Berggruen Seminar Series: Human Beings Are Organisms – The Origin of the Evolution of Humans

The first public event of Berggruen Serminars Series was held at Peking University on March 27, 2019. The theme of the seminar was, “Human Beings Are Organisms – The Origin of the Evolution of Humans.”

Answering the question if human beings are the last state of organisms on this planet was Dr. Shu-Nong Bai, a professor from Peking University’s College of Life Sciences.

“Why bother thinking about things in which we have no method of figuring out,” asked Dr. Bai. “In other words, instead of debating things that we have currently failed to provide clear and complete concepts guaranteed under our existing language framework, could we instead focus on the more fundamental and simple aspects, and explore and understand the rules behind them? This exploration serves as an important concept in the dialogue between humanities, social sciences, and sciences. Otherwise, humans will just speak for their own sake.”

Throughout the two-hour talk, Dr. Bai, who’s studied the phenomenon of planetary development for more than 30 years, suggested that the starting point for the evolution of human beings lies in the fundamental fact that human beings are organisms, and following the logic of life, attempted to discern a reasonable solution for reconstructing the conceptual framework for human cognition.

In a solution proposed by Dr. Bai for interpreting the mystery of life, “life means to live and evolve.” For him to live means that specific components (e.g. carbon skeleton components) engage in specific interactions with intermolecular forces at the core under specific environments (e.g. earthly environment). To evolve (i.e. to iterate) refers to an increased complexity that is autonomous, components-interaction based, and selected for enhanced interaction in robustness. Evolutive specific components survive via new specific interactions that continue to occur under the specific environment which also undergoes constant changes, sustaining life from the very beginning more than three billion years ago to the present.

“Human beings are insignificant in terms of its proportion to the entire life system on this planet,” said Dr. Bai. “We seem to occupy the dominant position in the system. However, we lack a genuine understanding of our position. From a biological perspective, the difference between human beings and other creatures lies in our unique evolution—cognition that determines our survival.

The genetic variations related to the brain of human beings enhance our information processing capacity, breaking the original balance between information processing capacity and the amount of information that must be absorbed by the brain for our survival. The enhancement makes the amount of information the brain needs to deal with for our survival appear inconsistent with this new information processing ability.

As a result, we feel bored and a sense of yearning in our brain,” continued Dr. Bai. “Being hardworking, recreation, and exploration are essentially the same—killing time or creating information that satisfies the information processing capacity’s demand; but they produce different results. With languages being created, efficient information sharing between individuals greatly enhances and accelerates the capacity of human beings in creating information.”

Dr. Bai believes that the behaviors driven by the sense of hunger bring a new tool for the survival of human beings: cognition.

With the development of the cognitive capacity of humans, a new cognitive space (a virtual medium) emerges to us as we integrate environmental elements, bringing new problems to the social organization of human beings.

“From the perspective of cognitive development, reconstructing the concept system may likely lead down a road connecting to the future of mankind,” states Dr. Bai. “The starting point for the revolution of human beings lies in the source of life and the reconstruction of cognition. Humans freed from an agricultural lifestyle and environmental constraints led to a human-centered civilization (e.g. ancestor worship). Then, “lost paradise” brought in the divinity-centered civilization (e.g. divinity worship). Now, as we seek the “third extremity”, that is, a new concept system that defines social order and restricts power on an objective and rational basis, a new life-centered civilization will likely emerge, representing the ultimate framework of life to govern human behavior.”

Dr. Bai concluded “From this perspective, to discuss the revolution of human beings, we need first to handle three new fundamental issues:
• As a species do human beings need such a large population to maintain our survival?
• As individuals, do human beings need immortality?
• Are human beings an organism?”