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.

Specifically:

  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 Nick Lane: Why is life the way it is?

Nick Lane, my favorite science writer, recently gave an updated version of his talk on the origin of life and why life is the way it is. This talk summarizes his most recent book “The Vital Question” which I reviewed here.

The big ideas are:

  • The emergence of life is probable and simple single-cell life, like bacteria, is probably common throughout the universe.
  • Complex life, like plants and animals, resulted from a one-time “accident” 2 billion years ago, and will be rare in the universe.
  • Increased energy played a key role in the emergence of complex life, as it does for human domination of the planet.

When you layer on top of this Varki’s theory, which explains the improbable singular emergence of the powerful human brain, our existence and its ability to understand this paragraph, becomes something to revere and protect.

The tragic irony is that we are not fighting to protect our special place in the universe because of the same mutation that enabled the emergence of our brain: denial of reality.

Tribes Trump Reality: War is Probable

About 100,000 years ago a small tribe of hominids experienced a rare double mutation for an extended theory of mind plus denial of reality, which switched having a more powerful brain from being a reproductive fitness disadvantage into a strong advantage, thus enabling the mutations to fix in the gene pool. That species then used its unique brain to take over the planet and to grow itself into a severe state of overshoot.

This first and only extended theory of mind to emerge in a brain increased the effectiveness of social cooperation through improved morality, communication, planning, and the invention and transmission of new technologies.

The denial of reality mutation was required to mute the awareness of mortality and its negative impact on reproductive fitness that the extended theory of mind enabled. The inherited denial of mortality caused each tribe to create a life after death story. Over time these stories were elaborated into what we now call religions (and political parties) which serve to define, unite, govern, and entertain tribes.

The tribe with its story was and is central to the success of the species. For most of history it mattered not whether the story was true. Today the survival of the species has bumped up against the laws of physics and truth does matter. This is a wicked predicament because tribes can’t easily change their stories, and inherited denial of reality tends to block unpleasant truths from being added to the stories.

Today we have two angry bickering tribes within the most powerful country on earth. Each tribe comprises about 50% of the population. Neither tribe has a story grounded in reality or truth. Each thinks the other is the cause of the very real thermodynamically based pain it is experiencing. Neither understands what is going on. Inherited denial of reality blocks each from learning what is going on.

The best and perhaps only method for uniting and distracting these two tribes would be to identify a third tribe as a threat. Fighting that third tribe will unfortunately accelerate the depletion of low-cost oil which caused the pain in the first place. So it may be necessary to identify a fourth tribe as a threat. And so on.

This will probably not end well.

You know you are in trouble when…

Examples of denial are both profound and unacknowledged.

The short-term solution to our problems is the long-term cause of our problems: economic growth

The long-term solution to our problems is the short-term cause of our problems: reduced consumption

All political parties in all countries and almost all citizens, including the few citizens that understand our predicament, reject our best course of action: austerity

Most citizens have no idea how fortunate they are to be alive at this point in history: A Guide to Being Human in the 21st Century

Citizens have wildly different beliefs about our predicament: there is no problem; there is a problem but it’s not caused by humans; I don’t want to think about it; technology will save us; it’s in the hands of God; I’ve already done enough; someone else needs to do something first; my actions won’t make a difference; someone else will consume whatever I give up; it’s too late to do anything

Despite wildly different beliefs about our predicament, there is one thing that almost everyone agrees on: I don’t want to change my behavior

The only problems society does not acknowledge, or discuss, or act on, are the only problems that matter: species extinction, limits to growth, debt, peak oil, overshoot, resource depletion, climate change, sea level rise, fisheries collapse & ocean acidification, nitrogen imbalance & tree decline 

Every country has similar economic problems and not one leader anywhere in the world connects the dots and publicly acknowledges the root cause, even after they leave office: declining energy surplus a.k.a. energy extraction cost + debt

Citizens believe the exact opposite of reality: technology creates wealth and energy rather than energy creates wealth and technology

Citizens misunderstand the root cause of social unrest and wars because the media presents these conflicts as political or economic problems and ignores their underlying forces: biophysical constraints

There is evidence that feedback loops are taking over and causing some problems to go exponential: climate change, CO2 emissions, ice loss, sea level rise, debt

The previous year’s worst case predictions are tending to become this year’s most likely prediction: sea level rise

Actions that improve the long-term worsen the short-term: air pollution masks 0.5C of warming, austerity and debt reduction, renewable energy, population reduction 

The only possible permanent solution is rejected by the belief systems of 90+% of citizens: population reduction

The only possible permanent solution is too slow to avoid the worst problems: population reduction laws

Countries fortunate to have a low birth rate often cancel their good fortune with immigration: Canada

The few people who understand the severity of our problems do not set good examples in their personal lives: leaders, climate scientists, environmentalists

History suggests that the consequence of not voluntarily contracting our economies as non-renewable resources deplete is an unthinkable war, so we don’t think about it: nuclear weapons

