A Billion Years, A Galaxy

“New research published in the American Astronomical Society has confirmed through the use of a computer simulation that aliens–or humans–could potentially colonize the galaxy, a feat within the capabilities of modern Earth technology. According to the new research, doing so would only take a civilization like ours a billion years to complete.”

-Liam Stewart, “New Research Suggests We Could Conquer the Galaxy In Under A Billion Years.” The Debrief. June 28, 2021.

On the plus side, it is so rare for people to think outside of the next year or next decade, that 100 or 1,000 years from now almost never features in our discussions. So, to see something with a billion year timeline? Fantastic!

On the other hand, the universe is probably teaming with life, both making this much harder than scientists think, and by the same token, will descendants living in all these different environments be, in any way, recognizable as their original species? This is the problem in thinking in long timelines, we rarely factor in the effects of adaptation response and evolution, even when we know to factor for it.

Natural Selection

“For Darwin, natural selection is a drawn-out, complex process involving multiple interconnected causes. Natural selection requires variation in a population of organisms. For the process to work, at least some of that variation must be heritable and passed on to organisms’ descendants in some way. That variation is acted upon by the struggle for existence, a process that in effect ‘selects’ variations conducive to the survival and reproduction of their bearers.”

—Peter Gildenhuys,
Natural Selection.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. September 25, 2019.

Newly updated.

Life Doesn’t Evolve in a Tomb

Yesterday’s clarity is today’s stupidity.

-Ikkyu Sojun

Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development provides a useful framework for thinking about individual evolution and the common pattern most human beings follow. It shows that as life progresses, we are dealing with the essential and different questions at different stages of life: What kind of world is it? Do I have agency? What should I do? Can I do it well? What role can I play in larger society? Can I love someone, and will they love me? Can I love many people and help them to develop their capabilities? Can I pass on the unique knowledge I have acquired from my life experience?

This model shows that we are always evolving and developing. We never reach a point where we have nothing left to learn or do.

But, there are other models. For example, half of Timothy Leary’s eight-circuit model of consciousness is focused on potentials. The first four levels deal with the business of life, as Erikson’s does: feeding and sustaining ourselves, interacting with our environment, codifying knowledge and reproducing. The second four levels attempt to change or transcend our individual experience.

One reframes our perspective from a focus on utility and survival to another value, such as beauty, efficiency or novelty. Another seeks to reprogram our worldview, since many of the answers to the questions of life can and should be revisited, particularly since our answers are formed in the context of a moment and contexts change.

There is also trying to see ourselves in the larger span of time. Where does human life and our lives figure in scales of millennia, eras or eons, and how does the human species fit into the tapestry of life? Finally, how do we connect with everything in the universe, frozen rocks to burning suns? Are we all made of stars?

Leary’s eight models of consciousness adds something to Erikson, making it clear that there are no permanent answer to the questions of life. The questions of life need to be answered on an ongoing basis, year to year and moment to moment. And, it invites us to an ongoing project of trying to expand our vision and awareness. The world looks different to a baby staring out from a crib than it does to the professional athlete, CEO or from the hospital bed. We contain multitudes, and clinging to a single identity is like picking a tomb to live in. Safe and dead.

Cultural Good Ol’ Days

“I know people don’t read books like they used to, and they don’t think like they used to, but I struggle to care. Most of this talk is pure nostalgia, a kind of mostly knee-jerk, mostly uncritical (although not thoughtless) response to entirely rational fears about technological opacity and complexity (this nostalgia, of course, was the basis for the New Aesthetic). But this understandable reaction also erases all the new and different modes of attention and thought which, while they are difficult to articulate because we are still developing and discovering the language to articulate them with, are nonetheless present and growing within us. And I simply do not see the damage that is ascribed to this perceived “loss” – I don’t see the generations coming up being any less engaged in culture and society, reading less, thinking less, acting less, even when they are by any measure poorer, less supported, forced to struggle harder for education and employment, and, to compound the injury, derided at every opportunity as feckless, distracted, and disengaged. I see the opposite.”

—James Bridle, “Reading Right-to-Left.” booktwo.org. October 15, 2015.

Cambrian Explosion

“The hox genes are, more or less, the standard library for the structural assembly of animal bodies. It’s a DNA-modifying type of gene, one that activates specific other regions of DNA during early development. Need a leg? Activate the ‘leg’ hox gene, and that will start a huge cascade of related processes that make a torso segment that contains a couple legs plus all the necessary hip-joints and such in a somewhat standardized way.** This makes it easier than you’d think to adapt animal body plans on the fly; rather than reinventing legs from the ground up every time you want to adapt from quadruped to hexaped, you can just have a mutation that calls the hox gene two more times. It is also a primary mechanism of directionality, in which animal bodies have a clear orientation with a front and back.

As you might imagine, animals almost never survive a mutation to the hox genes proper, let alone thrive and speciate. It tends to mean that you get born without a head or something. So, both humans and house flies tend to have a very similar set. That holds true across the entire animal kingdom, with only a few exceptions- hox genes are frozen in time, proportionate with their importance. Care to guess which types of animal lack fully formed hox genes?

That’s right: sponges and jellyfish. Even those have a rough proto-hox thing going on, but it’s a far cry short of ours.

It goes without saying that this will have implications for species diversity in the animal kingdom. Adaptation isn’t as easy as building an animal out of legos, but it has at least gotten a lot easier. Animals can experiment with body shapes in more radical ways, and be successful more often when they do so—they’re now exploring a much larger space of possibilities.

We’re starting to piece together a rough framework here, in which the rise of oxygen and the slow development of meta-genomic advantages work together to provide space for a more dynamic ecosystem, but is that enough to make sense of something as dramatic and surprising as the Cambrain Explosion? It’s a start!”

Anonymous. “Notes From an Apocalypse.” Lesserwrong.com. September 23, 2017.