter, his brain wouldn't need to be as large, and he wouldn't be as intelligent and successful as he actually is.  In fact, he wouldn't be human.  It is the essence of being human to be born totally helpless, and to have to find one's own way in the world.

 

Of course, it is less than true to say that the infant is 'totally helpless'.  Nature has provided a wondrous thing to help the Newborn: 'Maternal Instinct'.  The mother loves the baby and will do everything in her power to protect and care for it.  In a sense, the mother is the slave of the child, which is quite the reverse of the Helper-Helped relationship.  The father too is enslaved, though for purely biological reasons (because he hasn't had to carry and give birth to the child), the father's feelings are not as powerful as the mother's.  In a 'healthy' family (I explain elsewhere what I mean by this) the father has some 'maternal instinct' too (I think 'maternal' is the right word here because his desire to care for the child derives from his feminine nature - the 'paternal instinct' is something else again, which I discuss elsewhere).  Both parents are enslaved to the child.  Depending again upon the 'health' of the family, this enslavement can be all too obvious, and one or other of the parents may try to break free - many marriages seem to fail when the couple has children.  But parents can counter their feelings of thralldom by simply enjoying the child - it is cute and funny and helpless (some of the time) and as it develops a personality it can become a source of delight and wonder.  Rather less laudably, parents can rationalise their role using what you might call the 'Victorian' attitude.  To cope with the negative feelings engendered by parenthood, they adopt the role of the Helper, the Guide, the Keeper (and so on) of the 'helpless', 'ignorant', 'immature', 'un-ready', 'incapable' child.  This is the patronizing attitude I am critical of - it may be a palliative, but I think it is wrong.

 

What seems to happen, from the child's point of view, is this.  The infant initially tries to make sense of things on its own.  It has no choice but to do so since its ability to communicate with its mother is very limited.  At this stage, the child makes some very fundamental decisions about 'reality', life, and his place in it.  Later, when he acquires language, he realises that a quick way to a better understanding is to ask lots of questions.  He does this, and the parents dutifully answer as best they can, but they have to stop answering sometime out of embarrassment, ignorance, tiredness or because they think its better that the child doesn't know.  Depending upon exactly how the parents handle this problem, they can be more or less patronizing about it.  Inevitably, there remain questions (usually the more important ones) which the child never gets answered to his satisfaction.  He doesn't worry too much about this because he knows he will find out about these things one day, when he is 'old enough to understand' or when he 'grows up'.  In later life, depending upon several factors which one can summarise as how curious the individual is, he may put aside his burning questions, or he may accept answers from some authority figure (teacher, doctor, vicar), or he may find his answers in books (the Bible, an encyclopaedia, philosophy books), or he may remain unsatisfied, still seeking answers to his questions.  Another way that people can end up being dissatisfied is that they initially accept some set of answers but later become disillusioned with them, perhaps as the result of some powerful emotional experience.  The dissatisfied continue their search for 'truth' in adult life and become philosophers or theologians.

 

The Roots of Faith

As adults, philosophers spend a great deal of time and effort reading about, writing about, thinking about and talking about these questions and their putative answers.  They are perhaps entitled to say that they have a much better grasp of the issues involved, a deeper understanding than the 'man in the street', and certainly than the newborn baby! (After all, it is because they couldn't answer these questions themselves as babies that they still pursue them now.) But for all their vast 'knowledge' and plethora of ideas, the answers they give to these questions are not ultimately based upon any rational set of precepts or upon direct evidence, as Science demands.  All they can do is to assert their beliefs, holding to them not by dint of reason but from sheer faith.

 

Their faith is rooted, I believe, in the ideas formed in the dawning mind of the newborn child that they once were, the very same being towards which they now adopt such a condescending and patronizing attitude.  For this reason, they must throw away their superior attitude and address the Newborn on equal terms.  The world of the Newborn is a world without words, a world of pure images and ideas.  Partly because of this, it is also an unconscious world.  It seems that it is only when we acquire language, and are able to 'tag' our ideas with words, that we have access to our own minds and have conscious thoughts.  But the words we use, the beliefs we express, are themselves based upon ideas created by the Newborn, upon wordless, unconscious beliefs.  When asked 'why do you believe that?' we are, if we are honest, likely to say 'I don't know - I just do' or 'it seems right to me'.

 

In Two Minds

It is as if the mind were composed of two parts: the primary part created by the Newborn and hence more fundamental, wordless and unconscious, the source of faith and belief; the other part created later out of language, founded upon the ideas created by the primary part and hence secondary to it.  An explanation of the dual nature of the mind is one of my major concerns.  There are many labels one could attach to these two aspects of mind, and I will refer to them both by a variety of names according to context.  But the main names I will use refer to what I believe the main function of each of the faculties is.  The function of the fundamental, wordless, unconscious faculty seems to be to decided what to believe in, to discern 'Truth' - lets call this faculty 'Intuition'.  The function of the conscious, language based faculty seems to be to 'sort things out', to give labels to things and to describe their relationships to each other - lets call this faculty 'Reason'.

 

One of the difficulties with philosophy and with human affairs generally, particularly in the modern materialistic and technological world, is that Reason has been given far too much importance, far too much to do; more than it can actually bear.  Before going on to look at Intuition, I want to suggest how Reason, in the guise of Science, dominates modern thinking.

 

The Age of Reason

Science and Technology have been spectacularly successful over the past few hundred years in increasing the standard of living of most people in the Western World.  Its achievements in the Third World, however, are so far somewhat less impressive.  The basis of this success is the triumph of Reason, the application of scepticism and rigour, the need for proof and clarity.  The cause was championed by philosophers and early 'scientists' (such as Descartes, Voltaire, Newton and others) and led to that great flowering of knowledge known as the Enlightenment.  Hitherto, knowledge had been meted out by the Church which interpreted the work of Plato and Aristotle done 2,000 years previously.  A lot of this ancient 'knowledge' was simply wrong, and it was probably about time it was debunked.  But somewhere along the way they threw the baby out with the bath-water.

 

Science explains a lot, but it doesn't explain everything.  Technology provides a lot but it doesn't provide everything.  The dividing line, after which science becomes inarticulate, seems to be between non-human and human affairs.  Physics, Chemistry and Biology are easy meat, but Man is orders of magnitude more difficult to explain.  The reason for this is that we are probably the most complex phenomenon that is currently known about.  Another is that experimenting upon living humans is not permitted in our society, so it is impossible to get reliable data from which to develop theories.  A third is that a system studying itself, Man studying Man, throws up a whole host of problems.

 

The majority of the worlds problems concern the activities of Man.  Without us all it would have to contend with would be natural disasters like hurricanes, earthquakes and volcanoes, which it has been happily coping with for billions of years.  Most of Man's problems concern Man too, the abuse of Man's power, the rape of the Earth, war and despotism.  If we could understand Man that would be half the battle.  But science is almost mute on the subject.  We have nowhere to turn to but the other disciplines, ones in which Reason plays little part and emotion takes over; the heart rules the head.  If not a recipe for disaster this is certainly a recipe for confusion, which is exactly what we've got.

 

If Reason is not the answer, perhaps the place to look is not to lower our sights toward emotional solutions, but to raise them toward a faculty greater than Reason?


4 - History

The idea of raising one's sights rather than lowering them is not a new one.  History is full of instances of individuals and peoples who decided that they were capable of better things, destined for greatness, meant to do change the world.  Such instances were the birth of Empires, usually short lived, or the birth of Religions, which still survive.

 

It is probably a question of where one's eyes come to rest when one looks up.  If they alight upon one's reflection, one becomes the instrument of greatness oneself, which happened to Alexander, Napoleon and Hitler.  If their gaze turns to the sky, one posits a God, something greater outside oneself, which inspired Abraham, Jesus and Mohammed; the great figures of Western religions.  If one's eyes rest upon Nature, upon Creation one becomes a Pantheist.  If they rest on one's neighbour, one becomes a Humanist.  If they rest on nothing in particular, but encompass everything, Man and Nature, one becomes an adherent of the Eastern tradition: Hinduism, Buddhism, Tao.

 

These instances are rare (though they are probably more common than history records), but a successful leader or founder is one who has a vision and is able to communicate that vision to the people, his followers; they come to believe in the leader.  This is only possible if each of us actually has a 'spark of greatness' within us, waiting to be kindled.  The sense of there being 'something greater' is a sense we all share; it is the desire to have a cause, a purpose, a meaning, something to believe in, for there to be an Answer.  It seems to me that it was this was the baby that the Enlightenment threw out with the bath-water of religious indoctrination.  Perhaps they thought that God could manage on His own without the doctrines, or that Reason would somehow support God in the stead of dogma.  The Church clearly perceived otherwise, which was why they took a hard line with the likes of Galileo.  But for better or worse, Reason won the day, and why not?  After all Galileo was right, wasn't he?  Yes - but that's not the point.  By destroying the edifice created by the Church, the Enlightenment knocked God's legs from under him.  If He didn't stand upon this rock, where did He stand?

 

For many people, the need for God (for an Answer), was greater than any need to explain His existence using the new fangled and suspect power of Reason.  But philosophers, who had been preserving Reason since the days of the Greeks, redoubled their efforts to employ it to prove that He existed.  There were some notable near misses, but ultimately they failed; probably because it can't be done.  Ironically, their efforts to establish beyond doubt that God was real worked against them, since what they actually did establish was that God and Reason are incompatible.  This was the nail in the coffin for many (notably Nietzsche who proclaimed 'God is dead' over the roof-tops via his alter ego, Zarathrustra), and as Reason accumulated success after success (the Agricultural Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, steam, electricity, medicine, IT) it gradually became less and less fashionable or credible to try to hold that both Reason and God could exist together.

 

The only way out, it seems, is to assume that God exists 'outside' Reason, or above it; that there are 'levels of explanation'.  In this scheme, Reason is not the ultimate or highest level of explanation, there is a greater one.  There are weak versions of this doctrine, and strong ones, roughly corresponding to the Western viewpoint and the Eastern one.  The Western or weak version replaces Reason by Faith.  A pure 'Fideist' rejects all attempts to use Reason to support God, and when asked why he believes in Him, says 'I just do.' It is an article of Faith.  The Eastern version is stronger (and more difficult) and replaces Reason with Knowledge.  This is not ordinary knowledge, accumulated from outside oneself using the faculty of Reason, but inner knowledge, achieved through meditation, which is true Knowledge and not the flimsy stuff based on the disinformation which our senses give to us.  The Eastern Answer is not usually referred to as God, since It differs in outward appearance to our Western 'old man in the sky' tradition, but It occupies the same position; Number One.

 

As I have already intimated, my own position is that the faculty I call Intuition is indeed 'greater' than the faculty of Reason, and that Faith and Knowledge are aspects of Intuition.  On this basis, believers, East or West, hold their beliefs 'Intuitively'.  All they are really saying is that their belief 'works for them', and this is one definition of truth; what works.  It is not the same as Truth, absolute truth, which would work for everyone (though presumably believers imagine that their 'truth' would work for everyone if only they believed it!).  The idea of 'relative truth' is a problem I address elsewhere.

 

Intuition itself is not the Answer, of course, it is merely that it is Intuition which will 'guide' the search for the Answer, and will tell us how close we are to it.  It is for this function, the Guide, which many people attempt to employ Reason, but in vain.  All Reason can do is suggest answers, to shuffle data, to play with words, to deal the pack until we get the 'right hand'.  This work is my version of the ideal hand.


5 - Origins

Evolution

Where did we come from?  Were we created by God?  If so are we all descended from Adam and Eve?  For a long time, this seemed to be the only explanation.  But two hundred years or so ago, geological evidence, particularly fossils, seemed to suggest that the Earth was incredibly ancient and that many prehistoric animals had existed that were now extinct.  It was argued that successive generations of animals might gradually change, develop new features and habits, until a species actually changed into several different species, rather like the many breeds of dog that had been produced.  Perhaps all species had 'evolved' in this way, including Man, from a common origin many millions of years ago.

 

Darwin developed a theory of 'natural selection' which provided a mechanism for evolution, and Mendel founded the theory of genetics which explained the mechanism of heredity. Today genetic evolution is the orthodox scientific theory which accounts for the development of life on Earth from a common origin 3 billion years ago.  People still argue about the details, and speculate as to what the common origin, The Origin of Life, might be.  But it is generally accepted that Man is an animal which developed out of ape-like creatures (from which modern apes also developed) just a few million years ago by a process of evolution.  Modern Man first appeared some tens of thousands of years ago, and much evidence exists as to the way we used to live and the way our modern civilisation arose.

 

By 'Modern Man' I mean us, our species, people identical to us in every way and with which, if time travel were possible, 20th century individuals could breed.  We have not evolved at all in 50,000 years.  'Stone Age Man' had physical and mental equipment identical to ours - they were just as able and clever as we are.  Clearly their life style was very different, though.  They lived in small groups or tribes and were nomadic, wandering the plains in search of new food supplies, sleeping under the stars.  Being relatively poor runners they used their wits rather than speed to hunt prey and to escape predators.  Until they discovered fire and stone tools, their behaviour would have been unremarkable, just another kind of ape, eeking out an existence, scraping by.  So what happened in the last 50,000 years to turn these apes into us?

 

To understand Man one must first understand how the 'animal' came to be, and second how that animal developed into us, how we developed our civilisation.  The second question is the more difficult, but clues to it are contained in the answer to the first, and that is that the human animal developed by evolution.  Lets have a look at this human animal.

 

Animals

Human beings are conscious and intelligent organisms, capable of asking questions.  How do these attributes distinguish them from the other life-forms found on Earth?  Take consciousness, the ability to record experience, first.  Plants and lower animals are excluded from this attribute since they do not record experience at all, they are not capable of learning.  In fact, they don't have to learn: plants don't do anything, they just sit there and take whatever comes; micro-organisms, worms, insects and fish don't learn how to behave, they are 'programmed' from birth by instincts which govern every aspect of their lives.  There are one or two exceptions to this general rule, but I don't want to go into detail here - suffice it to say that some 'lower' animals exhibit learning of a mechanical kind which does not involve consciousness.  Amphibians and reptiles probably do a little learning, judging from the size of their brains, but just how much I don't know.  I'm not sure that anybody does, since they don't appear to be anyone's favourite experimental subject.  Birds seem to be a judicious mixture of instinct and learning; for instance bird-song is a learned behaviour pattern but nest building is instinctive.  But instinct predominates.

 

Only when we get to mammals (warm blooded animals with fur which do not lay eggs but bear the embryo in a womb and which later suckle their young) do we encounter a class of animals for which learning as opposed to instinct plays a major role in controlling behaviour.  Mammalian infants, from mice to cats to humans, go through a special phase of growth from birth to maturity during which they acquire all the knowledge they will need to deal with the problems of survival within their particular ecological niche.  This phase is quite distinct from the larval stage of insect growth or the short period of juvenile growth in fish and reptiles, during which the main preoccupation of the young creature is to increase in size.  The distinction is that young mammals are laying down behaviour patterns, learning.  Their behaviour as infants is very different from their behaviour as adults and they need the protection and care of their parents for the whole of the period just to survive it.  Of all mammals, humans go through the longest period of learning - between 10 and 20 years (allowing for individual variation and the arbitrary nature of when a person can be said to have 'grown up').  Why does it take so long?  Because, in a sense, we have to learn everything! When we are born we have almost no instinctive behaviour at all, apart from a few reflexes like crying and sucking.  We are 'totally helpless', the essence of the 'human condition'.  True, we have urges and drives for food and comfort and later for sex and defending territory and so on, but we have no idea how we are going to satisfy our desires.  Having no inborn methods, we have to learn how, and it takes a long time.

 

Learning

Clearly we humans have been spectacularly successful at 'learning how'.  This success is due to many factors, which I won't go into in any detail save to list them.  The main advantage of learning over instinct is that it makes us exceedingly adaptable to changes in our circumstance such as climate and terrain; it gives us a wide variety of possible niches and strategies to use whereas the instinctive creature is tied to a particular habit and habitat.  We also live in large groups which permit each of us to adopt and specialise in a particular social role, such as farming, hunting, defending or child rearing.  This allows the development of a 'social machine' which easily dominates the disorganised competition (in other words all the other species) in the fight for food, water and space.  We have developed language by which we can pass on experience and instruction to other group members, and written language which allows a permanent record to be made for succeeding generations.  We have inquiring and creative minds (this being an absolute requirement for the human child which has to make sense of and ultimately find his way in the world), and this nature, when it extends beyond the day to day exigencies of existence and beyond childhood into adult pursuits, has lead us to research into the fundamental principles of the universe, and given us the science and technology with which we currently control our environment.

 

What is learning?  One way to look at it is as the acquisition of a set of ideas or hypotheses about the world which together constitute an interrelated set or model.  As new experiences are incorporated into the model, new hypotheses are formed and the model is modified.  The model is used to predict possible outcomes for various possible behaviours of the growing organism.  When the model works, correct outcomes are predicted and the accuracy of the model is confirmed.  When the predicted outcome does not occur, it may be that the model requires modification.  In general, the organism behaves so as to bring about certain conditions (the satisfaction of desires) and predicts that such and such a behaviour will bring about those conditions.  How successful an organism is is largely determined by how good its model is, how close to reality the model is, at least in terms of the organism's current needs.

 

Conditioning

What I am describing here is what has come to be known as 'conditioning'.  In simple terms, this is just 'trial and error', 'reward and punishment'.  For the growing human child, trying to comes to terms with the world, to form a good model of it, to develop good ideas and working hypotheses, conditioning is all important.  If the child is rewarded, by a parent or by success, the idea which led to the given behaviour will be strengthened.  Conversely, if the child is punished, directly or else simply by failure, an idea is weakened.  It is not an all or nothing phenomena, but in general ideas which always result in failure are quickly abandoned, whereas ideas which work are held on to.

 

Conditioning has been used primarily as the explanation of behaviour in animals, not as an explanation for the formation of ideas.  But all I am proposing here is that animals, which learn behaviour patterns by conditioning, must store these patterns in their brains.  It is these patterns which I am calling 'ideas' or 'hypotheses', because that is what they are called in humans.  We have no evidence that animals have ideas which are exactly like our own thoughts, but the more intelligent of them do learn their behaviour, and they behave as if they had a model of the world 'in their heads' which guides their actions.  We can call the elements of such animal models 'ideas', comparable to our own ideas.  I don't doubt that our models of the world are vastly more complex than that of even the most intelligent animal (the current holder of this title being the chimpanzee), and that our ideas are correspondingly more profound, but in principle there is no difference.  The model exists to guide our behaviour; and the elements of it, the individual hypotheses, are just 'ideas'.

 

I am labouring this point somewhat because there is a bone of contention between so called 'Behaviourists' and their opponents as to what goes on in the brains of animals, and therefore in our brains.  It is, I believe, a common mistake made by opponents to Behaviourism that Behaviourists think that what goes on in the brain is somehow not important, or that it is un-knowable.  In fact what Behaviourists are saying is that the brain can be treated as a 'Black Box', that it simply isn't necessary in order to explain behaviour to assume anything about how it works.  Clearly, the brain is the organ of behaviour - it records sensations, it learns, it causes the animal to respond appropriately to certain stimuli and to complex situations.  Its functions are indeed important and complex.  But Behaviourists are not interested in 'how it works' but rather 'what it does'.  If they can explain complex behaviour by replacing the Black Box of the brain with a model, and for this purpose the simpler the model the better, then they have achieved their goal.  The model based upon conditioning as the learning mechanism is a start in that direction.  They expect that as the experimental data comes in, their model will become gradually more complex and sophisticated.  Perhaps it might even explain all animal, or even all human behaviour, but that is a long way down the line.

 

What Behaviourists are trying to do is tackle the problem of the brain 'from the outside in', in other words from behaviour first to models second.  Traditionally, the problem has been tackled (in humans) by psychologists, who proceed 'from the inside out'; by introspection, analysis (of others) and insight.  This has only been partially successful in humans, and to extrapolate from humans to animals (for which such direct investigation is not possible) is, a Behaviourist would contend, dangerous and unscientific.

 

A Theory of Mind

My position lies between the two extremes of behaviourism and human psychology.  I want to be able to explain both human and animal behaviour by putting forward a theory of brain functioning which accounts for the established tenets both of the Behaviourists and the human psychologists.  My theory accounts for may other aspects of 'the human condition' too (philosophy, mysticism, religion, art, science).  It is a way of seeing how we see things.

 

It is this theory that I am expounding here.  I have already mentioned some aspects of it, namely the division of the mind between Intuition and Reason, the brain as the organ of behaviour, the newborn child trying to come to grips with the world by learning alone, and the essential similarity between how animals learn and how humans learn - by forming models out of ideas and hypotheses.  A full exposition of the theory must be postponed until Part 4 since it relies on a more detailed discussion of human development (Part 2) and of the central role of evolution in creating and shaping the body and mind of man (Part 3).

 


6 - The Future of Mankind

From the thumbnail sketch of Man that I have given so far, it is clear that despite millions of years of evolution and thousands of years of 'civilization' and hundreds of years of technological growth, our vaunted human greatness remains at odds with our humble origins.  We are yet animals, with all the weaknesses and fears that they possess, and it is for this reason that there is still a great deal of misery in the world.  Far from the problems getting easier, they are getting harder, more pressing, more dangerous and more difficult to solve.  As the number of humans increases, so does the number and variety and severity and complexity of the conflicts between them and the many groups they habitually form.  As the extent of our knowledge of the physical world grows, and our power to control it increases, the answers to the most fundamental questions of our existence still elude us.  As our appetite for material possessions is satisfied, so it increases; whilst our need for spiritual sustenance, denied for the sake of materialism, remains unassuaged.

 

It would appear that Man is doomed to either destroy himself, optionally taking the rest of the planet with him, or to forever remain at war with himself, in every sense of the phrase.  This seems a rather pessimistic (a pessimist would no doubt say 'realistic') viewpoint, and it is not an opinion I share, although nothing I have said so far appears to contradict it.  However, I am not a Utopian either: I don't believe that sometime soon or perhaps in a few hundred or a few thousand years, all human beings will suddenly become friends with each other and that peace and harmony will break out everywhere and that a new Golden Age will dawn and last forever.  What I do believe is that the greater is our understanding, as individuals and as a race, of ourselves and of our predicament, the less conflict there will be, and the more likely it will be that the many problems besetting humanity today will be overcome.

 

This viewpoint is based upon another belief, that the root of our problems is fear born out of ignorance, out of our inability to comprehend the world, and that any increase in our comprehension will be for the better.  This belief is founded upon faith, of course, and it is beyond anyone's capacity to transmit faith by reason alone, which is all I can do here (this is prose, not poetry).  However, I can present that faith and invite others to share it if they so wish.  And I can present a theory of human understanding which is as close to an explanation of and a justification for a faith as any I have come across.

 

Synopsis

The core idea is that how successful we are as individuals and as a race depends upon how well we answer the fundamental question 'What's Happening?'.  In other words, our happiness depends upon how 'in touch with reality' we are.  My thesis is that there is a single reality and therefore a single answer to the question 'What's Happening?' - the closer each individual gets to this 'right answer' the happier he will be, the more successful will his life be.  What is true for each of us is true for all of us.

 

There is still a lot to explain though; that's why this work is not just half a page starting 'The answer is...'.  The difficulty seems to be that the concepts of 'the answer', 'right', 'happy', 'success' and so on seem to form a tight conceptual group, a cluster of ideas, if you like, each dependant upon the others.  Is there a way to break into this 'circle' from the outside?  Probably not; each person must discover their own version of 'the answer' for themselves, from inside the circle as it were.  My hope is that, since there is only one right answer, all our individual answers will turn out to be fundamentally the same.

 

Perhaps I am contradicting myself, though.  If what I want to say is self-defining and circular and impossible to break into, how can I hope to explain it?  Am I not saying, in effect, 'It is impossible for me to explain my thesis to you, but I will now do so'?  Well, yes; in a way.  What I hope to impart is a sense of consistency, balance, economy, elegance, beauty, in the hope that this will induce my readers to think along the same lines and ultimately to arrive, by their own means and in their own terms, at the same answer.  Is it not the beauty of an idea which leads us to suspect that idea to be true?

 

One thing I can't hope to do here is to actually answer the question 'What's Happening?'.  I recommend a good encyclopaedia, if you want the details.  What I can do, though, is to draw up a short list of 'progress so far', and 'significant achievements' and to mark certain items in the list as 'understandable errors'.  To do this I need to look at the way we humans, as individuals and in groups, have tried to address the problem.  The evidence I shall use to support my case comes not from years of research in the lab, archive or library, in a vast number of esoteric fields of study, but simply from 'popular' accounts of orthodox theory in a few basic scientific areas (mainly biology and psychology) which have appeared over the past 25 years or so.  The vast majority of what I have to say is nothing new, but I think I can put these old ideas together in a new way which leads to a simple but profound theory of surprisingly great explanatory power.

 

So far all I have done is to set the scene, to present the background and context of my ideas.  Now I think its time to start on the exposition of the theory.  One should always start at the beginning, of course; for the universe at large this is with the Big Bang, for life in general it is with the Origin of Life, and for individual humans it is with our birth, with the newborn infant about to address themselves to the problem of the rest of their lives.  To begin with I want to say more on why I think that the place to look for the clues is at our own origin.


