Sex, Evolution and Everything

Questions from Tabassum:
1. Things are existing around us. Why do they exist? Someone once answered that things exist because they just have to. But why do they HAVE to? How do I answer this without metaphysical ideas?

2. Evolution.
How did genders arise? People usually answer by giving some of the benefits of sexual reproduction but I am asking the how not the why. I mean how can we believe that genetic mutations led to perfectly complementary organisms when the two organisms (male and female) are separated in space and time? Or do I have the concept wrong here?

3. Evolution.
Evolution does not violate the 2nd law of thermodynamics, as I was taught. This is because there is energy continually being supplied to the organism so it can have the opportunity to become more sophisticated. Overall, the universe becomes more complex because the energy released from the sun increases the randomness of the overall system of the universe.

My query is:
If energy is being made available to the organism constantly, how would the organism use that energy. Shouldn’t there be a system to consume and use that energy in a useful way in the first place? So there needs to have evolved a system to use the energy, but it could only have evolved if it was able to use energy. Or maybe it can evolve without consuming energy? Answers?

Answer by SmartLX:
1. The short answer is that we don’t know, but that’s not a good reason to assert any particular explanation.

Matter exists right now either because it has always existed or because it came into existence at some point. If it always existed in some form, then like most people’s concept of a god it has no need of an origin. If it came into existence, not only do we not know how but we don’t know if it needed a cause at all. We’ve never seen anything come into existence from nothingness, so for all we know it could be entirely spontaneous, though very rare. The exception is in quantum mechanics where current theory suggests that (and of course this is a gross oversimplification) small particles are regularly winking in and out of existence, without any known cause or even much of an effect. This hardly supports the idea of deliberate creation of matter.

2. The most popular hypothesis is that gender and sexual reproduction began as a simple transfer of DNA material between two almost identical entities. We know it evolved extremely early in eukaryotic single-celled organisms, and for such creatures an exchange like this could be as simple as pushing material through their cell walls while in contact. Even if this happened regularly but by accident, it would have altered the population’s overall genome much more quickly than cell division alone. That would have meant disaster for many individual cells that got the short end of the helix, but overall it meant more unique material for natural selection, faster evolution and better survival prospects. The organisms that won out and continued to reproduce would have been the ones that made this exchange a hard-wired part of their life cycle. After that, all that was required to achieve genders as we understand them today was the emergence of a DNA structure with a switch, or a split probability of going one way or the other – in other words, a chromosome.

3. Living organisms have evolved very efficient means of harnessing energy from outside themselves, like photosynthesis and digestive systems, but while such complex mechanisms are useful they are not essential. There are chemical reactions caused by light, water, oxygen and especially heat which have nothing to do with life at all. Molecules break down and recombine, elements move between states of matter and so on. For a crude thought experiment, imagine a variety of inorganic objects and what happens to them in a pot of boiling water, or on a stove, or when left in the sun all day.

The very first living organisms simply needed to include substances within their membranes that could absorb heat, light and maybe bits of other organisms, and use the material to do something chemically interesting enough to keep the whole thing running for another few seconds until it happened again.

The Case of the Missing Unrelated Life

Question from John:
I am comfortable with evolution and natural selection as a theory for the diversity of life today. One thing lingers as an anomaly, pointing at a non accidental creation. This anomaly is the lack of other “trees of life”. There is not a vestige or hint of any other tree of life but our own (witnessed by the same methods of protein synthesis in a bacterium as in a human).

Where are the other, accidental, spontaneous beginnings of life that began in dirty puddles of water, 2 billion years ago or last Thursday?

Any takers?

Answer by SmartLX:
The earliest evidence of life on Earth amounts to trace elements in rocks from 3.85 billion years ago (see this article) and could have come from anyone’s tree of life, not just our own. Only at the point where we can discern the shape or actions of the life that existed, in evidence that dates hundreds of millions of years later, can we begin to gather morphological, geographical or behavioural evidence that might determine the lifeforms are related to us.

