consciousness, cosmology, extinction, origins of life, the universe, What is life? What is death?, Whither Homo sapiens?

The Race Between the Two Human Drives

To understand life, and to destroy it. Which will prevail?

Well, to destroy life isn’t entirely a drive. It’s a side effect, a byproduct of our drive to expand our own life, to aggrandize ourselves, to make more of us, to get bigger, stronger, live longer. As the Olympics have it, Citius, Altius, Fortius. This is the drive that powers all life. It’s very strong, and very wily, but not very bright. That is, it’s instrumental; it lights up a tunnel of vision to immediate advantage, and that with hyperreal clarity, but to everything outside that laser beam the life force is myopic and blinkered. The long term, the feedback loop, the butterfly effect, all are far outside its ken. The law of unintended consequences is the consequence.

So we destroy life, amazing life, in our greed to feed and gratify and multiply our life, which in the last analysis is rather dull and one-note: we want sex, and status, and possessions, to reproduce ourselves, and not to die. There’s nothing terribly unique about this: any life form can do it, and does. Life forms are generally constrained only by the limits of the carrying capacity of their environment (the food supply) and the checks of predation and parasitism, and by the ritualized limits that have evolved to paradoxically protect life forms from the excesses of their own life force by constraining them, from gene silencing and apoptosis to estrus to social hierarchy.

If we are uniquely destructive it’s because, collectively and individually, we’ve conquered or rejected so many of those imposed constraints. And because we have the devil’s gift, imagination, which empowers us to outwit environmental limitations (at least for a while, a long while) and also adds half-conscious envy and spite to our more innocent forms of self-interest. We don’t only kill to eat, or to protect ourselves, or to enlarge our territory; we kill to appropriate the magnificence of life forms we envy — to adorn our females with egret feathers, to ingest the power and male potency of the tiger. These may be degraded forms of what once passed for worship when we were the minority animal and humbly thanked our beautiful, powerful big siblings for magnanimously sharing their surplus meat, might, and magic with us.

The awareness that we are going to die often only spurs these pursuits on and makes them more frantic: only in the throes of acquisition or orgasm or intoxication can we forget death, an escape that has to be endlessly repeated; or else we believe deep down that the next billion or the next scientific discovery is the one that’s going to make us immortal. But the awareness of death is also a pivot. It can become a turning point. If we realize that however much we may reduce disease, prolong life, and ameliorate suffering, we are not ever going to (and shouldn’t) defeat death, then the blind striving we share with all the rest of life becomes, for us, just a little bit pointless. Then what is the point?

* * *
I started to write this because, as usual, I was copyediting science. I happened, in particular, to be reading about the zeal with which archaeologists pore over bone fragments and debate just when and why the first hominids became bipedal. What does it matter? And I became fascinated, not for the first time, by this hunger to know, because it’s excessive, obsessive. It cannot be entirely instrumental. Sure, archaeologists care about their reputations, and very young scientists set their sights on the Nobel. And of course much, maybe most, science (and certainly most science funding) is driven by instrumentality — by goals ranging from survival (defeating disease and hunger) to domination (what we call “defense”) to the profit motive, or some mixture of all three. But to know, to find out, to understand — what we are, what life is, what kind of astounding cosmos kindled it — still seems like a burning drive all its own. It’s a startling diversion of life force ninety degrees away from “more of the same,” off the grid, out of this world, out of the “Will to Power” world in which our power will always be either pitifully limited or annihilating, into the world of thought which (thanks to the material mastery of science) can see to the beginning of the universe.

We will always have mixed motives, and that’s as it should be: the drive to live powers the drive to know. But the latter seems like the only larger purpose for “a human incarnation,” as the Buddhists put it, the best reason to live longer, and the only real consolation for death.

exoplanets, origins of life, reviews, space, the universe, Whither Homo sapiens?

Cosmos, Epi 1: Epic Fail

What a disappointment.

What did I expect? It’s television. And with rare exceptions (Downton Abbey), I don’t watch television. And when I do, I’m reminded why I don’t.

Cosmos is, so far, overproduced and underimagined. It’s a mixture of David Attenborough–type tramping through motivational-poster vistas, gee-whiz CGI (which, in brazenly assuming it can depict the unimaginable, brutally diminishes it), Classics Illustrated animation, and textbookish narration, which fails to fuse into a whole, to enthrall, or to inform. In space, the tour of the Solar System is chaotic and disjointed. (The subsequent zoom-out to the galaxy, the Local Group, the Virgo Cluster, and the Observable Universe is one of the few powerful and effective moments in the episode, but the show’s hyper, ADD pace does not let it be suitably dwelt on.) In time, the textbookish narration of the “cosmic calendar” zips by way too fast and corresponds to nothing seen on the screen except a lot of generic zooming and swirling. When the dinosaur-killing asteroid hits, Neil Tyson sticks his fingers in his ears and the giant redwood trees shake a little, and that’s all; the fire and darkness that enveloped the planet and wiped out whole orders of life are neither mentioned nor so much as visually alluded to. There’s way too much reliance on Neil’s charm, which is undeniable; but his voice drops to inaudibility at the ends of sentences (do we just need a better sound system?), he hardly varies his speaking rhythm, the script he’s given is at once superficial and pedantic, and the whole thing feels rushed, as if the public had to be ooh-ahh snowed rather than trusted to have either real interest in or real comprehension of the science. And it’s all accompanied by awful, too-loud, faux-Mahler music that drowns out the narration.

The result is a creation myth for our time that seems at least as preposterous as the cosmology of Gilgamesh, and a lot less dramatic. Then there are the commercials, interrupting every 10 minutes or less with clips from equally overblown CGI movies alternating with the banality of screaming car salesmen. After a purported journey to the Big Bang you’d think there’d be some shame, or humility, or irony, about giving equal sound and fury to the latest from Samsung or Subaru.

But this is the language of our time. This is what the producers think people expect, the mainstream way they are entertained and impressed. I’ll be an old fart now and say I feel sorry for people who’ve only ever experienced this smothering of the imagination by cheap technological humbug. We are much too infatuated with our new toys and we think they render good writing obsolete. This is an era of decadent Roman excess in infotainment that has to be waited out. Oh for the sweetness of a new Dark Age. Somebody pull the plug.

In the meantime, if you want your imagination to be ravished by the new cosmology, and you’d even like to understand it just a little bit, READ BOOKS. Read Lee Billings, Caleb Scharf, Ray Jayawardhana. Read by and about the prescient visionary Giordano Bruno. whom Cosmos at least covers, but as a cartoon character.

My parents slept through most of this episode. We’ll continue watching (on the NatGeo channel next time, to see if the commercials are as bad), to see whether the microscopic world is portrayed any better than the macroscopic one.

(Apologies for the slapdash pan. It was written on stolen time, throwing good time after bad, as it were.)

exoplanets, origins of life, space, the universe

Five Billion Years of Solitude, by Lee Billings

“This is the best book I have read about exoplanets, and one of the few whose language approaches the grandeur of a quest that is practically as old as our genes.”  ~ Dennis Overbye, The New York Times

Read the review.

Then read the book.

I had the thrill of reading this book early, because I copyedited it. I absolutely love it. I’ve never before read anything that so captured the yearning and the melancholy that comes with beginning to glimpse our true place in a universe of such dimensions, which at once calls to and turns a cold shoulder to the very thing that uniquely makes us what we are: the urge to reach out and to go forth.