How many coincidences to make a reality?

Walter Starck


Coral reefs are the richest animal communities on Earth.  On reefs one can find in one place at one time living examples of all the ages and stages life.  The complete spectrum of animate being can be observed at first hand.  Sponges represent a primitive vegetative state with little that may be recognized as behavior.  Various polyps exhibit simple reflexes.  Mobility, rudimentary sensory organs, and a glimmer of learning begins with flatworms.  Increasing mobility, more sophisticated senses and increasingly complex behavior  is found among the higher invertebrates.  With fishes and the most advanced of invertebrates, the cephalopods, mobility, senses and a  nervous system for processing the increasingly sophisticated sensory information have reached a level that something new appears.  In these creatures learning is no longer just a passive process of repeating positive experience and avoiding negative ones.  The active seeking of new experience , what we call curiosity, begins to be apparent as does learning by observation.  Fishes and cephalopods will explore new things in their environment and take cues from the behavior of other individuals.  Beyond them are the dolphins with even larger brains than we ourselves.

Reefs offer us a rich opportunity to personally explore and observe the phenomena of life and consciousness.  The following essay reflects upon some of the author's experiences and thoughts in this regard.

       A sponge, the vegetative stage.

Polyps,  simple reflexes.                             Flatworm, mobility and rudimentary learning.

Advanced invertebrates with advanced mobility, senses, and learning.

Fishes exhibit curiosity, learning, and individuality.

Brains even larger than our own.  Photo by D. Faulkner 

Osprey Reef  (Map) is an isolated atoll reef rising abruptly to the surface of the open ocean a hundred miles east of Cape York in the tropical northeast of Australia, well out in the Coral Sea off in the tropical northeast coast of Australia. In the 1970's and 80's I visited there several times with my research vessel El Torito. In those days it was rarely visited. For the occasional ship which passed through this remote area it was simply a hazard to be avoided. The diving was superb with crystal clear water, spectacular outer reef walls plunging vertically into the abyss and abundant marine life untouched by human influence.

On one particular visit in the late 70's we were anchored inside the reef in about 40 feet of water on the northwest side of the atoll. Wherever we dived in the area we encountered large (2-3 feet long) predatory snappers, Lutjanus bohar. They were equipped with prominent canine teeth and possessed of considerable curiosity regarding the strange new creatures in their midst. A few days passed and if anything they seemed to be getting bolder rather than less curious. Occasionally one would even mouth some dangling or protruding part of our diving or photographic gear and it was not unthinkable that one might just decide to sample an ear, hand, or other bit of our anatomy.

Sharks of several species were also abundant but somewhat less curious, or perhaps just more wary, than the snappers. After a few days one of the photographers with us expressed a desire to use a dead fish as bait to get some close-up shark pictures. I knew from past experience that when spearfishing begins fish quickly become more wary so I decided to spear one of the snappers for shark bait and hopefully make the other snappers a bit more afraid of us at the same time.

Left: Lutjanus bohar above divers.

I cocked the speargun and swam down to the nearest large snapper. As I headed toward him he began to move away. This was not surprising. When a big animal heads purposefully toward you, you move out. He was about 6 feet from the tip of my outstretched speargun when I fired. The spear hit him amidships and abruptly stopped, embedded in the heavy backbone. He struggled away and I headed for the surface. The line from the spear to the gun came taut. For a moment the snapper struggled against the resistance then the spear pulled out. Unable to penetrate fully the folding barbs had not opened.

I quickly re-cocked the gun and chased after him. Despite his injury he was still faster than I was and slowly pulled away, disappearing out into the deeper part of the lagoon. The lagoon is vast and away from the reef the bottom is blanketed in fine silt. Near the bottom the water was turbid and visibility limited. There was simply no chance of finding the injured fish. These things happen. Injured animals escape from predators. Some die. Some recover.

Reluctantly, I decided to go for another snapper resolving to fire only at point blank range where despite any bones in the way the spear would go right through. Try as I might, even by wile and deception I could not get anywhere near another snapper. Oh well, thought I, I'll just hop in the outboard and buzz over to a patch reef about a mile away and get one there. Same story. They were there; but I couldn't get anywhere near one. I went to another patch reef a mile further away. Ditto. I came back to where El Torito was anchored and tried again. They hadn't forgotten anything. I gave up.

