Apologize for the mass email — and I hope everyone is having an awesome holiday, whichever you celebrate 🙂

As many of you know, I’ve been working on a site called OnTrajectory — and I thought you might find our first promotional video interesting, or at least humorous 🙂

How Much Is this $hit Costing Me?

I’d love if you could pass this along to your own network of friends / associates — particularly any folks who are interested in personal-finance or technology.

Hope all is well — and that 2017 rocks for everybody!

Tyson

P.S. Feel free to write me back with any questions — or just to catch up!

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In Part 10 of this series (which starts here), I completed the visual component of my Model of Everything, but neglected to discuss what I see as the model’s implications regarding meaning in life—so let’s (begin) to do that. As I see it, we need first to define our definitions—that is, to be clear about what we mean by meaning. It’s all too common to toss around questions like “what does it all mean?” or “what is the meaning of life?”—and it’s all too uncommon to understand what we mean by such questions.

Why is this important? Because the word “meaning” has distinctly different meanings—particularly when used in questions such as those above. When asking “what is the meaning of life?” –someone might really want to know:

1. What is the purpose or intention behind (my) life?

— or they may be wondering,

2. What importance or value does (my) life have?

— or they may be trying to understand,

3. What is the context of (my) life, where do I fit in, how do I make sense of it all?

So I contend there are (at least) these 3 different questions embedded in “what is the meaning of life”—and as a result, I’ll take a stab at 3 different (yet compatible) answers:

Purpose / Intent

If we are asking what is the reason for our existence—that is, what purpose do we serve? I say that first, the answer is most probably different for everyone, but that second, whatever the answer is, it comes (and can only come) from within. We envision purpose for ourselves, we have intentions, and we exercise them. The thing that we purposefully orient ourselves toward can (and probably should) be outside ourselves, but it is from within the orientation proceeds and where the feeling of purpose resides. We may become muddled and confused as we work our way through life—we may become discouraged, but the capacity to imagine and fulfill purpose for ourselves is a characteristic of the kind of being that we are. Purpose is a human “sense”, we have inextricable sense of purpose. And I think, in fact, that purpose must come from within because a purpose imposed on us would not only be superfluous, it would sap us of meaning. To be used in a cosmic or divine plan is to be meaningful to the planner, not to ourselves.

So in opposition to the oft-peddled religious view that we exist to fulfill God’s Will (or some variation on that theme), I contend that our purpose is in no way subservient to an outside agenda. Meaning is neither a burden nor a reward that we inherit—it is not infused by a mysterious 3rd-party. We are not game-pieces playing out a cosmic struggle to be strategically enlightened through tribulation or personal overcoming. We do not suffer evil to make us “better” or to prompt us into personal transformation (though evil may certainly do so). And the only reason I can see for believing that we suffer in order to make us better, is to excuse a God who we want to believe is ultimately good.

No, we need not fit into any grand schemes to live purposeful, intentional lives—our lives create meaning on their own. We are meaning-making-beings, each of us a little meaning-generator. A sense of purpose is in us, and it sends us into our various individual futures, big and small alike. Victor Frankl based an entire psychotherapeutic method, called Logotherapy, on this truth. I highly recommend his classic Man’s Search for Meaning for anyone interested in learning more about it.

Importance / Value

Now if what we mean by “the meaning of life” is understanding the importance or value of our lives —then, once again, I say we need look no further than inside ourselves and recognize the sense of value we already have. Just like our sense of purpose, a sense of value and importance is among the myriad other senses we’ve evolved. Just as we feel pain and love, so too do we feel important, valuable (even, interestingly, when feeling small, unimportant, and valueless). It is a result of our sense of importance, our overwhelming sense of value (or lack of value) that makes us shake our fist at the sky and demand to know, “What it’s all for?” Even when we feel valueless—there is the sense that something is missing, that though we don’t feel important at the moment, we are certain that we should.

It is our overpowering meaningfulness, the overwhelming sense of import that fuels our curiosity and spurs human endeavor. It’s why we dissect and why we collect, why we record and why we gaze—and in some cases it’s why we make-up gods and demons, worship deities and pray to invisible beings. It’s the certainty that life is meaningful (without understanding why it is so) that convinces us someone/something else must be in control—we think to ourselves, “All this meaning can’t come from just me!” But it does. Your are that meaningful.

