By Gene Wilburn
As a secular humanist with no religious inclinations I frequently ask myself: where do I fit in with the cosmos? What are my bedrock, fundamental assumptions? As a freshly-minted 75 year old, I’ve come up with the 10 following assumptions that have guided my journey through life.
1. The Universe came into existence.
This had implications :-) Chemistry was born. Particles changed into quarks as the plasma cooled. Hydrogen atoms formed. Things expanded dramatically and rapidly. Concentrate enough hydrogen atoms together and you get heat. Then fusion. Stars ignite. Over time, some stars die in a spectacular explosion called a supernova in which the heavier chemical elements, such as iron, are created. These are spewn forth as stellar dust. As these clouds of dust concentrate, condense, and heat, new stars form, with planets around them. One of these, which we call the sun, and the planet we live on, which we call earth, formed about 4.5 billion years ago, give or take a million or two.
2. Out of inorganic matter, life began.
How life began is still unsolved, but researchers are exploring the tantalizing possibilities that RNA and other life-critical molecules develop naturally in places like deep-ocean hot thermal vents. These molecules evidently combined and evolved into a self-replicating thing that we might call “first life,” or even “proto life” — ancestors to the prokaryotes, or single-celled organisms without a nucleus, like bacteria and archaea. Somewhere along the line a bit of luck (for us) happened: two prokaryotes combined to create life forms with nucleated cells, which we call eukaryotes, or multi-celled organisms.
3. Life evolved.
Over immensely great periods of time, eukaryotes split and developed into plant life and animal life. Plant life, acquiring the trait of photosynthesis, oxygenated the atmosphere. Some of the more opportunist of the eukaryotes ventured from the oceans to the lands to colonize the barren geology of earth, turning it into large organic ecosystems.
4. The universe is highly random.
The universe evolves and organizes itself along certain lines determined by physics and chemistry, but it is not willed or fated. Events are highly random. So is the evolution of living things. Reusing basic structural parts in unique ways, life evolved through random genetic changes into extraordinarily rich organic landscapes, filled with the plants and animals of various eras. The Precambrian Explosion, various extinctions, and unexpected events, such as comets crashing into the earth, diverted the path of life several times, until, after eons, the great age of reptiles was over and land mammals had the stage largely to themselves. And mosquitoes, of course.
5. The emergence of human beings was not preordained.
We, Homo sapiens, belong to a branch of primates that evolved in particular ways to adjust to our environment. We had cousin species, Neanderthals, Denisovans, etc., now extinct, who did the same. We’ve only been on the planet a short while, in geological terms, but we’ve become a new force. We developed a complex, clever brain that allowed us to invent or discover agriculture, mathematics, and art. Not to mention learning how to sew reindeer hide into warm clothing for the Arctic, or how to set up a Zoom meeting.
6. We originated in and emigrated from Africa.
Deep down, we’re all Africans, and, living in a very warm climate, we were all probably dark skinned because extra melanin in the skin protects against overpowering UV radiation. Those of us who migrated to colder climates lost some of our melanin because whiter skin helps absorb the sun’s rays better in colder conditions where not as much protection against UV radiation is required. Skin colour is simply an adaptation to the environment we evolved in. Under the skin, we’re all brothers and sisters of the same species.
7. We are a language-oriented species that loves narratives.
We acquired language, our greatest of all tools. And we developed powerful imaginations alongside the impressive encyclopedic knowledge of our environment we learned through hunting and gathering. We listened to tales around the campfire: stories of our ancestors, legends, myths, and, of course, stories of the gods. We’re a species that wants to participate in its own narrative, even when that narrative is unreliable.
8. The narrative of human history is important to study in all its facets.
This includes science, the humanities, the arts and music. Physically, humans haven’t evolved much in the past 100,000 years or so, but culturally we’ve evolved through many great civilizations in ways that are fascinating and always educational to study.
9. As a species, our cultural teen years occurred between Galileo and Einstein.
We began to mature toward cultural adulthood by rigorously questioning, observing, and testing our premises. (There were brief moments of this in our previous history, especially in Greece and elsewhere, but it never became the norm.) We have bent the planet to our wants and needs with an industrial and scientific revolution.
10. We’ve Reached Childhood’s End.
We now possess the ability to destroy the planet as a home for mankind, as well as other species. As we evolve culturally into responsible adults we must learn to be stewards of our planet and treat it with respect or we may pave the way to our own extinction.
It may be that the greatest story of mankind is just beginning. We may, if wise, develop eco-friendly attitudes about our home planet and change how we obtain energy and food. As long as a random comet doesn’t smash into us again, and as long as we don’t self destruct, we stand a chance to develop into a culturally mature species.
Gene Wilburn is a retired IT professional and co-author of Shift Happens: Essays on Technology (2020), available at http://genewilburn.com