What better way to drive traffic to your blog than title the entry “Math Class.” As most of you probably recall, math was your favorite class?! All kidding aside, I actually found math fun but that’s probably because I learned a lot of it outside of regular classes which can admittedly be pretty boring. Rest assured, the “math” in this entry does not require integral calculus, differential equations, trigonometry, or even algebra. In fact, if you prefer, you can call the post “Christianity” or “Buddhism” because you would reach the same conclusions but from a very different pathway.
Part of the inspiration for this post came from visiting the Smithsonian Institute about 20 years ago. They displayed a large graph with the population of the earth plotted against the year. I looked at my birth year and could easily see that more than half the total earth’s population came after my birth year. And, that was 20 years ago.
Another inspiration comes from having led the artificial intelligence lab at NYNEX. I worked for an ex-Bell Labs engineer, Ed Thomas. People were always asking me whether we were “related.” I found this question extremely amusing. Why? Because we are all related! In fact, we share about 40% of our genes with crayfish and 90% with horses. We’re closely related to chimps and bonobos though we did not “descend” directly from apes. Yet, in our society, we chose to “draw the line” between being “related” and “not related” way over at one end of the scale. Ed Thomas and I only share about 99.9% of our genes so we are called “unrelated” while my brother and I share 99.95% and so we are (closely) related. Most people would say they are “unrelated” to a horse even though you share 90% of your genes. Weird.
A few days ago, I read that new fossils indicate life on earth is at least 4.75 billion years old. When I was a kid, starting around age 7, I became (like many others) fascinated by dinosaurs. At that point, the best guesses were that life was somewhere between 500 million years and 1 billion years. In the course of my lifetime, that estimate has increased a lot.
Who cares and why does all this matter? Apart from curiosity, it matters because it allows us to put in perspective our own individual lives in the context of life on planet earth.
Most people, most of the time, love their children and generally put the welfare of their kids even above their own. This is how life progresses. So far as we know, individuals never live forever, at least in this physical world. However, life as a whole continues to live and our direct descendants and relatives continue to live after our death. So, how much of your genetic material is actually in you versus all your cousins?
To simplify, let’s start with just other human beings. There are currently 7 billion people on the planet. You are one of them. You share 99.9% of your genes with those folks.
So, let’s see. There’s you. And there are 7 billion relatives. Some are slightly more related than 99.9% identical genes, but let’s just say 99.9%. That means the total genome of your genes is in one person (you) who has 100% of your genes and 7 billion others who “only” have 99.9% of your genes. 99.9% of 7 billion is 6,993,000,000 while 100% of 1 is 1.000. In other words, the total amount of “your” genes that is in other people is 6,993,000,000 as much lies within the physical boundaries of your own skin. Not an equal amount. Not 10x as much. Not 100x as much. Not even a million times as much. No. Nearly seven billion times as much.
From the standpoint of genes, this vastly understates the case because there are 7-10 million species on earth besides humans. All of these share some of your genes and many of them share a lot of your genes. Of course, we humans are relatively big and while there are some plants and animals much bigger than we are, there is more mass of life in bacteria than blue whales or redwoods. In principle, one can calculate a better number by taking into account, for each of 7-10 million species how many cells are in each; how populous they are, and what percentage of genes are in common between humans (and therefore you) and each of these species. It’s straightforward but tedious. I gave up after 100,000 species. No, I didn’t. I never started because I knew I would give up way before I got to 100,000. In many cases, we don’t even have a very good estimate of the populations. Given all the trees, grasses, bacteria, insects, fish, plankton, etc. I would guesstimate that adding all the genes in all the other plants and animals would mean the genes in your body represent at most about one in a trillion of all the copies of those genes on earth. So, from the standpoint of ensuring the propagation of your genes, caring about your own physical life represents about 1/1000000000000 of the total.
I grant you that genes are not all that matters in human life. And, I want to explore some of the other aspects of the interconnectedness of life apart from a common genetic heritage. However, first, it is really worth taking a moment to let that fraction sink in.
It isn’t as though the “you” inside your skin weighs, say, 150 pounds while the “you” that is outside your skin is, say, the size of a blue whale. No. In fact, even 1000 blue whales compared with your physical body is not so lop-sided a comparison. Imagine thirty galactic clusters of stars. Each of those thirty clusters has 100 stars. Each of those stars has 10 planets to support life. Each of those planets has 100 oceans and each of those oceans has 1000 blue whales. Versus you.
Another way to think about is that when you physically die, it is a little like “trimming” or “pruning” the “Tree of Life.” But your dying would not be like cutting off a branch. Or a twig. Or a leaf. It would be like shaving an invisible razor thin strip off one needle of one twig of one branch of a huge Redwood.
