We present a series of excerpts from Shadows on the Cave Wall: a New Theory of Evolution, which will give you a small flavour of the content and writing style.
We start with the opening paragraphs of this radical new publication, taken from Chapter One ("An Ancient Thinker Escapes from the Cave").
"Calm descends upon our house at the end of a busy weekend, the last of the guests having just left. It’s a cold, clear, late afternoon in Eastern Scotland, and we gather around the fire as flames flicker and dance. The Sun is setting and, in a moment, an extraordinary event occurs. Through a north-facing window, the light of our nearest star, far in the west, floods in and illuminates the fireplace. In that instance, energy from the great nuclear fusion reactor, some 91 million miles away, joins forces with the light and heat released from the burning coal. The energy released from the coal was captured from that same Sun some 300 million years ago, while the kindling was converting the Sun’s energy to fixed carbon maybe as recently as two months ago. Now, for a brief moment, 300 million years of energy and carbon are brought together in one place. Shadows form across the walls.
The allegory of the cave
On the television, a movie called The Matrix is starting, bringing to mind another fire. Recent movies, including The Truman Show and The Matrix, explore the possibility that what is seen in the mind is not what is real. However this idea goes back to a much earlier tradition. Plato, one of the greatest thinkers ever to have lived, wrote The Republic around 360 BC. In this work he records the ‘Allegory of the Cave’. He describes a horrific scene wherein people are held captive in a cave, bound by chains so that they cannot move their heads, which face away from the entrance, towards the back of the cave. Behind them a large fire burns, and between them and the fire, there is a raised walkway. People cross this walkway, carrying statues. In this acrid environment, the dancing, rhythmic shadows of these statues are projected on to the inner wall of the cave, appearing to move and contort as the fire burns relentlessly. Echoes of the voices of the statue bearers bounce off the cave walls and appear to come from the eerie shadows. To this captive audience, these frolicking, cavorting, talking shadows are reality.
Imagine for a moment that you are one of these prisoners, staring at the back of the cave, hypnotized by the jagged, rhythmic forms that rear up and collapse against the cave wall. This is the sum of your reality. Suddenly, you feel the chains that bind you snap and fall to the cave floor. You are free! Initially, you remain fixated by the shadowy world on the wall, but then you turn around and see the huge fire, the walkway in front of you, and the statues being carried back and forth. You realize that, actually, the shapes on the wall are mere shadows, stemming from the statues that are being carried in front of the fire. Beyond the fire you notice a greater light, and as you move towards the cave entrance, it gets brighter. Leaving behind the crackling fire, the statues and the dancing shadows, you walk out of the cave. After blinking in the bright light that is all around, you begin to see animals, identical in outline to the statues, whose shadows you had originally thought represented reality. Yet these animals are so different, three-dimensional and complex. This is a whole new reality, one on which the statues were based, and the indirect inspiration for the shadows. Surely this is the true reality? Finally you look upwards, and realize that the light is coming from the Sun. You reach the summit of understanding, recognizing that all things come from the Sun.
In this wonderful allegory, Plato was responding to what is called the problem of universals. Already we find ourselves in our first great debate, and it won’t be the last! Simply put, the problem of universals hinges on the observation that change is happening constantly. Thus, by the time you gain knowledge, it is already out of date. This is the basis of Nominalism, which lies at the heart of Buddhism. Within this way of thinking, there is no such thing as a universal entity, since it is only a title or name that has transitory relevance in an ever-changing world. Plato distinguished between the world of the senses, or “caveworld”, and the world of the intellect – the appreciation of the Sun. Thus, timeless ideas and forms, or universals, can exist in this intellectual world, even though the shadows in the sensual world are fleeting.
