Posts Tagged ‘biology’

SERMON: “Wonder Beyond the Veil” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, January 27th, 2013

If you stop to think about it, the fact that I am writing my thoughts into a sentence that you can read and understand is nothing short of amazing.  As far as we can tell, such acts of communication are not occurring anywhere else in our solar system.  And even on our small planet, teeming with life, you and I are members of the only species that reads and writes (though whales and dolphins may very well have their own book-of-the-month club that they are very adept at concealing from us).

We naturally take for granted the things that seem to come naturally to us.  We don’t have the time, frankly, to sit in wonder at every little thing that — were we to see it in its true historical or biological context — would blow our ever-lovin’ mind.  So we spend the time we must learning how to walk and talk and drive and sculpt and dance and compute and then just get on with living our life.

But one of these times while you’re walking from your car into your house, thinking about the next thing on your to-do list, consider what underlies these regular acts that seem so effortless to us.

Walking upright is a good start.  That is quite an evolutionary change for a body of muscle and bone that began as a bacteria that managed to clump together enough to become, eventually, an actual body of a lobe-finned fish that adapted to walking on land, then developed into a small mammal, then a primate and then the upright hominid that was our great great great great grandmother.

And what about the air that flows so easily into your lungs?  It’s easy to think of that air as having no mass at all, but of course it does.  The one-ton weight of the atmosphere over our heads weighs down upon us every moment, but we don’t even notice it.  Our bones and muscles have evolved under that weight (not all of which is, exactly, pressing “down” on us) so that our density and shape and mechanical arrangements are so well suited to air’s “mass” that we only sense when the breeze blows it across our face, or when we stick our hand out the window of our fast-moving car and play our hand against the force of the air compressing in front of it .

This is where creationists stop one step short of a true sense of wonder, and invert reality when they decide to praise God for making the world so perfect for us to live in.  It’s quite the other way around, I’m afraid.  The world was not made for us.  The reality of evolution is that we were “made” for the world that we evolved in, or — more precisely — that we were “made” (evolved) in the world as it already existed.  That is the power of evolution as the result of natural selection: the things that work well in a given environment have a better chance of being preserved in reproducing life forms than those that don’t.

One could argue that the original conditions that were made possible by earth’s particular composition and location in relation to the sun were “made” just for us, but that would be pushing things more than just a bit.  For there is no evidence of intention in anything that exists — other than the animals, like ourselves, that possess consciousness.  What we can say with absolute confidence is that the conditions that came to be on Earth were hospitable to the beginning — and continuation — of biological life.  And knowing — as we now do — just how rare of an occurrence such a state of affairs is in the known universe, it is easy to be overwhelmed with the sheer luck of it all.

But the idea of such cosmic, existential “luck” really bothers a lot of people.  And so there arises in humans a deep cry for intention, and a purpose for our existence that must be rooted in some larger intelligent force.  I hear this from Christian friends who are sincerely baffled by the notion that existence can, well, exist without an intelligent, interested source.  (What they are really concerned about is how one could deal with this reality in an emotional and intellectual sense).   But this impulse toward religious belief is, I believe, an artifact of the way we have mentally and emotionally processed our physical reality over the generations, and has everything to do with our brain-based consciousness and absolutely nothing to do with the physical world.  It is a “software” issue.

Be that as it may, human belief systems are a definite social and cultural reality that is deeply embedded in our intellectual life.  And old ideas die hard.

Speaking up for science in a culture of religious belief, once can feel like a "voice in the wilderness".

Speaking up for science in a culture of religious belief, once can feel like a “voice in the wilderness”.

I have often wondered at how religious belief survived the arrival of Darwin’s theory of evolution.  But others have pointed out that the end of the earth-centric view of the universe should have been enough to knock the pins out from under the truth claims of the church.  Right they are.  And I’ve just been reading about the intellectual and spiritual crisis that the discovery of the Americas caused for the Europeans (in “The Great Divide”, reviewed here this week).  For here was an entirely new world (filled with people) that — because the discovery of its existence came with no hint or mention in ancient literature or biblical texts — was completely unexpected and shocking.  It took Europe and the church a few hundred years to really get used to the idea.  And so it goes.

