On My 72nd Year: My Ten Fundamental Beliefs
By Gene Wilburn
“I just dropped in to see what condition my condition was in” ~ Kenny Rogers
Every year around birthday time (June 10 for me), I like to take stock of what I believe in. Where do I fit with the cosmos? What are my bedrock, fundamental assumptions? This year’s thinking mirrors very closely what I’ve thought for several years, but age has perhaps lent them more clarity.
Let’s start at the beginning. As Terry Pratchett once wrote, “In the beginning, there was nothing, which exploded.” For each of us our cosmology starts somewhere, and for me it starts with the Big Bang, which I’m told was not really so much an explosion as an expansion — a very dramatic expansion in which a primordial soup of plasma emerged that was so hot not even atoms could form. As it expanded it created space and time. The universe was born. About 13.7 billion years ago, if our measurements are correct.
If it helps you to believe that this was a result of God breathing across the waters, so be it — we each have our favourite narratives. The question of how something can come of nothing is a profound one, and physicists have some thoughts about this: that there really is nothing such as nothing. Particles and antiparticles evidently come into and out of existence billions of times per second and usually annihilate one another, but, at least once, it is possible that particles accumulated faster than antiparticles forming a singularity and, well, boom!
So, that’s belief number one: the universe came into existence. This had implications. Chemistry was born. Eventually particles changed into quarks as the plasma cooled, and later, hydrogen atoms formed. Concentrate enough hydrogen atoms together and what do you get? Fusion. The birth of stars. Then, over time, some stars die in a spectacular explosion called a supernova in which most of the rest of the naturally-occurring chemical elements are created, spewn forth as stellar dust and ice. As these clouds of stellar material concentrate and condense, new stars form, with planets around them. One of these 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.
Which brings me to belief number two: Out of inorganic matter, life began. How is still unsolved, but researchers are exploring the tantalizing possibilities of RNA and other life-critical molecules developing in places like deep-sea vents and evolving into a self-replicating thing that we might call first life, or even protolife — 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 form nucleated cells, which we name as eukaryotes.
Which brings me to belief number three: life evolved. Over great periods of time, eukaryotes developed along plant and animal lines, oxygenating the atmosphere, and eventually some pioneering life forms ventured from the oceans to the lands to colonize the barren geology of earth, turning it into large organic ecosystems.
Belief number four is that, for the most part, the universe is random. It is not willed, or fated, or progressive, though randomness can lead to increased complexities. Using some basic structural parts, nature evolved through random genetic changes into extraordinarily rich organic landscapes and seascapes, filled with the plants and animals of its day. The PreCambrian Explosion, various extinctions, and random 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 chance to fill the empty ecological niches.
Belief number five is that the emergence of human beings, in the form of Homo sapiens, was not preordained. We’re a branch of primates that evolved in particular ways to adjust to our environment and we had cousin species, Neanderthals, Denisovans, etc., who did the same. We’ve only been on the planet a short while, in geological terms, but we’ve become a new force. After nearly perishing from extinction ourselves, we made it, and we developed a complex brain that would allow us to discover agriculture, mathematics, and art. Not to mention learning how to sew reindeer hide into warm clothing for the Arctic.
Belief number six is that we originated in and emigrated from Africa. Down deep, 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 and not as much protection against UV radiation is required.
Belief number seven is that we developed into a language-oriented species that loves narratives. We acquired strong imaginations to accompany the impressive encyclopedic knowledge of our environment we learned through hunting and gathering. Tales around the campfire, stories of our ancestors, legends, myths, and, of course, gods. We’re a species that wants to participate in its own narrative, even if that narrative is unreliable.
Belief number eight is that this narrative of human history is important to study in all its facets, including science, the humanities, and the arts and music. Physically, humans haven’t evolved much in the past 100,000 years or so, but mentally we’ve evolved through many great civilizations in ways that are fascinating and that contributed to our rise as a species.
Belief number nine is that, mentally, we went through our ‘teen’ years between Galileo and Einstein. We began to mature toward mental adulthood by rigorously questioning, observing, measuring, and testing our premises. We bent the planet to our wants and needs with an industrial and scientific revolution.
Belief number ten is that we’ve reached, borrowing from an Arthur C. Clarke title, Childhood’s End. We now possess the ability to destroy the planet for mankind, as well as other species. As adults we must learn to be stewards of our planet and treat it with respect.
I realize I’ve said little about the human condition itself. That is left to explore and think about in the context of the first ten beliefs, but I suspect it will always remain a personal, and sometimes communal, journey for each of us. This is why I write essays — to see what I think about life. We are all part of the overall narrative of mankind and each of us expresses it in a personal way.
To be sure, if we reach mental adulthood intact, the greatest history of Homo sapiens could just be starting. As we look at our current state, we see automation trending ever forward, with artificial intelligence waiting in the wings. We may create a new kind of life form. We may, if wise, develop eco-friendly attitudes about our home planet and change how we obtain energy and food. Our journey as mental adults has just begun. We may even prosper, as long as a random comet doesn’t smash into us again, and as long as we don’t self destruct. Fingers crossed, humankind!