So why isn’t it obvious? How is it people conclude their existence is meaningless, their sense of self an illusion—mere mindless, valueless, chemical-electrical processes throwing up an illusion of self? Well, because people are just not that impressed with stuff; they make that eliminative, reductionist mistake that a whole can have only the properties of its parts. And since their sense of value and importance outweighs the importance and value they place on their own material parts, they—in a grand act of self-denial—ignore and denigrate their own subjective experiences and interior-sensing lives.

Context / Making Sense

But perhaps what we mean by meaning is “making sense”—understanding ourselves in the context of a wider reality. And it is here that a scientific, even reductionist, understanding of ourselves becomes most significant. The more we can make sense, the more clear our context—the more meaningful we become.

What does it mean if the matter that makes me is reducible to energy and that the localization of this energy behaves in probabilistic, non-deterministic, ways? What does it mean that fundamentally, elementarily, our energies are always exchanging, entangling, and even, maybe, sneaking off into other dimensions?

Our best Materialistic explanations are capped on both ends by mystery. Strings and quanta on one side, dark matter and dark energy on the other (the “stuff” that makes up 95 percent of the universe).  What does it mean, and what are the implications, that the photons pulsing through our brains do (and must) behave probabilistically? To be honest, I’m not sure, but it thrills me to think what it might mean.

And, how wonderful and incredible that when hydrogen and carbon and iron and oxygen get into just a certain organization—it can fall in love! To me this is a greater achievement than any of those attributed to gods or supernatural beings. And this is the kind of meaning that’s revealed by “reductionism”.

And what about coming to an understanding of the inner-experience of ourselves—knowing why we value what we value, examining what is important and meaningful to us, making sense of the world and our place in it—that is the answer to “what it all means.”

Without a deep understanding of ourselves and our world, then our sense of meaningfulness, our sense of value and importance, makes no sense at all (unless, of course we actually are the playthings and chess pieces of gods).

So, I ask again: Are we left cold, loveless and forlorn under the weight of our new (and ever-increasing) knowledge? Does our “reductionist” understanding make us meaningless “things”? Contrary to the eliminativist view, I contend that such understanding enhances our sense of meaning and purpose rather than relegating those concepts to “mere” evolutionary spandrels or illusory byproducts of a computational brain. Our meaning is expanded by widening and deepening our understanding and knowledge. The subjective experience of “feeling meaningful” is part of the answer, and understanding how/why that feeling emerges completes it. Meaning flourishes by understanding ourselves inside-and-out and our context within nature. That is to say, whatever increases our self-understanding, our sense of context—gives us meaning, and as material beings in a material world, we need to trust in that sense of meaning. That and perhaps we should spend a little more time chasing squirrels in trees.

In Part 9 of this series (which starts here), I discussed “Reductionism” and argued that, yes, we can be reduced—and that, no, we cannot be reduced. If that seems contradictory, then you should go back and read Part 9! In this post I will describe what will be the final layer of emergence in my Model of Everything. In subsequent posts, I will discuss what I see as the model’s implications regarding meaning in life.

Let’s get started then—the final layer of emergence I call human endeavor, and it is here that we not only begin to recognize the context of ourselves and our lives, but we also begin to chase a concept called “truth”. Now that’s certainly a loaded term, so when I say truth I mean something like this: “An observation or theory that coheres with our collective experience of reality”, and it includes the caveat that further information may require us to restate our observations or reform our theories. I fully acknowledge that my definition of truth relies on a kind of inter-subjective agreement. I believe we can only speak about truth based on the kinds of beings that we are—that is, limited by the way we experience reality and/or by the way deeper realities can be revealed by technology.

Broadly, I see human endeavor fitting into 3 major categories: first, Horizontal Truths. These are activities such as visual art, storytelling, religion—activities that are organic to our human experience.

The truths uncovered here provide insight and commentary on the human condition in context of the human condition—as it is lived—as it is felt—and I think that is a certain kind of truth.

Horizontal truths are not preoccupied with our component parts; these truths do not surface by breaking us down—they do not lay us out or dissect us into explicable parts. These are truths revealed by great paintings, poetry, music, and even religion. Can we learn something truthful from a poem or a novel? Sure—though we needn’t think the characters are real. Can religion provide insight into human psychology? I believe it can, but it provides us no reason to think that gods or devils actually exist. I see religion as a horizontal framework for understanding and makings sense of the world—different only in scope from other (if more narrow) frameworks such as Impressionism or the fictional world of Moby Dick.

The second major category of human endeavor gives us what I call Vertical Truths.

