From The Story Called Continuity

A giant insect claw pulls a curious farmer wielding a shotgun into a crater where a spaceship has crashed in the 1997 movie Men in Black. From our vantage beyond the edge of the crater: lights, commotion, silence. The farmer emerges somewhat unsteadily and walks back to his home. He demands sugar and lots of it from his wife. This is no longer a man but a skin bag filled with cockroaches who, with hive-like capabilities, can imitate the farmer’s speech and movement…almost. We laugh this off because we are privy to the joke in this movie’s comedic take on all the alien invasion movies ever made. We, that is government in its darkest form, have made peace with aliens through a black-ops program called MIB which serves as an immigration and nationalization service and portal for aliens who wish to travel to and work in the world.

Later we see the former farmer driving a pest extermination truck. This is not out of the ordinary. The fact that he is a bit weird, unsteady, and has jerky movements does not give us concern because it just seems logical for anyone who would do this nasty job….

We don’t consider as we watch this that we are made up of colonies of billions of bugs, bacteria, mites, viruses, parasites and more that dwarf the amount of stuff that our DNA has constructed which we call ourselves. It does not even enter our minds that maybe the bug filled farmer may be the real “human” and we are the alien, and that drinking sugar and walking funny is normal and we are the exception. That’s fiction…

The Facts of Life

We nod to the scientist who wonders whether the mitochondria that makes us and other creatures that have more than one cell may be the symbiotic construct of bacteria and a single cell creature. Nor does it phase us to any great extent when president Bill Clinton proclaims that a meteorite from Mars may contain primitive life.1 We find it curious, amusing, but not frightening when scientists claim in the argument called panspermia, that life came to earth from Mars or elsewhere in the universe, blown out into space by asteroid or comet collisions, to survive thousands or even millions of years of dormancy in the harshest conditions: space.2 It is not an insult to our intelligence when science reanimates viruses frozen in the Siberian tundra for more than ten thousand years, or when other researchers revive spoors over two hundred and fifty million years old.3 We grieve for the humanity lost in the Columbia disaster of 2003 but don’t dwell on the fact that nematodes the shuttle carried survived and once again thrived after the ships fiery reentry.

A veil has been drawn over our eyes. We fail to recognize the often insidious nature of life. Life demands continuity.4 Life demands its continuity at the expense of individual life forms, species, genomes, families, and perhaps even kingdoms. There have been five major extinction events that have nearly wiped out life from earth. Most have been the result of “natural” activities such as super volcanos, asteroids, and a big freeze.

Life caused the first near-extinction. The earliest life forms were anaerobic, meaning that the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere was so low that life could not use it to fuel its metabolic engine. Then, as Darwin and evolutionists tell us, something happened. A stromatolite developed capabilities of photosynthesis which uses the sun’s energy and carbon dioxide as its metabolic engine and produces a waste called oxygen.5 Oxygen, it turns out is poisonous to the anaerobic life forms and ninety eight percent of existing life forms became extinct. Did life “care”? Not one whit.6 In fact, if this hadn’t happened probably all those monstrous creatures who preceded us including the dinosaurs would not have existed.

How do we thank a serial killer, an ethnic cleanser, the architect of the primordial “holocaust” and still maintain an ethical stance towards our own existence? We are life’s minions, the dutiful servants of a harsh mistress who demands only one thing from us and that is to reproduce. Life is the God who says be fruitful and multiply. Life is the idea of building the ark that Noah believes he gets from God. It is the ark that launches with two of all creatures to repopulate the earth after the flood of the ages. Life’s ark can also be a tiny meteorite, a vial from a doomed space shuttle, a rock buried deep in the earth that has formed around dormant microbes, or a synthesis of lipid bag, metabolic engine, and plan that emerges out of primitive ooze.

It matters not to life whether you live or die, only that something exists that can reproduce itself, multiply, mutate, evolve and fill as many niches as possible in the universe. Life has found ways of existing in the hottest springs, caustic sea vents, rocks, and the deepest mines.7 Ubiquity is optimal; however, just one life form that can reproduce asexually or parthenogenically is all that is necessary for life to fulfil its mission of continuity.