In this book, we will re-examine the basis of our understanding of the living world. In particular, we will look at how the present theory of neo-Darwinian evolution has come to be the most accepted scientific explanation. Just like Plato almost two and a half thousand years ago, we will question the adequacy of basing our understanding on the very limited ‘shadows’ of taxonomy and genetic sequence, while ignoring vast amounts of knowledge from other scientific fields. We discover that there is a deeper scientific basis for understanding how life on Earth has evolved and functions and, escaping from the limited, shadowy world of the cave of physical appearance, we will identify what this basis is. Finally, we will look at the implications of this new theory upon one of the greatest challenges facing us, global climate change.
End of chapter Two ("The Strained Relationship Between Science and Philosophy"). All excerpts are copyright protected.
Science is philosophy, or rather a divergent group of philosophies. On one side we have the Newtonian approach of cause and determinism, which also lies at the heart of neo-Darwinism. Here, the material reality, and the laws that control it are predictable, and we need look no further than this to understand the Universe. However quantum physics, or the New Physics, takes a very different philosophical approach.
Classical physics emphasizes cause and effect. Newton’s laws allow us to accurately predict what will happen in our universe. The apple will always fall from the tree. The New Physics that works at the sub-atomic level introduced the Uncertainty Principle. This states that the speed and position of a small sub-atomic particle cannot both be known simultaneously. It was first stated by Werner Heisenberg (1901-1976), the German theoretical physicist, in 1927. Furthermore, any attempt to measure these things will alter the object that we are observing. Why was this so revolutionary? Simply put, observation disturbs reality. Since we can’t be sure of the present reality, we can be less sure of the future reality. This uncertainty therefore breaks the sacred bond between observation and the material world. Albert Einstein, quoted in Floyd Matson’s book, The Broken Image (1964), stated that “Even space and time are forms of intuition, which can no more be divorced from consciousness than can our concept of color or shape or size. Space has no objective reality except as an order or arrangement of objects we perceive in it, and time has no independent existence apart from the order of events by which we measure it.” Amazingly, this resonates with the thinking of those early Greek philosophers.
The journey ahead
In the journey that I want to take you on, we will travel to some unexpected places. We will challenge things that are taken for granted, and question concepts that are not normally questioned. So much of our scientific understanding is framed within accepted boundaries. In order to fully understand our planet, it is this book’s strong belief that there should be no initial boundaries, and that we should question everything in order to emerge with a really meaningful explanation. All that I ask is that you approach it with an open mind.
We are looking for an explanation as to how the living world came to be in the form that it is, and why it functions in the way that it does. One of this book’s key theses is that our present understanding, as represented by neo-Darwinism, is in fact based on shadows. These shadows are the products of observation of the sensual world. It is not the case that these shadows do not exist, but rather that their existence is the product of a much more profound drive. They represent only the playing out of a much deeper organizational agent than that of the sensual world. Fortunately, there is plenty of observable evidence to point towards this agent, and we will discover that this new approach, outside of the cave, not only provides a more satisfactory answer to many of the big questions, but also finds itself in resonance with our broader sense of being. This is no ordinary walk around the park, but a massive expedition through many charted and uncharted territories. However, by the end of it, I hope you will have gained a new perspective on things, and whether you agree or disagree, that you enjoy the trip!
End of chapter Eight ("The Biosphere and its Hierarchy"). All excerpts are copyright protected.
Gaia provides an explanation for the function of the Biosphere, but not how it evolved. Neo-Darwinism provides an explanation of evolution, but not how the Biosphere functions. Neither approach provides an explanation as to why life has developed in the way that it has. This book sets out a completely new theory that answers all of the questions relating evolution, function and structure, both mechanistically and in terms of the direction that has been taken. It is a third way, different from both of the other two interpretations, and this is no more clearly visible than in how it interprets the Biosphere. Not top down, nor bottom up, instead we look into the heart of the Biosphere, and recognize an intricate and beautiful thing, made up of different levels of organization. Rather than becoming consumed with the species, we focus on how the Biosphere is organized. We can’t hope to understand how it came to be unless we actually understand how it is put together. So we see the Biosphere as being divided into biomes, the biomes being composed of ecosystems, the ecosystems being made of communities, the communities formed from populations, and the populations being composed of individuals. Hardly radical, you might say. But what is radical is that we don’t recognize any one of these levels of organization as being more important than any other, and we view each of them as being a response to exactly the same organizing agent. By doing this, we can then try to discover what the organizing agent is for the Biosphere. That is a radical thought. We can try to determine the answer to why it all exists in the way that it does, and where we fit into this picture.
