Life: Inevitable or Accident?

The-Tree-Of-Life Gustav Klimt                                                             https://www.artsy.net/artist/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…

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The Earth’s Inexplicable Solitude

Throw your arms wide out to represent the span of all of Earthly time. Our planet forms at the tip of your left arm’s longest finger, and the Cambrian begins at the wrist of your right arm. The rise of complex life lies in the palm of your right hand, and, if you choose, you can wipe out all of human history ‘in a single stroke with a medium grained nail file’  

Lee Billings, Five Billion Years of Solitude (145)  

For most of our days and for most of the time we live in the world of Daniel Kahneman’s experiencing self. What we pay attention to is whatever is right in front of us, which can range from the pain of hunger to the boredom of cubicle walls. Nature has probably wired us this way, the stone age hunter and gatherer still in our heads, where the failure to focus on the task at hand came with the risk of death. A good deal of modern society, and especially contemporary technology such as smart phones, leverages this presentness and leaves us trapped in its muck, a reality Douglas Rushkoff brilliantly lays out in his Present Shock.      

Yet, if the day to day world is what rules us and is most responsible for our happiness our imagination has given us the ability to leap beyond it. We can at a whim visit our own personal past or imagined future but spend even more of our time inhabiting purely imagined worlds. Indeed, perhaps Kahneman’s “remembering self” should be replaced by an imagining self, for our memories aren’t all that accurate to begin with, and much of remembering takes the form of imagining ourselves in a sort of drama or comedy in which we are the protagonist and star.

Sometimes imagined worlds can become so mesmerizing they block out the world in front of our eyes. In Plato’s cave it is the real world that is thought of as shadows and the ideas in our heads that are real and solid. Plato was taking a leap not just in perception but in time. Not only is it possible to roll out and survey the canvass of our own past and possible future or the past and future of the world around, you can leap over the whole thing and end up looking down at the world from the perspective of eternity. And looking down meant literally down, with timeless eternity located in what for Plato and his Christian and Muslim descendants was the realm of the stars above our heads.

We can no longer find a physical location for eternity, but rather than make time shallow this has instead allowed us to grasp its depth, that is, we have a new appreciation for how much the canvass of time stretches out behind us and in front of us. Some may want an earth that is only thousands of years old as was evident in the recent much publicized debate between the creationist Ken Ham and Bill Nye, but even Pat Robertson now believes in deep time.   

Recently, The Long Now Foundation,  held a 20th anniversary retrospective “The Long Now, Now” a discussion between two of the organization’s founders- Brian Eno and Danny Hillis. The Long Now Foundation may not be dedicated to deep time, but its 10,000 year bookends, looking that far back, and that far ahead, still doubles the past time horizon of creationists, and given the association between creationism and ideas of impending apocalypse, no doubt comparatively adds millennia to the sphere of concern regarding the human future as well.    

Yet, as suggested above, creationists aren’t the only ones who can be accused of having a diminished sense of time. Eno acknowledged that the genesis for the Long Now Foundation and its project of the 10,000 year clock stemmed from his experience living in “edgy Soho” where he found the idea of “here” constrained to just a few blocks rather than New York or the United States and the idea of “now” limited to at most a few days or weeks in front of one’s face. This was, as Eno notes, before the “Wall Street crowd” muscled its way in. High-speed traders have now compressed time to such small scales that human beings can’t even perceive it.  

What I found most interesting about the Eno-Hillis discussion was how they characterized their expanded notion of time, something they credited not merely to the clock project but to their own perspective gained from age. Both of their time horizons had expanded forward and backward and the majority of what they now read was history despite Eno’s background as a musician and Hillis’ as an engineer. Hillis’ study of history had led him to the view that there were three main ways of viewing the human story.

For most of human history our idea of time was cyclical- history wasn’t going anywhere but round and round. A second way of viewing history was that it was progressive- things were getting better and better- a view which had its most recent incantation beginning in the Enlightenment and was now, in both Hillis and Eno’s view, coming to a close. For both, we were entering a stage where our understanding of the human story was of a third type “improvisational” in which we were neither moving relentlessly forward or repeating but had to “muddle” our way through, with some things getting better, and others worse, but no clear understanding as to where we might end up.    

Still, if we wish to reflect on deep time even 10,000 years is not nearly enough. A great recent example of such reflection  is Lee Billings Five Billion Years of Solitude, which, though it is written as a story of our search for life outside of the solar system, is just as much or more a meditation on the depth of past and future.