Part 2 - New People

1 - Limitations

Most people would agree that turning a tiny helpless bundle of flesh into an Einstein or a Newton is a process little short of miraculous.  Turning out a Joe Bloggs is only slightly less miraculous, and even then, this is only so because the experience is so common, and we take it for granted.  In fact, its not just that it is common, its that it happens just by itself.  Nobody drew up a great plan upon the birth of a new person which had scheduled within it each stage of growth required, every experience needed, which lessons will be taught, and which tests administered in order to create Einstein.  Einstein just happened.  All that is required is that the child be kept physically healthy and mentally stimulated and, other things being equal, it will become a saint.

 

But other things are never equal, and saints are very rare.  We label these 'inequalities' in various ways: fate, unfairness, circumstances, or bad luck.  This is not the place to discuss all these influences upon the child, which would in any case occupy a whole book in itself, but the fact that 'bad luck' happens is central to my theory, so I will survey the various categories in which it comes.

 

The first bit of 'bad luck' to come our potential Einstein's way is simply his body, in other words his genetic make-up; whatever he inherited directly from his parents.  It is possible that he has some genetic disease, like haemophilia, or he may be disabled, as with cerebral palsy.  It may simply be that he is unusually tall, or short, or attractive, or ugly; each of these is a sort of handicap.  Perhaps he is physically whole but mentally abnormal in some way, in other words his brain has developed differently.  He could be retarded or advanced (one can be too clever) or just simply different (withdrawn, manic, weird).  Even supposing his mind and body start off 'normal', will his parents ensure that he has exactly the right sort of environment to grow properly, in terms of food, exercise and stimulation?  For that matter, what is the right environment?  Lets suppose our budding genius is always given the best of everything, what is the chance that his parents (who will on average be ordinary people) are perfect, are saints themselves?  Almost zero.  They will have hang-ups, quirks, mannerisms, affectations, sore points and fixed ideas just like everybody else, and these 'sharp edges' are bound to affect the child in some way.  In coping with the limitations of his parents the child will be forced to limit himself.  Finally, even with saints as parents, the future of the little Einstein is not ensured: the world is a dangerous place, full of disease and disaster and insidious influences (TV, drugs, crime, politics) which might lead our hero into a dead-end.  Looked at like this it is a wonder that any of us ever achieve anything but a small fraction of the potential we are born with, and that anyone even approaches it.

 

Spiritual Growth

Most of the limitations we put on ourselves (in response to 'bad luck') are simply mistakes we once made because we didn't know any better at the time.  As such, they can be corrected or at least their effects can be ameliorated.   This is the job of psychotherapists, although they only usually get called in when a 'bad egg' is detected.  They could be just as easily called in to help the 'good eggs' to become even better eggs, and today some are.  But this 'second stage' of recovery from the 'bad luck' of our early years, is often undertaken in terms of spiritual rather than psychological growth.  A distinction is usually made between the soul and the mind, between the 'essence' and the bit that thinks.  The mind is perceived as an organ, like the liver, but the soul is somehow what we are.  As such it requires the ministrations of a priest or a guru rather than a doctor to look after it.

 

It seems to me that there is no difference in kind between psychological and spiritual growth - it is simply that what we call 'spiritual' matters are somehow more fundamental to us.  I believe that this is because they relate to events that occurred very early in our lives, such as being in the womb, being born, being suckled, and so on.

 

I have said that certain early experience amounts to 'bad luck', that we made 'mistakes' and that we 'limited ourselves'.  Why are all these ideas about ourselves negative?  Didn't we have any positive ideas?  Well, yes we did - but they don't cause us any problems today.  The point about the negative ideas is that we were denying ourselves something which, in reality, we did not need to deny ourselves.  At the time, we denied ourselves things for the sake of expediency, we were desperately trying to cope and these limiting ideas seemed to help in that coping.  But things change: we grow up, we become better able to cope, we free ourselves from the daily bonds of the family, the parents, we learn more about the world and about ourselves.  The pity is that the early decisions we made are so deeply held and so fundamental to us that we have great difficulty letting go of them.  This is a perfectly understandable attitude, after all these ideas have helped and protected us for most of our lives, they are a part of us, to dispense with them is like chopping off an arm or a leg.  The point is though that the ideas were adopted to cope with a situation which no longer exists, and that in the new situation, our adult life, they just get in the way, they limit us.  It is in this sense that they are mistakes, and if we want to achieve what we are capable of, they must be corrected.


2 - Human Potential

Is there any bad luck that we as individuals can't really do anything about?  Perhaps it is our genetic make-up.  This really is fixed; it is not a mistake so much as (potentially) a misfortune, and we had best learn to live with it.  But apart from some severely disabling conditions, can you really call this sort of condition 'limiting'?  Does it have any bearing at all on whether you will lead a full, happy, successful and productive life?  For instance: you can't run 100m in less than 10 seconds, or even 15 seconds.  So what?  You can't do the Times crossword in 10 minutes, or even at all.  So what?  You can't answer all or any of the questions in Mastermind.  So what?  It is not these characteristics themselves which are limiting, but the idea that for some reason you ought to be something else; that you should have other skills or talents; that you are in constant competition with other people and that only the winners gain anything.  I think these ideas are just untrue; its not what you have, its what you do with it!  Physical and mental attributes are distributed randomly - some people get a great deal of an attribute, some get none, but most get an average amount.  How much you personally get is just 'luck' and it is pointless to wish you had more, you just have to accept things as they are.

 

Of course, there is a very fine line between accepting things as they are and mistakenly assuming you do not have a talent which you do in fact have; between being realistic and being fatalistic.  This is probably the only way in which competition is a good thing - a lot of people would otherwise settle for lower achievements than that of which they are capable - at least competition would, for these people, bring out the best in them.  But the point is that they can only do their best.  There will only be one winner, one best of all. But other things being equal, the identity of the winner is just a matter of luck - he was born with the right attributes! As long as everyone else in the competition did their best, achieved their potential, then everyone was a winner.  The only losers are those that gave up too soon.

 

One can imagine, by way of a thought experiment, a future date at which the need for a traditional Olympic Games has vanished.  Every new person would be assessed at birth; scanned, measured and evaluated.  Their physique and intellect would be compared with past records (particularly with past 'winners'), and by statistical means, the assessors could work out exactly what each person will be capable of when they are adult, given the best possible training.  Being a statistical thing, there would be a margin of error, but as the years passed and more data was collected, this would grow smaller.  The 'Games' would then consist of each person competing not against their opponents, but against their own personal standards.  The old style 'winner' would be the one with the highest standard, but no special praise would attach to him; everyone's task would be equally difficult.  Anyone who achieved their personal standard would get a Gold Medal.  On this measure, to get an Olympic Gold Medal all one would have to do is simply one's very best - and that's all anyone can do.  In the distant future, perhaps the games would be abandoned altogether since it would be taken for granted that everyone would be doing their very best anyway.

 

Success and Failure

Success, then, is nothing to do with how one 'measures up' against anyone else's standards, or indeed any absolute standard, but is about achieving one's own standards.  One sets these standards by first of all rejecting all the false notions one has acquired about oneself over the years, then by accepting one's genuine limitations, or rather the limits of the body.   In the last analysis, one's limitations can only be assessed by trying as hard as one can to surpass them, by not accepting them as real until you have sincerely tested them.

 

The real point is this: when we are born we have 'unlimited' potential, but very few of us actually realise it.  Why not?  What goes wrong, and why?  How do we limit ourselves?  Why do we make mistakes?  Is there anything that can be done about it?

 

These are deep questions, and the answers to them seem to be bound up with the ideas we had when we were newly born.  How were these ideas arrived at?  What is the general mechanism by which we humans get our ideas?  I think the development of ideas in humans of any age, from 100 minutes old to 100 years old, is basically the same, and it exactly parallels the way in which scientific ideas are formed, by what is known as the 'scientific method'.  Science works because it utilises the same method that each of have used, unconsciously, since we were born.  Just as there is no guarantee that science provides us with eternal truths, so our old ideas, which did us good once, need no longer necessarily do so.  The way we form bad ideas is exactly the same way in which we form good ones; unfortunately we refuse to let go of the bad ideas despite the fact that they are no longer of any use to us.

 

Since the mechanism by which we form ideas operates from the moment we are born, lets go right back to square one, to ourselves when we were a few days old, the Newborn.


3 - The Newborn

All human individuals, people, are conceived in their mother's womb (leave aside test tube babies) when their father's sperm fertilizes one of their mother's eggs.  The fertilized egg, destined to become a new person, implants itself in the wall of the womb where it develops over a period of 9 months into a baby.  At the allotted time the baby is born, it is ejected somewhat forcefully from its cosy first home in its mothers belly into the cruel world (cruel, that is, by comparison to the womb).

 

From this point on, the new person is on its own; no longer protected physically by the warm soft flesh of its mother, nor connected physically to her via the cord and placenta.  Of course, the mother will nearly always care for and protect the baby after it is born, as well as she is able, up until the time the child can fend for itself.  Nevertheless, at the moment of birth, a distinct new entity is created, totally separate from all other entities.  If he or she is to survive and prosper, a long and difficult period of learning and growing must be endured to prepare them for the rigours of life.

 

When does this learning begin?  What is the first experience the child has?  At what point can they be said to be truly conscious?

 

Most people cannot recall any events in their early lives before the age of about 3 or 4.  Perhaps they have vague recollections about sitting in a pram or a high chair, or they recall their first Christmas or Birthday (not their chronological first, but the first they remember).  It is tempting to suppose from this that the earliest memories we had are the earliest glimmerings of consciousness, when we start laying down memories.  But who can doubt that one and two year old infants are conscious.  They are capable of many deliberate acts, they certainly know what's going on around them, at least in principle.  In fact apart from perhaps the few days immediately following birth, babies show every sign of being aware, of having desires and feelings.  I believe we are then conscious at birth and are laying down non-verbal memories which are now difficult to access; in other words, these memories are unconscious to us now.

 

If babies are conscious, perhaps in a rudimentary way (they don't understand what's happening to them), just after being born, are they perhaps conscious earlier still, when they are still in the womb?  I think so.  There is evidence that babies are able to recognise the voice of their mother from their exposure to it in the womb.  The sound of the mother's heartbeat, the constant companion to the growing embryo for 9 months, induces a feeling of peace and security in newborn infants, and in later life, a similar pulsing rhythm has the same effect.  The 'foetal position' is adopted by young children and sleeping adults and people under stress, again because it elicits feelings of contentment, feelings which were presumably laid down before birth.  Psychologists refer to a desire to 'return to the womb' - a need for protection, security, peace and warmth.  This feeling may be based on a dim memory that at one time each of us possessed this contentment, when we were in the womb.  It may even be that the great difficulty many people have getting out of bed in the morning is an echo of the resentment they feel at having to leave the womb in the first place!

 

So it seems that consciousness begins before we are born.  As I have already defined it, consciousness is awareness, the laying down of memories, and their future use to the developing person.  The experiences in the womb and immediately after birth possess these characteristics, so they qualify the newborn and the 'pre-born' as conscious.  The 'human condition', then, seems to be that from an initial awareness of peace, quiet, warmth, rhythm and contentment, one is rudely confronted by a cold, noisy and confusing world; a world in which one has to work (starting off with the simple expedient of crying) in order to achieve again the contentment felt in the womb, the feeling of not being cold, hungry and confused.  It is as if the Newborn was saying just after it was born, 'I was happy - and now this...What's Happening?'.  The infant, the child and later the adult will spend a great deal of time and effort to try to answer this question, the first question, the most fundamental of all questions.

 

As I have already said, this condition is uniquely human because human infants are uniquely helpless and therefore need to use their unique intelligence to come up with a very good answer indeed to the question.  They spend most of their time trying to answer it, and they are never completely satisfied with their answers.  Nevertheless, it is the mission of every newborn to find an answer which will suit them, and how successful they are in life will depend in large part upon how good an answer they can come up with, in other words how 'in touch with reality' they can get.  To find an answer they have to experiment with reality, exactly as the scientist experiments.  The newborn is the first, the seminal employer of the scientific method.


4 - The Infant Genius

There are long books written about the philosophy of science.  I will cut through all that here, and merely give my own working definition of the scientific method.  There are three phases: observation, hypothesis, and experiment.  Observation consists of data collection, taking note of as many pertinent events as possible.  Hypothesis consists of developing a theory that explains the observations, and from which certain generalisations can be made, thereby enabling certain predictions to be made.  Experiment consists of setting up a controlled system or model in which the predictions of the theory can be tested; a positive result leads to the theory being 'accepted', and a negative result means it must be rejected and a new theory developed.  Science, or rather 'scientific knowledge', consists of a whole set of these hypotheses (theories, principles, laws), starting from a small set of fundamental ones and building up, as a tree is built up from a single trunk, into a vast array of detailed ideas, which get more and more tenuous as one approaches the frontiers.  We commonly call this set of ideas 'knowledge' and treat its precepts as 'true', but actually its all theory; it is the 'best guess so far'.  For example, in the 20th century, a great deal of what passed for 'truth' in previous centuries had to be scrapped to make way for the new and better theories of relativity and quantum mechanics.  Fundamental beliefs were trashed, our very idea of reality, of 'what's out there' has been radically challenged.  But today's scientific creed has no special claim to 'truth' either and, for all we know, may not have a very long life itself.  So much for 'eternal truth'.

 

I think that each of us was born an Infant Genius; born with this scientific nature built-in.  Babies strive constantly to make sense of what's going on around and within them.  Its hard work, which explains why they sleep a lot.  There's just so much data that the poor little chap doesn't know what to do with it.  So having first secured a safe place, he cuts off the input (falls asleep), and then he sorts it out.  Some of this sorting out can be recalled on waking and is interpreted it as dreaming.  We carry on dreaming all our lives, but in the first few years we do a great deal more of it.  Much research has been done into this early, and very early, learning, and I use this as one source of my information.  But one can also draw on three direct sources: our own memory and introspection about how the mind works; scientific method; and language.  Why language?  Because it is a 'codification' of our pure ideas about the world, 'the idea made flesh' as it were.  The sections that follow are a synthesis of ideas derived from these four sources.

 

Early Learning

One of the main tasks of the baby is to discriminate, to distinguish between things.  This splits the world up into myriad parts, which must then be brought back together in some way, and this is achieved by collecting together things which have something in common.  Having so sorted things into sets of 'similar' ideas, the child gives each set a label, and also records what it is about the things in that set which distinguish them from the contents of other sets and which they therefore have in common.  Needless to say, all these thought processes are going on without using words.  The label is probably some sort of image: a picture, sound, feeling or symbol, or possibly even an abstract image such as a circle (which might symbolise a face).  These labels, or tags, are given to the sets, to the individual things, and to the attributes they have in common.  The two processes, sorting and tagging, go on side by side.

 

But all the baby is doing so far is 'data collection' and storage.  This has its equivalent in science, namely observation and recording.  Clearly there has to be more to it than this; and there is.  The breakthrough (or breakthroughs, for there is a long string of them) comes when the baby links a set of objects or ideas to something in which it has an interest, such as food, warmth, security, or comfort.  These 'desires' form a set themselves, roughly called 'what I want'.  What the baby does is to form a hypothesis that some other set is (somehow) linked to the set 'what I want'.  Here is a somewhat fanciful illustration.  Lets suppose there are three sets that the baby might well form at this stage.  We can give them names, corresponding to the tags, images, that the baby gives them: 'what I want', 'what I can do', and 'what provides things'.  The baby might form his hypothesis in two stages: firstly, that there is a link between these three sets, secondly that there is a sequence, something like 'if I want something (say food) then I must do something (say cry) then it will be provided.'

 

I must emphasise that this is just a thought experiment, an illustration - I'm not saying that this is exactly what goes on in a baby's mind (I don't see how we could ever know that).  But they must be forming hypotheses, having ideas of some sort in their strange and wordless world.  I have sketched out what kind of things they must be doing: discriminating things, sorting them into sets, tagging, linking the sets, establishing regularities.  It is all done using images to represent, to the baby's dawning mind, the world around it.  Much later, the child will link these images to the funny noises it knows its parents make, and will try to make the same noises itself, and try to talk.

 

Language

The point I'm trying to make is this: before children learn to talk they already have a pretty sophisticated view of the world, and a sense of their own place in it, and an idea of their own power to affect the world and satisfy their desires.  But this view is entirely wordless, a collection of sets of images, of how they relate to each other, and of regularities and conditionals (we might call them principles, ways in which the child has generalised his experimental observations) which can be used to predict outcomes (what will happen if I do X?  probably Y) and to explain events (things fall downwards, the sky is up, falling over hurts, and so on).  When he learns to talk, the child acquires a new set of tags, replacing his old images with words (though the echo of the image probably remains, as if the word was charged with the image, to link in with his fundamental principles).

 

It seems that storing sounds (and later visual patterns, written words) is more efficient than using images and the child's mind takes a great leap forward at this point and sets about finding things out with enormous enthusiasm; asking lots of questions, doing lots of different things, trying even harder to sort it all out.  The increased efficiency of storage brought about by using language might be responsible for the difficulty we experience in recalling events that occurred before we were about 3 years old.  The early storage mechanism is just not as good as the language based one.  However, as I have already suggested, the traces of our early experiences are still recorded in  our brains somehow, and still affect our attitudes today.

 

The Unconscious

A consequence of this early wordless understanding is that language itself, since it is built on top of this primitive world view, must be dependant upon it; language is grounded in the early phase, the phase of images; our understanding of words is based upon our early understanding of the world.  As we grow older, our ideas about words and their use and meaning become more and more sophisticated (probably overly so), but first and foremost it is the 1 or 2 yearold that 'understands' language.  This infant is still very much alive today in our adult brains - it forms the basis of that part of our psyche which we call the unconscious.  It is not conscious to us, I suspect, in the same sense that we are no longer conscious of our life as the 1 or 2 yearold.  In other words, it is not that this faculty lacks consciousness, but that we are unable to recall its being conscious, and this is simply because it is a wordless entity which deals rather with images and feelings.  Our super-efficient storage mechanism is based upon words, and the corresponding retrieval mechanism (remembering) is also word-based, so we find it difficult to remember our early wordless phase, and we find it difficult to contact the wordless part of our adult minds.

 

The struggles of the Infant Genius to understand his world tie in with the remarks I made earlier about the aims of philosophy.  The human Newborn starts 'philosophising' from day one, asking the fundamental question 'What's happening?'.  His mind is uncluttered, as yet, by ideas so his thinking is actually clearer than it will ever be - in some ways he is the greatest philosopher ever.  The slow process of sorting things out proceeds, without as yet the use of words: things are tagged and put into sets; sets are related; in particular attributes, properties, states, and how things change are all noted; regularities, causes and effects are noted; hypotheses are formed.  The sum total of all this work is a model; it is the infant's Model of 'how things seem to be'.  This Model, which each of us formed before we could talk, is the basis upon which we understand the world today.  Our current sophisticated Models developed from this early version, and we cling tenaciously to many of the principles and tenets laid down in those first few years.  We aren't even aware that we do this because the ideas are so fundamental to us that we take them for granted; they are unconscious assumptions, but they are still very much alive.


5 - Layers of the Mind

Why do I insist that the 1 or 2 yearold (or even the pre-born) is in some way still around today even after we have all grown up?  It is as if the mind, or the brain which the mind is the working of, were like a slowly setting jelly.  At first it is totally fluid, and therefore totally useless - it can't make sense of anything.  As time goes by, and as certain features of the world 'make sense', they are recorded; a small zone within the jelly sets into some pattern or other.  Once set the jelly never melts again - it is a permanent record of the idea formed as it was at a particular time, and it stays with remainder of the mind, the slowly setting jelly, for evermore.  So the early ideas which we formed as infants are still there, deep down in the 'bottom layers' of the jelly.  In a sense the deeper layers are the infant we once were - they still form part of our minds, and they still perceive and think as the small child once did.  They still give us those deep and fundamental feelings both of well-being and of distress that the baby felt.  This happens even though in our adult bodies the rest of the jelly has almost completely set (we are 'set' in our ways), and there are many layers on top of the more primitive ones.  We live today on the surface of the jelly, a thin fluid which represents the day to day problems we have to face.

 

Another analogy which presents itself is that of geological strata.  The deeper one digs through the layers of rock laid down beneath rivers and seas, the further back in time one is moving towards the prehistory of the Earth.  The remnants of our prehistoric past are still with us in the form of fossils, just as the remnants of our personal past, our individual 'pre-memory', are still with us if we dig deep enough through our mental strata.  The difference is that our 'pre-memories' are alive, they are living fossils, rather than the long-dead stone fossils formed millions of years ago.

 

Transactional Analysis

The idea that all our previous experience is recorded in our brains, that we can and do play back significant experiences over and over, that the person or persons we once were are somehow still around in our heads influencing our thoughts and desires and behaviour, is fundamental to modern psychology and psychotherapy.  It is captured with particular lucidity by the model of personality used in a branch of therapy called Transactional Analysis, or TA.  The technique involves analysing the behaviour of people taking part in group therapy sessions, in particular the verbal transactions the group members have.  The personality the group members is considered to be composed of a number of parts, and what each member says depends upon which part of their personality is speaking.

 

There are three parts, or ego states, labelled Parent, Adult and Child, or P, A, C.  The Parent is both the conscience of the person, and the part that 'looks after' them (the Critical and Nurturing Parent respectively).  The Child is the one that has all the fun, and that is creative.  The Adult is the logical, realistic, calculating part.  The origins of the Parent and of the Child are the memories and lessons that the person recorded as an infant.  It is as if he has retained a version of both his parents, and also of himself when he was very small and these memories play a large part in determining the behaviour, including verbal behaviour, of the grown up person.  The Adult consists not of memories about the infant and its parents, but just about 'the world', physical things, 'objective' reality (though not as objective as all that since the infant has had to interpret a lot of what it experienced).

 

These ego states are analogous to my layers-in-a-jelly, with the Child and Parent being the lower, fundamental, primitive layers, and the Adult being the many layers on top.  The Child and Parent are grounded in an unconscious, wordless world (of the early infant).  The Adult, which can be identified with Reason, is conscious and word based.  It might be supposed hat the Adult is in some way 'in charge', especially as it has the best appreciation of 'reality', the world; but this would be a mistake.  All three ego states are required for someone to behave 'normally', and to the extent that one of the trio is too large (or too small) or is 'cut off' from the others, a person can be said to be 'abnormal'.

 

This is not the place to expand upon the PAC model, fascinating though it is.  The point I want to stress is that our personalities are a product of everything that has ever happened to us, and that what happened to us when we were very young, shortly after we were born, is the fundamentally important part.  In the PAC model these events are recorded in the Child and the Parent, which jointly 'control' the individual via the mediation of the Adult (Reason).

 

Psychology versus Philosophy

Our world view, then, in which our use of language is grounded, is founded upon a wordless set of ideas and beliefs, our early Model, created by an infant less than 3 years old.  This has, it seems to me, profound implications for philosophy, particularly for the philosophy of language.  Early in the 20th century, psychologists were just coming around to the idea that many of the psychological and behavioural problems of human adults were caused by 'traumas' or repeated 'conditioning' in the patients early lives.  The seeds of mental illness are sown before one is 5 years old (apart of course from mental problems which have an obvious physical cause, such as brain damage, which can happen any time).  I think the time is ripe for philosophers to take a leaf out of the psychologist's book and to go back to our early experiences to sort out the profound problems of existence, reality and meaning.

 

The questions philosophers discuss are not new questions; we each of us asked ourselves these same questions when we were only just born.  Depending upon what answers we dreamed up then, and upon how well or badly these answers fared as we grew up and faced the world, the same questions may come back to haunt us in our adult lives.  In fact they haunt us all, but some choose to ignore them and 'get on with living', or to plunge themselves into activities which take up so much time and energy (and there are plenty of these!) that there is none left over to spend on the deeper problems.  Some just put the questions away in a deep vault in their heads, throw away the key, and hope that they never see the light of day again.  But there are some who are not scared to face up to the difficult and intractable problems, namely the philosophers, both professional and amateur.  It is as if they say to themselves 'Well, after over twenty years of waiting for someone to give me the answer to these questions, I now discover that nobody knows! I suppose I shall just have to figure it out myself'.

 

What they fail to do, though, is to go back to the time when they first posed the question, when they asked 'What's happening?'.  It is here that they made their mistakes, where they made assumptions which later turned out to be quite without foundation, and which cause them today to have to search out new answers or new assumptions which have stronger support.  To find out what assumptions and mistakes we made, we have to go back to when we were newborn and try to discover what ideas we had then, which are almost unshakeable today, and which are the source of much of the confusion we now call philosophy.


6 - The World Without Words

What sort of things does the pre-language infant think about?  What answers does he arrive at?  What is his world view and how does it influence the rest of his life?

 

I may have given the impression that the Newborn is a blank sheet, without any idea at all what to do.  This isn't entirely correct, since he has a few instincts which keep him alive (with a great deal of help from his mother) until he matures.  These instincts are the 'reflexes': crying, sucking, sleeping.  There is also a powerful curiosity, a desire to explore and learn about the world.  This drive is the desire to answer the fundamental question, 'What's happening?'.  It is the means by which the child acquires knowledge and skill and eventually becomes able to cope with life.  It is the drive to sort things out, to tidy up, to form hypotheses, to create a Model and to test the Model out 'for real'.

