- The Something-More-Ers
- Geological Philosophy
- Moral Philosophy
- Medical Philosophy
- Environmental Philosophy
1. The Something-More-Ers
We are all so familiar with the idea of religion that it is difficult to realise that in our evolutionary past there was none. Our forbearers had no idea of religion. It developed gradually over a long period.
Homo Sapiens are thought to be about 300,000 years old with homo erectus most likely one of the ancestors and later cross breeding with other homo species and sub-species, including Neanderthals and Denisovians. Humans and non-human primates like chimpanzees and bonobos had a common ancestor, probably around ten million years ago. Going further back our ancestors included fish and a person would be hard pressed to make a case of fish having religion. So, somewhere in-between the idea of gods, afterlives, spirits and such like, slowly formed. But where in our evolutionary past did humans start to think that there was something more in life?
As the brain size of hominids evolved and grew, genetic changes that allowed the evolution of the voice box (which doesn’t appear to have happened in chimpanzees to the same extent) led to sophisticated languages developing. Artefacts started to appear and this increasing complexity of life caused an increase in cultural ideas. A long nurturing period with puberty at thirteen years (about seven in chimpanzees) allowed new cultural ideas to be passed to offspring.
Our cultures developed with our language. We began to show representation in the art of cave paintings. Artefacts such as stone implements, clothing, beads and pottery appeared. Looking up to the heavens people wondered about existence. Was there some force latent in the ether of the universe that was waiting to be discovered? Were there Gods and spirits? Curiosity led to speculation and so religion evolved, simple stories at first, such as Genesis, but gaining in complexity. People began to believe that there was something more than just existence.
This seeking “something-more” led to early explanations for life that were laden with myth. And so various religions, after developing over the last six or more thousand years, became the main belief systems of today. Most people became religious.
Meanwhile, science, or systemised knowledge, was developing slowly. This development was often resisted by religions. But science proved that we are evolved apes and that there is no reason to believe in an afterlife. We are not special. This “after-religion” type of person takes life as it is; there is nothing more and they don’t expect anything more. They don’t need an afterlife or a rebirth. They don’t see themselves having some sort of spiritual energy separate than the body.
Yet religion still has an attraction. It is less lonely than science. There are loving gods that are concerned with our wellbeing. It is social and offers many comforts. It addresses many of our fears. They say that we don’t really die but remain in a non-physical form. We are rewarded for belief with heavens and rebirths. People can understand it. Science is not so accommodating. Death is final. That we are evolved beings with the Earth set to expire with the sun is hard to take. Religions claim to have all the answers, and if we don’t understand something, at least it is understood by God. In contrast, science is only beginning and is still finding new things every day. There is no claim that it is all knowing. Many people find this position uncomfortable and so they remain something-more-ers.
Whether something-more-ers have a future or not I don’t know but as science is increasingly taught in schools I can’t imagine the chances are great. Even so, people may come to lament that the glory days of colour, pageantry and rituals of religion are over. If religions are on the wane, festivals celebrating art, sports, music or food will have to be expanded as replacements.
2. Geological Philosophy
While I am confident about evolution (the differential survival of offspring) as the method by which we came into existence, the origin of matter that was necessary before evolution could take place is another question altogether. Most of the discussions I have had on this topic go round and round without any conclusions.
The main problem is the idea of the “big bang”. We grow up with the idea of cause and effect. In life we can see that one event follows another. Every event has a cause. There is evidence that the Universe was created by a big bang in that matter seems to be moving away from a single point. But if the big bang started from nothing and there was no matter, time or space beforehand, the big bang could not have had a cause. The big bang is an effect without a cause. This is different from our experience and so almost seems like magic to many people. In the back of our minds we keep thinking “what caused it?” and “how can something come out of nothing?”. Many scientists believe in the big bang even though most can’t fully explain it so it seems a little bit like the faith of religion.
Everywhere you look there seems to be contradictions. If we take “nothing” seriously, then as there was nothing before the big bang, there could not have been the laws of physics (such as having atoms of a particular size and how they work). Therefore laws must have been created in the big bang. And why would one law be created rather than another? But laws are meant to be universal and so independent of time.
If we go the other way and argue that every event must have a cause, then there could never have been a beginning and so the universe has existed back in time infinitely.
Is the universe also infinite in size? If not, it must have a boundary. No time or matter could be on the other side of this boundary. It is hard to us to imagine time and space just stopping. If the universe is infinite, then for this infinity to come from a single point is also difficult for us to understand.
