Jim Mastro

Writing, and all things in between


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The Missing Factor

Interesting things often happen to me in the transitional phase between sleep and wakefulness. In that twilight zone where I am neither fully asleep nor fully awake, it seems that the intuitive, creative side of my brain is most active. During that time, solutions to vexing problems (usually related to a writing project) come to me, seemingly out of the blue. Other thoughts also occur to me, often regarding subjects I wasn’t even aware I was thinking about.

That happened again just the other morning. But before I reveal it, a little background.

Whether or not life is inevitable, given the right circumstances, is a problem that has vexed biologists (and philosophers) for some time. Since we only have one example – Earth – it is impossible to draw any firm conclusions. That is one reason why so much effort continues to go into searching for evidence of life beyond our planet. Much of this effort is directed at Mars right now, but there is also considerable effort to identify Earth-like planets around other stars. In addition, the Search For Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project continues its decades-long search for signs of another civilization. If any hard evidence of extraterrestrial life were to be found, even simple, unicellular life, it would change the equation dramatically.

So far, however, there has been nothing firm. So scientists are forced to base their conjectures on what can be found here, on our own planet. That evidence is certainly suggestive. Bacterial and other unicellular life has been found thriving in such unlikely places as undersea thermal vents, near-boiling hot springs, within rocks in Antarctica, in perpetually dark and frigid Antarctic lakes, and even miles underground. If life can exist in those places, it seems it can exist anywhere.

Many of these places are proposed as the place where life may have originated, since many of them mirror conditions on our planet when it was very young, with its extremes of temperature and anoxic, even toxic, environments. Other scientists propose that life originated elsewhere and the Earth was seeded by bacteria hitching rides on comets and meteors. Recent evidence that some bacteria can survive prolonged exposure to the frigid airlessness of space gives credence to that view. However, that doesn’t solve the problem of how life originated. If it didn’t evolve here but was simply introduced here, it still had to evolve somewhere. Claiming that Earth was seeded just kicks the can down the road.

Nonetheless, based on the foregoing, it seems increasingly likely that life is indeed inevitable. If and when we do discover extraterrestrial life, that argument becomes much stronger. We may be forced to conclude that the physical laws that organize our universe make it impossible for life NOT to develop.

That’s where the “missing factor” mentioned in the title of this post comes in. It was this thought that suddenly occurred to me in my half-awake state: If the physical structure of our universe does indeed make life inevitable, then physicists must take that into account. No theory meant to describe our physical universe could be considered complete without factoring in its propensity to produce life. In other words, the inevitability of life might be as fundamental to the structure of our universe – and as fundamental to the equations that describe that structure – as the relationship between matter and energy or the existence of photons and neutrinos.

I encourage physicists to develop such a theory. Like any theory, for it to be valid it must make predictions that are testable. Equations could be developed that would predict under what conditions and how frequently life would form, based on the known physical structure of the universe. We will continue to search for extraterrestrial life, and sooner or later (if our civilization survives long enough), we will either discover enough of it to confirm the theory, or we will find nothing at all and the theory will be ruled invalid.

I predict the former.

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Earth as seen from Antarctica

Some things take on a certain resonance when viewed from a windblown, polar desert. Since I arrived here at McMurdo Station a little over two weeks ago, the weather has been, shall we say, challenging. It has been an endless parade of storms, sometimes with wind in excess of 50 mph, frigid temperatures (-10F), and blowing snow. There have been times when I haven’t been able to see more than a few feet in front of me. One must be particularly vigilant for large vehicles (as in bulldozers and forklifts) and blowing debris in conditions like those.

It is here that I have just finished reading my signed copy of “Earth,” by David Brin. As I have come to expect from Mr. Brin, the novel is imaginative, thought-provoking, thrilling, and exceptionally well written. And frightening, because it invokes a future world that is all too possible. In fact, in some respects, I would say inevitable. It is perhaps because I read it in Antarctica that I have been pondering the future–both the fictional one as well as the impending real one–in rather stark terms. One cannot spend as much time as I have here in the bitter cold and desolation without coming to appreciate the generally life-friendly environment found elsewhere on our little planet. One also comes to an understanding, on a very fundamental level, that the rest of the planet could look like Antarctica–if not in frigidity, then certainly in desolation and lifelessness–if we’re not careful.

And we are not careful.

I have to wonder about us humans. Individually, we are rather smart. As a species, not so much. Oh, we are certainly clever. We invent all kinds of new technologies and modify our environment on a scale that has only happened once before in Earth’s history, when cyanobacteria changed the atmosphere from neutral to oxidative. But that took eons. We’ve made our changes in, literally, the blink of an eye. And the changes have not been good.