 

The Inquiring Spirit

Curiosity (wonder, fascination, lust for knowledge) is the trick we humans possess which has (almost) freed us from the bonds of our animal past, from our instincts.  By having such large brains (to store the required facts, ideas and hypotheses) we can learn strategies for survival for ourselves rather than having to have them 'programmed' into us by our genes.  In our primate past, this made us enormously adaptable because we can react very quickly to a sudden change in our circumstances, such as might be brought about by natural disasters (floods, fires, plagues, droughts), by migration (moving to a colder climate), by encountering new species (discovering the bears of North America?), by changing food supplies (switching from hunting to gathering), or by almost any conceivable predicament.  It would take evolution thousands or millions of years to adapt to such changes, but humans adapt almost instantaneously because they can throw away their old behaviour patterns and develop new ones, if not within a single generation, then usually by the second generation.

 

The price we pay for this unique adaptability is a large head (leading to painful, difficult and dangerous childbirth), and a prolonged period of immaturity of around 15 years.  During this time we have to learn how to cope, and the majority of these coping skills, the most fundamental ones, are acquired very young, in the first 5 years.  It is at this time that our avid curiosity is so important, and it is this feeling of panic, of desperately wanting to know what's going on, of overwhelming desire to explain and control the world that stays with us throughout our lives.  It is born out of our need for security, to ensure our continued comfort and well being.  It is the basis of many of the commercial and academic pursuits we see today, in particular of science and philosophy.

 

The First View of the World

For a few days after it is born, the infant doesn't make a lot of progress - it is too busy getting over the shock of being 'awakened' in the first place.  Every time he wakes up from sleep, the child probably re-lives this shock and promptly starts crying: 'Oh no, its still here.' Pretty soon though, it starts to get used to it, and even begins to notice times when the world isn't so bad after all.  There is sleep, when the baby's consciousness takes a rest, feeding, being rocked and cuddled, being played with, and even just lying there peacefully attending to events.  Initially he can attend to sound only, but when he wants something other than the ceiling to look at, the child asks to be sat up, or propped up so that he can watch what's going on around him.  He soon starts to use his hands, and later to move around.

 

Earlier I said that one of the newborn's first tasks is to learn to discriminate things.  The implication is that initially the baby cannot distinguish between things at all, everything is merged, he has no concept of separate objects, all is one.  He cannot even distinguish himself from the background noise.  All he has is an impression of things going on - his first hypothesis is 'Something's happening' which leads to his first question 'What?' The idea that something is happening is caused by a direct perception of the phenomenon of Change, in other words of Time.  Whilst he was in his mother's womb, he didn't have any notion of change because his environment was so constant and unchanging.  If anything did 'happen' which left an impression (the sound of his mother's voice), it merged with the general background of constant warmth, nutrients, heartbeat and gentle motion.  All of a sudden there is a mighty change - Reality dawns.  The cacophony assaulting his senses (which is rather called a 'confusion' by the newborn at the time since it is not value laden) is the least of his problems - for the first time ever, he is hungry; he must now feed.  For a little while, he preoccupies himself with feeding and getting away from the confusion, until he realises its not going to go away, so he'd better get used to it.

 

An important point is that the baby cannot discern itself, he cannot isolate an entity to which things happen, he cannot form hypotheses containing the idea of 'I'.  There is no self.  It is not that he thinks 'I am hungry', but rather 'there is hunger' (again, these are thoughts using images, not words).  His other hypotheses show a similar lack if self: 'let there be crying; there is cold; feeding is occurring', and so on.  Not only can he not distinguish self, he cannot distinguish his mother either.  She and he are both part of a single entity which is all that there is, the All, the One.  But after around about six months, when the baby has started to be able to do things, to control bits of the world with its hands, he starts to realise that there is a fundamental division in his reality, a division into 'me' and 'the rest'.

 

Where Does 'I' Come From?

The newborn is not in control at all, but this doesn't worry him - he knows nothing different.  But then he learns that there are some things (his hands, eyes, head) that he can control, which respond instantly to his will.  His curiosity, the desire to learn, will be well served if he can directly manipulate the world rather than be manipulated; if he can be active rather than passive, an effective agent rather than a ball 'tossed on the winds of fate'.  In the long run, he wants to be able to control everything, to guarantee his own security, to ensure his own survival.  He naturally wants to be able to control everything as easily as he does his hands; but he can't.  His mother is the only thing outside of his own body that responds to his will, and she sometimes takes her time about it.  She is clearly a different category of thing to his arms and legs.  How does he make sense of all this?   Some bits of the world respond instantly to his will, some with a delay, some not at all.  He puts the bits into sets at first, waiting for the time when some hypothesis dawns which explains it.  What he wants to do is to define the extent of the sets, the boundaries.  After a while it clicks that the boundary of the set containing arms and legs is simply his skin.  This bag of skin is also the boundary of his sensation, what he can directly feel, as opposed to external objects which he can't feel.  This bag of skin is clearly very special to him; in fact...and with a bound, he is.  His self is created.  'I am.'

 

You might well think that this breakthrough is a good thing and that the infant human is pretty pleased with himself for having worked it out.  Far from it.  He is devastated.  In having to distinguish himself from 'the rest', he has had to abandon his claim to the rest; from being all things and all powerful he has come down to Earth with a bump; he is just a bag of skin! Worst of all, he has had to admit that he is separate from his mother.  This is quite terrifying.  For as long as he can remember (only a few months, but the whole of his life) he and his mother have been One, which was just great, because she was the Provider, the source of all the good things: milk, warmth, comfort, play, love.  Now he has to admit that Mum is not a part of him, that he and she are separate.  Suddenly he is alone, abandoned, and very frightened.  Apart from birth itself (perhaps), this must be the greatest shock of our lives.  The pain of the separation and loneliness stays with us, fuelling the lesser fears we have in later life.

 

Love and Hate

The fear generated by this separation, by the creation of self, also fuels another almost instinctive drive, one through which he can channel his other drives, namely the urge to be self-ish.  Previously, his 'instinct' was for survival; but for the survival of everything (which is what he though he was), not just the bag of skin.  Now he realises that what's important is what's in the skin, himself, and this immediately assumes an overwhelming importance.  He embarks on a crusade to do everything possible to satisfy the self: to control his body; to control the environment, chiefly (at that time) his mother, since she is still the only known source of food and protection.  This is the start of a paradoxical relationship, which seems to be the model for all human relationships.  The baby loves the mother, the source of all good things, someone who until recently seemed to be part of the baby himself, and without whom he would surely die.  At the same time, he depends totally upon her, a separate entity over whom he has no direct control at all - he is literally at her mercy.  His attempts to control her, now redoubled since he realised she was separate from him, become more desperate, he feels more helpless and fearful than ever.  The fear of abandonment and the dependence of the child on the mother breeds a bitter resentment in him, and he gets particularly angry and upset when mother doesn't do what he wants.  These feelings typically characterise an attitude known as hate.  The relationship of child to mother is one of love-hate.  It is as if they were two sides of the same coin, with 'heads' being love, apparently; were it otherwise, if hate dominated, the relationship would terminate prematurely - millions of successful human families are testimony that this happens extremely rarely.

 

At the mention of the family, it is well to digress a little from the one sided viewpoint of the baby and look at the family unit as a whole, in particular at Mum and Dad, the humans responsible for creating this new person in the first place.  What are they doing, and why?


7 - Sex and Gender

It is not only the child that experiences the love-hate nature of the relationship.  All relationships are two way, and the mother can certainly feel the 'hate' coming form the child (though she may shy away using that term); the child is badly behaved, selfish, throws tantrums.  She can also feel her own 'hate'; the feeling of being enslaved to the child, of being trapped by her own love of him, of doing everything she can for him and getting no reward at all for it, and little thanks.  Clearly there are rewards, there is a loving aspect to the relationship, a positive side - but it is often difficult to summon up these positive feelings when the little brat is having a screaming fit. 

 

Some time after the dawning of the self, the child recognises that there are two figures other than itself which seem to share the role of Provider.  Mother is still the main one, but the other one, Father, starts to assume a slightly different role, particularly as the newly selfish child starts to be difficult.  (Interestingly, this is also the time that the child starts to acquire language.  The father's role involves the use of language and instruction far more than does the mother's non-verbal or physical role of feeding and caring.)  The baby will know something of the character of the Father since it will have experienced the masculine side of mother (and it will also experience the feminine side of father).  But in its attempt to simplify things, the child prefers to identify maternal behaviour with mother and paternal behaviour with father.  It is helped in this if mother and father spend the majority of their time in the role of their own sex, but they will both need to switch roles now and then.  To see why this is, lets look more closely at the these two phenomena: biological sex (male/female) and parental role (masculine/feminine).

 

Sex

First we have to define the terms.  Once more, I will use my own working definition.  Sex is a fact of life.  How and why it arose is a fascinating question, but one which I cannot afford to spend time on here.  For now we must accept that human beings reproduce sexually.  What this means is that humans (and a great many other organisms) are divided into two types, call them A and B.  To have offspring, an A and a B must mate.  The offspring are 'born', and in, humans, A and B co-operate to rear the child until it reaches maturity and leaves home later to reproduce itself.  Being mammals, one of the two types, A or B, has to bear the developing baby inside its body for 9 months, and then go through a painful childbirth.  It makes no difference really which of the two types it is.  Lets pick type A.  Once having made this assignment, we know that type A humans are what we call females, and type B humans are males.  Poor old type A, the female, has had to invest a huge amount of time and effort carrying the child, and then giving birth to it; all the male has had to do is mate.  From a biological viewpoint, this 'unfairness' is balanced out by the female demanding a 'fee' of the male for his use of her body to reproduce, to pass on his genes to the next generation.  The fee is that the male sticks around and helps the female to raise the child.  On the whole, both parties agree to this arrangement, and a stable family unit is formed (though there is a certain 'failure rate').

 

Female Gender

So far so good.  But once the baby is born, the female role as child-bearer ends (this is of course not a role the male can adopt).  Now the maternal role takes over.  In the main this involves feeding the baby, and once again it is the female that is best equipped to take on this duty since she lactates, and males do not.  The female is the natural nurturer, the natural nurse.  And she also has the stronger maternal instinct of the two parents; she spent the time, effort and pain bringing the new person into the world; her investment (biologically) in the child is far greater than that of the male; and she formed a powerful bond with the baby immediately after its birth.  The situation is not as black and white as child-bearing was, though, and with a little effort, the male is perfectly capable of bottle feeding the baby, and caring for it completely.  Males have maternal instincts too, and they have a feminine, caring side which they can use if they want to.  But this 'role reversal' seldom happens.

 

The point is that, in general, its just too risky for the mother to leave her precious charge in the hands of the father.  Its a question of mathematics.  Other things being equal, and neglecting the possibility of twins, a female could only have 20 to 30 children in her entire life at maximum; a male could sire literally hundreds of children (if he were allowed to get away with it).  There simply isn't as much at stake for the male in the risky business of child rearing.  In the few million years that it took for humans to evolve from apes, before the dawning of civilisation some few thousand years ago, the strategy which turned out to be most successful was for the female to adopt the maternal role, the feminine, caring role.  But the male has retained his feminine nature, which urges him to care for and protect the child and mother (though not with the utter selflessness of the mother for the child).

 

Male Gender

What about the masculine nature, the paternal role?  This role (taken mainly by the male, but, again, potentially and occasionally to be adopted by the female) is to administer discipline, to teach the child control.  It is not necessarily consciously adopted; it springs naturally from the male's desire to have his own way, to be selfish.  Being physically more powerful than the child, the father usually gets his own way, and the child just has to learn to cope with it, and it does this by learning self-control.  Selfishness is also the source of the mother's lapses into the masculine role; it is her 'self' fighting back against the enslavement by the child, and if she didn't fight back, she would become truly enslaved, leading to the child being in control and not her.  The mother gained this masculinity, this selfishness, when she herself was a child.  The birth of the self which I described in the last section is also the birth of selfishness, of masculinity in the child (male or female); it is the self asserting its own rights.

 

Families

Where does the maternal, feminine role have its origin?  Its origin is in the bond formed between mother and newborn immediately after the birth.  The caring instinct is necessarily completely selfless, in absolute contrast to the selfishness of the child.  Only the mother feels the full power of this drive.  The child (male or female) can only marvel at it and try to imitate it and learn the power of the selfless act, to develop a caring nature.  The female child may one day feel the maternal instinct directly, but the male will never do so.  Consequently, females are generally prepared for this day, and males are not.  This has the effect of polarising the masculine/feminine difference; but initially, and in fact until the female actually gives birth (which could be after she is 30) there is no inherent difference between the sexes as regards the two roles.  Both males and females need to be selfish and selfless at the same time, at least in the social world we humans live in.  Selflessness is a sort of 'fee' we pay others to satisfy our selfishness.  Goodwill is the currency of social interaction.  Without it, if one were absolutely selfish, one would not be able to live in society; people who consistently fail to pay their social debts tend to end up in hospital, in prison, or in the grave. 

 

The battle between the mother and her child is the origin of the battle of the sexes - possibly of all human conflict.  The female, the mother, takes on the maternal, selfless role: this is the feminine nature.  The child (male or female) takes on the selfish role, the masculine nature, the desire to get ones own way, to be in control.  Female children tend to be 'weaned off' the masculinity (to a degree) since they identify with their mothers and are prepared to become mothers themselves.  Males tend to retain their masculinity, in fact it is usually encouraged, to the detriment of the caring nature they might otherwise pick up from their mothers.  They identify with the father, the law-giver, the strong, authority, the dispenser of discipline, the one who always gets his way.  To the extent that the two natures are given equal weight within the family as a whole, that there is not a predominance of one over the other, that a balance is maintained between the selfless and the selfish, a family is 'healthy'.  It is the balance of the individual against the 'machine', the family unit, the model for society at large; family conflict (and harmony) is the source of social and political conflict (and harmony) in the wider world.

 

Once again, this is a fascinating avenue that I don't intend to go any further down, concentrating as I wish to do on the development of the child.

 

Morality

We have had a look at the the roles of the parents, at what they are trying to do and why.  Lets return to the child.  He is cared for by his mother, whom he tries to control, and she complies to a degree, but draws the line somewhere.  He is given discipline, and taught self control by his father, whom he has little success in controlling; the child has to give in.  The self control learned by the child helps to ameliorate the demands he makes of the mother.  The father, then, is in charge, he is the head of the household, he cannot be controlled by the child, and he appears to wield the ultimate sanction; the threat of withdrawing his and the mother's love, though if it came to it the mother would probably resist the use of this measure.  But even the threat of it is terrifying to the child, who would clearly die without the parents' care.  In fact the child, once it has learned the rules - that bribery works where tantrums don't, usually goes out of its way to please the parents.

 

The father is, in a sense, instilling a moral code into the child.  But only in a sense.  The father is unlikely to be consciously indulging in ethical training, unless he is, perhaps, a man of the cloth.  He doesn't ever read out a list of rules.  He just lets the child go so far, then he draws the line.  He may get angry, he may punish the child (not necessarily physically, since this produces complications).  As part of the conditioning process he will precede his disciplinary sessions with verbal warnings in order that he child learns that when father says 'No' he means it.  After a time, the child just does as its told, with the odd lapse, perhaps, of 'trying it on'; this, at least, is the ideal pattern.  Adolescence signals a new phase, when the rebellious youth re-appears, preparing for the day when the teenager has to leave home.

 

The question arises, if the father doesn't lay down a set of explicit rules, except the odd incentive like 'you won't get any pudding if you don't eat your greens', how does the child discover what to do and what not to do?  In fact we've already answered this question, but I will elaborate this answer in the next section.


8 - Truth and Beauty

The role of the father can be interpreted as 'moral conditioning', teaching the child what he should and shouldn't do.  This lesson is a fundamental one for human society, but though it is a common experience for all of us, its effect is largely unconscious.  This might seem an odd thing to say, after all we each of us know what is right and what is wrong; or do we?  In fact there is an entire field of philosophy devoted to answering the question 'What is right?' (which should to you suggest that the question is very difficult to answer); this field is known as Ethics, one of the oldest of the philosophical disciplines.  It attempts to say what Ethics is, what Right means, and (optionally) to put into words 'the rules' concerning Right behaviour.  Not everyone agrees with a single set of answers to these questions; arguments have raged for over 2000 years.  It also seems that as time goes on and societies change, their ideas of right and wrong change.  Different nations, cultures, religions and ethnic groups each have their own ideas about how people should behave.  It is far from clear that there is a single answer to the question, let alone what that answer is.  I think a major part of the difficulty is that our individual perception of what is Right is unconscious, and that our attempts to codify this 'sense' of right and wrong, to turn it into a set of rules, a form of words, always fall short.  Our perception is unconscious because our training was done unconsciously; our fathers did not supply us with a set of rules, we had to work it out ourselves - and the 'working out' of infants is done wordlessly and unconsciously.  The faculty we develop to perceive 'what is right' is actually the same faculty we develop to perceive 'what is true': the Intuition.

 

Intuition

Although the working of the Intuition resides in the unconscious, the inaccessible part of our minds, this does not define it; the unconscious contains a great many things besides this.  Intuition is only one of the faculties that are developed by the Newborn to help it to cope, but it is certainly the most important.  The function of Intuition is to assess new hypotheses, to reject the bad ones, and to accept the good ones.  It did not exist at birth, but has grown and become more powerful as the child's understanding of the world has grown.  The judgement of the Intuition is accepted completely by the child; it has no other way of deciding which ideas to accept and which to reject.

 

What is this Intuition?  How can it know what is true (or what is right) and what isn't?  How does it work it out?  Well, first we have to say what 'true' means - and this is another deep philosophical question which I must side-step.  I shall use for my definition the same 'definition' I used earlier to explain scientific 'truth'.  This is that to designate something as 'true' is say it is 'the best guess so far'.  A theory or hypothesis is 'true' insofar as it has not been shown to be demonstrably false, and it has value in terms of its explanatory power; in other words its predictive power, how useful it is, how well it works.  For practical purposes, we can substitute for the question 'is it true?' with the easier one 'does it work?'; if it works, its true.  This is a sort of pragmatic approach, but the Newborn isn't interested in abstractions and absolutes, it wants to get a grip on itself, and on the world as quickly as possible.  When its reached a more stable state, then there will be plenty of time to go back over the early 'quick fixes' and replace them with more considered views.  But this seldom happens, either because the 'quick fixes' are too deeply embedded and hidden, or because to replace them would upset the stable state; it would be back to square one, and the child (or adult) will cling to its new found security, however weak its foundations happen to be.

 

So Intuition develops not to ask 'is it true?', but 'does it work?'.  Its job is prediction: 'if I include this new idea in my scheme of things, will it work?'.  It tries to fit the new idea in with all the other ideas the child has acquired (ones which it previously passed).  If the idea fits, it works; its true! Of course, it is sometimes not as easy as this.  The new idea might be made to fit if certain old ideas were dispensed with, or were modified to let the new idea in.  What could possibly justify this, and why should the Intuition be trying so hard to incorporate the new hypothesis?  Simply because its prime directive, if you like, is to develop a set of hypotheses which works best.  If by including the new hypothesis, which may involve getting rid of some old ones, the new set of ideas 'works better' than the old set, then Intuition plumps for the new set and for the new hypothesis.

 

Models

In today's jargon, this 'set of ideas' or hypotheses is known as a model.  I have already referred to it as the Model of the world which the Newborn constructs to 'make sense' of what is happening to him.  We each of us carry around a Model of 'how things are' as we see them.  If we make the assumption, as most people do, that there is a single, external, absolute Reality, then what we are trying to do is create a Model of Reality.  The better our internal Model corresponds with Reality, the more 'in touch with Reality' we are, the more effective and successful will our lives be.  'Growing up' for the human child can be seen as its continuing attempts to improve upon its Model, to increase the degree of correspondence between the Model and Reality.  The role of Intuition is to set up a tentative model, which includes any new hypotheses to be tested and any changes to old hypotheses required to incorporate it, and 'run' it.  It can gauge how much better or worse the tentative model is than the current Model; if its better, then it will become the new Model.

 

This process is akin to modifying the engine of a car, then turning the engine over (with the car stationary) and listening to the sound of the engine to ensure that it still runs sweetly, preferable sweeter than before.  If its okay, then take her out for a spin; this is the acid test.  Is she faster, more powerful, responsive, sensitive, or positive?  If so then our 'ear', which assessed the sweetness of the sound of the engine, is good.  The Intuition is like this 'ear' for the sound of smooth running; but not of a car engine, but of the Model (or a tentative version of it).  The 'ear' has to be trained, though, so the Model has to be 'taken for a spin' just as the car is.  In other words, in adopting the new Model, we adopt a new way of life.  If our Intuition is good, the new way of life is 'better' than the old one, in some way; one is more effective, successful, happier, getting more out of life.  If life isn't better (and with many of our very early attempts at modelling, this will often be so), then the new hypothesis will have to be scrapped and the old one resurrected.  But perhaps we will have learned something, and our Intuition will be more accurate next time.

 

Intuition is itself a part of the Model.  Some of the hypotheses being tested concern Intuition itself.  Hopefully, the Intuition rapidly improves in order to prevent us accepting all sorts of dangerous and false notions, in fact its main job is to do this.  But it has to train itself, so to speak, to pull itself up by its own bootstraps.  Eventually it develops a good ear for a sweetly running Model.  How does it do this?  What are the signs of a good Model?  What are the clues that tip off the Intuition that its hit on a winner, or a loser?  I've no idea.  The clues that we use to determine whether or not an idea 'rings true' are unconscious.  They are similar to the non-verbal clues, the body-language, that people use all the time, and which unconsciously affect our behaviour toward them.  When these postures, gestures, tones of voice, and so on are pointed out to us (by someone who has done the research), we become conscious of them for a while, but they soon lapse back into the unconscious.  So it is for 'truth clues'.

 

Beauty

However, there is one aspect of truth which we are conscious of, one way in which the working of Intuition is manifest to us; our aesthetic sense.  The appreciation of beauty comes from the same source as the appreciation of truth: Intuition.  The  word doesn't quite fit in this context, but the faculty has many names and I prefer to stick to this one, with the note that it is also the Aesthetic.  If we try to analyse what it is about a beautiful object that gives it beauty, what the essence of Beauty is, we find it very difficult.  We can label the many aspects that Beauty appears to have: proportion, balance, elegance, economy, simplicity, clarity, and so on.  Presumably, our aesthetic sense is capable of registering all these aspects (and many more) instantly and unconsciously and from them synthesising a single attribute which we call beauty.  This is exactly how the Intuition discerns Truth.  Each of the aspects of Beauty is a also clue to the truth (elegance, economy, simplicity, clarity) of a proposition or theory.  We are unconscious of the myriad of tiny details, perhaps, but the overall effect of recognising Truth (and Beauty) is known to us.  It is a feeling of elation, of delight, of pleasure, or perhaps of awe, accompanied by a smile or a nod or an open mouth, and an exclamation such as 'Yes, of course', 'That's it', or 'Why didn't I think of that?'.  By sharpening our aesthetic sense, we sharpen our intuitive sense.  As has been said before, Beauty is Truth and Truth is Beauty.

 

Right

To recap, the child's Intuition has grown and refined itself, along with the rest of its Model, by getting feedback from reality, by 'living' the Model.  If 'bad' ideas are incorporated, life gets more difficult and confusing rather than less, and the child 're-decides' and abandons the idea; 'good' ideas are the ones that work.  The Intuition is all the time recording those features of the 'good ideas' which are common to them, and those which are common to the 'bad ideas' so that in the future it will be able to spot the danger signs, and also to recognise the clues to the truth.  These clues and signs are largely unconscious, but we do have access to them through our aesthetic sense, our appreciation of Beauty.  The child is progressing, its Model gets closer to Reality, its Intuition improves - it is growing up.  A crucial lesson it has to learn is what is Right, and it does this by employing the same faculty it is developing to discern Truth and Beauty, namely Intuition.  This acts like an inner ear, listening to the the running of the new Model to see if it runs sweetly.  This time, it is not that the child has incorporated a prospective hypothesis but that he has performed a prospective deed.  Inasmuch as the deed affects the world at all, it will affect the Model.  Intuition must decide if the new model runs sweeter or not, whether it is 'the right thing to do', or the converse.

 

Just as we find it difficult to say what Beauty is or what Truth is, so we have a problem working out what Right is; the problem of Ethics.  The way we as individuals work it out again seems to be unconscious.  We 'imagine' what would happen if we did or did not do X; if the result is positive, X is right, otherwise not.  This 'imagining' is unconscious, so it is not the same as 'rehearsing', constantly going over a scene in the mind, trying to second guess how we might behave in this or that situation.  This takes time (in fact too much of our time is spent rehearsing), but the unconscious faculty is virtually instantaneous, as the appreciation of Truth and Beauty is.  I suspect that most of the time we know straight away whether such and such a deed is right or wrong.  What takes time is coming to terms with it, or trying to explain to ourselves (in words) why it so.

 

Crises

Sometimes, Intuition fails.  It throws the question back at us.  What it is saying, in effect, is that it can't decide; that  there are two possible models, one accepting the new idea one rejecting it, and they both 'sound' the same.  This puts the individual in a very difficult position.  It seems he has to make a 'conscious' decision, using Reason alone.  In fact Reason cannot make decisions at all - it is not Reason's job, it wouldn't know how to.  It cannot weigh the pros and cons, because value (weight) is not something you can measure

objectively, and Reason is objective.  The best it can do is toss a coin, which is equivalent to 'guessing'.  With a bit of luck, if the decision was wrong, it will become clear very quickly and 'damage limitation' can take over.