These endeavors depend on absolute clarity and repeatability—on emotionless, subject-disinterested, lab-driven observation, and they are overwhelmingly concerned with the mechanics and machinery underlying a given property. The hard facts grounding these disciplines are the object of much of our technological tooling, and it is these facts (when we reduce our existence to them) that “reductionist!” shout-downs begin.

And yet between these two sets of disciplines, between these two kinds of truths lie a vast and interesting middle ground: Curvy Truths.

These endeavors attempt to explain the human subject, not just its object parts, but also in terms of science and the methods its developed. To understand feelings, for example, in terms of underlying function while also retaining a clear understanding of how feelings feel. One cannot explain the psychology of love without coming to terms with what is meant by “love”. One cannot study emotions (effectively) without being in touch with real emotion. These curvy, connecty sciences are crucially important—these are the disciplines that unite the subjective and objective—they provide the bridge between the lived human experience and the mind-blind sciences. And so, when I say that horizontal endeavors provide truth, it is because they hook into these curves—which are, in turn, underpinned by “hard-science”.

I consider primatologists and anthropologists to be scientists as much as I do physicists; their informed human interpretation of primates and culture is what makes their work interesting science. The fact that they may deal in probabilities and intuitions, the fact that their theories do not always hold or may be proven wrong, does not make them less scientific. Conjecture is part of science, so is speculation, and so is being wrong. Wasn’t Newton doing science? Wasn’t Freud? Science is the human endeavor to understand the natural world, and those understandings come in ranges of probability (as I discussed in Part 2)—sometimes wider, sometimes more narrow—and the possibility of revision lurks always in the background. I consider (even poor, old) Philosophy as science, for if science is the human endeavor to understand the natural world, and if philosophy is the love of wisdom, they must surely be dealing with the same thing. Philosophy exercises critical thinking and logic while at the same time it pushes the limits of knowledge and understanding. Yes, Philosophy often wanders into realms one might better call intuition or conjecture, but I see nothing unscientific about that (unless, of course, one rigorously clings to a philosophy after it’s been disproven, or been determined to be vanishingly improbable, or found to be in some other way superfluous). Philosophy is the science of science,  centered not so much on providing answers, but asking questions, in probing-out the weaknesses of other truth claims. Lastly, philosophy holds the burrito together—it attempts to reconcile and cohere other disciplines into a comprehensible, sense-making whole. But again, if a particular philosophy becomes demonstrably or logically false, that philosophy should be regarded as so much caloric and luminiferous aether.

And so, when I say that horizontal truths are unconcerned with being reduced, I contend that should we reduce them, whatever we’d be prepared to call “true” (about art or music or religion) can be traced into the folds of some curvy discipline—and in those curves we will find connections to the vertical. Where religion, for example, makes true claims about the human condition—about our psychology, about the importance of meaning in our lives or our ability to change and transform ourselves from within—those truths are traceable back through other human endeavors (i.e. the curvy sciences). Where religion makes claims about the existence of gods, demons, devils, heavens, hells or the like—where it talks of implanted souls and father-figures in the great beyond, I count it about as likely as meeting Ahab hauling in a great white whale.

The whole of these human endeavors—horizontal, vertical and curvy—help us to understand ourselves, our context, and through them we find expression for what is meaningful. Now a particular challenge when talking about meaning is answering the question: “What do we mean by meaning?” or “What does meaning mean?” But that is for another time, for now let’s put it all together— here is my Model of Everything!

NEXT: Part 11. The Meaning of Meaning

In Part 8 of this series (which starts here) I discussed, among other things, why the idea of “soul” is superfluous, and I touched on the fact that we humans, soulless as we are, have developed a deep sense of meaning in our lives. In a future post (but not this one), I will discuss how we find meaning, where I think it comes from, and how we can hold on to it.

In this post, however, I want to discuss why getting rid of the soul is not “reductionist” and how a thoroughly material Model of Everything allows for the reality of love, consciousness, and other traits so dear to our humanity. Also, since I hear “reductionist” tossed around so derogatorily—I want to avoid being labeled as one!

As I have asserted in previous posts, emergence represents a spontaneous act of creation. I have claimed that the emergent qualities of “stuff” gives us, among other things—life, love, and our conscious interior lives, as shown in the soon-to-be-completed model below:

I have also implied that emergence is real—that what it produces really exists. But one may wonder, if such notions are real and yet not “in the parts of things”—is my talk of emergence just so much hand-waving and diversion? In what sense can it really be said to be real?

