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July 27, 2013

[Evolution describes the development of life as a process of continuous creation that moves from simple cells to clusters of cells to incredible varieties of complex life forms. Following is a short description of  some of the amazing detail of that process.  It is excerpted  from Journey of the Universe, by Brian Swimme and Mary Tucker, 2011, pp. 60-63. ]

The ongoing deepening of life’s complexity happens because life is able to adapt to a vast variety of conditions and to remember these adaptions, sometimes for billions of years.  Nearly everything of fundamental importance in life depends upon the power of adaptation and of memory. Consider foods. Grains, for example, are composed of many different sorts of complex organic molecules. When we eat them, they need to be carefully broken down and then woven together in a new way if they are to become part of our bodies. This complicated physiological process was worked out by trial and error hundreds of millions of years ago by cellular ancestors who are now long gone. But their accomplishments were not lost. They were remembered. As we eat, the grain is transformed into our skin, our muscles, and our organs only because life remembers its central achievements.
The grains we eat are transformed by many proteins where an essential player is known as cytochrome c. Cytochrome c was assembled for the first time billions of years ago and is inside our body now because the informatin for its construction is held in the genetic patterning of our DNA. Life did not hand down the actual molecule through the generations. Instead, life handed down its essence in the form of a pattern of nucleotides. Using this pattern, our bodies create these proteins anew, which then enables us to transform the grains of the fields into our flesh and blood. The grandeur of this event is easily missed because our consciousness is not instinctually aware of the processes involved or of the effort and energy that have been poured into these processes.
Life’s capacity to adapt depends upon the occurrence of random changes in the DNA molecule. Different patterns of nucleotides appear by chance, which lead to different proteins within the cell. Possibly millions of such proteins were generated in this way before one molecule, later named cytochrome c, enabled its possessor to survive, which led to the genetic patterns for cytochrome c spreading throughout the population. This two-step process – where a vast number of trials are conducted and where the successful models can be remembered genetically – is what enables us to calmly munch on a slice of bread and transform it into the tissue of our hearts.
Life’s creativity is a groping and sometimes chaotic process, but it is also a learning process. . . . We humans certainly had nothing to do with the construction of the physiological processes involved. . . . It was rather life’s whole process of adaption and memory that was responsible for this new ability. It is life as a whole that learned to digest its various foods.
When we today remember that the energy of our lives comes from the original flaring forth of the universe, and that the atoms of our bodies come from the explosion of ancient stars, and that the patterns of our lives come from many ancestors over billions of years, we begin to appreciate the intricate manner in which life remembers the past and brings it into fresh form today. Life adapts. Life remembers. Life learns. . . .

We can begin to appreciate something of the changing nature of the universe when we realize that even our means for sensing the processes of the universe are part of these processes as well. The way we see, the way we hear, the way we feel – each of these senses have been drawn forth and deepened for hundreds of millions of years. We see only because the Earth has long been inventing the sense of sight. And the process is not yet done. . . .
Five hundred million years ago, the trilobites constructed an eye using the mineral calcite. Their visual organ was a bundle of calcite rods, each rod capable of passing light down its axis without refraction. Thus the trilobite was able to see in the direction of each of these rods, a primal form of seeing that proved so successful we find it even now in the compound eyes of flies and lobsters.
An entirely different form of seeing was developed independently by worms and by fish. This eye was formed not with a hard mineral but with water, and . . . because we humans share a common ancestry with fish, we have the same kind of eyes.
With the emergence of the various senses, life is groping forward in an effort to see and taste and touch the world. No matter how advanced the sensory organ, the universe is never done – for there is alway more to see, always more to hear. Evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr has estimated that complex eyes have been constructed, independently, at least forty times since life began. Nothing will stop life’s quest to absorb even more of the universe’s infinite depth.

We do not enter a finished universe. We do not enter with a completed form of seeing. Scientists have articulated the details of evolution, and because of this we can, using our imagination, begin to “see” back in time. . . . Once we are filled with such knowledge, our eyes can look at a honey bee not only as a small buzzing creature, but as a particular wave of life that includes the trilobites great dramas half a billion years ago.
These early eyeless worms lived in the sandy bottom of the shallow oceans for many millennia. But then they developed a way of entering a much larger world that included visual information from events hundreds of yards away from their small worlds.
Such is the nature of our moment now. Humans have lived in various civilizations such as Imperial Rome or Han China, and in each case the citizens regarded their civilization as “the whole world.” But we have discovered a new kind of “eye.” With conscious self-awareness, we have developed a new kind of sight – insight into deep evolutionary time. Our vision now extends back through billions of years of evolution. With this new and powerful way of seeing, we find ourselves blinking in a thrilling and yet unsettling light. Rooted in the center of immensities, we open our eyes and see each thing ablaze with billions of year of creativity.

Loren Bullock
July 26, 2013

From → Evolution

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