It's taken weeks to get here but we've covered 13.7 billion years of cosmic quirks. We've gone from The Big Bang and the Birth of Culture through Supersynchrony And The Evolution Of Mass Culture to The Big Burp And The Evolution of Elements.
We've seen the beginning of mass behavior among quarks, the proto-memory of atoms, and a strange preview of culture long before life arose. We've run a background check on Evolution (aka Mother Nature) and have discovered her track record of violence and destruction. Destruction from which she's pulled enormous leaps of creativity.
We've sifted through Nature's murderous past looking for the lessons we humans must learn if we are to have a future. And in the end it all comes down to two fundamental realizations--that climate stability is radically unnatural and that we aren't running out of resources, we're running out of ingenuity. Ingenuity that we can get back.
Bacteria over two billion years ago(123) utterly polluted this planet’s atmosphere by farting out a toxic gas that seemed to threaten all of life. That gas was oxygen.(124) And yet other bacteria invented ways to turn this poison to food and fuel.(125) They invented strategies for recruiting the uncountable molecules of a poison into biomass.
The mud that covers the bottom of the sea is not just a product of inanimate nature.(126) It is a massive desecration of 70% of this Earth’s pristine rocky surface,(127) a fertile sludge generated by the burrowing and swimming creatures of the sea.(128) It is the recruitment of gazillions of inanimate atoms into the grand project of biomass.
Microbes long ago raped the naked Earth above the seas, piercing its cloak of stone.(129) They produced chemicals that turned a tiny bit of this planet’s coat of rock into powder.(130) Microbes spat out mineral particles from which new rocks would be made. And microbes opened cracks in the planet’s native stone. Then plants dug their roots into microscopic cracks and split the virgin bedrock.(131) If Charles Darwin is right, every fruitful field now covered with soil was the product of a massive landscaping effort left to us by millions of generations of earthworms who “sinned” against nature by doing plastic surgery on our pristine planet’s face.(132) The earthworms turned jagged outcrops and crevasses into gentle hills, slopes, and valleys. We use the worms’ violation of Mother Nature to grow our plants and we worship the worms’ legacy— rainforests and greenery.
Meanwhile bacteria have continued to outdo us in the research and development business, constantly remaking this rocky orb. They profane the planet by following nature’s imperative for the grand experiment of life—take as many inanimate molecules as you can grab and press-gang them into the family of cells and DNA. Be fruitful and multiply. Turn poisons into delicacies and barren wastes into candy. Be consumerist as hell. Be materially rapacious. Make as much of this inanimate globe as you can into biomass.
What does this mean for you and me? What does it mean for the culture of human beings? Our culture is one among many this planet has spawned. But we think our culture is unique. And it is. Our culture is built on brains and on the passions of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal-gonadal axis. Our culture is built on emotion, reason, and, literally, balls and guts. As a result, our culture froths with poetry, music, story-telling, technology, high aspirations, self-hating philosophies, and consciousness.
Our culture is also built on something no bacterium or chimp can conceive. It’s built on an ancestor worship(133) that keeps our ancient trail of insights alive for hundreds of generations. We worship ancestors more than we know. In science, we invoke their names to validate our scientific claims. We refer to Plato, Aristotle, Newton, Darwin, and Einstein. We do it in our journal articles. We do it in our lectures and in our conventions. We do it all the time.
In political life, we invoke our founding fathers—Jefferson, Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton. Islam invokes the memory of Mohammed and has produced tens of thousands of pages recording nearly every moment of his life.(134) Buddhism is built on the memory of Siddhārtha Gautama, the Buddha.(135) And anti-globalism and anti-capitalism keep alive the spirit of the French Revolution, Karl Marx, and Michele Foucault. The result is a layer-upon-layer crepe-cake of thought-tools that builds the way that bacterial stromatolites rise from the bottom of the sea and reach for the sky.(136) But this multi-layered monument exists in imagination and achievement. It exists as a product of human minds.