Every new scientific discovery erodes ancient religious claims about our physical reality.  I think that is indisputable (at least in a general sense).  But, seen anthropologically, this is not surprising: almost all of our early philosophy and religious ideology was developed in a context of deep ignorance of the inner workings of biology, cosmology and geology.  Fortunately for us “westerners”, the evolution of Christianity took a course that embraced Greek thought, and led us to the idea that the “one God” was a god who had created a nature that could be understood (as He could be understood) through continuing study (Islam — and the shamanistic religions of other cultures — held that all that could be known had already been revealed in holy books, and to seek additional knowledge was to blaspheme).

In this way, the evolution of thought in the “Old World” of Europe and Asia was open to the discoveries of science, at least until those discoveries began to bring the revealed wisdom of scripture into question.  But by then the cat was out of the bag, as it were, and, despite the excommunications and heresy trials, scientific discovery has became our primary source for reliable knowledge about reality.

Be that as it may, actual non-believers (in God or in “divine purpose” generally) remain the minority, even in America.  Most people believe in God.  And most of those believers, whether they realize it or not, tacitly accept as true scientific descriptions of the world they inhabit, without realizing the profound implications of those scientific truths.  The result being that the majority of humans, to my mind, take for granted the true miracle of their existence as a thinking, feeling, personality in a discreet physical body living on a planet hospitable to such an existence.  No, to them a wonder of this magnitude (if they give it a thought) is not nearly enough.  They require (for their sense of well-being) that there be a single great god of the universe who is just like them, and who, despite all of his necessarily awesome responsibilities and powers, must reliably bend an ear to any individual’s urgent prayer request for a good parking spot at the mall.

But the rather amazing (and counter-intuitive) point of all of this should be plain by now: the believer in God, by holding fast to a religious view of existence, actually limits their capacity to experience the true awe of seeing creation for what it really is: an expanding universe of a scale we cannot truly comprehend; a tiny, blue planet of water and air and elements born in exploding stars; the continuous, persistent non-random selection from random genetic changes that, over time (and under changing environmental pressures), transforms a bacteria into a fish, a fish into a mammal, and mammals into elephants and whales and humans that, after millions of years develop language and then an alphabet and then the technology that allows this one human to write his thoughts for other humans to read and understand.

In the larger scheme of things, one has to ask, what does it matter if people believe in God or angels (or fairies in the garden, for that matter)?  It’s not like adults playing pretend or believing in magic is going to slow or speed the final, fatal blossoming of our sun, or the eventual contraction of our universe.  No — we are blessedly powerless on those scales.  But where we are powerful is in our effect on the quality of our own lives, and, potentially, the lives of others.

And so it’s none of my business if one of my fellow humans is comfortable in a world governed by a god of their choosing.  But when so many live in that kind of world, one has to speak up for that which is obscured by the veils of religious belief.  There was a time in the evolution of religion that called for a “voice in the wilderness”, a “John the Baptist”.  What’s needed now is more “John the Scientists” to stand by the doorway that science has opened for us in the wall of human ignorance, pointing the way to the unseen wonders that await beyond.

t.n.s.r. bob

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “The Story of Earth: The First 4.5 Billion Years, From Stardust to Living Planet” by Robert M. Hazen.

Sunday, September 30th, 2012

This has to be about the most coherent and readable book about the formation of our planet that I have read.  It made the processes that formed Earth make sense in ways that no other book has (and I’ve read some good ones).  But it also reads like a family album, or the biography of a beloved friend.  For those reasons alone I recommend it.

The bonus of the book (and the area most likely up for debate) is the fresh viewpoint that the author brings to the symbiotic connection between biological life and geology.  We all understand that without the basic elements that were gathered from the cosmos by the Earth, life could not have begun.  But it also appears that it was life itself that then began to alter “lifeless” geology, mainly in the form of minerals that then became the further building blocks of ever-evolving life forms.