It is understood that life is partly (and by no means wholly) about competition. Each and every one of those bits of “you” that is in other life-forms is not necessarily your best bud. You may share a lot of DNA with a great white shark but you might not wish him well. Or, you might not much like your cousins the mosquitoes and deer flies and pneumonia germs. The problem is that we are not collectively anywhere near to being smart enough to understand the effects of deleting certain species and not others. Perhaps, some day in a hundred years or so, we might understand enough to intelligently redesign an ecosystem. Don’t hold your breath though. Despite the fact that some of those individual species and some individuals within a species are annoying, we really have no idea how to extract some one thing. It is not a set of legos. Every species is connected with a variety of chemical and mechanical connections to hundreds of others. It is more like trying to extract your iPhone adapter from your backpack which also contains headphones, power cords, adapters for five other devices and, for good measure, a couple stray shoelaces.
You could also point out, quite rightly, that not all genes are as “fundamental” to making you you as are other genes. There are genes, perhaps, that make your eyes blue or brown. Does that seem fundamental to you? Or, perhaps there’s a gene that makes your thumb fingerprints whorls or loops. Does that seem fundamental to who you are and to your life? On the other hand, there are genes that make you want to live and find love and raise a family and contribute and play and learn. To me, those are the genes that are fundamental and guess what? Those are the very genes that you share with millions of other species. Naturally, we humans like to think of ourselves as fundamentally different from other species on the planet and in some ways we are. As discussed below, being able to communicate so many messages with other people across time and space and even after death indeed makes people “different” but when it comes the things you are likely to care the most about: staying alive, avoiding pain, keeping your family healthy, fighting off disease — those are pretty common across animals and even plants and bacteria, at least in rudimentary form. Just because an ant doesn’t do calculus doesn’t mean it doesn’t work to stay alive and help it’s colony do the same. See video links below and you will hopefully see how similar other animals at least are to us.
And, speaking of math classes, let us turn to some of the other aspects of how our own individual life fits with the larger web of life. Let us think about learning. Pretty much all life is able learn. Humans, however, are able to communicate through speech, writing, and pictures. This means that we can learn across continents and generation. Eventually, communications affect behavior. Everyone ends up getting exposed to unique information and delivered under different circumstances so that people also end up acting very differently and even perceiving things differently. So, when it comes to human beings, many of the differences we think important are in terms of the ideas and attitudes various people have as well as their actual behavioral differences. To put it simplistically, we largely feel akin to others on the basis of how we think and feel. Many of the labels that we put on people — in fact, the vast majority of them — focus on differences among people. For example, we have: extrovert, introvert, flirt, workaholic, physicist, physician, psychologist, psychic, pscyho, Republican, Democrat, liberal, heterosexual, homosexual, creative, drudge. But what percentage is different and what percentage is the same and how fundamental are the behaviors and ideas?
How much of the total knowledge and how fundamental is that knowledge? Perhaps people learned approximately linearly through time. We’ve had spoken language for, let us say, 100,000 years although it could be much longer. At best, people learn about four “chunks” per second. A “chunk” is basically a new configuration of things you already know. We measure the information in a computer in terms of “bits” but this turns out not to be a very good measure for people (or other animals). If you have to learn “A CAD” it is pretty easy. It is essentially only one “chunk.” If you know how to read hexadecimal then “ACAD” is equal to 10-12-10-13. It is easier to remember “a cad” than to remember “10-12-10-13.” That in turn is easier than the binary string: “1010110010101101” though they have the same bits. In the same way, it is much easier to recall the password: “Thistooshallpass” than the password: “ooassllapsTsthih.” That is the basic concept behind “chunks” as a measure. How easily we learn new things depends heavily on what we already know. One major problem with trying to learn a new language is that we keep thinking of it (and even hearing it) in terms of the language we already know. In fact, studies with infants show that by a few weeks of age, they are already less able to distinguish sounds that make no difference in their native language than they were at birth.
Psychology is endlessly fascinating! But let’s return to our calculations. If you are awake, on average for 16 hours a day for your lifetime of 100 years, you would have an opportunity to learn 4 chunks/second x 60 seconds/minute x 60 minutes/hour x 16 hours/day x 365 days/year x 100 years for a total of 12,600,000,000 chunks! That is a lot! Of course, that is rather an ideal case. If you don’t read and instead every week, watch the same TV shows and hang out with the same people you may not get your full 12 billion chunks worth of learning, but it’s still going to be a lot.
