From an early age, we were conditioned to think that reality is split into different boxes like “social studies,” “history,” and “math.” Every subject in school had its own little compartment, with its own little rules, its own little methods, its own little perspective on things. This segregation of subjects continued throughout our education.
But that’s not the way things are. Everything connects. Social studies and string theory are part of the exact same reality. Let’s start at the top of this reality, and see how everything ties together.
The social sciences study humans being social. Social activity includes talking and texting, buying and selling, and war and politics—and thus, fields like linguistics, economics, and history.
Let’s start with a simple idea: the foundation of a subject is the common denominator that holds it together. What’s the foundation of the social sciences? Well, the one thing that every social science has in common is people. Every social science covers some aspect of human interaction—that’s why these sciences are called social.
And what are people? What causes people? How do you define a person?
On a very basic level, a person is an organism of the species Homo sapiens sapiens.
Like all other animals on Earth, we are biological organisms evolved from a single ancestral cell. We start off as a single cell, we follow genetic instructions to grow, to eat, and to die—we’re biological.
And the basis of biology is that DNA is transcribed into RNA, and RNA is translated into proteins, which do what life does.
For technical reasons, this chain is somewhat of a simplification. Nevertheless, this chain is the fundamental theory of molecular biology. All of life, in other words, is a direct result of the interactions between DNA, its products, and the environment.
All of life, indeed. Not only are we one of millions of species descended from the same ancestral cell (perhaps 8.7 million, only 1.2 million of which have been catalogued1). But the line between “us” and “them” turns out to be exceptionally fuzzy. Although we think of ourselves as “separate entities,” our bodies are composed of 100 trillion microbes from other species, and only 10 trillion “human” cells.2 So there are ten times as many cells from other species inside “you” as there are cells of “you.” It’s enough to make your head spin. You are not a biological island. You are a pulsing plethora of interconnected life.
We only have a very crude understanding of how our genes control behaviors talking and texting, buying and selling, and war and revolutions. But control them they do. To argue that genes do not fundamentally cause what we are and what we do—to argue that genes do not cause economics, psychology, history, and all the other social sciences—is to assert that humans are somehow outside of biology, transcending the gene-environment interactions that define the rest of the biosphere.
This is a mystical belief, and it’s widespread. For example, the popular phrase “mind-body connection” is evidence that modern thought is still infected with mind-body dualism, the 17th-century philosophy that the body and the mind are fundamentally different things—that the body is purely physical, while the mind is some sort of “spirit” that transcends our physical body. Saying mind-body connection implies this.
But this phrase has no place in a modern, evidenced-based science. Science tells us that thoughts and experiences (our “minds”) happen exclusively in the neurons of our brains. Neurons, of course, are physical parts of our body, just like lungs are.
Not only is there is no evidence of any separate “spiritual” substance in our heads, but there could never be such evidence. A spiritual substance would necessarily be separate from biology and the laws of physics—and thus, the observable universe. Saying “mind-body connection” is as absurd as saying “liver-body connection” or “spleen-body connection.” Whatever the mind is, it’s happening in the neural connections of your brain.
And like every other part of our body, the blueprints for our neurons are encoded in our DNA. In other words, consciousness is entirely biological, caused by the same gene-environment interactions that cause all biological phenomena on Earth.
Some people may find this viewpoint cold and stark, but that’s where science and logic take us. (And it’s not all bad: since the mind is a purely physical place, thoughts and attitudes have purely physical consequences—positive thinking is as “real” as a slab of concrete or a hunk of metal.)
To sum up, humans are simply biological products, and our minds are very complex biological products. There is no point at which “biology” ends and “people” begin.
We are DNA interacting with the environment.
Let’s go deeper. What is the foundation of biology? To the best of our knowledge, every species that ever lived, from T. Rex to redwoods, was and is written with the exact same genetic code: DNA,* a sort of super-chemical that hijacked Earth’s surface chemistry 3.8 billion years ago.4 DNA molded carbon and other elements into its own personal structures for carrying information, replicating, storing and using energy, and doing other vital functions to serve its own interests. We call these interests life.
All of life is made of cells, and cells are bags of chemicals. There is no part of a cell or an organism that is not a chemical. In other words, biology is a special type of chemistry. All of biology could, in theory, be explained in strictly chemical terms. (We’re just not there yet.) Evolution is just DNA’s chemical army adapting and molding to every inhabitable nook and cranny of the Earth—a chemical process.
Chemistry is the study of matter and the changes that matter undergoes. All matter is made of chemicals, from our neurons to the Earth’s tectonic plates. These chemicals are made of 118 types of atoms known as elements, which are electron-bound together in a plethora of changing combinations.
What is the foundation of chemistry? What causes matter and its interactions?
Physical forces. Electromagnetism, for example, is a physical force that’s responsible for the chemical bond—the basis of chemistry.
Physics is the study of the most fundamental laws of the universe. Its scale ranges from subatomic particles to superclusters of galaxies. There are only four basic forces in nature: gravity, electromagnetism, the strong nuclear force (which holds an atom’s nucleus together), and the weak nuclear force (which causes radioactive decay). Physics is the most fundamental science because it underlies all the others—physical laws control everything we observe, from protein folding to presidential elections.
