A dam or Adam, we are from water

    A dam or Adam, we are from water
    Author: Ivan Latti
    Photographer: Johan Wentzel

    Beyond the boundaries of written history lies an earlier lived past, collapsed in ruins. The cities built by ancestors in those days are so thoroughly lost as if they had never existed. Impenetrable, behind all of those histories lie layers of more histories still further away in time, lived by our weirder ancestral species. Those were the hairy, fangy and slimy ones that are commonly denied in horror… we were never THAT!

    But a moment of reflection and yes, we were! And further back still, there is more that once was us, eventually reaching a time of quite small animals and before that single cell versions of da Vincian, Einsteinian and Napoleonic granddaddies. Beasties that copulated brainlessly (as we may still do) and suckled their young; also eating the neighbours’ children.

    Far enough back we did not yet have backbones, coping with life wet and invertebrate. Some think there were early hydrothermal vents in the ocean, fissures in the seafloor that warmed the water sufficiently for micro-organisms that may have lived there more than four thousand million years ago. That would mean a genesis of life in the sea, not a fresh water dam like this, the De Bos Dam that supplies the town of Hermanus.

    Earlier forms of us were more vicious, as circumstances of the day demanded for survival until breeding age. The living in those days, as with animals of today, was without malice. There was no brain capacity for such evil and there was only one priority: Stay alive and breed more of "us all". Those were the only components of a singular intent, the sole purpose of all life.

    Still, we are told that more than 99% of all the species that ever lived on earth are extinct. This just goes to show how precarious the situation is for all life; not for (the always ephemeral) specimens, that goes without saying! For their species as such.

    This drive can therefore not waver. The struggle is real in spite of lush vegetation, big forests, large herds, flocks and schools everywhere. The blind drive is the forerunner of more refined forms of meaning that we thrive on these days. The human brain manufactures new meaning all the time as a life skill. Consciousness and personal sense shape myriads of comforting notions that we hold onto and keep us going. Without them we end up seeing shrinks or getting locked up. Much of this comfort blanket stuff is fabricated from few facts and thin air, but it works like the nests that birds build.

    Exploration of the tantalising frontiers of understanding about our early existence is changing. Some of the usual boundary areas of our knowledge become sterile from past exploitation, like flat earth notions belaboured vigorously, yielding diminishing returns. Past historical writing, dreaming or theorising into the depths of the unverified and the unknown, like inventing Adam, were the solutions crafted by a simpler, earlier form of us.

    The mind juxtaposes old beliefs next to new facts and cognitive dissonance forces towards new theories and verifications, as rivers in sudden flood wash away debris and sandbanks. Tired notions and comfortable ignorance niches receive dogma-blocker treatment, ruthlessly applied by questioning younger generations.

    Progress causes frontiers to recede. Technology follows, however, refusing frontiers to become inaccessible. Responses of our time include agile flying machines on Mars and cameras inside human veins, seeing where human eyes cant look and allowing people to learn more than ever before. Three frontiers of our time are of particular interest:

    Firstly, there is the very big outer space, nominally empty but paradoxically full of distant galaxies, some of which are mega-numbers of lightyears away.

    Secondly, the very small of nanoworlds are equally inaccessible for they’re too small to be studied using old-school investigative tools.

    Thirdly, there is the very deeply embedded, inside world of the spirit or psyche, where worship and art conjured gods, sweet tones, clever words and pretty shapes or acts; all parts of the embodiments of truth and beauty and, you better believe it, human goodness.

    Goodness! Pioneers we truly were, still are and will remain as long as we last. Making sense one way or another of all we encounter is the human lot and also our gift. This compulsion comes with the territory of an inquisitive and resourceful mind replacing running speed, fangs and claws as survival equipment.

    The proud flags of concept conquerors are planted for every discovery and invention. Ownership of new knowledge territories are claimed briskly, although they often require a generation or so for comprehension of the findings, their uses and risks to sink in fully. Primitive pre-ownership is a tradition among greedy colonials of all fields, lasting for a period regarding almost everything people find valuable on earth. Understanding comes later, sometimes bringing fair management and sharing. Fairness and sharing acquire new meanings as human society evolves.

    Gloating over achievement is a brief enjoyment in societies that develop fast. Every generation "stands on the shoulders" of predecessors, but is promptly outthought by the next generation, wherever the gradient of the development curve is steeply positive.

    While astrophysicists keep hubbling along with cameras in outer space (first frontier) and mongers of neo-spiritual fashions connive fragments of icon and ostracon in value agreements for guiding the emergent global tribe of billions (second frontier), the third frontier, the scientists of the small worlds are proliferating quests into nano-regions untold.

    There’s as much to play with inside, particles of particles, as out there in galaxies of galaxies. Some nano-natterers will combat viruses, making careers in lucrative gobbledygook. Others will “accidentally” pollute the earth at an invisible level with discard nano-gizmos of the day, poorly recycled. Yet another new age of unheard-of, trendy products will grow the economy, benefit the few and fool the many. Waves of small body, big impact innovation will last for variable intervals, as long as the earth circus entertains amused or intrigued viewers from outer space, or only locals.

    There are also those that will painstakingly continue on the path of finding the real first Adam: that single cell ancestor of humanity and all else that is alive today, “born” on earth in the Big Bang of Life. And maybe in other parts of the universe, or even other universes, but what do we know about that?

    There is by now little need to revere the living, the dead or the imagined; no need for an apotheosis of any part of the living sequence as supervisor. Values can be embraced in the abstract.

    Travelling alone until the SKA or other space ventures may uncover partners, we still ask: Where will this investigation lead? The road to the molecular Adam is yet to be plotted, one step at a time. What an adventure to be on, as absorbing as the bear hunt story is to children. For thats about the stage of our progress to date, in spite of numerous achievements in science. The world just happens to be so big and complex that science wont run out of things to do.

    Starting points of the evolutionary sequence traces in nanoworld are wide-ranging and already mind-boggling. There are leads like the double helix of DNA, the mapped genes of the human genome and their sequences, cut like nano-sausages by dedicated enzymes, or protoplasmic juices for nano-tadpoles to wriggle in, and more, real and not yet. These things interest present and future participants in the quest, as well as many bystanders busy with other things while rooting for the team(s).

    As usual, all options are and will be patiently observed, painstakingly described, experimentally modelled, rigorously tested, theorised to death and revived for marketing purposes. The players will be a long line or lines of dedicated, achieving, frustrated, absent-minded, arrogant, egotistical, psychotic, happy, deluded and venerated people, as well as maybe cyborgs and devices.

    There is still much meaningful(!) work for the human species and later for its associates and successors to do, be they organic or digital.

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