Welcome Back, Me
- Good morning, self-despising humans.
I've been a member for this group longer than I can remember. I was a young teenager at the time, and a staunch christian.
It must have been... at least 5 years, maybe more. I would have completely forgotten about this group had they actually unsubscribed me when I asked multiple times for them to do so. My inbox is stuffed to the brim with old posts that are more of the same.
Since then, I have become a biologist, and a staunch atheist. Among the most important lessons of my education is that of ignorance. All people are enormously ignorant about the natural world. Scientists simply have a better idea about how ignorant everybody really is. The complexity and subtlety of nature is harder to pry apart than an atom with tweezers. The unending pursuit of truth is a uniquely human behavior. In fact, it is, to me, the greatest way to express one's humanity, to be at peace with it, and to love it.
Life is fantastic, to put it simply. Its intricacies and its idiosyncrasies are boundless, artistic and poetic. From the most humble bacteria to the graceful, immense baleen whales, there is no shortage of subjects one could write thousands upon thousands of volumes about.
A philosophical question often arises, and it is an ancient one. What is life? To be facile, life is whatever you define it to be. Facile, but not facetious; really, that's what life is. There are certain criteria that living things tend to follow, but there are always exceptions.
From studying molecules to phyla, there is one thing that all life must do. It is the sine qua non of the variety of forms and, plainly, the existence of life. It is a quality that is central to every single living thing. That quality is self-replication.
Non-living things may also self-replicate complex patterns. The best example would be crystal formations. Depending of course on the chemical in question, crystals can be very complex and stable. Many are self-assembling, if given enough material. They give rise to more crystals -- and if a piece breaks off, that piece can become a seed for an entirely new parental crystal. But a crystal is not alive. In fact, viruses self-replicate, and they are not considered to be alive either. The only reason for this seems to be that, although viruses and crystals can be complex, they are not nearly as complex as the simplest bacteria. It might then be fair to say life starts at the cell level.
I wish I could impress everybody with the astronomical elegance and simplicity of the greatest creative power of all forms of life. This is called "evolution". Every single creature on this planet today exists because its ancestors were the result of successful natural selection. There is no meaning when one refers to some species as being "higher" and others "lower", other than perhaps say that "higher" means more complex. The distinction is tenuous and informal, since both "high" and "low" organisms are enormously complex. They reflect different so-called "strategies", that is, adaptation suites, life histories, behaviors, etc. to perform the one and only important characteristic of life.
All things live simply to self-replicate. In every living thing you see the descendant of a successful, fertile ancestor. This fact is not subject to contradiction. Had its ancestors not been successful, it would not have existed here today. It would have been, in fact, extinct.
Natural selection has culled many such organisms from the biosphere ever since the very emergence of the first self-replicating molecule. This process has taken literally billions of years. The Earth -- and the entire Universe -- is most likely only a handful of billions of years old. An unimaginably long time scale over which life has been doing what it exists to do, or else it ceases to exist -- make copies of itself.
Indeed, innumerable species and forms in the great tree of life, which is centered in the very first self-replicating molecules, have appeared, persisted for a time, and then disappeared. These species are not a fringe minority -- practically every species that has ever lived is now extinct. They have been going extinct well before the time of agriculture, well before even the time of the first Great Apes. There have been catastrophes of extinction of astronomical scale, and yet life has persisted.
There is nothing sacred about life. There is nothing magical about life. Value is assigned to it, quite uniquely, by more complex animals, particularly mammals. Value comes from the curiosity that it attracts, the beauty it fills our eyes with, and the utility it has to promote precisely what evolution has programmed these animals to do, indeed, what every single living does -- self-replicate. In this, dolphins, wolves, whales, elephants, chimpanzees, and of course humans, are no different from single cells of yeast bubbling in the ferment, or the millions of Avogadro's number of bacteria living today on Earth.
Life is not to be respected, it is to be appreciated. Life is not to be worshiped, but promoted. As soon as you wash your hands with soap, you are ending countless lives. In fact, there are many more bacterial cells living on a single human than the animal cells the human is made out of. They lyse, spill their cytoplasm, their complex molecules of life, and cease to exist. What is instead left is nutritious simple sugars, amino acids, lipids, and nucleotides -- starting material for the "offspring" of the remaining bacteria that will inevitably take its place.
The minute you refuse to mourn for the billions upon billions of bacteria you have killed over your lifetime is the minute you accept that not all life is equally regarded. That is the only practical, sane, and downright logical perspective one can take. The metric for how precious a life is is ultimately its similarity to the so-called "higher" animals. Nobody weeps for most species of plants -- in fact only fringe groups weep for any plants at all. Our common ancestor, from on the order of a billion years ago, were subject to so many DNA changes that the comparison between a whale and a tree is ridiculous, in the eyes of a layperson.
Biodiversity -- the variety of forms of life on Earth -- is an important commodity. Human activity has demonstrably had an impact on this commodity, a largely negative one. Just like after the great catastrophes of extinction on Earth, life persists, and thrives in what would be previously thought as being inhospitable and hostile. It is without question in my mind that human activity has sparked the emergence of new forms, and even species. Humans have even directly intervened and produced, over thousands of years, a variety of grasses, like wheat, corn and rice, that have fed the world since agrarian society dominated the world, also thousands of years ago. They have shaped beasts of burden into what may be viewed as cruel servitude, utter dependence and utter utility to humans alone. Algae and cyanobacteria thrive on the muck we leave in the oceans. Peppered moths became melanic in response to the loss of their lichen covers due to industrial age smog. Harvested fish mature earlier and grow smaller throughout generations to avoid large nets, and then grow larger again to bounce off small nets.
There is no end to evolution, and there is no end to life. What concerns this group is the loss of the more charismatic "higher" forms of life. They are all life. They all come from the same place. They all consume material and energy. They all self-replicate. They exist only because of successful natural selection.
And natural selection produced us, too. We are life just as any other. When our species inevitably becomes extinct, like all species are bound to be and almost every single one already has, there is a distinct possibility that another similar, "thinking" species will emerge, and also shape the world it inhabits. There is no stopping the drumbeat of life and the creative mastermind that is natural selection. There is no intrinsic distinction between life forms except that which humans have decided upon -- and it's no surprise that the animals that are wept over are those that are in the same realm as humans -- the complex mammals, and other vertebrates.
There is no law or delineation, there is no deity that exists to group life into what should or should not be sustained. All that exists is evolution. That is the only law, and it is a biological one, not a cosmic or heavenly inspired one. Distinctions are made based on what self-replicates faster and more successfully. Anything besides that is artificial -- necessarily it is the product of the human mind. And with the elimination of the human mind, so goes that delineation, and no illusion of sacredness will persist.
But natural selection will go on, with or without you.