Time for the Big One?
What was special about the intriguing and mysterious creature I've called Nova? When did she live? What was she like? And could she really have fundamentally changed our universe?
This episode makes the claim that Nova was the first living thing to cross a vitally important threshold in our evolutionary history: the Awareness Horizon, and suggests that an awareness horizon view of the universe profoundly changes the way we must think about what it is to be an animal, and ultimately what it means to be human.
Artwork by Conner Griffin: The Plain Creative Agency.
Music: Land of Destiny, from Premium Beat.
Episode Three: The Nova Point
Welcome back guys. This is a big one. Ready?
I said that in this episode I would tell you about Nova, and to start with her description might sound, to say the least, a little underwhelming. She would have looked decidedly unprepossessing to human eyes. (She could have been a he, but we might as well stick with she, for the purpose of our story.) Nova would have been a simple little sea creature, at most, probably only a couple of inches long. She might well have been a wormy, squirmy little thing that wriggled in the muddy sediments on the floor of an ancient, primeval ocean. It would have been far from obvious that this unremarkable and distinctly uninspiring creature was far away the most important animal ever to have lived and perhaps will ever live, nor would it have been obvious that she had just profoundly, and fundamentally, changed the Universe.
Nova’s appearance in the world was a magical moment, not magical in the sense of it being spooky or supernatural, this was real and on that account so much more impressive. Without Nova nothing could ever, would ever, have been important. Because of her, there would ultimately be love, hate, good, bad, right and wrong, the wonder in nature, the arts, poetry, music, literature, the joy of dance: in short, all the things that matter in the universe. You see, Nova was the first animal to have an inner experience of something, and although that something could have been fleeting and weak and we don’t know what it was, she had crossed what I am going to call The Awareness Horizon.
There are many things we can’t say about her, but what we do know is that Nova certainly existed and that she was our direct ancestor. There is some evidence that Nova lived early in the history of multicellular animals, very early, perhaps around 600 million years ago. Yeah, you heard that right – over half a billion years ago. If so, this would have been a time, before the Cambrian period we mentioned in the last episode. If you remember, this was the time when spectacularly weird, little animals lived; creatures so unbelievable they were given names that reflected just how bizarre they were. If she did live before the Cambrian it would have been in a time we now call the Ediacaran. The evidence I alluded to, is more suggestive than conclusive, and, as we’ll see, there is good reason to doubt this timeframe. But we know that because our earliest ancestors would have had no nervous systems and, we believe, could not possibly have had awareness of anything, at some point in the ancestral lineage that ultimately led to the appearance of our species there must have been a creature that crossed the Rubicon. This animal evolved the capacity for simple awareness: it had the sense of some inner feeling.
Before Nova, everything we seem to know about the Universe suggests that it was completely soulless and mechanistic, just moving particles and the forces of nature. This extraordinary creature changed all that.
Let’s think more about what I mean by mechanistic. Think about a petrol engine. This is a very simplified account, but petrol/gasoline, is pumped along a pipe into the carburettor which mixes it with air and blows it into a cylinder where it is compressed by a piston, which rises from below. When it reaches the top of the cylinder, the top of the piston forms the base of a dome shaped chamber called the combustion chamber. At this point the fuel/air mixture is ignited by a spark from a spark plug, so there is a small, controlled explosion which drives the piston back down the cylinder. As it goes down it pushes on a connecting rod which in turn turns a crankshaft so that the up/down motion of the piston is translated into the rotary motion of the crankshaft (think of how the up/down motion of a rider’s leg on a pedal cycle is converted into the rotary motion that turns the wheels.) The turning of the crankshaft is transmitted through the clutch and gears to the road wheels. Everything that happens in an engine works fully according to the laws of nature. There is nothing good or bad about this system, you could never draw deep philosophical insight from it. It is just doing what the laws of nature tell it to do. And so, I want to argue, this is how the universe must have been before Nova.
