David Pax


The blog contains some of my thoughts on things like writing, science and how that all works together to affect society.

The Nature of Nature

Science fiction, and to some extent all fiction, paints humans as different from nature. Some adventure stories portray their characters struggling against ravaging wilds, while many times science fiction shows people overcoming or dominating nautre, or, sometimes, falling into a trap of thinking they have control of nature only to find nature is not so easily tamed.

So what is the nature of nature? Go back to some of the earliest recorded thoughts on the subject and we hear that nature abhors a vacuum. Turns out that's only true on a limited scale, the very limited scale of the very thin layer of lighter solids, liquid water, and dense gasses on the outer crust of out planet. And, of course, any other planets that are similar to ours. Between those planets nature does not abhor a vacuum, it mostly is a vacuum. It's true that in the very thin layer around the outer crust of our planet there is the right degree of pressure that any place there is a vacuum something will fill it fairly quickly. Move some water or gasses out of any volume and as soon as they find a way back in they will fill that volume again. Water in particular will find a way from the oceans to the skies and back again, bringing plenty of other elements with it. Species will find the remotest and harshest environments and populate them, changing their very nature if needed to survive in that environment. Outside the atmosphere of our planet, though, nature is mostly vacuum, at least as far as the ordinary matter we are made of is concerned.

If nature is mostly vacuum, and possibly more and more vacuum as the universe expands, then does our very complexity make us different from nature? Across the entire expanse of the universe we exist because tiny, tiny variations in the uniformity of the early universe led to the formation of the first generation of stars, and because changes in the nature of those stars led them to eventually explode and distribute the progenitors of second generation stars throughout the vacuum. For complex life of our sort to exist it requires a lot of heavier stuff formed in the second generation stars to condense into planets, and a long time for a planet to churn that heavy stuff around until life becomes as complex as we are. And while we still have a lot of the simple stuff, hydrogen, by count of atoms in our bodies, we would not even have a basic body shape without the moderately complex atom oxygen, and without even heavier stuff such as iron we would not have the complex bodies or minds that we know. We are the result of tiny variations upon tiny variations creating more and more complex atoms, molecules, and biology. Is it then our very complexity that makes us different than nature?

On the surface it might seem that our billions of cells formed from thousands of different protiens and other molecules makes us unique in nature. The problem with this idea, though, is that the cause of our complexity is natural. The way the early stars formed and exploded, and the way our plantet formed and evolved life is all because of the same nature that seems to prefer uniformity. Gravity is as natural as any other force, and if you give gravity enough time it will do things such as make planets that can evolve life. Without gravity there is no life, and as special as our complexity might appear, it is as natural as anything else in the universe.

Nature, through the force of gravity and light from our sun, has created the thin shell of life on our planet. Aside from the small amount of life we have sent into space, all the life that we know exists in a layer that gravity has given an enormous range of complex elements and conditions. If the earth were the size of an orange all our life would exist in a layer no thicker than the dimples on the skin of the orange. Not the whole rind, just the dimples. Extremeophiles live from the deepest ocean trenches to the coldest mountain peaks. From our human scale the challenging depths and remotest peaks appears to be an enormous range, but compared to the diameter of the planet it is very small. It's taken about 3.8 billion years to develop life even across this thin shell, when life started it occupied only some shallow waters in the primordial oceans.

Billion is a hard number for humans to process. It's not something our brains evolved to understand, but an abstraction that our complex brains developed as a result of having a lot of neurons that are able to connect in just the right way. Most humans in contemporary industrialized countries have a life expectancy between two and three billion seconds. Take a moment and count three Mississippis – one Mississippi – two Mississippi – three Mississippi. Those three seconds are approximately one one-billionth of your life. Then compare four years of your life to the history of life on the plant. It's about the same ratio as three seconds to your entire life. Using the same scale of years to billions of years, for over three out of four of those years all life was single celled organizms. It took over three billion years for single celled life to process enough sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide to put sufficient oxygen into the atmosphere for complex life to develop.