Each level is organized in its own way, and has a personality of its own. The Biosphere is not a super-organism, nor is it the product of selfish genes, but rather it is made up of a number of levels, that have their own rules and regulations. Each level, from gene to Biome, is organized differently. The different levels are organized by one single agent that speaks in a different way to each level. The answer to the questions of how the Biosphere came about lies not in any one level, neither in the whole, but, rather, it lies within each level. By approaching the Biosphere in this way, we will discover that we can understand both how it evolved and how it functions. No other theory has done this. If we are to understand what drives the Biosphere and has led to its production, we need to listen to all of the conversations that this driver has. By ignoring most of the levels of organization, both Neo-Darwinism and Gaia have failed to provide a meaningful explanation of this complex structure.
By taking all of our knowledge on the living world together, and recognizing the significance of all parts of the Biosphere, we will come to a completely new explanation of our world, one that not only provides the mechanism of change and structure, but also one that provides important insights into how we can respond to some of the great challenges facing us in the twenty-first century.
Before we set out this new approach, we need to deal with the old one: neo-Darwinism. How did we end up with a taxonomy-based, gene-centric understanding of the Biosphere, and what are the problems with it? Why do we need a new theory to explain how our living world evolved, functions and is structured? In Sections III and IV, we will explore these questions.
Part of Chapter Nine ("What is a Species?"). All excerpts are copyright protected.
The eukaryote can be viewed as a special case, an experiment that, in a way, is just an interesting side show, whereas the main action in the Biosphere occurs in the prokaryotic world of the Archaea and Bacteria. All of the core metabolic processes that eukaryotes use were invented by the prokaryotes long before eukaryotes ever existed. The eukaryotes represent bags in which these things are collected. Yet evolutionary theory has been based, largely, on the eukaryotes. When The Origin of Species was published, there were still only two Kingdoms recognized, Plantae and Animalia. Two key questions must be asked at this stage. These questions are important as they highlight significant problems with the Darwinian approach to evolution
Firstly, if the eukaryotes did not exist, how different would the planet be? It is clear that it is the Archaea and Bacteria that provide the life support system within which the eukaryotes live, and so the eukaryotes are dependent, for their function and their structure, on these microbes. From mitochondria to nutrient cycles, the microbial world controls things. Because prokaryotes are usually invisible to the naked eye since they are so small, they were overlooked by Charles Darwin. At the time of his writing, little was known about them. However today, we recognize that they are central to all the processes of the Biosphere. It is unlikely that the planet would be that much different without the eukaryotes.
The second question is more challenging, but essential to face up to. If eukaryotes did not exist, then how different would our understanding of evolution be? Two-thirds of the Biosphere is microbial, and for the first two-thirds of the history of life on Earth, they were the only representatives of the Biosphere. Thus all the key evolutionary developments occurred within them, not in the Eukaryotic late-comers. Since early life on Earth was microbial, then we need to check that microbes behave in the same way as eukaryotes, in terms of their evolution, reproduction and function. If they are different, then the whole foundation of evolutionary theory will be based on a minority of organisms that are not representative of those that existed at the most crucial period of evolutionary history. That would be a very serious problem for any such a theory, existing in the bliss and ignorance of Eukaryotic isolation.
