Genesis for Non-Theists

Creation narratives are lively stories.  In the Bible, God creates the universe and earth in six days. In other traditions, creatures are dismembered, huge eggs hatch, birds create land. Even science’s own creation narrative starts with a Bang and once earth takes shape, the first organic molecules appear relatively quickly, within a billion years. 
 
But at that point the scientific story of life slows way down. Life remains at the stage of single cells for the next two billion years. What was happening to our smallest, oldest ancestors all that time? Why did it take so long to move beyond the stage of one-only? Was evolution on hold?
timeline

From “Oldest bacteria fossils” to “Multi-cellular eukaryotes” 2 billion years later, life on earth was single-celled.
(vector-clip-art.com)

What took so long was the creation of the building blocks for being alive. It’s a story with parallels to the first chapters of Genesis. The biblical sequence: plant life emerges on the third day, including “fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed,” followed over the next three days by creatures of the water, air, and land, including man and woman. A few verses later we read about the Garden of Eden and, symbolically, the beginnings of sex and death.

Here briefly is science’s version: life evolved from the simplest cells to cells with a nucleus that enclosed the protected “seed” of DNA. This change set in motion the end of one kind of immortality, the beginnings of sex and death, and the emergence of a new immortality.

The process was slow because the changes were huge.

LUCA
Like the Bible, science has a name for our first ancestor. LUCA, our “last universal common ancestor,” was a single-celled organism, a kind of bacterium, from which all life on earth is descended. Inside LUCA was a floating coil of DNA, sections of which have been passed down to every living thing.
Prokaryote

Our common ancestor, a cell with DNA but no nucleus
(shmoop.com)

LUCA reproduced simply by dividing, with one set of genes in each new cell. The new cells were identical, a long line of Adam clones without an Eve.

LUCA’s membrane enclosed only watery liquid and the genes. Gradually LUCA’s descendants “ate” and absorbed other bacteria. Some of these bacteria turned into the nucleus of the cell that absorbed them. They became the container for the cell’s genes. Such cells advanced from  prokaryotes (before a nucleus) to eukaryotes (a true nucleus, and pronounced “you carry oats”). The nucleus was a seed, a seed that provided the DNA with a chemical environment of its own and helped grow more complex DNA and much larger cells.
Sex, Death…
cell

Cells get a nucleus–and more.
(biogeonerd.blogspot.com)

Early cells were, in their own way, immortal. The genes in both prokaryotes and early eukaryotes would reproduce and then the cell would split into two identical cells, as bacteria still do. Did such cells die? Eventually, but only from accident or the environment. In this Eden, cells did not get older. They became their own offspring and could theoretically live forever.

Eukaryotes, however, found a new way to reproduce. One would rub up against another eukaryote and portions of their DNA sets would be inserted into the other—the original sex act. With this exchange of DNA, genetic variation sped up, at last. So did natural selection.
 
In the next step, sex became specialized. As some early organisms became multi-celled, such as algae, they reproduced not by division of the whole parent organism but, as with us, by means of specialized germ cells (not the disease kind of germ but the creative kind, as in the “germ of an idea”).
No longer was the parent reincarnated in a clone, as in bacteria. It was left behind, and it aged and died. As in Genesis, the co-mingling of different living things brought sex and death. Cellular life moved beyond Eden.
 
…and Immortality
So we have lost the immortality that the prokaryotes enjoyed. But we have found it in another, more complex form. Our immortality runs through the genetic line of our children and other blood  relatives. It turns out that it is not the body, the soma, that is the crucial package. It is the germ cells that carry the DNA forward. 
 
But is this an adequate and satisfying idea for us humans who dream of living forever? Is the continuity of DNA a meaningful form of immortality? Here is one answer from Harvard biology professor George Wald, in his 1970 lecture on “The Origins of Death.”
 
We already have immortality, but in the wrong place. We have it in the germ plasm; we want it in the soma, in the body. We have fallen in love with the body. That’s that thing that looks back at us from the mirror. That’s the repository of that lovely identity that you keep chasing all your life. And as for that potentially immortal germ plasm, where that is one hundred years, one thousand years, ten thousand years hence, hardly interests us.
 