 

How can it be that Intuition fails?  This is a rare event, but when it happens it is usually very significant, and deserves to be handled carefully, not dismissed with the toss of a coin.  To abandon oneself to fate is an act of despair; it is to cede control of one's life to another agent, in this case to a blind, unalive, unfair, capricious, merciless force.  This is the very antithesis of what the infant's struggle was about, a denial of what it is to be human, a denial of life.  Fate is chance, randomness, chaos.  It rules the universe.  But in this little corner of the universe, order has emerged, life has evolved.  Life is the constant struggle against chaos, against the ravages of Time; the struggle to survive, to perpetuate, to be immortal, through oneself or through one's offspring.  What is it that can drive us to consider rejecting our precious humanity?

 

Such dilemmas arise, I believe, from errors (mistakes, bad ideas) which were incorporated into our Models long ago.  I have already suggested how such mistakes arise: from our genes, our upbringing, our parents, disease, disaster or a chance encounter.  How deeply it affects us depends upon how deeply it is rooted, which in turn depends upon how long ago the error was made.  The solution to the dilemma is to root out the error, and re-decide (perhaps long after the initial decision) so that only one of the possible models now rings true.  This 'rooting out' can be done in many ways: psychoanalysis, soul searching, meditation, prayer.  But it is never easy.  If what we must re-decide is fundamental to our Model, to our system of beliefs, then what we are proposing to do will completely transform it.  To many people it feels like a transformation of their world, their personality, their identity, as if they are becoming someone else.  It is this that brings about the despair.

 

Despair itself is not a bad thing, as long as one doesn't give in to it, because it is an opportunity to learn, and to grow, to weed out the mistakes, to achieve a better Model and become more successful and so on.  It is convenient if we can get all our despair behind us as early as possible (children are very tough, much more so than adults) but there do seem to be some 'intractable' problems which linger on into adulthood and cause trouble then, unless we have found some way to deal with them.  These problems are really the fundamental ones, all stemming from the question 'What's happening?' as asked by the Newborn.  If we are lucky we will have kept an open mind on precise answers to these questions, especially since some of the things we learn as we grow up is how little other people know, how much there is to know, and that the answers to the basic questions seem to get further away and not nearer.

 

For most of us a satisfactory answer to the philosophical questions will only be achieved once the more pressing problems of day to day life have been tackled.  This move away from the fundamentals to the day to day seems to be tied up with the development of language and Reason, the point at which the infant invests more and more time and energy in developing a new faculty which (he hopes) will be his salvation - the faculty which eventually becomes the Adult.  However, because the Adult is grounded in Language and Reason, which, as we have seen, is not able to recognise Truth, it is not capable of answering the fundamental questions.  The struggle of the Adult is manifest as philosophy, religion, and mysticism.  It is the struggle to integrate the two faculties: Intuition and Reason.


9 - Growing up

I have concentrated in Part 2 on the pre-language phase, the source of our unconscious feelings and faculties, in particular our Intuition, our appreciation of Truth, Beauty, Right and Good.  This phase is also the source of philosophical and mystical ideas.

 

The idea of the Oneness of Creation is the echo of the oneness of everything as perceived by the Newborn before the birth of the self.  The idea of Nirvana is the unchanging contentedness felt in the womb.  The idea of God is the echo of the huge and powerful figures of the parents: father, law-giver, to be feared and respected; mother, carer and protector, to be adored.  The idea of Meaning (of Life, of anything) is the quest to answer the fundamental question 'What's Happening?' Mystery, the Unknown concerns what is 'out there' in the world, which Science is gradually uncovering; but equally it is about what is 'in here'.  This is a mystery because it is unconscious, because we cannot remember what happened to us as babies.  What decisions did we make, and why? How do these decisions affect us now? What I am trying to do here is to sketch out a general answer to these questions.  The place to look for specific answers is within ourselves.

 

One or Many?

I am sketching out a framework upon which to hang the answers.  Each of us will have a different set of specific answers because each of us is a different person, with a different genetic make-up and a different upbringing.  What answers we each gave to our early wordless questions, whether stopgap or definitive, will be different for each of us.  But not all that different.  99% of any human's genes are shared with all other humans (its what makes us humans and not apes, or plants) so the difference is only 1%.  Most of us share a similar upbringing, especially in the West.  The fine detail is different, but in many ways we are all alike, and the 'core' answers must therefore be similar if not the same.  The sameness arises not only from our biological relatedness, but also from the fact that we live in the same world; only a certain set of answers actually works.  Our Model, the touchstone of Intuition, is our personal 'best guess' at how things are, how they work, what Reality is.  Insofar as we all inhabit the same Reality, and we are all Homo Sapiens we will each of us arrive at the same Model (within limits).

 

A good analogy is the automobile.  There is only one basic car.  It has 4 wheels, an engine and fuel tank, steering, brakes, controls, seats, mirrors, windows, doors, bonnet and boot, and so on.  But still, there are hundreds of different makes and models to choose from, some with fancy gadgets and plush decor, some with lots of power, some very large, some small.  The manufacturers are always ringing the changes, altering the 'surface' features, in an effort to please the customer and satisfy a different corner of the market.  Nevertheless, a car is still a car.  And a human being is still a human being before being male, female, black, white, young, old, tall, short, rich, poor, sick, healthy, Tory, Communist, working class, insane, intelligent, or any of a thousand things which serve to identify us and put us in our place.

 

In the mystical tradition, most often associated with the East, the fact that all humans are fundamentally alike is expressed in a particularly elegant and forceful way.  This is that all humans are really one human, that the 'true nature' of each and every person is identical, that we are not each of us a separate 'self', but a single, universal 'Self'.  This is clearly more than saying we are all alike, it is going one step further, and quite a big step at that.  It is difficult for Western minds to accept because it is not rational, it seems meaningless to our 20th century way of thinking, steeped as it is in Reason.  Can East and West be brought together in this matter, or are these fundamentally different views of the world? Well try this.

 

Reality

There is a single Reality which we all inhabit, so there is only one 'true' answer to the most basic question of all 'What's happening?'.  Each of us has struggled to answer this question, and also the secondary questions that it spawns: 'What am I? Who am I? Where did I come from? What do I want? What should I do? What is the good life?'  We each come up with different answers, but these answers must be fairly close to the 'true' answers, close to the single Reality, otherwise they wouldn't work, they wouldn't be any use to us.  As we grow older, we grow up; our Model gets better, closer to Reality.  And thus the sets of answers we each give grow closer to each other.  We can posit, then, a perfect human, who has got all the answers right.  Anyone else who got the answers right would also be perfect.  The behaviour and personality of these perfect humans would be indistinguishable; to all intents and purposes they would be a single person.  The fact that this person has several bodies scattered around the globe and throughout the centuries is an irrelevance.

 

This seems to be the state toward which we are each struggling, with varying degrees of success.  Our growth toward it can be expressed in one of two ways: either we are getting to know our true selves better, or we are changing our selves for the better.  Either way, our perception our selves changes, so the two views are in a sense equivalent.

 

Is there any evidence for the fundamental sameness of humans which is of a more scientific nature, which would satisfy our sceptical, Western, Reason-bound minds.  I think so.  It is based upon genetics, evolution, and the parallels between the evolution of the universe, of life, and of the human mind.


Part 3 - The Story So Far

1 - The Evolution of Life

A great deal has been written about evolution, especially in the last few decades, and there is now a prevailing orthodoxy which I will attempt to summarise here (rather tersely I'm afraid).  The theory of evolution attempts to answer the question 'How did life develop into the myriad of complex organisms we see today?' The theory can also be used to attack a related problem: 'How did life arise?' This is a far more problematic question, and, for me at least, it is the most interesting.  What is the Origin of Life?  You might suppose that the question of the origin of life is a fundamentally different one to that of its development into complex forms - but I beg to differ - more later!

 

Given that life has already originated, then, and that primitive micro-organisms, perhaps somewhat akin to today's bacteria, are floating about in the primeval oceans, it is uncontroversial (at least amongst scientists!) that the theory of evolution explains how these creatures, over several billion years and several billion generations, turned into us.

 

Classical Evolution

The theory goes something like this.  Each organism reproduces by 'copying itself', producing a new generation.  But the copying, although pretty good, is not quite perfect.  The next generation is always very slightly different to the current one, and each member of the next generation is very slightly different to all the other members.  The difference need only be a fraction of a percentage difference in the observable characteristics of the organism.  For instance, individuals might vary in size, weight, speed of response to certain stimuli (light, heat, predators).  And it is an entirely random variation, so the 'copying errors' might be 'for the worse' or 'for the better'.  To get a handle on this idea, the concept of 'fitness' is used.  This is a theoretical measure of the sum total of all an individual's characteristics, of how well it does, how successful it is.  In practical terms, one might use the number of offspring the organism produces as a measure of fitness (provided the offspring were healthy and were themselves capable of reproducing).

 

Now we introduce a new factor into the equation; the scarcity of resources.  There just isn't enough of everything to go round; not enough space, air, light, water, food - anything.  Whatever the organism needs there is bound to be a finite supply of it (the planet is finite) and sooner or later it will get used up.  In the early years of the Earth's life, there was probably far less than there is now, since it seems that the relative abundance of resources which we currently enjoy was actually brought about by living things themselves.  Because resources were scarce, there would have been competition for them, and in such a contest, as in any contest, there would have been winners and losers.  In the game of life, the prizes for the winners are survival and reproductive success.  The winners are, of course, the organisms that are most fit; in fact that was how I defined fitness, as reproductive success.  The phenomenon has come to be known as 'the survival of the fittest'.  This is a neat enough term, but it does give the impression that only the fit survive, which is misleading.  Though I suppose 'the greater reproductive success of the fitter' is a bit of a mouthful.

 

What I have been describing here is the process of natural selection.  This is simply the process by which competition for scarce resources leads to the 'selection' of winners, in other words to the greater success of the fitter organisms.  The term parallels artificial selection as employed by plant and animal breeders to create new strains, varieties and breeds of rose, dog or horse.  That natural selection might work at all is evidenced by the fact that artificial selection certainly does - hundreds of breed of dog have been produced in just a few hundred years.  Evolution has had millions of years to perform the more exacting job of breeding completely new species and organisms.

 

Lack of Purpose

Central to the theory of evolution is that the variation between generations and individuals is completely random.  Organisms are not trying to produce offspring which are somehow better than they are, its just that they can't help producing offspring that are different.  It is impossible to say exactly which characteristics might render any given individual more fit than any other in any given ecological theatre, and it is impossible to say what sort of competition the organism can expect.  But some competitors are bound to be better than others, and thus any and all of the characteristics they possess will be selected for.  There are a number of general features that any organism must possess, though, just to 'qualify' for the competition.  Presumably, if they possessed these feature to a greater degree than the competitors, they would be fitter as a result.  The sort of things I am thinking of are the acuity and range of the senses, the speed of response to predators, the range of potential food sources, adaptability to environmental conditions (light, heat, water), and so on.

 

In the ecological arena, when a single organism has won its ground, it is said to occupy an ecological niche.  Such niches are opening up all the time as the geology and climate of the planet change, and as organisms themselves change.  New species arise to exploit these new niches, to milk the situation, as it were.  Once a possible niche develops, it is only a matter of time before some adventitious, opportunistic organism leaps into it and tries to make a go of it.  If it is successful, a new species develops, and this in itself alters the ecological pattern creating further possibilities and more niches.  Once a niche has been successfully exploited, the organism will remain there, changing only very slightly if at all, for as long as the niche remains.  There will be no selection pressure, no competition, once the optimal solution has been evolved.  This is an ideal state, of course, which is never actually achieved.  There is always a sort of 'drift' in the requirements of the niche which the its exploiter will need to keep up with if it is not to become extinct.

 

The Path to the Top

The evolution of complex multicellular organisms seems to have occurred by a process of successive symbiosis.  Symbiosis is the association of two distinct organisms for their mutual benefit.  The simplest example I can think of is lichen, which is a symbiosis between a fungus and an algae.  In the primeval seas, simple bacteria-like cells (probably photosynthetic) may well have formed 'teams', groups of 'bacteria' which pooled their resources.  Such a team might eventually evolve into a much larger cell, a sort of proto-amoeba, the ancestor of multicellular organisms.  Some proto-amoeba retained their photosynthetic capability and evolved into plants, others lost theirs and evolved into animals, which basically consumed the plants rather than bothering to collect sunlight themselves.  They could also consume each other, of course, so the concept of predator and prey would have evolved.  Eventually, the animal (and plant) cells themselves would have formed 'teams', producing proto-plankton.  In these tiny creatures, some of the cells would have 'specialised' to provide movement, or sensitivity (to light or vibration say).  Such specialised cells would then evolve into tissues and organs, as the creatures became larger and more complex.

 

Eventually, after many millions of years, a creature evolved with a backbone, the first vertebrate.  The possession of an internal skeleton would have been a tremendous advantage, much better than the hard shells of more primitive animals, which made growth very difficult, yet providing the necessary rigidity for the use of muscles.  These sea-going vertebrates would have developed into fish, which probably came in many varieties.  One type of fish crawled out onto the shore, becoming the first amphibian, able to breath air and water.  True air breathers, reptiles, then developed.  They were able to use the direct sun to warm their bodies and their blood, greatly increasing the range, speed and power of their movements.  One class of reptile took to the air, the birds, warm-blooded and protected from the cold by their feathers.  Another class became the mammals, also warm blooded but protected by fur.  Mammals retained their 'eggs' inside their bodies so that when the egg 'hatched' they gave birth to live young; and they developed mammary glands to feed the offspring on milk for the first few weeks.  Mammals became extremely diverse and widespread, some became very large, some became pure carnivores, some took to the trees.  This last group, the primates, developed into monkeys and apes and humans.

 

The development of vertebrates may not have involved symbiosis at all.  But the idea that 'many hands make light work' seems to have come up many times, particularly in mammals which often live in large extended family groups, tribes or societies.  Like symbiosis, it is the idea of teamwork which drives this; united they conquer.  One way of looking at human society is as an organism itself, a sort of super-organism in which we are each an organ or a cell.  But perhaps we should reserve the word organism for individual bags of skin.  If organisms and societies are akin, it is because they are both prime examples of a sort of self-regulating complex system, for which, to my knowledge, a term has not yet been devised.

 

A complete understanding of the evolution of today's living systems is not possible without a parallel understanding of the mechanism by which all living individuals develop from an egg to an adult, and by which those eggs, the next generation, are produced.  The same mechanism is used by all species on the planet; it is based on a fundamental unit of biological inheritance - the gene.


2 - Genetics

All life on Earth shares a common origin, and this is evidenced by the common mode of reproduction of all organisms.  All organisms are composed of cells.  The nucleus of each cell contains the chromosomes, the genetic blueprint for that organism.  Each chromosome is made up of thousands of genes.  For any given individual, from an amoeba to a human, whether made of one cell or billions, every cell in its body contains an identical set of chromosomes, an identical set of genes.  No other individual will possess exactly this set of genes; it uniquely characterises the individual organism.  This set of genes is called its genotype.  Each gene determines a characteristic of the organism, sometimes by itself alone but more often in concert with one or more other genes - a gene cluster.  In fact I shall use the word gene to imply both a single gene and a cluster.  Often a gene determines more than one characteristic.  The use of the word 'determines' should not be taken to mean that gene absolutely determines a feature, since the expression of a gene (how it works) involves interaction with the environment.  But other things being equal, the gene is the main determinant; in particular it is the determinant upon which evolution acts.  One more technical term: the set of characteristics which is the complete expression of the genotype is called the organism's phenotype.

 

The Biochemistry of the Gene

The reason every cell in the body contains an identical set of genes is that the cells are all direct descendants of a single cell.  This is the common mode of reproduction of all organisms: to produce a single cell which is then the embryo for a completely new organism, the offspring, the next generation.  In the case of the amoeba, the embryo is the organism 'fully grown' as it were.  But for more complex species, multi-cellular organism, the embryo is just the beginning; it has to grow, to divide, to develop into the final form of the new individual.

 

The cell first divides into two daughter cells, each with an identical set of genes.  This cell division is accomplished by first duplicating each chromosome and then dealing out one copy of each to the two new cell nuclei.  The biochemistry of this duplication is startlingly beautiful.

 

Chromosomes turn out to be made of stuff called DNA (Deoxyribo Nucleic Acid).  The structure of DNA was worked out in the 1950s.  It was found to be a very large molecule indeed, an enormously long chain of sub-units called bases.  Each chromosome is a single molecule of DNA, and a gene is simply a region along its length, a relatively short sequence of bases.  There are four bases, which we can label using their initial letters as A, C, G and T.  They occur in about equal proportions, strung out along the long DNA chain like beads upon a necklace.  However, they do not form a fixed pattern; there is no repeating sequence, as one might find in, say, a wallpaper pattern.  Rather they are 'randomly' distributed along the chain; I use the quotes because the distribution is not entirely random - it is more akin to the distribution of letters in a section of English text.  The sequence of bases is actually storing information.  A gene is like a long sentence, the words of which are made up from the four bases; what the sentence actually says I will explain shortly.

 

It turns out that DNA is not just one chain of bases, it is two chains, wrapped around each other in a tight embrace, the double helix.  It is rather like a ladder twisted into a spiral staircase; the sides of the ladder are the two chains, and the rungs are formed by the pairing of the bases along each chain.  This is the real beauty of it.  Each base will only pair with one other base; C pairs with G, and A with T.  This means that the sequence of bases on one strand of the DNA is matched by a complementary sequence on the other strand; one strand is a positive copy, the other a negative.  For instance, a the positive sequence ACGT will only pair with the negative sequence TGCA.  This provides for a delightfully simple way to duplicate the entire molecule, and thus the entire chromosome.  The ladder splits 'up the middle' into its two separate strands, one positive and one negative.  Because each base will only pair with one other base, each copy can reconstruct the missing strand: the positive strand reconstructs its negative, and the negative strand reconstructs its positive.  (The DNA itself doesn't do the reconstruction - there is quite complex molecular machinery to do this - but it holds the information required to perform the reconstruction.) The net result is two identical copies of the original double helix, two identical chromosomes.

 

The cells of the embryo go on dividing into 4, 8, 16, 32 cells and so on until there are millions of cells.  As the divisions proceed, the cells do not each remain of identical size and shape forming a sort of amorphous blob.  Each cell or group of cells takes upon a different size and shape depending upon where it is in the developing embryo.  These individual distortions result in the whole embryo, initially a spherical ball of cells, taking on a definite complex shape.  The groups of cells carry on dividing, each group developing into distinct layers, tissues and organs.  There are two questions that need to be addressed here: how does a cell 'know where it is' in the embryo?  and, given that it does know, how does it know what to do in that location?  The answer to the second question is easier (not least because its known!): Its all in the genes.  This is when most genes act, during the development of the embryo; only a fraction of the genotype is needed once the organism has developed.

 

Genetic Control

How are genes expressed, how do they work?  They act by synthesising proteins, particularly enzymes.  Protein molecules are large molecules (but no where near the size of DNA).  They are made up of chains of amino acids which are wrapped up in a complicated 'ball of string' structure.  There are 20 types amino acids to choose from, and again they are not repetitively arranged along the protein chain; but not randomly either.  The exact sequence of amino acid determines the structure of the protein, which itself determines the function of the molecule.  Proteins are the biochemical workhorses of the cell, and they have a great many jobs to do, and a great many roles to perform.  Enzymes form one of the most important classes of proteins; their job is to control all the chemical reactions occurring in the cell.

 

Enzymes are catalysts.  In chemistry, a catalyst is an agent which takes part in a chemical reaction but which is not consumed by it.  In an ordinary chemical reaction, like the burning of natural gas (methane) in air, the reaction stops when one of the reagents (methane and oxygen) runs out.  The reagents are turned into products (carbon dioxide and water), they are consumed by the reaction.  Whichever reagent is present in smallest quantity will limit the extent of the reaction.  A catalyst, although it is required to make a certain reaction go, is not consumed by it; there is always just as much of the catalyst around as there was at the start.  This means two things: one, as long as there is some of it around, the catalyst is never the limiting factor; and two, you don't need a lot of it to keep the reaction going.  For the chemical reactions of the cell, enzymes are the catalysts.  Each enzyme catalyses a single reaction, so if that enzyme is not present, that reaction just doesn't go; but only a minute quantity of the right enzyme is needed to trigger the reaction.  A set of enzymes defines a set of reactions, a sequence of reactions known as a pathway, each pathway leading from some 'raw material' to some desired 'product'.

 

Genes control the pathways of the cell by synthesising the right set of enzymes at the right time to cause the production of certain specific chemicals as they are needed.  The genes can be switched on or switched off as dictated by a sophisticated control system the details of which are still unknown.  The actual mechanism of protein synthesis is complex, but I can summarise it here.  Each gene is a sentence of DNA written in code (the genetic code).  The code consists of three letter words, each letter being one of the 4 bases, giving a 'dictionary' of 64 words.  What each word 'means' is one of the 20 amino acids (some amino acids are coded for by more than one word), or a bit of punctuation (start and stop).  The DNA of a single gene is first 'transcribed' into RNA, a sort of single stranded version of DNA (only the 'positive' DNA strand is transcribed).  The RNA is then 'translated' by a host of molecular machines called ribosomes.  Each ribosome starts at the 'start' word on the RNA and proceeds to the 'stop' word, translating each three letter word in between into a single amino acid and stringing the amino acids together.  The net result is that each ribosome produces a single 'polypeptide' or protein chain, potentially a single enzyme.

 

Embryology

We still haven't answered the first question, 'How do cells know where they are?' Again, I shall present a simplified answer.  Cells are able to detect the presence and the concentration of chemicals in their immediate environment (this is in fact another of the jobs that proteins do, this time as receptors wedged into the outer covering of the cell, the cell membrane).  The presence of a given concentration of a 'messenger' chemical tells it where it is.  The messenger chemical is produced by neighbouring cells which already know where they are, so to speak.  This is a bit of a 'chicken and egg' problem, but its not as bad as it sounds.  Since the initial ball of cells making up the embryo is symmetrical, an arbitrary cell just decides where it is, and this cell becomes the reference for all the others.

 

This is the general scheme, then: cells know where they are in the embryo via the chemical messengers produced by their neighbouring cells.  Knowing where it is, the cell responds by doing the job a cell in that position is programmed to do.  It does this by switching on the the right genes to synthesise the right enzymes to get the right pathways going in order to build up the right products.  (Probably, the messenger chemical switches on a single 'master gene' which then switches on all the rest.) The effect of the enzymes (and other proteins) is to alter the size and shape of the cell and the kind of substances it takes in and gives out.  The precise details of how this scheme results in the development of an infant organism are still a mystery.  The point is all the information, the plans, the instructions are held by the genes; they are in control of the cell.

 

Genes and Evolution

How does this genetic mechanism relate to evolution?  Well for one thing, the fact that the mechanism is completely general and common to all living things implies that all life evolved from a single common origin which had already perfected this mechanism.  How that mechanism itself arose is the problem of the Origin of Life (see the next section).  But more importantly, the genetic mechanism provides continuity; in a sense it is the genes that do the evolving, not the organism.  It is not individual organisms that evolve, it is the 'germ line', as it used to be known; genes passed on from generation to generation, which have lifetimes measured in millions of years, not the few tens of years that even the longest lived organisms attain.  Most of the genes of modern organisms are very ancient indeed, some have been around for billions of years.

 

The genes outlive individual organisms since they are passed on to the next generation in the single cell from which the embryo develops.  Most organisms reproduce sexually; a male donates his sperm, and the female her egg, and these fuse to form the embryo cell.  Why, then, doesn't the number of chromosomes double with each generation?  Because there is a trick involved in the production of the sperm and egg (the gametes).  Each ordinary cell, the non-gametes, contains two copies of each chromosome.  When the gametes are created by the division of a parent cell, the chromosomes do not duplicate, but one of each of the pair is dealt to each daughter cell, so gametes rather than having several pairs of chromosomes have only one of each.  When the gametes fuse, the situation is restored, the embryo cell has a set of chromosome pairs, one of the pair from the male, one from the female.  So there are actually two copies of every gene in a cell!

 

It is not quite accurate to say 'two copies of each gene in every cell' since this implies that they are identical copies.  Well the genes might be identical, but they don't have to be, and frequently they are not.  One gene came from the mother and the other from the father, two different organisms, two different genotypes.  But if each of a pair of chromosomes contains a set of different genes, in what sense are the chromosomes the same, and in what sense are genes that make them up the same?  Take a human cell: it has 46 chromosomes.  The huge DNA molecule that comprises each one is bundled up into a compact package so that under a microscope, the chromosomes look like so many sets of overalls.  But they vary in size and shape, such that you can arrange them in 23 pairs, where each one of the pair looks like the other one, but unlike any of the others.  The genes on each chromosome are not randomly scattered: it is as if each one has an address where it is expected to be found, and this address is known as its locus.  What we mean when we say there are two copies of each gene, is that there are two alternative loci, one on each of the paired chromosomes, to which the cell can go to find the gene.  The two genes are called alleles of each other.  If both alleles have identical DNA sequences, then the genes are the same; no problem.  But if one of the alleles has a slightly different sequence, say just one of the bases is different, then they are different genes.  In other words, its product would have a different amino acid at some point in its polypeptide chain, an 'imperfect' protein. So now there is a problem - which allele should be expressed?