The big news is that prokaryotes don’t behave like eukaryotes. Significantly, some of the fundamental processes involved in evolution, such as the passage of genetic material from generation to generation, are not as universal as we might think. It’s like trying to understand Shakespeare by studying the stage set and lighting of a modern production. The stage props represent a consequence of the play, but studying them gives us no clue as to how the play was written. Many hundreds of years have passed between the production in your local theatre and the writing of the work. So it is with the eukaryotes. They dominate our thinking in terms of evolution, but yet they weren’t there when the big events were happening. Unless they behave in the same way as the Prokaryotic innovators of that time, they will lead us astray in terms of our understanding of evolution. So how different are the prokaryotes from their eukaryotic offspring? To consider this, let’s go to the races.
The baton- juggling relay race: problems with the tree of life
There are two races in town. In the first, six teams line up in a relay race. Each team member runs around the track, and hands the baton to the next runner of his team. Provided that they don’t drop the baton, the last member of each team will cross the line at the end. This is what we know as vertical gene transfer, where the genetic legacy can be traced from one generation to another through time. It forms the basis of what is known as the tree of life, Darwin’s hidden bond, where present-day organisms are the surviving representatives of a lineage that eventually goes back to the most recent common ancestor.
But hang on; there is another race across the road going on. Here, six teams line up as before, and it looks like a regular relay race is about to start. However, as the runners are sprinting around the first bend, they do something completely unexpected. They make several copies of their batons, and pass them across the lanes to runners from other teams. Soon, several of the runners are clutching a whole armful of different batons, and one of them is actually juggling them in the air as they run! At the finish line, the last team member of each team crosses the line, and not only raises the team baton aloft, but holds several other ones in the air too. In fact, it’s difficult to know which baton each team started with, as several teams have the same batons.
Part of Chapter Fifteen ("Contingency and Determinism: a Requiem for Lady Luck?"). All excerpts are copyright protected.
The impacts of constraints and of contingency work in opposite directions. If we take any moment in the history of the Biosphere and freeze time, then, surely, we can predict what will happen next. Imagine the scene: the Sun hangs in the sky as a cat is frozen, mid-leap, and a mouse stares at its predator in fear and tension. This entire tableau, akin to some morbid nativity scene, with all of the characters poised but never fulfilling their potential, stripped of all kinetic energy, holds within it an inevitability. The Sun will set, the mouse will be caught and the leaping cat will land.
It is not a matter of running the film of life on Earth again, but rather, stopping it, looking at a single frame of the movie, and asking if, given the events in the frame, we can be sure of what will happen in the next frame. If we understand everything related to the events in the first frame, then what happens in the next frame will be completely predictable.
The constraints will act on every level of organization in the frame, with atoms and communities all coming under the laws of physics. Given an understanding of all things, and given that this state of omniscience can exist, then there would appear to be little room for contingency. If the next frame in the reel of film is a consequence of the previous frame, then if we re-run these two frames of the film of life again, we would get exactly the same sequence of events.
Interestingly, it is this predictability that allows life to exist at all. There would be no point in having a fairly rigid set of structures, of having DNA correction upon replication, of having predictable coding of amino acids, if everything was random. Changing conditions are not the same as random conditions. Yet this is the problem of factoring luck into the equation. How much luck do you insert? How random do things get?
Contingency and time travel
Contingency has much in common with the science fiction genre of time travel. The history of time travel fiction is as darkly hidden as the history of natural selection, but the first time machine appeared in El Anacronópete, by Enrique Gaspar y Rimbau, the Spanish writer and diplomat, in 1887. Time travel has always brought with it the fear that if you travel back in time, and change anything, there will be consequences for the future world from whence you came. A common theme is for the traveller, on returning to the point in time from where he first left, to discover a terribly contorted world, all thanks to his having crushed an insect, or having killed a small child. This difficulty with time travel has long been recognized, and reaches its perplexing apogee in the Grandfather Paradox, which reflects that if you went back in time and caused the death of your grandfather before he had met your grandmother, then you would not have been born, and thus could not have travelled back in time. This would have allowed your grandfather to meet your grandmother, therefore leading to your birth after all!
