From I Be to I Am, Part 2

Sat 05/07/16 at 7:29 pm

Below is another excerpt from my suspended novel, The First Voice, which excerpt recounts how humans acquired sapience:

Elfredge emerged from the 59th Street/Columbus Circle station into a glorious day in the neighborhood. An early morning rain shower had scrubbed the air, and a gentle breeze had sent the last of the rain clouds out over the Atlantic. Her eyes moved up the 70-foot granite column embedded with the bronze replicas of the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria, then settled briefly on the statue of Columbus staring into the Park. The first traffic circle in the United States and the point at which all distances to and from New York are measured. Elfredge spotted Johanna and Michael motioning to her from the Merchant’s Gate. She walked up to them, and Johanna handed her a Good Humor Bar.

“You are my hero!” exclaimed Elfredge as she removed the paper wrapping and bit through the hard chocolate shell to the creamy vanilla ice cream inside.

“Did Robin ride up with you?” asked Michael.

“Yes. She regaled me with tales of how she’s allegedly spent her years among the humans. You all definitely get credit for imagination. She also mentioned something about ‘the Cause,’ but wouldn’t elaborate. I told her, and I want you two to know, that if I don’t get some answers soon, I’m going to call it quits.”

“I promise, by the time we’re done with lunch you’ll have a fairly good idea of what’s going on,” said Michael.

“Good. I’d hate to have to take my ball and go home.”

As they walked into the Park, Johanna asked, “So, Elfredge, you knew something about string theory, what, if anything, do you know about the Gaia hypothesis?”

“Gaia? As in Mother Earth?”

“The very one,” said Johanna. “Though I’m speaking of the hypothesis named for her that was first formulated by Dr. James Lovelock.”

“I confess I’ve never heard of it,” answered Elfredge. “Technically, I’m still here in my capacity as audience surrogate, however, so have at it.”

Author’s Aside:  According to Wikipedia:

In the study of literature, an audience surrogate is a character who expresses the questions and confusion of the reader. It is a device frequently used in detective fiction and science fiction. In detective fiction, the audience surrogate is usually a minor character that asks a central character how he or she accomplished certain deeds, for the purpose of inciting that character to explain (for the curious audience) his or her methods. In science fiction, the audience surrogate frequently takes the form of a child or other uninformed person, asking a relatively educated person to explain what amounts to the backstory. In superhero comics, the audience surrogate is often the sidekick of the hero. The earliest example of this is Batman’s sidekick, Robin, who was created specifically for this purpose. A revealing line in mystery or science fiction stories is that after the author explains the backstory, the audience surrogate will frequently utter lines to the effect of: “Well, when you put it that way, even I can understand!”  One possible meaning behind John’s uses of an unnamed “beloved disciple” in the New Testament is to serve as an audience surrogate.

This description is also helpful in determining what genre The First Voice falls into. Elfredge is neither a minor character nor a superhero. She is, however, uninformed. According to the above, then, this novel should be most appropriately considered a work of science fiction.

“All right,” said Johanna. “I will. Lovelock postulates Gaia is a sentient biota and that life on earth acts in concert to self-regulate conditions on the planet enabling life to continue to exist. For instance, the energy provided by the sun has increased by as much as 25 or even 30 percent over the eons, but the planet’s overall temperature has remained relatively constant. So, too, have atmospheric conditions and oceanic salinity despite widely varying conditions from time to time. Chance alone simply fails to account for the earth’s ability to maintain this state of equilibrium.”

Elfredge interrupted.

“Actually, I was being facetious about the audience surrogate remark. Some other time I’d probably find what you’ve just told me fascinating, but right now the only thing I’m interested in hearing from you is who you are, why I’m being followed, and why you think I need a security detail. So, unless what you’re going to say next has something to do with the any one of those topics, I’d just as soon skip it.”

“I’m sorry, Elfredge. You need to know just a few more details before we get to your questions. Please. You get lunch at the Boathouse.”

“Weeelll, okay. But only because it’s the Boathouse and it’s such a fine day for lunch on the deck.”

“In return, I’ll try to be brief,” said Johanna. “We need to fast forward a billion or so years after the solar system first emerged to the time when certain protobionts developed into the first living cells called prokaryotes. Indeed, scientists have since proven, by applying the laws of physics and chemistry, prokaryotes could have spontaneously formed in this manner. Two billion or so years later, these prokaryotes evolved into more sophisticated cellular structures called eukaryotes. Eukaryotes went on to form an intracellular symbiosis with certain organelles such as mitochondria.”

“As in mitochondrial DNA?” asked Elfredge, finally snagging a term with which she had some familiarity.

