Taking the Universe Personally: Neil Shubin’s “The Universe Within”

The full title is The Universe Within: The Deep History of the Human Body. Neil Shubin explores the connections between us and the history of not only the planet but the cosmos as well.

The molecules that compose our bodies arose in stellar events in the distant origin of the solar system. Changes to Earth’s atmosphere sculpted our cells and entire metabolic machinery. Pulses of mountain building, changes in orbits of the planet, and revolutions within Earth itself have had an impact on our bodies, minds, and the way we perceive the world around us. (Kindle location 197)

The linkages are fascinating. For example, huge Jupiter, formed before earth, attracted debris swirling around our early sun and influenced how the other planets formed and what they were like. “The formation of Jupiter defined the size of Earth and, in so doing, the pull of gravity on all things on its surface” (737). Had Earth been larger, its gravity would be stronger and we would be shorter and stockier. Smaller, we would be taller and thinner. A different Jupiter and we would “move, feed, and interact with our planet” differently.

Neil Shubin is Professor and Associate Dean of Organismal Biology and Anatomy,at the University of Chicago. (interactive.wttw.com)

Neil Shubin is Professor and Associate Dean of Organismal Biology and Anatomy at the University of Chicago.

Different readers will be impressed by different connections. I found the most significance in events that impacted the course of evolution. One example is the shift from single-celled creatures exclusively during the first two billion years of life on earth to the beginning of bodies—plant and then animal. Early life was small. The forces of molecules affected it before gravity did. Single cells transport oxygen, food and waste by dispersing through the cell. But bodies require organs and systems. Why did life become bigger? Oxygen, a chemical energizer, became more available. Some bacteria were producing oxygen, but it didn’t accumulate in the atmosphere until there was a decline in the number of undersea volcanoes spewing gases that had consumed the oxygen. “Life changes Earth, Earth changes life, and those of us walking the planet today carry the consequences within”(1344). How many other planets held unicellular life that never evolved because the planet and its atmosphere failed to change in the right way at the right time?

Shubin clearly explains such links between humans, the cosmos and the planet. But whether his readers will share his vision and passion will depend on the reader. It’s not easy for a writer/teacher to convince others to feel the way he does about his version of the big picture. Perhaps such conversion is a little easier if that big picture includes deities that an audience can readily have feelings about. But if the sacred vision include the likes of the stellar formation of heavy atoms, the impact of Jupiter, and the consequences of continental drift, that’s asking people to stretch.

For my part I got more goose bumps when Shubin described the cooling of earth 40 million years ago that favored the mutation in mammals for seeing colors and enabled them to find more nutritious fruit, than when he explained the impact of the moon’s birth on the length of days, seasons, and circadian rhythms. But for others the goose bumps may come the other way around. I know that when I’ve talked to friends about the value I attach to the history of life and I tell them that believe it or not parts of their DNA have been handed down for nearly four billion years, they don’t exactly fall off their chairs. The gods of any sort that we attach ourselves to (if our options aren’t too constrained by family or community) arise from emotions and imagination. Our choices depend on how we think and feel, by what questions we ask about life, what we feel driven to know more clearly, and what scares us.

Shubin refers to religion only once. He cites William James’ observation that religious experience emanates from our

‘feeling at home in the universe.’ With bodies composed of particles derived from the birth of stellar bodies and containing organs shaped by the workings of planets, eroding rock, and the action of the seas, it is hard not to see home everywhere. (2529)

 Most people, I think, still find it difficult to see home everywhere in the way that Shubin does. But separate descriptions of biology or the planet or the cosmos will now seem less adequate as grand accounts of how we got here. Home is to be found in the synthesis of all three.

Michael Graziano on How the Brain Creates Consciousness and Spirituality

Psychologist Michael Graziano proposes that our consciousness is more mechanical and less mysterious than we think. But he argues as well that this theory does not diminish the validity of our spiritual experiences.

Graziano, in Consciousness and the Social Brain, fully appreciates what our consciousness, our awareness, means to us. It is “the spark that make us us. Something lovely apparently buried inside us is aware of ourselves and of our world” (Kindle location 66). And many of us believe this lovely spark to be our spirit, even our soul.



But how does it work? Despite all that neuroscientists know about the brain, what remains elusive is how it goes about giving us the experience of being aware, awake, taking it all in. Theories suggest that the brain’s other signals are “boosted, improved, maintained, or integrated” in some way that creates the sensation of awareness. But they don’t say how.

