Like so much of what I think, what I think about life in the universe I learned listening to Terrence McKenna. There’s always a challenge to describe the provenance of these ideas. Terrence McKenna spoke at workshops and gatherings for over a decade, and these sessions were often recorded onto cassette by the other attendees. These tapes were passed around, with idiosyncratic names, sequences and collections. Information about where and when the material was recorded rarely exists beyond a note ( “Omega Institute, summer”). McKenna wrote a couple of books, but all of the stuff I care about is etched in my mind from those original cassettes. My ideas are marginalia around his spoken word. The practice I’ve arrived at is to put in italics the notes that I have taken that I think captures McKenna’s which then prompt my own responses, reactions, deliberations. It is from McKenna that I developed my faith in the rap session, in the live recording of voice knowing that some muscle memory of thought will coalesce a phrase, and that the less I pay attention the better it will be.
Out of atomic systems come chemical systems. Out of chemical systems comes the covalent hydrogen bond, the carbon bond, complex biology that is pre-biotic or organic. out of that chemistry comes the macro-physics systems that we call membranes, gels, charge transfer complexes…this sort of thing. these systems are the chemical pre-conditions for life. Simple life, the life of the prokaryotes, the life naked un-nucleated DNA that characterized primitive life on the planet. Out of that life come eukaryotes, nucleated cells and then complex colonies of cells, and then cell specialization - leading to higher animals, leading to social animals, leading to complex social systems.
I experience that as a sense of precipitation. Energy, matter, form, biology, culture all precipitate from this cooling entity we call the Universe. I think this has deep implications for the evolution of biology and the evolution of culture across the universe. Think of this. An Ocean teeming with bits. We are some of those bits. We fall asleep as a particle in suspension, surrounded by the blissful completion of the full ocean. One day ( one cosmic aeon, choose your term) we wake up in a rock pool. The ocean level has gradually settled and we are now in a discrete region. Like a rock pool.
We float in the water, and perhaps climb on the walls a bit. We’ve forgotten or don’t realize how we got there. In a few more days some of us start to wonder how we got here. What event caused us to be created in this pool? We measure the parameters of this pool; it is a wonderful pool, just fit for our habitation. We build equations and discover numbers that must be constant.
Some of our bravest swim all the way to the bottom of the pool and dig around. They find strange, ancient material. When they return with these artifacts we develop a theory that our biology grew from the bottom of the pool upwards.
Some of our craziest begin to wonder if there are other pools. If there are other pools, are there also other beings like us? Are the unique, possibly random events that led to our existence available in those other rock pools? Did Beings like us also emerge from the bottom of the pools? Would they look like us?
Others decide that if there are other pools then those pools are probably filled with cool valuable stuff so they better get there first. They develop technology to see outside our pool and gradually build craft that can hop over the wall and send back messages. We find other pools!
So you can see where this is going. The emergence of life on Earth wasn’t the result of a unique event, building up from a set of specific environmental criteria leading to the current wave of genetic activity. No, it’s the reverse of that. We are living in a discrete pool of material, separated from other similar pools only by time, space and gravity. Because biology exists on earth, we can know for certain that it exists elsewhere, because we are no more than a port of the gradually cooling muck of the cosmic orogony.
Certainly, I invoke some poetic license.