Is life the supervillain of all supervillains? To begin to answer this question we must ask and answer what is a supervillain? First, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) finds the origin of the word villain: “Originally, a low-born base-minded rustic; a man of ignoble ideas or instincts; in later use, an unprincipled or depraved scoundrel; a man naturally disposed to base or criminal actions, or deeply involved in the commission of disgraceful crimes…”8 Our farmer from MIB certainly fits the criteria of a low-born basic-minded rustic. Yet there is more to the villain definition, “The character in a play, novel, etc., whose evil motives or actions form an important element in the plot. Also transf., esp. in phr. villain of the piece.”9 We cannot help but thank life for our own existence. We are, however, but characters in life’s play. I will suggest that life is the author of both the superhero and supervillain characters in the story called “Continuity”.

Continuity

Continuity means that life makes no distinction in the worth of any life form over another. Continuity is all that matters. Our anthropomorphic vision of humanity as a superior creature holds no meaning for life. If we go extinct, so what? If we ruin the climate with global warming and overpopulate the globe until the ecology collapses, there will be something of life that remains. Good riddance humanity?

Is continuity evil? This is similar to the question theologians of the Abrahamic religions have asked for thousands of years: if God is good, omniscient, and omnipotent how can there be evil in the world? The answer that some think satisfies this paradox is that there must be something good about evil if God can only do good; others think it is the abuse of human ego that brought evil into the world.10 It appears that life’s continuity question produces elements of logic like the first religious argument: Continuity must be good for life otherwise life would not have evolved its aspect of continuity without concern for the individual.

The buggy farmer in MIB is a villain for sure. The farmer, both before and after the infestation, is life. Bugs kill the farmer. Is the farmer as a bag of bugs a supervillain? The OED defines supervillain as, “An extremely villainous person; spec. a fictional character with superhuman powers in a comic strip, film, etc.”11 This entry is of little help because it defines villain with itself and adds only the imprecise adjective “extremely” to give us any indication of its difference from the common variety villain. Let’s consider the prefix “super”.

Super as a prefix means something that is above the word for which it is the prefix.12 Therefore a supervillain is something that is above a villain. Above, like the adjective “extremely”, is just as imperfect a definition. If we dig further into the idea of God, the idea of above refers to heaven and the expanse and the soaring cathedrals that reach up to God. A metaphysical above, then, is where God dwells. This proves to be good imagery for the faithful who cannot otherwise understand the concept of God being everywhere, so up is as good a place as any. Correspondingly, down is Satan’s realm.

However, we cannot see God. Therefore, the metaphysical realm is all that we can give to God. We can see life. It is all around us. We can smell it, put our fingers on it. It is ubiquitous in our phenomenal world. God remains hidden even though God is purportedly as omnipresent as life. If we are God-fearing then God is the creator. If we lean towards the atheistic, then something quite natural is the creator, that is of life. Animal life becomes from its minimal constitutional requirements: lipid bag, metabolic engine, and a plan (DNA/RNA).13

Reality

Here our life-originary options so far. Life: is a construct of God, emerges from earthly ooze, it crashes to earth from extraterrestrial space rock, or, from what have yet to discover— some other explanation. Even if we take the skeptical stance of Rene Descartes that all we can know for sure is that we are thinking things, then we are both tangible and thinking. What more proof of life’s existence do we need? We can, like Descartes, discount our reality as coming from some evil genius, give it to God, or even to the processes of the universe. Regardless of its origin, let’s assume we believe that life is.

How the other stuff of the universe becomes we turn to cosmologists whose best explanation is all somethings came from an infinitesimal singularity that inflates suddenly into a universe. Let us assume that the big bang is the case and with it comes all the forces and laws of physics. Within this theoretical construct, the idea of life is possible. Let’s stay with the assumption that life can emerge from the fundamental processes and laws that became from the big bang. It as good as any place to start.