The idea of a mechanistic universe can be a deeply disturbing one, and one which seems to work counter to the way we think about the way things are.
Let me explain: I remember in biology class at school learning about the paramecium, a single celled aquatic organism, and therefore one much simpler than Nova must have been. I recently came across this passage in the nuclear physicist, Roger Penrose’s book, “The Large the Small and the Human Mind”, “…a paramecium, a one-celled animal, can swim towards food, retreat from danger, negotiate obstacles and, apparently, learn from experience.” End of quote. This little sentence is revealing in three ways. Firstly, on the level, Penrose presumably intended, it tells us something interesting about how responsive and complex the paramecium is, despite the fact that it is just a tiny cell barely visible to the naked eye.
Secondly it implies something about Nova, because I have said that she was a simple creature, and by modern standards that is certainly true, but if much simpler creatures like paramecia can behave in such complex ways, and we do not yet fully understand how they do it, then Nova herself would have been a massively complex entity. Remember that although the six hundred million years or so that have passed since Nova lived is an enormously long time, life had already been evolving on this planet for some three billion years before this. Such enormous complexity, even in single celled creatures, should not therefore be too surprising.
The third sense, in which the sentence is revealing, is that it might be argued that what it says is complete rubbish. We would never say that the piston in an engine has achieved success in reaching the bottom of the bore and turned the crankshaft. It is a lump of metal, what are we going to do? Give it a medal? There is nothing wrong with saying the paramecium can swim towards food, that’s just a statement of fact, but it certainly couldn’t retreat from danger, because danger implies something bad, and in a mechanistic universe nothing ever could be good, or bad. If a system is mechanistic, it is entirely value free, unless we mean arithmetic values like the number of paramecia in a given volume of water for example. A paramecium cannot negotiate obstacles because an obstacle prevents one reaching a goal and a creature that has no sense of its own existence cannot possibly have a goal in the sense that we usually understand it. The paramecium could not have actually experienced anything from which it could learn, because it almost certainly can’t experience anything at least not in the way that we, in our post-Nova universe, can. I’m not arguing that the paramecium can’t do what Penrose says. They act as if they are doing those things. We know that the electrical state of the paramecium’s cell membrane changes in response to environmental stimuli. So, as I’ve implied, it must be possible to cash out the paramecium’s behaviour, mechanistically, in terms of electro-biochemical processes. Unlike simpler single celled organisms like bacteria, paramecia are made up of what are called eukaryotic cells. The cells that make up your body, my body and would have made up Nova’s body, are eukaryotic too, these cells are much more complex than those of bacteria, in fact extraordinarily complex each with its own little power plants, machinery for reading DNA instructions and tiny protein factories. Even so Penrose’s sentence was loaded with value judgements which are not really compatible with a mechanistic universe.
I hasten to add here that I have no criticism of Penrose’s use of these terms, pretty much everyone does it, even great communicators like Sir David Attenborough, and Richard Dawkins, talk about animals competing with each other for success in the battle for survival. Charles Darwin himself did it. In Dawkins’ case I know his work very well, and I knew that he would know that this way of speaking about nature is not literal but metaphorical, but just to make sure – for the purpose of these podcasts – I met him and asked him, and he does. He suggested that there is something about being human that makes us want to explain things through storytelling, and if humans are built to think in certain ways like this, it chimes very nicely with some of the ideas that we will come to later on in this series. I have tried to approach Sir David Attenborough through an intermediary, to ask him the same question. I don’t know if he ever saw my letter, and I wasn’t hopeful of receiving a reply anyway. So far, I haven’t heard anything.
