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An Experiment in the Infinite Ocean

A strange, featherless flying dinosaur, humorously named Yi qi (“ee chee”), has been discovered in China. “It was one of presumably many experiments in early flight that failed the test of time and was eventually abandoned,” it was reported in the New York Times. Experiments by whom or what?

Yi_qi 1The article continued, “after studying findings by a Chinese-led team of paleontologists, Kevin Padian, an American dinosaur authority, said he could only think that the attempted flight innovations “have just gone from the strange to the bizarre.”

Yi qi was a large, very alien creature, as otherworldly as we’ll ever find on other worlds. Related to the famed Archaeopteryx, which had feathers, Yi qi’s flight apparatus resembled that of a bat. Which is to say it had huge membranes for wings. As most kids know, the consensus is birds descended from dinosaurs. But Yi qi was apparently in a dead-end class of its own where creatures of the air are concerned.

Teleology is a touchy, tricky subject with scientists and philosophers. Any hint of discussing evolution’s adaptations in terms of aims and purposes sends most scientists running, since it smacks of a Great Designer behind the whole shebang. There are no a priori designs in nature, scientists say, only a posteriori ones.

Frankly that view, because it has become an almost religious creed itself, is pain in the butt. Clearly, without implying an Experimenter, nature has experimented in many ways. But what propels the experimentation? Random natural selection cannot even begin to elucidate the drive within evolution to experiment.

The failed flight experiment (scientists don’t think Yi qi was even able to glide very well, like flying squirrels) raises many questions about evolution, and ultimately about human evolution. If nature has experimented with flight, then what is the experiment with man?

I’m reminded of a remark that the governor of California made recently. Referring both to global warming in macrocosm, and the state’s frightening fourth year of drought in microcosm, Jerry Brown said in April, “we are embarked upon an experiment that no one has ever tried.”

Indeed, we’re embarked on an experiment that nature has never tried with a sentient species, on this planet anyway.

The human brain is not only adapted to adapt to every environment, by extracting and manipulating reified objects in nature according to its imagination and will, but it is exapted for conscious awareness and spiritual realization.

To reify means to regard an abstraction as if it had concrete or material existence. Every time you look at a tree and see it as an oak or a sycamore or even a tree, you are reifying, or making an abstraction of something that is namelessly, inextricably part of the biosphere. Unlike any other animal on earth, that is what we humans do, and naming lies at the root of our power as a species. But like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, we can’t stop reifying, and so are fragmenting the seamless web of life all to hell.

Exaptation is a process in which a feature acquires a function that was not acquired through natural selection. Exaptations are common in nature. Ironically, given the failed experiment of the membranous Yi qi, bird feathers is the classic example, having initially evolved for temperature regulation and later being exapted for flight.

This is where things get difficult, but really interesting. Evolution is always experimenting, and not merely a process of purely random natural selection. So the evolution of sentient beings in the universe (that is, creatures conscious that they’re conscious) is an experiment in consciousness. How often does it fail, as it is failing with humankind here on this exquisitely beautiful blue marble? And what would it mean for the experiment in consciousness to succeed?

The human brain is the most complex thing in the known universe. Is the brain, as many now believe, as pointless as the failed experiment in flight during the age of the dinosaurs? Or is our potential for cosmic awareness a supreme example of exaptation, one urgently needing to be consciously tapped by the individual if humanity is to survive and thrive?

As scientific knowledge and technological development have increased, man’s destructiveness, due to greed as well as sheer numbers, have increased to the point of threatening ecological collapse. At the same time, more and more people have given up on humanity, and focused solely on themselves, exacerbating the problem and destroying their spiritual potential. There is another path.

A successful sentient species is one that lives in basic harmony with its planet and itself. At a deeper level, the limitless spiritual potential of the human being is an exaptation of the evolution of symbolic thought. That means the evolution of higher thought both gave us our spiritual potential, and is the greatest impediment to its realization!

Humanity is an experiment in consciousness. In leaving the polluted stream of supersaturated content-consciousness, we enter into the Infinite Ocean of cosmic consciousness, without losing our capacities for science and technology.

I feel the universe holds that intrinsic intent for sentient species. But we urgently need to fully awaken the capacity for insight within ourselves to change course and begin to realize our spiritual potential.

Martin LeFevre


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