I used to think that way, too, but I don’t any longer. You see, every creature alive on the earth today represents an unbroken line of life that stretches back to the first primitive organisms to appear on this planet; that is about three billion years. That really is immortality. For if the line of life had ever been broken, how could we be here? All that time, our germ plasm has been living the life of those single celled creatures, the protozoa, reproducing by simple division, and occasionally going through the process of syngamy — the fusion of two cells to form one — in the act of sexual reproduction. All that time, that germ plasm has been making bodies and casting them off in the act of dying. If the germ plasm wants to swim in the ocean, it makes itself a fish; if the germ plasm wants to fly in the air, it makes itself a bird. If it wants to go to Harvard, it makes itself a man. The strangest thing of all is that the germ plasm that we carry around within us has done all those things. …
I, too, used to think that we had our immortality in the wrong place, but I don’t think so any longer. I think it’s in the right place. I think that is the only kind of immortality worth having — and we have it.

Life Before Fossils

Most of what we think of as fossils—old bones, hardened bits of plants, impressions of leaves—go back no more than 600 million years. Yet life on the planet is about 3.8 billion years old, more than six time further into the past. How do we know that? What evidence do we have of life on earth so much earlier than the oldest fossilized bones?

Stromatolites in Australia today, looking much as they did 3.5 billion years ago. (stromatolites.weebly.com)

Stromatolites in Australia today, looking probably much as they did 3.5 billion years ago.
(stromatolites.weebly.com)

One might think that there are older fossils that haven’t been found yet. But in fact there were no animals and plants at all before 600 mya. For about the first 3 billion years—much of the entire course of life on the planet—almost all life was tiny, even microscopic.

(One exception is fossilized stromatolites, hardened layers of bacterial cells piled in paddy-shaped colonies, seen today in their living versions at Shark Bay, Australia. Stromatolites thrived globally around 1.25 billion years ago but date back 2 billion years before that.)

Stromatolites in Australia, probably looking much as they did 3.5 billion years ago. (www2.estrellamountain.edu)

Microfossils from 3.5 billion years ago (www2.estrellamountain.edu)

So instead of digging through dirt, today’s paleontologists start by searching for the oldest rocks. Samples of rocks that formed up to four billion years ago from Australia, Greenland, South Africa and elsewhere are sliced, studied under a microscope, and tested with chemicals. Scientists find microfossils, tiny creatures’ cell walls that have mineralized into tough material. Or they find chemical smears of carbon or the products of the earliest photosynthesis. A recurring challenge is to figure out whether such traces are signs of early organisms or only part of the rock itself.

banded iron (britanica.com)

Banded iron (britannica.com)

A less direct but more common sign of early life is oxygen, especially as it appears in bands of rust in rocks. The same bacteria that built the stromatolites gave off oxygen as a waste product, most of which was absorbed by iron in the oceans. The result was masses of rust that eventually formed in bands in rocks, most abundantly around 2.4 bya. It wasn’t until 2 billion years ago that enough iron had turned to rust so that bacterial oxygen was no longer absorbed by the metal and instead accumulated in the atmosphere.

Who does this kind of ancient detective work? We’ve come a long way from Indiana Jones. The field today consists of hybrids of the disciplines that I’ve always been familiar with. For example, the curriculum in Geobiology at the California Institute of Technology includes the following course titles: Earth’s Biogeochemical Cycles, Isotopic Biogeochemistry, Microbial Metabolic Diversity, Paleooceanography, and Geobiological Constraints on Earth History.

As these titles suggest, the study of the history of early life parallels how we view ecology today: the state of living things is inseparable from the state of the planet; a change in one always means a change in the other, back and forth, continually.

Finding Spirituality in Science

This is a lecture I gave at the college and community Science Seminar at Raritan Valley Community College in New Jersey in January 2016. My thanks to Dr. Paul Scheuler, organizer of the series. The talk focuses on three questions about life to which our biological history offers possible responses.

 

Finding Spirituality in Science

Introduction

Thank you for coming today. You may be wondering what a speech with a title that puts together the words science and spirituality will be about. First, here’s what it won’t be about. I won’t be talking about creationism. And I won’t be discussing the god-of-the-gaps arguments—those are the announcements that science can’t explain this or measure that, and that therefore, there must be a deity in the gap.

What I will talk about are some possibilities for using science’s description of our biological history as a resource for addressing three big human questions: How can I face my death? What is the foundation of love and hate, of good and evil? And what is the purpose of my life?

You should know that I am a non-theist—that’s a low-key term for what is sometimes known as a soft atheist, the kind of atheist who simply doesn’t have a belief in a god, as opposed to a hard atheist, those who insist that there is no god, deities are nothing more than human fabrications, end of story.