Perhaps the most important example of a mechanistic system in nature is natural selection: the mechanism Darwin proposed to explain how evolution works. Darwin, though, didn’t come up with the idea of evolution; many scientists including his grandfather, Erasmus, were evolutionists, and the idea of animals and plants changing through time can be traced right back to an Ancient Greek philosopher with the rather wonderful name of Anaximander. What Darwin did was to show that change could happen as a result of natural processes, and given enough time, all life on the planet could have evolved from a common ancestor. In other words, the medieval philosophers were wrong to think you needed God to explain the organisation we can see in nature that I described in Episode Two. There was a natural process that could do it instead. If this makes nature sound cold unfeeling and calculating, it got a lot worse in 1976. This was the year that Richard Dawkins published his bestselling book “The Selfish Gene”. Dawkins was trying to resolve a technical question about what natural selection was actually acting on. Were individual organisms competing with each other, or was it groups of animals, or even species that were in competition? At the time there was a lot of confusion about this. But building on research by another evolutionary biologist, W D Hamilton, Dawkins showed that selection was actually acting on genes, and this view is now almost universally accepted. The way he put it was that genes build bodies, as survival machines, to help themselves get into the next generation. As you can imagine this idea generated a lot of attention, and not just in the scientific community, because it seemed to point towards the idea that if selfishness is natural then it might be a good thing, although this isn’t what Dawkins said, and according to his subsequent comments it wasn’t what he meant either. But this does imply something deeper, which I don’t think is universally understood. If natural selection is a mechanistic system, then if an organism, whether plant, fungus, bacterium or animal has a particular genetic makeup that helps it get its genes into the next generation then its genes will still be here. That’s it. It is not good to survive in mechanistic universe, nor is it bad to die, it is simply a statement of fact that some animals and plants are still here, and some aren’t. The piston is either at the top of the bore, or the bottom, or in between. In a mechanistic universe, nothing matters, nature just is.
As Dawkins suggested when I spoke to him, when Penrose and others talk about animals competing, they are using metaphor, in such a way as to make their point intelligible. I have no problem with this; indeed it is essential, how else could David Attenborough have illustrated the extraordinary wonder of nature in his documentaries if he hadn’t added fire into his prose by talking about animals competing, winning and losing, fighting and dying? It seems unarguable that we human beings need stories we can relate to in order to make sense of systems that themselves have no sense of anything. The way leading scientists and communicators structure their arguments tells us less about them, and more about what it is to be human, as I’ve implied, we’ll come to that insight later in the series.
Ok, let’s speculate about what might have happened when Nova arrived in our universe. Unlike the paramecium, she would have had a nervous system: a series of connected nerve cells, neurons. In the case of her immediate ancestors some instinctive biological process would have guided them unconsciously towards food, then other instinctive processes would have kicked in allowing them to consume it, not unlike the way we think the paramecium does it. Nova was different, she had a mutation in her genes that meant there was something about her nervous system that gave her the ability to experience a flickering, fleeting muted sensation of something in her nascent “mind”. Perhaps it was something like pleasure so that she “chose” a more nutritious food in preference to one that wasn’t as nutritious. Maybe the shadow of a predator passed over her and she had a negative sensation so that she wriggled her wormy little body away from the threat. Whatever it was that she experienced had to be enough – and this is important – to change her behaviour. Eating the more nutritious food, or avoiding the predator meant that natural selection could kick in, enabling her to survive and pass on the mutation to her offspring, and with the advantage the mutation had given them, they too would pass on the capacity to “feel” something to their descendants. It seems clear that there was advantage in having stronger and stronger and more lasting feelings so that the capacity for feeling increased in Nova’s genetic lineage, which is of course the same genetic lineage as yours and mine. Crossing the Awareness Horizon gave the universe a new dimension: a world of feeling. For the first time things began to matter in the universe and for that reason the universe itself began to matter.
