Life: Inevitable or Accident?

The-Tree-Of-Life Gustav Klimt

Here’s the question: does the existence of life in the universe reflect something deep and fundamental or is it merely an accident and epiphenomenon?

There’s an interesting new theory coming out of the field of biophysics that claims the cosmos is indeed built for life, and not just merely in the sense found in the so-called “anthropic principle” which states that just by being here we can assume that all of nature’s fundamental values must be friendly for complex organisms such as ourselves that are able to ask such questions. The new theory makes the claim that not just life, but life of ever growing complexity and intelligence is not just likely, but the inevitable result of the laws of nature.

The proponent of the new theory is a young physicist at MIT named Jeremy England. I can’t claim I quite grasp all the intricate details of England’s theory, though he does an excellent job of explaining it here, but perhaps the best way of capturing it succinctly is by thinking of the laws of physics as a landscape, and a leaning one at that.

The second law of thermodynamics leans in the direction of increased entropy: systems naturally move in the direction of losing rather than gaining order over time, which is why we break eggs to make omelettes and not the other way round. The second law would seem to be a bad thing for living organisms, but oddly enough, ends up being a blessing not just for life, but for any self-organizing system so long as that system has a means of radiating this entropy away from itself.

For England, the second law provides the environment and direction in which life evolves. In those places where energy outputs from outside are available and can be dissipated because they have some boundary, such as a pool of water, self-organizing systems naturally come to be dominated by those forms that are particularly good at absorbing energy from their surrounding environment and dissipating less organized forms of energy in the form of heat (entropy) back into it.

This landscape in which life evolves, England postulates, may tilt as well in the direction of complexity and intelligence due to the fact that in a system that frequently changes in terms of oscillations of energy, those forms able to anticipate the direction of such oscillations gain the possibility of aligning themselves with them and thus become able to accomplish even more work through resonance.

England is in no sense out to replace Darwin’s natural selection as the mechanism through which evolution is best understood, though, should he be proved right, he would end up greatly amending it. If his theory ultimately proves successful, and it is admittedly very early days, England’s theory will have answered one of the fundamental questions that has dogged evolution since its beginnings. For while Darwin’s theory provides us with all the explanation we need for how complex organisms such as ourselves could have emerged out of seemingly random processes- that is through natural selection- it has never quite explained how you go from the inorganic to the organic and get evolution working in the first place. England’s work is blurring the line between the organic and the most complicated self-organizing forms of the inorganic, making the line separating cells from snowflakes and storms a little less distinct.

Whatever its ultimate fate, however, England’s theory faces major hurdles, not least because it seems to have a bias towards increasing complexity, and in its most radical form, points towards the inevitability that life will evolve in the direction of increased intelligence, ideas which many evolutionary thinkers vehemently disavow.

Some evolutionary theorists may see effort such as England’s not as a paradigm shift waiting in the wings, but as an example of a misconception regarding the relationship between increasing complexity and evolution that now appears to have been adopted by actual scientists rather than a merely misguided public. A misconception that, couched in scientific language, will further muddy the minds of the public leaving them with a conception of evolution that belongs much more to the 19th century than to the 21st. It is a misconception whose most vocal living opponent after the death of the irreplaceable Stephen J Gould has been the paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, and senior editor of the journal Nature, Henry Gee, who has set out to disabuse us of it in his book The Accidental Species.

Gee’s goal is to remind us of what he holds to be the fundamental truth behind the theory of evolution- evolution has one singular purpose from which everything else follows in lockstep- reproduction. His objective is to do away, once and for all, with what he feels is a common misconception that evolution is leading towards complexity and progress and that the highest peak of this complexity and progress is us- human beings.

If improved prospects for reproduction can be bought through the increased complexity of an organism then that is what will happen, but it needn’t be the case. Gee points out that many species, notably some worms and many parasites, have achieved improved reproductive prospects by decreasing their complexity.Therefore the idea that complexity (as in an increase in the specialization and number of parts an organism has)  is a merely matter of evolution plus time doesn’t hold up to close scrutiny. Judged through the eyes of evolution, losing features and becoming more simple is not necessarily a vice. All that counts is an organism’s ability to make more copies, or for animals that reproduce through sex, blended copies of itself.