I’ll also mention that I know I’m taking some liberties with the word spirituality. The dictionary will tell you that the term refers to non-material and supernatural entities, to matters of the soul, spirit, ghosts, karma, and the like. I’m not using it that way. I’m using spirituality here to refer to human feelings and ideas about life’s biggest issues, issues that are not really covered by any other term.

night skyFor many people today who approach spirituality in this secular sense, the central organizing story is what is known as the Universe Story or the Epic of Evolution—the development of the universe beginning with the Big Bang. This is the story articulated by Carl Sagan and Neil DeGrasse Tyson, among many others. It’s a story that gives us an epic comparable to traditional religious creation stories in that it tells us where we came from and where we fit in the scheme of things; it is our modern cosmology. Our atoms were molded in the births of stars, the emergence of galaxies and life itself is partly understood scientifically but is at the same time utterly miraculous, and indeed there is even room in the epic of the universe to see the hand of God for those who are looking for it. Humans are distinctive in this epic, in the view of its proponents, in that we embody the part of the universe that has gained consciousness and thus we might see ourselves as the universe coming to know itself. We have only to look up at the stars at night, they say, to feel that the universe is a sacred thing, that it is the source and foundation of our being.

But I have to tell you that for me personally the Universe Story goes only so far. The universe, even perhaps the solar system, is too big and too remote for it to do much more than remind me of my insignificance. The idea that my death will not be so terrible because my atoms will return to the universe of atoms from which they came, doesn’t do anything for me. I’ve always felt curiosity about the stars and planets and awe that they are out there in their majesty. But at some point in my life I began feeling questions of a sort that could not be answered by this “wow” reaction to the universe.

Such questions and moods come to different people at different times. My time came in my late 50s as I began to feel very strongly, hey, I’m really am getting older and this is getting to be serious. I’m getting closer to my final chapter and there are a bunch of things I’m still not clear about. What am I doing here? Is there a purpose in my life, a thing I’m supposed to be doing, or not? Is there some foundation for the difference between right and wrong that is bigger than me and deeper than society’s expectations? And then there is this nasty business of dying. I’m pretty sure that there is no other life after this one, so how am I going to face death with anything but fear? Such questions became urgent.

I couldn’t find answers to these questions in the epic of the whole universe because my questions were about life itself, so I began thinking about a narrower evolution, the emergence of life on the planet, our biological history. Gradually some connections have come clear. I’ll warn you that none of these may seem completely satisfactory to you. On some days, they aren’t completely satisfactory to me either. They don’t offer the certainty and fervor that traditional religions and a mystical mood can offer to religious believers. But maybe that’s just as well and I do think they’re a start.

Dying

Let’s start with the most dramatic issue, the fact that we will die. In what ways can science’s story of life itself, as understood by a generalist like me, console us about death. It can console us, I believe, because it reminds us that we are part of an incredibly long and vast chain of living things that has far preceded us and will far outlast us.

life_timeline_imageConsider that each of us has a genetic past that is more than 3, almost 4 billion years long. Pieces of our DNA go back that far. We can’t wrap our minds around a number like that. Nor can we easily appreciate a corollary of it, which is that for each of us, the line of our ancestors is unbroken. All our ancestors, as Richard Dawkins has put it, all 3 plus billion years of them, every single one, was a success. Each one survived long enough to reproduce. Each bacterium for the first 2 billion years whose DNA eventually led to us was a success. So was each of the first tiny, multi-celled creatures in the water. Each of the swimmy things that eventually crawled on to land. Each of the small mammals successfully dodging the footsteps of the dinosaurs 150 million years ago whom we can count as ancestors was a success. Our human ancestors over the last several million years were relatively recent forebears and they too were biologically successful.

Individually, then, we will die but the chain of living things that we are part of is massive and powerful and old beyond imagining. Look around you at every living thing you can see, imagine all of them, imagine the microbes that you can’t see, even the three pounds of bacteria that you carry inside you, imagine all that life that we belong to. My death will be another link in this massive chain, and that just may be okay. And all this life will stretch into the future for a long time to come. All that past and all that future may not be literal biblical immortality, but it is long enough for me.

But I would like you to hear another voice on this theme besides mine. Here is what the Harvard biologist George Wald said about it in 1970 in a lecture entitled “The Origins of Death.”

George WaldWe already have immortality, but in the wrong place. We have it in the germ plasm; we want it in the soma, in the body. We have fallen in love with the body. That’s that thing that looks back at us from the mirror. That’s the repository of that lovely identity that you keep chasing all your life. And as for that potentially immortal germ plasm, where that is one hundred years, one thousand years, ten thousand years hence, hardly interests us.

