We are all curious why we are here. Thoughts along this line curiously are sidetracked to the realms of religion, philosophy and metaphysics. And we have such a veritable bedlam of variegated possibilities as answers. What if there was an answer that was testable, rigorous and objective. In a word, which was scientific. Well, we have. And it is surprisingly simple.
The earliest hypothesis to explain our origin, as our purpose and position in this grand scheme was the God hypothesis. It simply stated that we were created by a human God. That He affects the course of our lives by answering prayers or punishing for our fallings. And after when we are done living, decides whether we live in a fabled place of happy ease or hot tortured unease.
It held sway for eons. Partly because it went unchallenged for want of a better answer, and partly because it seemed a very satisfying and heartening an explanation to the ‘existential crisis’ that we pass through. But with Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection, we saw ourselves as never before.
It was a dawn of a new era. An era of scientific enquiry, that made us humble amidst every other living and non-living thing in existence. The theory was simple, subtle and infallible. It speaks of how within a population of individuals, some, due to an inherent variability, have traits different from else. Over time, those in possession of traits that left them more adapted to their environment lived, and passed on their legacy, while the unfit, rather more aptly the misfits, perished and were forgotten. Thus, species evolved, diverged, and went on to occupy the different available niches in biosphere.
It’s a theory that is logically consistent. That is, to a rational mind, convincingly true. And beyond that, experimentally it has been proven. The very fact that we have to throw some antibiotics and go search new one’s every couple years is because the pathogen evolved to resist them. Well, if a trait as defining as antibiotic resistance can evolve in such short a span, given four and a half billion years, which I assure you is a really long span of time, the likes of humans can spring forth!
But this is no news. The book On the Origin was published was back in 1859. Then Harold and Haldane gave a theory for abiogenesis, which gave a possible answer to the Origin of life, something that Darwin missed out on. It says how by random combination, simple chemical molecules can form molecules with life-like characters. This was experimentally verified by Harold and Urey in round-bottom flask and with electric spark electrodes. It’s something which as well could happen, but whether it did is yet to be established, for there is another very competing theory, the one of Pangenes, wherein it’s asserted that life came as spores from outer space. Now if it indeed were so, and if these spores came from some planet where life was first to originate, then undoubtedly, the Harold and Haldane theory of abiogenesis must and would explain how life originated there. In this sense, it’s a possible answer.
So as the story stands, from a bunch of simple molecules, over time, primitive forms of life originated. These evolved over time, to form diverse, complex and sophisticated forms of life.
But the good thing about us humans is, in our continuing endeavor to refine our theories and models, Richard Dawkins hit gold with The Selfish Gene. Here, as against the unit of evolution being a species acting at the level of an individual, here the unit is an individual acting at the level of a gene. According to this model, humans just as other life forms are machines, akin to robots, built by the genes in DNA, to further their own goal of survival and propagation. Its not that genes have brains and are purposeful. Rather, it’s in their nature, just as its in the nature of hydrogen, to go pop in presence of oxygen and form steam.
Some may say, well but it’s all just theory. But it’s the best theory in town. And it’s a scientific theory, something which is objective and thus unbiased by our human inclinations and temptations. And the standards of science before a hypothesis is established as a theory are really high. Beyond all the petty bickering that goes on, what we have now is a paradigm that is empowering and humbling at the same time. And as is the purpose of models in science, it gives perspective. And such refreshing and encompassing a perspective it is.