Supervillainy

Now to the business of supervillainy. The problem with originary explanations other than God are they offer no pre-originary metaphysical reason for life to exist other than it could and it does. We need an alternative explanation of life’s origin that comports with the laws of the universe, whether God had a hand in authoring these fundamental precepts or not. The panspermia argument of life arriving from space rocks presumably from other planets or even as the result of alien seeding experiments does not bring us to an originary event.14 We still must ask where did life first originate in this universe (or, in an even more theoretical and murky multiverse)?

The emergence theory suggests that conditions became right for a lipid bag to form, perhaps in the tidal zone at the rocky shores of an ocean. A stew of lipids, proteins, minerals: all the ingredients necessary for life to form, might have been captured in a bubble of fatty stuff in water. Emergence requires no meddlesome deity and does not need anything outside of the elements and materials available to the early earth. The emergent life form is a bricoleur of the world, combining available elements and forces into a new technology that has: dimension and border (however pervious), and a metabolic engine to convert minerals, water, protein, and other substances into energy. What emerges is something more complex than the surrounding environment: life. The most primitive pre-originary life may have had only a metabolic engine in a lipid bag that did not have a plan. We won’t speculate further on how DNA/RNA became the plan other than to say, yes it has.

This sounds nothing like supervillainy. Rather it sounds rather plain and normal. Perhaps this was the state of the original life form. It could reproduce so it did. How did it reproduce; pinch off a bit of itself? Was it too efficient and was beginning to become too big for its own lipid bag? There are yet no nerves, no brain, no intelligence so to speak, just a metabolism that works. Perhaps even at this earliest stage of pre-primordial life there is no “formal” plan, only a moment where the original stuff pinches into two bags. Maybe water serves to separate the bag into two, or other processes emerge that do the same. Why did it reproduce?

Something strange happens. Not all the same material in the original bag makes it into the pinched off bag. These new bags are now different. You see where this is leading. We have entered a speculation as to why something would need to reproduce itself or pinch off a piece of itself. This pinching-off is not consistent with other fundamental processes. Things combine and chemical processes break things down in chemistry and physics, but life seems to ride above these processes, to exist in the context of being “super” to other earthly processes.

Life evolves from processes we call mutation. The gene, whenever it originated, mutates. If the mutation finds purchase and sustenance in an earthly ecological niche it survives. If it does not; it dies. Offspring from thrivers survive as do those who barely survive, and even some who ultimately cannot survive, but survive long enough to reproduce. This chain of mutation appears random to many, caused by processes we do not fully understand. Mutations may be the result of diet, injury, radiation, internal chemical processes, external chemical processes, or combinations thereof, or a lot more. This we can accept and have evidence in radiation studies, cancer studies, and other longitudinal studies of viruses and bacteria that this is the case. The fact that a new flu shot is required each year is a testament to the powers of reproductive mutation.

However, this doesn’t answer the fundamental question of the why of life’s fourth and least understood aspect: continuity? Rocks don’t reproduce. Yet rocks emerge. Stars don’t reproduce. Yet stars emerge. What produces reproduction if it is not something that is fundamental to other natural processes? Reproduction does not bring any new elements to the universe. Life reconfigures elements and processes available in the universe. It cannot reach down and create new laws to accommodate itself. It is the ancient furniture maker who uses the wood that is available, for he cannot invent a new species that might produce a better product. Yet, while the furniture maker repeatedly turns an idea in his head into the same or even slightly different table, the tables themselves have no capability of reproducing.

We can explain the chemistry and biology of DNA/RNA, look at physical processes and environments that can duplicate the same thing repeatedly, and even introduce processes and environments that can produce mutations. Let us assume that we will eventually have good scientific explanation for how life emerged and how reproduction came about. Does that explain the continuity angle? Is continuity just a derivative concept that just happens to result from all this chemistry, physics, and biology? For what purpose is continuity? Do we need God?