For the snappers within eyesight or perhaps even hearing when I speared the first one it is not too hard to accept some form of learning by direct experience and/or by taking a cue from the behavior of others. For the ones a mile or two away however, this explanation is hard to imagine. Perhaps it was just coincidence. This is the stock answer for anything that does not comfortably fit within the scientific paradigm.

A Different Example
Lake Eyre is a large flat depression far from the coast in the south central part of Australia.  This is harsh desert country and normally Lake Eyre is only a vast salt pan shimmering in the desert sun.  A few times in a century however, rain fronts push into the interior and the desert is temporarily deluged.  Runoff over a large area flows into the depression and Lake Eyre turns into a large shallow lake that lasts a year or two before drying up again.  When Lake Eyre forms, a remarkable explosion of life occurs.  Fishes and crustaceans teem in the lake and huge colonies of  water birds assemble  to feed and breed. 

 Click for enlarged view.   NASA image

Last year Lake Eyre again became a lake and certain species of birds abruptly disappeared from their normal haunts in places as much as a thousand kilometers and more away.  Something impelled them to pick up and leave  comfortable surrounds and fly into what would normally be inhospitable desert.  Speculation has been offered regarding low frequency sound waves from  thunderstorms perhaps being  their cue but that possibility seems a rather far fetched one.  There is no reason to believe birds are capable of such detection nor any evidence to indicate  such waves  propagate over such distances  and with mountainous terrain in between.  All we really know is that somehow, over a huge area,  certain species depart for a place that would normally afford  only death by thirst and starvation.  

Explanation vs. Reality
Science has proven to be the most powerful of all the means humans have yet devised to explore and explain our world. Despite its power, however, its realm of understanding is still far from complete. Science is an island of knowledge in a sea of ignorance. We throw out our lines of inquiry and pull in bits and pieces to add to the island but out in the sea there is still much that is only dimly glimpsed and beyond that undoubtedly much more totally beyond our awareness.  Reality is not limited to what we can currently explain.

Take consciousness for example. There is no scientific explanation for how a particular configuration of matter embodies consciousness. We can't prove scientifically where it is located, either in space or in time or in what assemblies of matter. We can't measure it or even prove scientifically it exists at all. Despite the lack of scientific evidence we do not need expert opinion or scientific proof to know it does exist. We know that from direct experience. The lack of a scientific explanation for it doesn't mean it does not exist. It simply means that scientifically speaking it is still out there, only dimly glimpsed by science, in that unknown sea. It also means that we and our universe are much more wondrous than we might choose to imagine.

An isolated glimpse of anything may leave a legitimate doubt as to its existence but when something is repeatedly observed or stretches the limits of improbability toward the infinite we had best accept something real is happening. How many coincidences does it take to make a reality?

More Examples
My experience with the snappers was not an isolated one. It was just a particularly clear one. When a new danger appears animals "learn" to avoid it. Providing, of course, that it is within their physical capacity to sense it and to get away from it. Examples are plentiful. Rat traps and poison are only effective for a short time and are then avoided.

In the Florida Keys fishing from bridges is a popular pastime. So much so that some locations are fished close to 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. One might expect that such spots would be fished out or at least sustained only by piscine passers by. Under these bridges however, there are often dense schools of various resident fishes totally ignoring a dangling smorgasbord of baits and lures.

There and elsewhere it a common pattern for new fishing lures, or baits, or techniques to be introduced and prove very effective for a short time. Then, as they become popular and widely used, they become markedly less effective. Conversely, old, no longer used methods can sometimes be revived and again prove effective for a time. 

In tropical Australia, Cane Toads (Bufo marinus) were introduced in an attempt to control a beetle that was a problem for the sugar cane industry. Having arrived in the Promised Land they immediately passed on beetle eating for a variety of more delectable local wildlife. At first they grew to gigantic (for a toad) size and protected by poison glands suffered little from predation. Be fruitful and multiply has been their motto and they now call about a quarter of the continent home.

As they spread into new areas birds, snakes, and other naive predators find the newcomers easy prey. This illusion is short lived. The toad's poison either ends the taste for toad or the life of the toad taster. Their range has expanded inexorably. For years academic biologists, envirocrats and ecofreaks predicted catastrophe. The reality has been quite different.

In a short while predators learn to leave the toads alone or to avoid the toxin which is secreted by glands at the back of the head. After a few years the size and number of toads in an area declines and a new balance seems to emerge. Despite the claims of the doomscryers the toads are now widespread and no serious ecological consequences are apparent.