What can our culture—with these unique powers— do for the 3.85 billion-year experiment of the bioprocess? What can it do for the family of cells and DNA? What can it do for the mega-project of life? What, if any, is our mandate from this cosmos’ history?
Our universe has shown a remarkable ability to reinvent itself and to create radically new forms—quarks, protons, galaxies, and stars—without culture and without human beings. Then the universe has used these new creations to create even more. As incarnations of nature, as the most complex forms of social dance protons have yet conceived, it is our obligation to contribute to this reinvention, to this production of massive surprises and of enormous change.
First off, we are NOT running out of resources. We are running out of ingenuity. We are using less than a quadrillionth of the resources of this planet. Geomorphologists point out that when you look at the Earth from space, “few if any natural landforms on Earth bear the unmistakable mark of life.”(138) There is 1.097 sextillion cubic meters of rock, magma, and iron beneath our feet. (1,097,509,500,000,000,000,000 (139)) That’s over a sextillion-cubic-meter stock of raw materials we haven’t yet learned to use. We haven’t yet learned to turn that sextillion-cubic-meter stockpile into fuel, food, or energy. We haven’t yet recruited it into the clan of biomass, into the family of DNA. We haven’t yet pulled it into the enterprise of life.
Is there any indication that we could or should transform more of this material into biomass? Yes. The first clue comes from our clever relatives bacteria. Two miles beneath your feet and mine even as we speak, bacteria are turning granite into food and fuel, into substance for the grand project of biomass.(140) Anything bacteria can do, we can do better.
The second clue? We are the only species that can take the DNA-and-cell experiment off this planet, off this one fragile terrarium of Earth. We are the only species that can plant biomass on other planets and moons in this solar system. We are the only species that can carry life to other stars and galaxies. And taking life beyond the Earth is an absolute necessity. Why?
The next mass extinction—the next great climate catastrophe— is inevitable, no matter how many Kyoto treaties, carbon sequestration schemes, and heroes of sustainability like Al Gore we have. Let’s get to the bitter bottom line. There have been roughly 142 mass extinctions on this globe.(141) That’s one species apocalypse every 26 million years.(142) What’s more, carbon dioxide levels in our Earth’s early atmosphere were 100 to 1,000 times(143) what they are today.(144) And there were no smokestacks or tailpipes anywhere in sight. In our 226 million-year(145) sweep around the center of our galaxy,(146) we accumulate 30 million kilograms of space dust per year. Every 100,000 years we whiffle through a cloud of interplanetary powder that triples that amount.(147) These dust immersions radically change the climate on the surface of our little sphere. And every 143 million years we plow through a spiral arm of our galaxy and hit a patch of cosmic rays that plunges us into an ice age.(148)
But there’s more. There have been 60 ice ages in the two million years(149) since Homo habilis(150) began the trek that led to the evolution of you and me. What’s more, in the last 120,000 years, the era of us physically modern men and women, us Homo sapiens sapiens,(151) there have been 20 global warmings,(152) hothouse conditions in which the planet’s temperature has shot up between 10 and 18 degrees in a mere twenty years or less.(153) And that is just the beginning of the list of Mother Nature’s atrocities. The sun itself has set us on the path to a slow boil. Good old sol is now 43% brighter—43% hotter—than it was when the Earth began.(154) Yet Earth has been in danger of freezing like an iceball over and over again(155) and has spent the last 420,000 years(156) in an ice age that only stopped for a brief pause roughly 12,000 years ago, when we humans were released from the deep freeze and began the steps that would lead to the invention of agriculture and cities, both of which we concocted roughly 10,000 years ago.(157)
Just to show how many natural flukes can re-sculpt our weather, until 10,000 years ago the Gulf Stream shifted its route every 1,500 years,(158) leaving former warm areas in the cold, and making former frigid zones semi-tropical. Then there’s the Milankovich Effect, an eccentric wobble (a precession) in our planet’s rotation around the sun that resculpts our climatic patterns every 22,000, 41,000, and 100,000 years.(159)
The climatic stability we think is natural is not.(160) It is a 12,000-year-long oddity, a total departure from Mother Nature’s norm.(161) Unless we learn far, far more about meteorological engineering than we know today, the relatively stable weather we’ve bathed in since the departure of the last ice age 12,000 years ago will someday change entirely.
