The Molecular Theory of Civilization

(Part 3 of 4 in our series marking the fiftieth anniversary of Pauling’s delivery of the Messenger Lectures.)

At the heart of Pauling’s Messenger Lectures was his newly established theory which he referred to simply as the “molecular basis of civilization.”  Through his work as a chemist, Pauling had developed a belief that the seeming randomness of life could be traced down to the molecular level where macroscopic problems, like violence and disease, could be explained.

Pauling explained that the first molecules resulted from photo- and electrochemical reactions.  Some of these molecules became autocatalytic, or self-duplicating, while others were broken down and reformed into different molecules, with each molecule competing for atomic particles that would allow for further self-duplication.

As this duplication and competition continued, the newly formed molecules began to evolve according to the abundance of various elements.  Eventually, mutations allowed these molecules to begin manufacturing smaller molecules to be used as “food” for the growing molecular colonies.  These molecules continued to mutate, eventually developing into organisms ranging from bacteria to complex mammals such as humans.  Joints, organs, nervous systems, and brains all appeared following millions of years of molecular evolution.

Pauling claimed that memories, for example, were one of the most significant results of evolution in history.  Pauling explained that when the human brain size doubled – approximately 700,000 years ago – humans developed the ability to create, maintain, and share memories. He described this phenomenon as the first example of “the inheritance of acquired characteristics.”  Ephemeral and long-term memory, he said, are the basis of civilization.  Without them, speech, invention, and the communication of long-term knowledge would all be virtually impossible.

According to Pauling, this increase in human brain size was the last great evolutionary moment in human history, and that the achievement of long-term memory and communication marked a completely new moment for life.  The ability to communicate information, he said, transformed the human race into a single organism connected through our collective knowledge.

From there, Pauling argued that, for the human race to thrive, evolution must continue. In his final lecture at Cornell, he exhorted that “we must now achieve the mutation that will bring sanity to this great organism, the organism that is mankind.”  Pauling admitted that a mutation allowing greater empathy among humans (he suggested extrasensory perception as an example) had the potential to be highly effective.  Unfortunately, in his view, the human race may well not survive long enough to enjoy another highly beneficial mutation along those lines.  Instead, he argued that the next “mutation” must be a mutation of conscience in human thought that would allow for widespread elimination of suffering via cooperation and shared interest in the advancement of human well-being.

Pauling argued that this change in human thought, however far outside our traditional understanding of evolution, is deeply connected with Darwinian theory.  He explained that a mass restructuring of values across the human race would accomplish the ultimate goal of physical evolution by allowing for the survival and even growth of the human race.  What’s more, he explained that this evolution of the mind corresponded directly with the earlier evolution of the brain.

Over the next decade, Pauling continued to refer to this next step – sometimes called conscious evolution – as a means of encouraging a wide variety of practices including nuclear disarmament, the control of hereditary genetic abnormalities, and the development of an international governing body.  In fact, he closed his final Messenger Lecture with a brief talk on the importance of international peace and the need to end human suffering, encouraging his audience to actively seek a heightened sense of communal responsibility.

Following the lecture series, it was traditional for the guest speaker to partner with Cornell University Press for a print release of the talks.  Though not a requirement of the lectureship, this partnership gave the Press some exposure and allowed the lecturer’s work to be more widely circulate, making it an ideal situation for both parties.  Pauling believed his talks to be suitable for publication and, in late 1959, began to collect his notes and resources accordingly.

Unfortunately, the book never materialized.  In 1960, Pauling was subpoenaed by the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee and embroiled in a long and unpleasant series of investigations into his patriotism.  From there, his peace work took over, leaving little time for other activities.  It seems that the Messenger publication was simply neglected amidst the press of greater issues.  Nevertheless, Pauling’s papers include a substantial collection of his Messenger notes and manuscripts, affording us a glimpse at the philosophical questions that stimulated and intrigued Pauling during his most politically active years.

Click here for all of our posts on the Messenger Lectures.  For more information on Linus Pauling, please visit the Linus Pauling Portal or the OSU Special Collections homepage.

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