I don’t know what to think of the big bang but it should not yet be taken as a complete explanation. To me, how the world came into existence is still a mystery. But the evolutionist must be prepared to say “I don’t know”. It may be that the configuration of our minds will never allow us an answer. The reason why some people might accept the idea of the big bang without question could be that knowing is more comfortable than not knowing. The frustration of not knowing does not mean it is necessary to make some jump and believe some guess. Accept “not knowing” as a way of life.
In this second part of “geological philosophy” I want to point out some parallels between science and religion. Some religions promote the idea that there is a “spiritual” world independent of the physical world where life is “everlasting”. This myth appeals to many people and they hope it is true. Some scientists are also guilty of promoting a type of life after death. They do this by talking as if the colonising of some planet with earth like properties is just a matter of time. It is similar to the religious idea of eternal life in some heaven but recreated in a scientific context. For travel to one of these planets, physics points out that the distances are so great that the time needed would involve many generations and so birth in space would be necessary. The logistics of food production would be a problem as plants would have to be grown in artificial light. The amount of fuel needed would be astronomical. The body suffers greatly from weightlessness and starts to waste away so there would have to be artificial gravity on the spacecraft created by some means unknown. So few people would be able to make the trip that inbreeding would be the norm. Those humans arriving at some distant planet would not be Earthlings as all they would know is space travel without ever experiencing life on Earth. I cannot see any possibility of our colonising the planets of other suns (although a station on a close planet like mars might happen). Colonising planets is as fanciful as the religious idea of life after death. Some scientists write science fiction.
The real science gives humans a much shorter lifespan. It is extremely unlikely that we will even make a fraction of the allotted lifespan of earth which is probably about one to three billion years. The Earth appears to have experienced both temperate and glacial phases in the past and we are now in a glacial phase. In this phase there are cycles of ice ages from twenty to one hundred thousand years. While Homo sapiens as a species is only about three hundred thousand years old, earlier ancestors like Homo habilis are about two million years old. This shows some resilience in our body type in that we have already survived a number of ice ages. But there are certainly many more ice ages to come and we have no chance of surviving these at our current numbers. In an ice age the population would be reduced to a more sensible level, and in any severe ice age there would always be the risk of extinction.
In contrast, excessive fossil fuel use has many people predicting today a run-away greenhouse heating of the Earth that will cause rising sea levels and temperature change. This could cause a disruption of the world’s food supplies and so a reduction of the population. A run-away heating could also make the planet uninhabitable.
An asteroid collision led to the extinction of the dinosaurs some sixty six million years ago. There are many craters on the earth and moon from past strikes and there is no reason why we should not be hit many more times in the next three billion years. If we are hit by a large asteroid every hundred million years (say) that would still mean thirty strikes before the end of the world. A strike could easily result in the deaths of all the people on Earth.
There are also other lesser events possible such as the super-volcano under the Yellowstone National Park today whose eruption is thought to be imminent. The resulting dust cloud would cover much of North America and food would soon be at a premium. Deaths could be in the tens or even hundreds of millions.
The human race is much more vulnerable than it thinks. We reduce vulnerability in our minds with “heaven” and “new planet” ideas. In geological time humans will certainly be in for a series of surprises with numbers significantly reduced, and extinction always possible, well before the end of the Earth. Fear of the unknown has led some religions and some scientists to paint a rosier picture of our chances of survival than can be justified.
3. Moral Philosophy
Morality and altruism are linked and so I will start with altruism. To many people altruism is the dullest of topics and is linked to outdated philosophers who still argue that all actions are selfish. But it’s possible that the levels of altruism are in a state of flux and an increase in altruism might lead to the greatest genetic change of humankind and give it a new destiny.
There are three types of altruism. The first is genetic altruism, a product of the evolutionary process, where parents give their children love, compassion and empathy. All are necessary for survival. Genetic altruism also allows for helping relatives to varying extents as they share many of the same genes.
To digress for one paragraph, I need here to mention the idea of “redirection” and I will use hunting as an example. Hunting is a genetic desire of most animals and certainly of humans. But where are the animals in a modern city? Compelled to exercise this desire we redirect hunting with games. Football most likely originated as a pre-hunting practice for children with an animal’s bladder for a ball. The football is the wild animal that must be caught in a net. The players receive satisfaction from hunting with the football’s successful capture. But space is so limited today that even playing football is difficult, so, for most people, this “hunting participation” is reduced to watching others hunt the football. An audience participates by observation. Once the football is caught, it is then “released” and the process repeated with the ball again recaptured. After a few hours the genetic hunting desire of the audience has been met. This type of hunting, while not as good as a real hunt, is better than nothing. Other hunting games, such as tennis or chess, and now computer games, give a similar satisfaction. People need to address their genetic desires to remain psychologically healthy. Real hunting has become industrialised and emotionless today with modern farms and factories.