I used to think that way, too, but I don’t any longer. You see, every creature alive on the earth today represents an unbroken line of life that stretches back to the first primitive organisms to appear on this planet; that is about three billion years. That really is immortality. For if the line of life had ever been broken, how could we be here?… All that time, that germ plasm has been making bodies and casting them off in the act of dying.

I, too, used to think that we had our immortality in the wrong place, but I don’t think so any longer. I think it’s in the right place. I think that is the only kind of immortality worth having—and we have it.

I share this vision, though I find myself thinking less about immortality and more about the chain of living things, individual organisms all linked to the one before it and the one after. Does this vision console me about dying? Not perfectly and not all the time, for our revulsion at death is in part our organic surge to stay alive. And I think we have an unconscious tendency to feel that when we die, all life, even the universe itself, will disappear. So it calms me quite a bit to remind myself that when other people have died, others carry on, fully alive, and that the same will happen after my death. And I remind myself also that if it is life itself, being alive, and not ego that is ultimately precious, then that life indeed is old, huge, and enduring.

Morality

Let me move now to a second question and my attempts see if science’s description of life could help me with it. That question is, what is the moral basis of life, what are the roots of right and wrong, and how are the good actions that I try to take grounded in a larger natural order and not just in cultural traditions and social trends? Certainly, people look to the religions for answers about what is right and what is wrong and they rarely look to science. Scientists are fine with that. They emphasize that their field is about knowledge as best as they can establish it and not about judging human behavior.

But there are exceptions to this belief. One popular voice these days is Sam Harris. Harris is a neurosurgeon who argues in his book The Moral Landscape that human values may be intangible, but still they are—or they should be—based on solid facts about human behavior. If the facts show that some piece of human behavior is destructive, then it should be wrong. That behavior should not be considered to be right just because it is a tradition or because it is approved of in an old book.

Here’s an example. Statistics show that physical punishment of young children increases the child’s later tendencies towards violence and social pathology, so such punishment, Harris argues, should not be acceptable. Outsiders may not want to interfere in the practice of corporal punishment that is legal is 21 states in the US and is justified on religious grounds, but they should interfere. For Harris, similar arguments apply to female genital excision, foot binding, and slavery.

But Harris’s approach is an argument for change and does not settle my question about the ways that my inclinations to help people and avoid harming them are linked to the larger order of life. What I’ve found most meaningful is learning about the pervasiveness of harmony and collaboration along with competition in the history of life on the planet. My argument here is that friendship, love, and moral good are rooted in organic cooperation, through pathways that aren’t fully understood, and that hatred and evil are similarly rooted in competition and its own long history.

I am not saying that all cooperation is virtuous—certainly people can cooperate in doing terrible things—and I’m not saying that all competition is bad—healthy competition, between individuals, between groups, is real. I’m saying the reverse, that good and loving actions have their origins in ancient levels of cooperation and organization, and hatred and evil have their roots in competition when it is distorted by fear and envy. I won’t say much about competition here because it’s a theme that is already familiar to us since Darwin, especially under the heading of survival of the fittest. But let me say more about the other half of the story.

ants cooperatingCooperation takes its earliest form in living things as the organization of molecules in the first cells that enabled them to create energy and to expend it. (Any form of organization, even our being gathered here today, is a mode of coordination.) And early on, single bacterial cells even cooperated with each other. More than 3 billion years ago, bacteria organized themselves into stromatolites, layers of mats in piles that filtered sea water for sediment and chemicals. Stromatolites were the first communities and they can still be seen in Australia. A billion or more years later, single-celled creatures evolved into multi-celled ones whose various types of cells carried out specialized functions such as motion and sexual reproduction. We should appreciate this sort of organic coordination because the next step up, from multiple cells to multiple organs, is us. The harmony of our bodily systems working together is what keeps us alive. The same can be said of not only animals but also any flowering plant with its diverse flowers, leaves, stem, and roots.

The next level up of living coordination is the coordination among individuals in a species, especially bees, ants, and humans. Why and how did we humans get to be so sociable—and so clever at it, capable of loving one person one moment and plotting revenge against another one the next?

Let’s listen to Edward O. Wilson, the Harvard biologist who pioneered the field of sociobiology, the evidence of hard-wired, elaborate social instincts in certain animals, most notably ants. Wilson explains that in humans, our irresistible tendency to form groups is both our virtue and our curse, the source of our unity and also of our bigotry. Here’s an abridged account of how our social sophistication began, from his recent book The Meaning of Existence.

