I am one with the universe.
I am connected with all things, living and unliving. I feel it.
It wasn't always this way. It wasn't this way at all. I used to feel, as many do, isolated. An independent actor on a vast incomprehensible stage.
I used to feel that the only connections I had were the slender threads binding me to my family, friends, and acquaintances.
My cultural tradition, Judeo-Christian, taught me that nature is fallen, that man is superior to nature, that God, somewhere, somehow, had a plan for it all. Man here, nature there, God above. Separation, disconnection, isolation. This is the nature of my cultural tradition.
And so I have lived, isolated, segmented, and blinded by my childhood learning environment.
I was raised without a religion but I was raised within a culture infused with religion. You cannot isolate yourself from your society's norms, beliefs, and ideas, and I did not. I did as a child does, I absorbed what I was told. I questioned things but only those overtly taught things that went against my observation. The subtle undertones, visible in the daily workings of society, still informed my attitudes. I became, like nearly everyone, blinded and bound by my culture.
I was man, kicked out of the Garden of Eden by God, the place of oneness with the universe, for tasting of the fruit of Tree of Knowledge. Nature was to be under man's dominion. I was the dichotomy of both master and slave to nature. Simultaneously dominating nature, bending her to my will, and yet seeking to rejoin her, to re-enter the Garden.
Running An Orchard
When God kicked Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden for tasting the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge he gave us two parting gifts: Dominion over the Earth and all things upon it. And, although the bible doesn't happen to mention this, he gave us brains. Pretty good ones, at that. When he kicked us out he might just have done us all a favor. With knowledge we had exceeded the animals that had come before us. We no longer really belonged in the Garden's unknowing simplicity.
Mankind not only has tasted of the Tree of Knowledge, we've used our good brains to invent scientific skills that have allowed us to cultivate entire orchards of the Tree of Knowledge. We live off its fruit, in technology, medicine, and through the minor miracles that make up our modern lives.
The seeds of the tastiest fruit, no longer simply apples, were hybridized into all manner of knowledge. Seeds we replant to make new trees. Our trees are tended. Dead branches pruned and new shoots cultivated.
Fruits of our knowledge are shared far and wide, available to all who want a taste. Our largest tree, the internet tree, sprouts a bite of each type of fruit for all those who want a taste, though it must be said it grows a bit wild at times.
With our orchards of knowledge what we are now able to see is the pathway to the Garden. We can begin our journey, meandering from here to there through the orchard. As we do, we are slowly making our way back home.
At some point we start to feel as though we had never left the Garden at all. Our orchard, now so diverse that it hardly seems like an orchard at all, becomes the Garden. Slowly we see that we never really left. All of nature is right here.
Picking Ripe Fruit
Our orchard of knowledge is large. And while there are still many unplanted hills to fill and our trees are not yet at full maturity, not all trees' fruit lead us toward the Garden. Allow me to share my tale of the tastiest trees, the ones that lead me home, back to the Garden.
The Tree Of Ancient Wisdom
On my journey of tasting knowledge one of the most influential sources came from the fruits given to me by Joseph Campbell. Campbell's search for life's meaning through the knowledge of religious and mythical traditions across the world led him to recognize a kind of unity. A unity of human thought.
Campbell saw that all of the world's great traditions carried the same message, that of oneness. Of the unity of all things in nature. The message of the Garden of Eden, Shangri La, heaven, the ocean of time, and of enlightenment.
One of my favorite Campbell stories of enlightenment describes the Buddhist traditions of both Theravada and Mahayana schools of thought. His description of Mahayana is wonderful. He asks, in reference to enlightenment, "Didn't you know you were already there?"
It is an awakening to enlightenment that we seek, a return to the Garden of Eden. To awaken to an idea is to learn it. Awakening to enlightenment is a path of knowledge. That is the path upon which we are on, you and me.
I do not know if I can consider myself enlightened or not. My sense is that there is no such thing. There is only the path (or more likely, paths) on which to journey. No doubt, I'm on my own path, perhaps further along than some, certainly not as far along as others.
Awakening to new knowledge, to seek wisdom is my bliss. Each day I take another step and gaze in wonder at all that I see. If I were inclined to believe in a higher power, I would certainly proclaim daily my awe in God's work.
The Tree Of Evolution
Continuing my tree analogy, allow me the diversion to the top of the tree, for it is here, at the top of the tree of evolution we stand. Humans are the most advanced species on Earth. Standing at the utmost branch, as we are, it's hard to see the tree. All we see is the complexity of a jungle of branches and leaves. The foliage so thick we can't clearly see the trunk, the soil precluding our view of the roots.
It seems to me that knowledge of this tree, our parent, is critical. We are the fruit of the tree of evolution. Shall we take a bite and learn what we are?
Rather than starting at the complexity of the top of the tree we must look to the bottom. The single point of the tap root from which this tree started. It is only from here that the majesty of our tree can be understood.
The lowest point on this tree's root, the point of the tap is the point of our last universal ancestor, the organism from which all other life emerged and whose DNA still resides in every cell on Earth.
Moving up the root, there are branches, side roots. Some thriving to this day such as the bacteria branch, others withered and dead. We move up the root, simple organisms by our standards, branching off along the way.
Evolution to this point has been largely the results of survival of the fittest in the face of random mutation and selection pressures.