A Straight Shot to the Metaphysical

We can go straight to the metaphysical and suggest that it is a super-construct, beyond the physics of the universe. Even if there is no one God, perhaps life’s continuity is something akin to the atheistic karmic forces of Buddhism that enable samsāra, or the rebirth repeatedly of something that has no soul but is, as Frank Hoffman describes it, “continuity without identity of self-same substance.”15

Can we say then: whether the result of activities from a prime mover, or an unknown origin, continuity of life is metaphysical, a super-construct? If continuity is a super-construct (metaphysical) then it exceeds or is over a construct. What is the construct? Continuity itself. Continuity that exceeds itself is but more continuity. We can only define the super-construct of continuity with itself…continuity. We run straight into a circular argument.

Richard Dawkins called the gene selfish.16 It wants to preserve itself at all costs. It does so through reproduction and its association with successful mutations and processes that preserve existence for the next reproduction. This may help describe the process of and the result of continuity but it doesn’t state the cause. Why is there continuity and why is it the villain of all villains in that it has no concern for the individual other than that which produces continuity?

Good and Evil

Suppose we abandon the effort of trying to define continuity with itself. Let’s turn to the human construct of good and evil. We tend to consider good to be that which, as Aristotle suggests, helps humanity and even the world maintain or even increase its flourishing. Evil affects flourishing in other than flourishing ways. Therefore, evil is something that reduces flourishing or otherwise limits flourishing. There is a moment of equilibrium where flourishing is both encouraged and discouraged in this continuum between good and evil. It is this locus, this evil/good equilibrium that we must investigate next.

First, equilibrium is not a fulcrum point that leads to evil or good’s ascent or descent. Many recognize that it is difficult to make ethics an absolute science. Thou shalt not steal as a categorical imperative becomes frayed if your only “good” option is to lie to save the lives of others. Ethics as the equilibrium “moment” between good and evil is also not so clear cut.

Without life is there good or evil or just physics? Life’s processes are not judgmental. However, life’s aspect of continuity imposes upon physics a quality that isn’t found in the fundamental theories of physics or cosmology. For example, humans, as well as other species, have emerged from known and other controversial processes that prefer continuity over the individual. However, we tend to care about others of our own species, whether a selfish gene controls us or not. Why then does life permit us to care about the congenital eunuch?

Not all humans or animals are given the opportunity to reproduce, but most complex beings who do not reproduce can live out their normal existence without penalty. This makes little sense if continuity is such an overarching aspect of life. Therefore, continuity cannot be an absolute construct that is connected only with reproduction. It is super-reproductive (above reproductive). Life has no means for eliminating most advanced life that thrive in its niche that otherwise will not or cannot reproduce.17 Therefore, life’s continuity is not associated with the individual as an individual. Consequently, life is not any more villainous to the viable individual who thrives that cannot reproduce.

However, we can say that like Dr. Mengele of the Nazi death camp Auschwitz, life’s experiments that produce monsters or others whose very existence is threatened by its existent are villainous. We call this evil because it rubs up against our sensibilities that life is sacred. Life “needs” no sacred understanding, only continuity. It experiments; lets whole species and genres of life go extinct. It is in this way that life becomes super-villainous.

The Human Villain

The human villain does not care about the other person for other than the villain’s purposes. It kills, robs, murders, or uses “super” powers to effect its purposes. The villain’s purposes are no different from other existents and that is flourishing, though we would not call someone like Hannibal Lecter a normal flourisher. Yet, it is flourishing just the same. To be a supervillain means to be above villainy. Continuity is above villainy. It cares not for any one of its own, even its aggregate biomass of existents. Continuity is concerned only about existence.

The other aspect of supervillainy we see with someone like Dr. Lecter or the bug-filled farmer is that they are part of society, of the family of existents. They may, at times, be strange, but at other times they may appear ubiquitous and normal. In fiction, Wade Wilson (Deadpool) and Norman Osborn (Green Goblin in Spiderman) are “normal” persons who, when provoked, display supernormal capabilities that are not self-evident in their regular and non-super demeanor.18 Such is the aspect of continuity. Continuity is always already there in life as it is in both superheroes and supervillains. Continuity expresses itself as superhero when life arises from near extinction. We understand this as a good thing. Without it we would not be here. We embrace and thank continuity for our own existence. On the other hand, we see how life performs its grizzly business through mutations that produce monsters—extreme existents who suffer immeasurably. We see continuity produce mutations like the stromatolites that extinguish all rival life forms by poisoning their world.

