A simple ribonucleic acid string replicates itself. Genes compete in a ruthless environment for selection. Simple, at first, and then more complex machines are constructed unconsciously by genes to further their survival. These survival machines reproduce and compete. Competition for sustenance and procreation forces genes to engineer better machines. These machines, very slowly over eons, increase in complexity. Some machine parts are phased out, some machine parts are phased in or upgraded, becoming interdependent on other parts. Some of these natural machines become very good at detecting and interacting with the world around them, and they process and store these experiences in a vast network of complex interrelated fibres and cells. In one variety of machine, the machine’s structure allows this plexus to increase in complexity and sophistication. The processing and analytic power of this machine’s encephalon steadily increases over time. Slowly, and at some temporally indiscernible juncture, something prodigious happened. Something that might have never happened before in the history of the universe, and something that is not guaranteed to happen again: this machine become aware of its own existence.
Each step of the way, the progress of life balances on the previous rung of the ladder just long enough to take another step. Life teeters on the edge of a branch, stretching precariously without slipping to just reach for the next one.
Everything that went before, (and a high price in lives was paid indeed), did not so much pave the way for progress, but provided a stepping block for the next generation. We move upwards, sometimes slipping, but if the blocks are high enough then even our fall only takes us down a few steps and not crashing to the very bottom.
From such ignoble beginnings has the human race came, and through what contumelious and opprobrious corridors have we had to, and are having to, walk!
But as we look behind us, back down the amaranthine staircase of the ages, we can still see people looking up at us. Look, squint, and see near the bottom: it is Lucy. A long way up I can see Plato, and then Aristotle. Further and further up we see, every now and then, a famous face. Look, there is Copernicus proving, (not for the first time) that the earth is not flat. Descartes is not long after, thinking himself into existence. Hobbes, Pascal, and the great Spinoza follow almost immediately, and next, holding his apple is Sir Isaac Newton who we see gives a huge leg-up to those that follow. Up and up we go, and it would be brusque not to give Berkeley, Hume and Kant a mention, although neither might be absolutely certain about your existence. (Yet, despite their scepticism, the staircase exists!)
And long overdue, Mary Wollstonecraft reminds us that woman have just as much a place on this illimitable staircase as men. Many great men and women follow, but one stands out. The next one we see in this temporal flight lays a cumbrous step before himself that all others will, and must, stand on, for this single step is so large and scopic it gives any who pass by on it the chance to peer over the edge, all the way down to the very first step and see the staircase forming. This ingenious individual is Charles Darwin. The faces and names come thick and first after the masterful Darwin, who elucidated to us the nature of the staircase itself!
The next step is one that was laid after its progenitor’s passing; how important Gregor Mendel’s work turned out to be. He is rightly called the father of modern genetics. How many great accomplishments and breakthroughs couldn’t have been made since, without this sturdy stone being laid?
Albert Einstein follows shortly after, changing the world with 5 characters, and rewriting the understanding of physics and spacetime brilliantly articulated by Newton only a few centuries earlier. Alan Turing, who arguable did more to win the Second World War than any other single individual, stands tall and proud with the modern computer revolution his everlasting legacy. Would that he had been born just a little later, and not have to suffer for the “crime” of being homosexual, a suffering that he decided to end himself with a cyanide-laced apple. A victorious Nazi-free Europe and an internet-dependant society bids you post-humus thanks, Alan.
Smashing the vacuous bricks that Hume and Kant laid, is Ayn Rand. Demonstrating the primacy of existence and an objective rational worldview, Rand set stones that many have bypassed. Perhaps she came before her time, or, as I suspect, she didn’t come early enough! At least she came at all however, and would that more stabilised their feet on her sturdy Objectivism.
As we look ever closer to our own time, the people on the following steps are but a handshakes’ distance away. But what exciting times we live in when the staircase grows and winds so fast. Steven Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins are within talking range, but alas the former can hear us no longer. What the latter has to say about the wondrous step Darwin laid fascinates and awes us, and he will not shy away from exposing those who would jeopardise these beautiful advancements of society.
Next we have Stephen Hawking, who will give us a history of time, very briefly of course. A modern-day Einstein, a true genius, a transcendent thinker.
I see Christopher Hitchens standing very near me, and what a writer, debater, and thinker he is! I look around and see like-minded free thinkers and we exchange a knowing smile with Hitchens, glancing back down the Staircase of Ages at those who made it all possible.
And here we are. The times when repression and superstition totally ruled the world are over. Paying homage to Turing I can use my computer to learn what Aristotle, Socrates, and Plato wrote. I can understand exactly why there is life, and how it works, thanks to Darwin, Wallace, Mendel, Gould, and Dawkins. I am free to seek out and associate with fellow open minds. We can enquire and reason for ourselves, but we can do it in light of all who have gone before. If all those listed above, and more, could come forward to the time of me and you, could fly suddenly or leap abruptly to our step, what incredibly envy they would have for us! It is not just the knowledge that mankind possesses today, it is the limitless access to knowledge that would have the Greats of yore salivating with covetousness.
My passions are numerous and include science, philosophy and sport. But each of these alone can be subdivided into vast and deep categories, each one impossible to master in a lifetime. Not so long ago I stumbled across articles on String Theory and Quantum Mechanics and I realised: I don’t know anything! If you’re anything like me, and indeed Socrates, all we know is the extent of our own ignorance. But perhaps we should take heart from the words of Hitchens that “This to me is still the definition of an educated person.”
But what interests me might not interest you. It doesn’t matter. The universe is too grand, nature too vicarious, and life too brief to even get to work on the iceberg. But even if people like us cannot directly get involved, we can watch and learn from those hammering away at the tip, whatever that particular knowledgeberg might be.
This is why we are lucky to be alive at the time we are. Never underestimate the potential you have to accomplish your goals in this day and age. Never take for granted the freedom of education and inquiry you have; many greater minds dithered in ignorance and withered in torture for what should be and is now, an inalienable human right. Never take for granted freedom of speech or your ability to be politically active.
We can learn about distant galaxies and the birth and death of our own universe. We can experiment with and understand the fundamental particles of the universe. We can be one of the incredibly rare people in the history of the world to say “I know where life came from”. We can virtually sit at the feet of all the experts throughout humanity and understand how and why. And we can be humbly confident that if we don’t have the answer, there is every reason to think we might one day. But even if we can’t, as Gotthold Lessing said, the search for truth is often more important than truth itself; humanity will “always and forever err in the process”.
All of human knowledge is in our past and present. We are here on the most recent and highest stair in time. How much farther indeed we can see, when standing on the shoulders of giants!