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…

Is the Anthropocene a Disaster or an Opportunity?

Bradley Cantrell Pod-mod

Bradley Cantrell Pod-Mod

Recently the journal Nature published a paper arguing that the year in which the Anthropocene, the proposed geological era in which the collective actions of the human species started to trump other natural processes in terms of their impact, began in the year 1610 AD. If that year leaves you, like it did me, scratching your head and wondering what your missed while you dozed off in your 10th grade history class, don’t worry, because 1610 is a year in which nothing much happened at all. In fact, that’s why the author’s chose it.

There are a whole host of plausible candidates for the beginning of the Anthropocene, that are much, much more well know than 1610, starting relatively recently with the explosion of the first atomic bomb in 1945 and stretching backwards in time through the beginning of the industrial revolution (1750’s) to the discovery of the Americas and the bridging between the old and new worlds in the form of the Columbian Exchange, (1492), and back even further to some hypothetical year in which humans first began farming, or further still to the extinction of the mega-fauna such as Woolly Mammoths probably at the hands of our very clever, and therefore dangerous, hunter gatherer forebears.

The reason Simon L. Lewis and Mark A. Maslin (the authors of the Nature paper) chose 1610 is that in that year there can be found a huge, discernible drop in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. A rapid decline in greenhouses gases which probably plunged the earth into a cold snap- global warming in reverse. The reason this happened goes to the heart of a debate plaguing the environmental community, a debate that someone like myself, merely listening from the sidelines, but concerned about the ultimate result, should have been paying closer attention to.

It seems that while I was focusing on how paleontologists had been undermining the myth of the “peaceful savage”, they had also called into question another widely held idea regarding the past, one that was deeply ingrained in the American environmental movement itself- that the Native Americans did not attempt the intensive engineering of the environment of the sort that Europeans brought with them from the Old World, and therefore, lived in a state of harmony with nature we should pine for or emulate.

As paleontologists and historians have come to understand the past more completely we’ve learned that it just isn’t so. Native Americans, across North America, and not just in well known population centers such as Tenochtitlan in Mexico, the lost civilizations of the Pueblos (Anasazi) in the deserts of the southwest, or Cahokia in the Mississippi Valley, but in the woodlands of the northeast in states such as my beloved Pennsylvania, practiced extensive agriculture and land management in ways that had a profound impact on the environment over the course of centuries.

Their tool in all this was the planful use of fire. As the naturalist and historian Scott Weidensaul tells the story in his excellent account of the conflicts between Native Americans and the Europeans who settled the eastern seaboard, The First Frontier:

Indians had been burning Virginia and much of the rest of North America annually for fifteen thousand years and it was certainly not a desert. But they had clearly altered their world in ways we are only still beginning to appreciate. The grasslands of the Great Plains, the lupine-studded savannas of northwestern Ohio’s “oak openings”, the longleaf pine forests of the southern coastal plain, the pine barrens of the Mid-Atlantic and Long Island- all were ecosystems that depended on fire and were shaped over millennia of use by its frequent and predictable application.  (69)

The reason, I think, most of us have this vision in our heads of North America at the dawn of European settlement as an endless wilderness is not on account of some conspiracy by English and French settlers (though I wouldn’t put it past them), but rather, when the first settlers looked out into a continent sparsely settled by noble “savages” what they were seeing was a mere remnant of the large Indian population that had existed there only a little over a century before. That the native peoples of the North America Europeans struggled so hard to subdue and expel were mere refugees from a fallen civilization. As the historian Charles Mann has put it: when settlers gazed out into a seemingly boundless American wilderness they were not seeing a land untouched by the hands of man, a virgin land given to them by God, but a graveyard.

Given the valiant, ingenious, and indeed, sometime brutal resistance Native Americans gave against European (mostly English) encroachment it seems highly unlikely the the United States and Canada would exist today in anything like their current form had the Indian population not been continually subject to collapse. What so ravaged the Native American population and caused their civilization to go into reverse were the same infectious diseases unwittingly brought by Europeans that were the primary culprit in the destruction of the even larger Indian civilizations in Mexico and South America. It was a form of accidental biological warfare that targeted Native American based upon their genomes, their immunity to diseases having never been shaped by contact with domesticated animals like pigs and cows as had the Europeans who were set on stealing their lands.

Well, it wasn’t always accidental. For though it would be sometime before we understood how infectious diseases worked, Europeans were well aware of their disproportionate impact on the Indians. In 1763 William Trent in charge of Fort Pitt, the seed that would become Pittsburgh, besieged by Indians, engaged in the first documented case of biological warfare. Weidensaul quotes one of Trent’s letters:

Out of regard to the [Indian emissaries] we gave them two blankets and a handkerchief out of the Small Pox Hospital. I hope it will have the desired effect (381)

It’s from this devastating impact of infectious diseases that decimated Native American populations and ended their management of the ecosystem through the systematic use of fire that (the authors of the Nature paper) get their 1610 start date for the beginning of the Anthropocene. With the collapse of Indian fire ecology eastern forests bloomed to such an extent that vast amounts of carbon otherwise left in the atmosphere was sucked up by the trees with the effect that the earth rapidly cooled.

Beyond the desire to uncover the truth and to enter into sympathy with those of the past that lies at the heart of the practice and study of history, this new view of the North American past has implications for the present. For the goal of returning, both the land itself and as individuals, to the purity of the wilderness that has been at the heart of the environmentalist project since its inception in the 19th century now encounters a problem with time. Where in the past does the supposedly pure natural state to which we are supposed to be returning actually exist?

