A somewhat immodest proposal

We Homo sapiens have been around for at least 250 thousand years. The first hints of agriculture appear about 12 thousand years ago, or just under 5% of our existence in our current biological configuration. We’re still evolving, of course, but it’s a slow process, and it’s reasonable to think we’re not much different from those earliest farmers, who were essentially hunter-gatherers with a fancy new startup.

For the majority, then, of our existence, we made our living hunting and gathering, which limited the size and distribution of us. Conditions differed from place to place, of course, but, as a rather small total population, we weren’t in that many different places for a very long time, so those limitations tended to average out and produce groups of 50-200 or so individuals spread rather thinly on the surface. Too many people meant not enough to eat, so a sensible strategy was to avoid other people whenever possible; not all that hard in the beginning.

One way or another, though, we figured out that it was best for us to get marriage partners outside our own groups; how and why is a contentious issue among anthropologists.  In any case, it meant that groups needed to stay reasonably near each other.

It’s not hard to see the awkwardness caused by these two competing strategies. On the one hand, we were congenitally suspicious of outsiders and wanted to either drive them away or kill them, while on the other hand we needed them to procreate. What to do?

The answer was to limit our interactions with other groups in general via warfare or other hostile behaviors, while consolidating our relationships with one or two select groups via intermarriage. Brilliant!

In my opinion, the spread of farming once it was discovered was due to this dynamic of wanting to get away from other people while simultaneously seeking marriage partners among relative strangers. We see this time and again, even explicitly as excuses for expansion, from elbow room to lebensraum. It also explains the intermarriage of European nobility; it’s not that they found each other so irresistible. In a sense, it’s just scaled-up hunter-gatherer strategy.

Which brings us to my proposal. Donald Trump, are you listening? Your son, Barron, is, what, 10 or 11 now? Through most of history, that’s plenty. The great statesman and diplomat Dennis Rodman tells us that Kim Jong-un has a daughter named Ju-ae, who would be about 8 or 9.

I think you can guess where I’m going with this.

When work became work

Work, for many, if not most, is a drudge.  As the saying goes, that’s why they pay you to do it.  We take it as a kind of law of nature.  We’ve elevated leisure time to a kind of sacred status; that’s what all the advertising and consumerism is about, isn’t it?  Get more stuff to make the time you’re off work more awesome.  Of course, very little is not awesome these days, but that’s another post altogether.  And what’s the pinnacle of awesomeness?  Why, retirement, of course.  Picture yourself, free at last of your pointy-haired boss (and he of you, for that matter), lounging on a sunny beach somewhere, umbrella-topped drink tipping in your drowsy hand.  Or finally getting your golf handicap down to single digits.  It’s you time, unproductive by sacred right.

Only, when the time comes, the euphoria lasts a month or two, and then too often leisure replaces work as the major source of drudgery.  Some people decline so much they slip into chronic depression; some even die not long after.  Cruelly, it seems that, after all, drudgery was a personality trait, not an externally imposed condition.  What’s going on?  Was it always thus?

There’s a Twitter meme that rises to the top of the sludge periodically, one of those quote things that you get to attribute to anyone you like, as long as they’re sufficiently famous, that goes, “If you see a difference between play and work, you’re not doing one of them right.”  Seems vapid enough, as these things go, but it persists because it has the ring of truth to it.  Or is it the desire of truth?

You might be tempted to dismiss this whole issue as a First World problem; the overwhelming majority of people throughout the world have no time to spare for thinking about the quality of their work experience, let alone of their leisure time.  What they do is integral with their survival.

Is it possible that such a clear link between work and survival actually makes work more satisfying?  There have been, to my knowledge, no studies of this, but, given that roughly the first 250,000 years of human development were spent hunting and gathering, I would say that it’s a distinct possibility.  For better or worse, though, since it first occurred to someone to plant food and raise stock about 10,000 years ago, the link has grown increasingly obscure, and therein may lie the issue.  Most of us no longer get food and shelter directly from our work; what we get is the means to obtain these things, and not always to the degree we think necessary.

My father used to say there was no such thing as a job without dignity.  In my rebellious youth, I understood this to be a kind of statement of egalitarianism, a solidarity with the Working Class.  Collecting trash was just as good as producing it, from the standpoint of dignity.

Cool, I thought, that the stodgy old coot could express such an idea in spite of himself.

Although I can’t claim to be certain of what he actually meant to say, my own understanding of the sentiment has changed over the years.  Dignity, as such, is simply not a characteristic of work.  That is, such dignity as there is, is supplied by the worker.  Of course, it may be easier or more difficult, or even, rarely, impossible, depending on such things as difficulty, collegiality, and management.  This brings up the social factor, which I believe to be critical.