If there is life in other places in the universe, there is a good chance most of it is single celled life. There is no guarantee that single celled life will survive on any planet long enough to evolve into complex life. Oxygen does not like to exist by itself – it grabs onto any other elements it can find and holds on firmly. Maintaining free oxygen in our atmosphere requires enormous energy every day, and required enourmous energy just to develop in the first place. Another one of the tiny variations that allow us to exist is that the way our solar system formed there was enough water on earth and few enough large asteroid impacts that life was able to persist for almost four billion years. Long enough that simple life made enough atmospheric oxygen for complex life to evolve. Given that one of the first things the complex life did was start eating the simple life, if the simple life had any ability to know better it would never have allowed the oxygen to get that rich in the first place.

All the complex life we know, every plant, insect, fish, reptile, bird, and mammal we know evolved in the last six hundred million years. We inherited characteristics from all of them. We still use some genes developed by single celled life, and we use, often in different ways, genes developed in all the species that came before us. Every one of those species changed their environment, sometimes to their detriment. Single celled life put enough oxygen into the air for complex life to develop. As life became more complex it developed different techniques to survive, from hard shells to protect from being eaten while still being able to eat other things, complex muscles and skeletons to give speed and stealth, sophisticated sense organs to detect both danger and food, and eventually large and complex brains capable of abstract ideas such as counting to one billion and higher.

We live in a tiny shell on a single planet, the result of millions of tiny variations in the smoothness of nature that came together in just the right way to form us. That doesn't make us special, it's just a coincidence that the little ripples of space time, echoes of the beginning of the universe, have come together at this place. We are a part of the nature that surrounds us. Knowing what we know, we can make choices that favor our continued survival or lead us to extinction along with almost every species that has ever lived.

Nature is mostly very flat and even. The nature of nature is a uniform consistency, with a few characteristics such as gravity that create tiny specks of difference in the cold universal background. Hope for the future of humanity lies in understanding our place in nature, our own evolution and how it has shaped us, and how we might shape that evolution in the future. It is up to us to make good decisions on how we apply technology, using the knowlegde of our evolution to guide us. We will soon have the ability to have permanent implants in our bodies, implants that will lengthen our lives through improving ou health. Wearables and implants linked to our vision and hearing could dramatically enhance our memory and abilities, giving everyone rapid access to the accumulated knowledge of humankind. To get the best out of advanced technologies we must recognize our place in nature, the nature of the thin shell that we live in and that has shaped us to our very genetic code. We will never achieve transhumanism without understanding first the nearly four billion years history of what it truly means to be human.

We must rethink our environment, designing our buildings using biophlic techniques based on the way we evolved. Too often our built environment is toxic to us, or at least unhealthy, and we have the knowledge and ability to build environments that best suit our evolutionary history. We should not look at our built environment as conflicting with nature, but see the history of our built environment as part of our evolution, something to help us build better environments in the future. The best of biophilic design does not take us backward, it takes our cumulative knowledge forward.

Lastly, we need to come back to the nature of nature. We tend to think of of the the things created by humans as artificial, but we are beings of nature. Humans evolved as a part of nature, due to natural forces. To think of ourselves and the things we create as different or separate from nature ignores all of our evolutionary history. We might exterminate ourselves, similar to the way early single celled life changed the global environment to it's own detriment, but that would still be the natural process of evolution. Only when we think of ourselves as an evolved part of nature instead of separate from it will we be able to make the most of advanced technologies.

Evolution occurs through punctuated eqiulibrium, with long periods of stable species in stable environments, punctuated by periods of rapid adaptation. Our technology is ending a period of rapid adaptation, and we must understand what that means to future developments. The most sophisticated medical devices are not going to provide the same improvement in average human quality of life that ready access to clean running water offers. Biophilic design can give us more comfortable environments that also provide protection against weather and predators, but we still have to make the design decisions to create biophilic spaces. Embracing the coming equilibrium, we can tune it to provide the best qulaity of life for all humans until the next punctuation takes us to an evolutionary stage we cannot even accurately foretell today.


Kris Butler