That said, the conditions for life to arise are unknown mostly because they don’t seem to appear in the modern world. It’s reasonable to suppose that they don’t, as the world was a very different place 3-4 billion years ago. Even back then, the right conditions could have been so incredibly rare that abiogenesis only happened in a very localised area (and not necessarily a puddle; see how many other models there are) and never again.

Regardless, once our earliest microscopic ancestors got going, they spread like wildfire. They got everywhere, and their microscopic descendants are still everywhere, even in places we think of as lifeless. They’re in the air we breathe, they’re in the earth we walk on, they’re at the bottom of the sea and coating its surface, they’re rolling along in the desert sands. Any unrelated organisms that arose after that point, or weren’t as well-established at the time, had to compete with this ubiquitous organic juggernaut of carbon-based life. If they ever existed, they’ve been eaten, dismembered, crushed, drowned, strangled, suffocated or starved by our own guys, and any evidence they left has been mistaken for evidence of the roots of our own “tree”. History is written by the winners, as they say, and prehistory is probably no different.

Universe(tm) – No God Required

Question from Jhon Roy:
How did the universe existed if there was/is no God to create it, do you want us Christians to believe that out of nothing, the universe began to exist??? It is indeed illogical. Steven Hawking said that because of gravity the universe can create itself, but as I told you before the universe began to exist, there was just nothing, no gravity, nor force. Now answer my question.

Answer by SmartLX:
Non-believers aren’t asking Christians to believe anything about this topic. There are many different ways our present universe might exist, and atheists don’t arbitrarily declare without evidence that a particular one of them is fact. We wait for scientists to uncover evidence favouring one hypothesis over all others, because they’re the only ones finding any relevant evidence at all. All I would ask is that because many of the possibilities do not involve a god, you accept for now that as far as we know the universe isn’t necessarily impossible without a god, and therefore its mere existence isn’t currently proof of a god all by itself.

Regarding the specifics of your argument:

  • How do you know there was nothing before the universe began to exist? You think God existed before the universe did, so why couldn’t something else? Another universe, for example?
  • How do you know the universe even began to exist, and didn’t always exist in some form? You think God always existed; it’s even simpler if the universe always did instead, because then we don’t have to try to explain the existence of a god as well as the universe.
  • Anything creating itself is by definition impossible because it implies an action by an entity which does not exist during the action, but Stephen Hawking’s ideas about the beginning of the universe involve the simultaneous emergence of time, making the concept of “before” irrelevant. Why can’t it have happened the way he describes, other than that it sounds wrong to you? Why can’t the universe behave in an un-intuitive manner, given how limited our intuition is? If it’s so obviously unworkable, why hasn’t a super-brain like Hawking or any of his colleagues realised it and hastily re-worked large sections of A Brief History of Time?
  • Incidentally, the simple fact that you’ve asked a question is reason enough for us to answer it. You don’t then have to order us to answer it.

    Answer Me These Questions Three

    Question from Stephen:
    Dear who ever is reading this,

    I am a Christian, now before you get all mad and make judgements please hear me out I just want to ask you a few questions so I get what you believe. Okay so…
    1. If you don’t believe in “God” do you believe in a “higher power?” And if you do who is that “higher power?” Would you consider yourself to be “God” over your own life?
    2. If you don’t believe in heaven then where do you go when you die?
    3. How do you believe the world came to be? Though the Big Bang theory? Or did the earth always exist?

    Please respond back with your answers I just want to know more about atheists.

    Answer by SmartLX:
    No problem Stephen. If I got mad when someone simply identified as Christian, I wouldn’t be able to think straight when answering their questions. I’ve numbered your questions for easy reference.

