By Diana Lee
Since the dawn of civilization, man has asked the quintessential question: Why do we exist? It’s a fair question — for we neither asked to be born nor to be withered away toward death, both of which are far beyond our control. As soon as man takes his first breath, he is thrust into life to learn the bittersweet lessons of living. When he finally matures after wandering through life’s long journey, he meets death as his destiny. The ancient prophets, sages, and philosophers of world civilizations have attempted to answer this enigma, offering a wide range of explanations based on intuition, rational conjectures, and even religion. Nowadays, in the age of computers, advanced technology, and breakthrough scientific discoveries, scholars and scientists can sift through ample evidence and data to shed some light to the purpose of human existence on Earth. With the extraordinary power of intelligence, human possesses the ability to understand man’s role in the complex adaptive system of our universe.
The best model of the real expanding universe is based on the theory — complex adaptive system. The universe contains interacting independent nonlinear systems that simultaneously evolve and adapt to their changing environments while maintaining stable global patterns. The complex adaptive system consists of several distinctive features: the system contains many independent and self-organized subsystems but intrinsically connected; subsystems interact with each other guided by basic rules that exert stability for the whole system; a subsystem hosts a vast number of interactive microstates striving for survival, which leads to small quantitative adaptations to the overall pattern but to large qualitative changes of the microstates; and adaptive changes could be predictable for a general pattern but not for individual cases.
With each discovery of unknown astronomical phenomenon in space and new strained virus or novel species on our planet, the ongoing process of rewriting rules strongly suggest that our universe not only supports the theory of complex adaptive system, but it is also a thriving entity in itself.
All constituents in the universe from birth of stars to black holes, quarks to molecules, and single-celled organisms to humans, have been driven by one dynamic process — evolution. The essence of evolution requires adaptive changes over time. To fuel the ongoing changes, the cycle of life and death plays an essential role in contributing new ingredients to the soup of creation. Life generates creative energy and death recycles what was formed in life. In the perpetual cycle of life and death, entities are constantly reconstituted, giving rise to novelty, individuality, and complexity. On our planet, plethora evidence of morphological changes of various species retained in fossil records and the presence of old and new species coexist speak as stark proof for evolution. For years, the Hubble Space Telescope has captured the unfolding history of the cosmos in spectacular images showing traces of stellar and galactic evolutions.
We can now envision the inception of the universe with the information gathered from many telescopes and satellites traveling into deep space. The universe came into existence about 13.7 billion years ago, and it is now composed of 4% atoms, 23% cold dark matter, and 73% dark energy. The functions of the dark matter and the dark energy have yet to be defined because of their obscure nature. In our four dimensional universe (3 space and 1 time), four natural forces believed to be created by the Big Bang — gravity, strong nuclear, weak nuclear, electromagnetic — have been at work in mutual interaction at different levels to maintain coherence, efficiency, and continuity in the cosmos. The inflationary theory, an extension of the Big Bang theory, proposed that the universe underwent an explosive, rapidly accelerating expansion at extremely early times. Then, the universe widely distributed dark matter and light elements of hydrogen and helium. The ripples as tiny fluctuations in the temperature of the primordial universe echoed from the Big Bang as cosmic microwave background radiation. The first stars burst into scene when the universe turned 200,000 years old. Soon after 500 million years, ultraviolet radiation produced by stars started to travel freely throughout the cosmos.
In the stellar evolution, the exchange of energy and materials occurs between stars and diffuse clouds. The birth of a star arises from a cloud of whirling gas and dust pulled toward a gravitational center. The cooling gas and dust with heavy elements forms the planets encircling a young star. As the star ages, the energy in its core burns up and the exterior cools, causing a collapse toward the center while spewing energy and chemical elements into space. The higher the temperature rises, the heavier the chemical elements become in fusion reaction. Depending on its mass, the star ends as either a black hole or a white dwarf. In some cases, massive stars violently explode as supernovas, creating heavier chemical elements in nucleosynthesis before collapsing into black holes. In other cases, lower mass stars transform into cool red giants, releasing their contents into space before dwindling into white dwarfs. The ejected heavy elements solidify to form floating dust in space. The stellar winds then carry the dust into a stellar nursery where stars are born. Each successive generation of stars consisted of higher amounts of the heavier chemical elements formed by the previous generation. The unceasing cycle of star regeneration has been occurring in billions of galaxies throughout history.