Carbon sequestration may well be our first attempt at macro-meteorological tinkering. And it may lead to far more sophisticated ways to control our climate. But we have to ditch the fantasy that every climate glitch is our fault and that we must atone by shunning consumption, by sacrificing to the planet, and by making Mother Nature happy.
Mother Nature’s way is instability and catastrophe. She killed off stars. And she has killed off more species than we can count. Mother Nature, to quote a chapter title from my book The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition Into the Forces of History, is a “bloody bitch.”(162)
Evolution has put us in the bulls eye of disaster. We are a hydrophilic species. We are water lovers. Sixty percent of the humans on this globe live in coastal areas.(163) As Plato said, we are dotted like frogs around a pond.(164) And every coastal city we prize, from New York to Shanghai, will someday end up under the sea or on a mountaintop. That will happen with or without our carbon emissions. It’s happened to many a water-loving species before us. That’s why we find the fossils of sea creatures on mountain tops. The message? Without making some very big moves, all of us coastal frogs will someday either find ourselves far too high and dry or we will drown.
Mother Nature and the evolutionary process have also provided a solution to the certainty of catastrophe. For 3.85 billion years, the imperative of biomass has been to accessorize the standard backbone of life(165) —the DNA-cell system—with as many ways of making a living, of consuming the inedible, of crawling into crevasses and crannies, and of soaring to new heights as it can. With that trick, the family of DNA has ensured that when the next big mass extinction hits, some life forms will be stripped away, but other of life’s experiments, her variations on her Big Burp theme, will survive.
Bacteria are the ultimate survivors, the ultimate evangelists preaching through their actions the imperatives of evolution, the commandments of the cosmos, and the obligations of life. Lesson number one from bacteria is this: Without consumption, there would be no ecosystems. There would be no life. A bacterial colony expands by guzzling the fuel of photons, by harnessing inanimate chemistry, and by stitching lifeless atoms of nitrogen, hydrogen, and carbon into the molecules of proteins and sugars, into the weave of cell walls, into the braids of genes, and into the soup of protoplasm in between. A bacterial colony expands by recruiting, seducing, and conquering as many inanimate molecules as it can, bringing them into the family of biomass, the family of life. It expands by inventing new ways to consume.(166)
Bacterial lesson number two. Carve out as many new niches as you can. Race with all your might and creativity to outwit the next catastrophe, nature’s next mass extinction. As we’ve mentioned, bacteria have invented ways to flourish in the toxic bath of oxygen that drowned this planet roughly two billion years ago.(167) They’ve learned to flourish where there is no oxygen at all.(168) They’ve invented ways to be fruitful and multiply eating the steel of oil pipelines(169) and the metal and PVC plastic(170) in the plumbing of skyscrapers.(171) They’ve invented ways to munch the most abundant metal in the crust of the Earth, aluminum,(172) and to turn it into bio-stuff. They’ve created techniques for living in plumes of water with a searing 120 degrees of heat and to press-gang inanimate sulfur atoms into the metabolic processes of life.(173) They’ve pioneered ways to thrive in the radioactive cooling pools of nuclear plants.(174)
They’ve shown that in all probability they will take the carnage left by a nuclear Armageddon, eat it, and turn it into yet more mega-teams of innovators and of micro-inventors—more bacteria.