I have already introduced two new ideas (or at least redefined old ideas) in these podcasts: the Omnitruth and best guess reasoning. The Awareness Horizon is by far the most important and takes us as close to the meaning of life the universe and everything as it is possible to get with the current level of human knowledge. When Nova crossed the Awareness Horizon, she began the process of giving meaning to the universe, but it also implied something hugely important about the way we humans relate to the world in which we live. Think of it like this: Nova crossed the awareness horizon by rising above it. But it is possible to look down through it. You can imagine the Awareness Horizon as a floor on top of which all the descendants of Nova have lived, each animal, living above its horizon in its own world of feeling, unknowingly behaving in such a way as to maximise its chances of survival, and to pass on its genes. None of them aware of the heartless mechanistic underworld – yes, it is still there – beneath their Awareness Horizon “floor”. All animals that descended from Nova just follow their own feelings about what they should and should not do; they have their own value systems: food and sex good, predators bad etc., and in more complex animals a panoply of different emotions such as love of their partners, parents and young ones. If you object to my use of the word love in relation to animals, it will become clear why I’m doing so in Episode Five. As we saw in Episode Two, we evolved, we are animals. If a mechanistic universe is disturbing, the idea that, if we are animals, we too will have our own Awareness Horizon is also disturbing and perhaps even more so. We’ll find out what this means for us in our final episode.
There are some caveats to the Nova story that we need to consider: four I can think of. We know that there are billions of stars in our own galaxy and billions of other galaxies in the wider universe, and recent evidence suggests that many stars, if not most, or all, of them, have their own planets, or as they are properly called exoplanets. Sentient life – living things with feeling – may well have emerged on many of these billions of exoplanets before it did on earth, so my claim that Nova was the first animal to cross the Awareness Horizon in the entire universe is probably an extremely doubtful one. It may be that Nova didn’t make the universe matter; she might only have made our world matter. Well, I don’t know what you think, but that’s good enough for me.
The second caveat is that I need to point out that there are those who think that all living things, and perhaps even non-living things, have mind or some mind-like character. While it is true that plants, fungi and many other organisms do communicate with each other there is no good evidence, I know of, that they do so knowingly, so I’m going to put this idea, which is called panpsychism, to one side because, without evidence, it doesn’t pass the Best Guess Reasoning test. Animal experiments have suggested that crustaceans, like crayfish and hermit crabs probably have some level of feeling, and there is extensive evidence of very complex behaviour in cephalopods: creatures like octopuses, suggesting that they probably have some kind of inner awareness too. There is no evidence at all that this is the case in other simpler animals, let alone plants and fungi.
Next, I have declared Nova to be the animal from whom we descended. It may be that there was another animal that crossed the horizon before her, but that lineage might have died out or led to some other lineage. The last common ancestor of crayfish, octopuses and humans may wellhave lived in the Ediacaran, so that’s why I put the crossing of the Awareness Horizon so early. However, this may not be the case. In his book, “Metazoa”, The philosopher of science, Peter Godfrey-Smith, put it like this: quote “…either consciousness has at least two or three distinct origins – one for us, one for octopuses, one for crabs (and perhaps more) – or, if there was a single origin, it was deep in time and took a very simple form.” End of quote. Which is of course the option I have chosen as the date for the Nova point, but as Godfrey-Smith rightly suggests there are other possibilities. Adaptations like the feeling of fear in the presence of a predator would be very advantageous to the animal experiencing it. We know that other useful biological features have emerged more than once. Wings evolved separately in birds, bats and butterflies. The eye is thought to have evolved independently at least forty times. If awareness of feeling evolved more than once, it allows the possibility that the Awareness Horizon was crossed more recently in our evolutionary past. In their book, “The Evolution of the Sensitive Soul, The Israeli, evolutionary theorists Simona Ginsberg and Eva Jablonka have proposed a method of testing whether animals have what they call “minimal animal consciousness”. They make their assessment of whether animals have this this, based on whether the animals exhibit a particular kind of learned behaviour. Their arguments are complex but using this method, they think that “minimal animal consciousness” evolved – at least in our lineage – in the early Cambrian, but later for cephalopods and crustaceans. Although the kind of consciousness they seem to have in mind seems to be rather more developed than Nova’s simple fluttering of feeling. We know that by middle Cambrian times, the lineages that led to mammals, cephalopods and crustaceans had already diverged implying an early date for Nova. But, if Ginsberg’s and Jablonka’s timescale is the right one, she could have evolved millions of years later than I’ve suggested. If so, she would have been rather more fishy than wormy, and would have had a more sophisticated nervous system with more advanced sensory features like fully developed eyes, a sense of taste, and maybe even some sensitivity to electric fields in the water. She would also have swum free of the primeval mud. Although she would certainly not have been a true fish in the way we think of them today, she wouldn’t have had scales, jaws, bones, and perhaps not even fins.
