Thinking about origins needs original thinking.
Trying to understand the very peculiar human
being requires the study of the origins of Life,
of our genus Homo,
of consciousness and of
When thinking about origins,
we cannot always rely on the principle of natural selection.
Expanding the principle of natural
selection too far,
or applying it inappropriately, may
lead to simplicism and just-so stories.
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 chemical
metabolism of living cells or the cultural interactions of 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.
Introducing self replication too
early limits the information space that can be explored: COSMIC-LOPER (Capability of
Searching Mutation Space Independent of Concern over Loss Of Properties
Essential of Replicaton: Benner, S. 1999. Old views of ancient events. Nature 283: 2026).
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, with comparable function of nucleotide strands in living cells.
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
But I argue that a more general and
clarifying view on this problem is only possible when not consciousness, which
is just one of many possible experiences, but experience itself 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. 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. The hard problem is about the nature of
experience, not about the nature of awareness or consciousness.
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.
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 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
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.
Bringing it all together:
Vaneechoutte, M. 2014. 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 29:1-33. Link
See also our e-book (Was Man
more aquatic in the past? Bentham Publishers) on the aquatic origin of our
Modern aquarboreal arguments in one
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.
M, Puech P-F. 2000. Hominid lifestyle and diet
reconsidered: Paleo-environmental and comparative data. Hum Evol
15: 175-186. pdf
at the London Human Evolution 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.