Life exists in many forms and in many places on and in the earth.  We tend to think of the things that live and crawl on the surface, or swim in the sea, but the roots of living plants facilitate chemical reactions in rocks and soil to a degree that their actions must be considered a significant shaper of landscape — more so than erosion by wind and rain.

It is a way to see our planet that has an elegant and fascinating complexity to it.  Our life story is not one of life simply springing up on a watery planet that just happened to be the right distance from an energy-supplying sun, but of an interplay between chemistry, environment, time and chance that has played out over and over and over again through extinctions and near extinctions, changes in atmosphere and the chemical composition of the oceans as well as the surface of the planet to arrive at the biologically-rich world that we know today.

As one might expect, there is a final-chapter discussion of our current climate issue, but it is set firmly within a recognition of the dynamic nature of our planet:

“In the midst of these forces, our species has proved to be resilient, clever, and adaptable.  We have learned technological tricks to shape our world to our will: we mine and refine its metals, fertilize and cultivate its soils, divert and exploit its rivers, extract and burn its fossil fuels.  Our actions are not without consequences.  Every day, if we are attuned to the dynamic process of our planetary home, we can experience every facet of its intertwined creative forces.  And we can then understand how devastatingly changeable the world can be, and how utterly indifferent it is to our fleeting aspirations.”

I highly recommend this book both as a fine tale of our home planet, and as a reminder of how many important scientific discoveries about it have come in our lifetimes.

t.n.s.r. bob

The rev gives it four Dimetrodons out of four!

SERMON: “The Snake in the Garden” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, June 17th, 2012

This week there was a serpent in my evolutionary Garden of Eden.

I caught part of a PBS program that documents a bunch of scientists being let loose to dissect some of the largest animals in nature (a whale, a lion and some rather huge pythons, for example).  It’s a tough program to watch (a high “ick” factor for me), and yet it is a fascinating and unusual opportunity to learn about these animals’ (as well as our own) biology.

At a point in the program I was watching, they showed the way in which the windpipe in the python was configured in such a way as to extend out the front of the mouth while the animal was swallowing another creature (such as a gazelle or an alligator), but then snugged up against the back side of the nostrils on the front of it’s skull when the animal was swallowed and the mouth was closed (imagine that your windpipe could extend all the way out to your lips along the top of your tongue, but when you closed your mouth it would angle up to form a seal against the back opening of your nostrils).  How the hell — I wondered — did that come to be?

In that moment I was seized with a troubling feeling that suddenly made me see evolution the way so many of my fellow humans see it: challenging to comprehend.  Improbable, even.  An uncomfortable feeling lingered with me for days.

Snakes alive! (From a street painting by Bob Diven)

It’s scary to allow oneself to contemplate such unsettling ideas, but perhaps it is the only way to, well, know anything.  The high school students I worked with last semester had as their “essential question” the following: “Can you know a truth without challenging it first?”.  Though awkwardly worded, I think there is something worthy in that idea.  And so I challenged my own evolutionary “truth”.  (This is sort of recurring practice of mine: I let my mind “go there” — in this case allowing it to drift freely to a world in which some sort of other force — perhaps even intelligent — made that snake thus).

The trigger for my discomfort about that damn snake has as its genesis, I think, the sort of social dualism we have built up around science and religion.  Science states that if something is not yet explained or understood, it is likely that further investigation (or the development of new technologies) will, eventually, allow us to understand it.  Religion says that any thing that science cannot explain fully must (MUST!) be evidence of the mystery that is somehow supposed to prove the existence of God.  As has been pointed out many times, the latter is what is known as an argument from ignorance.  It’s default-style construct is: I don’t know how this happened, therefore God is behind it.

And so I allowed myself to question how the process of evolution and natural selection could have possibly created the “break” between the nostrils and windpipe of that damn snake.  I could not visualize or imagine just how such an anatomical oddity could have come to be (though I’m well aware that the animal world is nothing but a catalog of anatomical absurdities — most of which I can comprehend).  But the further I let myself go toward the idea of an intelligent god designing the snake, the deeper into the quicksand of absurdity I sank.

