Varki’s MOR vs. Jaynes’ Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind

I am reading Julian Jaynes‘ “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind” and am trying to understand how it relates to Varki’s Mind Over Reality (aka Denial of Reality) theory.


  1. Is Varki a prerequisite for Jaynes, or does Jaynes stand on its own?
  2. Does Jaynes answer questions not answered by Varki?
  3. Does Jaynes conflict with Varki?
  4. Do the two theories offer different explanations for:
    1. the singular emergence of a brain with an extended theory of mind;
    2. the singular emergence of a brain capable of advanced physics;
    3. the singular emergence and universality of religion in the cultures of behaviorally modern humans;
    4. the reason that belief in life after death is the only common denominator between thousands of human religions;
    5. the reason that otherwise intelligent humans deny all aspects of their overshoot and the severe damage they are doing to the ecology that sustains them.

If there are any readers that have pondered these questions I would love to hear your thoughts.

I intend to write a summary and offer answers to the above questions after I finish the book.

Jaynes is quite a dense and unintuitive book so it may require several readings before I have the confidence to tackle a summary.

By Alice Friedemann: Book Review of “Failing States, Collapsing Systems: Biophysical triggers of Political Violence by Nafeez Ahmed


Dr. Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed is an investigative journalist that focuses on biophysical issues like over population, resource depletion, and climate change that underlie most of the wars and social unrest around the world.

Ahmed recently published a book titled “Failing States, Collapsing Systems: Biophysical triggers of Political Violence” and Alice Friedemann has written an excellent review of the book.


Since the 2008 financial crash, there’s been an unprecedented outbreak of social protest: Occupy in the US and Western Europe, the Arab Spring, and civil unrest from Greece to Ukraine, China to Thailand, Brazil to Turkey, and elsewhere. Sometimes civil unrest has resulted in government collapse or even wars, as in Iraq-Syria and Ukraine- Crimea. The media and experts blame it on poor government, usually ignoring the real reasons because all they know is politics and economics.

In the Middle East, experts should also talk about geology.  Oil-producing nations like Syria, Yemen, Egypt, Nigeria, and Iraq have all reached peak oil and declining government revenues after that force rulers to raise the prices of food and oil.  This region was already short on water, and now climate change (from fossil fuels) is making matters much worse with drought and heat waves causing even greater water scarcity, which in turn lowers agricultural production.  Many of these nations have some of the highest rates of population growth on earth at a time when resources essential to life itself are declining.

The few nations still producing much of the oil – Russia, Saudi Arabia, and the U.S. are about to join the club and stop exporting oil so they can provide for their domestic population.




Ahmed says that so far after peak oil production, Middle-Eastern economies have declined as revenues declined, leading to systemic state-failure in roughly 15 years, more or less, depending on how hard hit a nation was by additional (climate-change) factors such as drought, water scarcity, food prices, and overpopulation.

Saudi Arabia, and much of the rest of Arabian Gulf peninsula, may experience state-failure well within 10 to 20 years. If forecasts of Saudi oil depletion are remotely accurate, then by 2030 the country will simply not exist as we know it. Coupled with the accelerating impacts of climate-induced water scarcity, the Kingdom is bound to begin experiencing systemic state-failure at most within 20 years, and probably much earlier.


It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that as we near 2045, the European and American projects will face escalating internal challenges to their internal territorial integrity, increasing the risk of systemic state-failure. Likewise, after 2030, Europe, India, China (and other Asian nations) will begin to experience symptoms of systemic state-failure.


By Allan Stromfeldt Chris­tensen: Book Review: The Oracle of Oil

Here is a very nice history on peak oil and a review of a new biography on its first researcher, M. King Hubbert.

