O is for Origins

O = Origins, Past, Present and Future History of life on Earth.

See also: History

And Genesis

Order and Organization


or·i·gin (ôrʹə-jĭn, ŏrʹ-) noun
Abbr. orig.

1.     The point at which something comes into existence or from which it derives or is derived.

2.     Ancestry: “We cannot escape our origins, however hard we try” (James Baldwin).

3.     The fact of originating; rise or derivation: The rumor had its origin in an impulsive remark.

4.     Anatomy. The point of attachment of a muscle that remains relatively fixed during contraction.

5.     Mathematics. The point of intersection of coordinate axes, as in the Cartesian coordinate system.

[Middle English origine, ancestry, from Latin orīgō, orīgin-, from orīrī, to arise, be born.]

Synonyms: origin, inception, source, root. These nouns signify the point at which something originates. Origin is the point at which something comes into existence: The origins of some words are unknown. “Man with all his noble qualities . . . still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin” (Charles Darwin). When origin refers to people, it means parentage or ancestry: “He came . . . of mixed French and Scottish origin” (Charlotte Brontë). Inception is the beginning, as of an action or process: Between the inception of the litigation and its final disposition the plaintiff’s first attorney retired. Source can refer to the point of origin of a stream or a river: “the Alpine sources of the Rhine” (John Foster Kirk). In another sense the term signifies the point at which something springs into being or from which it derives or is obtained: “one great original source of revenue . . . the wages of labor” (Adam Smith). “The mysterious . . . is the source of all true art and science” (Albert Einstein). Root often denotes what is considered the fundamental cause of or basic reason for something: “Lack of money is the root of all evil” (George Bernard Shaw). “Most of the problems a President has to face have their roots in the past” (Harry S. Truman).

origin (noun)

origin, origination, derivation, conception, genesis, birth, nativity
provenance, ancestry, parentage
fount, fons et origo
rise, source
nest, womb, seedbed
bud, germ, seed
egg, protoplasm, organism
first beginnings, cradle, home

Other Forms
prototype: original, protoplast, origin
beginning: beginning, birth, rise
source: source, fountain, fount, fons et origo, origin
seedbed: cradle, nursery, origin
propagation: birth, nativity, happy event, origin
genealogy: descent, extraction, birth, ancestry, origin
home: bosom of one’s family, family circle, cradle, birthplace, “house where I was born”, origin
base: fundamental, origin
element: principle, first principle, nitty-gritty, origin
life: gift of life, birth, nativity, origin


dem·i·urge (dĕmʹē-ûrj´) noun

1.     A powerful creative force or personality.

2.     A public magistrate in some ancient Greek states.

3.     Demiurge A deity in Gnosticism, Manicheeism, and other religions who creates the material world and is sometimes viewed as the originator of evil.

4.     Demiurge A Platonic deity who orders or fashions the material world out of chaos.

[Late Latin dēmiurgus, from Greek dēmiourgos, artisan : dēmios, public (from dēmos, people) + ergos, worker (from ergon, work).]

– dem´i·urʹgeous (-ûrʹjəs) or dem´i·urʹgic (-jĭk), dem´i·urʹgi·cal (-jĭ-kəl) adjective
– dem´i·urʹgi·cal·ly adverb



an·cient (ānʹshənt) adjective
Abbr. anc.

1.     Of great age; very old.

2.     Of or relating to times long past, especially those of the historical period before the fall of the Western Roman Empire (A.D. 476). See synonyms at old.

3.     Old-fashioned; antiquated.

4.     Having the qualities associated with age, wisdom, or long use; venerable.

1.     A very old person.

2.     A person who lived in times long past.

3.     ancients  a. The peoples of the classical nations of antiquity. b. The ancient Greek and Roman authors.

[Middle English auncien, from Old French, from Vulgar Latin *anteānus : Latin ante, before + -ānus, adj. and n. suff.]

– anʹcient·ly adverb
– anʹcient·ness noun


ge·net·ics (jə-nĕtʹĭks) noun

1.     (used with a sing. verb) The branch of biology that deals with heredity, especially the mechanisms of hereditary transmission and the variation of inherited characteristics among similar or related organisms.

2.     (used with a pl. verb) The genetic constitution of an individual, a group, or a class.



Genetics, scientific study of how physical, biochemical, and behavioral traits are transmitted from parents to their offspring. The word genetics was coined in 1906 by the British biologist William Bateson.