When I was a kid there were 9 known planets all within our solar system, and none beyond, and now, though we have lost poor Pluto, we have discovered over a thousand planets orbiting suns other than our own with estimates in the Milky Way alone on the order of 100 billion. A momentous change few of us have absorbed, and much of Five Billion Years of Solitude reflects upon our current failure to value these discoveries, or respond to the nature of the universe that has been communicated by them. It is also a reflection on our still present solitude, the very silence of a universe that is believed to be fertile soil for life may hint that no civilization ever has or survived long enough, or devoted themselves in earnest enough, to reach into the beyond.

Perhaps our own recent history provides some clues explaining the silence. Our technology has taken on a much different role than what Billings imagined as a child mesmerized by the idea of humans breaking out beyond the bounds of earth. His pessimism captured best not by the funding cutbacks and withdrawal of public commitment or cancellation of everything from SETI to NASA’S Terrestrial Planet Finder (TPF) or the ESA’s Darwin, but in Billings’ conversations with Greg Laughlin an astrophysicist and planet hunter at UC Santa Cruz.  Laughlin was now devoting part of his time and the skills he had learned as a planet hunter to commodity trading. At which Billings lamented:

The planet’s brightest scientific minds no longer leveraged the most powerful technologies to grow and expand human influence far out beyond earth, but to sublime and compress our small isolated world into an even more infinitesimal, less substantial state. As he described for me the dark arts of reaping billion dollar profits from sub-cent scale price changes rippling at near light-speed around the globe, Laughlin shook his head in quiet awe. Such feats, he said, were “much more difficult than finding an earth-like exoplanet”. (112)

Billings finds other, related, possible explanations for our solitude as well. He discusses the thought experiment of UC San Diego’s Tom Murphy who tried to extrapolate the world’s increasing energy use into the future at an historical rate of 2.3 percent per year. To continue to grow at that rate, which the United States has done since the middle of the seventeenth-century, we would have to encase every star in the Milky Way galaxy within an energy absorbing Dyson sphere within 2,500 years. At which Billings concludes:

If technological civilization like ours are common in the universe, the fact that we have yet to see stars or entire galaxies dimming before our eyes beneath starlight-absorbing veneers of Dyson spheres suggests that our own present era of exponential growth may be anomalous, not only to our past, but also to our future.

Perhaps even with a singularity we can not continue the exponential trend lines we have been on since the industrial revolution. Technological civilization may peak much closer to our own level of advancement than we realize, or may more often than not destroy itself, but, if the earth is any example, life itself once established is incredibly resilient.

As Billings shows us in the depths of time the earth has been a hot house or a ball of ice with glaciers extending to the equator. Individual species and even whole biomes may disappear under the weight of change and shocks, but life itself holds on. If our current civilization proves suicidal we will not be the first form of life that has so altered the earthly environment that it has destroyed both itself and much of the rest of life on earth.

In this light Billings discusses the discovery of the natural gas fields of the Marcellus Shale and the explosive growth of fracking, the shattering of the earth using water under intense pressure, which while it has been an economic boon to my beloved Pennsylvania, and is less of a danger to us as a greenhouse gas than demon coal, presents both short term and longer term dangers.

The problem with the Marcellus is that it is merely the largest of many such gas shale field located all over the earth. Even if natural gas is a less potent greenhouse gas than coal it still contributes to global warming and its very cheapness may delay our necessary move away from fossil fuels in total if we are to avoid potentially catastrophic levels of warming.

The Marcellus was created by eons of anaerobic bacteria trapped in underwater mountain folds which released hydrogen sulfide toxic to almost any form of life and leading to a vast accumulation of carbon as dead bacteria could no longer be decomposed. Billings muses whether we ourselves might be just another form of destructive bacteria.

Removed from its ancient context, the creation of the Marcellus struck me as eerily familiar. A new source of energy and nutrients flows into an isolated population. The population balloons and blindly grows, occasionally crashing when it surpasses the carrying capacity of its environment. The modern drill rigs shattering stone to harvest carbon from boom- and- bust waves of ancient death suddenly seemed like echoes, portents of history repeating itself on the grandest of scales. (130)

Technological civilization does not seem to be a gift to life on the planet on which it emerges, so much as it is a curse and danger, until, that is, the star upon which life depends itself becomes a danger or through stellar- death no longer produces the energy necessary for life. Billings thinks we have about 500 million years before the sun heats up so much the earth loses all its water. Life on earth will likely only survive the warming sun if we or our descendants do, whether we literally tow the planet to a more distant orbit or settle earthly life elsewhere, but in the mean time the biosphere will absorb our hammer blows and shake itself free of us entirely if we can not control our destructive appetites.

