Evolution and the humanities
- Published: June 15, 2017 June 15, 2017
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Let’s give “natural philosophy” a new meaning. Let’s have it refer to a basic account of what the world consists of and how it’s put together. This would be the basic understanding we’d want our children to have before we go into details. Each particular science or detailed body of wisdom would expand on some part of this natural philosophy but stay consistent with it and keep referring back to it, so all our understanding would fit together smoothly.
Of course we already have something like this that we offer strangers to our culture, such as our children or Martians or people from other cultures. But it’s nothing more than a jumble of ideas left over from history or the separate developments of modern sciences. Better would be to start over, from scratch, to come up with and maintain a new natural philosophy.
I see this as a project for the humanities. I'll give it a try.
TRIAL ONE—OUTLINE OF A NEW NATURAL PHILOSOPHY
Half of what matters in the world is living creatures.
Limited life span-- Some kinds of living creatures live for just a few minutes, others for thousands of years, but each has to have parents that give it life, and each eventually dies.
Made of cells--Each living creatures consist of extremely small cells. Some creatures consist of only one cell but those large enough for us to see consist of many cells. Our bodies consist of a trillion cells. Different parts of living creatures, like our blood and our skin, are made up of different kinds of cells.
Defined by genomes—each cell of a living creature contains a copy of a tape of code that says what kind of creature it is, that makes it grow to become part of a particular species of creature. That tape of code is called the genome. Each creature inherits its genomes from its parents. Cells of different kinds in a living creature result from different parts of the genome being active.
Kinds of living creatures—living creatures divide first into animals, like us, and plants. Then, animals and plants divide up into different kinds, until you get down to species. Species consist of populations of individuals that reproduce together, sharing their genomes, keeping them similar enough to stay distinct from other species.
What makes us special--We’re a special kind of animal because we’re conscious of ourselves and we can talk to each other about what we’re conscious of. Just by consciously wanting to we can be creative and arrive at decisions. For each kind of creature its genome specifies what colors it can see, what feelings it can experience, how it will sense and respond to things. That’s why we see in particular colors, and have particular kinds of feelings.
The other half of what matters in the world is what’s not living creatures.
Energy—One aspect of what’s not living creatures is energy, what makes things happen. It takes a variety of forms, such as heat, light, electrical, chemical, that can change into one another. Lightning is electrical energy passing through air. As it goes it heats air hot enough to glow brightly. And by making different kinds of air combine chemically it makes fertilizer plants can use to grow.
Matter, physical stuff—“Earth,” water, air. “Earth” is a combination of soil, that plants can send their roots into, and rocks or solids. Water flows when it’s liquid but can be frozen to a solid and boiled to become part of air. The air we breathe is a mix of different kinds. Oxygen, that makes up one fifth of air, is a good source of energy. It can help wood and candles burn to make heat and light, and living creatures use it to generate electrical and chemical energy.
Exception 1, Living creatures-- the bodies of living creatures consist of energy and matter, but they relate together very differently when they’re under the control of genomes in living creatures.
Exception 2, manufacture—our homes and cities look very different from what’s natural because we’ve learned how to use energy to give matter new properties. What I referred to as “Earth” and air turn out to consist of different kinds of materials you don’t come across otherwise, that can be separated and recombined to make new kinds of matter, such as glass and metals.
Atoms—in a basic natural philosophy I don’t see a need to mention atoms, or that electricity comes in positive and negative forms. Those are accidents-of-history-of-science concepts. I think one can go several stages further before needing to involve them.
Genome--Curiously, I do have to imply existence of an atomic scale when I describe what’s distinctive about living creatures: genomes, and how there’s one per living cell. But for me that’s has become essential background to any further study of life.
Elements—That matter comes in the form of separate elements is extremely fundamental, but I don’t think it can add much to a basic natural philosophy. Cannot the growth process in trees, for example, be detailed without mentioning specific elements? I do think elements should be referred to, but perhaps only as an aside as I do above in the context of technology.
Human exceptionalism—I think a humanities’ account-of-everything should give human conscious experience at least as much prominence as things in the world. I felt I had to introduce life and genomes first because I think consciousness can be understood only in terms of operations upon a platform our genomes construct for us, responsible for the particular colors we see, the range of sounds we can hear, 3D vision and location of sounds in space, particular emotions, degree of rationality, awareness of time, language capacity and so on. Should human conscious experience be made a third part of what matters in the world, alongside life and matter? I didn’t, because I couldn't think of what else to say.
Evolution—I omitted this because I feel description of properties of the genome can stand in for knowing how living creatures originated. In fact, little is known for certain about that process, particularly how it began which is really important to an understanding of the process. So I omit it from a basic natural philosophy.
“Energy” in place of “forces”—to describe the physical world I used to jumble together “matter and physical forces,” but I now see that as originating in a primitive atomism, hard atoms being jostled by the equivalents of wind and rain. Now I like to invoke a peaceable kingdom of various kinds of energy flowing into one another. So I no longer talk of “forces.”
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