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Everything is connected

O only in the 20th century has it become scientifically evident how all organisms, including humans, are deeply physically connected to the universe. This awareness began in the 19th century when Darwin’s Origin of species . . . showed how all life originated from a common ancestor. Then, in the 20th century, the new Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe showed that everything in the universe originated from a point source.

Steady State to Big Bang

Until a few decades ago, scientists assumed the universe had always been in existence. This was known as the ‘Steady State’ theory of the universe whose major protagonist was the English physicist and cosmologist Fred Hoyle (1915 –2001). In the early 20th century this theory was abandoned as evidence accumulated for a ‘Big Bang’ origin with the constituents of the universe expanding away from their Big Bang explosive source. The movement of galaxies was demonstrated by the redshift and supported by Hubble’s law (named after Edwin Hubble,1889-1953 considered the first observational basis for the expansion of the universe), also known as the Hubble–Lemaître law which shows how galaxies are moving away from the Earth. The further away they are, the faster they are moving away from Earth. The velocity of galaxies has been calculated by their redshift of the light they emit towards the red end of the spectrum. This was powerful evidence in support of the Big Bang model.

Redshift evidence indicates an origin of the universe at a ‘Big Bang’ about 13.7 billion years ago, originating from an object smaller than an atom at a temperature of trillions of degrees and expanding to give rise to everything that is in the universe today. This was also the origin of space and time and it was assumed therefore that to ask ‘What happened before the Big Bang’ was a meaningless question.

After an initial period of inflation expansion slows and different energies emerge (gravity, electromagnetism, strong and weak forces holding atomic nuclei together) matter emerges (dark matter, and atomic matter consisting of quarks and electrons). In recent years physicists have postulated a multiverse with the Earth just one among many universes, though hard evidence for this theory is slim.

The Big Bang established that everything in the universe evolved from a single source, as did all life.

The Community of Life

Life emerged from the matter of the universe.

Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution is the grand unifying theory of biological science and our most powerful and elegant explanation of the living world. In a few simple premises backed by a wealth of evidence this theory explains the process by which all living organisms – the community of life that includes humankind – have arisen and developed the forms that we see today.

Darwin maintained that, in the biological world, we have descent with modification as because of heritable variation and differential reproduction among replicating individuals as a mechanical process of fine-tuning using feedback. Natural selection is the way we account for adaptive complexity – the complex interplay of parts serving some function.

Most importantly we now know that the source of inherited characteristics are genes that are located in chromosomes that occur in every cell of every organism’s body in a chemical we call DNA which ‘codes’ for all the characteristics that are manifest in our bodies. We know that sometimes this DNA can ‘mutate’ and that these mutations are subject to the process of natural selection. We now also realize that natural selection is pervasive: it acts on genes, cells, organs, individuals, and communities.

Before Darwin it was assumed that each species was individually created by god.

The ancient scientist Aristotle, over 2000 years ago, with no formulated theory of evolution or genetic inheritance, summarized his biological research by using an uncharacteristic mystical and poetic phrase, saying that, all living things ‘partake in the eternal and divine‘. Darwin would never have made such a statement.

We are tempted to smile and allow Aristotle a momentary and moving literary flourish, but this would be a mistake. His scientific investigations began with the examination of change and the paradox of permanence in change. One pillar of his teleology, his theory of purpose in nature, was his observation that, though individuals perish, their form persists from generation to generation . . . what today we might call the immortality of our genes. To the Greek mind, and ours, immortality was equated with the divine. The most natural function of living things is to produce others like themselves – and in so doing they are potentially immortal, and this is what Aristotle meant by ‘participating in the eternal and divine’. Nothing that is perishable, he said, is able to ‘remain the same and one in number’ but through reproduction an organism ‘remains not the same, but like the same, not one in number but one in form.’ (Anima II, 415a23-b7).

Human connections

We may feel our connection to the universe in a spiritual way, but it is also deeply physical.