Somehow, if a new danger that is recognizable and avoidable presents itself,  animals seem to quickly learn about it. Undoubtedly learning from personal experience, taking cues from the behavior of other individuals and natural selection all play a role in this process. In some instances however, the speed and comprehensiveness of the process stretch the credibility of such explanations . It is almost as if some telepathic or mass mind phenomenon was involved.

Unbelievable Coincidences
A short while after that experience with the snappers at Osprey Reef I came across what is probably the most remarkable scientific paper I have yet encountered in nearly 50 years of reading scientific literature. It was published in Science, that august journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. It was remarkable in content and equally so for the casual way in which it presented information of profound implication then brushed it aside as remarkable coincidence.

The paper in Science was a report on a long term study by a team of researchers at the University of Minnesota. Their investigation involved a detailed examination of identical twins who have been reared apart. Besides the not unexpected physical similarities between such individuals the investigators also found striking similarities in intelligence, personality and other psychological parameters despite, in some cases, very different environmental influences.

In addition to the physical and psychological similarities of the twins, however, the researchers also encountered what they called "remarkable coincidences"  such as the female twins who were brought together for the first time at the age of 39 years. Both wore dresses with the same floral pattern. Both had seven rings on their fingers, two bracelets on one wrist and a watch and bracelet on the other. Then there were the male twins, unknown to one another until the researchers tracked them down, who were both deputy sheriffs in Ohio. Both vacationed in Florida and stayed at the same resort, though not at the same time. Both drove Chevrolets, both had dogs named Toy. Both married and divorced women named Linda and remarried women named Betty. Their sons were named James Allan and James Alan. Both had hemorrhoids and identical pulse and blood pressure. Both had put on 10 pounds for no apparent reason at the same time. Both had the same pattern of headaches, etc.

This study continues and over the years several dozen pairs of identical twins reared apart have been investigated. The "remarkable coincidences" continue to crop up. It is difficult to imagine either genetic or environmental factors that could satisfactorily explain such coincidences and nobody has suggested any. Dismissing them simply as coincidence however, presents an even bigger problem if you wish to keep probability somewhere this side of infinity. Coincidence is a cop out. The Too Hard basket would be more honest. Undoubtedly there is a real phenomenon involved. The real question is what?

The Ultimate Question
It is pretty hard to avoid consideration of some kind of link in consciousness being involved. Is such a thing possible within the framework of the scientific paradigm? As there is no scientific explanation, definition, law, or theory of consciousness we cannot say anything is either possible or impossible. We can only say it is not impossible.

In today's world science for some has become a form of fundamentalist religion. Not an open ended system of inquiry but a closed body of doctrine and dogma. This is epitomized in the book by John Horgan, The End of Science, which contends that scientific discovery is effectively complete. All of the major scientific discoveries have been made and all that is left is the filling in of more and more details. Needless to say, thinking of this ilk is not very receptive to radical new ideas or consideration of anything which might imply that science is less than complete. For such minds science has become a belief based on a limited conception of science concocted from a self edited selection of scientific knowledge and unsupported claims of certainty and completeness.

At the leading edge of scientific thinking however, the picture is very different. Concepts such as emergent qualities which cannot be understood by reductionist analysis, relationship of events at a distance without local causation and the inextricable relationship of the observer and the observed are very much a part of the scientific paradigm. At the subatomic level the certainty of Newtonian mechanics acting on a material world is replaced by the iffy probabilities of quantum mechanics ruling a realm where reality may be influenced by the act of observation.

DNA, the stuff of life, exists in a quantum world. Identical twins are derived from identical DNA replicating from the same molecular source. That they may retain some quantum resonance is not really surprising. All life is genetically related to a greater or lesser degree. We share 95% of our genetic structure with chimpanzees. If identical twins are linked in consciousness in some way then all consciousness probably is to varying degree.

Can we somehow "know" of things beyond the reach of our recognized senses?  If one pays attention experience indicates we can.  We are not simply in this world but rather very deeply of  it.  This may be why diving on a reef is not so much like visiting a strange and exotic place as it is like coming home. 

While all this may be uncertain to you or I at this time, it is far from academic. The discovery of our true nature is the ultimate question for science, religion and philosophy. The answer to that question is of the most profound import. The true age of discovery is only beginning.

Complexity has a way of enfolding marvelous surprises.