Emergence of Genetics
The science of genetics began in 1900, when several plant breeders independently discovered the work of the Austrian monk Gregor Mendel, who had published his findings in 1866. Mendel described the patterns of inheritance in different pea plant varieties. He observed that traits were inherited as separate units, each independently of the others (see Mendel’s Laws), and he suggested that each parent has pairs of these units but contributes only one unit from each pair to its offspring. These units were later given the name genes.

Physical Basis of Heredity
Scientists realized that the patterns of inheritance that Mendel had described paralleled the action of chromosomes in dividing cells, and they proposed that the chromosomes carry the genes. Most cells in the human body contain 23 pairs of chromosomes, but the number varies in other species. Each chromosome contains numerous genes. The process of cell division by which a new cell comes to have the same number of chromosomes as the parent cell is called mitosis. Higher organisms that reproduce sexually are formed from the union of two special sex cells known as gametes. Gametes are produced by meiosis, which differs from mitosis in one important way: in meiosis a single chromosome from each pair of chromosomes is transmitted to each of the new cells. Thus each gamete contains half the number of chromosomes that are found in the other body cells. When two gametes unite in fertilization, the resulting cell, called the zygote, contains the full double set of chromosomes.

The Transmission of Genes
The union of gametes brings together two sets of genes, one set from each parent. If one form, or allele, of a gene is dominant, only that form will be expressed, although in later generations the recessive trait may reappear. Sometimes the inheritance of different alleles results in intermediate characteristics. The four-o’clock plant, for example, can have flowers that are red, white, or pink; the pink flower is an intermediate form. Genes seldom control a single trait alone. One gene may control more than one trait, and one trait may depend on many genes.

Gene Linkage and Gene Mapping
Mendel’s principle that genes controlling different traits are inherited independently is true only when the genes occur on different chromosomes. American geneticist Thomas Hunt Morgan showed that genes are arranged on the chromosomes in a linear fashion and that genes on the same chromosome are inherited as a single unit if the chromosome remains intact. These genes are said to be linked. Morgan also found that such linkage is rarely complete. During meiosis, a coupled pair of chromosomes may exchange material in a process called recombination, or crossing-over. Using crossover frequencies, scientists can map the relative positions of the genes along the chromosome. Recombination can also take place without exchanges between chromosomes, in a process called gene conversion, by which one allele is modified to match its paired allele.

Sex and Sex Linkage
Morgan also observed sexual differences in the inheritance of traits, a pattern known as sex-linked inheritance. Sex is usually determined by the action of a single pair of chromosomes. A human female, for example, has 23 similar pairs of chromosomes. A human male, however, has 22 similar pairs and 1 dissimilar pair. The two sex chromosomes in the female are called X chromosomes. One of the sex chromosomes in the male is an X chromosome, but the other one is called the Y chromosome. Each egg produced by the female contains one X chromosome, but the sperm produced by the male can contain either an X or a Y chromosome. The union of an egg with a sperm bearing an X chromosome produces a zygote with two Xs: a female offspring. The union of an egg with a sperm that bears a Y chromosome produces a male offspring.

The human Y chromosome appears to be genetically inactive, but genes on the X chromosome, such as that for the hereditary blood disease hemophilia, are sex-linked genes. Other sex-linked conditions include red-green color blindness and night blindness.

Gene Action: DNA and the Code of Life
In the early 1940s geneticists found that genes direct the formation of enzymes. Each polypeptide unit of an enzyme is produced by a specific gene. Chromosomes are almost entirely composed of protein and nucleic acids, and in 1944 Canadian bacteriologist Oswald Theodore Avery proved that deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) is the substance that determines heredity. In 1953 American geneticist James Watson and British geneticist Francis Crick worked out the structure of DNA. They found that the DNA molecule is formed of two long strands in a double helix, somewhat resembling a long, spiral ladder. To make an identical copy of the DNA molecule, the two strands unwind and separate. New matching strands then form with each separated strand.

The question remained about how DNA directs the formation of proteins, which control virtually all the chemical reactions that occur in living matter. Every protein is made up of one or more polypeptides, and each polypeptide is a chain of amino acids. Scientists reasoned that a genetic code must exist by which the DNA could direct the sequence of amino acids in the formation of polypeptides. This specification of polypeptides by the DNA was found to take place indirectly, through a specialized ribonucleic acid (RNA) known as messenger RNA (mRNA). One strand of DNA serves as a template upon which the mRNA is formed.

The production of a strand of mRNA by a particular section of DNA is called transcription. One end of the new mRNA molecule then becomes inserted into one or more small structures called ribosomes. The ribosomes read the mRNA code, and in a step called translation, another type of RNA molecule called transfer RNA (tRNA) attaches amino acids to the growing chain.