Evidence from the Big Bang and Theory of Evolution demonstrates how we humans are physically connected to both the community of life which is, in turn, derived from the matter of the universe. We now know that the universe itself is an organic phenomenon – in the sense that it is passing through a predictable process of origin, growth, maturation, senescence, and decay. At present it is still ‘young’.

In a TED Talk Tom Chi discusses how we are connected to the universe through our hearts, breath, and minds.

Heart

The oxygen-containing life-blood that is pumped around our bodies by the heart, carries oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body. Here oxygen is released during aerobic respiration, a chemical process that creates the energy-giving molecules called ATP which are necessary for our body metabolism, especially the high energy-consuming regions of the lungs, heart, muscles, stomach, and brain.

The chemical that carries the oxygen round our body is haemoglobin which is a metalloprotein in our red blood cells (erythrocytes). At the centre of each haemoglobin molecule is an atom of iron. Iron is an element that was only formed in the universe during the explosion of supernovae and the collision of galaxies billions of years ago during the formation of stars. So the iron atoms in our bodies were part of the universe billions of years before humans had evolved.

Hemoglobin and hemoglobin-like molecules are also found in many invertebrates, fungi, and plants.

Breath

Deep breathing is what grounds us in our bodies as we take in life-supporting oxygen.

About three billion years ago there was no oxygen on planet Earth only vast quantities of carbon dioxide. Among the early single-celled organisms in the sea at this time called cyanobacteria whose photosynthesis began the conversion of carbon dioxide and water into oxygen. The newly produced oxygen was first absorbed into the sea bed as chemical oxides, then passing then into the oceans before, about 900 million years ago, moving into the atmosphere where, about 600 million years ago, it formed ozone. The formation of the ozone layer facilitated the explosion of multicellular life as plants moved out of water onto land, followed by oxygen-dependent animals and eventually, about 350,000 years ago, human beings, Homo sapiens.

Cyanobacteria became embedded in the cells of multicellular plants as chloroplasts which are the sites of the photosynthesis that now supports all life on Earth.

It is not entirely fanciful to regard the oxygen ‘outbreath’ of plants as providing the oxygenated life-giving ‘inbreath’ of humans.

Nature’s heartbeat

Plants are our planet’s primary producers – food factories powered by sunlight. The Sun’s energy drives plant photosynthesis which builds up the plant matter that sustains all life on Earth – which includes our society and economy.

Gross primary production (GPP) shown here (click the link below), is the total amount of carbon dioxide ‘fixed’ by land plants per unit time.

Humans now take about a quarter of the Earth’s primary productivity which is is now generated by agricultural and horticultural crops – as food for humans.

This cartogram animation from Worldmapper uses satellite observations from NASA’s Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MOD17) which detects the seasonal pulse of the Earth’s primary productivity. This is much like the pulse of a human heartbeat. The animation shows how the changing seasons determine the variability of energy production throughout the year. Production depends on land surface (e.g. desert, forest, crops) and climate/weather, the tropics being highly productive, especially in the northern hemisphere’s winter.

Mind

Tom Chi draws our attention to the complexity of piano playing which include not only the knowledge of music theory, but the physical coordination needed to master the instrument, the mechanical engineering needed to construct it, and much more.

The playing of a piano is a colour in the palette of being that was not available to us only a few hundred years ago. But it is now a part of the cumulative collective learning of human sociality as the cultural connections of our minds are added to the physical connections of nature.

Key points

  • The physical connection of humans to all other forms of life, through their derivation from a common ancestor, only made apparent with the acceptance of Darwin’s theory of evolution after the mid-19th century
  • The physical connection of all matter was only realized in the early 20th century with the advent of the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe from a point source
  • The origin of multicellular organisms was only possible because of the oxygen created by the photosynthetic activity of cyanobacteria
  • Plants, as primary producers, are the source of the life-giving oxygen on which animals depend, both the oxygen of the atmosphere and the food that they eat
  • We are aware of our human physical connection to the universe through our most basic biological functions: our blood circulation, breathing, and thinking.
Media gallery

Everything is connected - Tom Chi

TEDx Talks – 2017 – 17:49

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First published on the internet -6 September 2020

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