Living in highly technological civilizations that generally place the greatest importance and value upon the material gadgetry and inventiveness of our societies, it should come as little surprise that the luminaries and household names that we can readily conjure and associate with are those related to the technological aspects of our lives. For example, when one mentions the telephone, the light bulb, the automobile, the airplane, or nuclear bombs, it’s likely that many a grade-schooler can rhyme off the names Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, the Wright brothers, and, perhaps, Albert Einstein.

But segue into more ecological matters and the fathers and mothers of these vocations are certainly not household names the way the aforementioned are. For what comes to mind when we think of organic farming, climate change, the environmental movement, or limits to growth? For most of those who flick light switches on and off as much as they eat food and depend on stable planetary ecological balances, the answers are probably little more than a shrug. While children can quite easily conjure up the aforementioned names, you’d be hard pressed to find even an adult who could easily slip off of their tongues the names Sir Albert Howard, Svante Arrhenius, Rachel Carson, and the team of Donella Meadows, Dennis Meadows, and Jørgen Randers.

But while the topics of organic farming, climate change, and the environmental movement can certainly elicit recognition in the average citizen, the reality of peak oil quite often does not, with even less of a recognition expected in reference to the person that initially brought it to our attention. That largely unknown individual would be M. King Hubbert, the subject of Mason Inman’s timely new biography, The Oracle of Oil: A Maverick Geologist’s Quest for a Sustainable Future.

As Inman describes it, after having spent his early formative years on a farm in the Hill Country of Central Texas, and gone through two years of community college, a young Hubbert ended up making his way through various hardscrabble jobs on his way to the University of Chicago. It was there that the mathematically inclined Hubbert got exposed to a variety of disciplines that would aid him in his future endeavours, those ranging from geology to physics to math.

It was while still an undergrad that the first inklings of Hubbert’s future interest can be seen, that moment when he first glimpsed a chart depicting the exponential growth of coal extraction rates. After a following lecture on petroleum extraction, Hubbert apparently couldn’t help but muse to himself, “How long will it last?” For now, as he put it, it was “Difficult to estimate reserves.”

By no means though was Hubbert afflicted with a one-track kind of mind, for as Inman astutely weaves within his story, Hubbert, and at only 26-years-of-age, accepted a job offer to teach geophysics at Columbia University in New York City, the place where he became an original member of what would become the second focus of his life – the nascent movement soon to be known as Technocracy. In short, Technocracy was a not-quite totalitarian system whereby government-owned industries were envisioned as being managed by scientists, engineers and technicians. In fact, all of North America, even all the way down to Venezuela (because it had oil?) would be under the “continental control” of a united government, known as a “Technate.” Technocracy also disdained “the price system” in favour of “energy certificates,” a highly relevant notion that Inman fortunately repeatedly returns to.

In the meantime, Hubbert was all the while dissatisfied with the supposedly common sense notion that the extraction of a given mineral increases exponentially until one day, poof!, there’s nothing left. As he understood it, extraction and depletion rates could be related to the so-called S-curve that can be seen in an isolated pair of breeding fruit flies: their population soars and eventually tapers off at a plateau (or a flattened peak). And as Hubbert was in the minority with his belief that there were limits to growth, he similarly saw various facets of industrial society as fitting on this S-curve.

Being one of the leading proponents of Technocracy and an ardent writer on its workings, it was in Technocracy publications that Hubbert dabbled in writing about peaks and declines of resources. Come 1938, Hubbert came up with his first, but somewhat unsubstantiated (and rather off), estimate of the year that US oil extraction rates would peak: 1950. But having moved from academia to the government in the early 40s, it wasn’t until he then took a job at the US branch of Royal Dutch Shell in 1943 (eventually becoming the top geologist in a new lab it created) that Hubbert would have the resources and access to information that would allow him to formulate a more detailed analysis which led to his ground-breaking predictions.