For many folks a purely materialist view is reductionist by definition, it reduces everything in the world, even our experience of the world, to stuff–it views life as “no more than” its component parts. And in a certain sense, I am taking the same position. But I think “reductionism” implies something more, it implies the only qualities that are real are those qualities found in the parts of things, and if I were to take that position, then I would agree it’s a reductionist (or more properly an eliminativist) mistake. To claim that love can be traced to psychological components and functions containing none of the feelings of romantic love and that those components can be traced back into still more base chemical reactions and materials, does not make romantic love unreal. Love is in the wholeness and fullness of loving, and regardless of its lowly make-up, that can’t be taken away.

So how can emergent properties, then, be real? Well, they are as real as anything created by organization and pattern. Circle, line, circle, circle—shall we say the smiley face exists or not?

Can’t we say that something new exists, and yet nothing new has been added–we still have only circle, line, circle, circle?

Though a ’67 Camaro cannot be found in any of its singular car parts–it is not in the tires, or in the steering wheel or even in the cylinders of the engine–and yet one would not be tempted to say that a ’67 Camaro does not really exist.

Nor would we be tempted to say it is by the addition of a new non-material thing that creates its Camaro-ness, a Camaro soul has not been implanted by a divine manufacturer. All you have to do is put the parts together and the Camaro emerges. This is the act of creation of “wholes”—this is emergence.

Now one may rightly argue that the whole, in this case the Camaro, sitting alone in a forest (with a tree having just fallen silently beside it) is not a Camaro at all—that an observer is at least as important as the “pattern of parts”. So let us include in “the whole” an observer—an appreciative driver to make the whole complete. Now we will certainly have to say something about this driver/observer.

For a materialist view to hold together, we need to provide material explanations for things like ideas, numbers, love, and pain—and for those constructs to be considered patterns of matter we need, as in the Camaro example, an observer—but don’t let your minds go all spooky or religious, for we have already seen our observer back in Part 7:

The observer is not a new kind or other kind of thing, the observer is our being-of-evolved-interior-sensing — i.e. the appreciator of the Camaro or the haver of an idea or the feeler of a moral impulse is merely a more developed version of the sufferer of a pain or the enjoyer of a pleasure or the seer of light.

Emergence of awareness and awareness of emergence—this is the necessary loop. This is the realization that ideas are material—underpinned as they are by patterns of chemicals and electricity in brains, while at the same time observed or felt by patterns of chemicals and electricity in brains. If we take away the chemicals, or the electricity, or their particular pattern, we take away the idea.

In the same way love is material, the number 2 is material, fear and pain are material, they are, in each case, underpinned by our brains—they are ideas and sensations materially constructed by patterns of chemicals and electricity—a song is as material as beryllium, carbon, or manganese. Before “The Star Spangled Banner” was written—before the melody and words were conceived and recorded within a human brain, before it was etched into our memories by a chisel of air molecules in a crowded sports stadium—it did not exist. And should all material traces of that song disappear, should all the sheet music and recordings vanish, and should every person who ever knew it perish, should every material trace of it cease to be—”The Star Spangled Banner” would no longer exist.

A song is an idea which is in turn a pattern of matter—Tyson Koska and any idea I’ve ever had is a pattern of matter. Whether the pattern is sustained by quantizable quarks spun into a web of biological chemistry or by any other substrate—what matters is patterns. And just the same way that music emerges by patterns of notes and silences, so do I emerge out of the localization of energy and the vast empty space contained therein. I am a song of matter sung in our concert hall universe.

Ursula Goodenough put it this way in her recent book, The Sacred Depths of Nature:

For me, a helpful way to think about reductionism is to invoke what can be called the Mozart metaphor. A Mozart piano sonata is a wondrous thing, beautiful beyond belief, sonorous, resonant, transporting. But it is also about notes and piano keys. Mozart’s magnificent brain composed the work, to be sure, and then he translated it into black specks on white paper to be translated into strings hit by tiny hammers. We can thrill to a piano sonata without giving a thought to its notes. But we can also open up a score and follow the notes, or play them ourselves, without having the music diminished or demeaned. It is another way of experiencing the whole and, indeed, the only way to have a full understanding of what the sonata entails and what Mozart had in his mind.

What something is, its reality, does not dissipate because its parts are simple or lack certain characteristics. And just as we should not assume a whole has only the potential of its singular parts, we should also learn not to be afraid of simplicity, or should I say, the simplicity of our complexity.