Truly — why would an all powerful God “design” such kluged-up machinery as that snake’s anatomy?  Almost everything about animal adaptation reflects not efficiency of design, but sheer, brute adaptability (whose practical functionality then mimics a sort of “design”).  Nature does not cry out perfection.  Not in the slightest.  What it screams from every detail is the power of the living impulse that makes every living thing make the most of whatever genetic inheritance it was blessed (or cursed) with.

And we must also consider this: we only see the “experiments” that worked — the results of accumulated advantageous traits.  The others simply do not survive.

And so whatever my doubts (based purely in my own ignorance of a particular process of evolution in the case of the snake), there turns out to be no answer at all in the hollow intellectual shell that is creationism.

What I’ve ended up learning through my week or two of discomfort and doubt is this: we may, indeed, never know the exact how and why of every detail of evolution (it’s pretty certain we will never know the “all” of anything), but no matter how massive our ignorance of nature may be, it can never match the sometimes willful ignorance of those that preach creationism.

The resort to an intelligent designer is often the default knee-jerk response to anything we cannot (yet) explain in nature.  But the introduction of the possibility of such a divine agent is, fundamentally, a non-answer.  Where is the explanation for why this intelligent designer used natural means at all for any of this?  Why an exploding, expanding universe over billions of years so that one tribal shaman could be crucified by an occupying Roman authority and thereby usher in a couple thousand years of human religious enlightenment before God the Father intervenes and — in the final act — makes earth the way He intended it to be in the first place?  Why have animals breath and eat and poop and reproduce at all?  Why give humans earthly bodies when their heavenly bodies are clearly ready to be assigned?  Why put vestigial hip bones in a whale and in the snake whose progenitor — one can assume — troubled Adam and Eve in the Garden?  (A snake that might have been capable of breathing out of a tube in its mouth while swallowing a large animal for supper)!

The notion of God, then, is a tool — an effective trick to spare us from thinking about the unfathomable that surrounds us.  When it comes to explaining the world around us (or the odd anatomy of a python) God is not the answer: it is the decision to not ask the uncomfortable question.

t.n.s.r. bob

(To see the python anatomy I saw, visit PBS on-line.  The breathing apparatus appears at about 31 minutes into the program.  http://www.pbs.org/programs/inside-natures-giants/)

SERMON: “The Right to Life” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, February 26th, 2012

The rising visibility of Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum — as well as President Obama’s recent executive order (that triggered such a backlash from the evangelical community) — has made the cultural tug-of-war over the unborn a front-and-center topic once more.

Back in my Christian days, I was basically told that “pro life” was the only Godly view, so I stood uncomfortably on the steps of the Colorado capitol building one January day in 1979 to protest the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision.

Christian no longer, I am now “uncomfortably” pro-choice.  Not because I have doubts about a woman’s right to exercise control over her own body, but because I don’t think that the volitional deletion of a potential fellow human is ever going to be a simple thing for anyone to deal with.  But this is not — as I think about it — a notion that flows from any sense of morality (at least any Divine morality), but more from a deep awareness of the apparent fact that we only get this “one life” to lead, and as such, it is a fairly precious thing and not to be taken (or taken away) lightly.

But I think another part of my feeling on the issue comes from the sheer driving force of the life impulse.  I think this “drive” is a most basic expression of any living cell, and that this mindless impulse is so much a part of our makeup that it naturally finds a sort of expression in our consciousness (which is, after all, a product of the living tissue that supports it).

Having said that, I think that many who are so fervently pro-life carry their beliefs in a kind of fact-free vacuum, lacking in much of any perspective about the biological reality of life as it actually exists.  The very natural tendency of us humans to see “the world” in the smallest possible units of our immediate environment, friends and family mitigates against seeing the world, life and ourselves as we really are.  In short, it’s hard for us to move from a personal/local view to a world/global one.

What does this mean?  It means that we think of life in mystical, almost fairy-tale like ways.  We talk about the “miracle of life” like it is a baby-factory of immaculate perfection that certain evil-humans are attempting to subvert with abortion and birth control.  What we ignore (and probably with good cognitive reason) is just how messy life really is.