For it was on March 8th, 1956, that Hubbert gave his talk “Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels,” his revelatory paper that laid out his thoroughly analysed prediction that US oil extraction rates would peak sometime between 1965 and 1970 (to go along with a global peak in 2000). I won’t spoil things with a recitation of the rather humorous tensions, but I will point out that Hubbert was in fact correct, and that US oil extraction rates peaked in 1970. Furthermore, while much derision of Hubbert’s findings resulted both before and after 1970 (to go along with a smattering of praise), what may come as surprising to those thoroughly familiar with peak oil but too young to have been around back then (such as I, who was busy being born while President Jimmy Carter was wearing cardigans and having solar panels placed on the White House) is the amount of media attention given to estimates of US oil supplies, including both before and after Hubbert’s famous paper.

For while peak oil is nowadays generally dismissed – and more commonly ignored – by the mainstream media in lieu of financial abracadabra and/or dreams of a 100% replacement of fossil fuel energy with renewable (“renewable”) energy, the amount of serious talk that domestic US oil supplies garnered in the mid to late-mid 20th century is comparatively astounding. Inman’s surprising historical account relays the fact that the topic made the front pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post on more than one occasion, while the New York Times even visited Hubbert at his home to interview him! And even more absurd is Inman’s account of the US administration’s – all the way up to President Jimmy Carter’s – interest in Hubbert’s work, President Carter even making a quasi-reference to Hubbert’s work in one of his talks.

The question(s) that these shocking revelations (shocking to me at least) that Inman conveys is, What happened? Why were oil supplies and extraction rates such a big issue a few decades ago, when today the talk, if anything, is all about energy prices?

As Inman points out, one of the ordeals that began to drown out talk of oil extraction rates was the Watergate scandal of 1973. Following that, the “doom and gloom” of President Jimmy Carter (Carter’s sources called for worldwide oil extraction rates to peak in the mid-1980s [!?], while Hubbert’s calculations saw 2000 as the peak year) was no match for the sunny optimism of Ronald Reagan in the 1980 election, resulting in a new President and the removal of the White House’s interloping solar panels.

Jump ahead a few decades, and from what I can tell, not only does it seem that this Reagan-esque sunny optimism continues to reign supreme, but that it has imbued itself into the thinking of many progressives and environmentalists today, through the optimistic attitude of the “clean and green” notion that “renewables” can provide a 100% substitution for fossil fuels. As far as I can see it, it is this techno-optimist attitude of technology-as-saviour, to go along with another round of obeisance to financialization as itinerant saviour, that has convinced many people that energy supplies, and thus peak oil, need not be an issue (anymore, supposing that they ever really were).

But as Inman’s account also explains, Hubbert wasn’t quite averse to the techno-optimist way of thinking either. Although he did eventually do away with his staunch support for nuclear power, Hubbert ended up trading a reliance on nuclear power for a rather oversized belief in solar power. That is, Hubbert envisioned deserts covered in solar panels that would generate electricity of which could be converted into methanol or to generate hydrogen, and that such ventures could power high-energy societies (New York City!) for thousands of years. It was thus Hubbert’s belief that

“with our technology and with adequate supplies of energy, we ought to have a lot of leisure. And the proper use of this leisure can bring us an intellectual renaissance.”

This attitude gels with the stated Technocratic “embrace [of] the abundance created by machines,” which for me is hard to equate with the notion that peak oil and diminishing energy supplies in general imply less energy to power those machines, unless you believe in the sunny optimism of solar-panel-covered-deserts (to go along with other “renewables”) that can match the energetic output of fossil fuels (which the low EROEI levels of, say, solar panels, says isn’t quite feasible).

Having said all that, Hubbert did fortunately have the all-too-rare understanding that

“One of the most ubiquitous expressions in the language right now is growth – how to maintain our growth. If we could maintain it, it would destroy us.”

So although, and from my understandings, Hubbert had the questionable belief that nuclear power, and then solar panels, could provide not quite infinite growth but (rather conveniently?) a kind of infinite steady state of what the current energetic usage happened to be at the time, he did nonetheless realize that none of this could do anything for the problems of overpopulation and diminishing water supplies.

