Many Worlds: Life’s Lessons

Many Worlds: Life’s Lessons

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Metaviews 095. 2000.11.01. Approximately 1773 words.

Below is another installment from the Many Worlds book (see Metaviews 092).

The chapter excerpt below is from Christian de Duve, who shared the1974 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for pioneering work oncell structure and function. De Duve has devoted his career tostudying the biochemistry of life. A native of Belgium, he studiedat the Catholic University of Louvain where he earned an M.D., Ph.D.,and advanced master’s degree in chemical sciences. Afterpostdoctoral fellowships at the Medical Nobel Institute in Stockholmand Washington University in St. Louis, he was appointed a lecturerin physiological chemistry on the Faculty of Medicine of the CatholicUniversity of Louvain in 1947, becoming emeritus professor in 1985.Since 1962, he has shared time between his Belgian alma mater and theRockefeller University in New York, where he was named Andrew W.Mellon professor in 1974, reaching emeritus status in 1988. De Duveis the founder of the International Institute of Cellular andMolecular Pathology in Brussels, served as its president directorfrom 1974 to 1991, and now is a member of the Institute’s board ofdirectors. De Duve is a member of the U.S. National Academy ofSciences, the American Philosophical Society, and the Royal Society.He holds sixteen honorary degrees from universities in Europe, SouthAmerica, Canada, and the United States. He is the author of some375 scientific papers and three books; the most recent is VitalDust: Life as a Cosmic Imperative. It is an honor to presentChristian De Duve on Meta.

In the book chapter, De Duve discusses the significance of theconsensus views in biology over the last century. In the excerptbelow he posits a universe that favors both life and intelligence andwonders about evolutionary advances that will someday surpass humansand may have already done so elsewhere in the universe. De Duvewrites:

Contrary to what I call the ‘gospel of contingency,’ popularized bya number of contemporary thinkers, the human species is not themeaningless outcome of chance events in a pointless universe. Forthe first time in the history of life, beings exist that have access,albeit in a very primitive and rudimentary fashion, to the realitybehind the appearances… Although apprehended only dimly, theseabstractions are the closest we can get with our feeble means to theultimate reality to which many give the name of God.

Next week I’ll run another excerpt from the MANY WORLDS book (ed. bySteven Dick, 2000). If you like what you read, the book is availablefor purchase online at <>.

— Billy Grassie

The Future of Life,by Christian DeDuve

One last lesson of biology: evolution is far from over. According tocosmologists, our planet should remain able to bear life for aboutanother five billion years before being engulfed in the fieryexpansion of the dying sun. What can happen in such an enormousstretch of time is entirely beyond our imagination. Whatever thefuture may bring, humankind is most unlikely to remain at astandstill during all that time. It will either disappear or evolve.In either case, we are not the ultimate achievement of evolution,only a transient stage. The old anthropocentric view of ahuman-focused universe must be abandoned, even in its recentreformulation in the so-called anthropic principle.

It would be surprising if in the future development of life on Earth,vertical evolution toward greater complexity did not continue to takeplace, perhaps leading to beings endowed with considerably sharpermeans of apprehending reality than we possess. Such beings couldarise by further extension of the human twig, but they do not haveto. There is plenty of time for a humanlike adventure to start allover again from another twig and perhaps go further than did thehuman adventure.

Lessons of Life for Philosophy and Religion

Creationism, vitalism, finalism, dualism, and anthropocentrism haveall been left by the wayside by the progression of modern biology.For scientists, the scenery is deeply gratifying in its austere andcoherent beauty. But to others, the message may seem disquietinglybleak, because it questions a number of familiar notions, rooted inthe biblical tradition and still entertained and propagated in moreor less literal form by the major monotheistic religions. Aware ofthe potential conflicts, many philosophers and theologians have begunreflecting on how basic beliefs can be reconciled with the findingsof science. This necessary reappraisal will not be easy, consideringthe intricate network of social structures that has been knit aroundthe churches by centuries of shared faith and aspirations. In thisexercise, the scientist can only point to what is now establishedbeyond reasonable doubt or at least highly probable. Such has beenthe purpose of my brief survey. As to extrapolating from science tophilosophy, scientists are poorly trained for such a venture andgenerally shy away from it. Here, for what they are worth, are a fewsuggestions.