But that is the merest hint of bacteria’s obsessive imperative to find new niches for life. Between fifty and five hundred trillion bacteria are in your throat and gut right now.(175) They’ve worked out a deal that makes you a niche, a portable home, and a gatherer of their groceries. The bacterial colonies in your throat defend you from hostile microorganisms.(176) And the bacterial colonies in your stomach and intestines digest much of your food for you. All you have to do is give them a nice, warm place to live. They’ve worked out a similar deal with migrating water fowl, who fly bacterial colonies thousands of miles, allowing them to spread intercontinentally.(177)
Bruce Moffett, a microbiologist at the University of East London, even suspects that bacteria have worked out ways to fly high, thrive in clouds, and to make the weather they like the best.(178) The result? Bacteria have survived every mass extinction with which this planet has threatened to wipe out biomass.
Now the trick is to spread this invention of new niches, this recruitment and radical upgrade of dead atoms, this next step in evolution that we call life, beyond one tiny, fragile nest. The biggest unfilled niche for life exists above our heads.
There’s a simple trick nature has taught us via birds. There are more than twice as many bird species as species of mammals(179) -- twice as many kinds of feathered sky-soarers than furry, down-to-earth ground walkers. The lesson? Those who fly find more environmental pockets of riches than those who remain earthbound.
We are the only species on the face of this planet who can fly beyond the atmosphere. We are the only beings whose culture has created spaceships. We are the only life forms who have walked on the moon. We are the only bio-mechanisms who can take ecosystems to the planets and the stars.
Our mission, should we choose to accept it, is to innovate our way around every climatic catastrophe nature throws our way. It is to spread the products of the Big Burp, to expand life’s unique form of manic mass production and supersynchrony. It is to find more protective niches—niches in this solar system and beyond—for the family of cells and DNA.
Our evolutionary mandate is to give life a shot at pulling all of this cosmos into the evolutionary process. Our evolutionary mandate is to recruit all of this universe into the process we call nature, the process we call culture, the process we call ecosystems, the process we call life.
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(131) Sid Perkins. Signs of Life? Organisms' effects on terrain aren't all that easy to perceive. Science News Aug. 4, 2007; Vol. 172, No. 5. Retrieved March 12, 2008, from the World Wide Web http://www.sciencenews.org/articles/20070804/bob10.asp.
(132) Charles Darwin. The formation of vegetable mould through the action of worms: With observations of their habits. London: J. Murray, 1904.
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(134) These thousand of pages include the four books of the Hadith—the eyewitness accounts of Mohammed’s life--and the early Moslem biographies of Mohammed, one of which, al Tabari’s History, is 39 books long. See: Sahih Bukhari. Translator: M. Muhsin Khan. MSA-USC Hadith Database. (MSA is the Moslem Student Association, an organization allegedly used by Saudi Arabia as a propaganda machine. Because the MSA is an authentic and devout Moslem source, its online English-language translation of Islam’s sacred books should be impeccably faithful to the originals.) USC-MSA Compendium of Muslim Texts. University of Southern California.
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(136) For a detailed description of the evolution of human culture, see Howard Bloom. Global Brain: The Evolution of Mass Mind From The Big Bang to the 21st Century. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 2000.
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(141) According to David Raup’s and J. John Sepkoski’s canonical paper on the statistical parameters of “major extinctions”, during the last 250 million years, there have been twelve mass extinctions, "with a mean interval between events of 26 million years". If we extend this average, one mass extinction every 26 million years, back through the 3.85 billion years of life on this planet, we arrive at an estimate of 148 mass extinctions since life began. David M. Raup and J. John Sepkoski. Periodicity of Extinctions in the Geologic Past. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, February 1, 1984, vol. 81, no. 3: pp. 801-805.
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(145) Paul Recer. Radio astronomers measure sun's orbit around Milky Way. Associated Press, June 1, 1999. For a list of the varied estimates of the sun’s orbit around the core of our galaxy, estimates that are all in the 226-million-year ballpark, see: Glenn Elert, editor. Period of the Sun's Orbit around the Galaxy (Cosmic Year). In The Physics Factbook. Retrieved March 12, 2008, from the World Wide Web http://hypertextbook.com/facts/2002/StacyLeong.shtml.