As a biologist, I understand the basic imperatives that motivate all living things: pass on DNA to the next generation; gather resources to facilitate this activity. The more resources, the better, in most cases. When humans take this to the extreme (which, frankly, most humans would do, given the opportunity), it’s called greed. But other animals are greedy too, when they have the option. I’ve had dogs who are never satisfied with the toys they have, they want all the toys in your hand or hidden in your pockets. Some animals, when given access to all the food they can imagine, will eat themselves sick. “More, more, and more” seems to be the default position.

I had hoped, once upon a time in my youthful optimism, that we humans would see the bigger picture and moderate that destructive influence. We certainly have the capacity to do so. We have the brain power. But we seem unable to harness that brain power to see the bigger picture and make decisions that will ensure our survival. Just the opposite, in fact.

Look at how fishermen have historically mismanaged the resources that provide their livelihoods. They will notice how a fish stock is diminishing, but instead of getting together and coming to an agreement designed to ensure the fish stock remains robust and sustainable, they try to outcompete each other to grab the last little bits, to get as much money as possible out of it before it’s gone. And then when it’s gone, they blame the seals, or the whales, or sport fishermen, or the government. The only reason some fish stocks still exist is because that government stepped in and imposed much-hated regulations. It is only because of those regulations that any fish are left at all! In some cases, the regulations came too late and certain fish stocks became economically extinct.

And now we have well-moneyed and powerful oil and coal barons who fight tooth and nail to maintain their lucrative industries, vociferously denying the negative impacts of their industries even as those negative impacts become more and more obvious. They have used their money and power to purchase politicians–purchase our republic, actually–essentially removing the only impediment to oligarchic control: a functioning, democratic government. They are not the only ones, of course. Pharmaceutical industries, agritech industries (like Monsanto), “healthcare” giants, and others have done the same, and their damage to our political and physical health should not be underestimated. But no other industry has the long-term, potentially devastating influence of the fossil fuel industry.

Sure, we are all guilty to an extent. Most of us drive cars, purchase consumer goods manufactured far away and shipped across oceans, and burn fuel to stay warm. But in many cases, we have little choice. Decisions made by industry and government limit our choices, even though we decry those limits and press for more reasonable alternatives. There are those who have sounded the alarm for decades. Thirty years ago I wrote an essay (published in the San Diego Union-Tribune) in which I offered this analogy: If you place a culture of bacteria in a petri dish and leave it to its own devices, one of two things will happen–the bacteria will multiply until all the food is used up, then they will all die, or, if they are of a particular sort, they will poison themselves with their own waste products, and they all die. Sometimes both things happen at once.

So how are humans different?

Clearly, we are not. That is glaringly obvious. Any living creature will multiply to the greatest extent possible, and it is only external factors (such as predators) that keep the population under control. We no longer have any predators, other than ourselves. But populations freed of predation will succumb to the bacteria scenario, or their populations will be brought under control by the two last-ditch methods the ecosystem has: mass starvation and density-dependent disease. It is the height of hubris to not understand, despite all our technology, that we are subject to the same controls. The current Ebola crisis is just the latest that mother nature has sent our way. It won’t be the last. (Unless, of course, the Ebola virus evolves the ability to transmit itself in the air while retaining its virulence.) And starvation, well, that’s where this conversation is now headed.

About 250 million years ago, at the end of the Permian, there took place the worst of several mass extinction events in Earth’s history. About 90% of all life, on land and in the ocean, perished. The event, which took a thousand years or so, was apparently caused by massive volcanic activity in the area now called Siberia. Volcanoes spewed huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, which warmed the globe by a process that any five-year-old can understand, but that which deliberately escapes the comprehension of certain rich and powerful (some would say stupid) people. Warming reached a point at the end of the Permian where pent-up methane was released from permafrost and from the deep ocean and polar seas. At that point, the feedback loop went into overdrive. The globe warmed as much as 10-12 degrees Celsius, drought ravaged the land, acidification ravaged the seas, and pretty much everything died.

That same process, which took place because of natural events over the course of thousands of years, is happening again. Only this time it is happening with a rapidity that ought to boggle anyone’s mind. It is a rapidity that is absolutely unprecedented in Earth’s history. It takes a broader perspective to see this, and humans seem generally limited in their ability to see beyond the next day, or the next quarterly report. But if you understand biology and ecology, if you understand geological processes, if you understand the grand reach of time that characterizes our planet’s history and development, it become very clear indeed. In the geological equivalent of a nanosecond, we are irrevocably altering our environment in a way that is making it incapable of supporting human life.

