Friday, January 26, 2024

What's a few million years...

I love the PBS show, Eons! Where else do I find captivating tidbits (each show is about 10 minutes long) that help me expand my awareness beyond my lifetime!

I count myself lucky to live in this time of exponential growth of science and technology. In my lifetime, I have seen the confirmation of the theory of the end of the dinosaurs (a large asteroid), the discovery of DNA and the complete sequencing of the human gene, and the creation of a conversational "Chat-bot" (ChatGPT-4) using neural networks.

Now, these are only three of a huge number of discoveries. And I make no claims that these are the most important discoveries. But these three are fundamental to my personal journey, and my quest for meaning and purpose.

But what does any of this have to do with Eons, the PBS show?

There are two aspects of humanity that differentiate it from all other forms of organization (and here, I draw the distinction between an individual human being and the longer-term and broader collection of humans and their constructs, which I call humanity):

First, humanity has become aware of, and exploited, the concept of time. Although it can be argued that humanity is not unique in this, humanity has carried the model far beyond the conception of any other life form. Humanity has stretched the existence of "here and now" to include "the entire universe over billions of years". Humanity has developed the ability to experience an added dimension, that of time.

Second, humanity has developed and exploited the ability to share perspectives, from one human being to another. This has increased human beings' ability to perceive beyond an individual's experience to that of a collection of human beings. And with the advent of passing on information through communication, not just genetically, but orally, verbally, in writing, and embedded knowledge of social structures (cultures, mores, superstitions, religions, governments, economies, etc.), humanity has amassed a great storehouse of knowledge, thanks to the universe of systems for which time has a direction, yielding cause and effect.

Our ability to experience the past, observe the present, and predict the future has helped us learn faster and deeper than our genes can evolve. We have created a whole world of "memes", that are passed on, not through genes, but through communication, from one generation to the next.

So what does this have to do with the PBS show Eons?

Every day, since I was a teenager, I have wondered, "Why am I here?" "Do I have a purpose?" "What is the meaning of my life?"

As I've gotten older, these questions became more generalized, expanding over time and space: "Why are we here?" "Do we have purpose?" "What is the meaning of human existence?" And opened as far as I could imagine: "Why is the universe here?" "Does the universe have purpose?" and "What is the meaning of life?"

Shows, like Eons, continue to challenge my perception, my time horizon, beyond my own lifetime, beyond the lifetime of humans, beyond the lifetime of the universe.

And this particular episode, which I watched today, "The Hidden Genes That Make Us Human", left me thinking that the things that make me human are not just genetic. There is my "memetic" composition, too, all the things I have learned, passed on to me from earlier generations of humans, which I carry, passing them on to others, as I communicate them in ways such as this blog.

PS: Have you ever thought how fragile our memetic composition is? While it is hard for me to imagine a world where our genes are not successful (reproductive forces are (nearly?) instinctual), it is not hard for me to imagine a world where we "drop the ball" with education, leaving behind what we've learned. In the same way as our genetic history has experienced several major extinctions, our memetic history has, and will, again, see humanity's knowledge rise and fall over the eons.