Evolution in this view isn’t beautiful but coldly functional and messy- a matter of mere reproductive success. Gee reminds us of Darwin’s idea of evolution’s product as a “tangled bank”- a weird menagerie of creatures each having their own particular historical evolutionary trajectory. The anal retentive Victorian era philosophers who tried to build upon his ideas couldn’t accept such a mess and:

…missed the essential metaphor of Darwin’s tangled bank, however, and saw natural selection as a sort of motor that would drive transformation from one preordained station on the ladder of life to the next one.” (37)

Gee also sets out to show how deeply limited our abilities are when it comes to understanding the past through the fossil record. Very, very, few of the species that have ever existed left evidence of their lives in the form of fossils, which are formed only under very special conditions, and where the process of fossilization greatly favors the preservation of some species over others. The past is thus incredibly opaque making it impossible to impose an overarching narrative upon it- such as increasing complexity- as we move from the past towards the present.

Gee, though an ardent defender of evolution and opponent of creationist pseudoscience, finds the gaps in the fossil record so pronounced that he thinks we can create almost any story we want from it and end up projecting our contemporary biases onto the speechless stones. This is the case even when the remains we are dealing with are of much more recent origin and especially when their subject is the origin of us.

We’ve tended, for instance, to link tool use and intelligence, even in those cases such as Homo Habilis, when the records and artifacts point to a different story. We’ve tended not to see other human species such as the so-called Hobbit man as ways we might have actually evolved had circumstances not played out in precisely the way they had. We have not, in Gee’s estimation, been working our way towards the inevitable goal of our current intelligence and planetary dominance, but have stumbled into it by accident.

Although Gee is in no sense writing in anticipation of a theory such as England’s his line of thinking does seem to pose obstacles that the latter’s hypothesis will have to address. If it is indeed the case that, as England has stated it, complex life arises inevitably from the physics of the universe, so that in his estimation:

You start with a random clump of atoms, and if you shine light on it for long enough, it should not be so surprising that you get a plant.

Then England will have to address why it took so incredibly long – 4 billion years out of the earth’s 4.5 billion year history for actual plants to make their debut, not to mention similar spans for other complex eukarya such as animals like ourselves.

Whether something like England’s inevitable complexity or Gee’s, not just blind, but drunk and random, evolutionary walk is ultimately the right way to understand evolution has implications far beyond evolutionary theory. Indeed, it might have deep implications for the status and distribution of life in the universe and even inform the way we understand the current development of new forms of artificial intelligence.

What we have discovered over the last decade is that bodies of water appear to be both much more widespread and can be found in environments far beyond those previously considered. Hence NASA’s recent announcement that we are likely to find microbial life in the next 10 – 30 years both in our solar system and beyond. What this means is that England’s heat baths are likely ubiquitous, and if he’s correct, life likely can be found anywhere there is water- meaning nearly everywhere. There may even be complex lifelike forms that did not evolve through what we would consider normal natural selection at all.

If Gee is right the universe might be ripe for life, but the vast, vast majority of that life will be microbial and no amount of time will change that fate on most life inhabited worlds. If England in his minor key is correct the universe should at least be filled with complex multicellular life forms such as ourselves. Yet it is the possibility that England is right in his major key, that consciousness, civilization, and computation might flow naturally from the need of organisms to resonate with their fluctuating environments that, biased as we are, we likely find most exciting. Such a view leaves us with the prospect of many, many more forms of intelligence and technological civilizations like ourselves spread throughout the cosmos.

The fact that the universe so far has proven silent and devoid of any signs of technological civilization might give us pause when it comes to endorsing England’s optimism over Gee’s pessimism, unless, that is, there is some sort of limit or wall when it comes to our own perceived technological trajectory that can address the questions that emerge from the ideas of both. To that story, next time…


Capitalism, Evolution and the Attack of the Giant Fungus

Armillaria ostoyae

One of the stranger features of our era is its imaginative exhaustion in terms of the future, which I realize is a strange thing to say her. This exhaustion is not so much of an issue when it comes to imagining tomorrow’s gadgets, or scientific breakthroughs, but becomes apparent once the question of the future political and economic order is at stake. In fact, the very idea that something different will almost inevitably follow the institutions and systems we live in seems to have retreated from our consciousness at the very time when the endemic failures of our political and economic order has shown that the current world can not last.

Whatever the failures of government in Washington no serious person is discussing an alternative to the continued existence of the United States or its constitutional form of government now over two centuries old. The situation is even more pronounced when it comes to our capitalist economic system which has taken root almost everywhere and managed to outlive all of its challengers. Discussions about the future economy are rarely ones about what might succeed capitalism but merely the ironing out of its contradictions so that the system itself can continue to function.