 

Imagine all the chromosomes from one cell of an organism laid out in pairs, end to end, with the DNA unravelled; it would form an enormously long corridor, or street with corresponding loci (addresses) facing each other across it so that each gene lived opposite its allele (for example, number 3215 West would live opposite 3215 East).  Imagine a single species as a town containing row upon row of identical streets (residences), where each street is an individual member of that species (numbered for convenience 1st Street, 2nd Street, and so on).  Each individual has a unique genotype, corresponding to each street having a unique set of residents.  Now each gene not only has an allele living opposite on the same street, it also has alleles living at the same address on all the other streets.  If genes replicated perfectly, every allele would be the same; in fact there wouldn't be a concept of alleles since every individual would just have two identical copies of the same gene.  But, as we shall see shortly, mistakes are made.  The majority of the residents of any particular address (locus) turn out to the same, a single allele, and this gene is called the wild type, but many are different, different alleles, and they are known as mutations.  So in a population of a species every locus has a set of alleles, a wild type and several mutations, which can occupy it.

 

Back to the question of which of the two alleles of a single chromosome pair is expressed.  If an individual is lucky enough to have a wild type allele resident, then it is that gene that is expressed; we say that the wild type is dominant over the mutations.  If neither locus is occupied by a wild type, then one of the mutations is expressed.  Remember that each gene codes for a protein, which might well be essential for the correct development and survival of the individual.  As long as the wild type gene is present, the correct protein can be produced, and the individual is okay.  The cell seems to be able to detect an 'okay' protein, which explains how dominance works.  But if both alleles are defective, only defective proteins are produced.  Depending upon which protein it is, this can be good, producing say blonde hair or blue eyes; or bad, producing a genetic disease like Down's Syndrome or Muscular Dystrophy.

 

Mutation

If random mutation is the only way that genes can ever change, then from what I've said above, it doesn't look too good for evolution.  It seems as if any change to the genes, any mutations of the wild type that arise, are going to be compensated for by dominance (the other allele in the cell is likely to be the wild type); or, if not, they are likely to disable the individual.  Well this is quite true, the majority of mutations will be unfavourable, often lethal.  But a tiny proportion will not be; they will either be benign, having no effect on the phenotype at all, or they will be favourable, an improvement, a minute increase in fitness.  To see how this can happen, and why it is so rare, we have to look at the mechanism of mutation.

 

There are two classes of mutation.  Point mutations involve the swapping, addition, or deletion of a single base in the DNA sequence comprising the gene.  Area mutations involve whole strings of bases being added, deleted or even inverted.  Any given gene can have none, one or more mutations along its length.  The mutations arise by one of two means: imperfect duplication of the DNA, or damage to the DNA from chemical agents or radiation.  However they have arisen, how they affect the individual depends crucially on exactly where the resultant protein is affected.  A large part of the protein is 'structural', it is just a sort of frame to support the 'business end' which does the work.  As long as the shape of the frame doesn't alter, it doesn't matter too much which amino acids make it up.  So for any given amino acid in the frame, there are one or two others that could be substituted without unduly affecting the function of the protein.  Mutations affecting the 'business end' will almost always destroy the function, and random mutations to the frame are quite likely to substitute the wrong amino acid too, distorting the shape and destroying the effectiveness of the protein; this is why most mutations would be harmful.  But a small percentage will have little or no effect.  An even smaller percentage will have a beneficial effect.

 

The chances that a positive evolutionary step will occur depend upon whether the protein can potentially be 'improved' or not, and this depends upon the context in which the protein operates: the particular chemical pathway, the particular cell, the tissue or organ affected, and the circumstances of the organism, including the environment, the ecological niche itself.  For sake of argument, lets assume that if one particular amino acid were replaced by just one of the other 19 kinds of amino acid, the enzyme would be 'better', say by giving an animal sharper vision.  The chances of that particular mutation actually happening are probably worse than one in a million; but given thousands of members of the species and thousands of generations, its bound to happen one day.  When it arose, the mutant gene, far from being masked by the wild type, would actually be 'better' than it.  In fact one would expect the mutant to successfully 'compete' with the wild type, and with all the other alleles, and eventually become the most common allele, the wild type, itself.

 


New genes

There is a third type of mutation that I haven't talked about yet.  As well as point and area mutations which occur with a single gene, sometimes whole regions of a chromosome containing many genes are duplicated.  Exactly what effect this has depends upon which genes they are and upon whether the control system of the cell can cope with it.  In effect, instead of having two alleles for a given locus, the cell now has three, or rather it has a 'bogus' allele living at a 'bogus' address, a new locus.  It is an interesting question as to whether the cell recognises the locus from its physical position 'along the street' or whether it recognises it from some sign, a special 'marker' sequence near the locus, analogous to the name or number of a house in the street.  If the latter, then the new locus will house a genuine third allele!  In any case, as long as the extra genes do not cause any problems, if the mutation is 'benign', if the control system can cope, then the new region will not be selected against; it will have a free ride on the chromosome.

 

Once the new locus has been created, even if only on one chromosome at the moment, it becomes subject to selection pressure.  What's going to happen if it mutates?  There are still the 'normal' alleles, one of them probably a wild type, so this may not affect an existing pathway.  But there may be some new protein being produced which is bound to have some effect, possibly deleterious, on the cell.  If it can be switched off, well and good.  If it escapes the control system, and creates havoc in the cell, too bad for the individual - it's inherited a lethal gene, but at least the lethal will be removed from the population.  Again, though, there is just a small chance that the new protein is beneficial.  If so, it becomes a new gene, and if organisms that possess it are actually fitter, the gene will again flood the population.  So here we have a mechanism for the creation of brand new genes: duplicate an old one and mutate it so that it is under separate selection pressure.  By such means the genotype grows in size and complexity as opposed to merely getting better at doing the same thing, which would happen if the number of active loci never changed.

 

Its all very well to say 'look at this wonderful genetic mechanism which is the basis of evolution' but aren't we back to the chicken and egg again: How did the genetic mechanism itself evolve?  This is really part of a larger question which I will look at in the next section: What is the Origin of Life?


3 - The Origin of Life

The exposition I have given so far has perhaps given the impression that evolution only works because there is a genetic mechanism for it to act upon.  This is not the case.  The genetic mechanism itself was created by evolution.  One way to look at it is that genetics is the way evolution manifests itself when it is acting upon carbon chemistry, but that it also acts upon other systems where it manifests itself in different, though analogous, ways.  Before genetics got going, other chemical systems must have been evolving at the same time with which genetics, the DNA system, competed exactly as species compete today.  The other systems became extinct, genetics won, as it were.  How might this genetic mechanism have been created? 

 

Obviously we can't go back and see what was going on 3 billion years ago.  We can only study the subject theoretically.  But what's to stop us developing fantasy theories which tell us nothing about Nature at all?   Well, we can use the few scraps of evidence that have survived to the present day; we can perform chemical experiments simulating early conditions; and we can use computer simulations or models of early biochemistry to test out ideas.  Clearly a judicious combination of all three techniques is in order; the fossil record and the chemical investigations providing the 'milestones' and computer models filling in the gaps in between.  There would have to be a lot of assumptions made, though, and how justified they were would depend upon how well the models worked and whether the fossil and chemical evidence supported them.  The full program has not yet been carried out but bits and pieces have been done and I will attempt to summarise these findings here.

 

The Early Days

The 'primeval soup' probably consisted of a water sea and a methane and ammonia atmosphere.  Heat generated by volcanic activity and lightning may have caused locally high temperatures in the sea and air which drove chemical reactions leading to the synthesis of amino acids and nucleic bases, the building blocks of life.  Experiments in the lab have proved that conditions similar to those which existed 3 billion years ago can produce these building blocks.

 

In the last section I discussed chemical catalysis, the action of certain agents which cause chemical reactions to occur but are not consumed by them.  In the vast chemical experiment being performed in the primeval ocean, it seems likely that many catalysts would have been around, simple chemical compounds possibly formed out of the metallic oxides in rock minerals.  These catalysts would have been very non-specific so any sort of reactions might have been catalysed.  Its possible, though, that some catalyst might have occurred which catalysed the formation of long chains of amino acids.  We can suppose that this is quite likely to have happened, in fact.  From what we know of carbon chemistry (also called 'organic chemistry'), long chains, or polymers are the order of the day; indeed they are the basis of the plastics industry.  Amino acids are carbon compounds, and they can form chains if they can be linked together ('polymerised') via a common carbon reaction which forms peptide bonds.  The resulting chain is called a polypeptide, in other words a protein.  Our first assumption, then, is that some chemical catalyst arose which polymerised amino acids into small proteins.

 

This brings about an interesting possibility.  Proteins are catalysts themselves; potentially better, more specific catalysts than inorganic ones.  In the modern cell, such proteins (enzymes) are tailor made for the job, though.  Their structure and catalytic ability is a direct result of the particular sequence of the amino acids they possess.  In the early world, the sequence of amino acids would have been entirely random, so whatever catalytic ability the first polypeptides possessed would have been random too - they would catalyse no reaction at all or else any reaction.  Can we construct a plausible sequence of events which might lead to the creation of a polypeptide which actually catalysed the synthesis of polypeptides themselves?  I shall attempt to.

 

Stage one, as we have seen, would be the synthesis of random polypeptides by inorganic catalysis.  Just by chance, some of these polypeptides would have had the ability to catalyse the polymerisation of amino acids.  Equally likely is the formation of polypeptides which catalyse their own breakdown.  No pattern has emerged yet, the situation is unstable.  All we have is a collection of random polypeptides, catalysing random reactions.  This is stage two.  Stage three would be the chance formation of a polypeptide which actually catalysed its own synthesis!  How likely is such an event?  The sort of thing I have in mind is that a simple polypeptide, possibly formed out of just a single kind of amino acid (which might occur where the concentration of that amino acid is high), might catalyse its own synthesis.  For example, lets say we found out from lab experiments that a polymer of the amino acid alanine, polyalanine, catalysed the polymerisation of alanine (I've no idea whether it does, this is just an illustration).  We could them suppose that if in a local concentration of alanine in the primeval sea a single molecule of polyalanine arose, it would bring about the synthesis of more polyalanine, leading to a local 'colony' of polyalanine.  Any spare alanine would be rapidly 'gobbled up' by the polyalanine, and the destructive effects of other polypeptides, which breakdown the polyalanine, would effectively countered by the overwhelming numbers of 'repairer' molecules, polyalanine itself.

 

This system is probably too simple, but it gives the general idea.  More complex systems would be more likely to be stable, though less likely to arise.  But if they are likely at all, then once they had happened they would be stable, they would persist, a new order would have been created.  What might have happened is that small sets of polypeptides arose, where each chain is made up of simple sequences of amino acids (..ABCABCABC..), and where each type of molecule catalyses one particular bond (A to B, B to C, or C to A).  The set would be stable, and in fact would propagate throughout the 'soup', using up all the available molecules of amino acids A, B and C.  In other words the set would survive, and it would replicate.  Many such sets would be possible, some 'better' than others, competing for the available amino acids.

 

What is Life?

The point I'm trying to make is that by entirely random, and entirely chemical means, stable sets of proteins might arise and propagate throughout the soup of raw material.  Now here is something for evolution to work on.  There is stability, and propagation - the cornerstones of evolution.  There is even something extra, a third cornerstone if you like, namely variation.  Each protein set cannot 'copy' itself perfectly, mistakes creep in, in fact the copying fidelity of a set of proteins would probably be very poor.  The chances are that many of the 'progeny' of a protein set would not be stable an so that line would die out.  But some lines would be just as stable, perhaps more so.  In fact the greater the fidelity the better; the evolution of fidelity is favoured.  And new sets might be 'better' in other ways too, perhaps at scavenging, or breaking down rival sets.  As long as the resources are scarce (and if they aren't the population just grows until they are), there will be competition - and this is the fourth cornerstone.

 

The question arises, Is it life?  Clearly it is not life as we know it.  Where are the organisms?  There are no discrete collections of molecules, just a mixed up soup of proteins, where certain local mixtures (sets) are more stable than others.  There are no generations, no genetic material, no cells.  Perhaps it isn't life; but it is evolution.  The process of evolution didn't wait for the creation of a genetic mechanism before it 'started up' - it was going all the time.  In fact it was by evolution that the genetic mechanism was created in the first place.  The story I have told above is a sort of fable, an illustration of how chemical order might plausibly arise out of chaos.  By such steps, the degree of order inevitably increases, because that's how evolution works; the more ordered a configuration is, the more stable it is, longer it persists.  Order will always arise out of chaos.  Evolution is not dependant upon organisms, proteins or DNA; as long as a system is complex enough to permit stability, propagation, variation and competition, evolution will occur.  I suggest that any system worthy of the name possesses these attributes, so any system will evolve order.  Life on Earth has evolved at a relatively high rate (though it seems very slow in human terms) and this is probably due to the presence of liquid water here, and the constant input of heat and light from the sun.  Perhaps these are optimal conditions for rapid evolution, but there is no evidence for this.  It seems entirely possible to me that complex systems have evolved elsewhere in the universe in completely alien conditions and possible at a greater rate than on Earth.  It is a puzzle, though, why we haven't met them yet!

 

A Genetic Fable

I still haven't really answered the question of how the genetic system evolved, the single 'organism' from which all life on Earth today has developed.  Obviously I don't actually know how it evolved, but I can use the ideas presented in this section to put together a plausible account.

 

The protein sets that I invented above have their counterpart in terms of nucleic acid sets.  RNA has catalytic ability too.  It may be that many mechanisms are possible based upon long chains of sub-units catalysing their own polymerisation, and proteins and RNA are just two examples.  What is evolving is a system of information storage.  The sequence of units, amino acids or bases, determines what reactions are catalysed and how well the polymers catalyse them.  The stability and survival of the protein and RNA sets depends upon the preservation and improvement of these sequences.  I suspect that the two independent systems, after some time evolving independently, possible in competition with each other, somehow got together, a sort of primitive symbiosis.  Once a protein-RNA set evolved, the door was open for the development of more sophisticated mechanism of replication.

 

One of the secrets of symbiosis is called 'the division of labour'; each half of the partnership does what they do best, relying on the other half to perform the remaining functions.  For purely chemical reasons, proteins are the better catalysts, and RNA is better at replication.  But for this division to work, the amino acid sequences would have to be somehow recorded in the base sequences and a mechanism for translating a base sequence to a protein sequence perfected.  In other words, the protein-RNA set would have to evolve a ribosome.  This seems a daunting task when you realise how complex the ribosomal mechanism is today, but presumably the modern ribosome is only the end result of a long and tortuous process of small improvements from virtually no beginning, just as the evolution of any system is.  One can imagine the early translation mechanisms were very different, moving through a series of intermediate stages before settling down to the ribosomal system.  In any event, once a translation machine, a proto-ribosome, evolved, the union of RNA and protein would have been assured.

 

The proto-ribosomes are the beginnings of a kind of organism.  But they are not well defined; the products of translation, the proteins, diffuse away into the sea.  The chances of the right proteins and RNA getting together to make another proto-ribosome are not high.  It would be better if a local concentration of polymers could be maintained; a cell.  The boundary of a cell is a simple structure, a membrane composed of a single type of molecule called a lipid.  Lipids are related to soap molecules, and solutions of them in water automatically form into lipid sacks, rather like soap bubbles.

Perhaps a protein set which also produced lipids, as a sort of by-product, found itself trapped in the bubbles.  The bubble-set and the proto-ribosomes might then have formed a new symbiosis, a proto-cell.

 

Once the proto-cell developed it would have propagated very quickly.  The higher concentration of translation products in the lipid sack would mean that proto-ribosomes would be created very quickly.  When the raw materials ran out, the sack would have burst, releasing ribosomes to form new proto-cells.  As long as the RNA molecules which coded for the ribosomes, but which replicated without the need for ribosomes, were present in enough numbers, associations of RNA, ribosome and lipid sack would form a new stable set.  Eventually, the proto-cell developed the trick of 'sucking in' the surrounding sea and raw materials so that it didn't have to burst but just grew in size and then split in two; the association of RNA, ribosome and lipid cell would never again have to break up - a true organism would have evolved.  Eventually the many RNA molecules, which may not have been particularly stable, came to be transcribed from a single master copy.  The master copy was stabilised by being a double strand of RNA (a master copy with its 'negative' attached).  This wasn't as stable as DNA, obtainable from RNA by the loss of a single oxygen atom from each base unit.  RNA could be transcribed just as easily from DNA.  And there it is; the genetic mechanism.

 

What I have described is a huge oversimplification.  I haven't mentioned, for instance, how a mechanism might arise by which the sun's light is trapped as 'chemical' energy; photosynthesis.  And the details of the many steps involved pose enormous problems.  But all I am trying to do is sketch a solution, offer a glimpse of it, in order to illustrate that the evolution of genetics proceeded in the same step by step way that the evolution of organisms proceeded thereafter.  Genetics itself hasn't evolved substantially for billions of years because it is already 'perfect', which is to say it does its job superbly well and it is completely relied upon as the basis of all life; any significant change to it would almost certainly be lethal to the individual originating it.

 

This excursion to the dawn of life was really just to illustrate the point that evolution is not fundamentally a biological phenomenon; it is not exhibited solely by living organisms but by all complex systems.  It happens that life is the most complex system, and the most common example of evolution; but, as I shall explain next, evolution is a truly Universal phenomenon.


4 - Order out of Chaos

In the first three sections of Part 3 I have given a thumbnail sketch of the origin of life from a chemical soup, and of the origin of Man from the first 'proto-cell' in which the genetic mechanism had been perfected.  This account is by no means intended to be authoritative, or even accurate in any detail.  It is just a model of how things might have happened which is an illustration of the evolutionary principle.  One point it should emphasis is that evolution is not aiming at any particular solution, it is not a conscious 'force'.  It is blind, mechanical, undirected and lacking in intelligence.  It is not a true force at all, but more a law not unlike the laws of motion or of thermodynamics.

 

Entropy

There are two laws of thermodynamics.  The first law is really a law of physics: it states that in a closed system energy can neither be created nor destroyed.  Energy is equivalent to matter, and one can be turned into the other, but the sum total of the two together is constant.  The second law is a bit more tricky to explain.  One way to put it is that the entropy of a system increases with time.  But what is entropy?  It is simply the degree of disorder in a system, its 'randomness', how chaotic it is.

 

If we put the two laws together we can see that although the total amount of energy in a system stays the same, an increasing proportion of it becomes random; another term for random energy is heat.  Heat is simply the random motion of molecules; they are all dancing about full of (random) energy.  This is clear in a gas or a liquid where the molecules are free to move, but is equally so in a solid where each atom, though caged in by its neighbours, still manages to shake around a little.  Temperature is a measure of the 'average' energy of the molecules (some will inevitably have more than others); individual molecules don't have an individual temperature, just energy; or, more obviously, motion.  This heat energy is essentially 'lost' energy.  Because all the molecules are moving randomly in all directions, the motion can't be 'harnessed' in any way; in the jargon, it is not 'available to do work'; it is not useful energy.  Energy is only useful if all the molecules are moving in the same direction: water flowing downhill, a cannonball flying through the air, a spring uncoiling.  Heat can only be used if, rather like water, its is allowed to flow; not from high to low, but from hot to cold.  For example, the burning of petrol in the cylinder of a car engine creates heat, but it is only any use if the heat is allowed to 'go somewhere'; in this case it goes into the expansion of the gas in the cylinder (which rapidly cools as a result) by pushing the piston down, driving the wheels round, and moving the car.

 

A car is only about 20% efficient: 80% of the energy released by the burning petrol is not converted into the movement of the car, but into heating up the exhaust gases.  It might be possible to make an engine 80% efficient, so that you only lost 20% as heat, but you could never make it 100% efficient.  If you could you would be contradicting the second law; the randomness (entropy) of the system must increase, some random energy (heat) must be produced.

 

Probability

Underlying thermodynamics, which is the study of heat flow, is statistical mechanics, treating heat as the sum of the motion of molecules.  The point is that the second law is a purely statistical idea.  Any system left on its own (that's what we mean by 'closed' - we don't put anything into it) will simply get more random and chaotic.  This is actually quite a common experience.  Imagine a jar of sweets: the bottom third red sweets, the middle third white sweets, the top third air.  Shake the jar vigorously for a minute or two - what happens?  I think you'd be rather surprised if the sweets still formed a red and white layer.  In fact, they get completely mixed up, and no amount of shaking is going to unmix them.  It is just a matter of probability.  Once its been shaken, the chance that any individual sweet in the jar is red and not white is just 50:50, so the chances that you would find all red sweets in the bottom is the same as tossing a coin (a fair coin) a hundred odd times and coming up with heads every time.  Its not impossible, but it is very, very unlikely; so for practical purposes it is zero.

 

Many phenomena are 'driven' by the increase in entropy.  Any form of mixing involves it, any change from order to disorder.  The flow of heat from hot to cold (mixing hot and cold molecules); mixing milk in tea; having to constantly tidy up a house (which 'naturally' tends to get untidy).  It is as if any irreversible process is driven by entropy, as if it accounted for the existence of change, as if entropy was the definition of Time itself.  All biological processes, all energy systems and chemical reaction, involve heat flow, so they are 'driven' by entropy.  Without entropy things would stay the same; no change, no Time.  But the price to pay for having Time at all (which is to say for existence) is that things always run down, heat is always lost, an energy input is always required.  We need food to keep us going, to replace the energy we keep losing as heat, and also to repair all the damage we keep doing to ourselves both outside and inside, even within our cells.  Movement, for which we also need energy, is almost the last on the list!  This is literally so for plants, which don't move.

 

The point is that organisms are ordered systems, but they are not free from the second law.  They have to pay for their order by producing even more disorder - heat.  They are energy systems and they need a constant input of energy to meet the demanding entropy bill.  They want to remain stable, to survive, to keep going; so they are always back pedalling, resisting the force of nature which is trying to change them, to run them down, to wear them out; they are fighting Time.

 

Inevitability

But how on Earth did such a system of order come about?  Surely things are supposed to get more disordered, more chaotic?  Isn't that what the second law is about?  The point is that the system as a whole does get more disordered; life is just a tiny corner of order in a chaotic world.  It traps a small fraction of the energy coming from the sun, and in order to make use of that energy it has to give most of it to the environment as heat.  But a fraction of a fraction of the energy does something useful; it creates and maintains order - Life.  And the order has increased in size and complexity under the action of the process of Universal Evolution.  It is as if evolution were acting in the opposite direction to the second law, going from chaos to order rather than the reverse.  To be sure, it is a tiny back-current in the hurtling mainstream of entropy, a thin layer of order on the surface of the Earth.  But like entropy, evolution is just a statistical thing, a matter of probabilities, a mathematical phenomenon.

 

The fact that life must have arisen from a purely chemical soup, as illustrated in the previous three sections, is evidence that evolution is mathematical in nature.  Chemical reactions obey mathematical laws, not biological ones.  Any chemical system changes toward a more stable state, giving up energy as it does so, and releasing heat.  It is analogous to water flowing downhill; the water at the top of the hill is 'less stable' because it can, potentially, flow down - it has 'potential energy'.  This energy can be released, and used to do work, by letting the water flow downhill, perhaps over a water wheel.  Again, a lot of the energy is released as heat.  At the bottom of the hill, the water has less potential energy (at sea level it would have none, because it would have nowhere lower to flow to) - it has lost the energy as heat or as work, turning the water wheel.  So for 'more stable' you can read 'less energy', and this applies to chemical reactions too.  When a system becomes more stable it achieves a lower energy state, it loses energy as heat, and so the reaction is driven by the second law.

 

However, this only describes the behaviour of the chemical system as a whole, the closed system.  Earth is not a closed system because it has a constant supply of energy; the heat and light coming from the sun.  Any particular region of the Earth (or the sea, which is where the action is) will be heated and cooled in an irregular pattern as the Earth turns and the seasons come and go.  Sometimes there will be a net flow of energy into a local region, sometimes a net flow of energy out.  If the net flow is out, then only reactions which release heat (flow downhill) will happen.  But when the net flow is in, 'uphill' reactions occur, the local entropy will decrease, a little bit of order will have arisen.  It is these local decreases in entropy which create the amino acid building blocks out of methane, ammonia and water, and which later polymerise the amino acids into chains, and which provide the energy (the ability to go uphill) for the whole of the evolutionary process I have already described.

 

One of the great achievements of living systems was that they developed a way to trap and store this local decrease in entropy.  They did this by pushing some reactions uphill to produce produce 'unstable' chemical compounds (they are 'energy unstable' in that they have potential energy, but they are 'time stable' in that they don't spontaneously decompose, at least not for some time).  The first energy storage compounds were probably the ones that most easily formed; almost anything will do if it releases heat when it breaks down.  But as living chemical systems became more sophisticated, the storage compounds became more efficient, and eventually settled on carbohydrates.  The energy trapped was not in the form of heat, but light direct from the sun, trapped via photosynthesis.  And it came to be released from the carbohydrate not directly as heat, but as chemical energy, by a process which was almost the reverse of photosynthesis, namely respiration.