A childless couple that wanted children but due to some genetic anomaly or other misfortune cannot have them, might adopt some. Here they give love and compassion to children not genetically related as if they were their own children. Similarly, they may start an orphanage, work for the homeless, or in some other way satisfy their genetic desire for nurturing. It is common for nuns to work with children or the homeless as their vows won’t allow reproduction. Mother Teresa could be an example of a woman with a strong nurturing urge. In all these cases, nurturing can bring great happiness. All these actions are redirected genetic altruism like the redirected hunting mentioned above.
The second type of altruism is reciprocal altruism where people help other non-related people. People in a village may come together in defence even though many may not be related. A person in retirement may work for a club like “Apex” and help others as he was helped by the same club when he was young. This type of altruism is of the form “you scratch my back and I will scratch yours”. People help others with the possibility of being helped in turn if they have the need. The laws of governments are mostly reciprocal. You pay tax and for this you get roads, speed limits, schools, hospitals and police for protection. The government is kind to you for a fee.
The third type of altruism could be called “pure” altruism. Some philosophers argue that this type of altruism cannot exist, as a couple, who help others at their own expense without the expectation of help in return, will have fewer resources to give to their own children and so these children will be materially disadvantaged. Any new genes for this type of altruism would not survive in a population for long. But this pure altruism is really so elusive that I can’t think of an example. I could never be sure that the example was not really genetic or reciprocal altruism. It is a common error in books to mistake redirected genetic altruism for pure altruism. Mother Teresa had a strong genetic nurturing desire and so helped many people rather than a few but this was redirected genetic altruism.
But let’s say genetic mutations allow for a truly altruistic person to be born. Of course they would be materially disadvantaged, but there is no reason that they should die immediately. They may survive a generation or two and even produce altruistic children. So this third type of altruism should be able to exist. But in the long term, many philosophers argue that this pure altruism should die out. That is, any new genes for pure altruism will not persist in the population.
This may be true for most of the evolution of Homo sapiens but things have changed in societies of the last few thousand years with the invention of the social welfare system. A struggling family with many children gets money for food and accommodation with no expectation of any help in return. The “rare altruist” of earlier times is now guaranteed assistance by the commonplace welfare system. Here the altruist is bound to survive and go on to produce a family. Any new altruistic children who would have had a low probability of survival in the past would now have an improved probability of survival.
Almost all countries today have some sort of welfare where the disadvantaged get at least some support. Over time, perhaps in hundreds of generations, a welfare system would allow any genes for pure altruism to spread in a population. It may have already happened to some extent. This could be the most important change in the history of evolution. It would certainly make humans unique over all the other animals. We would significantly change as a species. There could be a reduction of aggression and territorial disputes, wars should decrease and kindness prevail. The world could be a much-improved place to live with this genetic change being our saving.
But how could such a welfare system arise in the first place? The first seeds probably came from religions and philosophers. The Confucian and later Christian idea of “love your neighbour” has pure altruism as a central idea (the neighbour being an unrelated person). A favourite theme of Mohammed was to help orphans as well as the giving of alms. If pure altruism was proposed in the past as the highest virtue, then it is continued in the present day by vote. I suppose it is like insuring your house. A small amount of money for insurance will stop the long-term worry of being homeless if one’s house burns down.
Similarly, if the majority of people are prepared to vote for a small amount of tax to go towards a welfare system to prevent the worry of losing one’s job or otherwise falling on hard times, then this idea will become a standard through the passing of laws. While voting for welfare can still be selfish in one sense, in another sense it helps the survival of non-related people, some of whom might have genes for altruism.
The human genome could be changed by this emerging cultural welfare system. As organisms adapt to their environments through the process of the differential survival of offspring, by adding a welfare system for all, the environment of new offspring is now altered from the traditional environments of our past. Just as you cannot throw pollutants in the air and expect the climate to remain the same, you cannot put welfare systems into human populations and expect the genome to remain the same. Changes may take hundreds or thousands of years but in time we could become a kinder species.