Bringing things into the present, Inman conveys the fact that worldwide conventional oil extraction rates peaked (or perhaps hit their plateau) in 2006 at 70 million barrels per year, finally dropping down to 69 million barrels per year in 2014. As it is, the only thing keeping overall oil extraction rates increasing – and giving the last push to the economic growth which Hubbert so despised – are the unconventional oil supplies of tight oil (via fracking) and tar sands oil.

This brings us back to Technocracy’s disdain for “the price system” (or as Hubbert put it, “the monetary culture”), which was the status quo and scarcity-based economics system that measures everything in dollars and cents, and which ignores physical limits. For as Technocracy conversely saw it, money would be abandoned for “energy certificates,” allowing for everything to be paid in their energy equivalent.

Upon first coming across the name M. King Hubbert some ten years ago I happened to read about Hubbert’s disagreement with our practice of fractional-reserve banking, of which I’ve never seen mentioned again until Inman’s book (kind of, as Inman doesn’t mention fractional-reserve banking directly). It is from this knowledge that I’ve come to understand the situation of diminishing energy supplies: since money is a proxy for energy, limits on energy supplies will imply limits to the continuance of our economic (Ponzi scheme) system, leading to an inability for sufficient payments to service even the interest payments on previous loans – which implies and will contribute to the collapse (implosion) of economies, be it slowly or quickly. As Hubbert put it, “exponential growth is about over. We’re entering something new.”

But not being much of a fan of a grandiose Technate myself (nor of the belief that there would ultimately be enough alternative energy supplies to maintain such a massive and centralized system anyway), we could still work off of Hubbert’s disdain for “the monetary culture” towards something like the Ecological Economics of Herman Daly and Joshua Farley, a discipline which is also in favour of moving away from fractional-reserve banking and the notion of infinite growth. And since peak oil means growth is coming to an end, perhaps a look to biophysical economics (see Energy and the Wealth of Nations by Charles Hall and Kent Klitgaard, or the new journal BioPhysical Economics and Resource Quality, edited by Hall, Ugo Bardi, and Gaël Giraud) could help us to envision a worthy alternative to Technocracy’s monetary substitution.

Regardless, there does seem to be merit for Hubbert’s belief in perhaps a partially planned economy, supposing that that would even be politically possible. Market forces are quite obviously doing little to nothing to ween us away from the usage of fossil fuels (be they diminishing or not), and the primary effect that high oil prices (reaching $147 a few years back) had was to spur investment in the higher costing unconventionals.

In the meantime, supposing that conventional and unconventional oil supplies continue their slight overall increase for years to come, this also poses a problem in light of carbon dioxide levels contributing to climate change. Inman thus poses the ultimately unavoidable and extremely pertinent questions: Do we really think market forces will come to our rescue? And if not, are we going to impose limits on ourselves, or are we simply going to sit back and wait until nature imposes those limits for us?

So whether you’re new to the notion of peaking oil supplies or rather familiar with it, I can certainly say that The Oracle of Oil has much new to shine on the story – and now history – of peak oil. With oil supplies being what they currently are, and with no off-planet supply to make up for what will this time not just be a US shortfall but a planetary shortfall, Inman’s book could certainly do us a favour by helping us to familiarize ourselves with the reality of peak oil, and by helping us to make M. King Hubbert the household name it ought to be.

That is of course a lot to ask, and after the virtual silence on peak oil that occurred after the global peak of conventional oil extraction rates in 2006 (to go along with all that has ensued since), one couldn’t be blamed for expecting little different upon the reaching of the global peak of conventional and unconventional oil extraction rates in the coming months or years (?). But one can always hope of course.

Godspeed the overall global peak?

book review: On The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin wrote this most famous book in 1859 so I had modest expectations given how much we have since learned about evolution and genetics.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that the book has stood the test of time very well.

Darwin had an excellent mind and writing skills. Highly recommended.