(146) For the high correlation between mass extinctions and our 226 million-year-trip around the galactic core, see: G. N. Goncharov and V. V. Orlov. Global repeating events in the history of the Earth and the motion of the Sun in the Galaxy. Astronomy Reports, Volume 47, Number 11, November, 2003: pp. 925-933.
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(152) Technically these instant global warmings are called Dansgaard–Oeschger events. In the 120,000 years since the end of the Eemian interglacial, these instant global warmings have occurred roughly every 1,500 years. Stefan Rahmstorf . Ocean circulation and climate during the past 120,000 years. Nature 419, September 12, 2002: pp. 207-214 | doi:10.1038/nature01090
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(160) Write Illinois State Museum’s director R. Bruce McMillan and seven of his colleagues, “Our modern climate represents a very short, warm period between glacial advances.” R. Bruce McMillan, Rickard S. Toomey, III, Erich Schroeder, Russell W. Graham, Eric C. Grimm, Pietra G. Mueller, Jeffrey J. Saunders, and Bonnie W. Styles. Ice Ages: When have Ice Ages occurred? Springfield, IL. Illinois State Museum. second edition, 2002. Retrieved March 12, 2008, from the World Wide Web
http://www.museum.state.il.us/exhibits/ice_ages/when_ice_ages.html. And according to Richard A. Muller and Gordon MacDonald, “It is clear that most of the last 420 thousand years (420 kyr) was spent in ice age…. The very unusual nature of the last 11,000 years stands out in striking contrast to the 90,000 years of cold that preceded it.” Richard A. Muller and Gordon MacDonald. Ice Ages and Astronomical Causes. New York: Springer-Praxis, 2000. Retrieved March 12, 2008, from the World Wide Web
http://muller.lbl.gov/pages/IceAgeBook/history_of_climate.html. Adds Stefan Rahmstorf, Professor of Physics of the Oceans at Potsdam University in Germany and Member of the German Advisory Council on Global Change, "Abrupt climate events appear to be paced by a 1,470-year cycle with a period that is probably stable to within a few percent.... This highly precise clock points to an origin outside the Earth system...." Stefan Rahmstorf. Timing of abrupt climate change: a precise clock. Geophysical Research Letters, vol. 30, no. 10, March 2003. Retrieved August 25, 2007, from the World Wide Web http://pik-potsdam.de/~stefan/Publications/Journals/rahmstorf_grl_2003.pdf. See also: Thomas J. Crowley and Gerald R. North. Abrupt Climate Change and Extinction Events in Earth History. Science, May 20, 1988: Vol. 240. no. 4855: pp. 996–1002, DOI: 10.1126/science.240.4855.996.
(161) Even the most optimistic experts on climatological history compare our temporary truce with the ice to another highly unusual period that lasted 28,000 years. The wildly out-of-character thaw whose example these scientists hope our epoch will follow is: “the interglacial stage following Termination V”. EPICA community members. Eight glacial cycles from an Antarctic ice core. Nature 429, June 10, 2004: pp. 623-628 | doi:10.1038/nature02599; Retrieved March 12, 2008, from the World Wide Web
(162) Howard Bloom. The Lucifer Principle: a scientific expedition into the forces of history. New York: Grove/Atlantic, 1997.
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(165) These insights on the evolution of the Family of DNA were stimulated by the work of David Smillie: David Smillie. Human Nature and Evolution: language, culture, and race. Paper given at the Biennial Meeting of the International Society of Human Ethology, Amsterdam, August 1992. David Smillie. Darwin's Tangled Bank: The Role of Social Environments. Perspectives in Ethology, Volume 10: Behavior and Evolution, edited by P.P.G. Bateson, et. al. New York: Plenum Press, 1993: pp. 119-141. David Smillie. Darwin's Two Paradigms: An “Opportunistic” Approach to Group Selection Theory. Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems Volume 18, number 3, 1995: pp. 231-255. David Smillie. Group processes and human evolution: sex and culture as adaptive strategies. Paper presented at the 19th Annual Meeting of the European Sociobiological Society, Alfred, NY, July 25, 1996.
