The story of fire

The Story of Fire

This isn’t how Silo told me the tale; it’s how I heard it. The opening was something from another story and by another author (me) but I thought it fit so well…

On a distant world, in a far away galaxy that was already old when ours was still being born, a beautiful turquoise world circled a yellow star. As happens throughout the universe there were nooks and crannies here where conditions were such that increasingly complex chemical and morphological conditions combined with complex organic molecules forged in deep space and transported by meteorites, and finally allowed for the emergence of self-replicating molecules capable of combining with and modifying each other.

Billions of, what on our home planet we would call, years passed – though of course the orbital period defining such measures vary from world to world In any case, eventually in one such place a few of the microscopic chains of molecules infiltrated the blobs of organic film that had developed in the same chemical stew and the vast energy that moved all this entered yet another stage in its transformation. Unmeasured time passed and new combinations of these bits and pieces emerged and disappeared and occasionally stabilized, replicating themselves.

So it was that generation begat generation, and occasionally begat another combination capable of even greater success at this game of reproduction and growth. Success in banging around in this increasingly interesting soup increased for those – well you don’t want to call them critters yet, let’s just call them blobs for the moment. The chemical attraction to or away from light, the tug of gravity the action of wind and tide on their form all encouraged movement and mixture and exposure to new conditions. Conditions where depleted chemicals could be replenished and corrosive elements avoided. Those entities prone to movement had more chance of bumping into conditions that didn’t suit them but also a greater chance of finding the chemicals and conditions they needed to maintain themselves. It was a gamble but one that over tens of millions of years occasionally paid off.

But of course if you moved off one way and the nourishment you required moved another, or if you reproduced at the same moment you were moving to absorb the chemicals you needed or – well your kind of blob wouldn’t last too long. Imagine the advantage when those functions acted in a coordinated way.

In some rare cases the tendency of the blobs to maintain their shape, along with the inertia inherent in the materials that composed them, resulted in circuits of this quasi-biological metabolism developing a certain persistence – a rudimentary form of memory. This proto-memory also became more complex as did the surface sensitivity of the films that kept the blobs separate from everything else. It was many circuits around the sun but in the long story of their galaxy it was only a moment before this surface sensitivity grew more acute and specialized, eventually developing into specialized sense organs.

Locomotion, reproduction and metabolism, senses and memory all coordinated in increasingly sophisticated ways. An explosion of life forms multiplying, interacting, feeding, spreading out over the planet, reproducing competing and cooperating, living and dying. A lot of time passed but nobody was counting, and somewhere along the way an odd creature arose. How odd eventually become apparent but it was something that might have been foreshadowed in a single moment.

No rain had fallen for a long time. Every creature that lived there was, in its own way, nervous and letting its neighbours know that. The chemical signals from plant roots leaching to their symbiotic fungi carried a message. That’s not to say there was a messenger or someone to read the message no words or concepts were exchanged but the modulations of possible biochemical states carried signals that could modify the behaviour of the receiver. There were many changes, some slight, some not so subtle, in their posture, behaviour, calls, feeding patterns… in just about everything. It was too dry and it wasn’t just a question of thirst. And then it happened maybe it was a lightning strike, maybe it was a hot ash from a volcano (though not as active as it was a 500 million years earlier the planet’s surface was still much more active than it would become over the next few tens of millions). Whatever the cause fire was spreading and on a scale that happily occurred once a century or so. The smell of smoke soon gave way to a gathering mist and as the advancing heat and flames spread the sky was blackened with endless flocks of fleeing birds. Terrified surface dwellers, from the tiniest to the largest, fled until the ground shook. Fear was amplified by the chaos and cacophony. But fires, even on this scale, reach a limit, and even burn themselves out.

There were survivors, though many were injured and singed, maddened and terrified, from hunger, thirst and pain. All around embers still smouldered and an occasionally a branch would burst into flame starting a smaller but no less horrified stampede. And how could it be otherwise. Those who fled survived and might breed – if they didn’t die from some other cause before they had that chance. If anything survived of those who hesitated a moment too long before moving away from fire it was nothing but charred remains, or ashes or smoke.

It had all happened uncounted times before and would again. Except this time something odd occurred.

Over billions of years, even before there were genes and nervous systems, evolution had taught a lesson that had been learned by every entity that managed to survive. That primary directive had many variants. In this context we might translate it as, “when faced with a danger you can’t fight – run!”. Now something unprecedented and profoundly inexplicable occurred. Against the accumulated forces favouring flight and survival, one small creature undistinguished by its speed, size or strength, turned and hesitatingly approached a branch flickering with flame that lay on the burned ground of what had been a lush and ancient forest. Between hesitation and curiosity it reached out it’s arm and withdrew it unconvinced until finally it grasped the flaming brand and to its own astonishment as much as to that of its kin – it ran off proudly waving a flaming torch. Unknown to the witnesses, as much as to our protagonist, the acceleration of history had begun.

What force drove that turn against all that was natural for living things? We may never know, but a million or so more turns around the sun and the descendents of that wee thing had become the master of fire, a tool user and toolmaker, a shaper of symbols.

Like many social creatures that transmit knowledge to their young, it had a nascent culture. Does it seem excessive to call it culture when, for instance, a crow teaches its young to sound the alarm when they see particular humans? What if those young birds in turn teach the next generation? What about chimps who not only use tools but where each troop makes them differently than their neighbours? It may well be excessive so let’s call it nascent culture and simply say that the critters we’re watching had demonstrated that nascent culture and it was precisely this that allowed the accumulation of knowledge and technique, of attitudes and procedures, that soon gave them writing, and cities, that allowed them to invent and refine their tools and weapons…