Free Will … Maybe — Part 2.1

In making the point of how much free will we don’t have, I wanted to write about a concept I came up with a few years back, something to help us understand the, well, “automaticness” of much of what goes on in our heads.

Searching for something on it, I came across this chapter of yet another of my might-be books, a half-written volume titled Earthman’s Notebook.

It’s fairly long, but it illustrates the ideas pretty well.

I’m dividing it up, so it’s going to accordion three extra sections into the middle of my intended-to-be-three-part Free Will piece.


The hopscotch game of my life has landed me on a square marked “City.”

After decades in the mountains, among wildlife and wilderness, here I am in the land of freeways and malls. I live in an apartment behind, I kid you not, a bar named “The G Spot.”

In place of the bugling of elk, or the songs of coyotes, the howls I hear now are those of my fellow humans, departing the parking lot at 1 a.m. and hooting about … well, whatever it is they hoot about. Success in the human mating dance, or maybe the consoling power of their cars after the night’s failure. Or just the jubilant echo of the wildness in their own hearts, stirred by the darkness and unleashed from the constraining yoke of civilization.

Ever adaptable, I dwell here in comfort. I grew up in a city, after all. And some part of me knows this is not forever.

As consolation, I get to hike fairly often with my aging friend Tito the Mighty Hunter, and there’s a surprising amount of forest here. Upstate New York might be one of the partial success stories of wilderness take-back. The number of roads has increased, but the once-horizon-to-horizon farmlands have given way to new-growth forests.

We don’t have any wolves or mountain lions, but the numbers of deer and bears is much greater than it was, say 50 years ago. I’ve seen red and gray foxes in the woods, and even been barked at by them. Fishers leave their fat-pawed tracks in the snow in winter, and Tito guided me to an actual mink one spring, discovered snuggled down into a hole and shrilly irritated to be found. One summer Tito even mixed it up with a couple of protective coyotes, guarding den or cubs, and came away with bleeding bite marks on his butt.

But the place is a maze of roads and houses, a crowded Monopoly board of townships, and you actually have to take a special trip, however short, to get to where you can see wildness. You have to GO somewhere to see wilds, and I miss living in a place where the wilds came to me.

Walking home one night in my old mountain town, Tito and Ranger surprised and cowed a little dog that turned out, when I walked up, to be a little coyote, less than 50 feet from my front door. Invited over to a friend’s house one evening, we deserted the dinner table to gather in the kitchen and watch a black bear, twenty feet up a tree outside a second-floor window, adroitly cracking open and cleaning out their bird feeder.


In mid-August of 2001, here I am at the New York State Fair, come to see grizzlies.

Susan and Jim Kowalczak have a display called Bear Country, which consists of a big-rig trailer turned into a climate-controlled display chamber for real, live grizzly bears.

The public can enter at one end up a short flight of steps, and stroll along a narrow gallery separated from the live bears by a sturdy glass wall. First is a chamber with three cubs – scampering, wrestling, rolling on their backs, nibbling at branches full of leaves. The babies are Pia, Zina and Rosemary, and they’re Syrian bears, Ursus syriacus, born in January of this year.

Second is a larger room with two adult bears. The sign says they’re Ursus middendorffi, Kodiak bears, and they’re both only about five years old.

I watch one of them playing with a toy. It’s a circle of rope with some short sections of plastic pipe on it like beads on a string. She’s swishing it around on the floor with a playful paw, and the dexterity of the motion is oddly shocking. She uses the tips of her three-inch claws to move it about, repeatedly opening it out into a full circle on the floor, then scooping it back into a compact mass. She soon lolls on her back with it snagged on one paw, dangling it idly above her face.

Her roommate sleeps comfortably off to one side. Slumped bonelessly on a raised area at the rear of the room, one forepaw drooping over the edge, she looks like someone on vacation: Nothing really pressing to do, maybe taking a nice nap before dinner.

