In Which I Tell You About My Next Book, And How It Attempts To Solve The Problem I Talked About Last Time
Big Bangs, Black Holes, and the Evolution of Universes
OK. The book I’m writing here, in public, is an attempt to redescribe the universe. To extract the meaning from our modern mountain ranges of heaped-high scientific data. But that task faces a problem; a flaw, deep in the foundations of contemporary science. Last post, I laid out the problem, which, to refresh your memory, is (roughly) this:
Reductionism is a superb tool for uncovering certain kinds of isolated truth, at specific levels of complexity; but if the thing you are studying is the entire universe, then reductionism isn’t going to be enough. At some point, all those isolated pieces need to be put back together, to see what we’ve got. And science is no longer set up to do that.
OK, time to tell you about the actual book…
OUR UNIVERSE EVOLVED
The Egg and the Rock makes a big, specific argument (backed up by a lot of recent data, across many fields), that our universe appears to be the result of an evolutionary process at the level of universes.
That is, our universe evolved.
I don’t mean “evolved” in the sense of “developed”.
I mean “evolved” in the sense of “our universe is descended from earlier, simpler universes”.
And yes, there's even a plausible model for how this could happen, which I'll explore more thoroughly in a later post. (If you can’t wait, Google “Cosmological Natural Selection”, or read Life of the Cosmos by the American theoretical physicist Lee Smolin.) Here’s the short version, though, for now…
BACKGROUND TO THE THEORY – BIG BANGS AND BLACK HOLES
There is now overwhelming evidence that, about 13.8 billion years ago, our universe came abruptly into existence at a single point – a singularity, a point of infinite density. Our entire universe has been expanding away from that first unimaginably dense, hot moment ever since. We call that abrupt start to our universe the Big Bang.
There is also overwhelming evidence that there are regions of space-time in our universe where matter has collapsed to a density so high that nothing can escape its gravity, not even light. We call those regions black holes.
Matter that forms, or falls into, a black hole, has essentially left our universe: there is no coming back from inside a black hole. The matter, and all the information it carries, is gone forever.
(A million sobbing, innocent children cry: “But gone where?”
A million reductionist materialist scientists sternly reply: “That is a stupid question, and even asking it reveals your utter naivety. Let us move swiftly past this distasteful subject.”
I whisper: “Shush, children, ignore those grumpy men, and cease your weeping; we will get to that.”)
(#notallmen #butquiteafew #somegrumpywomentoo)
Anyway, Einstein’s theory of General Relativity says that at the centre of the black hole is a singularity – a point of infinite density.
Mainstream science currently treats the singularity at the centre of a black hole as the point where the theory of general relativity breaks down: it's so weird, they think, it can't really exist: some quantum effect (not covered by general relativity) must save the day; we just don't know how.
Meanwhile, mainstream science currently treats the Big Bang as an inexplicable one-off event. (And often treats its singularity, too, as weird and inexplicable and hopefully not real.)
So, we have two mysterious processes in our universe involving singularities: one involves matter mysteriously disappearing into a singularity, and one involves matter mysteriously appearing from a singularity.
Into a singularity…
From a singularity…
Does mainstream science attempt to join these dots?
Of course not! In impeccably reductionist fashion, it studies black holes and the Big Bang entirely separately. Papers dealing with the first almost never mention the second, and vice versa.
Nothing to see here, move along…
I SAY GOODBYE, AND YOU SAY HELLO
The theory I want to explore in my book, however – cosmological natural selection – firmly connects the two. In fact, it welds them together, arguing that the singularity that is a black hole and the singularity that is the Big Bang are the same phenomenon, seen from different sides.
That is, universes give birth to baby universes through black holes. The Big Bang is, therefore, simply the “other side” of a black hole in a previous, parent universe.
Yes, I am going to laboriously repeat this point, in slightly different language, again and again until you scream for mercy, because it’s important.
Matter crushed down to a point in one universe leaves that universe… Goodbye! …and expands from a point to make another universe… Hallo!