It’s not just me saying this, here is the anthropologists and anarchist philosopher David Graeber in his wonderful Debt the first 5,000 Years on our contemporary collective brain freeze when it comes to thinking about what a future economy might be like:

It’s only now, at the very moment when it’s becoming increasingly clear that current arrangements are not viable, that we suddenly have hit the wall in terms of our collective imagination.

There is very good reason to believe that, in a generation or so, capitalism itself will no longer exist-most obviously, as ecologists keep reminding us, because it’s impossible to maintain an engine of perpetual growth forever on a finite planet, and the current form of capitalism doesn’t seem to be capable of generating the kind of vast technological breakthroughs and mobilizations that would be required for us to start finding and colonizing any other planets. Yet faced with the prospect of capitalism actually ending, the most common reaction-even from those who call themselves “progressives”-is simply fear. We cling to what exists because we can no longer imagine an alternative that wouldn’t be even worse. (381-382)

There are all sorts of reasons why our imagination has become stuck. To begin with the only seemingly viable alternative to capitalism- state communism- proved itself a failure in the 1980s when the Soviet Union began to kick the bucket. Even the socialist alternatives to capitalism were showing their age by then and began pulling themselves back from any sort of direct management of the economy. Then there is one word- China- which embraced a form of state capitalism in the late 1970s and never looked back. To many of the new middle class in the developing world the globalization of capitalism appears a great success and can be credited with moving millions out of poverty.

Yet capitalism has its problems. There is not only the question of its incompatibility with survival on a finite earth, as Graber mentions, there are its recurrent financial crises, its run away inequality, its endemic unemployment in the developed and its inhuman exploitation in the developing world. One would have thought that the financial crisis would have brought some soul searching to the elites and a creative upsurge in thinking about alternative systems, but, alas, it has not happened except among anarchists like Graeber and the short-lived Occupy movement he helped inspire and old school unrepentant communists such as Slavoj Zizek.

At least part of our imaginative atrophy can be explained by the fact that capitalism, like all political-economic systems before has managed to enmesh itself so deeply into our view of the natural world that it’s difficult to think of it as something we ourselves made and hence can abandon or reconfigure if we wanted to. Egyptian pharaohs, Aztec chieftains, or Chinese emperors, all made claims to rule that justified themselves as reflections of the way the cosmos worked. The European feudal order that preceded the birth of capitalism was based on an imagined chain of being that stretched from the peasant in his field to the king on his throne through the “angelic” planets to God himself- out there somewhere in the Oort Cloud.

The natural order that capitalism is thought to reflect is an evolutionary one which amounts to a bias against design and control. Like evolution, the “market” is thought to be wiser than any intentional attempts to design steer or control in could ever be. This is the argument one can find in 19th century social Darwinist like Thomas Huxley, a 20th century iconoclast like Friedrich Hayek, or a 21st century neo-liberal like Robert Wright, all of whom see in capitalism a reflection of biological evolution in that sense. In the simplest form of this argument evolution pits individuals against one another in a competition to reproduce with the fittest individuals able to get their genes into the next generation. Capitalism pits producers and sellers against others dealing in similar products with only the most efficient able to survive.  History seemed to provide the ultimate proof of this argument as the command economy of the Soviet Union imploded in the 1980s and country after country adopted some sort of pro-market system. The crash, however,  should have sparked some doubts.

The idea that the market is a social version of biological evolution has some strong historical roots. The late Stephen Jay Gould, in his essay “Of bamboos, cicadas and the economy of Adam Smith” drew our attention to the fact that this similarity between evolution and capitalism might hold not because the capitalist theory of economics emerged under the influence of the theory of evolution but the reverse. That the theory of evolution was discovered when it was because Darwin was busy reading the first theorist of capitalism- Adam Smith. I am unable to find a link to the essay, but here is Gould explaining himself.

The top down mercantilist economy Smith attacked in his Wealth of Nations, according to Gould, must have seemed to Darwin like the engineering God of William Paley in his Natural Philosophy. Paley was the man who gave us the analogy of God as “watchmaker”. If you found a watch on the beach and had never seen such a thing before you could reasonably assume it was designed by a creature with intelligence. We should then reason from the intricate engineering of nature that it was designed by a being of great intelligence.

Adam Smith was dealing with a whole other sort of question- how do you best design and manage an economy? Smith argued that the best way to do this wasn’t to design it from the top down, but  to let the profit motive loose from which an “invisible hand” would bring the best possible economic order into being. In the free market theory of Smith, Darwin could find a compelling argument against Paley. The the way you arrived at the complex order of living things was not to design it from on high but to let the struggle for reproduction loose and from an uncountable number of failures and successes would emerge the rich tapestry of life which surrounds us in words of a much later book on the topic by Richard Dawkins, the “designer” of nature was a Blind Watchmaker.