The fact is that right now every living thing that exists on the planet is maintaining it’s existence by feeding off of something else.  In the case of animals and insects (and humans), that means actively killing another living creature in order to convert it’s energy stores into our own (and plants count on that score).  We don’t like to confront this.  So we have cartoon tuna or funny Holstein cows selling us our fish or chicken sandwiches.

But what about the actual miraculous baby factories that human women possess (and that the religiously-conservative seem to want dominion over)?  Up to half of all fertilized eggs die before the women know they are pregnant.  Known miscarriages occur about 15-20% of the time.  Still births occur approximately 1 in every 115 births (in the U.S. alone, that’s about one every twenty minutes).  The March of Dimes estimates that 3-5% of United States babies are born with birth defects.

I’m not good at math, but it seems to me that “nature” is killing roughly 70% of us humans before we even get out of the gate!

These are sobering numbers.  But when you understand that biology is a natural process (and have some familiarity the fact that genes mutate with regularity) these are not surprising statistics.  If, on the other hand, you think that God has made all things wisely and wonderfully, well, you’ve got some ‘splainin’ to do, Lucy.

Things are not as the religious believer thinks they are.  But they have reason to continue to see things in simpler terms.  Irrational belief is irrational because it must exist in spite of countering facts and information.

The larger issue I see is that the overly-religious hold desperately to a set of “facts” (really just mythical notions) in order to preserve what they see as the “dignity” of life, even if in order to preserve that sense of dignity, thousands of living women and children must suffer for it.  What is gained is, to my view, so little for such a high human cost.  Whereas if the hyper-religious could be willing to accept the grim realities of biological life on this spinning planet of rare beauty they might come to a truer appreciation of the actual value and preciousness of life.

In this as in so many other areas, religious “truth” that is ballyhooed as having the power to “set one free” does nothing of the kind.  By fearing a reality that threatens their world view, believers live in a world even darker than the one they imagine awaits to consume them (should they ever let down their guard).

Proverbs 22:13 says: “The slothful man says, There is a lion outside, I shall be slain in the streets”.  This, I think, perfectly sums up the fundamentalist mindset.  In order to forestall an imagined future evil that is not real, many smaller genuine evils are visited upon the innocent women who are faced with difficult life decisions in the here and now.

There may be good and solid reasons to think twice about abortion, but irrational religious belief is not one of them.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “The Human Organism” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, January 22nd, 2012

Are we nearing a point when humanity may finally break free from God?

That thought came to me after cruising the web for some stirring statements by atheists (including Penn Jilette, George Carlin, Ricky Gervais and Jimmy Carr).

But to ask that question is to reveal two things about how I (we?) view the world.  The first being a persistent optimism about the power and capacity of the rational aspect of the human mind to transcend the believing brain, the second being a tendency toward utopian thinking that is the bedrock of the very belief in God whose decline the original question assumes.  Plus, it’s far too easy for us to perceive history as the revelation of some intentional destiny with ourselves as the central characters in that unfolding story.

Perhaps we should have more humble aspirations.

This is a good book for insight into the biology of ourselves and our planet.

The reality seems to be that we, as individuals, are parts of a larger organism that expands, contracts, succeeds and fails in a wide variety of locales and yet — in a collective sense — continues on.  Of course we are not part of an actual organism, but more a metaphorical one.

Our bodies, on the other hand, are actual organisms made up of a collective of innumerable smaller organisms that work, mostly, in concert.  Though the term “in concert” can be misleading as well.  For the actual coordination of our cellular minions is not managed in a conscious, directed way, but functions more like, well, an evolved stasis of mutually-beneficial interactions that balance out in a way that favors the larger organism’s survival.  In this sense, our individual existence as discrete, self-contained living beings is (fairly) viewed as an accidental byproduct of that small universe of chemical and biological transactions occurring moment-by-moment inside of us.

This is where the metaphor of us being a part of a larger organism starts to cut the other way.

We mostly sort of imagine an overseeing deity above us (or, at the least, external to us), and if you talk to the average theist, they will tell you that they do, indeed, believe that God takes a personal interest in every process that happens on the planet, and is  capable — and desirous — of intimate direction of those processes.  (If you know the Bible verse about how a single sparrow can’t fall from the sky without God knowing it, then you’ve got the picture).