There has never been a documented case of a truly feral human.  Society, love it or hate it, is what we do; it’s how we’ve survived all these thousands of years despite our wimpy claws and fangs.  Maybe we find work satisfying to the degree that it enriches our social relationships, either by providing a context for them, or by creating a sense of significant contribution.  This is how cleaning sewers can be rewarding, and how pushing numbers around a hedge fund can be numbing, despite the vastly greater material rewards of the latter.  It’s why billionaires refuse to leave the rest of us alone, but insist on doing some kind of job, even (shudder) politics.

It also explains the retirement conundrum.  Even the most menial of jobs usually involves social contact with fellow workers, even if that interaction is limited to griping about working conditions, or tyrannical bosses.  Retire, and you’re suddenly booted out of a society that was, for better or worse, the milieu of the majority of your waking hours for most of your life.

I won’t say love your job and it will love you back, but maybe we shouldn’t be so hasty to jump the fence into those greener pastures.  We might find it considerably more swampy than we thought.

Congratulations: the incredibly improbable you

You’ve made it this far.  There were never any guarantees, were there?

Take the Big Bang, for instance.  By all accounts, this event should have resulted in equal amounts of matter and anti-matter, and we all know what that means.  Nothing.  A big, fat zero.  You put the two together, and that’s what you get, so for physicists, the old chestnut of why there’s something rather than nothing takes on a whole new significance.  For some reason, after the Big Annihilation, there was this miniscule (comparatively) amount of stuff left over; that’s us, and all we are in and around.

Even so, a lot of different things could have happened from there.  The laws of nature could have been different.  If gravity was just a tiny bit stronger, no sooner would the universe have begun to expand, than it would have collapsed back on itself.  No time for matter to come together slowly, forming stars while waiting for the Great Dissipation of entropy.  Which brings up another thing: if entropy is a law, if everything ends up at the lowest, most uniform possible state of energy, why wasn’t that the case immediately before the Big Bang?  It could have been.  It should have been.  But it wasn’t; big chunk of luck for us!

Even taking all of that ultimate origin stuff as a given, it’s been no cakewalk.  You start with a bunch of protons and electrons whizzing about the fledgeling universe, but because it’s not uniform, some of them clump together due to our friend gravity.  Actually, enormous clumps of them, so huge the pressure pushes them into units composed of two protons and electron each: helium atoms.  It’s fusion, and lumps of it were happening all over.  Altogether disorderly and un-entropic.  Worse yet, all that energy causes flares, explosions, various ways of ripping it all apart, with the result that bits of stars are flung out, kind of like bits of fur in a cosmic cat fight.  More and more atoms are forced together, and eventually you get all the elements we are familiar with, including the ones we are composed of ourselves.  Stars have clouds of gases and debris swirling around them.  Sooner or later, the same thing that brought the original matter together to make the stars begins happening in the debris clouds.  They start clumping up, and some get rather large, at least by our standards.  We call them planets.

Of course most planets, even the ones in our own little star system, with the notable exception of Earth, are places completely inhospitable for life.  The bulk of them are like Jupiter, Saturn and Neptune, great gassy blobs with no place to even stand on, let alone survive.  Even most that are solid enough to stand on are inhospitable, like Mercury, or Venus.  Just our little Earth is perfect, and it causes us huge headaches on occasion.  True, in the incomprehensible vastness of the universe, there are doubtless others like it, maybe even some better equipped for life.  But they are in a minority.  Just our luck we’re here.

Although, to be honest, even Earth was no picnic for much of its history.  Our lump of clay is a little more than 4.5 billion years old, and for almost the first half of that, its atmosphere was largely nitrogen and methane.  Don’t get me wrong; it was buzzing with life, little anaerobic  specs happily bathed in the major component of our modern farts.  How they came to be is a matter still hotly debated, but we’ll leave that, and the odds of it happening, aside.  Earth was a very warm place, indeed.  Then, catastrophe!

Evil, wicked, cyanobacteria arose, making energy directly from the sun via photosynthesis, and giving off as a waste product — oxygen.  It was a deadly poison, and the tiny microscopic newspapers of the day were full of dire predictions.  Just kidding.  Had they been, though, their predictions would have been all too true.  It’s said that this was by far the greatest extinction event the world has ever witnessed, killing off almost all of the existing life, leaving only the new photosynthesizers and a smattering of the older bits near ocean vents and the like.  Even they had it rough, though, because the sudden burst of oxygen turned almost all the methane into carbon dioxide.  The Earth cooled, and remained encased in ice – snowball Earth – for millions of years.