After completing this book I recommend you read Varki’s book where he builds on Darwin’s theory to explain the singular emergence of an intelligent species with full theory of mind, and some of our constructive and destructive behaviors.

book review: Our Renewable Future by Richard Heinberg and David Fridley

A new book titled Our Renewable Future by Richard Heinberg and David Fridley is available to read online for free here.

The book is an excellent primer on energy and does a nice job of summarizing the challenges we face as fossil energy depletes.

Heinberg’s style is to present an intelligent fact-based view of the challenges while simultaneously offering positive things we could choose to do to make the future less bad. He avoids predicting pain or collapse although having followed him for years I think this is likely a politically correct veneer. He also tends to ignore the effect of de-growth on our debt-based economy and the resulting small amount of wealth we will have available for investment.

I like the fact that the book uses a wide lens and discusses things often ignored like high temperature industrial processes that cannot run on renewable energy (concrete, metal, and silicon chip production, for example) and discusses the use of fossil energy as feedstocks (fertilizer needed to feed 7 billion, for example). I also like that it discusses honestly the need to reduce our population.

If you’d like a calm intelligent summary of our predicament with lots of space to draw your own conclusions this book a great place to start.

As an aside, I remember David Fridley from an excellent talk he gave in 2007 on the Myths of Biofuels. It’s still relevant and worth watching here.

book review: A Full Life: Reflections at Ninety by Jimmy Carter

Jimmy Carter has long been one of the few world leaders that I respect.

I just finished his latest book which provides a summary of his life and core beliefs.

Jimmy Carter really did have a full life. The breadth of his experience and accomplishments are remarkable and inspirational. He was a farmer, business man, nuclear submariner, wise president, peace envoy, humanitarian, and community leader.

Carter grew up in the depression where he learned the importance of hard work, self-sufficiency, frugality, honesty, and community. These values guided the remainder of his life, including his one term as US president.

I’ve listened many times to Carter’s 1979 speech in which he explains the reality of finite fossil energy and what citizens and government should do in response. It’s by far the best wisdom and policy I’ve ever heard from a leader.

The citizens rejected Carter’s tonic for Reagan’s morning in America. For me this is the saddest point in democratic history.

Carter advocated conservation, austerity, and living within the constraints of non-renewable resources. Instead we chose to use debt to mask reality and to climb a cliff that will be very difficult to safely climb down from.

I read the book primarily because I was hoping to hear his latest insights on energy, environment, and the economy now that 40 years have passed since his presidency. I was disappointed that he said nothing on the topic, nor did he elaborate on his energy position of the 70’s. Most other topics were covered in quite a bit of detail so I found this omission odd. He didn’t hesitate from saying “I told you so” on many other topics. It makes me wonder.

Perhaps Carter’s understanding of thermodynamics and the relationship between energy, environment, and wealth is less than I had hoped. Perhaps his understanding is limited to lessons learned from having to live within meager means during the depression. Perhaps he is afraid to speak about our current situation. I don’t know.

Setting my energy disappointment aside, and turning a blind eye to his religious beliefs, I very much enjoyed the book and recommend it.

Jimmy Carter was and is a great man who lived an inspirational life.

book review: The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life by Nick Lane

Nick Lane has long been one of my favorite science writers, setting aside Varki of course who will always have a special place in my heart.

Nick Lane’s last book Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution” discussed the 10 most important inventions of evolution: the origin of life, DNA, photosynthesis, the complex cell, sex, movement, sight, hot blood, consciousness, and death. I read the book 4 times, was enthralled each time, and no doubt will read it again.

An earlier book by Nick Lane, “Oxygen: The Molecule that Made the World” discussed the amazing transformation of our planet by photosynthesis. After reading this book I look at grass with different eyes. And I love to tell the story of oxygen to any soul who will listen.

In his latest book “The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life” Lane has outdone himself.