Now to morality. A moral action is one that does not detract from society. If the above logic is correct moral actions should be on the increase.
4. Medical Philosophy
We have all inherited a genetic immune system from our evolutionary past that is our first line of defence from infection and disease. With the growth of cultural ideas it is only to be expected that cultural medical ideas would arise to enhance and supplement this genetic system. The first ideas, passed down through generations orally, could be called traditional or folk medicine. Our first attempts were more often magic than logic.
African witchdoctors knew something of traditional medicine but a good part of their practice was pretence and exploitation. The use of fetishes and divinations as protection from disease could have had no real value. But not all was ineffective and there was a “bush craft” intertwined with their practice that recognised many plants for their medicinal properties. The witchdoctor could be capable of cures in some cases.
Other folk cures have been successful and incorporated into modern medicine and include the chewing of willow bark to relieve headaches of which the effective ingredient (aspirin) was later produced artificially in large quantities. The bark of the South American cinchona tree was used by the local Indians against malaria. Scientists later reproduced the active alkaloid (quinine) artificially and its use allowed the extensive colonisation of Africa and South America. Today, many traditional medicines have been investigated and the active components extracted and reproduced artificially.
Early European medicine also had its problems. Without microscopes bacteria were unknown and operations were performed with little attempt at cleanliness. Blood circulation was unknown so cupping and the use of leeches to remove “local” diseased blood killed many people. Mental disease was often associated with devils entering the mind, with exorcisms given as a cure. Early medicine was mixed with both mythical and factual components.
The Chinese, in a more systematic approach, developed many weird and wonderful concoctions for various illnesses. A lot of these cures took advantage of the wide variety of chemicals in plants. Cures were found largely by trial and error. Here people would notice that a herb had a particular effect. Later two herbs would be mixed to produce a greater effect and so on. Mixtures of plants and their methods of application would improve over time. Just as a bird can fly without understanding the mathematics of airflow, herbal medicines often worked without the practitioner knowing the chemistry of their method. Experiencing the results was sufficient proof of their effectiveness.
One of the most successful cultural medical ideas was that of vaccination which started with the use of cowpox as a vaccination against smallpox. Vaccinations are now the mainstay for fighting a wide range of diseases. Another successful idea was the use of anti-bacterial compounds produced by the penicillium fungus. Many new anti-bacterial compounds have now been produced. Other ideas, such as chemotherapy, evolved from the mustard gas of the First World War. Some soldiers exposed to the gas had their cancers arrested. All medical ideas are cultural ideas that address the genetic desire for good health.
But not all medicines are beneficial. In our modern society there is a lot of false advertising and trickery. People hope the medicine works. Examples could be the countless creams to reverse the aging of the skin or magnets that cure arthritis. Faith healing with prayer is also popular. In other cases doctors prescribe medicines that are pushed by manufacturing companies and have little understanding of a medicine’s real effectiveness. Side effects are often not disclosed or downplayed. Other medicines are simply fake and produced in countries that don’t have adequate legal structures. Some people’s lives have been ruined by the medical advice and medicines they have received. People believe this advice because, for many, genetic hope is stronger than cultural logic.
Despite these flaws, new medical ideas, along with improved nutrition and sanitation, have led to the average lifespan almost doubling in many parts of the world. The important point here from the brief description of medicine above is that cultural ideas can contain both factual and mythical parts. Sometimes the factual and mythical components can vary between people because they are genetically different (as per bell curve mentioned earlier). For example, one person may be saved from an infection by penicillin while another may die from an allergic reaction to the same penicillin. What is fact for one can be myth for another. A person is best off in terms of happiness utilising factual ideas and avoiding the mythical. People should look at their genetic inheritance to discover whether the cultural ideas to which they are exposed adequately address these genetic ideas. The complexity of many modern medicines can make this analysis difficult.
One example could be the use of contraceptives. In earlier times, sexual intercourse led to pregnancy and of the many children born, a proportion died. Offspring survived differentially as per the evolution process. Today, new cultural ideas include a range of contraceptives that can prevent fertilisation. Here cultural ideas have allowed more frequent mating, often with different partners, resulting in increased pleasure and so possibly increased happiness. Children are avoided or reduced in number. Through the use of contraceptives, a person gains the genetic reward (sexual pleasure) without the genetic consequence (children). The person is still opting for maximum happiness by addressing genetic ideas but in this case sexual happiness and reproduction no longer go hand in hand. From an evolutionary point of view this is quite an unusual situation. The original purpose of the brain was to allow cultural ideas to be accumulated so that the chance of reproduction was increased not reduced. Here people are actively deciding to limit the number of their children even though they may well have the resources to raise considerably more children. They may even decide to have none at all yet still enjoy sexual union. In this case, cultural ideas have turned against the genes. The genes have been deceived by cultural ideas. This is a variation of the idea of suicide mentioned earlier in the main text. If a person decides to have no children, then it is a type of reproductive suicide, if only for the next generation.
