Life as a cosmic Ponzi scheme. Part 1

A three-part meditation on the “meaning of life” at large scales. Part 1 highlights a surprisingly gruesome reality. Part 2 is about the trajectory of life on Earth and in the universe. Part 3 is on human progress and the bizarre moral dilemmas it creates.

Among the delightfully surreal experiences of this otherwise terrible pandemic has been watching nature enjoy a small vacation from us humans.

The height of the first lockdown in Europe and other regions this spring just happened to overlap with the 50th anniversary of Earth Day — April 22, 2020. That’s the day we humans are asked to remember, if only for a moment, that life on this planet is not only about us.

Just about that time, people around the world started commenting on the surprising loudness of bird song. Clear industrial skies, fish swimming in the blue canals of Venice and lions lazing around on usually busy African highways suddenly became internet memes. Here in my part of Germany where a brown haze is the norm, one could marvel at forests and villages 40 km across the Rhine valley. As I watched an Earth Day interview with the great Sir David Attenborough, I could only share in his feeling “embarrassingly lucky” to spend the pandemic enjoying the spectacle.

That it took a global pandemic for us to remember what clean air and birdsongs are like is obviously a sad comment on our global civilization. Even sadder is the fact that we are already forgetting it[1]. But despite what is often implied, the state of the world today isn’t simply a sin of globalization or any other accident of bad regulation and crony capitalism. Greed and environmental destruction aren’t modern inventions, nor have they ever been limited to our rulers and robber-barons. The world has been on this path ever since we humans made growth the organizing principle of our society. To the extent that actions speak louder than words, our species frankly hasn’t given a damn about Mother Earth since the Neolithic revolution 11,000 years ago.

This isn’t an anti-progress rant pining for the good old days of the Paleolithic. We’re all happy to grab our mobile phones in the morning instead of a spear. We’d much rather fight traffic than hungry bears. But we also shouldn’t forget that is the 21st century in us talking. Do we know for sure that the people who made the art of the Chauvet cave in France, Lubang Jeriji Saléh complex on Borneo, or the Apollo 11 cave in Namibia, would not have pitied us? What would they think of a world where hundreds of millions hunch over desks all day, knowing the world mainly through flat screens, while still other hundreds of millions wander streets and barren lands in destitution?

A world where the only other living creatures we ever meet are those we can confine and control?

Perhaps if these Paleolithic Picassos were to visit us they would run screaming back to their time portals begging to return. Or perhaps they would simply be torn between the riches and desolation, the safety and dangers of the modern world, just like many modern hunter-gatherer peoples are[2]. For that matter, just like all of us are who struggle to understand what we’re doing here.

If this is a rant at all, it’s rather against binary narratives of what good and bad even mean in the unfathomably gargantuan sweep of life. Writers since the industrial revolution have praised the miraculous arc of human progress since we left the forests and savannahs. Others, from the ancient allegory of the Garden of Eden to modern anthropologists like Jared Diamond have seen this path as the worst mistake in the history of our species. All these views and their nuanced variations in between, I believe, make compelling points. But we also shouldn’t forget how short-sighted each necessarily is. Human-scale value judgements seem indeed laughably parochial against the billions of years of life both behind us and still to come. But then what could a larger scale view of life look like?

One gift of modernity is the scientific worldview that lets us cut across normal human limits of time, space and the compulsion to classify things as good or bad. It lets us say odd things like this: humans follow the same natural laws of physics, chemistry and biology, and act according to the same basic mandate of all living things. If we’re wrecking the planet, then logically speaking, isn’t nature wrecking her own work?

Of course that’s a bizarre way to put it — especially when our daily actions are what’s driving climate change and global mass extinction. Nevertheless, wasn’t the fallacy of seeing ourselves apart from nature what helped us get into this mess in the first place?