But let’s now take that organizing idea and transfer it to our own human body, where we know that we do, in reality, have a conscious mind “running” things.  But to what degree is our conscious mind really “running” things at all?

Most of the natural processes that keep us alive are run unconsciously (by the brain), and within each of the bodily systems so “run” are the millions of moment-by-moment chemical reactions and cell divisions and mutations that occur without any intelligent direction at all.  These smaller processes are driven by forces that are observable but could never be called “intelligent” or “conscious” any more than we could call the flame that consumes a piece of paper “intelligent”.

We so easily mistake pattern for purpose that we can take a predictable phenomenon like the “rising” of the sun or the rainbows that appear after a rainstorm as “signs” of intelligence and direction.  It is this quirk in the workings of our brain that gave us our gods to begin with.  But to belabor the oft-expressed point: we know so much more about how things really work than we did way back then.  We therefore can now grasp just how absurd is the idea that a single, intelligent deity is really personally involved in the actions of every bacteria, blood and muscle cell in a given square inch of your gut right now (much less your entire body!).  Yet somehow just that sort of thing is easily believed by a good many of us.

(Why?  Because our awareness has always been primarily local in scope: we are the center of our own universe and therefore when we believe that God is in charge of everything we are really, generally, only imagining a handful of things or people or natural processes.  It is simply too painful for our brain to grasp the math of just how many things God would have to have on his mind at any given second were we to try to imagine the totality of everything that is happening right now on the planet Earth, let alone the Universe!)

It could be that — by this point in our history — our religious beliefs have co-evolved with us for so long that we can no more dispense with them than we can the bacteria in our intestines.  God is a meme embedded in our consciousness that can only be removed with great difficulty.  And though I believe that our morality and ethics are naturally-evolved (and therefore not dependent on a celestial authority) how can we really unravel the Gordian knot of how religion was part of our moral evolution?

The religious need, I think, the larger dose of humility in the world we find ourselves living in, as there turns out to be scant evidential support for their overarching, exclusive claim to morality, ethics, or any of the other achievements of our “better natures”.  Plus, they need to recognize how ineffective religion turns out to be by many that try to put it into practice.  The reality is that we “behave ourselves” primarily because of our profoundly social natures that put the price tag on social isolation pretty damn high.

I’m not going to hold my breath for seeing humanity move en masse into the sunlit fields of rational thought, leaving the tangled forests of belief behind.  The trend is surely in that direction, but humans are tricky creatures as a species, and any number of things can spook the herd, turning us back into the anxious primates that we are underneath all the trappings of modernity.

Still, one can hope.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Nature is out to Get You!” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, September 25th, 2011

It’s true.  Nature is out to get you.

It’s easy to forget this, living as many of us do in our modern world of indoor plumbing (with clean, treated water) and safe cars (coated in polymers and pigments and lubricated with oils and grease) and comfortable clothes (some even treated to protect us from UV rays, or to shed the rain, in addition to keeping us warm).  We have the luxury of viewing nature as quaint, pure and benevolent.  It’s not.  It never has been.

Reading “The World Without Us” (reviewed earlier on this blog) had the unexpected effect of giving me an appreciation for the many man-made materials that have been developed to hold off the power of nature to break everything down into its component elements.  Granted, it is these very man-made compounds that are now polluting our oceans and water supplies.  Still, one has to admire the ingenuity of our species and recognize the reality that life and comfort must be continually wrested from the natural world.

And this, of course, is our dilemma.  We have become successful at holding back corrosion and decay and heat and cold and the dark to a point where we have altered the nature we only meant to keep in check.  Well, that may not be accurate.  I expect that most people in generations before ours did not see nature as anything other than a malevolent, capricious force.  In our time, we have gone to the other extreme and glorified this mindless constellation of natural phenomenon to a point that many of our more conservative brethren feel as if we humans are being devalued to the point of being seen as a mere nuisance to the great earth mother.