So we can think of it as one process, flowing smoothly from black hole to Big Bang. However, we can only ever see half of any given single process, because, as observers rooted firmly in our own particular universe, we are always on one side or the other of any given point of transition.
With black holes, we are seeing the first half of a process – Goodbye!
With the Big Bang, we are seeing the second half – Hello!
WHERE DID THIS WEIRD IDEA COME FROM?
This is not a new idea: the great American physicist John Wheeler (who first used the term black hole, in 1967) proposed in the 1970s that black holes could, having “crunched” down to a singularity and left their universe, then “bounce”, to form a Big Bang, and thus a new universe. He even suggested that the rules of physics might be reset (to random new values) in each new universe.
Lee Smolin’s marvellous leap was to realise that if the basic parameters of matter in the new baby universe varied very slightly from the parameters in the parent universe, then that would lead to either more or less black hole production in that new universe: that is, to more, or less, reproductive success. And if the variation was slight (and not large and totally random, as Wheeler had imagined), then it would be heritable.
Successful universes would have more offspring, who would inherit that successful variation, and, in turn, vary it slightly.
That iterated variation would make the evolution of universes, generation by generation, inevitable…
BUT WAIT, DOESN’T EVOLUTION REQUIRE A MONKEY TO HIT ANOTHER MONKEY WITH A STICK, IN SLOW MOTION?
I’m glad you asked me that. Yes, if you grew up on David Attenborough documentaries, and think evolution has to involve a lot of grunting and biting and shagging and fighting to gain food or shelter or mates, then it’s easy to get confused by this. Where’s the competition, to drive evolution?
And of course there’s no direct competition between universes – but there doesn’t need to be. There is simply reproductive competition, with no environmental constraints at all. This leads to a very strong, simple, pure, and effective form of evolution.
Because there are no environmental constraints on reproductive success, successful universes can be very successful.
To make this point more vividly, I think we need to introduce a mouse.
A UNIVERSE ISN’T A MOUSE
More is different: a universe isn’t a mouse.
A mouse is born into the same environment its parents and grandparents were born into, an environment which it must share with many other creatures, some friendly, some hostile.
A mouse, when trying to reproduce, is therefore constrained by the amount of food, the quality of shelter, and the number of predators, in that immediate environment. If a mouse somehow produced a billion babies, the vast majority would very quickly starve to death, die of exposure, or be eaten (or eat each other).
And that’s just one mouse: imagine what would happen if every mouse on earth had a billion babies!
The local environment can only carry a handful of extra mice, so there is no evolutionary reward for producing more than a handful of offspring each time.
But if a universe produces a billion babies, they can all thrive, because a universe is both organism AND environment. A new place in which the baby universe can thrive is produced with each new baby universe: it IS each baby universe.
And those billion babies can now also reproduce, again without any environmental limit. So, next generation, you have a billion billion babies (maybe a little less or more, depending on how the variations in each universe’s parameters are playing out – some will have more offspring, some less).
Universes that produce more black holes soon totally dominate the overall total number of universes, without ever needing to fight another universe, or steal its food, or pull its hair.
Assuming we are in a perfectly average universe, we would therefore expect it to have been optimised by evolution to produce a huge number of black holes. (Because the vast majority of universes in existence should be like that by now.)
And indeed we are: it’s hard to count black holes, because you can’t see the tricky little blighters, but the latest estimate (published earlier this year in the Astrophysical Journal), put the number of stellar-mass black holes in the observable universe at 40,000,000,000,000,000,000, or 40 quintillion. (There’s also a couple of trillion, far larger, supermassive black holes, at the centres of galaxies.)
Indeed, we appear to be at what evolutionary biologists would call a local fitness peak; tweak any of those basic parameters of matter by much, and this universe would produce a lot less black holes – in other words, would be a lot less reproductively successful.
OK, that’s the short version of a theory of how universes could evolve, and evolve very successfully.