Well, there it is.  They’re still with us; they’ve become all the rich and glorious diversity of plants.  From our perverse point of view, or course.  We are essentially what’s become of alien invaders wallowing about in their own waste products.

I can’t begin to tell you all the trials and tribulations that followed.  For the next couple of billion years, the Earth vacillated between toasty warm and crippling cold, and all the range between, each shift engendering a new catastrophe for whatever life had grown accustomed to the previous conditions, and a marvelous opportunity for those few misfits who had managed to survive in spite of it.  You really should check out some of the incredible trials and errors along the way: hard-shelled predators with razor like appendages; floating masses of jello; tiny diatoms whose gazillions of weeny skeletons form the vast limestone deposits of Earth.  But let’s cut to the chase.

What with one thing and another, bilaterally symmetrical soft-bodied creatures with internal structures of calcium carbonate evolved: the vertebrates.  I mean, anyone care to calculate the odds?  One major theory of the evolution of skeletons is that organisms found a way to sequester the deadly calcium in their environment, and that that eventually was pressed into service as the internal skeleton, providing rigidity and support for locomotion and other kinetic activities.  Talk about making lemonade from the lemons you’ve been given.

You may think that by this point, we are well on the way to the obvious: us and all the clever world about us.  Not so fast.

Although you could make a case that in such a changeable, unreliable world as Earth, it was just a matter of time before an intelligent, generalized creature like the primates would evolve, we’re still a long way from ourselves here.  Even today, there are hundreds of primate species, with hundreds more having gone extinct.  It is said that at one point, about 60-50,000 years ago, Homo sapiens was down to a breeding population of fewer than a couple of hundred individuals.  We’ve all been squeezed through a very narrow funnel, my friends, which explains why we’re so damned alike.

Think of it.  A species comprised of many thousands, culled to a couple hundred.  Most humans died back then.

But not your ancestors, or mine.  The odds against any one of us being here are astronomical.  Since then, of course, we’ve burgeoned to a population of something over 7 billion.  All the same, countless ancestral lines have gone extinct since the big crunch of 60-50k alone.

But not yours, and not mine.  At any point along the vast expanse of time, from the first flicker of life to now, your personal ancestor organism might have been one of the countless gazillions that died without issue.  Congratulations.

Now, about those horrendous odds you say you’re up against…

Open letter to the Director, Department of Intelligent Design

Dear Sir,

It is my belief that, the prototype having been in production for some 6,000 years, some issues might be addressed which have come to my attention.

First, although it may have seemed a good idea at the time, it is increasingly clear that it was a mistake to make the universe seem so much older than it really is.  I was not present at the meeting when this was discussed, so I cannot say what the purpose may have been.  There has been talk of some sort of test to be administered to a transient species near the end of the process, but it now seems rather a lot of trouble to have gone to, for what could only have been some sort of joke.

Second, I thought it had been agreed that the order and harmony principles behind the design would obviate any further tinkering down the line.  It now seems that suspension of the rules which govern things is so frequently required that there is even a name for it: “miracle.”  I don’t suppose it occurred to whomever authorized the first miracle that it would set off a chain of events requiring more and more of them as more time went by.  Can you say butterfly effect?  I understand it has even gotten to the point where sporting events can no longer be decided without intervention.

Third, biology.  I don’t know where to start.  Who was in charge of biology?  I mean, it started out fine, lots of diversity there, plenty of fun, but did somebody go on vacation, or what?  I get a column with four protrusions.  Nice symmetry, good locomotor possibilities, sound basic engineering.  But why stand it up?  Do that, and the load structure goes all wrong, you get joint issues, and the column goes all to hell.  ME 101.  Hell, might as well just have evolution if we’re going to be that sloppy.  And don’t even get me started on bacteria; they’ve got security issues you could push a planet through.  We need a change of leadership there, for sure.

Fourth, and in my opinion, most disturbing, we seem to have pushed all our error down into the nano level.  I completely see the reasoning behind this: sweep it under the great cosmic rug, and hope nobody trips over it.  But they will, you can count on it.  Already, people have found out that we’ve got stuff popping in and out of existence down there all the time to keep things in balance, and they’ve been poking around anti-this and dark-that for years.  It’s only a matter of time.  (Sorry, couldn’t resist)

I don’t mean to be an alarmist, but I hope there is still time to address these issues.  I know, we can always create more time if we run out, but is that really the right way to run things?

With all due respect,

God, Sr. (Retired)