 

Energy

Whilst this explains to some extent how living systems do not actually violate the second law, it doesn't explain why these local regions of order develop and persist.  We've already seen that the answer to this is evolution, but what does that mean mathematically; why doesn't absolutely everything become disordered?  The answer lies in the constant input of energy to the system from the sun.  The most probable event is that everything becomes disordered, order is very unlikely.  But because energy is constantly being poured into the system the number of possible trials is increased dramatically.  If there is a one in a million chance that a particular event will happen, perform a million or so trials, and it happens.  There is a particular class of event, probably one in a million classes, which has the remarkable property of propagation; once the event has happened to one element, it rapidly happens to all the other elements.  It is as if the product of the event somehow attracted other similar products to it, as if it catalysed their production.

 

In order for evolution to occur, what is needed is that the system should move from one stable 'plateau' to another.  A plateau is a special kind of stable state in which is capable of 'repairing' itself.  A plateau is a higher energy state, it so it is unstable ('energy unstable') in that energy could be released if it was allowed to breakdown.  But its special stability ('time stability') comes from the fact that if when a breakdown occurs to a part of it, that part is immediately replenished from the main stock, by propagation.  As long as energy is fed into the plateau, it can propagate and repair itself, in spite of the fact that it is actually unstable, in other words that it is ordered.  The plateau remains stable until another one-in-a-million event occurs which creates a new plateau, a new stable state.  Now the odds are weighted in favour of the new plateau and the elements of the system rapidly achieve the new configuration, 'catalysed' by the emerging new plateau, as if it was capable of siphoning them up.

 

If these transitions from one plateau to another were actually one-in-a-million events, evolution would occur painfully slowly, effectively not at all.  But evolution works at all levels.  Not only is evolution evolving new plateaus, more ordered systems, fitter organisms, it is also evolving the mechanism by which those system evolve!  The effect of this is to increase the chances that a plateau transition will occur, to decrease the number of trials needed, and therefore to decrease the time between jumps.  For instance, in the evolution of the genetic system, a mutation to a gene coding for, say, a ribosomal protein (part of the genetic system) might enhance the function of that protein, and thus render the organism 'fitter'.  Improvements that might occur are to increase the rate of protein synthesis, to increase the fidelity of DNA copying, to increase the variability of offspring, to develop mechanisms to 'repair' lethal mutations, and so on.  One very clear example is the evolution of sex itself.  This proved to be successful, probably for two reasons: because it dramatically increases the variability of offspring; and because each offspring has two alleles for each gene, so, if one of them is defective, there is a 'fall-back' copy.

 

Geometric Growth

The perfection of the genetic mechanism was one of the great milestones in evolution, each improvement in it probably increased the rate of evolution ten-fold.  There are other milestones too: the development of ribosomes, the formation of cells, the use of DNA as the information store, photosynthesis, respiration, sex, multicellular organisms, tissues, organs, movement, animals, blood, air breathing, warm blood, nervous systems, brains.  Each of these developments would have produced more and more fit creature, exploiting ever more ecological niches, and themselves evolving at a increasingly prodigious rates.  Perhaps the last of these major developments, the evolution of the brain, is the most astounding since the development of the genetic mechanism itself.  I think the creation of the brain, and its 'resident' the mind, was a master stroke (if such can be said of a blind force of Nature!).

 

Movement had already evolved before nervous systems arose.  But the early organisms moved in response to stimuli, by direct reflex.  The 'pathway' from stimulus to response was genetically coded into the animal's cells; the connectivity between cells, the sensor cell and the motor cell, was determined by genes.  Even when nervous systems became more sophisticated, their connectivity was still genetically determined, in other words the behaviour of the animals was automatic and instinctive.  The development of these instincts could only have occurred by evolution, at the same rate as the development of a limb, or an eye: in other words slowly, over thousands of years and tens of generations.  The brain changed all that.  In effect the genes handed over the day to day control of the animal to the mind.  The genes set up the ground rules, the 'initial conditions', the urges that the mind will have to satisfy in order to maintain its body and reproduce.  But once freed from the total control of the genes, the mind began to take on an importance all of its own.


5 - Behaviour

Behaviour is 'what an organism does'.  Most often, the word is used to describe patterns of movement of part or all of an animal (only animals move).  Changes in the organism which occur over long periods of time, such as changes in size and shape, as in plants, are not considered to be movement, or behaviour; thus growth is distinguished from behaviour.  To some extent this is an arbitrary dividing line.  The habit of any organism, or indeed any object, can be considered to constitute its behaviour.  For inanimate objects, their behaviour (in the short term) is rather straightforward - they just sit there and do nothing.  There are some exceptions, notably water, the behaviour of which is far from straightforward.  It performs an elaborate cycle of rain, pools, streams, rivers, sea, evaporation, clouds, and rain again.  This is an energy system, driven by the sun.  In fact even rocks, in the very long term, form part of an energy system, this time the rock cycle, driven by the interior heat of the Earth and the erosion caused by the water cycle.  Change is a universal phenomenon; nothing is unchanging or unmoving; but it may change and move very slowly so that only by patient observation, recording, and some hard thinking can the change be perceived.  Water and air are fluids, they flow easily, so their behaviour is easily observable - the weather.  Rocks flow too, but much less easily.  So the behaviour of the weather is more easily observable than the behaviour of rocks.

 

Plants behave too, but slowly and less obviously than animals.  They change over days or years by growing; a slow increase in the size and number of their cells.  They have nothing equivalent to the muscle cells of animals which can contract very rapidly.  The most rapid movement they make, and therefore their most obvious behaviour, is the opening and closing of flowers during the cycle of day and night.  But they are constantly interacting with their environment, with the air and the soil, and they have profound effects upon it.  They are performing a vital role, filling an ecological niche, they are conducting a strategy all the time.  Their behaviour is their way of life; its what plants do.  They do it to ensure their own survival, the survival of their habit, the survival of their particular niche, and thus the survival of their progeny.

 

Movement

But it is the behaviour of animals which is the most interesting.  The evolution of movement was one of the great leaps forward in terms of biological fitness.  The ability to actively search out new supplies of food dramatically increased the sheer amount of food and energy that an organism was capable of ingesting, which in turn increased the rate at which they could move.  Predation was created; animals ate plants and other animals.  Speed of movement became at a premium for predator and prey alike.  Many behaviours developed to cope with the very problems that the possibility of movement itself created.  But the evolution of movement brought with it a related problem; how to control it.

 

Plants don't move, so speed of response is not a problem - they can't respond quickly to anything.  Changes in sunlight, humidity, soil nutrients, water and so on tend to be slow anyway, so plants can respond in their own good time.  This is just as well because whatever responses they are capable of will be chemical ones and these are themselves slow.  All a plant can do in response to an event is to synthesise more or less of a given chemical.  Chemical pathways are controlled by enzymes, which are controlled by genes.  But the genetic mechanism, protein synthesis, is slow.  It would take the plant several minutes to produce any new proteins, and hours to produce a significant amount.  Well this is no problem to plants, but certainly is to animals - they need an instant response!  So the first step evolution had to take before animals could get off the ground (or out of it!) was to develop fast response mechanisms.  In fact there would be some pressure for plants to respond more quickly to environmental changes, such ability would make them more fit, and this is presumably how animals first arose; through plants becoming faster, more animal-like.

 

Stimulus and Response

How might faster responses be achieved?  For purely chemical responses, two mechanisms have evolved.  The first method involves storing up the required chemicals within the cell in special sacks or vesicles.  When a need arises for the chemical, the vesicles release their contents to the cell or its exterior.  The need is detected chemically, via receptors on the cell surface which 'switch on' an enzyme that ruptures the vesicles.  This is a 'single shot' method, though.  Once the store of chemical is depleted, the stocks will have to be replenished by fresh synthesis, which will take some time.  One way round it is to have batteries of cells, each battery releasing its stored chemical and then replenishing stocks whilst the other batteries release their stock.  The rate at which the batteries can release chemical is then determined simply by their size, and the organism will have to balance the cost of maintaining such a large 'gland' to produce the chemical against the benefit it would give in terms of rapid response.  Can it afford it?

 

The second mechanism is rather more subtle and I shall have to take a little time out here to provide some background.  It is based on the regulation of enzymes by a phenomenon called product inhibition.  Individual enzymes molecules work by converting input molecules, the substrate, into output molecules, the product.  The first step is for the enzyme to bind to the substrate; in the second step the enzyme changes the substrate into product; the third step is the release of the product, leaving the enzyme free to bind to another substrate.  The enzyme binds to the substrate because it has an affinity for it: the enzyme-substrate complex is more stable than the two molecules being separate.  However, once the enzyme has bound a substrate molecule, it is so constructed that it causes the substrate to change; this is the chemical reaction that the enzyme is designed to catalyse.  The change is usually the splitting of the substrate or the joining of two substrate molecules together.  Once so changed, the substrate has become the product.  Just after it has been created, the product is occupying the one site on the enzyme which binds to substrate. This complex is stable because the enzyme will have a slight affinity for the product, since it is very similar to the substrate.  Eventually the enzyme releases the product and is free to bind another substrate.  As long as there is a lot more substrate than product around, this is fine.  But what happens when the reaction has been going for a while, and the amount of product has increased?  The enzyme is likely to bind to product rather than substrate, and the more product there is, the more likely this is.  Whilst bound to product, the enzyme can't bind to substrate; the reaction slows down.  This is called product inhibition'.  Eventually equilibrium is reached; most of the enzyme is bound up with product and only a tiny proportion of 'free' enzyme is catalysing the forward reaction, from substrate to product.  However, the forward reaction is balanced by the 'back reaction' of product to substrate; this occurs because there is a small chance that the enzyme will work backwards, by 'mistake' as it were.

 

Now for the mechanism.  The reaction producing the desired chemical will have reached equilibrium, so the amount of product in the cell will be constant.  Now a need arises to use this product, which is promptly either consumed by the cell itself or else shipped out of the cell to where it is needed.  The amount of product decreases, the reaction is out of equilibrium and the forward reaction starts to go again automatically.  So the product is replaced as fast as it is consumed.  A whole string of these reactions, a pathway, will be set up to synthesise the product from some convenient bulk storage material.  In fact there will be many pathways leading from the one storage material to the many different products that the organism might need.  By this means the plant or animal can go on producing any product in any quantity until the bulk storage material runs out, which won't normally ever happen.

 

There is a variation of this mechanism in which the enzyme is 'switched on and off' by a 'messenger' molecule completely unrelated to the substrate or product (rather as the enzyme that bursts open the vesicle is switched on in the first mechanism).  This allows for quite complex control mechanisms to develop, but there isn't space to go into them here.

 

Plants Become Animals

Enzyme control mechanisms are crucial if the cells of a plant or animal are going to able to respond quickly and appropriately to changing circumstances.  Each enzyme is itself a gene product, and it is the function of the genes to produce enzymes that provide sensitive and rapid response, in other words control; evolutionary pressure will tend create ever faster and more complex control mechanisms.  Note that all the genes can do is produce the enzymes in the first place.  Once the system is set up, it has a life of its own, the genes are not involved in the second to second running of it.  The genes make the machine, as best they can, and then leave the machine to run on its own without interference.  If the machine isn't good enough, the organism isn't fit enough, it will tend to be less successful, and the genes that were responsible will be selected against.  Conversely, good machines will cause the genes that made them to be selected for.  Plants and animals have many of these chemical control systems, which provide rapid chemical response.  But they don't provide movement; that had to await the development of specialised cells; muscle cells and nerve cells.

 

Muscle is a tissue, a collection of cells, in which each cell is able to contract very rapidly.  The bulk of the cell is composed of many molecules of a special protein called actinomycin.  These molecules have a remarkable property; if a particular chemical is present, they rapidly bind to it and contract powerfully.  The molecules are carefully stacked in such a way that this contraction is amplified, so if the chemical is released into the cell, the whole cell contracts.  The muscle tissue consists of strings of muscle cells (muscle fibres) bundled together so that when the trigger chemical is released, at exactly the same time, into all the cells of a bundle of fibres, the bundle contracts, the muscle contracts and moves the limb, digit, or whatever it is attached to the end of it.  The trigger chemical is released from special cells which are mixed in with the muscle cells; nerve cells.

 

In fact there are two sorts of nerve cells and the ones in muscle tissue are called motor nerve cells.  Somewhere a long way from the muscle are the other sort, sensory nerve cells.  A long fibre projects out of the sensory nerve cell and into the far away muscle; the axon.  The existence of axons make nerve cells the largest cell in the body.  Sensory nerve cells also have a remarkable property; they can conduct a signal from the cell body, right down the axon and into the muscle.  This signal, a nerve pulse, is chemical, though it has an electrical component; one can think of it as a wave of electrical particles flowing down the axon rather like a wave can be made to flow down a long rope.  The sensory nerve cell's job is to detect external change, for example pressure.  The cell is structured so that pressure causes a chemical change within it, leading to the release of nerve pulses along the axon.  A fraction of a second after leaving the sensor cell, the pulses arrive at the muscle and cause the motor nerve cells to release the trigger chemical.  This in turn causes the actinomycin molecules, the cells, the fibres, and the whole muscle to contract, so producing the required movement, which might be, say, the contraction of a tentacle to trap some prey that had brushed past the animal and triggered a sensory cell.  Clearly this is a very primitive sort of response, a single contraction due to a single stimulus.  It is called a reflex, the simplest nerve-muscle interaction possible.

 

Neural Networks

Muscle tissue hasn't really changed a great deal since it was 'invented' billions of years ago, but nerve tissue certainly has.  It is not so much the cells themselves that have changed, but the way they are put together; their connectivity.  The simple reflex has been elaborated into what we might call the complex reflex.  Rather than a stimulus causing an immediate and definite response, it is as if a whole set of stimuli are 'saved up' over time and the response, if indeed it comes at all, is nowhere near as predictable as it is for the simple reflex.  Rather than a single sensor cell being connected directly to the motor cell, it goes through a nerve junction, a synapse, with an intermediate motor nerve cell.  This intermediate cell is not obliged to trigger a muscle to contract straight away; it can decide not to, depending upon what signals it is getting from other sensor cells.  The cell is following a simple formula, something like 'contract the muscle only if 3 or more sensor cells signal within 5 seconds'.  This is more economical than the simple reflex because it avoids 'false alarms' which can occur if a sensor cell fires spuriously or if, say, some prey is not really close enough to capture.  Such false alarms would just waste energy, but with a group of cells firing, the animal can give an integrated and more confident response.

 

The next stage is to have a set of sensor cells which connect to a whole host of motor cells in a sort of 'junction box' called a ganglion.  The ganglion is processing a much more complex formula than the single motor cell.  It has to co-ordinate the contraction of a set of muscles based on input from a large number of sensory cells.  The cells in the ganglion are connected in a network and although each of them individually is doing a simple job (like the single motor cell), the connectivity of the network is such that the sum of the ganglion's processing is complex.  Just as for the reflexes, the connectivity of ganglia is determined genetically.  Nervous systems such as these, containing ganglia alone, are possessed by worms and insects.  They are genetically programmed, their behaviour is purely instinctive.  The individual organisms have not learned their behaviour, but the species as a whole has, via evolution; their behaviour patterns are enshrined in the connectivity of the ganglia.

 

Hard or Soft

Originating behaviour patterns via evolution is very slow and inefficient.  If a new behaviour pattern arises, a mutation or variant of an old pattern, then the chance are it isn't a good one.  But the poor old individual organism can't help doing what it is 'programmed' to do, so it blindly persists with its inappropriate behaviour, possibly leading to its demise.  It would be better if it could 'unlearn' the bad behaviour and try something else.  Another problem with instinct is that it can only cope with a fixed set of situations.  Sooner or later something is bound to crop up that the animal can't deal with.  Again, the individual is bound to do something inappropriate.  It would be better if it could stop and say 'this is a new situation, lets try something new to cope with it'.  The instinctive behaviour is the result of the connectivity in the ganglia of the individuals; it is hardwired.  What is needed is for the animal to be able to change some of the connectivity; for the connectivity to not be permanent, for it to be 'soft'.

 

Perhaps an organism that usually behaved instinctively managed to develop soft connections.  It would react normally to normal situations, but when faced with extraordinary ones, it would be capable of laying down new behaviour.  The new behaviour need not be very complex; it might simply be the decision not to respond because the situation was recognised as extraordinary.  The animal will already be capable of assessing quite complex situations, since it already does this to perform its instinctive behaviour.  What it develops is the ability to 'spot the difference'.  It gets a large amount of data about situations, which it analyses and then acts upon.  One of these bits of data is the clue that will enable it to distinguish the ordinary from the extraordinary.  In the past such a feat was only accomplished by evolution via the genes; in other words if the individual found that it was able to spot a clue which its parents couldn't, it was only by chance mutation.  Is their any other mechanism, perhaps using 'soft' connections, by which a single individual could acquire this ability by direct experience.  Yes; by learning.  But how could such a mechanism evolve?

 

Patterns

I think that the way behaviour patterns evolve is analogous to the way genes evolve.  To recap, genes evolve like this: An existing gene is duplicated by mutation.  This isn't a problem because the extra gene product is identical to an existing gene product.  But the bogus gene mutates, a new gene product occurs; if the new gene product is beneficial, rather than a handicap, the mutant gene is retained as part of the organism's genotype, a new locus, a new gene.  From here on the pressure of natural selection acts upon the gene, its product and the characteristic it determines such that the fitness conferred by the gene increases, the gene is refined.

 

A similar mechanism seems to work at the level of behaviour; behaviour patterns evolve in the same way that genes do.  A behaviour pattern is at first 'duplicated' accidentally - in other words the organism performs inappropriate behaviour; it performs behaviour intended to cope with situation X when the real situation is situation Y.  The behaviour now becomes subject to natural selection, to evolution.  It might be immediately fatal (a lethal mutation), or decrease the organism's fitness, or improve its reproductive success.  If the 'mutation' to the new behaviour is actually directly caused by a mutated gene, then it is a simple case of genetic evolution of instinctive behaviour.  But could a mutation arise which permitted alternative behaviours, in a sense letting the organism decide for themselves which one to use?  If so, this would be the first step in the evolution of learning.

 

There are cases of 'learning' which occur in animals that are primarily instinctive.  For example, ants 'learn' the particular smell, a chemical marker, which identifies their colony; bees 'learn' where a source of nectar is and communicate this information to the hive; ducks learn to recognise their mother by a process of 'imprinting'.  However these mechanisms actually work, there must be a region of the nervous system which records a pattern.  To do this, the region must be plastic, it must have 'soft' connections.  Either the connectivity (the pattern of axons) must change, or the cells themselves must change, perhaps by altering the 'formula' they use to process their inputs.  In either case this will establish a new pathway, a new link between, say, a smell and a behaviour pattern.  This plasticity must be genetically determined, it must have arisen by mutation from a 'non-plastic' neural system.  Whatever this mutation was, it might happen to other systems too, making them plastic, and requiring the organism to learn the appropriate pathways which determine its behaviour.

 

We can use this idea, that certain neural systems might become plastic by mutation, to suggest the steps by which learning might have evolved.  To go back to a previous scenario, let's say an individual, call him John, needs to be able to 'spot the clue' which tells him that a given situation should be avoided.  Let's suppose there is already a link between situation X and some behaviour, which is a response to it; call it R.  For learning to occur, John needs to be able to set up a new link between situation Y  (which superficially resembles situation X) and some avoidance behaviour, A.  If the neural system involved is plastic, then as long as John is capable of distinguishing situations X and Y, the new pathway, the new link, can be learned.  But how might the individual learn to distinguish situations, to recognise differences?

 

A fundamental feature of perception seems to be the ability to abstract.  To abstract is to pick out the essential information from an otherwise incoherent set of sensory impressions.  For example, for crossing the road the essential information we require is the speed, distance and direction of the cars on the road; we are not interested in the colour of the car or the number of passenger in it.  We 'abstract' the speed and distance data and use it to help us cross the road.  The point is that there is actually a great deal of information, of sense data available in any situation, so an organism has to 'zero in' on just a few features of the scene which are the important ones; in other words they are the clues which it uses to determine what's going on.  All organisms with sensory organs have to learn which clues to use.  For instinctive organisms, genetic evolution has done this learning for them; a process of trial and error; individuals which were programmed to pick out the wrong clues failed to survive.  Animals capable of learning use a different method, which I shall explain before returning to John's predicament.

 

Let's say another individual, Kevin, has learned a particular response, P, to a given situation.  In all situations, he records all the sense data coming in, and in some situations he does P.  Sometimes when Kevin does P, it turns out to have been the wrong thing to do - the behaviour is not rewarded.  Because he has recorded all the data from all recent situations, Kevin can compare all the situations in which P worked to those in which P didn't, and spot the difference.  This is exactly like the puzzle in which one has to spot, say, ten differences between two almost identical drawings.  One way to 'cheat' would be to rig up a system of mirrors so that one could rapidly replace a view of one drawing by the other.  Then the differences would 'leap out' at you; they would be like ten winking lights, or ten waving hands scattered over the drawing and therefore easily located.  Kevin, the individual in our thought experiment is able to perform a similar trick.  By going over the recordings of the two kinds of situation ('P works' and 'P fails'), he is able to detect a pattern, a consistent difference between the two situations, in other words a clue, C,  which he can use to distinguish between them.  When C is present, P doesn't work.  Once having spotted this clue, Kevin changes his behaviour and no longer performs response P if clue C is present.  This new behaviour pattern works until some new situation occurs in which C is absent, but P still doesn't work; then Kevin has to look for another clue, D.

 

This is one possible way in which the ability to spot clues, which all organisms with sensory apparatus have, can be adapted in order to enable animals to distinguish situations.  In the previous example, John, who is trying to distinguish situation X from situation Y, could do so using this 'spot the difference' method, by recognising the pattern.  Once having learned the difference between X and Y, he 'tries out' the new behaviour A rather than R when situation Y occurs.  As long as A is successful, the link from Y to A is strengthened, the plastic nerve cells are more firmly moulded into their new configuration.

 

It is the presence of pattern in nature, and of pattern recognition in animals which is fundamental to the process of learning.  The patterns of Nature are being 'imprinted' on the brains of animals, being translated into neural patterns, being turned into memes.  The reason this happens is simply that the more sense the world makes to an organism, the more appropriate will its behaviour be; it will be fitter.  It is the ability to recognise pattern, and to form intricately detailed models of reality in their brains that humans possess above all other creatures.

 

Memes

Why did I say that the development of the mind was the most important evolutionary leap since the perfection of the genetic system itself?  Because it was in fact the perfection of a completely new genetic system.  The new system is not based upon DNA but on neural circuits, patterns of connectivity in animal brains.  In the human brain, we call these patterns 'ideas' (when we recognise them at all).  This is somewhat imprecise, but a term has been coined which synthesises the notion of a gene and an idea: the word is MEME.  The new genetics is more properly called MEMETICS.

 

The evolution of the memetic mechanism is the evolution of the mind.  Just as evolution created genes, it has created memes; so the approach to take to find out more about memes is to use the analogy of the gene.  For each element in the genetic model, is there a corresponding element in the memetic model?

 

The fundamental difference between the genetic and memetic systems is not that they employ different storage devices (genes use DNA, memes use neural circuits) but that memes evolve millions of times faster than genes.  Memes will leave genes behind.  The mind is, in a very real sense, superior to the body.

 


6 - Memetics: What are Genes?

Why Now?

If memes are real entities, why have they not been discovered before?  If they are evolving, why isn't this evolution obvious?  If memes are genuine units of inheritance, why has this not been noted before?  There isn't a simple answer.  Perhaps the time is right, we're ready for them now; but this has a somewhat mystical ring to it.  Another way to put it is that the meme for memetics has only just evolved!  Some light can be thrown on this issue by examining the way in which genes and evolution were themselves discovered.

 

Darwin lay the foundations for evolution, and Mendel those for genetics.  But neither was aware of the other's work.  The two theories were only brought together at the turn of the century.  Mendel's work was ignored for years, and Darwin was openly ridiculed and attacked for his beliefs.  It has taken decades for the theory of genetic evolution to be accepted as by science as the orthodox view.  Among laymen, it is still somewhat suspect, particularly since it seems to hit at the root of one of our ancient beliefs; that Man was put on the Earth by a Divine Creator, God.

 

The genius of both Darwin and Mendel was not to perform startling new experiments or to discover marvellous phenomena.  It was simply to take a 'fresh look' at some everyday occurrences, the distribution of types of finch, the way attributes of peas are passed on; and to ask themselves 'how might this have happened?'; and then to come up with a rational and defensible theory that explained their observations.  They had to take a fresh look, not accept traditional explanations.  Newton had the same gift when he asked 'why should objects fall down and not up; why do they fall at all?' So things can be simply staring us in the face, but we can't see them.  We take things for granted, make huge assumptions, have massive blind spots; all very human traits.  In some respects they are an asset since they enable us to ignore a lot of otherwise confusing and conflicting information; rather than try to unravel the Gordian Knot, we just cut clean through it.  This is just pragmatism, expediency, the end justifying the means; sound political doctrines all, but scientifically and philosophically they are anathema.  They do not aid understanding; they circumvent it.