The problem with thinking our current economic system reflects the deep truth of evolution is not that the comparison lacks a grain of truth, and it certainly isn’t the case that the theory of evolution is untrue or is likely to be shown to be untrue as something like the Great Chain of Being that justified the feudal order was eventually shown to be untrue. Rather, the problem lies with the particularly narrow version of evolution with which capitalism is compared and the papering over of the way evolution often lacks the wisdom of something like Smith’s “invisible hand”.

Perhaps we should borrow another idea from Gould if we are to broaden our evolutionary analogy between evolution and capitalism. Gould pioneered a way to understand evolution known as punctuated equilibrium. In this view evolution does not precede gradually but in fits and starts with periods of equilibrium in which evolutionary change grinds to a halt are ended by periods of rapid evolutionary change driven by some disequilibrating event- say a rapid change in climate or the mass appearance of new species such as in the Columbian Exchange. This is then followed by a new period of equilibrium after species have evolved to best meet the new conditions, or gone extinct because they could not adapt and so on and so on.

The defining feature of late capitalism, or whatever you chose to call it, is that it is unable to function under conditions of equilibrium, or better, that its goal of ever increasing profits is incompatible with the kinds of equilibrium found in mature economies. This is part of the case the financial journalist Chrystia Freeland makes in her engaging book Plutocrats. The fact that so much Western money is now flowing into the developing world stems from the reality that the rapid transformation in such places makes stupendous profits possible. Part of this plethora of potential profits arises from the fact that areas such as the former Soviet Union China and countries that have undergone neo-liberal reforms- like India- are virgin territories for capitalist entrepreneurs. As Rosa Luxemburg pointed out during the last great age of globalization at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century capitalism was the first system “that was calculated for the whole earth”.

To return to the analogy with evolution, it is like the meeting of two formerly separated ecosystems only one of which has undergone intense selective pressures. Capitalist corporations whether Western or imitated are the ultimate invasive species in areas that formerly lived in the zoo- like conditions of state socialism.   In the mature economies such as those of the United States, Europe, and Japan the kinds of disequilibrium which leads to the ever increasing profits at the root of capitalism have come in two very different forms- technological change and deregulation. The revolution in computers and telecommunications has been a source of disequilibrium upending everything from entertainment to publishing to education. In the process it has given rise to the sorts of economic titans, and sadly inequality,seen in a similar periods of upheaval. We no longer have Andrew Carnegie, but we do have Bill Gates. Standard Oil is a thing of the past, but we have Google and Facebook and Amazon.

The transformation of society that has come with such technological disequilibrium is probably, on net, a positive thing for all of us. But, we have also engendered self-inflicted disequilibrium without clear benefit to the larger society. The enormous growth in the profits and profile of the financial industry came on the back of the dismantling of Depression era controls making financiers and financial institutions into the wealthiest segment of our society. We know where that got us. It is as if a stable, if staid, island ecosystem suddenly invited upon itself all sorts of natural disasters in the hope of jump starting evolution and got instead little but mutants that threaten to eat everything in sight until the island became a wasteland. Late capitalism is like evolution only if we redact the punctuated equilibrium. It is we ourselves who have taken to imposing the kinds of stresses that upend the economy into a state of permanent disequilibrium.

The capitalism/evolution analogy also only works under conditions of a near perfect market where the state or some other entity not only preserves free competition at its heart but intervenes to dismantle corporations once they get too large. Such interference is akin to the balancing effect of predation against plants or animals that exhibit such rapid reproduction that if the majority of them were not quickly eaten they would consume entire ecosystems.  Such is the case with the common aphid which if left to its devices would have one individual producing 1,560,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (1 heptillion, 560 hexillion) offspring!

The balance of nature is a constraint that every species is desperate to break out of just as at the root of every corporation lies the less than secret wish to have eliminated all of its competition. Most of the time predation manages to prevent the reproductive drive of any one species from threatening the entire ecosystem, but sometimes it fails. This is the case with the giant fungus Armillaria ostoyae whose relentless growth kills the trees above it and smothers the diverse forest ecosystem from which it had emerged.