The book is sweeping in scope, tackles the most cosmic question, as well as some important earthly questions, is beautifully written, and reads like a page turning mystery thriller.

There is so much here, where to begin?

Lane presents the latest science on the origin of life and makes a compelling case that prokaryotic (simple single cell) life is probably common throughout the universe because all that is required is rock, water, CO2 and energy, all of which are found within alkaline hydrothermal vents on geologically active planets, of which there are 40 billion in our galaxy alone, and probably a similar number in each of the other 100 billion galaxies.

Life emerges as a gradual and predictable transition from geochemistry to biochemistry. Life is not some spiritual mystery, but rather a predictable outcome of the fact that the universe abhors an energy gradient, and life is its best mechanism for degrading energy.

This theory elegantly explains why LUCA (the Last Universal Common Ancestor of all life) and all life that followed is chemiosmotic meaning that it powers itself with a strange highly unintuitive mechanism that pumps protons across a membrane.

The human body, for example, pumps a staggering 10 to the 21st power protons per second of life.

If life is nothing but an electron looking for a place to rest, death is nothing but that electron come to rest.

Lane then turns his attention to the origin of complex life: the eukaryotic cell. All of the multicellular life on earth that normally interests us such as plants, animals, fungi, and hot girls or guys, have a common eukaryote ancestor, and it appears this ancestor emerged only once on earth about 2 billion years after the emergence of simple life. Lane considers this the black hole of biology. A vital but rarely acknowledged singularity that requires explanation.

Lane presents a theory to explain the emergence of the eukaryote and shows that unlike simple life which is probable and predictable, complex life is improbable and unpredictable. It depended on a rare endosymbiosis (merging) of prokaryotes (simple cells) somewhat analogous to a freak accident. The resulting LECA (Last Eukaryotic Common Ancestor), having 2 genomes that needed to cooperate and evolve in harmony, was probably fragile, sickly, and vulnerable to extinction which forced it to evolve many unusual characteristics common to complex life such as the nucleus, sex, two sexes, programmed cell death, germline-soma distinction, and trade-offs between fitness and fertility, adaptability and disease, and ageing and death.

As the endosymbiont (cell within the cell) evolved into mitochondria (the energy powerhouses), eukaryotes were able to break through the energy per gene barrier that constrained the morphological complexity of bacteria and archaea for 2 billion years. Suddenly there was enough energy to power the evolution of complex structure, multi-cellular life, nail salons, and the iPhone.

How lucky that our minds, the most improbable biological machines in the universe, are now a conduit for this restless flow of energy, that we can think about why life is the way it is.

This theory will be particularly satisfying to students of human overshoot who understand that abundant non-renewable energy is the main reason for the size and complexity of today’s human civilization.

The universe, life, and complexity are all about energy.

I am a fan and student of Varki’s theory that human success is the result of a rare simultaneous mutation for denial of reality and an extended theory of mind.

Combining Nick Lane’s theory with Ajit Varki’s theory, and an understanding of our place on the overshoot curve, leads one to an amazing and almost mystical conclusion.

Intelligent life with an extended theory of mind is the result of a rare and unpredictable double mutation, layered on the emergence of complex cells, another rare and unpredictable accident. Intelligent life in the universe is therefore rare and will probably exist for only a short time before its intelligence fueled overshoot, and denial thereof, causes it to go extinct.

The fact that we are alive to witness and understand a very rare peak of intelligent life in the universe is cause for genuine awe.

We should savor it while it lasts.

Here is Nick Lane talking about some of the ideas in his book. I much preferred the book because the subject is too deep to be covered in a 30 minute talk but it’s a taste if you don’t have time for the full meal.

Here is an excerpt from the book’s epilogue.