E O wilsonIn Africa roughly two million years ago, one species of the primarily vegetarian austalopithecines evidently began to shift its diet to include a much higher reliance on meat. For a group to harvest such a high-energy, widely disperse source of food, it did not pay to roam about as a loosely organized pack of adults and young….It was more efficient to occupy a campsite and send out hunters… Mental growth began with hunting and campsites. A premium was placed on personal relationships geared to both competition and cooperation.

The social intelligence of the campsite-anchored pre-humans evolved as a kind of nonstop game of chess. Today, our immense memory banks are smoothly activated to join past, present, and future. They allow us to evaluate the prospects and consequences of alliances, bonding, sexual contact, rivalries, domination, deception, loyalty, and betrayal.

Here then is what seems to me to be a basic answer to the question of the natural context for human morality. It is on the one hand our sociality and empathy, built on the ancient foundation of organic organization and cooperation. It is also the destructive instances of equally ancient struggle and competition. I can’t say that this understanding has changed my ethical behavior in any way. But it does clarify and confirm for me how deeply engrained in us our best and worst aspects are. The two paths of right and wrong are not solely the products of recent human culture or religion. They are as old as the stromatolites, as old as life itself.

Purpose

Now I’ll move on to my third and broadest question: What is our purpose in life? You may at this point be able to guess where I am going with this one. I see the answer as Darwin probably saw it and as Wilson does see it. It is in the nature of living things to, above all, reproduce, and to survive until they can do so. Life for all plants and animals is about continuity in its two forms, the continuity of the individual in simply staying alive until he, she or it can reproduce, and the continuity of the species through time, by means of offspring.

That’s easy enough to say about the purpose of plants and animals, but humans? Is my life, your life, really about, at its most profound level, surviving and reproducing? I will argue that it is.

purpose of lifeLet’s look at survival first. Our brains were molded over millions of years when physical survival, especially having enough to eat, was touch and go every day of the year. Such desperation is still the case today for about one billion of the 7 billion people living on the planet. But here in suburban New Jersey?

Our brains haven’t changed much in that short time and, for better and worse, concerns about survival are always just under the surface, driving more aspects of our lives than we like to admit. Food, money, violence, disease, even the weather, are almost always on our minds. You should have seen the crowds in the supermarket on the day before the blizzard blew in last week. And how many of you are thinking right now about lunch? Are you worrying about someone you’re close to who is suffering from illness or injury? Are you thinking about money, the coin of survival for humans? Are you outraged about guns, about the dangers of either having then or not having them? What about terrorists? Car accidents? GMOs? All such concerns are about survival. Even when they are not life and death matters, they are never far from it.

Still, that observation seems crude. What about the purpose of life in the higher sense, whatever that means? What about the meaning of life that is supposed to be a precious, obscure secret. I think the answer to that question concerns reproduction, and not just biological reproduction.

Certainly, for many people, both men and women, having children and raising a family is the cornerstone of their lives, their greatest pride, an achievement that allows them to feel a little easier on their deathbeds. But for humans, reproduction of oneself takes many different forms. Our future is alive in our imagination and ambition as well as in our yearning for biological offspring. In much the same way that we hope to see ourselves reflected in and carried into the future by our children, people also hope to see themselves reflected in and carried into the future by achievements of many kinds, by our influence on students or voters, by our fame, by our quiet caring for friends and family, by our social service to the poor or our medical service to the sick, or by works of literature or other art that we create. Such self-fulfillment has its ancestry in the reproductive instincts that also drive animals, plants, even bacteria.

So the question was, what is the purpose of life? My perhaps not entirely satisfying answer is that being alive is, in and of itself, purposeful. It is always full of needs, drives, and goals. Not just for humans but for growing plants and hungry birds as well. Our goals, in one form or another, are the intrinsic ones: to stay alive, to foster other life, to live into the future.

 

Let me close with this thought, especially for the science students here. Science is supposed to be an unemotional business. The scientific method is designed to start with a hypothesis and then to pull away away as much human bias, error, and subjectivity as possible. The conclusions are cautious, the accumulated knowledge wins respect slowly. But I urge you to do the opposite, to take science personally any time you can. When you come across a bit of scientific information that catches your attention for some reason, grab it. Ask yourself why it resonates for you, how it might change the way you see things, how it fits in your view of life. Make it personal, in other words. Make it maybe even a little bit spiritual.

Thank you.