Brin’s book paints this kind of picture, but in that fictional account there is still hope. I am not so sanguine. I know what happens when a massive system is pushed out of balance. It seeks a new balance, and it reaches it sooner or later, but in most cases that new balance is dramatically different than the starting point.

Earth’s climate is just such a massive system, and massive systems have a lot of inertia. Like a huge freight train, it take a lot to get it moving, but once it’s in motion, it is not stopping anytime soon. We have put Earth’s climate into motion. The train has left the station. We might have been able to moderate the effects and stave off the worst of it a few decades ago, when wise and prescient people first sounded the alarm. That opportunity is lost. Researchers have already measured methane seeping out of permafrost, and people have seen methane bubbling up from the Artic ocean. Even knowing this, we continue to make the situation worse. Carbon emissions are predicted to increase by 2.3% worldwide next year and beyond.

At some point, they will begin to decrease, not because we have suddenly wised up, but because the effects of our foolishness and profligacy will finally start to be felt, in diminished economic activity, diminished food production, and diminished population. That point is coming sooner than anyone wants to believe.

People may decry what I am saying as “doomsday hysteria.” It is nothing of the sort. As a scientist and philosopher, I can look at what is scathingly obvious with a certain amount of professional objectivity. Earth has gone through this before, and she always recovers. After the devastating Permian extinction, it only took her a few million years to repopulate the globe with a whole new diversity of plant and animal life. She will do that again after we are gone.

And we will be gone far sooner than anyone wants to believe. It doesn’t take much to destroy a civilization, even an advanced technological one like ours. It has happened many times just in the brief span of human history. Take away food, and everything falls apart. I think human beings will be extinct in less than 300 years. Maybe a lot less. The victim of our own greedy, selfish stupidity, and mainly the greedy selfish stupidity of a relatively few people. All their money and power will do them no good at all when there is simply no food to buy. It is a shame that they cannot see that.

Still, it is sad, and I am profoundly disappointed. We humans held such promise. I think of the sublime miracle of consciousness, the very fact that we can be self-aware and can also look out upon the universe and be amazed and humbled and filled with wonder. I think of the miracle of love, which I have to believe goes far beyond the simple facts of procreation and hormonal influence. There is a spiritual component to love that far surpasses those biological imperatives.

I think of the sublime beauty of this planet, with its stunning diversity of life. There is certainly nothing like it in our solar system. And even though there are almost certainly other planets with life, there may be nothing quite like the Earth in the entire galaxy. What a shame to despoil such a place.

I also think of all the beauty we have created, and the noble and courageous things we have done. Art, music, individual acts of love and heroism. What other creature demonstrates these things? What other creature looks out upon a beautiful sunset with wonder and then feels compelled to paint it, or write about it, or compose a song to it?

I think of all the amazing things we could have done. We could have traveled to the stars! There is a whole universe to explore! Think of what we might have discovered! Think of what grand artistic and scientific and technological things we might have accomplished, if only we could have seen a little clearer.

Of course, people do and have done some terrible things, too, to each other and to the planet. There is no excuse for any of it. But the most terrible thing of all has been to kill our mother.


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Morals

I was having a philosophical discussion with another scientist one time, a friend who was well known for being logical and emotionless. No flights of fancy or wild speculation for this guy. All facts, and nothing but the facts. He had been raised a catholic but had long ago rejected religion as being illogical and irrational. Now he was an atheist.

The conversation came around to the subject of morals. I said I thought morals derived naturally from biological and behavioral evolution. Groups or tribes of animals whose members shared resources and took care of each other saw increased reproductive success. In other words, these animals survived better and produced more offspring. In this way, empathy evolved, an ability to feel how another of the species (or even a member of a different species) feels. And this is the basis of morals.

My friend disagreed. “No,” he said. “Morals come from God.”

I looked at him, flabbergasted, and said, “Tony (not his real name), you don’t even believe in God!”

He was stunned. From the look on his face, I could tell he couldn’t believe he had just said what he said. And I realized in that moment that when something is drilled into your brain as a child, it never goes away. No matter how much experience and rational thought your life piles on afterward. Our minds are like onions, and the right trigger will pull up something you thought you had discarded long ago. On the surface, Tony was a logical scientist, with no use for religion. Deep down, he was still an alter boy.

What made me think of this story is something I saw recently:

Morals

It’s really true. You don’t need a deity to threaten you with damnation if you are cruel to someone, you just need to have the very human capacity to feel what that person feels, to understand what it would be like to be in their shoes. And act accordingly.