Although the research on galaxies has just started to gain momentum, recent data offered some speculations: galaxies come in various sizes (dwarf to massive) and in assorted shapes (elliptical, lenticular, spiral, barred spiral, irregular); most galaxies travel in local groups; a galactic black hole exists in the central bulge of every galaxy; and galaxies are moving away from one another, indicating the expansion of the universe.
Astronomers have noticed signs supporting galactic evolution, even though they haven’t reached a conclusion on the formation and destruction of a galaxy. It is believed that the galactic boom took place between 300,000 and one billion years after the Big Bang. In 1992, NASA’s Cosmic Background Explorer satellite detected lumps in the fabric of the cosmos that might have led to the first galaxies. Stars were born massive and died young as black holes in the early universe. The birth of a galaxy probably evolved from a growing rotating black hole devouring numerous surrounding star clusters constantly produced by gas and material expelled from supernovas. Abundant luminous quasars emitting vast quantities of radiation are found in early galaxies. The different galactic shapes and their stellar contents indicate the progressive development of galaxies over time. Elliptical comprises of mainly old yellow stars, spiral embraces both new and old stars, and irregular lacking any organized structure is dotted with new blue stars. Some shapes of galaxies have been left alone undisturbed and others dramatically altered by galactic collisions — merging one with another or the big engulfing the small. Most galaxies are considered ancient, however odd-shaped galaxies (barred spirals or linear chains) might be of the younger generation because they were missing in the early universe. Although the demise of a galaxy has never been observed, the fact that a feeding galactic black hole lurks in the center of each galaxy suggests that it might face the same fate as the death of a star.
As for biological systems, the cycle of life and death affects every living thing on Earth — microscopic organisms in their transparent cellular environment, luscious vegetation and blooming vibrant flowers, marine creatures and fish in the ocean, and a slew of animals inhabiting air, sea and land. A thriving planet necessarily depends on a wealth of variety in species, resources, and habitats to maintain a flourishing biosphere. The cycle of life and death regulates the balance of nature in ecosystems. More importantly, it provides evolution the essential genetic supply to create higher life forms.
Another significant process purporting evolution lies in the complex nonlinear systems. Ilya Prigogine and Isabell Stengers in their book, Order out of Chaos, Man’s Dialogue with Nature explained the complexity phenomenon in nonlinear (open) systems. Complexity arises from a system (dissipative structure) that has made a qualitative leap (bifurcation) to a new level of order after reaching the edge of equilibrium ready to deteriorate, triggered by an effectual disturbance (fluctuation) in the fluid state. According to Prigogine and Stengers, a dissipative structure, which is an open system in a constant flux of exchanging energy and matter with its environment, requires more energy to sustain it than the simpler structure it replaced. The probability of possible outcomes from bifurcation is unpredictable due to its countless possibilities. However, the selected possibility most likely gravitated toward one of the more suitable choices of settlement (attractor) at the time to advance a new level of direction. Since subsystems constantly interact with one another, the average complexity of the whole system will also increase. Thus, complexity heads in one direction — along the same forward movement as time.
Apparently, bifurcation instigates adaptive changes, identifiable as punctuated equilibrium in evolution — long stable periods interrupted by a series of sporadic durations of rapid radical changes. Occasional minor perturbation succeeded in shunting the system into another different new attractor. For the system to be stabilized, the adapted change prompts the reorganization of the whole structure to restore equilibrium. The fact that the transition between two opposing states — from stability to instability and vice versa — indicates a turbulent switch rather than a gradual process. Therefore, some changes are far from minor but of major consequences. Perhaps, the degree of intensity in transition and the imposing external factors could affect the overall outcome of the change. For example, a minor change could be seen as a slight modification between finch species and a major shift could be seen as a significant jump from ape to hominid.
