Of ultimate ancestors

A conversation between a curious man, and one of science.

“So, here we are, we humans and our republics.”

“How did we get here?”

“Well, our republics and other societies came into being slowly: tyrants rose and were cast down, constitutions were proposed and amended, emancipations were proclamated, and so on. Starting from a band of savages that found it was easier to hunt together we got to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by always insisting the life should be better, and could be better, and would be better.”

“How did those savages get there?”

“Why, they were the descendants of even more primitive creatures. Somehow intelligence began, once upon a time, to mean for a particular animal that you were more probable to live and have children; and since those children shared the survivor’s bigger braincase, they were smarter, and so on, intelligence refined itself from chimp-like animals down to savages who, in that view, were rather like you and I, or at least that troglodyte fellow next door.”

“Yeah. That tuba-player. But what about those chimps?”

“Chimp-like creatures, but animals anyway. Well, they too had ancestors: ancestors that were different, because — this is that evolution thingie — those that survive better and are good in breeding tend to leave more descendants, descendants like them, and eventually the better adapted descendants crowd out those that don’t do as well. And there’s always a bit of variety since making new creatures, while a lot more accurate than it seems like, still isn’t quite perfect. And since that variety is passed down to one’s descendants, evolution works.”

“So, wait… no point in asking about the ancestors of chimps, I guess. What about the, um, ultimate ancestor?”

“Ultimate ancestor? Oh, well, it’s true that life had to start somewhere. There had to be a first living thing whose descendants could branch out, one branch of a branch of a — and so on — of a branch resulting in mammals and chimps and men. But that didn’t have to be much, that ultimate ancestor. It didn’t have to be much at all, and it had millions and millions of years and an entire planet full of seething muck and thunderstorms to come together in. It didn’t… well, this is bound to sound strange, but maybe wasn’t even alive; because when you go to those very simple and tiny things, viruses and like that, saying if they are alive or not is pretty difficult. Maybe pretty meaningless, too; ‘alive’ can be a sliding thing and not an on-off state.”


“Indeed. Anyway, that first thing only needed to be a replicator, something that could make copies of itself with some fidelity. After that, the copies better suited for survival would survive better… and before you knew it, bacteria and dinosaurs.”

“Well, that answers… wait! The planet. Where did that come from?”

“A planet’s just a bunch of cosmic dust: iron, oxygen, plutonium, things like that. A long time ago a dust cloud collapsed — you just need gravity, and something with even a bit of unevenness will collapse. The central part got so much stuff that it ignited as a star (that takes a bit of space to explain, and is breathtakingly beautiful), while the outlying parts fell together into smaller clumps, one of which was Earth.”

“That cosmic iron dust and stuff — explain the origins of that, then.”

“Certainly. The star explanation I just skipped — it so turns out that stars work by being big enough to crush their innards together so strong that little atoms, little bits of stuff, crash together and form bigger atoms. This leaves a bit over, usually, and that’s the fire and light of stars. Even stars die, though, and when they do, they spill those big atoms — things like iron and plutonium — across the universe, creating those cosmic clouds.”

“Okay, so… so you still need lots of, um, very small atoms, right?”

“Righty-o. To be more exact (and that star explanation was criminally general), you need just hydrogen, the lightest, most elementary element there is.”

“Wait — this sounds like that ultimate ancestor thing all over again.”

“Well, this is a bit similar.”

“So where did all that hydrogen come from?”

“From a big bang.”

“You’re shitting me.”

“No, really. If you look around and calculate you see there seems to have been a time, some 13.7 billion years ago, when everything that existed then was very close to each other: all things and even space were scrunched up in a pinprick that blew up: a cosmic Ground Zero so terrible that we cannot calculate there, though we can get close; and that’s a start for time and space: a big explosion when a froth of primeval stuff — that ultimate hydrogen — came into being.”

“So, uh, what was before that kablooey?”

“What’s north of the north pole?”


If it was the start of time — Time Zero in addition to Ground Zero — then there couldn’t have been such a thing as before.”

“So, um… how did this Big Bang happen?”

“I don’t know.”


“Anyway I think being able to explain from you back to an infinitesimal fraction of a second after the Big Bang is pretty good, no?”

“So you can do no better?”

“We’re still working on it!”

One Response to “Of ultimate ancestors”

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