The copying of DNA is not always done flawlessly. Very rarely, changes, known as mutations, occur during copying. In 1929 American biologist Hermann Joseph Muller found that the rate of mutation can be increased greatly by X rays. Later, other forms of radiation, high temperatures, and various chemicals were also found capable of inducing mutations. Most mutations are harmful to the living things that carry them.

The chromosomes themselves may alter in form or number. A section of chromosome may become detached, turn over, and then reattach at the same site, a process called inversion. If the detached section unites with a different chromosome, or a different part of the original chromosome, it is called a translocation. Sometimes a piece of chromosome will be lost from one member of a pair of chromosomes and gained by the other member. Most of these chromosomal rearrangements are probably the consequences of errors in the process of crossing-over. Another kind of mutation occurs when a pair of chromosomes fails to separate at meiosis. This can produce gametes-and hence zygotes-with extra chromosomes and others with one or more chromosomes missing, conditions that can result in severe disabilities.

Sometimes an entire set of chromosomes may fail to separate at meiosis, producing a gamete with twice the normal number of chromosomes. If the gamete fuses with another gamete, a zygote with additional sets of chromosomes, known as a polyploid, is produced. Viable and fertile polyploids are found almost exclusively in hermaphroditic organisms (see Hermaphroditism).

Human Heredity
Most physical characteristics of human beings are influenced by multiple genetic variables as well as by the environment. Susceptibility to various diseases has an important genetic element. These diseases include Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes mellitus, multiple sclerosis (MS), several forms of cancer, and high blood pressure. Many rare diseases are caused by recessive genes and a few by dominant genes.

The identification and study of genes are of great interest to biologists, and can also be of medical importance. Human beings possess approximately 50,000 to 100,000 genes, of which about 4000 may be associated with disease. A coordinated effort, called the Human Genome Project, was started in 1990 to understand the entire human genome.



his·to·ry (hĭsʹtə-rē) noun
Abbr. hist.

1.     A narrative of events; a story.

2.     a. A chronological record of events, as of the life or development of a people or an institution, often including an explanation of or commentary on those events: “The queens in history compare favorably with the kings” (Elizabeth Cady Stanton). b. A formal written account of related natural phenomena: a history of volcanoes. c. A record of a patient’s medical background.

3.     The branch of knowledge that records and analyzes past events: “History has a long-range perspective” (Elizabeth Gurley Flynn).

4.     a. The events forming the subject matter of a historical account. b. Something that belongs to the past: Their troubles are history now. c. An interesting past: a house with a history.

5.     A drama based on historical events: the histories of Shakespeare.

[Middle English histoire, from Old French, from Latin historia, from Greek, from historein, to inquire, from histōr, learned man.]



Civilization, society possessing historical and cultural unity. The historical perspective of viewing a civilization, rather than a country, as the significant unit is of relatively recent origin. Historians began to view history outside of the prevailing religious or national perspective during the Enlightenment of the 1700s. French writer and philosopher Voltaire and his compatriot Charles Montesquieu were among the first to rationally criticize history from a secular point of view. Early in the 19th century, philosophers and historians criticized the assumption that people were the same throughout the world. The German philosophers Johann von Herder and G. W. F. Hegel emphasized the differences among people in different cultures.

Modern historians maintain that much of the life of a nation is affected by its participation in a larger social entity. This entity is cultural rather than political. Some historians see uniformities in the histories of civilizations. The German philosopher Oswald Spengler, in The Decline of the West (1918-1922), described civilizations as living organisms, each of which passes through identical stages at fixed periods. The British historian Arnold Toynbee, in A Study of History (1934-1961) also discerned a uniform historical pattern in civilizations. Many historians, however, are skeptical of philosophies of history derived from an alleged pattern of the past.

Historians use the term civilization to refer to a number of societies that show distinctive cultural and historical patterns. Some of these civilizations are the Andeanone, which originated about 800 BC; the Far Eastern, which originated in China about 2200 BC; the Egyptian (about 3000 BC); the Sumerian (about 4000 BC); the Babylonian (about 1700 BC); the Minoan (about 2000 BC); the Byzantine, which originated in the 4th century AD; the Islamic (8th century AD); and the Western, which arose in Western Europe in the early Middle Ages (5th century to 15th century).

