What is primal?
What is primal?
It has seemed impossible to live without assuming that there is an objective world, and I have led a contented life supposing that there is. Scientists assume there is an objective world and try to explain it and how we interact with that world, both physically and mentally. What does science say are the primal facts of the objective world? Later, I will ask what we think are some primal facts about people. If the reader can be patient, I hope he or she will find a connection with this challenging exhibition. There is a lot of evidence that our universe ‘appeared’ in an event called ‘The Big Bang’ about 13.8 billion years ago, and, from that moment, space, time, matter and energy existed as they do today. We have no idea what existed before that. The Big Bang is what I will call Primal One. It was followed by many other different events – the formation of nuclear particles, atoms, suns, galaxies, planets, moons, etc., which took place over the next 10 billion years and continues. The oldest rocks on the Earth are about 4.54 billion years old. This gives us a date for the formation of the Solar System and is the highest estimate of the time when the Earth solidified from bits and pieces of gas and dust – Primal Two. This hot, stony, gassy and thoroughly nasty Earth had no living creatures. Somehow, living organisms appeared on Earth, and our best hypothesis is that the next step or process is pre-biotic evolution. Complex chemical soups formed on the planet, produced by the effects of heat, electricity and radiation on small molecules such as methane, ammonia, hydrogen sulphide, water and various minerals. The components stewed for millions of years, forming more complex molecules. By chance, some very complex molecules appeared in a soup with two properties: they could replicate and could catalyse their own replication. We imagine a quite large complex molecule of shape A forming by chance, and by chance causing other molecules of shape and size A to appear. We imagine that one kind of molecule was more efficient than the others and came to dominate the soup. This is Darwinian natural selection of molecules in the soup: Primal Three. And Darwin wrote about it: But if (and oh what a big if) we could conceive in some warm little pond with all sorts of ammonia and phosphoric salts, light, heat, electricity etcetera present, that a protein compound was chemically formed, ready to undergo still more complex changes. Charles Darwin, in a letter to Joseph Hooker (1871)
Such molecules exist today inside organisms. Every organism on earth contains large complex replicating molecules, called DNA (or RNA), and it seems unavoidable that we conclude that DNA or something very like it won the battle of pre-biotic evolution and emerged from the soup. Artificial molecular systems have been created in laboratories and have some of the properties of such a system. These molecules have shapes and sizes which give them information. The next step was the appearance of the first living organisms: Primal Four. We can think of the first such organisms as leaky bags with fatty skins (cells), which contained DNA, as well as proteins, water, salts and many other molecules. The DNA is the genetic information that specifies the shape and size of the organism, how it interacts with its environment and how it grows 34
What is primal?
and replicates, dividing into two daughter cells. The job of the bag and all its contents is to absorb energy and nutrients from the environment, to replicate the DNA in the bag and the bag itself. All organisms on our planet are based on this unit cell. Some organisms are collections of many cells – a human has about 10,000,000,000,000 cells. There is evidence from chemical analysis of very old rocks that organisms existed, quite similar to modern bacteria, on the earth about 3.5 billion years ago. So it took about 1 billion years for life to appear on earth. At this time, life took off, just as Darwin proposed, by a process of evolution, variation and natural selection, giving rise to the vast number of different species of organism which inhabit the Earth today. The evidence for this biological evolution is overwhelming. Our closest relatives are the chimpanzee, with which (whom?) we share a common ancestor which (who?) lived on earth about 7 million years ago. We are chimps who talk: Primal Five is the emergence of the truly extraordinary capacity for complex language in Homo. All human beings are descended from a smallish group of recognisably modern humans who lived in Africa about 250,000 years ago. Many kinds of hominids appeared, and all went extinct except ourselves. Genes change slowly, so today we are genetically very similar to our African ancestors. Now let us ask what are the Primal Facts about modern Homo? Our brain is the most complex ‘thing’ on the planet. It is an electrochemical machine, a kind of computer, capable of selfconscious thought, language, memory, art, music, mathematics, love and hate and all other emotions. We say we have a mind, which, for me, is the brain in action, but we have little idea how to explain the connection between brain and mind in scientific terms, between the subconscious and the conscious. Animals from insects to mammals to Homo have brains, but which of them have minds, which of them is capable of self-conscious, reflective thought, which of them, if any, has free will? Does your dog think? If so, how does she do that if she has no language? How do our thoughts form before we are aware of them in the form of words? How do babies think before they ‘have’ acquired words? Now let us ask how we come to interact mentally with the world around us? It seems very likely that our brain has some innate qualities which are defined first by our genetic information which specifies how the brain grows, the number of nerve cells in the brain and the organisation of the myriad of connections (wires) between the nerve cells. The brain is a network of 200,000,000,000 cells (200 billion) with about 125,000,000,000,000 (125 trillion) connections. The arrangement of the cells and the connections is not specified exactly by the genes. The brain that is ‘born’ in a child is pre-programmed for a lot of automatic functions, instincts such as suckling or grasping. It is clear that from birth (perhaps beforehand) the brain is learning, and continues to learn – that is, to be programmed through learning – until death. Learning is much more important than genes for those qualities that distinguish the human brain from the brains of other animals. What is clear is that our genes determine a sort of minimal brain, and experience, memory, reflection and learning do the rest.
The artist creates. How does this happen? Well, we have no idea how to describe this in scientific terms, no more than we can say why any of us has any particular thought. We know that a thought must be some set of electrochemical interactions in our brain, but we do not have the slightest clue how to observe the formation of a single ‘thought’ at the molecular or atomic level. This is Primal Six – the great unknown, the still-mysterious connection between the machine in man/woman and his/her capacity for thought. I am sure that each of the artists at this exhibition had some genetic impulse or talent to be an artist, but I am also sure that he or she was impelled to be an artist much more powerfully by the experiences in life – nurture has much more to do with great art than nature. And since artists (and their families, friends and teachers) can tell us a lot about their nurture, for those of us who look at art, it is so enhancing to know about their lives. Now what about the visitor to the exhibition? Before you came to IMMA, your mind was pre-programmed, and there was a moment when you looked at an exhibit. You paused, information poured into you, interacting with all those memories and ideas of art that have accumulated in your brain, and the signals carried by your nerves bounced around your brain. You had some conscious reaction (is it beauty, revulsion or puzzlement?) or some words with your companions. This is another example of Primal Six: the connection between a stimulus to the brain – the electrochemical machine – and the conscious thoughts that are provoked. Of all the Primal events in the evolution of Home sapiens, none is more puzzling than the emergence of our capacity for thoughts which we can exchange by language, music or art. These biological abilities evolved by a Darwinian process, and when they had appeared at some stage in the last 7 million years, cultural evolution replaced biological (genetic) evolution as by far the most significant cause of change in human society. Consider the changes in human society from being hunter-gatherers to information analysts – massive cultural evolution but almost none of it genetic. Genetics prepares the tabula rasa of our newborn mind, but it is a slow learner and a poor teacher.
Published on Jan 21, 2015
Published on Jan 21, 2015
Primal Architecture, taken from a work of the same name by Mike Kelley, is accompanied by a fully illustrated publication that ranges across...