Over the very, very long term the chain of life that began on earth almost four billion years ago will only continue if we manage to escape our solar system entirely, but for now, the quest to find other living planets is less a  matter of finding a new home than it is about putting the finishing touches on the principle of Copernican Mediocrity, the idea that there is nothing especially privileged about earth, and, above all, ourselves.

And yet, the more we learn about the universe the more it seems that the principle of Copernican Mediocrity will itself need to be amended.  In the words of Billings’ fellow writer and planet hunter Caleb Scharf  the earth is likely “special but not significant”. Our beloved sun burns hotter than most stars, our gas giants larger are farther from our parent star, our stabilizing moon unlikely. How much these rarity factors play in the development of life, advanced life and technological civilization is anybody’s guess, and answering this question one of the main motivations behind the study of exoplanets and the search for evidence of technological civilization beyond earth. Yet, Billings wants to remind us that even existing at all is a very low probability event.

Only “the slimmest fraction of interstellar material is something so sophisticated as a hydrogen atom. To simply be any piece of ordinary matter- a molecule, a wisp of gas, a rock, a star, a person- appears to be an impressive and statistically unlikely accomplishment.” (88) Astrophysicists ideas of the future of the universe seem to undermine Copernican mediocrity as well for, if their models are right, the universe will spend most of its infinite history not only without stars and galaxies and people, but without even stable atoms.  Billings again laments:

Perhaps its just a failure of imagination to see no hope for life in such a bleak, dismal future. Or, maybe, the predicted evolution of the universe is a portent against Copernican mediocrity, a sign that the bright age of bountiful galaxies, shining stars, unfolding only a cosmic moment after the dawn of all things, is in fact rather special. (89)

I think this failure of imagination stems from something of a lack of gratitude on the part of human beings, and is based on a misunderstanding that for something to be meaningful it needs to last “forever.” The glass, for me, is more than half-full, for, even given the dismal views of astrophysicists on the universe’s future there is still as much as 100 billion years left for life to play out on its stage. And life and intelligence in this universe will likely not be the last.

Billings himself capture the latter point. The most prominent theory of how the Big Bang occurred, the “inflationary model” predicts an infinity of universes- the multiverse. Echoing Giordano Bruno, he writes:

Infinity being ,well, infinite, it would follow that the multiverse would host infinitudes of living beings on a limitless number of other worlds. (91)

I care much less that the larger infinity of these universes are lifeless than that an infinity of living worlds will exist as well.

As Billings points out, this expanded canvass of time and decentering on ourselves is a return to the philosophy of Democritus which has come down to us especially from Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things the point being one of the ways to avoid anxiety and pressure in our day-to-day would is to remember how small we and our problems are in the context of the big picture.

Still, one is tempted to ask what this vastly expanded canvass both in time past and future and in the potential number of sentient feeling beings means for the individual human life?

In a recent interview in The Atlantic, author Jennifer Percy describes how she was drawn away from physics and towards fiction because fiction allowed her to think through questions about human existence that science could not. Here father had looked to the view of human beings as insignificant with glee in a way she could not.

He flees from what messy realm of human existence, what he calls “dysfunctional reality” or “people problems.” When you imagine that we’re just bodies on a rock, small concerns become insignificant. He keeps an image above his desk, taken by the Hubble space telescope, that from a distance looks like an image of stars—but if you look more closely, they are not stars, they are whole galaxies. My dad sees that, imagining the tiny earth inside one of these galaxies—and suddenly, the rough day, the troubles at work, they disappear.

The kind of diminishment of the individual human life that Percy’s father found comforting, she instead found terrifying and almost nihilistic. Upon encountering fiction such as Lawrence Sargent Hall’s The Ledge, Percy realized fiction:

It helped me formulate questions about how the immensity and cruelty of the universe coexists with ordinary love, the everyday circumstances of human beings. The story leaves us with an image of this fisherman caught man pitilessly between these two worlds. It posed a question that became an obsession, and that followed me into my writing: what happens to your character when nature and humanity brutally encounter one another?

Trying to think and feel our way through this tension of knowing that we and our concerns are so small, but our feelings are so big, is perhaps the best we can do. Escaping the tedium and stress of the day through the contemplation of the depth of time and space is, no doubt a good thing, but it would be tragic to use such immensities as a means of creating space between human hearts or no longer finding the world that exists between and around us to be one of exquisite beauty and immeasurable value- a world that is uniquely ours to wonder at and care for.