The reality is, well, the reality of it all: we are a species on this planet doing what we do both for our survival and our prosperity, dealing with a growing awareness that we cannot afford to completely tame our environment lest we choke off the very source of our sustenance.  It’s an interesting dilemma faced — to some degree — by just about every living thing there is: the parasite that ends up killing its host, the locust that consumes everything in its path, the humans that fish the seas empty.

As smart as we are, I wonder whether we really have it in our power to forestall the inevitable depletion of our resources.  Our technology seems to be on an evolutionary path all it’s own (though we humans can seem to be as much passenger as driver of that train).  Of course — as The World Without Us so cleverly shows — our technological progress  can only continue as long as we continue.  But for now — even with all of our talk of becoming “green” — the forces of cold and heat and weather that drove us to create electric cooling and gas heating and internal combustion engined bulldozers continues unabated.

Life exists in the gaps between the forces of nature.

A complication to our proper perception of the many “natural” forces at work in our world is the fact that they act on different scales of time.  In my part of the world (the Chihuahuan Desert of Southern New Mexico), we don’t see houses rot from mold and dampness, or weather rapidly from constant rain.  But we do see paint faded to dust in a few seasons by the unrelenting sunshine.  And though we can see the immediate results of corrosion in a skillet left too long in the sink or the dashboard cracked by sun damage, we don’t notice the erosion of the mountains by wind and rain and freeze and thaw, or the tumbling action of the oceans or rivers that quickly smooth the rough edges off of stones.  Even slower is the movement of the earth’s crust which — though we can now measure it precisely — moves far too slow for us to perceive it (except when we experience the earth-quaking effects of that movement).

Much of the mystery of how nature works has been dispelled by science, and some of the power of those natural forces can be temporally thwarted by paint and steel and concrete and sunscreen.  But nature persists — mindless and random but not causeless — wearing away, fading, smoothing, melting, building and tearing down.  We are soft living things finding ways to stay alive and intact in an inert world of abrasives and searching rays of ultraviolet light that are the source of both our life and our undoing.

Appreciating the raw, relentless power of nature makes the wonder of our own existence even more remarkable.  Life, it turns out, is a thing that exists in the space between the power of nature to destroy and to create.  But even that statement misses the mark, for nature has no intelligence with which to actively create or destroy, it is simply what it is.  And life is the thing that sprang up in the spaces between the abrasive sands and weathering waves, between the planet’s bubbling molten core and the dead cold of space.  It is the fruit of the first organisms that took chemical reactions that one step further to self-replication — that were able to use sunlight for energy and minerals for food.  Life found a niche in a world of inert geology and atmosphere and exploded into abundance.  Beaten back by nature again and again, it came back improved.

Nature, of course, will win in the end.  It always does.  And I don’t mean the nature of the wild things that surround us (the other living organisms such as the virus and the cockroach).  No, all life will eventually be consumed again back into the elements that made it as the universe collapses back upon itself and reforms all over again.  It’s not just the cycle of life we are a part of, but the larger cycle of the elements and energy.

But if it’s of any comfort to you: Nature is not only out to get you but — in a way — itself as well.  So don’t take it personally.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “And You Thought You Felt Small and Insignificant Before…Part Two” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

PART 2.  “Enough about us…what about me?”

In last week’s PART 1 I concluded with this: “If there is meaning in the universe, it is not to be found anywhere outside of us — you and I are the only game in town where that commodity is concerned.  We (and our animal cousins, to varying degrees) are the only ones that care about anything at all (in any meaningful conception of that idea).  And it takes a certain amount of courage to value ones own individual capacity for caring once it is detached from the borrowed validation of an heavenly authority.  In short, humans find it much easier to trust their feelings and thoughts when they think they are coming from God.  No matter that they are always and completely products of our own physical consciousness no matter how successfully externalized we may make them out to be.”

I have found in this view some new understandings of my own person.  I think about my journeys through therapy, religion, psychic advisers and all the rest to achieve some sense of stability in my emotions and thoughts, driven toward a goal that we all believe can be achieved: normalcy.  But when it comes to humans, as in nature, normal is at best a mathematical approximation of the midpoint between two extremes (either of which, since they exist, could claim at least to be perfectly natural if not normal).