Graziano’s explanation is not really complicated, but it is so different from our everyday experience that it helps to understand first the main concept that it is built on, one that is well-established in neuroscience. This concept is that the brain recognizes things because it makes simplified models of them, shorthand versions that are similar to codes or diagrams. Examples of these schema include the formula a child’s brain will store away for identifying a dog (four legs, fur, friendly) and the sequence that adults know for entering a restaurant and ordering food. The brain stores such schemas and uses them to identify, remember, and imagine.

Schema theory is popular in early education.  (4.bp.blogspot.com)

Schema theory applied in early education.

The twist that Graziano adds to the schema idea is that our consciousness itself is a schema, the brain’s shorthand version of the act of paying attention. “In the present theory, awareness is an attention schema. It is not attention but rather a simplified, useful description of attention” (377). Attention itself is an actual, physical activity; it “lights up” sections of the brain in ways we can take pictures of. The attention schema, on the other hand, is a simplified model of that activity as it is stored by the brain.

Here is Graziano’s proposal in a nutshell:

Suppose that you are looking at a green object and have a conscious experience of greenness. In the view that I am suggesting, the brain contains a chunk of information that describes the state of experiencing, and it contains a chunk of information that describes spectral green. Those two chunks are bound together. In that way, the brain computes a larger, composite description of experiencing green. (317)

Once that description is in place, other parts of our brain can verbalize and think about it. We can say, “The green on this leaf is beautiful.” The key word is description. We are not experiencing green directly; a “color” is physically only electric and magnetic waves. We are experiencing the brain’s combination of two of its descriptions, of greenness and of conscious attention.

This attention schema chunk comes with a GPS marker. The actual process of attention takes place throughout the network of the brain’s neurons. But the simplified version in the attention schema locates that network simply as “inside our head.”

Or inside someone else’s head. Much of what our brain spends its energy on is being aware of what other people might be thinking, feeling, planning, saying.

Or we might locate consciousness in our dog, in storms, in luck, or in a god. Or floating above our body when our brain is compromised and we are in surgery. And Graziano, a self-described “passable” ventriloquist, notes how readily an audience will locate awareness and attention in a dummy.

Readers of the book wouldn’t be surprised to hear Graziano, after all the explanation of his theory, go on to belittle followers of religion and believers of superstitions as foolish and simply wrong. But the surprise is that he does not do this. in fact he eloquently embraces spirituality in particular. It is, after all, a matter of consciousness.



To me personally, the most reasonable approach to spirituality is to accept two simultaneous truths. One, literally and objectively, there is no spirit world. Minds do not float independently of bodies and brains. Two, perceptually, there is a spirit world. We live in a perceptual world, a world simulated by the brain, in which consciousness inhabits many things around us, including sometimes empty space….The perceptual world and the objective world do not always match. We sometimes must live with both sets of knowledge. Neither side can be ignored. (2946)

In the present hypothesis, people intuitively understand consciousness to be spirit-like because the information representation in the brain encodes it in that manner. [The spirit concept,] the diaphanous invisible stuff that thinks and perceives and flows plasma-like through space and time,… that normally inhabits the human body but can sometimes flow outside of it, and that therefore ought to be able to survive the death of the body—this myth so ubiquitous in human culture is not a mistaken belief, a naïve theory, or the result of superstitious ignorance, as many scientists would claim. It is instead a verbalization of a naturally occurring informational model in the human brain. (1154)

For me, Graziano’s work affirms the spiritual value I find in the presence and the history of living things. This is not because of his acceptance, just described, of people’s common spiritual beliefs, agreeable as I find that to be. Instead it’s because his analysis of consciousness as a special application of how we already know the brain works helps me to see consciousness more clearly as a result of the work of natural selection. It encourages me to think of consciousness not as a capacity that separates us from plants, insects and other simple animals but as part of our complex kinship with them as our predecessors.

Darwin and the Roots of Morality

Wikipedia’s entry on “Evolution of Morality” points to the issue: “In everyday life, morality is typically associated with human behavior and not much thought is given to the social conducts [sic] of other creatures.”