The quality of our leaders is declining because those people with high intelligence, wisdom, and integrity do not want to be in charge of our predicament, and because citizens are feeling the impact of overshoot, do not understand what is going on, and are angry: Trump

The leader of the free world denies science and issues daily, jaw-dropping, cringe-inducing tweets: Trump

The one world leader that did understand the problem and spoke out was rejected by the citizens and no longer speaks out: Jimmy Carter

We do not acknowledge that the world’s economic problems began with the peaking of a key non-renewable resource: conventional oil

Low energy prices have led citizens to believe we have a glut of fossil energy when in fact: all types of energy have peaked

We do not discuss or act on economic history research that shows countries always get into serious trouble when they permit an important ratio to exceed a threshold we long passed: debt to GDP

Bankers, the creators of money, do not understand the one thing that creators of money should understand: thermodynamics of wealth

The professionals with the most influence on public policy use models that violate the most trusted laws of physics: economists

The scientific theory that explains the relationship between the economy, energy, and climate is ignored by everyone that should understand it: Tim Garrett

The people who deserve the most respect and admiration get the least: scientists

The people who deserve the least respect and admiration get the most: celebrities

All types of non-fossil energy do not provide a substitute for the only energy we can’t live without: diesel for trucks, trains, ships, tractors, and combines, and mining machines; plus natural gas for fertilizer

People who think the shale revolution will make America prosperous and energy independent ignore one thing: facts and more facts

Intelligent people who understand the climate change threat, like James Hansen and Bill Gates, and who want business as usual to continue, know that nuclear energy is the only option, but they ignore a problem: peak uranium

If climate deniers continue to win elections and try to maintain the existing electric grid they’ll find that strategy may not work for long: peak coal

A key component of our infrastructure appears durable but is not: reinforced concrete

Citizens most vulnerable to a fragile global supply chain with only a few days of inventory experience the strongest illusion of abundance and security: inhabitants of large cities

The “green” revolution, which increased food production to enable 7+ billion humans, was and is entirely dependent on fossil energy, and has long-term consequences that will make a return to traditional agriculture very difficult.

Most citizens are not even vaguely aware of the invention that enabled their existence and created about 50% of the nitrogen in their bodies: Haber-Bosch conversion of natural gas to fertilizer

Well meaning environmentalists demand that we stop subsidizing fossil energy companies without understanding the source of all that they cherish in modern civilization: fossil energy

Well meaning environmentalists demand that we stop subsidizing fossil energy companies without realizing that many fossil energy companies are going bankrupt: ExxonMobil

A solution frequently advocated makes things worse by accelerating growth and decreasing system resilience: efficiency

The best solution for removing CO2 from the atmosphere is being harmed by the same activity that creates CO2: planting more trees which are then injured or killed by ground level ozone

All climate science models that do not predict disaster now depend on an unproven technology that we probably can’t afford and other species definitely can’t afford: BECCS (bio-energy with carbon capture and storage)

We have not acted to prevent a predictable and very dangerous side effect of trying to maintain business-as-usual with low interest rates: increasing wealth gap

We still enjoy historically vast surplus wealth that could be deployed to improve our future lives but we are squandering it: military, airports, highways, new cars, high rises, etc.

Earth with its diverse complex life and a highly intelligent species is extraordinarily rare, precious, and worth fighting to protect, yet we dream of other barren homes: colonizing Mars

The tool that could be used to unite citizens in common purpose and useful action is instead being used to create tribes that reinforce preexisting beliefs: internet

Many people are hurting and lashing out in anger because they do not understand the cause of their pain: Brexit, Trump, Syria, Venezuela, etc.

The few sources of information that understand and communicate the truth are under threat: fake news

Few people study or heed the best predictor of the future: history

None of our schools teach skills useful and relevant to our future: growing food and other forms of lower complexity life skills

The thing that enabled the evolution of our high intelligence and its ability to understand and act on problems is the same thing that causes our problems and prevents us from acting on them: denial of reality

The theory that best explains our existence and our self-destructive behavior is ignored by everyone, including those people seeking to understand our problems: Varki and Brower’s denial of reality theory

Readers are encouraged to submit additions to the list.

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.

On the Origin of Life

Here are a few fabulous talks on the latest thinking regarding the origin of life.

By Eric Smith : Inevitable Life? (2007)

 

By Eric Smith: New Theories on the Origin of Life (2015)

 

By Michael Russell and Bill Martin: Origin of Life Animation (2010)

 

By Nick Lane: The Origins of Complex Life (2009)

 

By Nick Lane: Is Complex Life a Freak Accident? (2012)

By Nick Lane: Why is Life the Way it Is? (2015)

 

By Nick Lane: Matter and Energy at the Origins of Life (2016)

 

By Michael Russell: Origin of Life Through Convection and Serpentinization (2013)

 

By Michael Russell: On Life (2012)

 

By Sean Carroll: What is the purpose of life? (2016)

 

By Nick Lane: Why is life the way it is? (2017)

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!