(166) Yes, some bacterial colonies work diligently to snatch inanimate atoms and make them part of the bio-process, part of the extended family of DNA. Autotrophs kidnap carbon dioxide, chemolithoautotrophs press-gang hydrogen, iron, sulfur, ammonia, and nitrites, chemoorganoheterotrophs enslave miscellaneous chemical compounds, and uncategorized bacteria grab and swallow molecules of methane and carbon monoxide. See: NASA. Life on Other Planets in the Solar System.—Looking for Extraterrestrial life. Viability of Micro-organisms. TABLE 1.2 Microorganisms with Particular Physiological and Nutritional Characteristics. Retrieved March 12, 2008, from the World Wide Web
http://www.resa.net/nasa/extreme_chart.htm. For another example, see the ways in which bacteria make use of inanimate sulfur atoms: Agnieszka Sekowska & Antoine Danchin. Sulfur metabolism in Bacteria, with emphasis on Escherichia coli and Bacillus subtilis. Genetics of Bacterial Genomes. Pasteur Institute, France. Retrieved March 12, 2008, from the World Wide Web http://www.pasteur.fr/recherche/unites/REG/sulfur_review.html.
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(170) A team led by R.L. Anderson at the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia, reports that pipe-eating microbes manage to survive heavy-duty assaults with disinfectants, including chlorine, phenolic, ethanol, quaternary-ammonium, and idiophor. R.L. Anderson, B.W. Holland, J.K. Carr, W.W. Bond, M.S. Favero. Effect of disinfectants on pseudomonads colonized on the interior surface of PVC pipes. American Journal of Public Health, Volume 80, issue 1, January 1990: pp. 17-21.
(171) Andy Coghlan. Mapping the Slime Cities. World Press Review, December 1996: pp. 32-33.
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(174) The champion of bacteria that have invented ways to thrive in a radioactive environment is Deinococcus radiodurans. For more on Deinococcus radiodurans survival tricks, see: Y. Hua, I. Narumi, G. Gao, B. Tian, K. Satoh, S. Kitayama, B. Shen. PprI: a general switch responsible for extreme radioresistance of Deinococcus radiodurans. Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications. June 2003 27; 306 (2): pp. 354-60. Retrieved March 12, 2008, from the World Wide Web http://www.cab.zju.edu.cn/INAS/personal%20web/Hyj/paper/PprI_2003.pdf. J.R. Battista. Against all odds: the survival strategies of Deinococcus radiodurans. Annual Review of Microbiology, 1997; 51: pp. 203-24. Retrieved March 12, 2008, from the World Wide Web
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(176) Stuart B. Levy. The Antibiotic Paradox: How Miracle Drugs are Destroying the Miracle. New York: Plenum Press, 1992. Stuart B. Levy, M.D. "Multidrug Resistance—A Sign of the Times." The New England Journal of Medicine, May 7, 1998. The Center for Adaptation Genetics and Drug Resistance, Retrieved January 1999, from the World Wide Web
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(178) CNN. Bugs may control weather. CNN.com, May 27, 2002. Retrieved March 15, 2003, from the World Wide Web http://www.cnn.com/2002/WEATHER/05/27/bugs.weather/index.html. Oliver Morton. The Living Skies: Cloud Behavior and its Role in Climate Change. The Hybrid Vigor Journal, April 2002. Retrieved March 12, 2008, from the World Wide Web
(179) "There are over 10000 species of birds in the world," Introduction to Bird Species and Ornithology: Number of Bird Species in the World. Birding.com. Retrieved March 12, 2008, from the World Wide Web http://www.birding.com/species.asp. The total number of mammal species, on the other hand, comes to a mere 4,629. World Resource Institute. Species: Mammal species, number. Retrieved March 12, 2008, from the World Wide Web