So. The Universe Does Revolve Around Us, According to Some
Skeptic John Horgan identifies new theories of matter and the universe that reveal human narcissism.
As a child, you may have laughed at people of previous centuries who believed the Sun revolved around the Earth. The egocentrism that put us at the center of the solar system was downright comical: Silly dead people. And yet now, self-described “grouchy, hyper-skeptical science journalist” John Horgan, writing for Scientific American, suggests we may be slipping back into our old thought habits. This time it’s not us, exactly, but consciousness that’s assumed supreme importance in a number of popular theories. He calls the trend “neo-geocentrism.” And he wonders if we’re regressing into what he mocks as "Homo narcissus."
Horgan is a bunk-hunter by vocation — he refers to falling for hoo-hah as being “bunkrapt,” which my spell-checker just turned into “bankrupt”; coincidence? A staunch materialist who recently gave a cold-shower of a speech at the Sages & Scientists symposium organized by Deepak Chopra, Horgan’s main concern seems to be a turn away from materialism by major scientists longing to explain consciousness. “These are signs of scientific desperation, not progress. Explaining how consciousness emerges from matter is science’s hardest problem. It might be unsolvable,” he says in his speech.
This is Horan’s list of theories that put us foolishly — in his view — back at the center of the universe.
Quantum Theories of Consciousness
Probably the most common form of bunkraptcy (pity my spell-checker) for Big Think readers is the idea of superposition in quantum theory, which says photons can exist simultaneously in two states until observed. Without us there to observe them, they remain in this paradoxical condition. Schrodinger thought this was silly, hence his cat that obviously isn’t really alive and also dead until we look.
Orchestrated Objective Reduction
Orch-OR reverses the cause-and-effect relationship of standard superposition theory: The collapse of superpositioned states creates our consciousness of a particle or wave. Proponents of the theory see a resulting “connection between the brain's biomolecular processes and the basic structure of the universe.” So consciousness is everywhere?
Information Theories of Consciousness
Information theories suggest we live in a “participatory universe” where "Not until you start asking a question, do you get something,” according to proponent John Wheeler. So, says Horgan, “If all the humans in the world vanished tomorrow, all the information would vanish, too.” Does that mean nothing was here before we were?
Integrated Information Theory
In IIT, any system with interacting parts — Horgan suggests a proton consisting of three quarks — is processing information, and is therefore conscious. This places consciousness inside all matter that’s got more than two components, regardless of how tiny.
Reality Is a Simulation
We’ve written about this plenty. Horgan notes that this popular notion explains all of our big questions away, though really it just bunts them up to another level: So are our hidden overlords also living in a simulation? He refers to the Matrix-esque theory as “creationism for nerds.”
This idea, which gets pretty close to the Sun orbiting us, is a favorite idea of no less than Stephen Hawking (according to Horgan). It says that the universe is the way it is because that’s what it had to be for us to be here observing it. If it were some other way, no us. So.
Extra Horgan points go to the centuries-old school of thought, popular among western intellectuals, that sees everything in the universe as being there just for our ongoing spiritual growth.
This is a whole hell of a lot of theory to throw out all at once, but it does confirm one of Horgan’s basic observations: That explaining consciousness is driving science nuts. We can see physical processes that accompany the thing, but not the thing itself. It’s enough to drive a materialist mad, or at least very cranky.
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Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.
- The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
- Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
- These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.
Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.
A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.
Rethinking humanity's origin story
The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.
David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.
The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.
Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"
He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.
It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.
"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."
Migrating out of Africa
In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.
Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.
The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.
The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.
Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.
Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.
Did we head east or south of Eden?
Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.
Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.
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