What is the foundation of physics? Physics is unquestionably the “deepest” experimental science, but even physics has a foundational discipline underneath it.
This discipline is called math. Math is the language of physics. Physical laws are expressed as equations, like e=mc2 and f=ma. Equations are mathematical structures. Albert Einstein didn’t demonstrate relativity with some experiment, he did it on pieces of paper with a bunch of math. And data from physics experiments are almost always in the form of numbers. In short, without math, physics would be meaningless. (And as the physics gets more advanced—like in quantum mechanics—math and numbers become ever more central to the process.
From medicine to finance to computers, the scope of math is enormous. Math itself is enormous—it takes 46 pages to list all the official specializations within math.5 Math is often called “the language of the universe.”6
What’s the foundation of math? Does it have one? Yes, it does.
Math isn’t just numbers and equations. Math actually starts with axioms, which are formal logical expressions. From these expressions, mathematicians deduce conclusions using logical rules of inference. See the common thread? Logic.
Some of the greatest minds of the 20th century made Herculean efforts to delineate the foundation of math. The fruit of their labor is mathematical logic, which is formal logic applied to math. Mathematical logic includes set theory, which is considered to be the basis of all mathematics.7
In the same way that physics would be inconceivable without math, math would be inconceivable without logic.
Logic is the study of valid reasoning. It reduces statements to a formal language and makes chains of inferences based on these premises that lead to conclusions that are always correct if the premises are true.
Here are some important principles of logic:
Law of Identity: A thing is equal to itself. A = A.
Law of Non-Contradiction: A thing can’t be and not be (in the same sense, at the same time). A ≠ not-A.
Law of the Excluded Middle: A thing is either true or false. A = T or A = F.
Either implicitly or explicitly, every science uses logical principles like these to reason about things.
* * * *
Well, that’s it: we finally hit a wall. There isn’t another field that is commonly accepted as the foundation of logic. So logic is the end of our chain.
But human knowledge isn’t just a two-dimensional chain—there is another level. This level supports the chain, sits underneath it, rests behind it, lives inside it. We’ll call this level the matrix.
The links between the subjects in the above chain aren’t the only things connecting them. No, each of these subjects assumes something so obvious that it’s usually overlooked. Whatever subject you can think of—whether archaeology, organic chemistry, or psychology—it is practiced by groups of people in the present, building on the work of groups of people in the past.
This simple fact has profound implications.
How do groups of people communicate? With language. I’m not just talking about English or Spanish—anything that uses symbols to stand for objects can be considered a “language.” The symbols of math, for example, are how mathematicians communicate. The same goes for the chemical symbols used by chemists, or the languages computer programmers write code in. The point is that every science uses symbols. If knowledge can’t be expressed through symbols (which includes auditory and visual symbols), it can’t be communicated—it isn’t true “knowledge” at all.
Symbols stand for things, and they’re usually arbitrary. For example, nothing about the letter “t” intrinsically leads to the “tuh” sound—this association is arbitrary and purely conventional. Similarly, there’s nothing innate about the symbol “9” that leads to the number “9.” Nor is there a necessary reason we have a ten-digit number system, and not, say, a sixteen-digit number system (known as a hexadecimal system). Instead, our ten-digit system probably originated because we have ten fingers.
The symbols of languages are built on social consensus, the arbitrary conventions we’ve agreed to use to describe different things. There are many, many systems of these arbitrary conventions—there are thousands of spoken languages,8 for example.
Any science would be impossible without language and symbols. Linguistics is the study of language, and semiotics is the study of symbols. Linguistics and semiotics are social sciences.
Aside from the necessity of language (a social construct), science is only possible via another social construct: civilization. Science research assumes there is enough of a food surplus for people to specialize into different disciplines (and not just hunt and gather). Modern science research assumes funding, and some type of political stability. It assumes an education system for training scientists. And it assumes an awareness of past scientific progress, progress that scientists can build on in the present.
In other words, science assumes economics, education, government, law, political science, sociology, and history—the social sciences. Without this social matrix, none of the sciences in our chain of knowledge would have made any progress.
As science has progressed, it has only come to depend on these social structures more. Modern science requires international collaboration, billions of dollars in funding from stable governments and large corporations, a patent system, national systems of primary education, and thousands of universities. These systems are all subsumed in the social sciences.
Equally important, social structures form bridges between scientific disciplines, allowing them to share progress—both with each other and with society at large. These symbiotic relationships allow individual scientific disciplines to accomplish things they could never have accomplished on their own. For example, how far along would biology be without electricity? Without computers? The Human Genome Project would literally have been inconceivable without these technologies. But these technologies were not developed with biology in mind.
Technology—from the printing press to the semiconductor to the Internet— has more or less determined the progress of science. Technology is a product of many social structures, and the basic technologies that any branch of science takes for granted were generally not developed with that science in mind. Every branch of science owes its success to peripheral technologies—and to the fact that humans are social animals who share technologies.
Social structures are the glue that unite sciences with society and with each other, giving them what they need to grow. Scientific disciplines are not closed off in little bubbles; they’re inter-connected in social symphonies.