All systems contain subsystems. While a subsystem is a part of the whole, it is also a whole in its own right. In striving for stability, the system requires self-organization to maintain self-sufficient components becoming coherent new patterns, structures and behaviors. It is the process of interaction between individual components, which brings forth new patterns at a global level. Each hierarchical level establishes a set of rules for order or form to govern behavior of parts. The collective dynamics of parts at each level is seen as an emergent property.
Many theories have inadequately tried to bridge the behavior gap between the macro and micro worlds in explaining the emergent property — how molecular particles could be seen as shape, density, structure, etc. The constituents of the micro world come from either cosmic origin (elements) or life origin (cells), whereas the constituents of the macro world consist of system levels built on these very basic elements and cells. Perhaps the answer lies not in the components themselves but in the dimension of time. The emergent property arises from the perception of our physical world captured in different facets of time. The dimension of time has never been fully understood because time doesn’t possess any physical property. However, we do know some characteristics of time: it measures a sequence of events; it moves in one irreversible direction; it is not absolute; and only spacetime has an absolute reality independent of the observer. The former two features are obvious but the latter two have been difficult to grasp.
In confirming Einstein’s special relativity theory, scientists have proven that time passes at different rates for observers moving relative to each other. In addition, time runs slower for objects further from gravity. However, physicists face many problems in explaining quantum mechanics using the natural physical laws based on special relativity theory. The Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle states that the existence of elementary particles relies on probability and observation, insinuating that location and quantity of motion cannot be measured simultaneously. It asserts that a fundamental particle has magical quality — blinking in and out of existence. But, the fact that the quantity of its motion can be traced or even measured implies its existence being tangible in the objective world. To assume the existence of such particle rests on observation suggests that the problem of the spatial-temporal connection lies only in human observation, not in the stability of the particle’s existence.
The concept of time is based on the movement of things. If time measures a series of events, then it’s conceivable that time runs faster in the micro world because elementary particles interact at a much quicker speed. In other words, when we observe a molecule, it’s like watching a fast forward film. The physical laws of the macro world would be inadequate to apply to the micro world, unless the concept of difference in time is taken into consideration. That is, the time difference between the micro and macros worlds forms a barrier from which the problem of uncertainty principle arises in quantum mechanics.
Although time plays an integral part of the universe, it is an inherent feature of complex systems. The emergent properties present the embodiment of self-sustaining systems in their cooperation with each other, their interactions with the environment, and their historical timeline. In a complex structure, from the highest to the lowest level of systems, the environmental factors (e.g., sun, rain, wind, etc.) were involved in molding the shape, density, form, etc., and the structure’s formation process was captured in step with time. In a sense, when we see a table, we can actually see the entire evolutionary process of it. For example, the clumps of molecules first formed wood, then later shaped into a table. The emergent properties are the results of interacting microstates in time lapse seen in one time frame of the macro world.
The manifestation of evolution expands with complexity, which is unpredictable and at times, fantastical. Open systems are often forced to experiment and explore the range of possibilities, which inadvertently lead to creations of new patterns of relationships and various structures. Thus, creativity stems from complexity as a source for originality, individuality, and novelty. In our complicated world, diversity, sophistication, and beauty are well demonstrated in nature, fauna and flora, and music and art.
In the complex adaptive system of our planet, creativity was the vital source that sparked life. With the understanding of how qualitative leap can happen in such a system, life could be a natural consequence of atoms and molecules interacting in an energy-rich environment. At its volatile beginning, the Earth was a hot brewing environment mixing chemical elements originated from outer space and abundant elements of carbon — essential to all living things. Various chemical reactions began to take place, creating new elements and compounds, including the amino acids — the building blocks of life. As early as 3.5 billion years ago, the inception of life appeared in the sea as heterotrophs. As the first lifeforms, heterotrophs absorbed organic substrates to get carbon for their energy. To this day, archea bacteria, came into existence 3.5 billion years ago, have been recently rediscovered on hardened lava in undersea vents, hot sulfur springs, and Antarctica. Unlike the heterotrophs, the evolved autotrophs possessed the capability to synthesize energy from inorganic material via sunlight. They were able to use carbon dioxide as sole carbon source. Afterwards, life evolved into more complex organisms adapted to their environment and exploited the niches that they could inhabit throughout the planet.