Around back, Jim lets me into a tiny room, and opens a sliding door into the adult bear chamber. Bars still separate me from the bear that approaches, but they’re far enough apart that not only can paws fit through them, but a great deal of a massive furry face can project out at me.

This is Patty, 600 or so pounds of adolescent griz. Her sleepy roommate is Maria, a little-sister-like bear of only 450 pounds who carefully declines to crowd Patty at the narrow door.

I get to touch a live grizzly for the first time in my life, and I’m … entranced.

In body and head configuration, Patty is surprisingly doglike – but she has the solid mass of something built for a world with about three times our gravity. Smallish eyes peer out of a broad flat head and round ears are almost buried in thick fur. I’m surprised to see that the grizzly nose is concave – the nostrils are sunken in a kind of suction cup on the end of her massive snout.

She reaches for me with a paw and I step up to inspect it. The pads on the bottom are like rough shoesole leather. The claws are curved, big crescents coming out from the ends of her toes, and very blunt. The flat “hand” connects to a muscular foreleg though a wrist joint thick as a loaf of French bread. She persists in gripping at me gently and I let her draw my arm near. She proceeds to lick me from fingers to forearm with a long pink tongue.

Jim hands me marshmallows and Patty turns her attention to them. Her mobile lips overlap my fingers by two inches as she carefully takes them from my hand.

There’s an aura of caution I carry with me at all times, and it hovers close in the background as all this is taking place. I’m careful not to look away from Patty as Jim and I continue to talk. But my brow is furrowed with paradox: The creature before me is the stuff of scary legends – a red-eyed, bloodthirsty, razor-clawed, slobbering monster. Yet here in my first-time-ever meeting with a grizzly, these petrifying attributes are completely absent.

Patty the grizzly is not a monster.

Yes, there are teeth and claws and the scent of unknowable wildness here, but in the end this is a lot like hand-feeding my own dog bits of roast beef. There might be danger in it, but there is no hint of menace.

There’s something else, too. A confusing sense of presence.

We usually marvel at how very different animals are from us – in intelligence, in physical attributes, in the various levels of threat they pose. Here and now, though, I can’t help but notice how common, how very familiar, Patty seems.

Clearly this is a hulking inhuman creature before me, but I still get the feeling there might be something person-like under that big flat forehead. At the same time I’m looking into Patty’s eyes, it seems that something, someone, is looking back at me. Patty comes across as a not-too-distant cousin.

The only bad part of this whole interaction comes when Jim lets me in on a comical secret only bear experts know: Grizzly bear saliva dries in seconds and is absolutely non-sticky, but if you get it wet again, as I do when he turns on the hose for me to wash my hands, it transforms into persistent slime that takes a while to scrub off.

On the three hour drive home, I think of all this. I think of kinship.

The Roots of Kinship

Kinship usually implies connections between people. It’s an inclusionary process where we talk about brothers and sisters, parents, grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles.

The inclusion can be less than enthusiastic. Relatives, after all, are not something you pick, like a new car. They’re more like a car wreck – something that happens to you. They can be disagreeable, foolish, loud, greedy, or just embarrassing louts.

But go back a few generations and all those who are “our people” are enveloped in a warm glow. We’re proud to be the descendants of Scottish highlanders, African chieftains, Viking sailors, Spanish explorers, Chinese mandarins. Even that black sheep great-granduncle in the wild west, the family horse thief, becomes a daring rogue and proud family legend.

Go beyond the family bloodline, though, and the dividing lines slam down. A mere accent can put an instant wall between “us” and “them.” Compare cultural or social customs and that divider can become thick as the door of a bank vault. Dogs and horses, for instance, are on the menu in a number of places in the world, but for me, nothing with a name should ever be considered food – and anyone who eats them is somehow less human for it.

We can go so far in this seeking after difference that it can open a chasm as wide as interplanetary space between even husband and wife. Because men are from Mars. And women, supposedly, are from Venus. Millions of miles apart.

Yes, there is notable variety among humans. If you were a big fan of difference, you might even argue for several different species or sub-species of human – after all, tiny Pygmies and towering Zulus, blond Norwegians and black Nigerians are as different from each other in outward appearance as lions and tigers, or zebras and horses.

