Physical Address

304 North Cardinal St.
Dorchester Center, MA 02124

Living, learning, relating to others. It all comes down to you and me and how we manage our conduct in light of our philosophies, our political and social biases, our love and compassion for each other, our dislike for each other, and the myriad emotions and physical needs that continually drive our thoughts and actions. We are confronted with many unanswered questions about our motivations. We humans have so much to learn about everything, and here we are inquisitive and intelligent beings stuck in the middle between quarks and galaxies wondering how we got to be the way we are and what our future might be.

It is not impossible that we are the result of the greatest game of chance – either random or directed depending on your point of view – in the entire universe. To begin with, the young universe, some 13.8 billion years ago, had to contain just the right amount of hydrogen, helium, and other basic elements, and just the right amount on gravity to hold everything together in order to form the stars, the galaxies, and solar systems such as ours.

Then around 4.5 billion years ago, a very accommodating ball of cosmic dust and gas formed a planet at just the right distance from our nearest star to warm our rocks and water to a comfortable degree, not too hot to cause its water to evaporate into space and not so cold that everything stayed frozen. The result of all of this was a Goldilocks planet that was just right for life to emerge. Figuring out the likelihood of all of this happening just the way it did from the ‘big bang’ to 9.3 billion years later when Earth coalesced from dust and gas keeps our curious minds busy, and we learn more about it every day.

Yet, the deeper we look into space, the more evidence we find that life, carbon-based or not, could have evolved on other planets orbiting other stars tens, hundreds, or millions of light years from us. For example, several meteorites have been found to contain amino acids similar to the amino acids that were the precursors of life on Earth. The chemicals of life are apparently spread throughout the universe. Are we special one-of-a-kind creatures or just another conglomeration of atoms similar to others out there on the billions of planets in the universe?

Only a million or so years after gravity had coalesced our planet from a shapeless mass of rocks, dust, and gases into a solid sphere, an object perhaps as large as the planet Mars collided with the young Earth knocking a large chunk of debris into space. In the next few hundred thousand years, gravity pulled the bits of debris into a sphere that became Earth’s moon.

The chance collision did a number of things to change the Earth. For one thing, it increased the size of our planet by about 10% giving future life forms more room to roam. And the bump was so strong that it knocked the rotation of Earth off a precise vertical north – south axis and caused a 23.5-degree tilt. It is the tilt that causes our seasons as the leaning planet orbits the sun. As the Earth spins, it also wobbles like a spinning top on a table, a phenomenon called precession. The wobble completes a circle every 25,920 years and points our north pole at different stars every few thousand years.

Early in its formation, Earth acquired water. There are several theories as to how that happened, such as the idea that there were already hydrogen and oxygen atoms that had formed water molecules in the dust and rocks that formed the planet. Another explanation is that before earth had an atmosphere, numerous icy comets and meteors brought water to Earth. The water debate continues, but it was probably a combination of events that gave us the large amount of water that sustains us.

Within a few hundred thousand years — not long, at least evolutionary speaking — Earth had the ingredients such as sufficient water, the right amount of sunlight and a plethora of elements from both the cosmic debris that formed the planet as well as from the meteorites that pounded Earth, to allow life to evolve.

The young planet abounded with hydrogen, carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen atoms from its primordial dust, and these proved to be critical in the great leap from inorganic to organic matter. In time, these atoms combined to form chains of amino acids called peptides which evolved into proteins. Plus, meteorites brought in amino acids that combined with the other elements to also form strings of amino acids, peptides and proteins. So, it seems that we had amino acids generated on Earth as well as brought to Earth on asteroids from millions of miles away.

Abundant water, a favorable temperature range, the right combination of atoms on Earth, and a few amino acid bearing meteorites all combined to create proteins and get life going on a sphere of hot rock floating somewhere in the vast universe. It was a fortuitous combination.

Next in the evolution of Earthly life came molecules of nucleic acids which formed RNA and DNA. These molecular information storers established the genetic code for every living thing on Earth. So, after millions of years of numerous trial and error chemical combinations, life as we know it was off and running. We had gotten lucky again. Elements created in stars, that are not alive themselves, had combined to create a teeming array of life on our home planet.

In another few million years of complex molecular interactions, there arose single-celled life forms called bacteria –from the Greek word bakterion which means staff or cane because the first ones discovered were rod-shaped. Over the years bacteria evolved to live in just about every environment on Earth from the bottom of the ocean to the tops of mountains, including inside the body and on the skin of humans and other animals.

One of the most interesting and influential types of bacteria came along about 3 billion years ago. Called cyanobacteria, because of its blue-green color, this complex bacterium changed how life functioned on Earth. Before cyanobacteria, all respiration was anaerobic, that is that is, based primarily on a type of respiration that did not require oxygen. Cyanobacteria, although not a plant, developed chlorophyll in its cells and began to function as a plant. The chlorophyll in it made it able to split the carbon dioxide molecules it was inhaling then use the carbon to make glucose and then exhale the oxygen. Over many years, the exhaled oxygen from billions of cyanobacteria cells became so prevalent in Earth’s atmosphere that it began to be used by other living organisms.