History and Historiography

History and Historiography. History, in its broadest sense, is the totality of all past events. Historiography is the written record of what is known of human lives and societies in the past and how historians have attempted to understand them. The concern of all serious historians is to collect and record facts about the human past and often to discover new facts. Historians know that the information they have is incomplete, partly incorrect, or biased, and that it requires careful attention. They try to sift through the facts to discover patterns of meaning addressed to the enduring questions of human life.

Except for the special circumstance in which historians record events they themselves have witnessed, historical facts can only be known through intermediary sources. These include testimony from living witnesses; narrative, legal, financial, and other written records; and the unwritten information derived from the physical remains of past civilizations. The relation between evidence and fact is rarely simple and direct. Historians must assess their evidence with a critical eye. In this process, the historian must respect the facts, avoid ignorance and error as far as possible, and create a convincing, intellectually satisfying interpretation.

Historical Writing in the West
Western historiography originated with the ancient Greeks, and the standards and interests of the Greek historians dominated historical study and writing for centuries. In the 5th century BCHerodotus and Thucydides recorded contemporary or near-contemporary events in prose narratives of striking style, depending as much as possible on eyewitnesses or other reliable testimony for evidence. Roman historian Sallust developed a political analysis, based on human motivation, which had a long and pervasive influence on historical writing. During the 4th century AD, Christianity introduced new subjects and approaches to history, mingling secular and religious history with moral interpretation.

With the disintegration of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century, many monasteries kept continuing annals that recorded events year by year, with no attempt at artistic or intellectual elaboration. The renewal of classical education in 15th-century Italy encouraged a secular and realistic approach to political history. While the classical traditions had emphasized literary skill and interpretation at the expense of basic research, many European scholars from the 16th century onward systematically collected sources for their histories.

In the 18th century all facets of civilization were included in a historiography of sweeping intellectual scope, although some of the era’s historians displayed a rather careless evaluation of evidence. English historian Edward Gibbon, however, combined a deep respect for research with great literary gifts to produce The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1788), which set a standard for historical writing.

With the work and influence of 19th-century German historian Leopold von Ranke, history achieved its identity as an independent academic discipline with its own critical method and approach. Ranke insisted on dispassionate objectivity. By the 20th century, history was firmly established in European and American universities as a professional field, resting on exact methods and making productive use of archival collections and new sources of evidence.

In recent years, historiography has been affected by the belief that no accumulation of facts constitutes history as an intelligible structure and that no historian can be a totally objective recorder of reality. Furthermore, the scope of history has expanded immeasurably, both in time, as archaeology and anthropology have provided knowledge of earlier ages, and in breadth, as fields of inquiry such as economic history and the history of ideas have emerged and refined their methods and goals.

Non-Western Historiography
Many Asian peoples have traditions of historical writing that date back many centuries. Perhaps the most familiar to Westerners is the Jewish tradition as known from the Bible. Like that of the ancient Jews, Islamic interest in historiography was derived from and strongly influenced by religious belief. Muslim historians characteristically record the lives of devout men and scholars in preference to political and military leaders, regarding the lives of the devout as a surer measure of the spiritual progress of society.

Of all the nations in the world, China has the longest and most voluminous record of its past. The lessons of history were an integral part of all Chinese learning. After the 3rd century BC, careful attention to writing down and preserving information became a central obligation of bureaucrats. Such histories were written according to a conventional model that had no room for extraneous information and allowed no personal interpretation on the part of the author. The first person to write a comprehensive history of China from earliest times was Ssu-ma Ch’ien, who produced his Records of the Grand Historian during the Han dynasty (206 BC-AD 220). Liu Chih-chi, who lived in the late 7th and early 8th centuries AD, wrote the first treatise on historical method in any language.

history (noun)

past time: distant past, history, antiquity
remembrance: history, narration, narrative
record: historical record, acta, memoir, chronicle, annals, history, narrative
reading matter: history, biography, travel, description
narrative: annals, chronicle, history, historiography, record
conduct: past behavior, record, track record, history



my·thol·o·gy (mĭ-thŏlʹə-jē) noun
Abbr. myth., mythol.

1.     a. A body or collection of myths belonging to a people and addressing their origin, history, deities, ancestors, and heroes. b. A body of myths concerning an individual, event, or institution: “A new mythology, essential to the . . . American funeral rite, has grown up” (Jessica Mitford).

2.     The field of scholarship dealing with the systematic collection and study of myths.

[French mythologie, from Late Latin mthologia, from Greek muthologia, story-telling : muthos, story + -logia, -logy.]



Mythology, study of myth and the body of myths of a particular culture. In general, myth is narrative that uses symbolic language to describe the origin of the basic elements and assumptions of a culture.

