The explorations into the unknown unknowns are complicated by the obvious fact that we haven’t the slightest idea of where we are going. We are trying to make progress beyond simply pushing against the envelope of the known, and thereby moving the boundaries of the known gradually into the unknown, which is the general method of humanity and the standard of science in specific.
This series of essays is proceeding, not by reaching into the unknown and flailing randomly about, but by defining and exploring the factors that obscure our seeing into the unknowns which are in all likelihood surrounding us. It is a worthwhile pursuit because generally when anything is clearly perceived in the unknown there will be other interesting and perhaps useful things which can then be done with this new knowledge. Isolated things that don’t have a clear linkage to things which we know and understand may be closely linked to other things which we don’t see, but which may be associated in understandable ways.
A strange observation is that the things discovered so far about seeking into the unknown seem so obvious that a child could readily observe them, and yet these are some of the tools we will use. They might seem as obvious as a hammer and saw, but it is with them that we will pursue the removing of the camouflage of walls, veils, fogs, time, space, fixity, randomness and other obscuring factors. The underlying method of new discovery is in finding new tools. We have looked at some of the obscuring factors of camouflage, and explored some of the tools for seeing past the camouflage, and have found some of the characteristics of knowledge itself.
Something obvious to a child but important for seeing past obscurity is the existence of bilateral symmetry. It is a giveaway of living organisms’ camouflage, but along with that simple observation is that all multicellular living forms, from insects to humans, have a linear arrangement of body parts. That may not seem like much of an observation, but when searching for an insect in an environment to which it has adapted camouflage it is a definable visible giveaway to its presence.
Once even a trace of bilateral symmetry is suspected it is easy to mentally project a perpendicular line between the symmetrical items and, if a new symmetry is found anywhere along that line, to make the further assumption that the head is at one end or the other along that line. The head will always have distinctive features such as mouth, feeding apparatus, eyes or other sensors like antennae. These head features may sometimes be faked at the tail end of a prey species to confuse predators, and to give the prey possessing that trait a momentary chance to depart in an unexpected direction.
The body plan along the anterior-posterior (head-tail) axis is controlled by the Hox gene, which is probably more than a billion years old, but bilateral symmetry is perhaps twice as old. That is, bilateral symmetry may go back to the beginning of DNA-controlled life forms. DNA itself is bilaterally symmetrical. The importance of this is that neither bilateral symmetry nor anterior-posterior arrangement of life forms can be modified, at present, without killing the cell, and without a successful cell there can be no life.
Bilateral symmetry may no longer be an absolute limitation, as modern gene manipulation by J. Craig Venter, of the Venter Institute, and Jennifer Doudna of UC Berkeley may permit the possibility of creating alternate life forms. I hesitate to call them life, except that they will be DNA-based, but if the researchers into life can work around the necessity for the Hox gene the living forms might be so different in behavior we might not want to call them living. It is similar to the problem as to when to begin calling a more advanced computer a sentient being. It is simply a definition when speaking in words, but the words are attempting to define some real thing.
Living giveaways will be bilateral symmetry and a standard sequential arrangement.
There is a discussion of this problem relative to human perception in Sometimes I like a nondescript photo, but why? In that post, horizontal symmetry and vertical stacking are analyzed in a way reminiscent of bilateral symmetry and the Hox gene. This cross-linking of a seemingly unrelated idea is what we are looking for when seeking to explore the unknown unknowns. Both bilateral symmetry and sequential alignment probably indicate an even deeper relationship than that the two seemingly unrelated items, DNA and artistic preference, have a set of underlying similarities. Sometimes one of these things is thought of as metaphor for explaining the other, but there may be a deeper relationship which might be projected to seemingly distant unknowns.