A first notion to be singled out is that we belong to a universecapable of giving rise to life and mind. This affirmation would seemlike a mere statement of the obvious, were it not for the widelypublicized view that life and mind are freak products of a highlyimprobable combination of chance circumstances most unlikely to occurany time, anywhere. This attitude was summed up by Jacques Monod whenhe wrote, The Universe was not pregnant with life, nor the biospherewith man.2 This statement challenges evidence. The facts are thatthe Universe has given birth to life and the biosphere has givenbirth to humans. To affirm that those two births took place withoutpregnancies amounts to invoking miracles, which is certainly not whatthe great French biologist had in mind.

Miracles, in the form of special creative acts of God, are whatreligions traditionally invoke to account for the existence of lifeand mind in the universe. The lesson of modern biology is that suchinterventions were not needed and probably did not occur. Life andmind most likely developed through purely natural events renderedpossible by the prevailing physical-chemical conditions or perhapseven imposed by these conditions. As the defenders of the anthropicprinciple have pointed out in great detail, these occurrences requirean extraordinary degree of fine tuning of many key properties of theuniverse. The pregnancy that was erroneously negated by Monod is infact the outcome of very special features built into the naturalstructure of the universe.

Some contemporary physicists, including Rees and Smolin, two othercontributors to this volume, minimize the significance of this factby assuming that our universe is not unique. They see it as a part oras an evolutionary product of a large set of universes-a multiversein the suggestive terminology proposed by Rees-that display a widearray of physical properties. Lost in this ocean of nonpregnantuniverses, ours would be no more than the odd one that happened, bychance, to have the right combination of properties for life and mindto arise. Intriguing as they are, these theories do not in any waydiminish the overwhelming significance of our universe as it exists.Whichever way they appeared, and whatever the probability of theiremergence, life and mind are such extraordinary manifestations thattheir existence can only be a telling revelation of ultimate reality.Even diluted by trillions of lifeless universes, ours remainssupremely meaningful. The anthropic principle is correct in thisrespect, except for its anthropocentric connotation.

A second major lesson of modern biology concerns the humble status ofour species, which, far from being the ultimate goal of creation ithas long been thought to be, now appears as a transient link orperhaps even a side branch in a long evolutionary process very likelyto give rise some day to beings much more advanced than we are. Therealso is a real possibility that beings with mental attributes similaror superior to ours exist elsewhere in the universe. Although thesepossibilities have not been verified in reality, they deservesufficiently serious consideration to be incorporated into our newworld view. The resulting picture is not, however, as negative as ismaintained by those who see in the findings of science reasons fordenigrating the human species.

Even though we may not be the final product of evolution, ouremergence nevertheless represents a watershed. Contrary to what Icall the gospel of contingency, popularized by a number ofcontemporary thinkers, the human species is not the meaninglessoutcome of chance events in a pointless universe. For the first timein the history of life, beings exist that have access, albeit in avery primitive and rudimentary fashion, to the reality behind theappearances, including the nature of matter, the structure of theuniverse, the basic mechanisms of life, the historical processesthrough which these entities have arisen and evolved, and especiallyabstract notions, such as truth, beauty, goodness, and love. Althoughapprehended only dimly, these abstractions are the closest we can getwith our feeble means to the ultimate reality to which many give thename of God. No doubt, the beings with expanded mental powers who arelikely to succeed us one day will see this reality more clearly. Butthe glimpses we are afforded already are immensely rewarding.

Also important and unique to the human condition is the acquisitionof moral responsibility. Although disputed by some neurobiologistsand philosophers, the feeling we have of being in command of our ownactions and of being responsible for them is not likely to beabandoned, even by those who question its authenticity. It is anindispensable foundation of our societies. Far from yielding to theadvances of science, our responsibility is made increasinglyimportant by those advances, to the extent that they are giving usincreasingly effective means of shaping the future of our planet, ofthe living world, and of our own species. To wield wisely the immensepowers with which science in the twentieth century has endowedhumankind will be the main concern of coming generations.


The advances of biology have revolutionized the view we have ofourselves and our significance in the world. Many myths have had tobe abandoned. But mystery remains, more profound and more beautifulthan ever before, a reality almost inaccessible to our feeble humanmeans.


1. C. de Duve, Vital Dust (New York: Basic Books, 1995).

2. J. Monod, Chance and Necessity, trans. A. Wainhouse (New York:Knopf, 1971), 145-146.

MANY WORLDS is available for purchase online at<>.

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