Meaning and Interpretation
In the West, myth has always been in tension with reason, or the rational and analytic approach to reality. Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle generally exalted reason while criticizing myth, although reason and myth do overlap in some of their thoughts and writings. In the Judeo-Christian tradition the notion of history has been opposed to myth. Complicating this opposition, however, is the concept that God, existing outside of ordinary time and space, is revealed to humanity within human history and society.

In Europe, interest in myth grew during the Age of Enlightenment (18th century), as scholars tried to make sense of mythic stories and developed disciplines devoted to the study of mythology. Thinkers of the romantic movement turned to the older Indo-European myths as intellectual and cultural resources, viewing myth as a form of human expression and perception as important as the rational grasp of reality.

Types of Myth
Usually the most important myth in a culture is the cosmogonic myth, which explains how the world came into being. In some narratives, as in the Book of Genesis of the Bible, the creation of the world proceeds from nothing. Other cosmogonic myths describe creation as an emergence from the lower worlds. Among the Navajo and Hopi of the Americas, creation results from a progression upward from lower worlds to an eventual arrival at the world of humanity.

Eschatological myths describe the end of the world. Hebrew, Christian, Islamic, and Zoroastrian traditions predict the destruction of the world by a moral divine being who will send human beings to a paradisiacal existence or one of eternal torments. A universal fire and a final battle of the gods are parts of Indo-European mythology.

Myths of the culture hero describe beings who discover a cultural artifact or technological process. For example, in a myth of the Dogon culture of Africa, a blacksmith steals seeds for the human community from the gods. Myths of birth and rebirth tell how life can be renewed and include myths about the coming of an ideal society or of a savior.

Studies of Myth
Mythology has attracted scholars in many fields. Because myth is a narrative, many attempts to understand it have focused on its linguistic structure. German scholar Friedrich Max Müller viewed myth as an example of the historical development of language. He believed that in the Vedic texts of ancient India the gods do not represent beings but are products of an attempt to give expression to natural phenomena (see Veda). French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss saw myth as a special case of linguistic usage, a level beyond both surface narrative and underlying structure. In myth he discovered certain clusters of relationships that, although expressed in the narrative and dramatic content, obey the systematic order of the language’s structure.

In examining the relationship between myth and knowledge, myth is often examined for its intellectual or its intuitive meanings. British anthropologist Sir Edward Burnett Tylor believed that myth in archaic cultures was based on a confusion of the real with the ideal. Another British anthropologist, R. R. Marett, later argued that myth was an emotional response of archaic peoples to their environment. French philosopher Lucien Lévy-Bruhl held that people in archaic cultures experience the world without benefit of logical categories, gaining their knowledge of the world through mystical participation in reality, and that this knowledge is expressed through myths. Scottish scholar Andrew Lang and German anthropologist Wilhelm Schmidt disagreed with Lévy-Bruhl, reasoning that the so-called high god found in many archaic cultures was born of metaphysical and intellectual contemplation and not from an evolution of thought from prelogical to rational. Romanian-born philosopher Mircea Eliade argued that the myth reveals a primitive explanation of the nature of being that humans can use to return to the beginning of time and rediscover their own nature.

Italian philosopher Giovanni Battista Vico raised the question of the interrelationship of myth and society by theorizing that the invention of successive Greek gods mirrors the development of Greek civilization. The gradual increase of control humans had over their environment and the increasing complexity of human institutions was reflected by the functions that new gods assumed. French sociologist Émile Durkheim concluded that myths constitute a moral system and a cosmology as well as a history. This sociological conception of myth was refined by British anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, who argued that myths can express and codify belief while enforcing morality. French linguist Georges Dumézil found in every form of Indo-European myth an archetypal class structure correlated with cosmic deities, including a priest or ruler; warriors; and farmers, herders, and craftspeople. German philosopher Ernst Cassirer argued that myth arises from the emotions but is not identical with the emotion. Instead it is the expression-the objectification-of the emotion, giving meaning to the basic values of the group.

In myth, some psychologists found material to describe both the psychic life of individuals and the collective unconscious of society. Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud used themes from older mythological structures to exemplify the conflicts and dynamics of the unconscious psychic life. Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, by interpreting myths from around the world, saw evidence for the existence of a collective unconscious shared by all. In a comprehensive study of myths, American writer Joseph Campbell formulated a general theory of origin, development,


primeval humanity (noun)

humankind: early humanity, primeval humanity, Stone Age humanity, Cro-Magnon man, Neanderthal man, cavemen and -women, troglodytes

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