Difference between humans is not the popular topic in these enlightened days, though. In rhetoric, at least, we focus on the commonalities that link people, rather than the differences which separate them.

We gladly celebrate the difference between the sexes, for instance – but only in private. When it comes to broader legal or social matters, we put the full force of the law behind the assertion that it’s wrong to take gender – or skin color – into account when you decide who to hire, or who to rent to.


Difference still reigns supreme, though, in the study of the natural world. Historically, taxonomists have keyed out the minutest distinctions between one specimen and the next, in order to catalog them as separate species, to place them in their proper position on the Tree of Life. Given two otherwise identical birds, slight differences in the shape of beaks, even small differences in song, have sometimes been enough to set a demarcation line between one species and the next.

Laymen are suckers for difference. Our eyes automatically seek the edges of the Tree of Life, oohing and aahing at the unique creatures hanging from the ends of the twigs like so much furred, feathered or scaled fruit.

We ignore the main trunk of this Tree, and its major limbs. We have some vague notion of this animal’s relationship to that one, but given the choice of looking at connecting lines or goggling like slack-jawed bumpkins at the weird creatures at the ends of them, who would pick the lines? It would be like looking at a supermarket bar code rather than forking into the chocolate cake under it. We’d much rather indulge ourselves with images of the weird and wonderful critters which live on other continents, or in vanished ages, than think about where their lifelines might connect.

No biologist would make the mistake, but non-scientists fail often at seeing the implications of those connecting lines.

The Tree of Life – and the idea behind it, evolution – has to be one of the most magnificent concepts ever conceived of by a human being. It is the glue that binds together – and makes understandable – the whole of biology. Its limbs and lines hold information about descent, but also about relatedness.

Yet we non-scientists all too often fail to see that. When we see that branching tree illustration, we never fail to look outward, trunk to branch, branch to branchlet, branchlet to twig, twig to twiglet, twiglet to offshoot, and the only meaning we can seem to see is the isolation, the uniqueness of each creature.

We fail to absorb this other meaning because we don’t look in the other direction, back along the length of those limbs from twig to trunk, and consider what we see.

To more fully illustrate what I’m getting at, let’s tinker a bit with the Tree of Life. We’ll focus on the lineage of a single creature, but rather than following lines in one direction or another, let’s do away with lines and branches altogether. We can do this by topologically tweaking the Tree of Life, squeezing it into a completely different shape. We’ll foreshorten it, melt it from twigs to trunk until there’s nothing left but a squat, truncated shape.

Instead of a Tree of Life, let’s picture a Pyramid.

Okay, so a pyramid runs against common usage. Worse, the shape of the pyramid and the way I’ll use it will seem to carry an implication of progress, of rising, that would irritate most evolutionary biologists.

But for us non-scientist duffer types, the tree illustration has drawbacks of its own. All laid out in plain sight, it still manages to obscure the core substance of evolutionary kinship – the connectedness revealed in the actual physical makeup of each creature. We see the branches but fail to look back and notice the connecting forks.

But how does this pyramid idea work? Let’s look at a trio of closely-related creatures, and see if pyramids have anything to show us.

The Root of All Life

The modern horse, Equus caballus in all its forms, is known to Cossack and cowboy, jockey and plowman – and is a critter dear to my western heart. Its closest relatives, the zebra and donkey, are probably familiar to every reader.

Let’s spotlight the horse to begin with, and concentrate initially not on the horse itself, not on the end product, but on its origin.

So where did horses get their start? The same place everything else did: In The Beginning.

About three and a half billion years down the trunk of the Tree of Life is the original living thing – and the ancestor of every living thing. Every creature we know today, and every creature we know from fossils, has its source in that first rough prototype. Every mushroom, mockingbird and microbe, every spider, squid and squirrel, every dinosaur and dodo – all started right here.

This is the ultimate source of kinship, commonality at its most basic.