All life on earth is chemiosmotic, depending on proton gradients across membranes to drive carbon and energy metabolism. We have explored the possible origins and consequences of this peculiar trait. We’ve seen that living requires a continuous driving force, an unceasing chemical reaction that produces reactive intermediates, including molecules like ATP, as by-products. Such molecules drive the energy-demanding reactions that make up cells. This flux of carbon and energy must have been even greater at the origins of life, before the evolution of biological catalysts, which constrained the flow of metabolism within narrow channels. Very few natural environments meet the requirements for life – a continuous, high flux of carbon and usable energy across mineral catalysts, constrained in a naturally microcompartmentalised system, capable of concentrating products and venting waste. While there may be other environments that meet these criteria, alkaline hydrothermal vents most certainly do, and such vents are likely to be common on wet rocky planets across the universe. The shopping list for life in these vents is just rock (olivine), water and CO2, three of the most ubiquitous substances in the universe. Suitable conditions for the origin of life might be present, right now, on some 40 billion planets in the Milky Way alone.

Alkaline hydrothermal vents come with both a problem and a solution: they are rich in H2, but this gas does not react readily with CO2. We have seen that natural proton gradients across thin semiconducting mineral barriers could theoretically drive the formation of organics, and ultimately the emergence of cells, within the pores of the vents. If so, life depended from the very beginning on proton gradients (and iron–sulphur minerals) to break down the kinetic barriers to the reaction of H2 and CO2. To grow on natural proton gradients, these early cells required leaky membranes, capable of retaining the molecules needed for life without cutting themselves off from the energising flux of protons. That, in turn, precluded their escape from the vents, except through the strait gates of a strict succession of events (requiring an antiporter), which enabled the coevolution of active ion pumps and modern phospholipid membranes. Only then could cells leave the vents, and colonise the oceans and rocks of the early earth. We saw that this strict succession of events could explain the paradoxical properties of LUCA, the last universal common ancestor of life, as well as the deep divergence of bacteria and archaea. Not least, these strict requirements can explain why all life on earth is chemiosmotic – why this strange trait is as universal as the genetic code itself.

This scenario – an environment that is common in cosmic terms, but with a strict set of constraints governing outcomes – makes it likely that life elsewhere in the universe will also be chemiosmotic, and so will face parallel opportunities and constraints. Chemiosmotic coupling gives life unlimited metabolic versatility, allowing cells to ‘eat’ and ‘breathe’ practically anything. Just as genes can be passed around by lateral gene transfer, because the genetic code is universal, so too the toolkit for metabolic adaptation to very diverse environments can be passed around, as all cells use a common operating system. I would be amazed if we did not find bacteria right across the universe, including our own solar system, all working in much the same way, powered by redox chemistry and proton gradients across membranes. It’s predictable from first principles.

But if that’s true, then complex life elsewhere in the universe will face exactly the same constraints as eukaryotes on earth – aliens should have mitochondria too. We’ve seen that all eukaryotes share a common ancestor which arose just once, through a rare endosymbiosis between prokaryotes. We know of two such endosymbioses between bacteria (Figure 25) – three, if we include Parakaryon myojinensis – so we know that it is possible for bacteria to get inside bacteria without phagocytosis. Presumably there must have been thousands, perhaps millions, of cases over 4 billion years of evolution. It’s a bottleneck, but not a stringent one. In each case, we would expect to see gene loss from the endosymbionts, and a tendency to greater size and genomic complexity in the host cell – exactly what we do see in Parakaryon myojinensis. But we’d also expect intimate conflict between the host and the endosymbiont – this is the second part of the bottleneck, a double whammy that makes the evolution of complex life genuinely difficult. We saw that the first eukaryotes most likely evolved quickly in small populations; the very fact that the common ancestor of eukaryotes shares so many traits, none of which are found in bacteria, implies a small, unstable, sexual population. If Parakaryon myojinensis is recapitulating eukaryotic evolution, as I suspect, its extremely low population density (just one specimen in 15 years of hunting) is predictable. Its most likely fate is extinction. Perhaps it will die because it has not successfully excluded all its ribosomes from its nuclear compartment, or because it has not yet ‘invented’ sex. Or perhaps, chance in a million, it will succeed, and seed a second coming of eukaryotes on earth.