 

Evidence for the existence of memes has been around for centuries, waiting for someone to unravel it, to put the pieces together, and to express the emerging picture in a cogent and lucid way.  It seems to me that until the development of the parallel theory of genes, there was no vocabulary to adequately express the concepts involved.  But with genes as an analogy, the meme emerged from the background, as it were.  Here I want to ask the question 'how much like genetic evolution is memetic evolution?' The answer is 'fundamentally the same' - but will it again take a hundred years for this to become the orthodox view?

 

Genes

What is the evidence for memes?  What are memes?  Since I am using genes as the analogy, I will first ask 'What are genes?'

 

The gene is the unit of inheritance.  For this reason it is also the unit of selection, of natural selection.  Mendel's great insight was to see clearly that characteristics are inherited in discrete units which do not overlap or merge.  If a man with brown eyes marries a woman with blue eyes, their children do not have muddy blue eyes; they are either blue or brown.  Unfortunately few characteristics have this very simple nature.  This is simply because most characters are determined by two or more genes so the patterns of inheritance are more complex.  Also there are several alleles in the population for each gene (for instance there are grey and green eyes too), which confuses the issue.  Finally, the environment has a role to play in the expression of many characteristics, which must be taken into account.  Mendel must have had to search for some time to find his simple one gene characters, but once he had them, the genetic theory was the only one which explained them, and also a lot of other known facts about inheritance.  It was an act of faith on his part to cling to his theory and try to explain the apparent contradictions in terms of it.

 

There is an argument that currently rages about the idea of genes being the unit of selection.  Is it the gene or the organism that is selected?  I think it is the gene; but I can see where the confusion arises, and this is in the failure to precisely define what selection means.  To explain this I must first introduce a technical term.  A length of DNA that codes for a single polypeptide chain is called a cistron.  It is common to refer to a cistron as a gene, but this leads to confusion (as we shall see) because the definition of a cistron is a biochemical definition, and the definition of a gene is a genetic one.

 

What natural selection does is to answer this question 'how many grandchildren shall I give this individual?' It is not enough to produce a lot of progeny; they must themselves go on to produce their own.  If they have some fatal flaw (perhaps they are all slow runners) then no matter how many children there are, they will get a thumbs down from natural selection.  Nature decides between individuals by pitting them against each other in competition, the winners being the 'fitter' ones who get the payoff measured in grandchildren.  So although the individual is tested, it is the grandchildren that get the prize, namely their own existence.  For any selection mechanism to work at all there must be continuity, something must persist throughout the process, some configuration must remain stable, or there would be nothing to select.  The configuration of the tested individual is obviously not the same as the progeny and grand-progeny; so what is it that is the same?

 

A first guess might be the chromosome, since the individual has donated half his chromosomes to each the progeny and thus one quarter of them to each of the grand-progeny.  However, just before producing the gametes (which have only one copy of each chromosome rather than pairs of them), the chromosome pairs exchange material, a process called crossing over.  This is a random swapping of long sections of DNA, whole groups of alleles are exchanged.  So the configuration of the chromosome that is passed on is quite unlike the one that the parent has.  What is the same is the configuration of the pieces of chromosome that are exchanged; in other words clusters of cistrons.  It is therefore these cistron clusters that are the units of selection, the genes.  It is an important point that genes are not necessarily single cistrons, but cistron clusters.  This is because many cistrons work in teams which are located immediately adjacent to one another along the chromosome.  Their proximity improves their chances of being selected together because they are less likely to be split up during crossing over than they would be if they were widely spaced.  If the team of cistrons is broken up, or rather if some members of the team are replaced by their alleles, the benefit they imparted will be destroyed.  A gene is only recognised by virtue of the benefit it gives to the individual, so if that benefit is realised by a team of cistrons, then the whole team must be considered a gene.  Thus the genetic mechanism selects not just for individual cistrons (one protein) but for teams of cistrons that work together (groups of proteins).

 

Immortality

It is these genes, clusters of one or more cistrons, that persist, they live forever.  Lines in which the genes are destroyed (by mutation of a single cistron or by crossing over in a team) do not inherit the benefit and die out; selection favours the given configuration.  If there was only one line, of course, the gene would not live forever.  But life would never have got off the ground at all if it had not overcome this problem virtually on day one.  The strategy is to make as many copies of a configuration as possible, so that if any are destroyed there are still plenty around.  A similar strategy is used at a higher level by certain fish and insects; they have millions of progeny, nearly all of which are eaten by predators but a few survive.  The computing industry uses the same strategy too; important information is copied (it is called backing-up) regularly and repeatedly to ensure that it will not be lost if the working copy is damaged.  The strategy of replication is really the most basic of all strategies for survival.  Individual copies are doomed to be destroyed; the problem of aging.  Rather than try to evolve immortality for individual organisms, nature has sidestepped the issue, taken a simpler course; just keep making copies of them.

 

This is actually a fundamental point; why has natural selection favoured the evolution of replicating organisms rather than immortal ones?  I don't know the answer but there are two reasons I can suggest.  One is that organic immortality (as opposed to genetic immortality) is just very difficult to achieve; the second law of thermodynamics is too implacable and fierce an opponent; entropy, chance, fate will sooner or later destroy a single individual organism.  Even if animals were biologically immortal, what's to stop them being eaten, becoming fatally ill, or just having a fatal accident?  The second reason is this: if the two systems, immortals and mortals, lived side by side, the mortal one would eventually become fitter, it would evolve.  Evolution can only occur if the genes are reshuffled between generations and mutation is allowed; immortals would not evolve, they would stagnate.  Even if such systems have evolved in the past, they would be no match for the fitter mortals, and would eventually die out.  It provokes the question: in which of the two systems are there really immortals?

 

Genes, then, are long-lived configurations.  They have adopted extremely elaborate means to ensure their survival.  They have built for themselves a machine which not only keeps making copies of the genes but, by evolution, keeps getting better at it.  In fact it was evolution which created the machine for the genes in the first place.  The machine is composed of a number of elements called 'organisms'.  There are many types of organism and many copies of each type.  Different types of organism have different roles to play in the global ecological machine.  The machine is 'immortal' in spite of the fact that its elements wear out, because they always replace themselves.  The elements, organisms, get better at their various roles, and even create new roles (new species).  The genes, though, hardly change at all.  Many of them have been around for millions, or even billions of years.  Now and then new genes arise and try their hand, but more often than not they fail; very occasionally one of them is successful and joins the elite club of the immortals.  If it remains in the 'pool', it will gradually be 'perfected', all its wrinkles will be ironed out.  The nearer it gets to 'perfection', the less likely it is to change, the more stable will that configuration be.  The very ancient genes are the ones that have, in a sense, achieved perfection.

 

Incidentally, the way I have summarised the role of genes might suggest to you that I think of genes as somehow 'conscious', that they are purposeful agents, that they 'desire' immortality.  Far from it.  Such an attitude is simply anthropomorphic; an attempt to explain the behaviour of a thing or system in the same terms in which we explain our own behaviour.  Genes no more 'desire' immortality than objects 'desire' to be nearer to the centre of the Earth.  I have used terms like strategy, success, and immortality as metaphors.  It is not that genes want to survive and replicate; they just do.  They are as much at the mercy of the blind forces of nature as water is as it tries to get to the sea, bursting dams and flooding rivers along the way.  In a sense they do what they do by accident, or rather, as we have seen, by a series of cumulative accidents.  During each of these accidents, the genes, or their primitive ancestors, were not 'trying' to survive; they just did, by a one in a million chance.  But as time went on, as we have seen, they became better and better at it.  Genes, evolution, nature is not purposeful; it is blind.


7 - Memetics: What are Memes?

Back to memes for a moment.  By analogy with genes, memes are also units of inheritance and of selection; the difference between them lies in what it is that is inherited.  What is the function of the gene and the meme, how are they expressed?

 

What Genes Do

Biochemically, a gene is a length of DNA, one or more cistrons.  It expresses itself by producing a protein or a team of proteins.  (Some genes code for RNA sequences too, but I will leave that aside here.) The gene products act mainly during the development of the embryo, and a smaller number act on behalf of the adult organism.  One could summarise the gene function as 'to construct and maintain the organism'.  Now we've constructed our organism; what does it do?  How does it behave?  Is it not the case that genes have another function, namely to determine the behaviour of the individual?  Yes and no.

 

We have already seen in the section on behaviour that genes determine the behaviour of organisms by building chemical systems, controlled by enzymes (gene products), which can respond to external events.  In animals, they also build muscles and a nervous system to control them; this enables animals to respond by movement, by directly manipulating their bodies and their environment.  Throughout evolution, the complexity of the nervous system increased until a new organ, the brain, was developed.  The brain is not completely hardwired as are more primitive nervous systems.  Some of the brain is 'softwired' or plastic, designed to record data, process it, and learn from it.  The animal is learning to recognise patterns and regularities which it uses to select from its repertoire of behaviours.  Learning involves building up a large library of patterns, and creating a system of rules and hypotheses, a model, which links the patterns with the most appropriate behaviour for the individual.

 

So do genes determine behaviour?  Why have I answered 'Yes and no'?  Yes: in that, in primitive organisms, behaviour is hardwired into their nervous systems (and chemical systems); they are 'genetically programmed' from birth.  No: in that, in advanced organisms with brains, much of their behaviour is learned, acquired by experience, by interacting with the environment; the genes have handed over control.  It is not the same as the genes constructing a machine and then letting it run on its own, without interference.  The behaviour of all organisms is controlled in this way, whether the machine is purely chemical (plants), a nervous system (primitive animals) or a brain.  The point is that although the genes lay down the goals of behaviour (survival and reproduction), the exact details are left up to the individual; as long as it achieves the goals, it can do what it likes, how it does it is no concern of the genes.

 

What Memes Do

For many animals with brains, the list of goals is rather long, and the list of 'freedoms' very short; their behaviour is primarily instinctive.  But as we progress up through the species, through mammals, primates and apes to humans, the degree of freedom increases.  The list of goals becomes more like a prescribed 'life-style' than a strict set of rules.  Within the framework of this life-style, which defines the ecological niche in which the organism lives, the individual is free to deal with situations as they arise in whatever manner it deems appropriate.  However, even with this relatively high degree of freedom, which we can call intelligence, most individuals adopt a set of behaviours that is common to their species.  It is only when we get to humans that the freedom and intelligence comes into its own, and that individuals are able to adapt to a great range of possible life-styles.

 

Something new has happened, something quite amazing and with staggering implications.  In the distant past, behaviour was entirely instinctive, absolutely determined by the genes.  New behaviour could only arise through the evolution of new genes.  The genes had to learn the hard way: by sacrificing individuals, failed experiments; by producing a variety of individuals with different behaviours and selecting the 'fittest' ones; by slowly adapting the organisms over tens or hundreds of generations; in other words by genetic evolution.  But in the recent past a new mechanism emerged.  The genes handed over control (partial control at first) to the brain and it was up to the brain to do the learning.  The individual could adapt its own behaviour in its own lifetime!  Because the brain was 'softwired', it was easier for the brain to do the learning, rather than evolution; if it learned some 'bad' behaviour, it could just unlearn it!  And individuals could do a lot of their learning in safe environment, the family group protected by their parents, a sort of 'life simulation'.  Rather than new behaviour arising by genetic evolution, the individual was able to evolve its own behaviour.  And there is the clue: 'evolve its own behaviour'.  The process by which individuals learn is a process of evolution.

 

As I have already suggested, evolution is a universal phenomena.  It is the only process by which complex systems can develop, by which order is created out of chaos.  Its four cornerstones are stability, propagation, variation and competition.  The material upon which evolution acts is not relevant to the fundamental process; all that is required is that different configurations can arise.  The second law, entropy, will ensure that only the most stable configurations persist (survive) which provides a selection mechanism.  For the evolution of life, the system being acted on was the geological-meteorological system which comprises the surface of the Earth, the material acted on was water based chemistry, and the configurations that emerged were genes.  For the evolution of mind, the system being acted on is the behaviour of an individual organism, the material acted on is the individual's brain, and the configurations that emerge are memes.

 

The Genetic Paradigm

One way to look at genes and memes is this: genes determine what an organism is, and memes determine what an organism does.  The function of genes is to construct and maintain the body of an individual; the function of memes is to control its behaviour.  Memes existed before the evolution of brains; they were constructed by the genes and consisted in the chemical systems and the nervous systems that comprised the primitive organism's response mechanisms.  So early memes were absolutely determined by genes.  One could say that the meme was a 'higher level' aspect of a particular set of genes, and so memes would have been inherited with a given set of genes.  With the development of brains and of learning, though, a narrow gap developed between genes and memes.  Memes were no longer absolutely determined by genes; they were partly determined by the environment, by experience.

 

Acting against the widening of this gap was the great advantage which instinct conferred upon offspring - they inherit their behaviour, so they don't waste any time 're-inventing the wheel'.  However, the genes found a way to bridge the gap, allowing it to become steadily wider; they devised a means by which the new memes could be inherited. 

A new mechanism evolved by which parents could hand on the non-genetic component of the meme.  This mechanism is what we now call education.  The parents teach the children; the children learn by imitation.  The gap between genes and memes grew wider as the memetic mechanism evolved (genetically), until by the time humans emerged, it was a yawning chasm, now spanned by a very high-tech 'genetic bridge' fulfilling the function of education.  Nearly all our behaviour is acquired by learning, and we have to spend many years being taught by our parents (or their agents) before we can look after ourselves.  The genes still give us our basic goals, our instincts for food, comfort, sex and stimulation.  The exact manner in which each individual obtains these things is not prescribed, though; we are free to live our own lives, free to choose what we want to do.

 

Now I can more clearly answer the question: What is a meme?  It is the unit of storage which controls behaviour.  It has three components, each derived from one of three sources: genes, education, and the physical world.  For fixed 'instinctive' behaviour (plants, insects, etc.) each meme is absolutely determined by a set of genes.  For learned behaviour (animals with advanced brains) each meme is determined partly by genes, and partly by the environment.  Memes are transmitted from parent to child via education.  In humans, memes are largely independent of the genes; all our behaviour is learned.  What is the memetic material, analogous to the genetic material DNA?  In general it is that system, chemical or nervous, which controls an organism's behaviour.  In particular, for humans, it is the brain.

 

Individual memes are individual configurations of nerve cells; 'neural circuits'.  Just as a gene can be both a cistron or a cluster of cistrons, so a meme can be both one circuit or a cluster of circuits.  Memes work in teams.  The teams might form into a super-team, which would still be a meme; the super-teams might form a hyper-team, and so on.  Any coherent set of memes which worked together at any level can itself legitimately be called a meme.  It is the sum total of the operations of all the memes working together that determines the animal's behaviour.  This 'sum total' of memes is the individual's model of the world and the memes are the elements of the model.

 

Reflection

To us humans, able to look inside our heads, as it were, the memes appear to us as 'ideas', 'notions', 'concepts' 'propositions' or 'hypotheses'.  Many of our memes are unconscious, they are more like feelings, fears, interests, inclinations and so on.  They are unconscious because we acquired them 'unconsciously', either when we were very young, or via a mechanism laid down when we were very young.  An example of an unconscious idea we might acquire in adult life is that we don't like a certain individual, but we would be hard pressed to say what it was about them that we didn't like.  Each of us acquires a shared set of memes, so we share a general world view.  But just as an individual's genotype is unique, one's memotype is also unique.  We each have our own way of seeing things, our own way of doing things, our own personality.  Memes are not acquired once and for all at birth, as genes are; they are acquired constantly throughout life.  Those that are acquired early on are the most tenacious ones; many of the memes that present themselves later are rejected because they don't 'fit' with the established pattern.  New memes are vetted by a special mechanism akin to our immunity system.  The rejected memes are not 'destroyed', but simply turned off, like genes are turned off; we have these memes but we don't express them, we don't include them in our Model.  This is exactly like having an idea and either believing it (incorporating it into your model) or not believing it.  If we believe an idea, it affects our behaviour.

 

Why Behave At All?

How might such a complex system of memes based on neural circuits have evolved?  I think the basic meme is probably the simple reflex, a single circuit of cells going directly from stimulus to response.  In English one might express this meme as 'if this cell is triggered, contract this muscle.' As the cells began to connect in different networks, so the number of memes grew, each meme being an alternative pathway through the network.  The pathways that were reinforced (by learning) became the accepted memes.  In very complex networks such as our brains, where the memes formed up into teams and super-teams, the memes became more complex, though still of the form 'if this is the situation, this is what you do.' The exact neurophysiology of the brain is not all that important to my argument.  Brains are built to a genetic blueprint, they can only process information in the way they have been 'designed' to do by the genes.  But they are designed to promote our survival, which means they must be able to make rapid and accurate assessments of a situation and to elicit appropriate behaviour.  This must surely mean that our brains are designed to model reality as closely as possible.  It is difficult to see how it would be to our advantage to be mistaken about reality, to be further from it rather than closer to it.  Genes (or memes) which fostered illusions might provide a short term solution to a problem, but in the long run they will be selected out when a better gene (or meme), one that is closer to reality, is hit upon.  So we can be sure that our brains and minds are reliable windows on the world.

 

This means that, by and large, the memes we possess that are switched on are 'true'.  They work.  This is especially true of the early memes we acquired from our parents during our early 'conditioning'.  If these memes didn't work, our behaviour would be too bizarre for us to survive, and that of our forebears would also have been bizarre and they would never have produced us.  Having said that, there are many memes, many ideas, which are not true.  We know this simply because many people have conflicting ideas; they can't all be right.  But these memes are peripheral ones, not the mainstream.  Just as 99% of our individual genotypes are shared with all other humans, so the majority of our memes are also shared (but maybe less than 99%).

 

Reprise

It is quite some time ago that I left off talking about the human condition and the growth of the child.  Before I return to those ideas, armed now with a theory of memes, I want to quickly summarise the theory.

 

Evolution is a sort of mathematical process, somewhat akin to entropy but working in the opposite direction.  The second law implies that entropy, disorder, will always increase, but evolution implies that out of that chaos, a small region of order will grow.  The cornerstones of evolution are stability, propagation, variation and competition.  Conditions on Earth were such that evolution rapidly developed the carbon chemistry of the primeval sea into living systems.  Ultimately, a single system emerged, one based upon DNA as the genetic material and protein based organisms which constituted a global machine.  The machine perpetuated the DNA, and at the same time improved itself and the rate at which it evolved.  Organisms developed movement, nervous systems, brains and behaviour.  The first behaviour was instinctive and determined by genes.  But the rigid, instinctive strategies were surpassed by the evolution of learned strategies.  Organisms became able to develop their own strategies to cope with new situations as they arose and at the time.  The brain became the receptacle for memes, ideas or hypotheses about reality stored as neural circuits or pathways in the brain.  The complete set of memes constitutes a model which the individual employs to assess a given situation and tell it what to do.


Part 4 - Synthesis

1 - Models of Reality

It is the memes which form the Model of Reality that each of us has.  Memes evolve not only in 'evolutionary' time, but also in each of our lifetimes.  We refer to the rapid, personal evolution of our memes as 'learning'.  On day one we have no memes at all apart from a few reflexes that keep us going (provided our mother does not abandon us) until we can sort it all out.  Gradually new memes evolve from these simple reflexes, millions of times faster than genes do, but by exactly the same process that genes do.  Thus, a copy of the reflex is made and comes under 'natural selection'.  For memes, though, the agent of selection is not so much Nature as ourselves - we pick the best memes, the best ideas, according to how useful they are to us, whether they work.  We are able to mutate the memes to produce new 'alleles', new versions of the same idea, and also completely new ideas.  All these ideas compete for our attention and approval, to be selected (believed) and included in our Model, the way we see things.  The tool we use to produce mutation is known as creativity.  The tool we use to select 'good' ideas, fitter memes, is the scientific method, trial and error.  We try out a set of beliefs (model) or a single belief (meme), and see if it works; if it doesn't it is 'switched off', rejected.  Eventually we get better at 'second guessing' whether a given idea will work or not, we develop a knack, an ear for the 'ring of truth': Intuition.  This acts as a sort of immunity mechanism, rejecting bad ideas which might make us do stupid things, vetting all meme candidates for suitability.  It does this by giving them a 'dry run', by setting up a proposed model and 'listening' to the sound of the new model - does it sound sweet or not?  All this is done unconsciously, so that at a conscious level all we have is a sense of 'rightness' ('Yes, of course; that's it!') or wrongness ('Something here seems a bit fishy to me!').

 

Evolution is working on memes at more than one level.  At one level, memes evolve as they are passed on from one generation to another.  They change slowly, but not as slowly as genes do because, unlike genes, new memes can also arise within a single generation by evolution acting at another level.  It is at this other level that our own personal memes evolve, within our lifetimes, starting from nothing and gradually building up into our Model.  Memes evolved in this way, can be inherited from the parents or acquired by 'experiment' from the environment.  This second way of acquiring memes explains why inherited memes evolve more quickly than do genes.  It is a special feature of memes that they can be acquired from the environment, and it does not apply to genes; genetic characteristics cannot be acquired, they can only be inherited.  It was an early fallacy, attributed to Lamarck, that such acquisition was possible, but we now know that genes only change randomly, by mutation.  Incidentally, there is a third level of evolution, cultural evolution, which I shall discuss presently.

 

The brain is so structured that it facilitates the evolution and expression of memes (which is its primary function), just as the genetic mechanism (DNA, RNA, ribosomes) is structured to express genes.  The details of the physiology of the brain aren't as important as the principles by which the mind works, and some insight into these is to be achieved by pursuing the analogy between genes and memes.  Genes work by creating gene products, enzymes, which catalyse chemical reactions within the cell, raising and lowering the amounts of a number of key chemical substances.  Perhaps there is a meme product which catalyses 'neurological reactions'?  Whatever may be the details of how they work, memes do not bring about chemical change; they bring about movement, action and behaviour.

 

The Origin of Language

We can study the brain from outside in (behaviourism), or from inside out (psychology).  Both approaches are equally valid; different ways of looking at the same thing.  Rather than take sides, I will attempt to synthesise the two approaches by discussing a phenomenon common to them both - Language.  From the behaviourist's viewpoint, we exhibit 'linguistic behaviour', our utterances are 'speech acts'.  A psychologist, on the other hand, tries to elucidate the 'conceptual thinking' that underlies our use of words.  The unifying concept is that language is simply the outward expression of our memes.  One meme, one proposition.

 

Language developed as an efficient way to transmit memes from one human to another, particularly from parent to child.

Only humans have the necessary vocal equipment to produce words.  We must have developed language before we reached our current form, since a number of physical characteristics have evolved to facilitate it.  Before spoken language, memes were transmitted by example; the offspring imitated the parents and the parents educated the offspring non-verbally.  The mechanics of meme transmission is quite unlike that of gene transmission, but the effect is the same; the progeny acquire characteristics from the parents.  No material is transmitted directly, though; the memes still evolve by themselves, but one of the criteria that the child uses to select memes is the approval a meme generates in its parents.  It is just simple conditioning; the parents reinforce the behaviour 'coded for' by the memes, so the behaviour and the memes generating it are retained.  The same mechanism of 'imitation' operates in human infants today up until the day they have mastered language; indeed, it continues to operate, in the background, whilst the individual is occupied processing verbal information.  The fact that a dual system, verbal and non-verbal, is in operation accounts for the curious behaviour that sometimes afflicts people who have been given 'hypocritical' instruction from their parents.  The parents tell them verbally to do one thing, but non-verbally to do the opposite (they say one thing and do another).  The child tries to incorporate two conflicting memes, which is only possible by inventing another spurious meme (something like 'its okay to be hypocritical'), or by 'kidding oneself'.  Sometimes this can have pathological results.

 

Incidentally, the term 'meme' derives from the traditional, pre-language method of meme transmission, from the Greek for 'imitation'.

 

Language is acquired by imitation too.  It is composed of memes for its sounds, its semantics and its syntax; all of which have to created by the child almost out of nothing.  The basis of language, of what the child is able to say and to understand in it, is the wordless model of the world which it has already developed in its first 3 years.  The Model is composed of memes, concepts, which the child is able to tag with the new 'handles' it has learned, namely words.  This means that, insofar as we can avoid hypocrisy and self-deception, any statements we make which we hold to be 'true' are actually elements of the Model - memes laid bare.

 

Its not that easy to be sure we are being completely honest with others, or even with ourselves.  But if we cannot guarantee 'truth' or even 'true belief', we can at least strive for consistency and accuracy: Do these beliefs, this set of memes, 'hang together'?  Does this person's behaviour support what he purports to believe in?  This essay is, in effect, a verbal exposition of a large part of my own Model of Reality, that part which is conscious to me.  Although it is purely theoretical, its memes are derived from several sources: experience (the world), reading (other peoples memes) and inspiration (creativity).  I have two motives in verbalising my model: I can bring it under better scrutiny, both my own and others; and I am affirming my own belief in it by 'sticking my neck out', as it were.

 

Language, then, is a set of sounds, which are tags we use in place of our old mental images to represent our memes.  We need the sounds to exchange our memes with other people.  A lot of our discourse is still on the level of 'body language' (which is just as well for pre-language infants!), though it is largely unconscious.  But sounds, articulated by the mouth and modulated by the larynx, are a better way of encoding memes.  You don't have to be watching the speaker to get the message, for instance; and our vocal repertoire is practically limitless, so there is scope to represent any and all memes, all shades of meaning with great accuracy.  This is a dramatic improvement over body language, with its sparse vocabulary of memes showing only interest, disapproval, fear, excitement, withdrawal, and so on.  It is as if we have replaced a simple club with an armoury of sophisticated weapons and precision tools.