I’ll admit it hardly seems a solid start for any really moving argument on the subject. If you and I share an ancestor from the 1400s, the pox-ridden third son of an English baron, it doesn’t mean I’ll lend you money.

Let’s begin at this beginning, though, and see where it leads.

Duffer that I am, I’m not qualified to speculate authoritatively on the nature of this first life. I do know that no serious scientist today believes it was just popped into existence.

My own imagination has it starting in a loose area of “almost-livingness,” a sloppy and diffuse soup that was life’s precursor. Even a time traveler sent back to observe the whole process in detail would probably find it impossible to pinpoint any specific moment when non-life became life.

As he traveled backward in time, he might ten thousand times say “Well, this little bit right here and now is certainly alive.” But moving continuously back, he would be forced to waffle, to hem and haw, about the exact moment it all began. It’s my bet that eventually he’d be forced to say “As close as I can tell, life originated during this million years.”

He might be equally vague about just where it started. There’s no need to demand one single first living thing. On a planet-sized body such as earth, pre-life processes must have been happening all over, in countless similar sites. Mineral-rich swamps, tidal flats and microcrystalline clay banks all over the earth might have been absolute necessities to the process by which more and more energetic molecules built up, more and more complex processes stabilized in feedback loops.

Considering that we already know the process requires a whole solar system – a sun and at least one planet, not to mention comets and other spacial bodies – it’s not too hard to believe that cycles of whole-world weather or long, slow rotations of oceanic circulation, processes years or decades long, were necessary initial conditions in this pre-life period.

But as millions upon millions of years passed, evolutionary advances took place in every part of this complex system, and new and ever-more-complex variations shortened and condensed these loops into something progressively better at maintaining, in the face of environmental variations, some kind of constancy in such matters as dissolved gases or local pH.

Whatever the specific details, sunlight provided energy, molecules built up, and eventually a biochemical standing wave developed between energetic sunlight and cool, dead minerals. The standing wave called Life.

Somewhere and somewhen, that standing wave was represented by recognizable single-celled, reproducing organisms. Let’s assume, for the sake of simplicity, that one of them was the ancestor of all life today.

In talking about this ancestor, I mean more than just that it was a lineal predecessor. A more important aspect of ancestrality, it seems to me, is the actual nature of what was bequeathed to all succeeding generations.

What all us latecomers got from that first ancestor was “cellness” itself. Everything alive today is based on cells. Whether single-celled and microscopic, or multicellular and blue-whale big, every living thing is obviously family to this cellular ancestor.

The Foundation of the Horse

This, then, is the bottom-most layer of life … and the foundation of the horse. The Tree of Life would show this original cell as its root, but for our Pyramid, it will be the broad, rectangular base, on which the horse pyramid will somehow rest.

Once individual cells were possible, multicellular organisms did not simply spring into being. The halfway house for single-cells bound for multicellularity must have been occupied first by blobby aggregations. The cells which underwent this evolutionary group therapy “learned” to depend more and more on each other. They altered their functions to reflect this interdependence, and in fact, came to be slightly less able to exist apart.

This blob-creature would make up a pyramid of only two layers. The base layer is the heritage of individual cells. The second layer is the blob itself, with its tiny but significant refinement on that original single-celled model.

Two layers make up a darned crude pyramid… but a pretty good point: The topmost layer is dependent on the one below it. You can’t group cells together without first having cells to group.

The third layer of a life pyramid might represent something with distinct anatomy. This need not be anything fancy. One specimen of the preceding crude blob might have been potato-shaped, another pancake-shaped. But a specific anatomy implies sameness among all members – which was duplicated, programmed, into every individual of this sort.

At three layers, the pyramid illustration is a bit clearer. First, cells. Second,  cells clumped together. Now, third, some kind of specific form overlaid on the clumps. And each added level can reach its height only due to the support, the predecessorial bequeathment of the layers below.

Add a fourth ancestral layer: something with one or more recognizable organs – a digestive sac, say, or propulsive vanes on its exterior, or tentacles to trap food particles and draw them close enough to absorb.