Such an untrammeled state would seem to exist either before Native American’s development of fire ecology, or after their decimation by disease before European settlement west of the Allegheny mountains. This, after all, was the period of America as endless wilderness that has left its mark on our imagination. That is, we should attempt to return as much of North America as is compatible with civilization to the state it was after the collapse of the Native American population, but before the spread of Europeans into the American wilderness. The problem with such a goal is that this natural splendor may have hid the fact that such an ecology was ultimately unsustainable in the wild  state in which European settlers first encountered it.

As Tim Flannery pointed out in his book The Eternal Frontier: An Ecological History of North America and Its Peoples, the fire ecology adopted by Native Americans may have been filling a vital role, doing the job that should have been done by large herbivores, which North America, unlike other similar continents, and likely due to the effectiveness of the first wave of human hunters to enter it as the ultimate “invasive species” from Asia, lacked.  Large herbivores cull the forests and keep them healthy, a role which in their absence can also be filled by fire.

Although projects are currently in the works to try to bring back some of these large foresters such as the woolly mammoth I am doubtful large populations will ever be restored in a world filled even with self-driving cars. Living in Pennsylvania I’ve had the misfortune of running into a mere hundred pound or so white tailed deer (or her running into me). I don’t even want to think about what a mammoth would do to my compact. Besides, woolly mammoths don’t seem to be a creature made for the age we’re headed into, which is one of likely continued, and extreme, warming.

Losing our romanticized picture of nature’s past means we are now also unclear as to its future.  Some are using this new understanding of the ecological history of North America to make an argument against traditional environmentalism arguing in essence that without a clear past to return to the future of the environment is ours to decide.

Perhaps what this New Environmentalism signals is merely the normalization of North American’s relationship with nature, a move away from the idea of nature as a sort of lost Eden and towards something like ideas found elsewhere, which need not be any less reverential or religious. In Japan especially nature is worshiped, but it is in the form of a natural world that has been deeply sculpted by human beings to serve their aesthetic and spiritual needs. This the Anthropocene interpreted as opportunity rather than as unmitigated disaster.

Ultimately, I think it is far too soon to embrace without some small degree of skepticism the project of the New Environmentalism espoused by organizations such as the Breakthrough Institute or the chief scientist and fire- brand of the Nature Conservancy Peter Kareiva, or environmental journalists and scholars espousing those views like Andrew Rifkin, Emma Marris, or even the incomparable Diane Ackerman. For certainly the argument that even if the New Environmentalism contains a degree of truth it is inherently at risk of being captured by actors whose environmental concern is a mere smokescreen for economic interests, and which, at the very least, threatens to undermine the long held support for the setting aside of areas free from human development whose stillness and silence many of us in our drenched in neon and ever beeping world hold dear.

It would be wonderful if objective scientists could adjudicate disputes between traditional environmentalists and New Environmentalists expressing non-orthodox views on everything from hydraulic fracking, to genetic engineering, to invasive species, to geo-engineering. The problem is that the very uncertainty at the heart of these types of issues probably makes definitive objectivity impossible. At the end of the day the way one decides comes down to values.

Yet what the New Environmentalists have done that I find most intriguing is to challenge  the mythology of Edenic nature, and just as in any other undermining of a ruling mythology this has opened the potential to both freedom and risks. On the basis of my own values the way I would use that freedom would not be to hive off humanity from nature, to achieve the “de-ecologization of our material welfare”,  as some New Environmentalists want to do, but for the artifact of human civilization itself to be made more natural.

Up until today humanity has gained its ascendancy over nature by assaulting it with greater and more concentrated physical force. We’ve damned and redrawn the course of rivers, built massive levies against the sea, cleared the land of its natural inhabitants (nonhuman and human) and reshaped it to grow our food.

We’ve reached the point where we’re smarter than this now and understand much better how nature achieve ends close to our own without resorting to excessively destructive and wasteful force. Termites achieve climate control from the geometry of their mounds rather than our energy intensive air conditioning. IBM’s Watson took a small city’s worth of electric power to beat its human opponents on Jeopardy! whose brains consumed no more power than a light bulb.

Although I am no great fan of the term “cyborg-ecology” I am attracted to the idea as it is being developed by figures such as Bradley Cantrell who propose that we use our new capabilities and understanding to create a flexible infrastructure that allows, for instance, a river to be a river rather than a mere “concrete channel” which we’ve found superior to the alternative of a natural river because it is predictable, while providing for our needs. A suffocatingly narrow redefinition of nature that has come at great costs to the other species with which we share with other such habitats, and ultimately causes large scale problems that require yet more brute force engineering for us to control once nature breaks free from our chains.

I can at least imagine an Anthropocene that provides a much richer and biodiverse landscape than our current one, a world where we are much more planful about providing for creatures other than just our fellow humans. It would be a world where we perhaps break from environmentalism’s shibboleths and do things such as prudently and judiciously use genetic engineering to make the natural world more robust, and where scientists who propose that we use the tools our knowledge has given to address plagues not just to ourselves, but to fellow creatures, do not engender scorn, but careful consideration of their proposals.

It would be a much greener world where the cold kingdom of machines hadn’t replaced the living, but was merely a temporary way station towards the rebirth, after our long, and almost terminal assault, on the biological world. If our strategies before have been divided between raping and subduing nature in light of our needs, or conversely, placing nature at such a remove from our civilization that she might be deemed safe from our impact, perhaps, having gained knowledge regarding nature’s secrets, we can now live not so much with her as a part of her, and with her as a part of us.