The Ascent of Man

Are humans just the most complex of molecular machines or something qualitatively different?

John Martin

Evolution describes a linear progression from the amino acid to man of inevitable increasing complexity based primarily on the laws of physics, the necessary behaviour of electrons and atomic nuclear particles contacting each other under varying conditions of temperature and pressure. Chance does not come into it. The physical world is determined by a few constants present when the singularity of infinite density and no volume happened (the value of π, Planck’s constant, the speed of light, etc). Since the creation of the proton it all flowed. The inevitable progression, which is quantitative, would be predictable if all the variables involved were known. Is a human being only a quantitative extension alone from amino acids? Or is a human being in his totality a qualitative change from that line? 

By qualitative is meant that change which cannot be achieved by quantitative extrapolation alone. This question, if solved, will be the next great idea, an idea bigger than evolution. Is man a progression without quantity, a qualitation? Since the question is qualitative and not quantitative, the answer will be qualitative. Rejection of the hypothesis will be based upon intellectual balance and insight. The answer will not be capable of judgment by statistics as the quantitative answer is. But it will be more important since it will affect human behaviour in a way that the idea of evolution does not. Deciding whether man is the most complex of all molecular machines or whether he is qualitatively different from all other quantitative products of evolution will determine future laws, politics, ethics and social behaviour and cultural policy. If we are machines, then what is guilt?

If man were a qualitative jump off the quantitative progression of evolution, then what was the first quality? Perhaps it was freedom, and the conscious recognition of this freedom. For we are free, we consciously behave as if we were free. If we are not, all is meaningless. Chimpanzees share our genes, but there is no evidence that they are free. If freedom were the first qualitation, then what caused freedom? Was there a principle, a thing that is the cause of freedom? Is this principle the qualitation? Did it arise as a consequence of increasing biological complexity? A Cambridge man told me: “If you can’t do an experiment on it, it doesn’t exist.” This is a very limited view of reality that denies the abstract. Since his wife was present, I did not ask him if he experimented on his love for her. Or perhaps he thought love was only a series of molecular responses related to preserving the gene, in which case his existence is diminished.

Abstract thought is that which distinguishes human beings from chimpanzees. It is the ability to take two ideas like nation and respect and produce a third which is not one of the previous two and itself is abstract, like patriotism. Then man is free to act or not on patriotism. It is the basis of all human culture. It is the richness of existence. To act as though man could have abstract thought is the only way to act that extrapolates man to the infinite, expanding him to a new world of limitless fulfilment. It reorients him from an immeasurably small group of particles and charges in an inconsolably large space to an abstract principle that is qualitatively different from the rest of the universe.

If man is capable of having abstract thought and abstract by its nature is not electrochemical, then man must have an abstractor. This is the qualitation that arose outside the line of Darwinian quantitative progression. How could it have arisen? The answer to this question assumes the validity of a metaphysical analysis, an analysis that examines the nature of existence: that which makes it what it is.

Duns Scotus, a medieval Cambridge man, might have asked that if two things have a relationship, does the relationship exist independently of the two things? If exist is what it says it is, then the relationship must exist, otherwise there is no relationship. Can the relationship have effects outside the distance between the two things? If we look at music then the answer must be yes, if the relationship is combined with complexity. One note alone is not music. When it is put in relation with another, something is made that is different from the two alone. When a million notes are put into relationship with each other and the totality then perhaps a symphony is created. The symphony is qualitatively different from the collection of all the single notes involved. It has an existence independently of the notes. It has the ability to cause change in the listener that would not have happened by the collection of notes without the specific symphonic relationship. Is it possible that a similar process caused the existence of the human abstractor? Could the increasing complexity of the relationships within the individual between the elements of the quantitative linear progression of evolution have caused a symphonic change that had a causal effect independent of the individual molecular, cellular, tissue and organ elements that are the product of the quantitative progression? Would such a symphonic change be the abstractor? Metaphysically, it would have its own existence, but would require the biological elements of man to cause its totality, just as the symphony requires the notes but is not the notes. 

Why in this hypothesis is man unique? Surely increasing complexity of relationship would have given a tendency towards an abstractor as evolution progressed? The existence of the abstractor implies a threshold effect, a leap, which is the qualitative change, just as the sudden immensity of the symphony arises from its notes, stanzas, bars and movements. And this immensity causes change at a time and place distant from its performance. It exists in itself. Thus, perhaps the soul is a product of Darwinian evolution.

The existence of the abstractor can be argued from observing its effects even though the metaphysical mechanism of qualitative change is not clear. Just as the ultimate causes of gravity or magnetism are not clear even though they can be described. (What comes out of the fridge to hold the magnet on the fridge door?)

Shakespeare understood that man’s inner conflict with his flaws can be given cosmic significance because of his consciousness of his self-inflicted suffering and freedom to choose his destiny. There is no evidence that the chimpanzee is capable of this. The tradition of abstraction is exemplified by Wagner. So perhaps the evolution from Bach to Wagner is a qualitatively superior sort of evolution.

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