 

Viral Memes

There is a clear parallel between the invention of language, and a genetic phenomenon with which we are all too familiar - viruses.  A virus is a kind of organism that has dispensed with the encumbrance of a body, or even of a cell.  It retains only the DNA itself, carefully wrapped in a simple protein coat.  It doesn't even posses the ability to reproduce itself, let alone feed, respire, photosynthesise, or indeed any of the abilities normally shown by organisms.  How then does it procreate?  It is a parasite.  It invades a living cell and takes it over, hi-jacks the genetic mechanism itself, and instructs the cell to make millions of copies of the virus itself!  The cell is crippled by this, needless to say, and is no longer any use to the organism possessing it.  Worse, it is a time bomb.  When the virus has used up all the cells productive capability, so that it has become a huge vesicle packed with new virus particles, it bursts the cell open, infecting all the cells in the vicinity with a virus in like manner.

 

A virus could not have existed before the genetic mechanism itself had evolved.  In fact, the virus must be derived from that self same mechanism, just as all other life on Earth is.  There is evidence that viruses originated from a particular kind of gene, a stretch of DNA called a plasmid.  Although the vast majority of DNA is in the nucleus of the cell, some can be found in the rest of the cell too, in the cytoplasm.  These strands of DNA are called plasmids.  They seem to be able to insert themselves into the chromosomal DNA, and to remove themselves again.  What they are for, what their function is, is unknown.  But it could be that once upon a time a 'mutant' plasmid evolved which inserted itself into a chromosome and instructed the genetic control system to make copies of it.  The copies could have then infected other cells when the first cell died.  The coat protein might have been a later refinement.  But the plasmid would have 'escaped' from the control of the cell, it would be a free living agent itself - a virus.

 

Memes have worked the same trick.  Language evolved, in genetic and memetic terms, because it increased the accuracy, precision, and speed of memetic transmission.  The primitive humans who first used language became fitter than their non-language-using cousins.  Once 'out in the open' the speed with which new memes evolved increased dramatically, a new phenomenon had been created - cultural evolution.  Before the development of language, a single meme, once created in the mind of an individual, had only one chance to replicate itself - when the animal became a parent and educated its offspring.  But with language, a new meme could be spread throughout a population very quickly.  This meant that the number of possible trials of the meme in a given space of time was increased many times.  If the meme was a 'good' one, it would pass the trials and within days rather than millennia it would become established in the 'meme pool'.  If, on the other hand, it was a bad idea, a disadvantage to individuals possessing it, then its life would be mercifully short.  The development of writing, and later of printing and publishing means that the length of time in which memes are distributed throughout a population is virtually instantaneous.  Information Technology and the media now means that the cross section of the population available to be infected is measured in millions.

 

Memetic Disease

Cultural memes, like viruses, have a life of their own.  Their success consists their popularity, in the number of people for whom that meme is 'switched on' - the number of believers.  A successful meme is not necessarily a 'good' meme in the long term, though it may well become 'fashionable' for a while.  Many memes are useless but benign, some are indispensable, and some are malignant - the parasites.  Parasitic memes are the parallel of virus bourn diseases; they cause epidemics, suffering and death.  They offer short term solutions, palliatives, or pain relief, which is how they get past the normal meme defence mechanism, but in the long term they are only interested in themselves and they create havoc in the world models of the victims, and therefore in their behaviour.  The only cure is for the victims to somehow arm their defence mechanism with more powerful weapons, for them to get a better grip on reality, for them to grow.

 

The defence mechanism against foreign memes, the immunity system of the mind, is the faculty of Intuition.  This is a sub-system, a sub-model of the main Model, which has developed an 'ear' for the smoothness of the running of the Model.  It vets all foreign memes, as well as the home grown variety, such that they are only admitted if they make the Model sound sweeter, not less sweet.  Dangerous, unrealistic memes are thus barred from expression, banished to a pool of useless memes.  Perhaps the meme is given a positive rejection, in which case its negation, its anti-meme, is incorporated into the Model!  In a sense Intuition is weighing up the 'truth' of the meme, how close it is to Reality.

 

The Intuition is only as good as the Model of which it forms a part.  If the Model is already a long way from Reality, or if the Intuition is itself badly trained (a sort of 'tone deafness'), then any old meme will get past the door.  If this goes on for some time, the individual's Model will correspond less and less with the real world, and so more and more bad memes will be accepted; its a vicious circle.  The extent to which the behaviour of these people is abnormal, and their lives unsuccessful, depends largely upon which particular cocktail of memes they have acquired.  They may not consider themselves to be at all affected, or they may be very disturbed.  There is a wide variety of strategies that such people adopt to deal with their peculiar distance from Reality, and they are often put in one of a few dozen special categories as a result: tyrant, sadist, psychopath, fascist, bigot, misanthrope, pessimist, fatalist, depressive, schizophrenic, defeatist, loser, coward, and so on.  Whether they can be helped, whether they want help, depends upon the exact circumstances.  But the general way in which there interests might be served is to help them to grow: disabuse them of their malicious memes and give them some healthy ones.

 

Paradigms and Metaphors

So language, culture, the world of ideas, philosophy and science are all aspects of a single phenomenon - a pool of viral memes that populates our brains and our libraries.  To study this creation is to study ourselves.  Science is not so much a body of 'knowledge' as a collection of theories which humans can use to model the world.  Language is a sort of gateway into our minds, into the world of memes.  The words we use are not arbitrarily selected tokens, but meaningful representations of our memes.  This is why we often find that a particular word or phrase is extremely apt to describe the concept it refers to, why we are often amused by such aptness and by ambiguity and word-play, and why certain forms of poetry are possible at all.

 

The way a language changes reflects the way the memes are evolving.  Such evolution occurs by copying and mutation.  This is why the use of analogy is so powerful; we only understand new concepts by referring back to established ones.  We use phrases such as 'it is as if...'  Analogy and metaphor are the main tools we use to comprehend Reality - we are copying memes.  As our understanding grows, the analogy is qualified and modified: 'it is as if...but...'  This maintains our categories and characterises them - we are mutating our memes.  Our experience is structured in a hierarchy, a taxonomy, which parallels the levels of organisation of our memes (into teams, super-teams, hyper-teams, and so on).  The structure of our language reflects this: there are genera, ways in which the items of a class are the same; and differentia, ways in which the items of a single class differ.  The differentia of one level are the genera of the next level down.  So by studying Language itself, quite apart from using it to communicate, we are studying the way we structure Reality, studying our own Models of Reality.

 

The framework I have attempted to elucidate here, that ideas are memes, biological entities which behave exactly like genes, permits a fresh analysis of language and philosophy in which words and propositions are tied into a 'central dogma'.  Just as genes are the units of inheritance, selfishly ensuring their own perpetuation - their immortality - so memes are also a unit of inheritance with identical aspirations.  They are the determinants of behaviour, and they selfishly ensure their own immortality.  The old philosophers asked 'What is the good life?', the central question of their philosophy.  This question is actually the cry of the memes themselves.  In translation it reads 'How can I [the meme] live forever?'  In biological terms it means this: What meme or set of memes is it that leads to a stable society?  If this doesn't seem to follow, consider this: the meme is the determinant of behaviour, and 'the good life' is a way of life, a set of behaviour patterns (determined by memes) which everyone ought to adopt.  The definition of perpetuation is stability.  So if memes are to perpetuate themselves, the behaviour they determine, which they hope everyone will adopt, must be that which leads to a stable society, to social harmony, to social health.  I stress society, because it is fundamental to the human condition; it is our habit to live in large groups, and many of the benefits we enjoy as modern humans stem from such societies.  The helpless child is born into a family unit which protects and nurtures it for maybe 20 years; then the adult is released into the world, and the role of the family is taken over by society.  Very few individuals live outside society, and their behaviour, the behaviour of monks, hermits and recluses, cannot be considered typical; I make no apology for omitting them from the current picture.

 

This is the point of synthesis for all the ideas presented so far.  Most of the ideas are not at all new, but putting them together in this way, it seems to me, achieves a new and powerful way to understand who we are.  It is not a parable, a metaphor for some 'deeper' message; as far as I can see, this is just how it is.  This seems like a good place to draw all the threads together and to summarise the key points I've tried to make.


2 - Summary

Evolution is a mathematical process by which order inevitably emerges out of chaos.  On Earth, DNA evolved as the genetic material, the stuff of which the immortal genes are made.  The genes created a global machine to ensure their own perpetuation.  The elements of the machine are organisms, billions of individuals, the characteristics of which are determined by the genes themselves.  Over the years, the machine was improved by evolution.  The high point was reached with the emergence of humans.  In human brains, genes successfully handed over the control of human behaviour to memes, entities which determine behaviour, and which are analogous to genes, but which evolve millions of times faster than genes.  The memes quickly made humans the dominant species on Earth, the most powerful beings the planet has yet known.

 

Humans are born with instincts, gene determined memes, but very few of them.  From this small beginning they evolve the many other memes they will need to control their behaviour.  Two of the memes they create initially are: 'Something's Happening' and 'I Am'.  These two memes provoke the questions: 'What's Happening?' and 'What should I do?'  In trying to answer these two questions, the infant creates a number of 'working memes' which it puts into two categories: Truth and Right.  The infant develops a faculty which vets new memes for admission to these categories: the Intuition.  This faculty is capable of integrating the many qualities which the memes present into a single Quality, which, for the memes that pass the test, is recognised as Beauty.  Intuition works by putting the meme candidates through a 'dry run' on a Model of Reality.  Intuition has developed an 'ear' for the smooth running of this Model.  How well Intuition and the Model develop is largely a matter of luck.

 

As humans, most of our fundamental memes are laid down by the Infant Genius, a child less than 3 years old, in wordless images before Language is acquired.  In general, we are not conscious of these early ideas.  Language is the viral form of memes, and is grounded in the unconscious understanding of the early Model.  Language, and memes in general, though created by the infant, are shaped by imitation, by the conditioning of parents, and by the conditioning of nature.  The infant seeks parental approval and practical success.  From the collection of memes built up in this way, the infant creates the Model and develops Intuition.  By the time Language is mastered, the fundamental memes are already laid down; the rest of the individual's life is most often concerned with day to day matters, with which Language and Reason can deal comfortably, rather than with ideas.  But we are all occasionally confused, and occasionally some of us become philosophers.

 

Philosophy, religion and mysticism are attempts to contact the unconscious memes laid down before Language was acquired, an attempt to 'remember' and to verbalise these memes.  Science is organised Reason, the faculty we developed as infants to 'sort things out' into categories with tags, and the faculty from which Language is derived.  Art is the product of the Aesthetic sense, another name for Intuition.  The entire human endeavour is an attempt by the memes to perpetuate themselves.  The strategy they have been obliged to adopt is to model Reality as closely as possible.  One definition of Reality is that it is that meme which is immortal; by approaching Reality memes approach immortality.


3 - So What?

This section is about as near as I shall get to actually answering the question 'What's Happening?'  I had thought I would leave this question aside, but I think it emphasises the power and beauty of meme theory that it can tackle such a question, so here goes.

 

The Universe

Evolution is a physical law, the Third Law of Thermodynamics if you like.  It explains many phenomena, not merely the development of life on Earth.

 

After the Big Bang, the Universe consisted of a ball of energy, pure light.  There was no matter.  Matter only 'condensed' out of the light when the ball had expanded sufficiently, so that the 'temperature' of the light, its density, had dropped below a critical point, its 'freezing point'.  The fact that the Universe constantly expands, and so constantly cools is related to entropy, change, and time.  You can think of it as giving the lost heat somewhere to flow to.  The first matter to condense out of the Sea of Light was a mixture of protons and electrons - plasma.  This condensation is an example of some new stability emerging from the chaos of the light.  Just as a single crystal seeds the crystalisation of a vessel full of solution, so the condensation of a proton 'seeded' the condensation of the other protons; an example of propagation of stability.  It was some time before the Universe cooled enough for the electrons and protons to condense further, to form hydrogen - the next 'plateau' of stability.

 

The next actor on the stage is gravity.  It is tempting to try and suggest that gravity is connected with evolution, that one is a corollary of the other or that they are both corollaries of some greater principle.  But I'm not enough of a physicist to do it.  There does seem to be an 'attractive principle' whereby like substances separate out from mixtures and group together: water is distilled into pure rain water, oil and water form two separate layers, rock grains are separated according to their solubility in water and their size (the speed with which they settle).  All these processes are driven by energy systems: the gravity of Earth, or the heat of the Earth or Sun (both results themselves of gravity).  So gravity seems to be the greater principle.  Another avenue is that gravity is a distortion in space-time; if time is created by entropy, then perhaps gravity is a corollary of entropy?  This would make entropy, time, gravity and evolution all statistical phenomena, pure mathematics.  Just a thought.

 

The cloud of hydrogen that the comprised Universe was not completely uniform - there were local dense regions and sparse regions.  The action of gravity on these regions was to form stars, and collections of stars (galaxies), and collections of galaxies (clusters).  This was the third stable plateau.  Planets formed when some of the stars exploded, scattering debris around the galaxies which was trapped by other stars to form solar systems (plateau 4).  By such means, the Earth was formed over four billion years ago.

 

It is probably true to say that conditions on Earth were just right for Life to evolve.  But that isn't saying much.  Here we are, so conditions must have been right.  It would make not a jot of difference if the probability that such conditions arose 'by accident' were fantastically small: one in a billion billion billion.  Perhaps we are just incredibly lucky.  The fact that Life evolved means that for whatever reason, conditions were just right for this to happen.  Why posit the existence of an outside agent to 'set things up'?  It is simpler, neater and perfectly satisfactory to assume we are just dead lucky.  My hunch is that we are not all that lucky, and that evolution is such a powerful phenomenon that Life could evolve almost anywhere.

 

Conditions were conducive to the evolution of Life (plateau 5), therefore Life evolved (plateau 6).  There was no single point at which Life emerged from the chemical soup, it was a gradual process.  As I have suggested here, evolution has been at work since the Universe exploded in the Big Bang, achieving new stable states, new plateaux.  Life is the 'cream' on top of the milk that evolution produces: Order out of Chaos.  Because Earth is a dynamic chemical system, energy being constantly fed in from the Sun, it is constantly 'bettering' itself (evolution).  The living machine, the Biosphere, has altered conditions to what they are now so as to make Life more comfortable.  There is no longer any trace of the early chemical systems which developed DNA and the genetic mechanism.  In a sense, DNA won and it eliminated all the opposition.  My guess is that as computer simulation becomes more sophisticated and powerful, it will be used to accurately model these early chemical systems so that we will one day be able to say with more confidence exactly how genes began.

 

The Creation

I made a point of emphasising that conditions must have been 'just right' on Earth for life to evolve, and one need not posit an outside agent to bring this about - it just happened.  This reasoning is equally valid when applied to the larger question of the origin of the Universe itself.  The sort of thinking that posits an outside agent to create Life might argue something like this:

 

'The conditions that currently pertain in the Universe are just too finely tuned, too perfectly set up, engineered to too great a precision for them to have occurred by pure chance.  If any of a hundred parameters were different to one part in a million million, the Universe could simply not exist.  This suggests, therefore, that the parameters were preset by a conscious outside agent, the being we call God.'

 

I disagree.  What can it possibly mean to say that the Universe could not have arisen by pure chance?  For all we know, billions upon billions of universes have been 'tried out' in the past, each with its own random hodge-podge of physical laws.  Perhaps none of them lasted more than a few nanoseconds, or one or two may have managed to stick it out for a few million years, and then fizzled out.  But we live in this Universe; aren't we lucky?  Twenty billion years old and still going strong.  Where does God come in?  In fact, I don't suppose other universes did exist in the past; I suspect that our Universe is the only possible one.  Another point is that Time did not exist until the Universe did, so it is nonsense to talk about 'past' universes existing 'before' ours.  But what happens outside the Universe, in Eternity, is anyone's guess!  However you look at it, this Universe exists and its like it is.  The answer to 'Why is it like it is?' might as well be 'It just is.'  If it wasn't like this, we wouldn't be here to ask these questions.  This is not a reason for the Universe to be thus, it is just a consequence of it.

 

Perhaps you are still sceptical: 'Yes I see what you are saying, but my question is this: Why should there be anything at all?'  To this I would answer: Why not?  There doesn't have to be a cause for or a purpose to the Universe: it simply is!  An idea I find helpful is this.  The Universe exists, so it clearly isn't impossible for it to do so.  But suppose it was very improbable: one in as-large-a-number-as-you-like.  If this means anything at all, it means that one would have to wait a very long time indeed for the Universe to just spontaneously happen.  But how long?  In the Timeless Void of non-existence which is all that there was before anything really was, the question 'How long?' is itself meaningless.  One second is as 'long' as billions of years.  One wouldn't have to wait any time at all.  Even if we suppose some sort of Eternal Time which we allow to pass just to make the idea of probability work, and we allow for an unimaginable amount of it to pass, eventually, since the Universe is not actually impossible, it would suddenly exist.  Only if the Universe was impossible would one have to wait for ever, so that the Universe never came into existence.  Since it is not impossible, it had to happen eventually.

 

As a last ditch defence, someone might try this: 'The Universe cannot possibly exist unless some agency, something outside the Universe is constantly maintaining it, all the time preventing every last atom and particle in every galaxy from ceasing to exist.'  Actually, I don't have any particular problem with this.  It seems a bit far fetched - a lot of trouble for this outside agency to go to - but as long as this agency is outside our Universe, whatever that means, then one can suppose whatever one likes about it.  The only effect we would notice is that things would exist, and they would carry on existing, which is not saying a lot.  It is only when this outside agency is supposed to have any other effect on our Universe besides maintaining it that I would have difficulty.  In particular, I fail to see the need to identify the outside agency with the Deity.

 

That Just About Wraps It Up For God

It seems to me that Evolution is sufficient explanation for the existence of Life on Earth, and therefore for the existence of Man.  There is no need to posit God, and it complicates things immensely if you try to do so.  But Evolution has been working since the Big Bang - still no need to bring God into it.  And from my argument above about the Creation of the Universe, God is not required there either.  The Creator God was a useful meme, a simplistic explanation which sufficed until the pieces of the jigsaw finally fell into place; until a new meme with better credentials emerged.  Now we know 'Who The Creator is': Evolution.  By extending the concept of Evolution to cover all systems, not just 'living' systems, we can see that the emergence of Order out of Chaos is just inevitable.  The development of the Universe after the Big Bang was inevitable.  The occurrence of the Big Bang itself was inevitable.

 

However, there are other reasons to believe in a God besides the awesome power of Nature and dignity of Man.  Even if the Creator God has lost out, is there not room for another kind of God, a Personal God?  If we look into this idea, we find its root is not outside ourselves, but within ourselves.  We have created God because we need Him; we need somebody to love us.  God exists as a meme.  This kind of existence puts God on a par with any other idea we can have, be it evolution, gravity, water, rocks or Tuesday.  But these other ideas have a property that God doesn't have; we can objectively test for their existence, they are aspects of Reality.  It is not possible to prove that God exists (many people have tried), except as a very powerful concept in which many people believe passionately.

 

The origin of the meme is in our early childhood.  Before we found out that Mum and Dad were just human beings exactly like ourselves, we treated them as God.  The fact that there were two of them was not relevant (does God have two hands?).  When God the parents was no more, we were at a bit of a loss.  In some families, this hole is never filled, but in religious families, the hole is filled by the meme God.  Father says 'Obey me, but obey God first' and mother says 'I love you, but God loves you more'.  This is a great comfort to the child, who is seriously worried about his parent's human frailty.  'Who is going to look after me when my parents are gone?' asks the child, or 'Who is looking after all the children and grown ups who haven't got a Mum and Dad?'  The child isn't able to grasp that one day he will be able to look after himself - and in some ways he is right to be sceptical about it; many people grow up being unable to look after themselves, and they look for other members of society, their friends or their partners, to substitute for the parents they desperately need.  In terms of TA, Transactional Analysis, this need is felt by the Child (one of the three ego states) which may not trust its own Adult and Parent (they are all it has to rely on) if they haven't so far managed to fulfil all its desires.  Very few people are totally self reliant, and those that are usually have some great faith to support them; faith in themselves, perhaps, or in God.

 

Even if the infant is happy at the time with God as his protector, he may not be happy later when he grows up and learns more about life.  After all if Father Christmas doesn't exist, why should God?  Surely He's next for the chop?  Or perhaps the child grows into a thoughtful individual with a philosophical leaning.  He will most likely find the notion of God rather too simplistic.  And what of the child raised by 'heathens' - what is there for them to believe in?  There are a number of strategies - two of the commonest are: one, to just keep looking, be sceptical, learn as much as possible, ask questions, to make The Search the meaning of one's life; or two, to just accept something as the answer, anything will do, no matter how bizarre or dangerous: drugs, drink, sex, flower-power, money, power, violence.  These two strategies, poles apart, account the behaviour of a great many modern adults these days, now that the churches are empty.

 

Getting Okay

The Creator God is no longer needed now we have Evolution; is there any replacement for the Personal God which people clearly need if their lives are not to be meaningless?  As I have hinted at above, the state one wants to achieve is one of self-reliance.  If you need to be loved, love yourself.  Trite?  Well, yes; put as starkly as that.  It would take more space than I have allocated myself to do justice to the idea of loving oneself.  But lets be clear what I am not saying.  I am not suggesting that one should become utterly selfish, nor that one should become an egotist, nor that would should assume an air of great self-importance and arrogance, nor that one should sacrifice everything for the sake of some burning ambition.  In fact you don't have to do anything.  Its not a prescription for any behaviour at all.  It is simply an attitude, a belief.

The TA school put it like this. Say to yourself: I'm Okay.  It's not enough to just say it, of course, you have to believe it.  And you have to believe all the corollaries that follow from it: 'I can cope, I am confident, I like myself, I like other people, There's nothing I can't handle, I'm not scared of anything, I can take it whatever it is, There is nothing I can't do if I set my mind to it, I am calm, I am relaxed, It's going to be all right'.  And a whole lot more.

 

I have said that I can't do justice to this new meme: I'm Okay.  But in a sense this entire essay has been an attempt to do this one meme justice.  The meme is part of a meme cluster, it is easier to accept the whole cluster than try to fit the new meme in on its own.  This is the tight circle of ideas I mentioned way back, elements of which I have been repeating throughout and certain of which I have elaborated upon in order to illustrate the power of meme theory.  I haven't exhausted the list of memes in the cluster but they include: Reality, Self, the Model, Intuition, Reason, Truth, Beauty, Right, Good, Quality, Growth, I can, I'm Okay, You're Okay, and It's Okay.

 

Each of these memes can be given short 'operational' descriptions which explain how they interact (this essay is the full description).  Truth: what works.  Right: behaviour that that works.  Good: describes memes that work.  Quality: the sum of all aspects.  Beauty: Quality of Good memes.  Intuition: that which judges the memes.  Reason: that which sorts out Reality.  The Model: sum of all our memes, our current approximation to Reality, built by Intuition.  'Self' (as distinct from 'self' which is just how we represent ourselves in our Model) is a particular meme towards which we aspire.  Reality is what we are obliged to model.  The closer our Model gets to Reality, the more successful and self-reliant we are, and the closer our memes get to achieving the immortal meme, Self.  Growth is becoming closer to Reality.  The Assertions (I can, I'm Okay, You're Okay, It's Okay) are a defence against 'bad memes', past errors, mistakes we once made which limited us in the past, and which may stage a come back later.  As we Grow, our Intuition improves, our Model improves, our insight improves (the ability to explain external phenomena), and our 'wisdom' improves (our ability to reflect, to know ourselves).  Prayer and meditation are simply the act of contacting the Self via the Model.

 

All individuals aspire to achieve the Self, the immortal meme.  Were they to achieve it they would each have a  single Model, they would be one person, known to Buddhists as Buddha.  The extent to which we are rid of useless and 'bad' memes, and have a Model which is close to Reality, defines what stage of Growth we are at, how many questions we still have, how content we are, how free of misery, how powerful, how active, how free.

 

Is it possible for two brains to achieve identical Models?  Can we all be Buddha?  I doubt it.  But it is a standard to aim for, a point on the horizon, a Pole Star to plot our course by.  The idea is not to get their but to travel, to live, and to enjoy the journey.

 

Conclusion

What I have tried to do here is to take the evolutionary paradigm and the genetic paradigm one stage further; to apply them to the evolution of both the Universe, and the Mind of Man.  On the way, explanations for a great many related phenomena have emerged.  Memes, culture, learning, and wisdom.  The origin of memes, our distant childhood, how we are haunted by old memes, the origin of mystical, religious and philosophical ideas.  Behaviour, psychology, bad memes, and early errors.  The origins of tyranny, sadism, defeatism and fear.  A very wide range of effects for what is basically quite a simple but elegant theory.  And I haven't really said very much that is actually new.  It is the power and beauty of the idea that leads me to accept its validity.  Using the terms I have defined, I must maintain that this meme is True - it works; at least it works for me!  The Model I now seem to have by virtue of the new meme is, more than any other model I have yet had presented to me, closer than ever to Reality.