The Great Reminder

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A bit of personal history. Below appears the valedictory speech I gave when graduating from Porter College at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Youthful disclaimer: Apart from being grandiose, I take creative license with biology and computer science to serve my own save-the-world agenda.

Late morning sun is warm and bright, here at the June edge of a Santa Cruz summer — a wonderful condition. The two-thousand-or-so crowd of moms, dads, grandparents, professors, friends and lovers fills the Porter College quad to overflowing. They churn in happy cacophany. In the middle of it all: the black-robed bloc of soon-to-be-graduates, sweating in the sun. And up above, the great oak trees sway, their music inaudible above the crowd sound.

I am sitting behind the provost, faculty and fellows on stage, eyes closed in meditation. I listen to the sentimental speeches: a dance professor who urges us to be passionate people; a fellow student who bears to us her honeycomb heart; the provost who commends our achievements and foretells our great works. Meanwhile, the breath goes in and out, and with it goes all fear, anxiety, pride, hesitation. The provost calls my name and I rise, black robes flowing toward the heavy podium and an ocean of faces. With palms laid face-up on the wood I take a deep breath. I speak:

“This is dedicated to the one I love…..”

An eruption of smiles and laughter as I pause before completing the invocation:

“….You.”

I look into the crowd before me and begin a slow scan of the faces — trying, to the limit of my ability, to make eye contact with each and every person. As I do, they slowly catch on to the meaning of my words. Now the smiles are ten-fold wider, the laughter ten-fold louder. There are a lot of people in the audience. It takes a long time. I make a complete circle, turning to include the faculty and administrators sitting behind me, until once again I am facing the ocean, now totally silent but vibrating with glee. Up above, I hear the wind blowing through the oak trees like a great, invisible breath. I begin:

I come before you in this moment, not as a bearer of words, but of a Word.

The human genome is a single, glorious Word three billion letters in length. And though spelled from an alphabet of only four characters, this one Word is more profound than all the words uttered by all our poets. For the sound of its articulation is the human being, and, by extension: all the poetry, the cave paintings, and atom bombs that have sprung from our hands, mouths and minds.

Human creativity is Nature’s creativity, expressing through us.

Now science races to transcribe the text of our genome. When UC Santa Cruz became the first institution to share this text freely on the Internet for all to see, our species took yet another step towards a great Initiation. For with the deciphering of DNA’s code, the flesh will be made Word. We will step back to contemplate the very bodies in which we are clothed.

Through the vehicle of human cognition, Nature is striving to understand itself. And the arrival of this understanding will serve as The Great Reminder: that we and every species of plant, animal and microbe are branches on a Tree of Life that has been growing on this planet for three and a half billion years. Each branch is a unique expression of Nature’s endless creativity; and humanity is but the most recent branchlet, straining up toward the Sun.

Did you know? You share half your genetic code with common yeast. You are 90% genetically identical to the field mouse. And only 1% separates you from the chimpanzee.

I pause as the graduates break out in wild monkey hoots and screeches (a Porter College tradition frowned upon by the administration).

And the difference between you and everyone else in this audience? A mere tenth of a percent.

What makes humankind unique among all the branches in the Tree of Life? It is our Creative Intellect, reflecting in microcosm Nature’s own creative power to fashion novel forms out of our environment. Our own creations, artistic and technological, are themselves yet further branchings in Nature’s Tree.

Thus it’s no wonder that the most advanced developments of our Information Age bear such close resemblance to Nature’s own forms: the World Wide Web, extending our collective memory in a global embrace, bears a family resemblance to the brain’s own network organization. Computer scientists design search algorithms based on the foraging patterns of ants. Digital information storage, massively parallel computation, nanotechnology — these are all basic functions of DNA’s double helix. To call these concepts “new” is like the chicken claiming to have invented the egg.

Still, one thing is truly new. And it is our one hope for survival. On the Tree of Life, humanity’s Creative Mind is the one and only fruit, nurturing within it the seed — invention — the vessel by which DNA’s message might one day be carried to the stars — to plant new gardens before ours is consumed in the fire of our dying Sun.

H.G. Wells wrote, “History is a race between education and disaster.”

Caught up in the dizzying spell that is globalized millennial culture, humanity has forgotten its connection to the Tree of Life. We have forgotten our kinship with every plant and animal.

Forgotten how to live in equilibrium with our environment.

Forgotten the Word, that binds all people as one human family.

Forgotten the true source of our creativity: Nature.

And we have forgotten the stars, though they shine on us every night.

Yet this state of affairs is not tragedy! It is opportunity: to collectively employ our inheritance, the Creative Mind. Whether to design high-technology, adopt ecologically sustainable ways of living, or simply to extend the smile of friendship to strangers you pass in the street — we are all acting out The Great Reminder.

Remember: the stars.

Remember: imagination — the inside of our heads — is the greatest frontier.

Remember: You are the Tree of Life, branches reaching up for the Sun, ever-curious, ever-seeking new possibilities for being.

And what is, perhaps, closest to being, is beginning.

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