Plants caused a mass extinction, but also the conditions that led to new forms of complex, energetic life – eventually human beings.
This happened because of a single radical change, the advent of photosynthesis. This swept away the overwhelming majority of other forms of life and was such a powerful change that it almost wiped out the organisms that stumbled across it.
Yet, coming out the other side, this was the great shift in biology that brought us to where we are now.
It’s no secret that I don’t like philosophy. It’s an improvement on religion, but it’s still – essentially – a blind groping after truth that falls victim to its own pedantry far more often than it produces anything useful or insightful. It seems scared of the prospect that we might be able to know something and is rife with internecine wars over terminology and meanings that – to an outsider – seem blindingly obvious (such as the Empiricism/Rationalism conflict, which is absurd, reason needs something to operate upon and confirm its hypotheses).
Still, after yet another argument over these points and the absurdity of metaphysics, I had something of an epiphany about just why science is so powerful and transformative. Why it has had the massively disruptive effect that it does and how this can be analogous to great biological shifts.
Consider this. Early life had no real way of reasoning or experimenting as we would think of it. We sometimes use these terms to describe evolution, but this is anthropomorphising it. Our language relates primarily to human activity, and so we have a tendency to humanise these forces. Still, evolution operates by blind chance, combined with selection.
A bacterium cannot consider the value of photosynthesis or strive to discover it, but variation and mutation down generations can modify and differentiate randomly and, eventually, a particular strain will ‘hit’ upon a successful change. Like developing the capacity to photosynthesise.
Before the capacity to think evolved this was the only way an organism could ‘reason’ or modify its behaviour. Via survival. This is – obviously – immensely wasteful, and this is akin to theology. The blind groping of faith, the superstition of the false positives – as we find with the ‘religious pigeons’ experiments. Perhaps, by chance, this would occasionally discover something useful or applicable, but more often than not it would not.
The capacity to think, to reason, exists at many different levels in the animal kingdom and so is hard to pinpoint, but we do know that animals besides humans are able to puzzle out their surroundings and solve problems, to a degree. Squirrels will negotiate assault courses and solve simple puzzles to get at nuts. Crows, dolphins, otters, apes and monkeys have been observed to use tools in their problem-solving. This has greatly increased their capacity to survive and deal with their surroundings and this is, perhaps, analogous to philosophy. It’s better than the massacre-dependent blind automata of semi-random evolution, but not by a great deal. It did provide the evolutionary impetus for the development of intelligence, however, and that gets us to humans.
One can argue over whether humans have a monopoly on what you might call ‘true intelligence’ but it is different to the problem solving we see in other animals. We are able to self-modify, to use technology and to think in the abstract in a way animals do not. We can take a solution to one problem, take it apart, reformulate it and apply it in other situation. We’re capable of storing, transmitting and teaching complex knowledge and this is revolutionary. In the analogy, this is like the advent of science and like humanity, science has become utterly dominant and has killed off a great deal of its opposition, a mass extinction of invalid modes of thought – like religion and philosophy.
Science has provided us a way of genuinely knowing what is true and extrapolating fundamentals and applications from that knowledge. This is dramatically better than anything else and the only way we really have of knowing that anything is real or true. It’s systemised, self-correcting, without hanging speculation, self-critical and – most importantly – it works.
Theism clings on, in volcanic pools, hydrothermal vents and the anaerobic depths of stygian sediment. Philosophy clings on because hitting a shell with a stone will sometimes get you a nut. Science, however, science is a quantum leap in knowledge, a way of testing and understanding any validity of any other claim and there is nothing else that does what it does.
Show us what’s actually true.
Perhaps that’s why philosophy and religion hate it so much and try to undermine it. They know they’re obsolete and marked for extinction.