Besides, as we’ll see, we aren’t the first living beings in Earth’s history to unleash catastrophe on the planet and may not be the last (see Part 2). And if that’s true, then how much of our tragic destructiveness goes beyond human culture or even human nature? How much is somehow baked into the nature of nature itself? Might there even be an inevitable mathematics behind (what we see as) tragedy? Perhaps if we’re willing to look squarely beyond our well-worn “good vs. bad” narratives about ourselves and the world, we might be surprised by what we find.

As the beginning of this essay hopefully shows, I do love and revere the beauty and spectacle of life on this planet. Like all overly-urbanized humans hooked on the great Sir David Attenborough, I too become mesmerized watching a humpback whale glide grandly through the waves; a cuttlefish dance in psychedelic pulsations; a herd of elephants lumber along in harmony; or a Joshua tree stand sentinel in the desert. And the few times I’ve been lucky to have seen some of Earth’s awe-inspiring critters in the wild, I’ve always felt overwhelmed with the thrill and privilege of being among them. More than anything else, I was happy to be reminded that the wonder of life on this planet is truly not only about us humans.

Nevertheless, all this wonder and beauty doesn’t change one stark fact. Run the numbers beyond these cherry-picked images of peace and harmony and you see that life on this planet is one gargantuan horror show through and through. The poetic metaphor of the “circle of life” — the beautiful balance in nature’s endless cycle of life and death — masks an astronomically gruesome dynamic maintaining that cycle. Here are just a few examples to illustrate the scale of what I mean.

An average African lion lives about 10–15 years, and at maturity needs to eat about 15 large animals per year. For each lioness sleeping in the soft shade of an acacia tree, for every single cub she lovingly nurtures to grow up and succeed in life, between 150–250 other nurturing social creatures — zebras, giraffes, pigs, cape buffalo, antelope and wildebeests — mothers and newborn as well — have to die. And there is no honest way to characterize each death except as what it is: a violent terror of adrenaline, blood and desperation. What wildlife documentaries and popular musicals present to us as the majestic circle of life is powered by the reality of countless bones snapping, lungs bursting and brains flooded with unimaginable trauma.

To take one key metric, that’s an average “horrible-deaths-needed-to-enable-one-life” ratio of 200:1 for the majestic lion. And believe it or not, 200:1 is a modest number in nature. For the fluffy feathered and wise-eyed barn owl of children’s stories, the ratio is about 7,500:1 (over an average lifespan of five years). That’s four nurturing social animals a day — mice, squirrels, chipmunks and smaller birds — all being fed into a single owl’s remorseless beak-and-talon shredder.

Surprisingly for us omnivorous modern humans with more than ten times an owl’s lifespan, the ratio is actually similar. The average human consumes about 7,000 animals in a lifetime, according to one estimate. In Paleolithic times the ratio might have actually been similar or higher. Several studies have shown that many modern hunter-gatherers take in as many or more daily calories than an average well-fed urbanite [3]. Of course we should remember that most of the animals we moderns eat have to spend their whole lives in crowded trauma-factories. At any one time we are keeping and raising 70 billion of them under horrifically cruel conditions. So if we’re talking about total induced suffering on other creatures, our modern contribution is definitely at the high end for a single species.

In the world’s oceans these ratios can be even more extreme. An adult sperm whale tries its best to eat one metric ton of protein, or 3–4 giant squid, a day. Far from being just some mindless gelatinous blob of tentacles, squids, like other cephalopods, are considered to be among the geniuses of the animal kingdom. As any casual consumer of YouTube animal videos or of My Octopus Teacher knows, cephalopods can show remarkable feats of forethought and ingenuity. And although not particularly social, squid have been observed protecting and even sacrificing themselves for their young. At any rate, over a 65 year lifespan, a single sperm whale munches its way to a ratio of over 80,000:1 of these deep-sea brainiacs.