The third caveat is perhaps more important. We human beings make sense of the world by attaching names to people, ideas and objects. Some philosophers have even tried to argue that words themselves generate meaning, which, from the perspective of Best Guess reasoning, looks the wrong way round. The differences between say a rook and a crow are real. Words do not create the differences because they were there long before words were invented. We are just labelling them for our own convenience. However, evolution works gradually, and it isn’t always possible to say, for example, whether two newly evolving kinds of animals have crossed the threshold to become new species. And, today, the Linnaean system has had to be enhanced with a gamut of new divisions like sub-species, infra-orders and super-families in order to shoehorn evolution’s shades of grey into usable identifiable divisions so that the semantic tyranny of our clumsy black and white distinctions can make sense of them.
The labelling problem was evident when people wanted to know how life started. Things are alive, or they’re not alive, right? Well actually no. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, there was a way of thinking called vitalism that consisted of the idea that life could not be explained by biochemistry alone. Put simply, the vitalists thought that there needed to be something extra, a kind of life spark to make something not living into something that was living. As the twentieth century progressed this was shown to be untrue. Life is an electro-biochemical process that evolved gradually. It started with simple organic molecules that evolved over time into more complex organic structures until things emerged that we now call living organisms. The bacterium Escherichia coli, or E coli for short, gets one of Linnaeus’s double-barrelled names because bacteria are considered to be living things. Bacteria can live on their own as individual organisms. Viruses on the other hand are not independent living things. They can’t reproduce on their own and need to get inside the living cell of another organism like a plant, bacterium or human being in order to be able to reproduce. So viruses are not considered to be living things and don’t have a snappy Linnaean binomial name. The one that caused the coronavirus pandemic is saddled with the slightly more unwieldy moniker of Sars Cov 2. You may wonder why it matters. Why would viruses need to exist independently before being declared living? I mean all animals depend on other living things to survive: None of us can live if we don’t eat other living things. Viruses exist as independent entities and as we have found recently, they can cause an incredible amount of trouble. But scientists had to draw the line somewhere, and the requirement to exist independently is as good as any. And this is relevant to the Nova story. Her ancestors could have had a capacity to feel something simple and prosaic, perhaps when something touched them, they had a simple sensation of awareness of it. But I named Nova so it is up to me to decide what criteria need to be satisfied to declare which precise animal I want to claim to be Nova, and simple feeling by itself wouldn’t be sufficient. As I implied earlier, it was important that Nova’s inner sensation changed her behaviour because otherwise Darwinian natural selection would not have worked its magic, and the adaptation would not have passed on to her offspring beginning the process of increasing feeling that ultimately provided meaning to the universe. More needs to be said about exactly what inner sensations are, and exactly what it is that changes behaviour but that will have to wait for the next episode.
And the fourth caveat is that because we know that nature works gradually it may be that awareness of feeling evolved slowly, by increments so that Nova was not one single animal but a species of animals evolving over time. Perhaps there was never a Nova Point in our evolutionary history but instead a Nova transition. Evolution, by natural selection, is not a system that is good at creating something new; it is largely a process of modification of what’s already there. Perhaps there is more going on in simpler creatures like paramecia than we know about, and that prepared the groundwork on which evolution could build sensations and feelings. There could have been a number of precursors that gradually came together to create awareness which seems to be what Peter Godfrey-Smith thinks. But it seems clear to me that an animal either has simple awareness that changed its behaviour or it doesn’t, and even if there was a slow transition to awareness, there still had to be a starting point and that is the point at which Nova would have lived, and if it turns out that I’m wrong and it was a gradual process – and I might be wrong – then I’ll have to admit that the Nova story, at least as the story of a single animal, is itself a metaphor.