We can complain that the failure of the government to break up giant corporations has let loose the like of Armillaria ostoyae. Calls to dismantle the big banks after the financial crisis fell on deaf ears. Big banks and mega-corporations can now point to their global presence and competition against other behemoths to justify their survival. We couldn’t dismantle Google if we wanted too because everything left would be swallowed by Baidu.

And it’s not only that the government is failing to preserve market competition by letting companies get too big, it’s also distorting the economic ecosystem to favor the companies that are already there. The corruption of democracy through corporate lobbying has meant that the government, to the extent that it acts at all, is not preserving free competition but distorting it. To quote from Plutocrats:

“Most lobbying seeks to tilt the playing field, in one direction or another, not level it.” (262)

Another, and for my part much more galling oversight of the capitalism/evolution analogy is that it tends to treat any attempt at design, guidance or intention on the part of the society at large as somehow “unnatural” interference in what would otherwise be a perfectly balanced system. What this position seems to conveniently forget is that the discovery of Natural Selection didn’t somehow lead to the end of Artificial Selection– instead quite the opposite. We don’t just throw a bunch of animals in a room and cross our fingers that some miracle of milk or egg production will result. What we do is meticulously shape the course of evolution using some constraint based on our hoped for result.

It we who have established the selective criteria of maximizing and increasing profits and growth to be the be all and end all of a corporation’s existence when we could have chosen a much different set of selection criteria that would give rise to completely different sorts of economic entities. Governments already do this when they force industries to comply with constraints such as health and safety or environmental requirements. Without these constraints we get the evolution of economic entities that are focused on maximizing profits and growth alone, man made creatures which giant fungus like care little for the people and societies underneath them.

Related to this is another evolutionary assumption shared by proponents of the unfettered free market, this one with somewhat dubious scientific validity. Those who believe capitalism can run itself seem to subscribe to an economic version of James Lovelock’s “Gaia Hypothesis”.  Recall, that Lovelock proposed that the earth itself was a kind of living organism that had evolved in such a way as to be self-regulating towards an environment that was optimal for life. Human beings, if they were crazy enough to challenge this Gaian equilibrium were asking for extinction, but life itself would go on until it faced a challenger it would be unable to best- the earth’s beloved sun.

Belief that the technological world is a kind of superorganism can be found thought like these of the journalist Robert Wright that I have quoted elsewhere:

Could it be that, in some sense, the point of evolution — both the biological evolution that created an intelligent species and the technological evolution that a sufficiently intelligent species is bound to unleash — has been to create these social brains, and maybe even to weave them into a giant, loosely organized planetary brain? Kind of in the way that the point of the maturation of an organism is to create an adult organism?”

In this quote can be found both of the great forces of disequilibrium unleashed by late capitalism, both the computer and communications revolution and globalization. But it seem that this planetary brain lack the part of our neural architecture that makes us the most human- the neocortex, by which we are able to act intentionally and plan.

The kinds of hair-trigger threads we are weaving around society are good in many respects, but are not an answer to the problem of our long term direction and can even, if they are not tempered by foresight, themselves lead to the diminution of long term horizons in the name of whatever is right in front of our nose, and spark crises of uninformed panic lacking any sense of perspective. Twitter was a helpful tool in helping to overthrow Middle Eastern dictators, but proved useless in actually establishing anything like democracy.

Supercomputers using sophisticated algorithms now perform a great deal of the world’s financial transactions in milliseconds,  and sometimes lead to frightening glitches like the May 2010 “flash crash” that may portend deeper risks lying underneath a world where wealth is largely detached from reality and become a sea of electrons. Even if there are no further such crashes our ever shortening time scale needs to be somehow tempered and offset with an idea of the future where the long term horizon extends beyond the next financial quarter.

 Late 21st century capitalism with its focus on profit maximization and growth where corporations have managed to free themselves from social constraints and where old equilibriums are overturned in the name of creating new opportunities is just one version of a “natural” economic system.  We are free to imagine others. As Graeber hoped we would start to wonder what different kinds of economic systems might be possible besides the one we live in. The people we would do best turn to when it comes to imagining such alternatives are unlikely to come from the ranks of economists who are as orthodox as any medieval priesthood, or our modern fortune-tellers- the futurists- who are little better than “consultants” for the very system we might hope to think our way beyond.

No, the people who might best imagine a future alternative to capitalism are those who are the most free of the need to intellectually conform so as to secure respectability, tenure, promotion or a possible consulting gig, and who have devoted their lives to thinking about the future. The people who best meet this description today are the authors of science and speculative fiction. It will be to their success and failure in this task that I will turn next time…