As we break ground, we emerge into the largest catalyst to the evolutionary process, the evolution of sexual reproduction. Sexual reproduction is when there are two parents, not just one as in asexual reproduction. Until this point, about 1.2 billion years ago, nothing had sex. They just took care of reproduction all alone. That worked fine but like masturbation compared to a great roll in the hay, it just ain't quite the same thing.
Evolutionary changes exploded with the advent of sex. Now, not only were you doubling the number of possible mutations, one from each parent, you were setting the stage for sexual selection.
Do you want to reproduce with just anyone? Me neither. We're selective. So are all sorts of creatures. It's a key to why we are here. Sexual selection is a powerful, comparatively fast acting mechanism to select the best of the breed to mate with other best of breeds. Inferior creatures tend to get less opportunity to reproduce, hence less children, and so on until they aren't even in the gene pool any more.
Once sex took off and sexual species out-competed many of their ancient asexual cousins, there was a sudden explosion of life. The Cambrian explosion.
Soon afterward, and we're still talking about many millions of years here, animals we still see today evolved, sharks, horseshoe crabs, land plants, and insects. Eventually, dinosaurs, birds. As you can see, I'm skimming over a lot of fascinating evolutionary history here.
Of course, things didn't always go smoothly. There were a few major instances of widespread death, a big asteroid here and there, for example, something else, perhaps. A large limb of the Evolutionary Tree was snapped off in a major storm. A few small branches might have survived while other smaller branches were opened to more sunlight.
Mammals are the benefactor of one such incident. The near annihilation of the dinosaurs about 65 million years ago (kind of recently in the terms we're talking about in this article) allowed sunlight to fall on mammal branch.
Primates, of which we are simply the most advanced type, evolved over this time period. Homo sapiens, our shoot on this tree, is just the latest and strongest growing shoot on the primate branch.
We are complexity built of simplicity. Trillions of cells, all of which contain the same DNA as that earliest life form, greatly enhanced, make up what we are. Between you and the lowliest bacteria, there is no separation. We are all family, if rather dysfunctional and highly competitive.
The Tree Of Biochemistry
Without amino acids there is no life. At least none that we know of. Amino acids are the building blocks of life. Amino acids, all 20 of them that are common across species are needed to build proteins, to form RNA and DNA. They are the essence of what we are.
There is a philosophical discussion to be had about what is life and what isn't and amino acids are near the root of that argument. Scientists have successfully created amino acid crystals clearly visible to the naked eye, that may be a form of pre-life. These amino acid crystals are stable and readily convertible into the forms needed for RNA.
The process of crystallization is self-replicating. New molecules align themselves in predictable patterns with the seed crystal and expand the crystal. Each added molecule then acts as a seed for the next uncrystallized molecule. Where does life begin? I can no longer truly say.
As you can see, the tip of the tree root isn't really the beginning. What type of soil it was in mattered. It was necessary for the soil to contain the amino acids of life.
The Tree Of Astrophysics
Many of the trees in our orchard of knowledge have grown so large that it amazes me every time I stand beneath one and take a taste of fruit. The astrophysics tree is especially delicious. It tastes of the nature of the universe, matter, energy. It tastes of the building blocks of life, light, intergalactic water, and the foundations of life.
Researchers have found again and again the building blocks of life, amino acids, in meteorites that have fallen to Earth. For decades the debate has gone on about earthly contamination versus extraterrestrial sourcing. The science is becoming clear that the sources of the amino acids are not from here on Earth. Variations of amino acids, some not found on Earth, others not found near the meteorite impact zone, are showing up, solidifying the evidence.
I suppose we shouldn't be surprised to learn that the Earth, itself formed of space dust, rock, gas, water, and debris, was seeded with life from the very same matter. It just needed the right conditions to get started.
Amino acids are formed of some of the most abundant atoms in nature, hydrogen, carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen. Add another common element, phosphorus, and you've got all the building blocks of RNA, DNA, and the proteins they encode. You've got life.
That conditions in space may have formed amino acids doesn't seem all that surprising. Clouds of gas, much of it these key elements, make up large parts of galaxies. Water, hydrogen and oxygen, has been seen in massive quantities around distant quasars. It isn't a stretch to imagine the origins of life originating in a simple random but common chemical reaction.
The Missing Link
It is this connection between evolution, the chemistry of amino acids, and the elemental composition of space that brings us fully into accord with nature.
Our most humble beginnings are in the furnaces of stars and crucibles of galaxies in which the seeds of life, hydrogen, carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, water, and amino acids, are formed.
Our evolutionary past starts not simply at the first life form but before. It may well have been in the first combinations of amino acids that crystallized, that combined, that transformed into the foundations of our genetic code. The seeds of life spread by meteorites landing on what had become fertile soil.
Our ancient ancestor, the ancestor to all life on Earth, already advanced by biochemical standards, was the sprouted seedling from which all life arose.
Our planet and all life upon it has been shaped by this evolutionary tree. We are merely a strong shoot on a healthy branch. The only shoot long enough to be able to bend down and see the tree whole from a distance. We only need to stop and take a look. When we do, we see ourselves as we are, at the tip of a large tree supported in the fertile ground of the Earth and having sprouted from the vast expanses of the universe.
There is little wonder in my mind from where the idea of a designer for all this majesty comes from, though I'm inclined to say that life, even more elegantly than even the best of designs, is inherent to the nature of our universe. However you choose to view it, designer or a natural condition, I think we can all agree that on one thing:
Nature, in all its deep beauty, is a truly wondrous thing.