    1. Plenty of entities are more powerful than me. The sun makes me look completely insignificant, when considered in all its enormity. The nation of the Commonwealth of Australia has power over me, since I’m a small part of it. Gravity, while not necessarily an entity, has achieved more than I ever will. The thing is that none of these entities are concerned with the intimate details of how I live my life, so they’re not the kind of “higher power” I can appeal to for practical help in all things. (My country does concern itself with some broad aspects of my life, of course, but fortunately not all.)

    Therefore I don’t think there is the kind of “higher power” you’re thinking of. In the absence of this, I certainly don’t feel like the God of my own life because I don’t have anything like that kind of absolute control over it. I do have some control, obviously, but that just makes me a functioning person with my own will, not a god. It suffices.

    2. I described my position on death in an earlier piece. Read it here, and comment (here or there) if you have any questions.

    3. All the evidence points to a Big Bang, or a similar expansion of all existing matter and energy from a single point in space about 15 billion years ago. The Earth formed about 10 billion years later, coming together from materials orbiting the Sun (which had formed a few hundred million years earlier). You don’t have to be an atheist to think this, and in fact many Christians believe that God caused exactly this to happen. Where atheists differ is that they don’t believe a god was required for it to happen.

    Something From Nothing And Your Chicks For Free

    Question from Jay:
    How is nothingness able to create a finely tuned universe?

    A theist might make it more complicated by saying
    “If something can come into being from nothing, then it becomes inexplicable why just anything or everything doesn’t come into being from nothing. Why can’t books pop into being from nothing? Why is it only the universe that can come into being from nothing?”

    If mind and conscience is invisible and if matter does not contain conscience or the potential of consciences, Where does conscience come from?
    If the universe began with brute matter, there will be no explanation of the origin of consciences.

    How do I answer these questions cause they are really hard?
    – This is for my philosophy class.

    Answer by SmartLX:
    This stuff isn’t just philosophy, this is “philosophy of religion”. It’s religious apologetics by way of arguments from ignorance, where if someone can’t answer the questions the questioner is free to insert God as the answer. Even if there aren’t any other answers it’s a terrible way to make a point, logically speaking, but that doesn’t stop people.

    We don’t know whether there was ever nothing, so how something can come from it is a hypothetical question rather than an essential one. There might have been nothing once; if something emerged from it then we know that the process is extremely rare, or happens out of our view, or both. If whole universes emerge all at once in each event, as the Big Bang would seem to suggest when viewed as a something-from-nothing moment, we’d have to travel to the next universe to see the effects of another such event, so it’s no wonder we don’t see ex nihilo creation every day. For a more scientific perspective, take an hour to watch Lawrence Krauss’s lecture on the subject, or read his book A Universe From Nothing.

    The universe is not necessarily finely tuned, for that assumes a tuning process and a tuner. The universe supports life, yes, on the crust of one known planet in countless light years of nothingness and extreme conditions (most of which would instantly kill us if we went there unprotected). That suggests two things: if the universe is tuned at all then it’s not very finely tuned, and life has emerged in the one place which happens to be hospitable. I’ve addressed the fine tuning argument several times on the site already, if you want some more material.

    Mind, consciousness and the specific aspect of conscious thought we think of as “conscience” are functions of the brain. They’re not entirely invisible, because many experiments have used MRI to measure electrical activity in specific parts of the brain during specific mental activities (dreaming, problem-solving, emotional reactions). Furthermore, if the brain is damaged then consciousness may be impaired or lost forever, leaving a human “vegetable”. We see the beginnings of all these thought processes in animals such as apes, which suggests to us that consciousness has evolved slowly in our ancestors, and persisted because of the tangible benefits of being self-aware and able to think well.

    What A Wonderful…World

    Question from Camary:
    How do you think you’re here today?

    Question from Devon:
    With no belief in God or Creation, how do you explain the beauty of this world?

    Question from Ethan:
    How can you think something so complex, something so wonderful as the world can be made out of a big bang?

    Answer by SmartLX:
    These questions all fit into a category I typically mark with the tag “origins”.

