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The Purpose of Life and Humanity’s Place in the Biosphere

A fantastic breakthrough with important ecological implications is hereby announced: the scientific revelation of life’s purpose. From the Big Bang on, the cosmos has been heading in a direction defined by the spreading of energy, or the reducing of gradients, which are measurable temperature, pressure, and chemical differences. The differences tend to be broken down but complex cycling systems—of which life is one—help them break down more quickly and completely. Energy dispersal is a simple way of describing the cosmic drive—implicit in the second law of thermodynamics—behind nature’s tendency, from friction to petroleum-dependent modern civilization, to break down gradients. In supercolliders human beings produce energies not seen anywhere else in the universe except in black holes and supernovas. Our unusual capacity for gradient reduction may be valuable to the biosphere and perhaps the universe itself. But our rampant growth and gradient reduction has also led to global warming, which impairs the biosphere’s gradient-reducing function. Plant communities in Amazonia and Borneo are among the most effective gradient reducers on the planet. Deforestation, along with the fossil fuel emissions connected to our own growth, measurably decrease global gradient reduction—giving the biosphere the “fever” known as global warming. Something similar happened two billion years ago. Using solar energy to break bonds in water, green bacteria tapped into water as a source of hydrogen. In doing so, they released oxygen gas into the atmosphere, which was toxic. Like us, the microbes were terrific gradient reducers. Also like us, they expanded mightily, imperiling many ecosystems. It took a long time to adjust. Many organisms died. But now oxygen is part of the biosphere’s metabolism—including the processes by which tropical ecosystems export heat and entropy into space, safeguarding our biosphere’s health. We have much promise as a species. By burial of man-made charcoal (produced by burning agricultural waste at low oxygen levels) sufficient carbon may be removed from the atmosphere to turn back global warming. If successful, this would be an example of us using our gradient-fed intelligence to increase, rather than impair sustainable global gradient-reduction. Long term, to avoid extinction, we must organically reintegrate with our biodiverse planet.  Understanding life’s natural purpose—which we outline in the new Chelsea Green book, The Purpose of Life: Science’s Surprising Answer to Religion’s Most Profound Question—allows us to plan to come into accord with it for our own good and the planet’s. In a natural universe governed by the laws of energy flow we must understand our true nature and how it is shared with other naturally occurring complex energy systems.