The theory of Modern Synthesis, an extension of Darwinism, expounded that evolution works at the level of genes, phenotypes, and populations. It claimed that random genetic mutation and recombination provide populations with genetic variation. When geographic barriers isolate a population of species, they become different and can no longer interbreed with other populations of the same species. Therefore, species gradually evolve through the accumulation of small genetic changes. The overpopulation of species eventually forces organisms to fight for survival over diminishing environmental resources. For an organism to survive, it needs a competitive edge over other organisms. Natural selection selects those genetic mutations that make the organism most suited to its environment and therefore more likely to survive and reproduce. In doing so, specialization leads to diversity of form and each new form uniquely adapts to their habitat for survival.
Although human beings are the most advanced species on the planet, they have only been in existence for 2 million years, hardly noticeable on the Earth’s time scale of 4.6 billion years. About 65 million years ago, when dinosaurs were at the brink of mass extinction, Didelphondon, a four-legged creature came into existence as the descendant of all mammals. The ancestral line of human, the hominid family, branched away from the apes around 6 to 8 million years ago. The first excavated evidence supporting this diversification is the skeleton “Lucy,” found in Ethiopia, dating her life back to 3 million years ago. Lucy australopithecines belonged to the early hominid that had subtle evolutionary changes in the skeletal structure, especially the skull, which resembles the one of modern man. The early hominids were the first of the evolutionary line to venture out of the jungle to the open lands. Many more types of hominids appeared before human (Homo Sapiens) finally evolved from Homo Erectus, who stood on two legs, about 2 million years ago. As human evolved, the brain almost doubled in size, raising the level of intelligence over other animals. Modern man has a large brain for its body size in the animal kingdom. In fact, intelligence of an organism is measured by its brain size in proportion to its body size.
All living things have instinctive awareness — a biological quality that makes them animate. It is argued that consciousness is a form of cognition characteristic of more complex self-governing organisms, especially those with complex nervous systems. The evolution of consciousness lies in the significant alterations of various qualities and dimensions of conscious experience — the contents of consciousness. As the physiological changes of an organism developed, adding complex body parts, the level of consciousness increased in processing and distributing data to the other parts of the organism. As the brain evolved, new additional features expanded the functions of consciousness. A cortex provided memory and recognition and an advanced version, a neo-cortex furnished the ability to perform simple reasoning and to use symbols for communication, as in language. Conscience, thought, planning and many other higher cognitive functions in man are determined by our brain's unique capacity for symbolic representation. Perhaps, the expansion of consciousness caused the brain to enlarge, which led to developing an intelligent mind.
With this intelligence, we have the rare opportunity to figure out how we fit into this evolutionary process of the universe. The purpose of man is to appreciate our very existence and to protect the world we live in. By learning about the past, we can reach an understanding of the cosmos and of ourselves, and perhaps advance humanity for a better future. As the universe expands and undergoes constant changes, the evolution will be continuous, unpredictable, and more complex.
To comprehend the human role in evolution, we need to vigorously pursue science to unlock the secrets of the universe. Science challenges us to broaden our knowledge, which in turn will affect our human evolution in this ever-changing cosmos. Even though we have religions to promote compassion and humility, voluntary groups to share the burdens of society, and medical research to improve human lives, we still face the threat of mass extinction someday. We might never be able to prevent our demise from climatic catastrophes (ice age or asteroid collision) or our own wrong doing (nuclear war or environmental destruction), but at least we’d be able to know why it could happen to us.
Of course, the only possible escape is to find other extrasolar planets with similar evolutionary makeup for lifeforms.
If we were to be so lucky.
1. John Morgan Allman, “Evolving Brains,” Scientific American Library Series, No. 68 January 1999
2. Kauffman S.A., The Origins of Order: Self-Organization and Section in Evolution, Oxford University Press, 1993
3. Kauffman, S. A., At Home In The Universe, Oxford University Press, 1995
4. Illya Prigogine & Isabelle Stengers, Order Out of Chaos, Bantam Books, 1984
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