The Age of the Essay - Paul Graham

But the branch of the that readers might find most interesting led to humans. Humans are in the phylum, and the last common ancestor that founded the Chordata phylum is still a mystery and understandably a source of controversy. Was our ancestor a ? A ? Peter Ward made the case, as have others for a long time, that it was the sea squirt, also called a tunicate, which in its larval stage resembles a fish. The nerve cord in most bilaterally symmetric animals runs below the belly, not above it, and a sea squirt that never grew up may have been our direct ancestor. Adult tunicates are also highly adapted to extracting oxygen from water, even too much so, with only about 10% of today’s available oxygen extracted in tunicate respiration. It may mean that tunicates adapted to low oxygen conditions early on. Ward’s respiration hypothesis, which makes the case that adapting to low oxygen conditions was an evolutionary spur for animals, will repeatedly reappear in this essay, as will . Ward’s hypothesis may be proven wrong or will not have the key influence that he attributes to it, but it also has plenty going for it. The idea that fluctuating oxygen levels impacted animal evolution has been gaining support in recent years, particularly in light of recent reconstructions of oxygen levels in the eon of complex life, called and , which have yielded broadly similar results, but their variances mean that much more work needs to be performed before on the can be done, if it ever can be. Ward’s basic hypotheses is that when oxygen levels are high, ecosystems are diverse and life is an easy proposition; when oxygen levels are low, animals adapted to high oxygen levels go extinct and the survivors are adapted to low oxygen with body plan changes, and their adaptations helped them dominate after the extinctions. The has a pretty wide range of potential error, particularly in the early years, and it also tracked atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. The challenges to the validity of a model based on data with such a wide range of error are understandable. But some broad trends are unmistakable, as it is with other models, some of which are generally declining carbon dioxide levels, some huge oxygen spikes, and the generally relationship between oxygen and carbon dioxide levels, which a geochemist would expect. The high carbon dioxide level during the Cambrian, of at least 4,000 PPM (the "RCO2" in the below graphic is a ratio of the calculated CO2 levels to today's levels), is what scientists think made the times so hot. (Permission: Peter Ward, June 2014)

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The greatest scientists readily admitted that the theories and data of physics, that hardest of the hard sciences, drew highly limited descriptions of reality, and those scientists were usually, to one extent or another, . If textbook science falls far short of explaining reality, what can be said within its framework that is useful? Plenty. Our industrialized world is based on textbook science and feats such as putting men on the Moon were performed within the parameters of textbook science. With the waning of overspecialization and overreliance on reductionism in the last decades of the 20th century, multidisciplinary works have proliferated and will tend to dominate the references for this essay. I have found them not only very helpful for my own understanding, but they are appropriate references for a generalist essay. I have also avoided scientific terminology when feasible. For example, I use “seafloor” instead of “,” and if a non-specialized term will suffice for a scientific concept, I will often use it.

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is complex, but the preceding presentation is largely adequate for this essay’s purpose, while it can be helpful to be aware that the physics behind FE and antigravity technologies will probably render the Standard Model obsolete. If FE, antigravity, and related technologies finally come in from the shadows, the elusive may come with them, and the Unified Field might well be consciousness, which will help unite the scientist and the mystic, and . But that understanding is not necessary to relate the story that White Science tells today of how Earth developed from its initial state to today’s, when complex life is under siege by an ape that quickly spread across the planet like a cancer once it achieved the requisite intelligence, social organization, and technological prowess.

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Intense has existed in situations in which scientific and technological advances can threaten economic empires, but many areas of science are not seen as threatening, and reconstructing Earth’s distant past and the journey of life on Earth is one of those nonthreatening areas. I have never heard of a classified fossil site or a Precambrian specialist being threatened or bought out in order to keep him/her silent. There is more controversy with human remains and artifacts, but I am skeptical of popular works that argue for technologically advanced ancient civilizations and related notions. Something closer to “pure science” can be practiced regarding those ancient events without the threat of repercussions or the enticements of riches and . Much of this essay’s subject matter deals with areas in which the distortions of political-economic racketeering have been muted and the theories and tools have been unrestricted.

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In the 1990s, I found the dating issue enthralling and saw it assailed by fringe theorists and by . A couple of decades later, I reached the understanding that, like all sciences, dating has its limitations and the enthusiasm for a new technique can become a little too exuberant, but dating techniques and technologies have greatly improved in my lifetime. Dating the , and using 100,000-year increments to place the dates, may seem a conceit, thinking that scientists can place that event with that precision, but over the years my doubts have diminished. When and can be tested, and the findings support not only Earth’s age previously determined by myriad methods, but also support the prevailing theories for the solar system’s and Moon’s formation, call me impressed. Controversies will persist over various finds and methods used, and scientific fraud certainly occurs, but taken as a whole, those converging lines of independently tested evidence make it increasingly unlikely that the entire enterprise is a mass farce, delusion, or even a conspiracy, as many from the fringes continue to argue. There is still a , and it is not a parody. I have looked into fringe claims for many years and few of them have proven valid; even if many were, their potential importance to the human journey was often minor to trifling. As the story that this essay tells comes closer to today’s humanity, orthodox controversies become more heated and fringe claims proliferate.

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The battle between materialists and religious orders over the years, in which materialist evolutionists grapple with creationists and intelligent design proponents, seems to be a feud between two fundamentalist camps. Nowhere in such battles are the abilities or wisdom of accomplished mystics found. The nature and role of consciousness, both in this dimension and beyond it, are likely far too subtle to be profitably engaged by the level of debate that predominates today. Scientists such as by the evident intelligence behind the universe’s design, but that did not mean that they believed in a God with a flowing beard. As this essay will explore later, those issues are not merely fodder for idle philosophical pursuit, but at their root lies the crux of the current conundrum that humanity finds itself in, as we .