Thinking about origins needs original thinking.
My general interests concern trying to understand the peculiar beings we humans are, by studying the evolution and the origins of Life, of species, of our genus Homo, of language, of consciousness and of religiosity. Raised as a convinced neodarwinist, it becomes more and more clear to me that explaining "origins" requires nonconformistic evolutionary thinking. Expanding the principle of natural selection too far, or applying it inappropriately, may lead to simplisms and just-so stories.
Origin of Life
I opt for a process which is quite comparable to the current scientific process, which enables free information exchange, whereby information is being replicated by an underlying ‘metabolism’ (like the human society), without the constraints that this information also needs to take care of its own replication. Carl Woese (The universal ancestor. 1998. Pro. Natl Acad Sci. USA. 95:. 6854–6859) reaches a similar conclusion, from a different line of reasoning: horizontal gene transfer was initially more important than vertical transmission of genes.
The interaction of on the one hand a protometabolic chemical community (possibly embraced by a membrane) with on the other hand newly developed nucleotide strands (which enabled symbolic, encoded, PERMANENT information), perhaps virus-like, might have lead to the semantic closure as we observe in the cell.
The protometabolic chemical community that started to use permanent information carriers (nucleotide sequences) might be compared to the interactions that became possible when part of the present life, i.e. humans, started using (spoken) symbolic language, which resulted in the use of symbolic, encoded, PERMANENT information: printed/electronic texts, cfr. nucleotide strands.
In both cases, that of the development of cell and that of the current scientific progress, the availability of permanently encoded information (of permanent carriers of encoded information) may be the clue to understanding how a biological mystery, the first cell, ever came to be. This interaction between metabolism and permanently encoded information has once led to the cell, the only self-duplicating system known. Might something similar happen again as a result of our metabolic activity in combination with permanently encoded – digital – information?
Origin of consciousness
My ideas about Experience, awareness and consciousness were inspired by David Chalmers' publication in J. Consciousness Studies (Chalmers, 1995), where he formulated the 'hard problem' of consciousness, wondering about the inexplicability of conscious experience. I agree that the essence of (conscious) experience is inexplicable by current scientific knowledge. I only realized after reading Chalmers’ publication that experience is unexplainable: we can reason about how chemical/neuronal interactions lead to an experience, but we cannot describe/understand the nature of the experience, how it feels to be hungry, happy, sad, frightened, depressed, ..., or why it should feel like something at all.
But I argue that a more general and clarifying view on this problem is only possible when experience itself (and not consciousness, which is just one of many possible experiences) is considered as a basic inexplicable characteristic of nature, already present at the atomic level. Consciousness can be understood as reflexive awareness, a specific form of animal awareness, made possible by symbolic language. The hard problem is that of the nature of experience, not of consciousness. Animal awareness itself can be considered as a specific form of experience, made possible by the development of a central neurological control center, the brain.
Origin of articulate language
Understanding the many pecularities of mankind - including consciousness and religiosity, becomes rather easy when one can explain the origin of articulate language. After all, it is symbolic language that makes fully possible reflection and reflexive awareness (i.e. consciousness) and that makes speaking animals ask the endlessly repeatable question 'Why?', which leads to religious solutions and believes in afterlife. In opposition to others who see the advantageous characteristics of language itself as sufficient to explain its existence (through natural selection driven by the advantages of language (Pinker)), John Skoyles and I argue that several preadaptations contingently lead to the emergence of symbolic language. Our extreme musicality, we claim, is very explanatory with regard to the phylogenetic (in Homo sapiens as a species) and ontogenetic (in every child as an individual) origin of language. Accidentally (?), a semi-aquatic origin of our species (see below) offers several preadaptations necessary for full-fledged articulate language, such as vocal dexterity (possible because of closure of the naso-oral cavity, voluntary breath control – as necessary for diving), musicality of aquatic species, and even? vocal learning.
Origin of mankind
Sir David Attenborough, The waterside Ape, on BBC4:
It is generally agreed that increased breath control is a precondition to human speech. Marc Verhaegen and Stephen Munro (a, b, c) think that increased breath control capacity was an adaptation to a semi-aquatic/parttime diving past. Aquatic adaptations like increased breath control may have increased our singing capacities as well and in the first place, later leading to human speech. As such, a waterside past does not contradict, and in fact strenghtens the argument for a musical origin of language.
Bringing it all together:
Vaneechoutte, M. 2013. The origin of articulate language revisited: The potential of a semi-aquatic past of human ancestors to explain the origin of human musicality and articulate language. Human Evolution. In press.
See also our e-book (Was Man more aquatic in the past? Bentham Publishers) on the aquatic origin of our species.
Modern aquarboreal arguments in one chapter:
Marc Verhaegen, Stephen Munro, Mario Vaneechoutte, Nicole Bender-Oser & Renato Bender. 2007. The original econiche of the genus Homo. Open plain or waterside? Chapter 6, pp. 155-186, In: Ecology Research Progress, Sebastian I. Munoz (Editor). Nova Science Publishers, Inc. ISBN 978-1-60021-807-1.
Marc Verhaegen & Stephen Munro 2007. New directions in palaeoanthropology. Pp. 1-4 In: Ecology Research Progress, Sebastian I. Munoz (Editor). Nova Science Publishers, Inc. ISBN 978-1-60021-807-1.
Verhaegen M, Puech P-F. 2000. Hominid lifestyle and diet reconsidered: Paleo-environmental and comparative data. Hum Evol 15: 175-186. pdf
Presentation at the London Human Evolutioin Congress, May 2013.
Origin of mankind: link to programme, proceedings and summary of the Symposium 'Water and Human Evolution', held in Gent, Belgium 30 April 1999, discussing a possibly more aquatic past for humans than generally accepted.