    My big article on the apparent design of the world is #4 in my Great Big Arguments series. (Search the site for “great big arguments” and you might save yourself some research, or else want to do more.) It’s got bits about the origin of life, the perception of beauty, the evolution of intelligence and so on. If you’d like to discuss something in more detail, put a comment either here or on that page. (I see all new comments, even on old pages.)

    Notice that all the questions above say “how can/do you think/explain…” You folks are challenging me to explain something, so what if I couldn’t? Why would I accept your explanation even then, if I don’t believe in the thing you’re using to explain it? Why would I assume the presence of something even more wonderful, even more exotic and even less explicable than the entire universe and everything in it, which nevertheless has no available, substantial evidence for it? That would just make things worse.

    A “Survey”

    Question from Leonard:
    Don’t you find it to be most odd that there is something instead of nothing?
    Wouldn’t it be more logical and simpler for there to be nothing?

    Answer by SmartLX:
    These are not survey questions, Leonard. This is an argument, nominally rephrased as a pair of questions. Any questionnaire containing the above is essentially a push poll, and certain ethical implications follow.

    It might be logical to think that there should currently be nothing, but only if we knew of any point in the history of the universe when there was nothing, and we don’t. As far as we know there has always been something, and our current laws of conservation of matter and energy tend to back that up. We have no idea what preceded the Big Bang, if anything, and it is far beyond our current understanding to simply assume there was nothing at all.

    Putting this aside, the usual follow-up to this idea by apologists is that the only way there can currently be something is if someone created it. Firstly, if there was someone there then there wasn’t nothing, and secondly, where did the someone come from? Yes, many theists object to that question because their chosen someone is supposedly eternal and uncaused, but then what actually stops the universe itself from being that way? Adding an uncaused, intelligent, inexplicable being such as a god never, ever simplifies the circumstances, and is quite unnecessary unless you impose arbitrary constraints on the universe – which the god immediately breaks to justify itself.

    Eternity, and not by Calvin Klein

    Question from Brenton:
    Is the universe eternal?

    Answer by SmartLX:
    We don’t know, but whether it is or not, neither option makes a god very likely.

    Cosmologists now almost universally accept the Big Bang as a factual event which occurred about fourteen billion years ago. A far greater point of contention is whether the matter and energy in the universe have always existed, and were simply in some other state before they coalesced into the singularity which “exploded”, or if the Big Bang was truly the beginning of time and causality.

    If the universe is eternal, there is no need for a creator god. Most theistic gods are regarded by their believers as eternal and thus in no need of their own creators; this is a real possibility for the universe itself.

    If the universe is not eternal, and nothing material preceded it, then either it was created or produced by something or it emerged directly from nothing. Neither of these can be judged as more or less likely than the other based on our experience so far because, while we have no direct evidence of anything emerging from nothing (though quantum mechanics may suggest this possibility), we have no evidence at all of anything being created from nothing as creator gods are meant to have done.

    That leaves the idea that something material (or with direct material influence) and outside the universe pre-dated it, and somehow resulted in its emergence. Again a god is possible here, but it could also be another previous universe, or the “quantum foam”, or any number of hypothetical entities. A god as an explanation is the least useful entity in this scenario because a full-blown intelligent god is itself an inexplicable cause, and it’s no more likely than any of the others. It’s also the only one which requires that we posit anything supernatural.

    I realise that I’ve read quite a lot into your very simple question, but delving into these issues is the usual purpose of asking questions like this on an atheist website.

    Thermodynamics (it’s not what you think)

    Question from Anon:

    I’m engaged in a discussion with a Christian friend of mine who has presented this syllogism to me:

    “1. Simply put, if there is no external cause of the universe, then the universe is either eternal or self-created.

    2. But, it is cosmologically ridiculous and anti-scientific (i.e. against laws of thermodynamics) to propose that the universe is either eternal or self-created.