The question of how it happened is one we can continue to debate. However it happened, what is of essential importance is that it did happen. What had been an unfeeling, uncaring and nihilistic universe acquired beings with the capacity to experience emotion so that things began to matter. Feelings are what give meaning to the universe. Nova’s descendants cared about things, and would, in time, come to reflect on and begin to understand the universe itself. I want to argue here that if no feeling being cares about something then it doesn’t matter because it can’t matter.
This is the reason I’m arguing that accepting that you are an animal does not in any way diminish you or rob you of any part of your humanity. In the opening episode I spoke about how cultures sometimes make assumptions that are wrong. In the Judeo-Christian tradition we are brought up to think that to be human is deeply special and something fundamentally different from what it is to be an animal. In the first book of the Bible, Genesis, we are told that human beings are made in the image of God, and that God gave man “dominion” over the animals. So from this perspective we are not quite divine, but not far off. Other people might think that promoting feeling as the only thing that matters in the Universe is wrong. In our culture, we are encouraged to believe that the Universe was created by a kindly, caring, beneficent God, and God is central to some people’s sense of self, it gives them purpose, meaning, and hope of an eternal life, so we need to look at the question of religion and spiritual feelings with some sensitivity and in more detail. As I’ve already suggested, we’ll do that in the final episode of this series.
As I’ve already said, one of the big questions I want to address in this series is the question of what it means to be human. And in light of the fact that we know we evolved we can see that this is the wrong question. If evolution happened, we are all animals. What we should really be asking is “What is it to be this kind of animal?” I said that in Episode Five I would describe a meeting that was perhaps the most important in human history. On one level we might dismiss Nova as being unimportant, because it was not her, but what was to come after that gave the universe importance, and the same might be said of this meeting. What it did was begin a sequence of events that opened a window into the way it is to be this kind of animal, that we could never have had otherwise.
Time for another metaphor: think about a geologist wanting to understand Mount Everest. He could go to see it, measure it, estimate its volume and mass, and investigate the properties of the rocks that make it up. But if he were to say that Everest was different from the other mountains around it, because it is bigger, more spectacular and had a special status because he believed it to be the largest mountain on the planet, he would have completely misunderstood. Everest is part of the vast Himalayan Mountain Range. Everest’s uplift: its very existence, could never be understood without understanding the processes that built the mountain range itself. But that is exactly what we do when we think about what it is to be human. To understand humans, the thought is, you look at humans. What could we learn if we deny what I’m going to call the Everest Syndrome, and take evolutionary theory and the Nova story seriously? By the end of this series of podcasts we will find out, but before that there is a hugely important and rather obvious question looming, what was it that happened in Nova’s nervous system when she crossed the Awareness Horizon. This is the most difficult of all the questions, and I’ll do the best I can with it in the next episode.
In Nova’s universe we can see that it is a transcendentally and supremely magnificent thing to be an animal, at least one with feelings. An evolutionary understanding of our place in the universe does not diminish us, if anything we grow in stature. It is not our humanness or our intelligence that make us special, it is the fact that we are the sons and daughters of Nova. It is our feelings as members of a family of sentient animals that makes us special because, together, we provide the universe with meaning.
Before I go, I want to leave you with one last thought: Some people might doubt that feeling is the foundation for meaning in the universe. You might be one of them. And you might “feel” very strongly about that.
Thanks to Professor Richard Dawkins for responding to questions about the case in these podcasts, and to you for listening.