If one wants to say that a materialist cannot account for love or consciousness or altruism or self-transformation—or any of the various “higher-level” aspects of our humanity—then neither can materialism account for color or hardness or sound, since these qualities are not in the parts of things but emerge as a result of higher-level complexities and perceived only by an observer. In  fact, matter itself emerges through interconnection and organization, through relationship, through probability, and through emptiness. Though beauty, love, and meaning are revealed as emergent properties, there’s no reason that we may not continue to be moved by beauty, love, and meaning–and to regard them as real.

NEXT: Part 10. The Complete Model?

In Part 7. of this series (which starts here), I discussed the emergence of sensing, or as I titled it, “The Inner Life of Living Things.” I argued that an organism’s inner-sensing of the outside world, over billions and billions of years of evolution, has accumulated a complexity (in our species) that yields such characteristics as consciousness, moral compulsions, and the ability to perceive “meaning”.  This perception of meaning is the primary reason you’re reading about it on my Meaning o’ Life blog.

Now if we and all other beings/creatures/organisms in our world seem terribly well designed to you, keep in mind you’re seeing billions of years of accumulated change all at once—and only the changes that “worked.” What you’re not seeing is the vast majority of evolution, changes that had no effect or hindered survival. Why? Because those organisms never made it.

So to recap, here is the Model of Everything (thus far):

If you’re like me, you’re thinking—ok, yeah, all that makes sense, so what’s that next level of the MoE? (for surely there must be more). And there is more, plenty more. But I need to pause here because this notion of our minds and the whole of human experience being the result of “just stuff” really makes some people crazy. Many folks will want to insert something new and non-material here. They will make distinctions between brain and mind—or body and soul. They will argue that the brain is a kind of vehicle housing a ghostly inhabitant. In fact, they appear to think that what is non-material is somehow better, more special, than the mere material.

I don’t know why people are prejudiced in this way—perhaps material is too mundane, too common. They will argue that since chemicals and electricity cannot love, there must be more at work than chemicals and electricity in love. And in a certain sense, they are right—”something more” is going on—but that more is “an emergent property of chemicals and electricity”—that is, characteristics that are supported by the pattern and complexity of chemicals and electricity (but not by some magical extra ingredient).

To my thinking, if love and consciousness were not the result of brain functions/structures, why, if I poke you in the brain, can I so easily screw-up your consciousness or emotional state? A well targeted stimulus can bring on predictable sensations and emotions. I zap you here—you smell grapes; I tingle this part—you experience inconsolable grief—and if I snip out that part over there, you’re no longer capable of maintaining relationships with other human beings.

And it’s such a smooth gradation to consciousness. Do we not see that some animals have lesser-developed consciousnesses and interior-sensing lives than we do? Don’t dogs exhibit social behavior; don’t chimps and crows demonstrate problems-solving skills; haven’t we observed rudimentary morality in Bonobo societies? Don’t disease and neurological defects create less conscious versions of ourselves? Isn’t a new-born baby less conscious of the world and her personal, interior life than you or I, and isn’t it by the smoothest of gradations—as brains develop—that we see infants become conscious of the world and of themselves? If the brain is not the origin or source of consciousness, where does it come from; how does it get there; and why does it appear in every way to be in the brain? Is someone playing tricks on us!?

It seems to me that since consciousness is certainly not an all-or-nothing state of mind, and since “levels” of consciousness are dependent on the complexity, developmental stage, and health of the brain, it makes a dualistic view such as vehicle/driver (or vehicle/rider, or vehicle/whatever) seem wholly untenable to me.

Emergence makes non-material needless. We do not require a new, foreign, or extra thing to explain a property that’s not in the old thing or in the old thing’s parts. Just as water and amino acids and protein molecules need not feel pain or feel hunger in order for an organism to feel those sensations, neither does memory, emotion, logic (and pain and hunger) need, singularly, to be conscious to create consciousness. That’s just what happens when they get together—that IS emergence. No chemical driver sits in a vehicle of sub-atomic particles to make chemistry, and no Ă©lan vital sits in a vehicle of chemicals to invigorate life.

Parts doing things together—things they could not do apart—properties that arise through relationships, through connections—that is emergence.