Igor Novikov (b. 1935), the Russian astrophysicist, in his Self-Consistency Principle, stated that any change that led to the alteration of the future could not take place. In the Biosphere, while the issue is not that of the future affecting the past, we still need to consider how constrained are the events that occur, with the future needing to be consistent with the past. This, in turn, finds resonance with fatalism and predeterminism, wherein the future remains the same even if change is attempted. Determinism, on the other hand, has room for the hypothetical possibility of an alternative outcome. It can be argued that if we knew everything, then there would be no unknown. Yet our lack of knowledge will have no impact on the outcome. Thus the world acts as if we knew everything. In other words, stochastic events are only stochastic because we don’t fully understand them. Emergent properties in the end can be explained. This is a separate issue from the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which has important implications for sub-atomic physics, but has negligible effects at the macroscopic scale. If determinism is merely accurate prediction, then an end point can be predicted if everything is known. This does not make the end point the cause or reason, but does lend an air of inevitability, and rather undermines the role of lady luck.
The introduction to Section V ("Energy as the Architect of structure and change") All excerpts are copyright protected.
We now come to the big idea of this book. We have realized that there is a significant gap between evolutionary theory and what actually happens in the real world. We start with a conundrum: what has an impact at every level of the Biosphere, the impact being different at each level, yet with each impact at any one level affecting those above and below?
By starting with what we observe, and with no initial theory, there is no need for a unit of selection. Freeing ourselves from this, we look at how life is organized. Each level, from gene to biome, has properties that rely on their building blocks, but also has properties that are unique to that level. Energy is the agent of organization, and speaks differently to each level of organization. Energy reaches into biomes, communities, individuals, proteins and genes in completely different ways, which allows us to have one agent, but many different units, each displaying its own response to that single agent. We explore the responses and apply our understanding to some of the great debates in evolutionary biology. We show that evolution works in the empty market place, not in the crowded back alleys.
It is energy that determines the shapes of proteins and the functions of enzymes, and energy that lies at the core of biochemical processes such as photosynthesis and respiration. It is energy that flows through the definition of the niche, thus driving succession and speciation. It is energy whose river runs through food webs. It is the perturbation of the energetic context that punctuates evolutionary stasis. The Biosphere, in the end, is merely a shadow on the cave wall, a brief, fleeting representation of the energetic context.
The introduction to Section VII ("Applying the Energetic Theory of Evolution to the Greatest Challenge Facing Humankind") All excerpts are copyright protected.
What hope is there for the human race? Headline after headline paint an increasingly gloomy picture of a polluted world, over-heating and experiencing extremely high levels of species extinction, as humankind continues to alter the environment in such a way as to seriously damage the Biosphere. We are the practitioners of terraforming on our own planet. Governments now target a reduction in carbon emissions as the key strategy to reduce the onslaught.
We look at the causes of climate change and define the key issue that lies at the heart of the transformation that our planet is experiencing. Energetic perturbation, driven by our need to obtain sufficient energy in order to sustain our ever-increasing population, is the core problem. We then identify the single solution to our woes, and it isn’t carbon emission reduction.
Part of Chapter 23 ("Climate Change and our Place in the World") All excerpts are copyright protected.
The Voice of the Biosphere
So what is at the heart of man’s destruction of the Biosphere? Imagine the following scene. You and two friends have been hiking in one of the few remaining natural alpine meadows, and, at the end of a long, but wonderful day, filled with beautiful vistas and delicate wildflowers, you reach an old cabin where you know you can stay for the night. The owner is a mysterious figure, who has no name but is known as the Voice of the Biosphere. You talk with her late into the night as she answers questions on every aspect of the Cosmos, from the origin of life through to her compatriots on other planets across the Universe. Finally, as dawn approaches, she turns to you and your friends, and offers you an amazing opportunity. Each of you can choose to change one thing in order to help improve the world. She gives you ten minutes to reflect on this.