Often, however, we strive toward a goal based more on a notion of Platonic essentialism than reality (essentialism suggesting that there is a past or future ideal against which we can practically compare ourselves or strive towards (or, in the case of Christians, the sinless human we were created to be).  But, as Dawkins put it, using a bunny as an example: “There is no essential rabitt-ness!”, meaning that there is no perfect example of any species (and certainly no human) that we can compare ourselves to as an absolute standard.  There is only, well, us as we are right now.

You and I share pretty much all of the same DNA.  Yet you and I will have just a few letters in different places in our lines and lines of code which makes us just that tiny bit genetically different from each other.  But then so does everyone else, and not in the same places, so to quote Bill Bryson in “A Short History of Nearly Everything”: “We are all 99.9 percent the same, but equally, in the words of biochemist David Cox, “you could say all humans share nothing, and that would be correct, too.””

Despite my best efforts at self-knowledge, who knows what is really affecting my mood today.  I could be responding to a change in air pressure, a chemical shift…etc.,..etc.  My body turns itself over every day, so that on a cellular level I am completely renewed every so many years.  I am not the man I once was, and certainly not the boy I started out as.  And on a morphological level — were my fossils to be found some million years hence — the man I am today could very truly be called transitional between those animals we once were and those we will eventually become (assuming we survive extinction for that long).

In my personality I confront the tension and occasional frustration of trying to maintain both my idea of “who” I am, and the physical “I am” wherein that idea exists.  But from where do I get the idea that the consciousness I carry should be any more stable or “essential” than the body of processes that support it?  Instead of constant complaining about the greased pig of self identity, maybe I should be amazed that I am as constant as I am.  But then, couldn’t the same case be made regarding teeming life in general — or the rumbling earth we stand on, spinning through a vast universe?

And yet, for all this tectonic movement and biological activity, life feels remarkably calm (no matter how unreal that feeling might seem compared to the actual science of both the planet I live on and the body in which I live).  The fact that such knowledge as I am discussing does not make my head literally explode is due, probably, in no small part to the necessity of maintaining a certain coherence of mind in order to assure the survival of the constellation of organisms that I represent.  In short — and in a quite literal way — my DNA won’t let me go there!

One could argue that our individual experience of living — pleasure, the satisfactions of learning, the euphoria of love, the heart-breaking response to beauty, the intoxication of sex — are the wages we are paid so that we will find living more to our liking than oblivion, and thereby allow our DNA to continue its single-minded drive toward replication.  On a cellular level, we die a thousand deaths even while we’re living, and are constantly renewed, until the day that the organism is damaged beyond repair, at which time we are destined to be broken up into our constituent parts and recycled as we have been for billions of years.

What can be gained in raging against such a fate?  From who (or what) could we seek concessions?

It is so easy to look at a mouse or a fly and wonder “what’s the point of such a life, where all they do is eat, poop, reproduce and then die?”  What’s the point indeed.  If the experience of life were universally miserable, none would participate.  Even our pleasures are by-products.  And so, of course, is meaning!

No matter what we do the chances are that all evidence of our time here will eventually be wiped from the face of the planet.  Ice sheets will return and retreat, and other animals will thrive, repeating the cycle until our sun finally explodes and our universe collapses once more upon itself.  The more one looks at it the more bleak it becomes.  But so what?  It is what it is, and no wish of ours will change it.

Our lives can seem predestined by the ubiquitous regularity of the cycle of life and death.  We feel certain that we are serving some power greater than ourselves which, it turns out, we are.  It just happens to be DNA, not God, and DNA’s irrepressible impulse toward replication that began billions of years ago.

We are teeming life become aware.  And yet it could be argued, I suppose, that we are no more capable of understanding our existence than any of the other animals that share our lives on this planet.  It is unquestionable, however, that we know a whole lot more about life and ourselves than anything else on Earth.

The challenge that remains unique to us humans, then, is how to live with that knowledge.

t.n.s.r. bob