The paradox of life’s aspect called continuity is that it is both superhero and supervillain at the same time. Consider the similar good/evil paradox called Dr. Lecter. He has murdered many to serve his ends, yet (even towards his own twisted desires) he helps Agent Starling to find another serial killer who is about to kill his next victim. We are torn with admiration for Lecter’s considerable insight into the human psyche but abhor his cannibalistic nature.

Humanity

Life produces both good and evil from the perspective of human flourishing. There are, however, two differences between us and the other forms of life that we have discovered. First, we understand Life’s continuity and its tendencies to produce both good and evil in the world.19 It is we who see life as both superhero and supervillain.

Second, we are the only species we know of that understands that life’s continuity is threatened by the eventual expansion of the sun into a red giant and its collapse subsequently into a white dwarf.20 We hear physicists like Steven Hawking suggest that if we do not find another locus for ourselves, we humans will wipe ourselves out in a thousand, no wait, he later revised that to two hundred years, by our own negligence and inattention to earth’s complex ecology.21 This is far earlier than the billions of years it will take the sun to eviscerate life on earth.

We have intelligence to understand much about the world, life, and physics. Yet we have pitifully short lives in which to do anything about life’s eventual termination on earth. Given our knowledge of the earth’s demise, we must extend our own notion of continuity beyond the next two generations of our life span. Life beckons us to agree that intergenerational efforts towards the continuity of life itself must continue. For this, if we choose to follow this lead of life into the idea of continuity, we must also begin to accept that continuity brings with it all the good and evil that is essential to life and its continuity. This idea of accepting that which is fundamental for life’s continuity as being at time unfair to our sensibilities is no less concerning than if a pardoned Hannibal Lecter moves next door or we see a grizzled, ashen-faced man in overalls step out of an exterminator’s truck and walk jerkily up our sidewalk.

Do we have any choice? Isn’t our future as a species beholden to life’s own requirement for continuity? If so, we must accept life’s continuity as both superhero and supervillain. If we can accept our critical role in preserving the continuity of life, are we not also protecting both superhero and supervillain? Therefore, through our commitment to life’s continuity, have we not also become both surrogate superhero and supervillain?

 

Endnotes

 