We can make the point of the pyramid yet again: There could be no organs without  a set anatomy, no anatomy without multicellularity, and no multicellularity without the original cells.

Somewhere along the way to building a pyramid that represents a horse, we have to realize that the process moves out of the kind of speculation we’re doing, of what these early cells and organs might have looked like, and into what they did or do look like. We have to consider the specific body parts, or anatomical features, that actually are the building blocks of our horse.

Nothing says all of the significant traits developed would have to be obvious to an observer of gross anatomy, of course. The biochemical mechanism for the movement of propulsive vanes (and later, perhaps, for the movement of muscles?) might be an evolutionary advance, and thus a layer in the pyramid, but need not be noticeable to an observer.

Accepting this fact, and seeing as how we’re proceeding at a snail’s pace through the life pyramid of the horse, let’s stop trying to count distinct layers and pick up some speed.

We’ll zoom past the addition of such traits as the first tiny photosensitive spot of an eye, the first crude circulatory apparatus, the beginning spark of a nervous system, and eventually arrive at a sluglike invertebrate that, though it looks extremely primitive, is actually quite some distance from the ground floor of our life pyramid. Now as ever, though, every most recent layer rests on the progressive foundation of the ones before.

Zooming forward again, we arrive at some point at a layer of fishiness, a layer where we discover, as modern seafood lovers do, a creature with bones. True to the pyramid model, though, we can see that the vast majority of traits in this creature were tested and proved in earlier incarnations of life.

There are points we can expect to be borne out as we continue forward: Every lineal descendant with bones owes its skeleton to this fishy ancestor. And in the sense that every descendant has a skeleton, with neat features like backbones and ribs and jawbones, that descendant is, on some level, still fairly fishy.

With every layer we add to our horse pyramid, we are paring away progressive orders of modern life, focusing in more and more closely on the actual lineage of the horse. As we add a layer of ancestral amphibiousness, for example, modern fish are no longer connected to the particular pyramid we’re developing. But every sizable land creature is – the modern convenience of a breathing mechanism that works out of water is shared by every large land animal today.

To show just how much we’re glossing over in this rapid ascent up our pyramid, think of the ability (or need) to drink fresh water instead of salt, or unique anatomical features such as ears and noses that can pick up sound vibrations and scents from air instead of water. Think of an intricate system of nerves, and a swelling and complexifying brain to tie them all together and process and respond to their information.

Still rocketing along in evolutionary history, think next of a layer representing the creatures who broke completely free of the seas and rivers by inventing eggs that could be laid on land – or could even incubate and hatch within the body of the mother. Think also, though, of skeletal enhancements like movable limbs with elbows and knees, toes and toenails. Think of brand-new musculature that clothed and controlled these new appendages. Think of tougher skin that could exist out of water. Somewhere in the transition zone of amphibians-become-reptiles, all these advancements appeared – and bred remarkably true in the many lines of descendants.

Thus, though the layer further up that represents the first mammal might contain such refinements as hair and a set body temperature, already in place in the first moments of the Age of Reptiles was a remarkably complete four-legged skeleton, remarkably complete musculature to move it, and remarkably complete neurological structures to direct it all.

These creatures are still made up of cells, of course. Every successive upward layer of each pyramid of life is based firmly on the one below it, all the way down to the foundation of cellularity.

Here we get to a good reason for representing creatures as pyramids rather than widely separated species hung like fruit on a tree: The upper layers of a pyramid are mere refinements of a structure that is already well-defined.

The weight of  a pyramid, and its distinctive shape, comes more from the stones beneath than the ones on top. The stones below are a thousand times more of the total mass of a pyramid than the capstone is. If you take the capstone off a real pyramid, the viewer on the ground will still see the main body of the thing as a pyramid. Even a half-finished pyramid could never be mistaken for anything but what it is.

Continuing forward through equine history, we begin, at about 55 million years ago, to encounter fossil remains of true horse ancestors. Four-toed Eohippus, also called Hyracotherium, gave birth to numerous lineages in a branching tree of equines.