I think we can reasonably conclude that complex life will be rare in the universe – there is no innate tendency in natural selection to give rise to humans or any other form of complex life. It is far more likely to get stuck at the bacterial level of complexity. I can’t put a statistical probability on that. The existence of Parakaryon myojinensis might be encouraging for some – multiple origins of complexity on earth means that complex life might be more common elsewhere in the universe. Maybe. What I would argue with more certainty is that, for energetic reasons, the evolution of complex life requires an endosymbiosis between two prokaryotes, and that is a rare random event, disturbingly close to a freak accident, made all the more difficult by the ensuing intimate conflict between cells. After that, we are back to standard natural selection. We’ve seen that many properties shared by eukaryotes, from the nucleus to sex, are predictable from first principles. We can go much further. The evolution of two sexes, the germline–soma distinction, programmed cell death, mosaic mitochondria, and the trade-offs between aerobic fitness and fertility, adaptability and disease, ageing and death, all these traits emerge, predictably, from the starting point that is a cell within a cell. Would it all happen over again? I think that much of it would. Incorporating energy into evolution is long overdue, and begins to lay a more predictive basis to natural selection.

Energy is far less forgiving than genes. Look around you. This wonderful world reflects the power of mutations and recombination, genetic change – the basis for natural selection. You share some of your genes with the tree through the window, but you and that tree parted company very early in eukaryotic evolution, 1.5 billion years ago, each following a different course permitted by different genes, the product of mutations, recombination, and natural selection. You run around, and I hope still climb trees occasionally; they bend gently in the breeze and convert the air into more trees, the magic trick to end them all. All of those differences are written in the genes, genes that derive from your common ancestor but have now mostly diverged beyond recognition. All those changes were permitted, selected, in the long course of evolution. Genes are almost infinitely permissive: anything that can happen will happen.

But that tree has mitochondria too, which work in much the same way as its chloroplasts, endlessly transferring electrons down its trillions upon trillions of respiratory chains, pumping protons across membranes as they always did. As you always did. These same shuttling electrons and protons have sustained you from the womb: you pump 1021 protons per second, every second, without pause. Your mitochondria were passed on from your mother, in her egg cell, her most precious gift, the gift of living that goes back unbroken, unceasing, generation on generation, to the first stirrings of life in hydrothermal vents, 4 billion years ago. Tamper with this reaction at your peril. Cyanide will stem the flow of electrons and protons, and bring your life to an abrupt end. Ageing will do the same, but slowly, gently. Death is the ceasing of electron and proton flux, the settling of membrane potential, the end of that unbroken flame. If life is nothing but an electron looking for a place to rest, death is nothing but that electron come to rest.

This energy flux is astonishing and unforgiving. Any change over seconds or minutes could bring the whole experiment to an end. Spores can pull it off, descending into metabolic dormancy from which they must feel lucky to emerge. But for the rest of us … we are sustained by the same processes that powered the first living cells. These processes have never changed in a fundamental way; how could they? Life is for the living. Living needs an unceasing flux of energy. It’s hardly surprising that energy flux puts major constraints on the path of evolution, defining what is possible. It’s not surprising that bacteria keep doing what bacteria do, unable to tinker in any serious way with the flame that keeps them growing, dividing, conquering. It’s not surprising that the one accident that did work out, that singular endosymbiosis between prokaryotes, did not tinker with the flame, but ignited it in many copies in each and every eukaryotic cell, finally giving rise to all complex life. It’s not surprising that keeping this flame alive is vital to our physiology and evolution, explaining many quirks of our past and our lives today. How lucky that our minds, the most improbable biological machines in the universe, are now a conduit for this restless flow of energy, that we can think about why life is the way it is. May the proton-motive force be with you!