My Octopus Teacher documentary trailer

For every adorable seal that we see sunning its belly on the beach or frolicking in the kelp forests, over its 30 year lifespan around 30,000–50,000 salmon, mackerel and other apparently quite sentient species of fish have to experience their bones broken and flesh gnawed apart. Just in case you thought fish were mindless, swimming protein bars, here are just a few facts about fish intelligence: some species, like the African freshwater elephantnose fish, use echolocation and have the highest brain to body oxygen use of all vertebrates, including humans. Long term memory and associative learning have been shown in many. For example, rainbow trout have been trained to press buttons for food and can retain that knowledge for months. Given that fish don’t have hands, their use of directed water flow and sometimes rocks as tools can be quite ingenious. The archerfish can even hit a moving target above the water surface. That takes real situational awareness. Further signs we associate with intelligence like social learning, planning, deception and play, have all been observed in various species of fish.

In our large-animal chauvinism, most of us see insects as small, mindless robots to swat at when they annoy us. The fact that bees die by the billions every year of starvation, infection and likely now pesticides makes us fret for our farming, not for their sake. Nevertheless, the humble bumblebee — with only a few million neurons — has been found to have fantastic cross-modal information processing abilities. To integrate visual, tactile, olfactory and temperature data into complete situational awareness may sound trivial to us. But it’s a cognitive feat that until recently was demonstrated only in very few vertebrates — primates, dolphins, rodents and the aforementioned elephant-nose fish. It is certainly far beyond current state-of-the-art in robotics and AI. Recently bees been shown to have several techniques for actively gardening of their flowering plants — including accelerating their time of pollination when pollen is scarce. Honeybees have also been shown in the lab to perform addition and subtraction. While the ability to do basic counting is widespread among animals, doing actual arithmetic is something even human brains take years to develop. Finally, the Japanese honeybee has developed a unique strategy to fight off its otherwise invincible enemy, the infamous Asian “murder hornet” Vespa mandarinia. The bees pile en masse onto an invading hornet and collectively vibrate their bodies until the generated heat cooks the hornet alive. Sometimes the process takes up to an hour, but the honeybees are tenacious and coordinated enough stay with it.

The reason for highlighting cognition in other species here is because, frankly, that’s often what it takes to grab our human attention and respect. It’s not that we don’t recognize the “usefulness” of other species to us or the larger ecosystem. But unless a critter is cute like a Koala, it apparently needs to at least be “smart” to have value in its own right. Otherwise it’s loss seems no more tragic to us than a spilled cup of coffee. Particularly our modern Western Scala Naturae — the presumed hierarchy of being that goes back to at least Aristotle —tends to link cognitive ability with an inherent value of existence. (How convenient we put “smart” right there in our own name homo sapiens.)

Computer scientist and philosopher David Hofstadter(of Gödel, Escher, Bach fame) no doubt speaks for many when writing about computationally rich minds like ours being “big souls” with more inherent value than “little souls” like ants. It’s an intuitive position to take for humans in the information age, and that’s not meant in a backhanded way. Life forces all of us to make practical value judgements and frankly I don’t have a better one. I can only note here a few problems I have with it.

For one, I suspect the intensity of subjective experience is not as strongly tied to cognition as commonly assumed. Singing birds, frolicking dogs, prancing antelope and flying stingrays all strike me as happy as happy gets. On the other hand, running for your life, being ripped apart and spending your last minute in a coyote’s stomach sounds as miserable for a squirrel as it would for me. For that matter, so does slowly dying of infection, gnawing parasites, arthritis, organ failure, starvation or being murdered by your own kind — the usual endgame for top predators.

It’s also not slam-dunk obvious to me that humans would come out on top of a value system based on raw cognitive ability. A lot of what we take for our own genius is in fact computational outsourcing to recursive language and unusually dexterous fingers. Our actual brains, and in some cases even the area of our celebrated cerebral cortex, are smaller than those of whales, dolphins and elephants. Even modern technological culture may not give us the edge we expect. According to Jared Diamond, modern urbanites would likely lose out to the tribefolk of New Guinea, who he described as the smartest humans he had ever met.