Your first friend immediately stands up and says that he doesn’t need ten seconds, let alone ten minutes. It has got to be carbon dioxide. Surely if the carbon dioxide levels could be returned to, say, the levels they were at before the industrial revolution, then all would be well. Global warming would be eradicated! The ice sheets would no longer melt away and the sea levels would stop rising. Invading species would be halted.
The Voice of the Biosphere grants the wish. She groans and looks out of a window at the back of the cabin. You become aware of the sound of marching feet, hundreds of them. Looking out through the window, you recognize the familiar scene of a funeral procession, but unlike any that you have seen before. As far as the eye can see, following the twisting, narrow path across distant hills and mountains, are countless coffins, some large and some tiny, all accompanied by a myriad of mourning creatures of every shape and size. You ask who all the mourners are behind one particularly small coffin. The Voice explains that in the coffin is a species of bee. The mourners are plants that rely on it for pollination. Without it, they are now doomed.
The undertaker outside the cabin leads another funeral service for a small species of wood mouse that has just gone extinct because the forest it lived in had been converted into land for the production of crops. The undertaker’s Biosphere burial business is still fully booked up for the foreseeable future. Nuclear fuel, wind and wave power churn out the energy needed to replace what was gained by fossil fuels. But the chaos continues. Your friend looks shocked and disappointed. The Voice sees his confusion and reaches out to him, touching his shoulder. She asks him to sit down. She explains that carbon dioxide perturbation is a temporary phenomenon. The era of fossil fuel exploitation is a mere blink in the geological eye. Carbon dioxide levels have been much higher in the past. The reality is that humans will have to survive without fossil fuels in the future, and not by choice. There won’t be any left! So, the Voice finishes, your wish will come true anyway, but it won’t make any difference. It’s not carbon that’s the problem. As far as most of the Biosphere is concerned, carbon is the food of plants, and is the store of energy. The Biosphere has been through many periods when there was no ice on Earth, and when sea levels were much higher than today.
Your second friend thinks deeper and asks that nothing else should go extinct. You look at your first friend and both of you wish you’d thought of that one. No more extinctions – got to be a winner. No more funerals for lost species, and no more mourning. You all turn to the Voice. She gives your friend a sympathetic look. You can’t prevent extinction! In fact, extinction is part of an evolving energetic context. Just like plastic surgery, preventing extinction may look good on the surface, but beneath the skin tucks and implants lies an aging body. Energy drives change and the Biosphere changes as part of a greater whole. You cannot stand still on a moving elevator. You are part of the elevator. The Biosphere is an extension of the energetic Universe, and since the Universe continuously changes, driven by the laws of thermodynamics, then so shall the Biosphere. The Biosphere is not a closed system, but relies on the flow of energy through it and on the agent of organization working at every level differently. So if we stop all extinctions, then where would we be? Speciation occurs most often following extinction. It is extinction that represents the punctuation of the equilibrium, the freeing up of energetic space. No extinction, no speciation.
Increasing speciation without extinction would mean a hugely competitive world, where there wouldn’t be enough niches to go around. So do you stop speciation as well as extinction? In other words do you freeze everything as it is? If the dinosaurs had not gone extinct, would reptiles have continued to dominate, preventing mammals and birds from radiating? So your friend could have their wish, but would they really want to? This raises the very difficult question faced by all conservation biologists: if we don’t save everything, then what should we save? In other words, since we are far short of understanding everything, then how can we possibly decide what should live and what should die? If we save the rare, cute, fluffy creature, that creature may have little potential for future evolution. This may be why it is rare in the first place. It may be the last in a long line, suited to a different world of the past, but no longer possessing the wherewithal to cope in changing conditions. Energy drives change, and so it is impossible to avoid change. In the real world, you either cope or die. There will be changes in energy caused by changes in the Sun, and changes in the distance between the Sun and our planet. The ever-changing Biosphere is, in part, responding to greater changes than merely those in the short term. Species will come and go, and this is part of the nature of how energy expresses itself.
The room falls silent again. Everyone looks towards you. What would your wish be?