    3. Therefore, the premise that there is no external cause of the universe must be false (i.e. there must be an external cause for the universe’s existence, e.g. God)”

    I believe he is applying the law where it can’t be applied, but I’ve never extensively studied science in college so I’m not really sure.

    My rebuttal was that the universe was not necessarily a closed system and he responded with this:

    “I have to remind you that my academic background has required me to not only understand, but apply, thermodynamics. [He has an engineering degree.] I know what the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics means and it clearly eliminates the concept of an eternal universe. If there is any misunderstanding on my part, it is in what you mean by ‘the law of the universe.’ Further, whether the universe is a closed system or not is irrelevant, since the concept of a closed system is theoretical, i.e. we have never actually observed a closed system.”

    Thanks and I hope you can sort this out for me.

    Answer by SmartLX:
    Well, it’s not the usual creationist argument that evolution breaks the 2nd Law simply by producing order, so at least it’s a change.

    He’s got one thing right, the universe is unlikely to be self-created. We don’t know of anything that is, or even what that would mean if it were true. For an entity to be the reason for its own existence would require an exception to the idea that an effect follows its cause. Rather than call this ridiculous, however, I’d just say that time would have had to behave non-linearly near the beginning. It’s strange to consider, but it hasn’t been ruled out as far as I know.

    To set up the next option a bit, an eternal universe would need to be one where multiple Big Bangs happen in sequence. We have to work from the scientific fact of the Big Bang to achieve a plausible eternal model, especially after Borde, Guth and Vilenkin successfully ruled out the leading eternal models that didn’t involve singularities.

    Your friend’s thermodynamic objection to an eternal universe is that any process that’s already been running forever should have run down by now, because no process is perfectly efficient. There are at least two scenarios in which this is averted (possibilities only, mind you):
    – The singularity that immediately precedes each Big Bang reclaims all of the matter and energy in the universe by bringing space itself back to a central point. This includes all of the “lost” energy that radiates from decaying systems and is normally declared unusable, so in the end nothing is truly lost and the universe really is perfectly efficient.
    – Extending upon your friend’s response, not even the universe itself is a closed system. It receives energy from an outside source, such as other universes. If there is an infinite number of these as some have hypothesised, they can keep a universe such as ours going indefinitely. (If one takes “universe” to mean everything that exists, in other words the whole multiverse, then the idea is available that it may contain infinite matter and energy, and never have to run down for this reason instead. It’s all a matter of perspective, and to some extent semantics.)

    As an afterword on eternal universes, it’s worth asking your friend exactly how he exempts his eternal God from the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. I hold it to be true that whatever constraints you place on the universe to necessitate a god, you immediately have to break them to allow for the god, usually by way of special pleading.

    Moving on to the third option, it’s telling that your friend’s syllogism uses “e.g.” and not “i.e.” to invoke God. God is an example of an external cause, not the only possible one. The alternative suggested by the above is a concurrent or previous universe, which is part of a great many theories out there. I would love to hear your friend’s reasoning that starts from the external cause at the end of the syllogism and arrives at the Christian God, because at a glance it’s far from a logical step. (The following isn’t a scientific argument, but additional universes seem a more plausible thing to posit than a god because at least we know there’s such a thing as a universe. If your 5-acre cabbage patch has been devoured and you find one fat little rabbit in the corner, you don’t suppose that Bigfoot ate the rest; you wonder where all the other rabbits are hiding.)

    Finally, there is a fourth option not covered by the syllogism: that the universe simply came into being without being created, that the common straw-man concept of “something from nothing” actually happened. Something like this is put forward in Lawrence Krauss’ new book A Universe from Nothing; specifically, that the precursor to the universe in certain models could be thought of as “nothing”. Even if you don’t accept this as quite the same thing, it at least advances another alternative external cause to compete with God.

    Most of the options are essentially still on the table, despite your friend’s attempt at an argument by elimination. Even the option he wants to be left with doesn’t help the case for God very much, if at all.