The stepping stones in the evolution of the modern horse include: Orohippus at roughly 50 million years ago, Epihippus at 45, Mesohippus at 40, Miohippus at 35, Parahippus at 23, Merychippus at 17, Dinohippus at 12, and finally Equus at 4 million years ago.

To give you some idea of how recently Equus came along, if we map a life pyramid of 3.5 billion years onto the Great Pyramid in Egypt, which is about 480 feet high, Eohippus would have arrived on the scene about 6 feet from the top (1/80th of the total), whereas modern Equus would take up only the final 7 inches (just about 1/800th of the total).

This final seven inches, though, is not the lone domain of the modern horse. Instead, it is common ground held by donkeys and zebras, as well as more than 200 other species of equines, all but seven of which are now extinct.

The most recent part of the evolution of the horse, therefore, the difference between all of the various current-day equines, is only a couple of inches in almost 500 feet.

If you stood off a short distance and compared the side-by-side life-pyramids of donkey, zebra and horse, you’d have a damned tough time even seeing the inches-high capstone which is all that defines “horse.” Or zebra. Or donkey.

If you listed the differences between horse, zebra, donkey, you would find a fair number of them. The three animals are different enough that even a child can tell them apart at a glance. But if you compare them for similar traits, traits which are shared among them, you will find a much greater number.

Those similar traits are therefore not Horse traits, specifically, or Donkey traits, but equine traits – or perhaps more general mammalian traits, or traits inherited from creatures even earlier.

What you really do see when you look at a horse is a tiny amount of distinct horse-ness thinly layered atop a preponderance of older traits. Some of those older traits come from immediate horse-ancestors, but even more of them come from a base of other ancestor-creatures stacked below. There’s a healthy helping of earlier mammals down there, an even bigger portion of reptilian ancestors further down. Below that is a great shore of amphibian ancestry, down further is an ocean of fishiness, and on and on – all of which left deep, broad, profound legacies of structure and function in the makeup of the horse, and every other living equine.

When we think of horses, one of the defining traits we inevitably single out is the single-toed hoof. Strangely enough, though, the hoof contains almost nothing which is specifically Horse. It is the shared hoof of an equine – Equus.

The bones in a horse’s leg, though they appear very horsey, are not completely and singularly Horse leg bones. In the main, they’re not really even equine. Instead, they’re amphibian leg bones with a couple of eons of evolutionary tweaking.

The heart of a horse is not a Horse heart; it’s a heart based on a fish blueprint – amplified by amphibians, renovated by reptiles, minimally morphed by early mammals, and finally refined – the morphological equivalent of being slathered with a fresh coat of paint – by late-comer modern equines. And even that distant fish had ancestors from which it borrowed a biological pump.

Just as pyramids contain more pyramid-base and pyramid-middle than they do tiny pyramid-peak, horses contain more attributes of their ancestors than they do of themselves.

The truth is, when you look at a horse, most of what you see is not Horse.


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About Hank Fox
  • Phledge

    Y’know, Hank, for not being a scientist you sure do have a great way of describing evolutionary principles that would enlighten even the staunchest of idiots. I love this!

  • Pablo Sr.

    Thanks Hank, I’ve been clicking back from time to time waiting for Part 2 to begin and my waiting has been richly rewarded. This is insightful and well written. The pyramid concept is well developed and a welcome alternative to the over-worn tree.
    Do you have any recommendations for a book or two on “free will”? This discussion has cropped up long distance between my son and myself and I could use some education.
    Is the G-Spot still around? I thought I was familiar with every bar in Schenectady.
    (And I agree further with you on the horrible Ghost Rider.)

  • Caz fans

    Power, Sex, Suicide; Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life. by Nick Lane is a great book for that first step (and some later on) about how to get from single to multiple cells. I’ve only read it once and plan to reread because it’s so dense (as am I), but I have this wonderful brain churning that is the fun of starting to understand.

    This blog is reminiscent of that.