THE MOST OBVIOUS OBJECTION, ANSWERED
And for those of you leaping up and down at the back, waving your hands and shouting “But doesn’t that mean the universes must get smaller and smaller in each generation? Like, billions of times smaller?” – good question, but no. Even mainstream physicists agree that it takes remarkably little energy to generate an entire universe. And maybe none – many highly respected physicists, from Stephen Hawking to Lawrence Krauss, have argued that a universe can come from nothing.
F’r instance, the positive mass-energy of matter and the negative energy of gravity in this universe seem to pretty much cancel each other out. (As mainstream physics puts it, the universe appears to be flat, and a flat universe can have zero total energy.) So building our universe would take, at most, very little energy – and quite possibly no energy at all… Yes, universes are weird. (Anyway, more on that in a later post.)
MORE ANNOYING QUESTIONS
“Sir! Sir! Do we know precisely how information is transmitted to the baby universe from the parent universe? Do we know how the basic parameters of matter are inherited, and how they might mutate?”
No, of course we bleeding don’t, because
A. Finding that out will be hard, and
B. Nobody has looked. Not yet.
But it doesn't matter. We don't need to know, yet.
The precise mechanism is, in some ways, unimportant. Particularly right now in this potentially revolutionary moment. And we have precedent, to show why.
Darwin’s revolutionary theory of biological evolution was a triumphant success, even though Darwin had absolutely no idea that DNA existed – let alone how it worked. All those finicky little problems were solved much later, by normal science.
In fact, it took nearly a century to discover the structure of DNA; by then, the theory of evolution had already helped us make stunning advances in our understanding of ourselves, and of every other living creature on the planet.
If we can just get this revolutionary theory into the mainstream – and get it some of the resources that are currently being pissed away looking for dark matter and supersymmetrical particles that don’t exist – normal science can go looking for the mechanism of transmission.
Not that normal science is as normal as it pretends to be, either. Which might be worth a short aside…
Feck it, let’s do it. Seatbelts on.
AN ASIDE ON HOW “NORMAL” SCIENCE ACTUALLY MAKES MAJOR BREAKTHROUGHS
The Nobel-Prize-winning geneticist Francis Crick (a founder, incidentally of the legalise cannabis group, SOMA), was under the influence of LSD when he deduced the double helix structure of DNA, in 1953.
And the Nobel-Prize-winning chemist, Kary Mullis, who invented the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) technique – the most important and revolutionary tool in modern genetics research – once said, “Would I have invented PCR if I hadn't taken LSD? I seriously doubt it.”
He clarified, “I wasn’t stoned on LSD, but my mind by then had learned how to get down there. I could sit on a DNA molecule, and watch the polymers go by.”
Let’s put PCR in context for the non-biologists among you. How important is it? Well, the brilliant genetics researcher Eric Green (who previously helped run the Human Genome Project) put it this way: “If you’re doing any sort of DNA studies, PCR is just the thing you do. It’s almost like saying, how do you use electricity?”
PCR powers everything from medical diagnosis to criminal forensics to the gold-standard Covid test.
And you couldn’t have a more beautiful example of how resistant mainstream academic publishing is to big, important, new ideas that come from spiky outsiders: Kary Mullis wrote a scientific paper outlining, in detail, the PCR technique and how it worked, and submitted it to Nature.
They rejected it.
So he tried Science.
They rejected it.
And so the definitive paper on a breakthrough that transformed its field and won a Nobel Prize ended up squeaking into a journal called Methods in Enzymology.
That is, the two best-resourced academic journals, Nature and Science, both independently filtered out what might be the most consequential paper in genetics published that decade. As Kary Mullis put it, “It scared a lot of people when they saw it, and they said that’ll never work, it’ll never work, ‘cos they didn’t like the answer, which was, if it does, it’s going to change my life.”