If people with low genetic nurturing desire are less likely to contribute to the next generation, then there must be some affect on the human genome. Today, many couples in western societies are opting for fewer children. They have discovered new cultural ways of addressing old genetic ideas that produce greater happiness than the traditional large family. They are putting travel, lifestyle and career first in a more hedonistic approach to life. There appears to be some volume of ideas necessary before this way of living can be taken. That is, limiting children is a sophisticated idea compared with traditional reproduction.
Another example could be pelvis size. Today, if a mother’s birth is becoming difficult, a doctor may decide to give the child a caesarean birth. There were certainly many deaths in earlier times caused by complications during birth and a caesarean birth today may allow some mothers to survive where they would have otherwise died. If the mother has new genes for a small pelvis that preclude her from a natural birth then the survival of these women and their children will allow these new genetic ideas to spread in the population. Current research shows evidence for a decreasing pelvis size in western women. It might be that in the future (with the future being hundreds of generations), caesarean births will become the norm rather than the exception. Some increase in this operation might be because there is a reluctance to accept the pain of childbirth but another part might be small pelvis genes. The point here is that a cultural medical practice can influence the direction of genetic evolution.
Children born today might have genetic errors that are compensated for by cultural medical intervention. Examples could be debilitating medical conditions such as diabetes and asthma. Where diseases have a genetic component, and where these genes are continued through successful reproduction after medical intervention, any genetic errors will increase in frequency. Over time, such genetic errors could be commonplace rather than rare. The result will be an acceleration of medical treatments for offspring suffering the same or similar conditions to the parents. The net effect over time will be a transfer of the major responsibility for health from the genetic to the cultural. If we become more and more reliant on cultural medical ideas then the medical services industry could outgrow every other industry and eventually consume most of human endeavour. This seems to be happening already.
There has been a minor recognition of this danger with some attempt to stop the proliferation of genetic errors. For example, some genes that cause breast cancer, Down syndrome, haemophilia, and so on, are now known and an early test of the foetus in the womb has led to some pregnancies being terminated. That is, differential survival is being re-introduced in a small but rising number of cases. It seems then that human cultural ideas can influence the direction of human genetic evolution.
5. Environmental Philosophy
A paper written in 1833 by William Lloyd argued that a common area of grass will be overgrazed as it is in each person´s interest to use the grass immediately rather than let it grow and risk it being eaten by other people´s animals. That is, people are naturally opportunistic and selfish in their outlook. This tendency to self-interest was followed up by Garrett Hardin in a similar article in 1968 and became known as the “tragedy of the commons“.
Proof of this behaviour can be seen in the excessive removal of trees from forests or of fish from the ocean. To stop total destruction, many governments have found it necessary to regulate the use of the Earth´s natural resources. Where governments are ineffective in their regulation, or unwilling to regulate, the environment can suffer considerable damage.
Appealing to people´s conscious with some sort of moral argument has a limited effect as the selfish person will always cheat. For example, it seems almost impossible to stop the trade in rhino horns as these animals approach extinction. As horn becomes more and more scarce the price goes up making it even more attractive. In some places in Africa the rhinoceroses have full time guards.
A few thousand years ago coal deposits formed in the carboniferous period (about 400 hundred million years back), started to be used as fuel for smelting metals and heating. This use has accelerated with our expanding material need and population growth. Yet, some people today, still think that a change of chemical composition of the atmosphere from the burning of coal will have no effect on climate.
Australia, with the current government´s main interest being re-election, is incapable of regulating fossil fuel use, even though it has the finances for change. Other countries, like India, have become so tied to coal use, that to disentangle itself from fossil fuels will take decades. The principle is the same as deforestation and over-fishing. Regulation is needed for the long term interest of the environment rather than the short term interests of indivduals.
Evaporation is proportional to temperature and what goes up must come down so the world is going to become wetter. But where the water falls is harder to predict. There will be at least some population dislocation. I fear that only a catastrophe will cause people to vote for greener politicians and by then it might be too late.