  1. While President Clinton announced in 1999 the finding of life-like spores in a meteorite believed to have originated in Mars, there are many who do not agree that the structures found in the rock are life.
  2. N. C. Wickramasinghe explained the panspermia theory as one where life traveled through space in space rocks or similar space debris, landed on earth and successfully reanimated. N. C. Wickramasinghe, J. Wallis, and D. H. Wallis, “Panspermia: Evidence from Astronomy to Meteorites,” Modern Physics Letters A 28, no. 14 (2013)..
  3. R.H. Vreeland etal. Have purportedly reanimated a one hundred and fifty-million-year old spoor inside of a salt crystal that existed even before the dinosaurs. Others digging in Siberia have found and have reanimated viruses and seeds from the last ice age. R.H. Vreeland, W.D. Rosenzweig, and D.W. Powers, “Isolation of a 250 Million-Year-Old Halotolerant Bacterium from a Primary Salt Crystal,” Nature 407, no. 6806 (2000)..
  4. Edward F. Trifvonof reviewed a hundred definitions of life and developed his own meta-definition, “Life is self-reproduction with variations.” Edward N Trifonov, “Vocabulary of Definitions of Life Suggests a Definition,” Journal of Biomolecular Structure and Dynamics 29, no. 2 (2011): 259.
  5. D. T. Flannery etal. explain, ‘If cyanobacteria are indeed alone in their ability to produce such structures, a minimum date for their origin may then be based on the first appearance of tufted microbial mats in the fossil record, a date now set at 2.72 Ga. There then remains the dilemma of why it took more than 200 million years for oxygen to accumulate in the atmosphere. DT Flannery and MR Walter, “Archean Tufted Microbial Mats and the Great Oxidation Event: New Insights into an Ancient Problem,” Australian Journal of Earth Sciences 59, no. 1 (2012): 10.’
  6. Richard Dawkins also makes the argument that life does not ‘care’ about individual organism or species. Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 2.
  7. For details about the great oxygenation event, see: Heinrich D Holland, “The Oxygenation of the Atmosphere and Oceans,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 361, no. 1470 (2006). J.D. Rummel and L. Billings also note, ‘Scientists have found that Earth microorganisms are tough, some able to survive in the space environment [1] as well as in extreme Earth environments such as deep-sea hydrothermal vents [2], Antarctic rocks, and regions more than three kilometers beneath the continental surface. Such extreme earth environments may have analogs on other solar system bodies—Mars, for example. J. D. Rummel and L. Billings, “Issues in Planetary Protection: Policy, Protocol and Implementation,” Space Policy 20, no. 1 (2004): 49.‘
  8. Oxford English Dictionary, “Villain, N.” (Oxford University Press), n.p.
  9. “Villain, N.”. n.p. .Emphasis in original
  10. “Supervillain, N.” (Oxford University Press), n.p.
  11. Augustine of Hippo makes the first argument that something that has been corrupted that originally had some good in it is still good even if the corruption cannot be arrested. Thomas Aquinas suggest that humanity brought evil into the world by their own actions. Both are efforts of what is known now as theodicy, the project to prove an omniscient, omnipotent, and good God.
  12. “Super-, Prefix” (Oxford University Press), n.p.
  13. Terrence Deacon provides a more scientific explanation, “containment in a lipid membrane, metabolic processes powered by ATP, and information intrinsically embodied in nucleic acids” Terrence W. Deacon, Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter (NY & London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012), 288..
  14. Christopher Ketcham, “Towards an Ethics of Life,” Space Policy (2016): 2.
  15. Frank J. Hoffman, Rationality & Mind in Early Buddhism (Delhi, India: Motilal Banasaridass, 1987), 53.
  16. Richard Dawkins found in the gene the source of the ego. It is the gene it egoism that is required for individuals want to continue to exist and to reproduce. Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, 2. Many others have found different explanations for ego (even if there is such a thing) and selfishness, but this chapter will not follow those threads.
  17. For example: lesser wolves in the wolf pack will never reproduce but they thrive and serve the pack in other ways. Other life forms die after reproduction or even if they do not reproduce at about the same time. Moths that cannot eat run out of energy and die within a prescribed window regardless of whether they find a mate or not.
  18. As do superheroes Peter Parker (Spiderman), Bruce Wayne (Batman) and Clark Kent (Superman) superhero foils to many supervillains. All these superheroes and supervillains, with perhaps the exception of Bruce Wayne have distinct transcendent if not metaphysical superpowers whether from being from another world (Superman), spider bite (Spiderman), biological experiment (the cancer riven Wade Wilson) and haunting spirit or internal demons (Norman Osborn).
  19. How do we arrive at a non-circular argument for continuity from the polemic superhero and supervillain explanation? We don’t define continuity by itself. Rather we assess it from its range of possibilities towards good and evil. The question of where is the equilibrium for continuity as an aspect of life’s existence may be subjective, but evidence of such swings includes, for example, the supervillain-like Chytrid fungus that is causing many amphibians to become extinct. We might also look at with Darwin his superhero-like Galapagos Islands as a place where diversity has opened niches without much internecine extinction—or as far as he could see. The super for both villain and hero indicate something beyond the norm of good and evil in the world which we may consider in the evil extreme of the opportunistic Chytrid fungus or even the good but also opportunistic extreme of the first movement of sea-life onto land which had hitherto been devoid of life. We do not have to assign the prefix “super” to the metaphysical, we can stay within the realm of nature and life itself to accord the extraordinary the prefix without a metaphysical “supernatural” connotation.
  20. Ketcham, “Towards an Ethics of Life,” 3.
  21. As reported by CNN in, Doug Criss, “Steven Hawkingh Says We’ve Got About 1,000 Years to Find a New Place to Live”, CNN.com, Accessed 11/20/16, http://www.cnn.com/2016/11/17/health/hawking-humanity-trnd/

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