Anyway, the point is, a startlingly high number of the biggest, most important breakthroughs in DNA research (and multiple Nobel Prizes, in different fields!) have come from escaping the mainstream reductionist approach of normal science through psychedelic drugs that switch off the brain’s default mode network (ie, those parts of the brain used by mainstream scientists to do, uh, mainstream science). Which might, perhaps, say something about the limitations of normal science (and the limitations of the brain’s default mode network), in terms of achieving major breakthroughs in understanding reality.
Oh, and on the cover of his memoir, Dancing Naked In The Mind Field, the Nobel-Prize-winning Dr. Kary Mullis poses, not in a lab coat with lab equipment, but in swimming trunks, holding a surf board.
As Nietzsche put it, “the profoundest mind must also be the most frivolous one.”
End of aside, back to the theory…
EVOLUTION AT THE LEVEL OF UNIVERSES HAS MASSIVE EXPLANATORY POWER
Whatever the precise mechanism, evolution at the level of universes has massive explanatory power. Here’s the first big thing it potentially explains, and it is very important indeed.
There are 27 basic parameters of matter. (Some would quibble, and say it’s only 25. Whatever. Google “fundamental physical constants,” if you want the full list.)
Each of them is thought to be universal (their value remains the same, no matter where you are in the universe), and also constant in time (their value remains the same, no matter when you are in the universe).
They range from the speed of light, through the mass of the electron, to the wonderfully weird Fine Structure Constant – and they have a very peculiar and non-obvious set of values. (The value of the Fine Structure Constant is 0.007297351, and if you listen very carefully, in the sweet dark of the night, you can hear packs of physicists, as they roam the hills and valleys of science, howling “WHYYYYYYYY!?”)
IT’S AN EGG, NOT A ROCK
The thing is, right now, scientists have no good theory for why the basic parameters of matter are so finely tuned as to allow complex, longterm-stable structures like our five-billion-year-old sun, or the spiral galaxy (over twice as old) that our sun is part of.
Tweak any of these parameters by much, and you can’t get stable atoms, let alone stars and galaxies.
But the one mechanism we are aware of that can – that must – lead to such optimisation is evolution. Indeed, evolution DELIGHTS in such non-obvious optimisation of multiple parameters. (Just look at a peacock, or a giraffe, or a platypus… or you.)
And sure enough, the behaviour of our specific universe, over the past 13.8 billion years, has been far more like the development of an evolved organism (a cascade upward into complexity) than it has been like the behaviour of dead matter obeying eternal laws (a random walk, with no real directionality, and a fairly uniform decrease in complexity).
Our universe behaves like an egg, not a rock. Developing, not decaying.
A COMPLICATED EGG
And it’s a pretty complicated egg, too. Our universe has, through multiple developmental steps, developed from a ludicrously dense and tiny ball of extremely hot goo, to something which (in the only part we’ve got a good view of) contains you and me, communicating in abstract language, via technology, on a planet whose entire surface is alive with complex lifeforms.
Meanwhile, astronomy, cosmology and astrophysics have all been paralysed for many decades now by dark matter and, more recently, dark energy; two infinitely flexible fudge factors which mean astronomers never have to confront the ongoing failure of their science to predict, or explain, the endless cascade of complex, optimised, dynamic, homeostatic, out-of-equilibrium systems they keep discovering.
Systems which they, and their complex instruments, are also part of: one of the saddest sights in the known universe is that of scientists peering back billions of years in time, across billions of lightyears of space, at the dust and gas that gave birth to them, and saying, in effect; well it all looks random and meaningless to me; just dead matter, going nowhere in particular, blindly obeying arbitrary eternal laws in a random one-shot universe – as right behind them a million artists make art, a million mothers nurse children, a million people bathe in the Ganges, a million children sing; a million birds swoop on updrafts from oceans in which a million fish swim.
Hmmm, I am ranting… Well, OK; let’s keep going, and finish the rant, because this point is important.
If your job is to describe the entire universe – and particularly the development of the universe – then when you look through a telescope you have to take into account what is happening at both ends of the telescope; at both sides of the mirror; in front of, and behind, the radar dish.