From the language it depends on to the structures that support it, the entire scientific enterprise is built on a social matrix.
This matrix of social structures is collectively studied by the social sciences, and it undergirds all human knowledge.
But what causes these social structures?
The order of subjects going into the matrix is the same as the order going down the chain—the social layer that supports the sciences is ultimately caused by biology, which is completely dictated by genetic activity. It’s genetic activity that causes what bacteria do in petri dishes, what salamanders do behind rocks, what mice do in fields, what dogs do in yards, and what humans do in cities, families, schools, markets, governments, and science labs.
We socially organize, cooperate, and experiment because it’s in our genes. “Our genes” and “us” are one and the same—we’re alive, and life is defined by DNA and its products. To suggest that humans are not fundamentally controlled by interactions between our genes, gene products, and environment is to posit that we’re not biological—a theory for which there isn’t a single shred of evidence.
What about technology? What about this intricate computer-driven world we’ve built for ourselves? Doesn’t that separate us from any other species on Earth? Only in degree. Beavers build dams, changing streams into beaver ponds. Millions of termites coordinate to build intricate mounds up to seventeen feet high. These mounds are packed with a stunningly elaborate system of tunnels, and—relative to a termite’s size—are on par with the tallest structures humans have ever built. (The purpose of these mounds isn’t even to house termites: it’s to function as a ventilation system for fungus farms underneath the mound.10)
Dams and mounds are crude forms of technology—of a species building structures to manipulate the physical environment to its advantage. The root cause of dams and mounds is, of course, beaver DNA and termite DNA. Dams and mounds are material products of DNA; they are DNA manipulating the physical environment to its advantage.
And for most of human history, our material DNA products (cavemen technologies) weren’t much better than dams and mounds. The only thing that separated us was the relatively recent invention of accumulated culture—writing and other means of leaving work and ideas behind that future generations could improve on, which allowed us to stand on the shoulders of dead giants (who stood on the shoulders of older dead giants—who stood on the shoulders of even older dead giants). This accumulated culture really is the only thing that separates us from other species: take any human and throw them in an isolated jungle with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Assuming they can even survive, you won’t be impressed with that they accomplish, technology-wise.)
Our incredibly recent (timescale: evolution) technological blossoming has made us lords of the Earth. But that doesn’t mean our technology isn’t a direct result of the same gene-environment interactions that cause beaver dams and termite mounds. Culture, science, and technology originated from our genes, they interact with our genes, they change our genes, and our genes change them—which makes them material DNA products.
Aside from causing the social structures that underlie science, our DNA causes something even more fundamental to knowledge: if we are our genes, then so are our perceptions, experiences, and thoughts. If our “mind” is in the neural connections of our brains, and these neural connections are encoded in our DNA, then there isn’t one iota of human experience that can’t be described as DNA interacting with its biological products, its material products (technology, etc.), and the environment. Unless, of course, humans are not biological.
Our genes encode our eyes, ears, noses, tongues, and tactile receptors, all of which gather data from a narrow range of the electromagnetic spectrum and send it to another genetically-encoded structure: our brains. Our brains interpret that data, integrating it with genetic instructions and the neural connections forged by culture, science, and technology (material DNA products). Then our brains try to communicate what happened inside them with genetically-encoded linguistic structures and an agreed-upon language.
But before it can be communicated, science and knowledge are ultimately built from experience and thought. And since experience and thinking happen in our neurons, we can only perceive and conceive—by definition—what our neurons and their material products allow us to. And our neurons are encoded by our genes.
In other words, DNA utterly defines and confines our universe.
And DNA is an organic chemical that self-replicates and controls other chemicals. Biology, in other words, is a form of chemistry.
And down the rabbit hole we go.
- Mora et al., “How Many Species Are There on Earth and in the Ocean,” PLOS Biology (2011): e1001127. http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.1001127.
- Savage, Dwayne, “Microbial Ecology of the Gastrointestinal Tract,” Annual Review of Microbiology 31 (1977): 107-33.
- Bruce et al., “The RNA World and the Origins of Life,” Molecular Biology of the Cell. 4th (2002). http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK26876/
- “History of Life on Earth,” Nature, Prehistoric Life. http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/history_of_the_earth. BBC.
- MSC2010: Final Public Version (May 2009). http://www.ams.org/mathscinet/msc/pdfs/classification2010.pdf
- Johnson, Carolyn, “A Talk With Mario Livio: Is Math the Language of the Universe?” Boston Globe. February 8, 2009. http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2009/02/08/a_talk_with_mario_livio/?page=full
- Kumen, K., “The Foundations of Mathematics,” London: College Publications, 2009. Page 8.
- Anderson, Stephen, “How Many Languages Are There in the World,” Linguistic Society of America. http://www.linguisticsociety.org/content/how-many-languages-are-there-world
- Musso et al, “Broca’s Area and the Language Instinct,” Nature Neuroscience 6 (2003): 774-781.
- Margonelli, Lisa, “Collective Mind in the Mound: How do Termites Build Their Huge Structures?,” National Geographic. July 31, 2014.