“Precisely,” answered Johanna. “A cell’s mitochondrion contains DNA different and distinct from the DNA located in its nucleus. What scientists have yet to understand is that mitochondrial DNA evokes sentience.”

Michael, seeing the puzzled look on Elfredge’s face, broke in, “Let’s go back to metaphor. I imagine you are a Star Wars fan.”

Elfredge swung an imaginary light saber. “Use the Force, Luke,” she said, trying her best to imitate Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Michael laughed. “Do you remember in Episode I of Star Wars when Shmi, Anakin Skywalker’s mother, tells Qui-Gon Jinn that Anakin has no father, rather she simply became pregnant with him?”

“Sure, and that prompts Qui-Gon Jinn to test the level of midi-chlorians in Anakin’s blood.”

“And then Qui-Gon explains that midi-chlorians are microscopic life-forms that live in the cells of all living organisms and communicate directly with the Force.”

It took a moment for Elfredge to realize Michael had finished speaking. “And so?” asked Elfredge.

“So,” said Johanna, slowly, “think of the Force as the ‘to be’ singularity.”

A look of realization replaced that of puzzlement on Elfredge’s face.
“I need to sit down for a minute,” she said. “You two are starting to make sense.”

Elfredge walked over and took a seat on a vacant park bench. Michael and Johanna sat down next to her.

“Let me get this straight,” said Elfredge. “You’re telling me living organisms serve as hosts for matter particulates called mitochondria and mitochondria communicate with a real force, with dark energy?”

“Yes,” answered Johanna. “These organisms are more than alive. They are sentient, a word derived from the Latin verb sentire which means ‘to feel’.”

“And Gaia?”

“Gaia is a complex interacting system formed by the living and nonliving parts of the earth. Gaia’s sentience is particularly attuned to temperature and atmospheric conditions she senses may cause harm to life on earth and, by extension, threaten her continued survival. Upon perceiving any such conditions, Gaia has taken, and will continue to take, steps to rectify the condition.”

“In other words, we’d better stop trashing the earth.”

“It’s no secret that so far, humans have done far more harm than good. Gaia maintains a sense of equilibrium; specifically, she maintains what are recognized as set points of homoeostasis.  These points, however, can change with time, and, overall, there appears to be no special tendency on her part to preserve conditions conducive to the earth’s current inhabitants, or, for that matter, to keep them comfortable.”

“Does Gaia know she’s Gaia?”

“That’s a tricky question. Gaia perceives that she is, but she is unaware that she is what you understand her to be, that is, a self-contained entity also known as Earth, any more than most of the organisms that comprise Gaia are aware of their separateness from each other or, for that matter, the universe as a whole.”

“Sounds rather Zen.”

“If you are using the term ‘Zen’ as shorthand for the condition of being one with the universe, that’s a fairly accurate observation. Some philosophers argue sentience can never be understood, and in a sense, they’re right. To understand sentience requires enlightenment, and enlightened beings have no need to understand they understand; they simply understand.”

“And human beings?”

“Humans are both sentient and sapient, a term derived from the Latin verb sapere which means ‘to be wise.’ Sapience connotes knowledge, self-awareness, apperception. As I imagine you learned in high school biology, the first sentient human species appeared about two and a half million years ago. Since then several species have come and gone including homo erectus and homo neanderthalensis. Until a few years ago, scientists thought homo sapiens had been around for about 130,000 years. In 1997, an anthropologist named Tim White discovered the fossilized remains of an extinct subspecies of homo sapiens he classified as homo sapiens idaltu which loosely translates as ‘elderly wise men.’ These remains date from approximately 160,000 years ago. So now, to distinguish present day humans from this subspecies, scientific accuracy requires that you be known as homo sapiens sapiens, though I hope you don’t mind if I shorten it to homo sapiens for our discussion today.”

“Not at all,” laughed Elfredge.

“Approximately 100,000 years ago, homo sapiens emerged from the African incubator as a species of conscious, self-aware individuals. Scientists have yet to offer a satisfactory explanation for this rather sudden acquisition of sapience, or knowledge.”

“Something tells me you’re about to explain it,” said Elfredge.

“Right, again,” answered Johanna. “But before I do, I am unable to resist one more metaphor.”

“Okay, let’s have it.”

“Well,” said Johanna, “the simple answer to how humans acquired sapience is what your ancestral mother Eve would tell you, according to Milton in Paradise Lost, ‘the serpent beguiled me and I ate’.”

next post: From I Be to I Am, Part 3: Eve (and Adam)
previous post: From I be to I am

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