Indeed, given that astronomers are looking a year back in time for every lightyear, all they can ever know of the universe is its past; remember, news of the centre of our own galaxy is from 25,000 years ago: news of the next nearest galaxy, Andromeda, is two and a half million years out of date; the only news we have from the far side of the visible universe is from billions of years back, because that's how long the light took to get here.
If you want to know what is happening right now in the universe; if you want to know where thirteen point eight billion years of swirling gas is going, then... look around you. We are the only data point we have for the precise present state of the universe. And we are remarkable. And we have to be taken into account.
By “we”, I mean human beings and their cultures and technologies, embedded in a world of plants and microbes and fungi and the entire carnival of life.
(And yes, you at the back with your hand up, scowling: I know that there is no universal “now”, since time is not absolute, and that when I say "right now", what I really mean is "as observed in the Earth reference frame, at the point in time measured on Earth”; but this is a rant on the internet, cut me some flipping slack here, the whole thing loses too much energy if I have to add five footnotes for every six words. You know what I mean, you pedantic fecker.)
Any description of the universe that doesn't put us, and some attempt to make sense of us and our existence, at its core, is only doing half the job. It might be doing its half of the job brilliantly – the Standard Model of particle physics is maybe the greatest collective achievement of human thought – but there is some other important work still to do, beyond the Standard Model, that simply can't be done through a mathematical, materialist, determinist, reductionism….
It's not that the reductionist approach can't tell you, on one level, precisely how dogs can be trained to bring physicists their phones (it will happily map all the movements of all the molecules involved). It’s that it can’t explain why this universe generates such things as dogs, phones, and physicists in the first place, from a ball of hot goo. (Inside the reductionist framework, that question doesn’t even mean anything.) But an evolved universe theory can…
NICE SPEECH, POETRY-BOY
OK, end of rant, because at this point I can hear my scientific friends grumpily saying “Sure, nice speech, poetry-boy, but what about entropy? What about the second law of thermodynamics? How can the entire universe cascade UPWARD into complexity when everything is losing order?” So let me deal with that first, before we move on.
DON’T WORRY, THE SECOND LAW OF THERMODYNAMICS CONTINUES TO OPPRESS EVERYONE
Sure, overall the universe is entropic: it gets less ordered over time.
Plants and animals are only able to build, and maintain, the order of their bodies by taking energy from their environment (sunlight; food), thus increasing overall disorder.
But the universe as a whole, being self-contained, is both organism and environment; any single individual universe has to provide all the energy needed for its own development, across its entire lifetime. Which is why most of this universe is made of stars, frugally and efficiently converting matter into energy through fusion in their core, with absolute reliability and no interruptions of power, over tens of billions of years, so that the more complex parts of the organism can climb the cliff of entropy. Complex parts such as the mysteriously active and complicated solar corona… or sexy animals like you and me and the entire biosphere of earth… or whatever weird, complicated, self-replicating chemistry, with twelve thumbs and five butts, might exist on the trillions of other planets they now think exist…
Don’t worry, we will get to why, and how, evolution at the level of universes has led to evolution inside the lifetimes of individual universes like ours in a later post. The evolution of evolution is extremely interesting. (In fact, it was when I realised that even the physicists who first tentatively proposed cosmological natural selection hadn’t seen its implications, because so many of the consequences unfolded across other fields – chemistry, geology, biology – and that, furthermore, because of the hyper-specialised nature of modern science, there wasn’t ANYONE qualified to see all those implications, that I grew obsessed with teasing them out myself, and writing this book.)
So, overall, yes, disorder grows. (Don’t worry, the second law of thermodynamics continues to oppress everyone and everything, even in an evolved universe.) Locally, though, in very specific zones, order goes way, way, way up over time, and that has to be explained – and evolution at the level of universes is our best shot at explaining it. It opens up infinite evolutionary time, in which matter itself evolves, so that DNA evolution runs on the rails of that earlier evolution.