In anaerobic respiration, little energy is needed to keep the organism alive, but the amount of energy produced is so small that although the organism can stay alive, it lacks energy to grow. Anaerobic fermentation is used in the making of such things as sauerkraut, beer, and some types of bread. On the other hand, organisms that take in oxygen expend energy to use the oxygen, but they produce enough extra energy to allow for growth and increased replication. Once oxygen became the predominant element used in respiration for heterotrophs, that is, animals that cannot manufacture their own food from air, water, and sunlight, they were able to multiply into new and varied species.

Thus, nature, through a chance arrangement of chemicals in bacteria, evolved a system of respiration, a system we call photosynthesis, that would eventually lead to the way we humans breathe. It is very convenient that plants breathe in carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen while animals breathe in oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide.

One of the luckiest things that ever happened in human evolution was when a mountain-sized asteroid hit Earth some 66 million years ago. The blast caused a great deal of damage to Earth’s flora and fauna and wound up killing off about 70% of all life. Although this was a catastrophe for most animals, it turned out to be a very auspicious event for humans in that it caused the demise of large reptiles that had been preying on small mammals. Without predators keeping their population down, the mammals were able to multiply and grow into larger and smarter animals such as primates, branches of which evolved into a variety of hominin pre-humans. Then about 250,000 years ago, the brainiest of these hominins, Homo sapiens, evolved to become our human ancestors. So, after billions of years of haphazard evolution, the game of chance continued.

Some of us migrated out of Africa and spread across Earth to every habitable place we could find. Everywhere we went we established cultures that reflected how we coped with such things as the heat and cold of our environment, the food available, the gods we worshiped, and how skilled we became in tool making and governing ourselves. In every location, we encountered new challenges and most of us met the challenges and flourished. We were a young, energetic species and determined to stay alive.

For thousands of years, we hunted animals and gathered edible roots and berries where we could find them. We lived in caves and crude huts made of wood and animal skins. Then about 12,000 years ago, we got lucky again. Groups of us in various parts of the world figured out how to dig up plants in the wild and plant them near our homes where we could give them sufficient water and protect them from foraging animals. These plants grew into our ancestral crops. Later we learned how to keep animals near our homes and use their strength for plowing cropland and their flesh for food and clothing. By living in small farming communities, we learned to govern ourselves and our communities grew into states and nations.

The advent of agriculture slowly moved most of us to become more sedentary, although many groups remained successful hunter-gatherers. But two traits continued to influence us wherever we went and whatever lifestyle we chose: the need to cooperate within the community and the need to protect it from outside intruders. Learning to cooperate brought us good luck and prosperity. Having to follow the example of our reptilian ancestors and learn to fight, brought us bad luck and destruction, but it was sometimes necessary to protect our homes.

So far, our history shows us that our good luck has outpaced our bad luck, especially in nations that have developed strong economies where most of the people have enough food to eat and clothes to keep them warm. A government that allows free citizens to develop a viable economy is good for the citizens, good for the nation, and good for the world. Reasonable taxes build such things as roads, schools, water and sewer systems, and health clinics, and generally help the populous prosper. Those who live in democratic nations are lucky to have governments led by citizens who care about the well-being of the general population. Those in totalitarian regimes are not so lucky. They do what they are told and they must obey their ruler or be punished.

Early in our hominin development we figured out how to make useful tools out of stones and bones. Aren’t we lucky to have turned that crude ancestral technology into rocket ships, satellites, and computers? But like the arrowheads and spears of our ancestors, our modern weapons can be turned against us. So, we need to be careful how we use them, if we must use them at all.

It is too bad that our old reptilian mindset of kill or be killed has influenced our technological developments. Unfortunately, we have now produced enough deadly weapons to kill ourselves many times over. Did nearly 4 billion years of evolution of life on Earth leave us with a resolve to commit mass suicide? So far, our good luck is holding, but the carnivorous reptile spirit still lives in the minds of many of us from the gun toting ruffian to the deranged, power-hungry despot living in a gilded palace. This shows that evolution is not linear but proceeds in fits and spurts. Some people evolve into rational and cooperative humans while others still harbor primitive mindsets that show a lack of evolutionary development.

Let us hope that our good luck holds out until this time of political confusion and aggression passes. If we are smart — and lucky — it will pass soon without any more harm done, more people killed, or property destroyed. We have come a long way from single-celled creatures floating around in warm salty water. It is too late to turn back now. We have got to keep moving forward toward a world free of fear and confrontational politics. We hold our future in our hands and minds.

So, we see that we humans are the result of a series of events that may never happen again. We ought to appreciate the fact that we are very fortunate to be here. But we must acknowledge that we have a few bad traits to overcome, such as our willingness to kill others of our species.

Those who cause the death of other humans either do not appreciate the unlikelihood of our long history, or are so mentally disturbed they are willing to destroy a being that took billions of years of evolution to create. Directly or indirectly causing the death of a human being is a gross violation of the laws of nature. Those laws are older, greater, and stronger than we are and we humans have no right to violate them by killing what nature has created.

There is an unfounded acceptance of the idea that we humans are the way we are and that we can never change. Perhaps the point of view that we are capable of changing is going against the current conservative attitude. But attitudes and points of view are not set in stone. Each of us can throw off our bad habits and bad attitudes. And when enough of us become less belligerent, the world will be a safer and less confrontational place to live.

Ted McCormack

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *