You are a human. One of billions alive today, and one of many more that have passed on. You are built of biological tissues that work harmoniously to stay alive, requiring energy to remain altogether, reproduce and, eventually, die. Given the apparent silence of the Universe (where are all the aliens?!) our type of ‘complex life’ seems very rare indeed. But who are you? Where did you come from? And where the hell is everyone else?
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth – Genesis 1, The Holy Bible (New International Version.)
Whether you believe in God or not, the Universe had a beginning (or atleast a defined start to its current iteration.) Big Bang or Simulation, we are 13.8 billion years (or a few thousand if you are religious,) into its life. The Earth came into being around 4.5 billion years ago, likely due to the accumulation of interstellar particles under gravity. And this seems common, in the known universe planets number in the many trillions.
From this perspective, we are not that special. There are trillions of planets in a huge Universe (possibly one of many.) But, there is something that sets us apart (clue, its you.)
Molecules And Man
Man is the only creature who refuses to be what he is’ – Albert Camus, Novelist, Playwright and Essayist
Over our relatively short stage-time (a tiny fraction of what the Universe will likely live before becoming an entropic, cold wasteland,) Earth has been home to something truly spectacular. Life. Whether it be the pet project of a deity (which Science would lead you to disregard,) or something to do with molecular replication, you cannot deny that it is special. Why? Because we haven’t seen it anywhere else (yet!)
Current theories propose that certain molecular configurations of highly reactive atoms (carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen,) began to replicate due to their increased stability and preferential ability to induce change in free atoms floating near by. If you have studied biology, its a little like the ‘induced‘ reaction of enzymes. But on a simple level, becoming more complicated over time.
‘We are all survival machines, but ‘we’ does not mean just people’ – Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene
Chances are that this type of life is fairly common, as given the large numbers of planets out there, even with a tiny fraction of chance, some would have created the same tiny ‘creatures’ (if you will.) It may very well be that we spot such simple life on Saturn’s moon of Titan, or deep in Martian rock (and some suggest we already have!)
But when did these collections of molecules become more complex? And how? The symbiotic theory suggests that large molecules engulfed smaller to create the first eukaryotes (i.e. multicellular organisms,) which then coalesced to create those with different systems. These were ‘biological’, and relied on interactions between different parts to stay ‘alive’.
Evolution, the scientific theory that attempts to explain life, makes two strong points:
- Individual variation in a species will occur by chance (i.e when our genes replicate, they make mistakes, giving a different appearance, behaviour or some other trait.)
- If this individual variation is ‘adaptive’, i.e it means it will benefit the individual and species overall, it will likely become predominant in the species (sounds a bit like the molecules right?)
TLDR: Humans are just the current species specific iteration of a long chain or organisms. Cue the book burning.
Something Special (?)
Is mankind alone in the universe? Or are there somewhere other intelligent beings looking up into their night sky from very different worlds and asking the same kind of question? – Carl Sagan, Astrophysicist, Turtle-Neck Enthusiast.
So likelihood is we are the end result of endless generations of molecules, subject to evolutionary pressures and bound by the physical laws of the universe, slowly becoming more and more like us (and other creatures.) But this seems entirely natural, and almost inevitable. But we don’t see it everywhere in the universe, and this is called the Fermi Paradox.
Actually, The Drake equation suggests that given even restrictive rules, there should be at least 100,000 to 15 million civilizations out there. Even with modifications, we should still see thousands.
SETI (the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence,) is a large array of radar dishes scanning the cosmos. It is pointed toward areas of interest, looking for radio waves from far-flung civilisations. These scientists look for certain signals, such as familiar universal numbers, primes, repeating patterns or something else irregular.) So far, aside from the WOW signal, nothing particularly special has turned up.
We seem to be alone.
But are we really? The Universe is very old, and the laws governing what we understand life needs aren’t very forgiving. We need a certain gravity, heat, energy and abundancy of atoms, time and space. The chances are that even with this caveat, life is out there. But we may never see it, and there are reasons why (stay tuned.)
Who Are You?
For now, when you ask yourself who you are, muse on our shared history. Don’t worry so much about social labels, age or race. If you dare, ignore species altogether. The answer is very humbling and can be expressed in one sentence.
You are a biomass of self-believing consciousness, built from familiar atoms under restrictive universal laws, tuned by selective environmental pressures, and just a small part of something much beyond your comprehension.
And that, for me at least, is pretty freeing.
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- Learn more about our history by reading Bill Bryson’s ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything.’ (Seriously, do it!)
The opinions expressed in this article are those of Dr Janaway alone and may not represent those of his affiliates. Image courtesy of Felix Jody Kirnawan
The sources above are true as of 17/3/18. Feel free to discredit them, it only brings us closer to the truth. My feelings won’t be hurt.