An Aspirational Itinerary through the Sciences
During the last three days of March I participated in an online conference held by NoRCEL (Network of Researchers on the Chemical Evolution of Life), “How did it all begin…?” The virtual conference included a presentation by Lowell Gustafson of the IBHA, “The Origins of Life within Big History: Meanings for Humanity.” I gave the final presentation of the event, “How many branches on the tree of life?” I had previously met one of the coordinators of NoRCEL, Sohan Jheeta, in Milan in 2019 when I had participated in the IBHA event organized by Claudio Maccone, and Sohan suggested that I participate in the NoRCEL event. This invitation was a spur for me to think more about the origins of life.
From a big history perspective, this was a salutary development, and it drew my attention to the burgeoning field of origins of life research. Origins of life is unquestionably one of the major thresholds of emergent complexity. Life itself has further grown in complexity as it has evolved, passing several major thresholds of its own, such as the eukaryotic cell, multi-cellular life, and the Cambrian explosion. Also, further emergent complexities arose from and out of life, such as ecological structures (the trophic pyramid, food webs, and ecological succession), eusociality, consciousness, technology, and civilization.
Focusing on any one emergent complexity threshold offers a fascinating window into the depths of nature, and the origins and development of life has much to teach us about complexity. As biological beings ourselves, our very existence is at stake in biology; every strand of DNA in every cell in our body testifies to our integration with the terrestrial biosphere. Biology is a kind of collective autobiography of ourselves and of every other species with which we share the planet, at once both intimately personal and a shared, universal experience.
Here the depths of nature are also the depths of human nature, as everything that we discover about biology is reflexively applicable to ourselves. Carl Sagan famously said that, “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of star stuff.” This places the human condition in a cosmological context. Origins of life research places the human condition in a specifically biological context. Each of the special sciences similarly offers us an opportunity to place the human condition within a particular scientific context, highlighting distinctive aspects of the human condition not otherwise apparent, and thus they allow us to see human nature in a wider scope, as part of processes that transcend the individual and define the universe.
The NoRCEL conference provided me with the opportunity to experience a distinctive perspective on the human condition in the context of origins of life research, and it is easy to see how this experience could be iterated and expanded. For example, it would be something of a big history pilgrimage to be able to arrange one’s participation in a sequence of conferences starting with cosmology, passing through planetary science, geology, origins of life, paleontology, botany, zoology, anthropology, technology, civilization, modernity, and finishing with future studies. All of these disciplines are rich in ongoing research that points to unexpected aspects of the world (and thus unexpected aspects of human nature), most of which are known only to specialists within a given discipline. No doubt one would be more than a little overwhelmed by all this, but after the initial epistemic vertigo had passed, I suspect that one would see the whole of big history as being both intimately personal and universally shared, organically growing along with the growth of human experience.
The growth of human knowledge of the human condition is not yet exhausted by the extant sciences. Novel sciences only now coming into being — sciences on the far frontier of human knowledge — and sciences yet to be formulated, are showing and will show the human condition in a new light, offering us striking new insights into what we are, broadening and deepening human knowledge of the human condition. To paraphrase Ernst Bloch, is this our increasing entrance into scientific mystery.
That new sciences will continue to appear is a function of what I have called reticulate science, meaning that the various sciences are connected together in a loose network, which sometimes branches out into finer specializations, while at other points several special sciences are brought together in a node in the network and constitute a new interdisciplinary science. These interrelated processes in the development of science keep science (as an institution) growing and continue to contribute to the growth of scientific knowledge even when other factors suggest that science is approaching exhaustion and must soon cease to develop. In a linear growth model, this might be true, but in the reticulate context of science, the growth of scientific knowledge is not linear.
The depths of nature, as well as the organization of our knowledge of nature, should be seen in the same light. Just as the future branches endlessly before us, possible emergent complexities that follow us my branch endlessly, and the emergent complexities upon which we supervene, when pursued into the depths of nature, branch infinitely. We can only hope to investigate a finite subset of all these branching paths, and we ourselves are but one node in this infinite ontological network.
Above I described an aspirational itinerary through the sciences that was essentially linear, and this is because the human mind needs a linear narrative in order to understand whatever it is of the universe that it does understand — the finite portion of the cosmos that is open to us. But our human, all-too-human narratives overlap and intersect in a reticulate space of human meaning, which maps to a finite subset of the infinite ontological network that is reality.
Every science one encounters is an invitation to descend further into the depths of nature to explore further specializations for the distinctive perspective that these offer of the world. A being of greater cognitive capacity than a human being might be able to retain a multiplicity of these branching paths in mind at any one time, and so maintain in a different kind of consciousness a reticulate narrative that comprehends these multiple pathways simultaneously. This is something that human beings can only dimly perceive. Perhaps some distant descendant of humanity will have this capacity and will employ it to great effect. It is our place, as the ancestors to this future descendant, to make this possible in the fullness of time.
The above is a revised and expanded version of my “Frontiers” column for the IBHA newsletter EMERGENCE for May 2021.