Finally, I’m not sure how many of us would be appreciate a super-AI or super-intelligent alien showing up at the door and seeing us as little souls.

Nevertheless, if computational complexity is where you hang your empathy hat on, you might consider the “humble” plant kingdom.

To our visual and acoustic sensory systems that are fixated on movement and sound, plants can seem like just inert stage props in the theatre of life. On the contrary, they are anything but. Plants make up about 80% of the planet’s biomass — around 450 gigatons of carbon. Microbes like bacteria and the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus make up the other 20%. The entire animal kingdom adds up to an insignificant two gigatons — barely a rounding error.

In any Scala Naturae worthy of the name, plants are the ruling house. Yet we cut them down, chop them up, plow them under and throw them away with no more empathy than when disposing of a broken bottle.

In reality, plants simply move differently than we do (extending from the center of mass), process information differently (distributed vs. localized computation) and make noises that we can’t hear (in the ultrasound region). In terms of cellular function, organizational structure and information processing, the plant world is as fantastically complicated as the animal one. The ability to count is also something not limited to animals [4]. Many plants are known to have social lives and communicate to one another. They cooperate, compete with and kill each other just as animals do. And, yes, they can scream vigorously when injured; at 65 decibels, as loud as a normal TV setting (but at 20–150 kHz, only bats and mice hear it). As botanist Frantisek Baluska put itPlants are not just robotic, stimulus-response devices. They’re living organisms which have their own problems.”

Finally, if for some reason you believe the act of breathing is a requirement for “true life”, try watching a video from NASA showing global atmospheric carbon cycling throughout the year. That massive ebb and flow of gracefully swirling gases is almost all the work of plants.

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center’s Global Modeling and Assimilation Office

Or, you can simply stand in an orchard of wild cherry trees during a dew-drenched sunrise. With just the right light and humidity, you can have the privilege of seeing their billowing breathes in action as they fill the air around you. Which makes it another delightfully surreal experience to imagine that these beautiful photosynthesizing beings — and not humans — are the ones on track to cause Earth’s greatest and final extinction event. But that’s for Part 2.

Footnotes:

[1] With attention and regulatory resources diverted elsewhere, the burning and clearing of the Amazon has been up more than 50% over the record set last spring by some estimates. Wildlife in Africa is being decimated at even higher rates than before now because the drop in ecotourism has allowed poaching to rise in its place. Of course planet-marauding is not a specialty of any one region. Plastic waste has been surging globally since the pandemic as single-use, never-to-decompose plastics once again become the world’s go-to solution for everything. Meanwhile the world’s largest economy and worst polluter, the US, has been tossing out every environmental regulation that isn’t nailed down. As the world’s other largest economy and worst polluter, China, struggles with its own new massive unemployment, it may decide to follow suit. Prior to the pandemic, China’s renewable energy investments were already declining as its newest coal plants come on line at a record clip. For what it’s worth, the EU has announced plans for a “green” economic recovery. On the other hand, the EU’s actions often look quite different than its lofty pronouncements, so time will tell if that too is just more wishful thinking.

[2] The profound dilemmas facing modern San people of Southern Africa is portrayed in a moving and thought provoking documentary A House Without Snakes. An excerpt can be found here.

[3] At least some hunter-gatherers don’t seem to expend any more energy during the day than modern urban couch potatoes. One study that measured the total daily energy expenditure for the Hazda tribe in Tanzania found near identical average values. An apparent explanation is that the physically active Hazda seem to have significantly lower basal metabolic rates.

[4] The Venus fly trap has been shown to count tactile stimuli to coordinate its attacks on prey.

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Another drifter lost in hyper-nerd space. Obsessed with big questions in science, art, philosophy, humans, and the dark future. My dark past has a physics Ph.D

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Sean Lee

Sean Lee

Another drifter lost in hyper-nerd space. Obsessed with big questions in science, art, philosophy, humans, and the dark future. My dark past has a physics Ph.D

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