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…