Pain is a great example; pain really does hurt. Pain is not just a signal in an animal brain that says, “Your are now hurting, please stop what you are doing.” Pain hurts, and it can be excruciating, crippling, debilitating. But as I’ve said chemicals do not feel pain; hydrogen does not hurt; ammonia does not suffer—neither do they see, hear, or smell. These sensations can be reduced to non-sensing chemicals but we do not argue, therefore, those sensations do not exist. If any sense at all can exist without positing a soul or spirit—then consciousness, morality, and love can exist without it as well. We need to stop regarding stuff as lowly—or perhaps we need to stop regarding the lowly as lowly. If you ask me, there are great heights beneath our feet.

NEXT: Part 9. Contra-Reductionism

In Part 6. of this series (which starts here), I discussed the fantastic power of “error”—how the compounding of tiny infidelities over long periods can yield a grand diversity of properties in self-replicating molecules/molecular systems. And yet, alongside the physical complexities that arise through this Natural Selection, there lies another kind of complexity—a complexity so mysterious to us we’ve made-up all sorts of gods, spirits, demons and alternate realities to explain how it came to be. I am speaking of the inner-experience of ourselves. Not just our consciousness, but our conscience, our intuitions, logic, desires, emotions, pains, and pleasures. I am talking about what all started with our ability to sense.

Sensing the outside world is a really big deal—even if it is something so mild as “seeing” brightness or “tasting” the presence of a certain chemical—it starts us on a path of internal complexity, a complexity that neuroscience shows corresponds to externally observable structures. These structures are usually, but not always, located in the brain, and should they be injured they can alter or even destroy the internal sense to which they correspond. We call this “brain damage.”

The evolution of internal-sensing, like the evolution of external structures, builds on it’s own back—that is to say, the ability to sense heat combined with the ability to sense an increase in one’s heart-rate both contribute to a “higher-order” sense of fear.

The evolution of our senses has followed a sequence that goes (very roughly) something like this:

Now one should not be tempted to think of this progression as a hierarchy; I am not proposing that the pinnacle of natural selection is a Starbuck-drinking, Whole-Food shopping, relatively moral, male homo-sapiens as pictured above. It’s important to keep in mind that in a sense every living thing is just as “evolved” as every other—we all lie at the (current) end of that great path of errors I previously spoke on. Certain types of errors have simply accumulated in certain types of organisms, giving them particular characteristics (and advantages)—while other characteristics have accumulated in others. The internal-sensing capabilities of our species are, in a way, no more highly-evolved than a star-nosed mole’s specialized capabilities to score a meal in places we’d not long survive.

In any case, it is in this sequence of our developing inner-experience that many people will say I have gone too far. They will not accept that the brain and body are responsible for the rich vastness of our interior lives or that combinations of brain functions present a solution to the “problem of consciousness.”

But that discussion we will save for next time…

NEXT: Part 8. More on Body and Soul

In Part 5. of this series (which starts here), I introduced the notion of a molecule that copies. And if you remember, the copying did not occur with complete fidelity—that is, the copy was not an exact duplicate of the original.

Now, I’m going to refer to this infidelity as a “mistake” or “error”, but I’d like to point out that strictly speaking it’s not a mistake or error at all—because there’s no intention behind the copying. Simply, the molecule that copies doesn’t make exact copies, that’s just the way it is—it’s not “trying” to do it “right”, and therefore it cannot make mistakes or introduce errors. I’m using those words because it’s easier to type “error” than “a copy without perfect fidelity.”

So by way of review, let’s put together what we have so far in the Model of Everything:

In the past 5 posts we’ve managed to get from sub-atomic particles to the emergence of simple life forms, but clearly we’ve got to account for the vast gap between the kind of life in the diagram above to the complex beings that we are. And yet the gap is bridged by a rather simple process: natural selection.

Just as oceans build beaches by the accumulation of tiny grains of sand—given enough time, tiny copying mistakes can yield an amazing diversity of life. How can the accumulation of errors result in such an assortment? Because natural selection saves what works.

As soon as an error provides an advantage, it is saved. How? By the organism’s survival. The surviving organism’s offspring, then—armed with that beneficial change—not only carry the change forward, but also create changes to the change. Why? Because in the business of making copies, mistakes never stop.

Of course other factors add to the final result of all this change, copies that find themselves in water will survive if their random mistakes allow the organism to better live in water, and those on land will survive with an accumulation of land-mistakes. In the end, the variety is wonderful:

Yes, we are the spat-out guts of dead stars combined and recombined through billions of years of accumulated successful mistakes. T-Rexes, narwhals, cute little kittens, George Bush—we all share this amazing pedigree.

NEXT: Part 7. The Inner Life of Living Things