We humans have been communicating and learning through speech though for at least 100,000 years. That is more than 1000 times as long as you’ve been alive. For a long time, the population of the earth was far less than today, but sill likely over a million people for most of that time. Since each person grows up in a different environment, they learn different things. Leaving aside the fact that the population of the earth is now about 7 billion and just using the very conservative 1 million figure, you know about 1/1000000000 or a billionth of what humans collectively have learned. (For a more in-depth estimate, check out the link below).
Of course, a more direct way to think about this is that collectively today, on average, you know about 1/7000000000 of the knowledge of humanity since you are only one person and there are seven billion on the planet. If you’ve been learning for about 70 years (as I have) then you may know a slightly higher fraction of the total knowledge. Let’s just take the conservative estimate that your knowledge is one billionth. But how much is a billion?
One way to think about it is this. You, as an individual, have one “book” of knowledge in your head. (It’s a rather large one, but all of the books in this example will also be large). Now, let’s consider that the whole world of knowledge exists on ten continents. Each continent has 25 countries for a total of 250 countries. Each of these countries has 40 cities. Each of these cities has 10 libraries. Each of these libraries has 10 rooms and each room has 1000 books each of which is every bit as complete and weighty as your own.
Much of your knowledge is common, but a lot of it is unique. No-one has lived the life you have and so your “book” will contain a lot that is just about your own experience. And that’s true as well for each of the other 7 billion people on earth. So, while the biological stuff that makes you you, is hugely outside your own skin, the knowledge that humanity has collectively has a teeny fraction inside your own skull. Best to share what you know before you die at which point it will become inaccessible. Aside from that sage advice, you might reflect that indeed, none of us knows very much at all compared with what we know as a species.
The other major way that we interact with each other and with every living thing on the planet is through our chemical exchanges. People, such as you and me, for example, inhale air that contains oxygen. We cannot live without it. Where does the oxygen come from? Green plants. To many people, “tree hugger” is a slam, an insult, a term that is meant to be demeaning. Okay, I grant you, actually hugging a tree is probably something that doesn’t mean much to the tree. However, without green plants and the oxygen they produce, people (and other animals) would die off. Not only do plants produce oxygen but they also get rid of carbon dioxide. Of course, without green plants, there would be few foods from plants and we would have to “eat” mostly animals for the short time the supply lasted. A lack of green plants would really have four ways to end humanity: greatly increased carbon dioxide causing global warming, lack of sufficient food, lack of sufficient oxygen, too much carbon dioxide to survive. Probably, the lack of food would do us in first. You could actually hug much worse things than trees.
In any case, the oxygen – carbon dioxide and food cycles are two of the important ways that we are chemically interconnected with the entire web of life on the planet. Another important cycle is the nitrogen cycle. While plants are ultimately at the root of what we eat, the bodies of humans and other animals eventually provide important nitrogen for plants. Most plants are quite patient about waiting passively for us to die before partaking of our bodies. But there are some much pluckier plants such as the pitcher plant, sundew, and Venus flytrap which actually trap animals such as insects and small frogs in order to “feed” their nitrogen needs.
These cycles have been going on for a very long time. What’s new that humans bring to the party is not a nice cabernet or chardonnay, but rather a toxic cocktail of chemicals that never existed before. Some of these are intentionally produced and others are side-effects of other things. But rest assured, these “new” chemicals are overwhelmingly bad for everything in the biosphere. They are bad for you, for your kids, for your grandchildren, for frogs, redwoods, and honeybees. They are bad for almost everybody. For instance, you may find it convenient to buy “air fresheners.” These do not actually “freshen” the air. They have three important classes of chemicals: something that screws up your hormones; something that is a known carcinogen; something that destroys your sense of smell. “Air freshener” indeed.
It strikes me as odd that adults in many parts of the world are “not allowed” to buy “street drugs” while any seven year old can walk in and buy “air freshener” which could cause numerous problems. Of course, the other problem is that even though you exercise your freedom to buy air freshener, eventually those chemicals end up in my lungs and the lungs of my descendants as well as monkeys, parrots and rabbits. The polluting chemicals eventually end up pretty well scattered throughout the world. China’s air pollution eventually gets to Americans and American air pollution gets to China. Speaking of math, here’s an interesting calculation to show how much we exchange air molecules with others.
To make an overly long story overly short, we are all highly interconnected and most of what makes you, you is not inside the confines of your own body. For me, this puts unfettered greed in the category of just being plain silly.
(The story above and many cousins like it are compiled now in a book available on Amazon: Tales from an American Childhood: Recollection and Revelation. I recount early experiences and then related them to contemporary issues and challenges in society).