It may look as if animals and morality may have almost nothing to do with each other, but in fact the social life of animals forms the very foundation of human morality. I suggest that we might value both our biological history and our morality more fully if we were more widely aware of this portion of evolution.

Charles Darwin took on that topic in The Descent of Man. He opens the book strategically by asserting that the best way to approach an inquiry into human evolution is to look first at all the similarities, physical and mental, that humans share with any animals. His extraordinary catalogue goes on for four chapters. I remember first reading them and thinking that after such an avalanche of likenesses it would be bizarre if humans were not descended from animals. Which is no doubt exactly what Darwin wanted me to think.

Sympathy and friendship (wallpaper-million-com.jpg)

Sympathy and affection (wallpaper-million-com.jpg)

Among these similarities is social living.  Humans and social animals alike enjoy living in groups and they dislike isolation. They share activities such as raising young, procuring food, following leaders, defending the group. And, Darwin wrote, among the emotions felt by humans and these animals is “the all-important emotion of sympathy.” His animal examples include a dog licking a sick cat, primates caring for each other, young birds helping and feeding an older, weakened mate. What prompts such sympathy? Darwin thought the answer was straightforward: they have enough memory for a “strong retentiveness of former states of pain or pleasure.”

But while social living and empathy may be the foundation for morality, can one say that animals, like humans, actually have a moral sense, a conscience? Darwin’s response was careful: if the animals had enough brains, yes, we could say that. “The following proposition seems to me in a high degree probable–namely, that any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, … the parental and filial affections being here included, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual power had become as well, or nearly as well developed, as in man.”

In other words, the reason we don’t classify some animals as moral beings is not that they lack the necessary kindness or sympathy or sensitivity. It is that they lack the intelligence to perform certain mental operations that we associate with morality. Specifically, animals lack the awareness that their sympathy for another might be in conflict with one of their own needs and that they should make a choice; humans can fret over making that choice easily and often. Another mental ingredient of morality that animals lack, Darwin argues, is the capacity to worry constantly about how they are perceived by others. “Man, from the activity of his mental faculties, cannot avoid reflection; past impressions and images are incessantly and clearly passing through his mind.” So a dog licking a sick cat is displaying sympathy and caring but not morality. But a person earnestly weighing the social imperative to help hungry children against the inconvenience or expense of doing so is making a moral and socially-aware choice.

Darwin’s detailed example of this contrast is a chilling one. He describes how swallows, while tending their eggs and raising their chicks, will abruptly abandon the nests if their strongest migratory instinct come on them at that time.

At the proper season these birds seem all day long to be impressed with the desire to migrate; their habits change; they become restless, are noisy and congregate in flocks. Whilst the mother-bird is feeding or brooding over her nestlings, the maternal instinct is probably stronger than the migratory; but the instinct which is the more persistent gains the victory, and at last, at a moment when young ones are not in sight, she takes flight and deserts them.

If the swallows were human, the nightmare images of their freezing offspring would never leave them.

When arrived at the end of her long journey, and the migratory instinct has ceased to act, what an agony of remorse the bird would feel, if, from being endowed with great mental activity, she could not prevent the image constantly passing through her mind, of her young ones perishing in the bleak north from cold and hunger.

And the swallows would in fact be fully moral if they were capable of learning from their remorse and choosing a different path in the future. But only humans can do that.

 At the moment of [an] action, man will no doubt be apt to follow the stronger impulse; and though this may occasionally prompt him to the noblest deeds, it will more commonly lead him to gratify his own desires at the expense of other men. But after their gratification when past and weaker impressions are judged by the ever-enduring social instinct, and by his deep regard for the good opinion of his fellows, retribution will surely come. He will then feel remorse, repentance, regret, or shame. …He will consequently resolve more or less firmly to act differently for the future.

baby swallows

Swallows, Darwin wrote, will abondon their chicks… (dailymailco.uk)

swallows migrating

if their instinct to migrate is at its peak. (theworldismyoyster-blogspot.jpg)

family on beach

But human parents who fly south understand the problem.(bvonmoney.com)

So we make our resolutions and formulate our laws, creeds, and codes. But we couldn’t have done it without the animals that evolved to pass their lives together and have emotions about each other. They live out the kinds of social complexities that our moral codes attempt to resolve. Actually, our morality is doubly social: like some animals, we can feel the pain of others; unlike any animals, we worry what others will think of us. May we continue to build on both those foundations.