A SET OF EVOLUTIONS, NESTED LIKE RUSSIAN DOLLS
If universes give birth to universes with slightly different fundamental properties, and thus evolve – then we, as humans, are the result of a set of nested evolutions.
That is, DNA evolution is just one of the levels at which our evolution has taken place. DNA itself must have evolved (over the lifetimes of earlier, ancestral universes), because the very elements that comprise it, and the very fundamental particles that comprise those elements, have, in turn, been shaped by evolution at the level of universes.
And so evolution stretches back into the infinitely distant past, when ancestral proto-universes presumably just flopped from black hole to Big Bang to black hole to Big Bang, generation after generation, with no real form or structure or complexity.
The idea of nested evolutions, at higher and higher levels of complexity, with each evolutionary stage enabling the next, is key to the book, so I’ll give it its own post soon. But for now, I’ll just give you an example of nested evolutions, and how their effect compounds, with each level allowing the next to run faster.
Let’s start here and now, and work our way back.
E.T. PHONE HOME
If you're reading this on a phone, look at the phone, and ask, how did it get here? How did a fistful of fundamental particles, 13.8 billion years after the Big Bang, come to take this extraordinarily unlikely form?
Well, in the immediate past (in your lifetime, and your parents’ and grandparents’ lifetime), it’s the result of technological evolution.
Your particular phone is the most recent in an evolutionary line that goes back through early digital smart phones; digital dumb phones; analog dumb phones; wireless-handset landlines; fixed, wired landlines; and, ultimately, to the telegraph: a single switch, sending bursts of electrons down a single wire.
Dot dash dash space dash dash dash space dot dash dash!
It’s what Richard Dawkins would call meme evolution: the evolution of ideas, designs, and so on, as they reproduce with variations. (If you are interested, Susan Blackmore’s book The Meme Machine is a terrific guide to the whole field.)
Let’s just grab the Wikipedia definition, to get us started:
A meme (/miːm/ MEEM) is an idea, behavior, or style that spreads by means of imitation from person to person within a culture and often carries symbolic meaning representing a particular phenomenon or theme. A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols, or practices, that can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena with a mimicked theme. Supporters of the concept regard memes as cultural analogues to genes in that they self-replicate, mutate, and respond to selective pressures.
There you go. It’s straightforward evolution, with human culture as the environment, and human beings as the replicators. And it is a very rapid form of evolution: the primitive one-celled organism that is the telegraph led to the advanced multicellular organism that is the smartphone in just 150 years.
So, in just a few dozen generations, a communication device that used one switch and one wire evolved into a communication device with more complex sense organs than most animals; camera, microphone, speaker, touchscreen – all gathering and transmitting information at multiple wavelengths. By comparison, it took over a trillion generations (admittedly most of them single-celled, and lasting less than a day) to go from the earliest bacteria to us.
That extremely rapid, highly directed and directional technological evolution is nested inside human cultural evolution, which is another form of meme evolution.
Human cultural evolution is complicated: it involves everything from religion to language to mathematics, perpetually changing as they are passed from human mind to human mind (mutating as they are replicated) – and all interacting as they change.
Cultural evolution is, at this point in history, far slower than technological evolution (which, to be fair, used to be pretty slow too), but that is because technological evolution is now speeding up exponentially. That, in turn, is speeding up cultural evolution, because cultural evolution both drives and is driven by technological evolution.
If you want a deeper dive into this, it’s worth reading Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants, Douglas Rushkoff’s Present Shock and Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity Is Near for three very different, but strangely complementary, takes on just how and why everything is speeding up right now.
Hmmm, perhaps I should put in another quick aside, because part of what I want to do with this Substack is spread the best ideas I have come across while researching this book…
AN ASIDE ON STEWART BRAND’S CONCEPT OF PACE LAYERING
So, another useful tool for thinking about all this is Stewart Brand’s concept of Pace Layering – his idea that the components of a robust system have different rates of change at different scales, which makes the overall system resilient to shocks. Exploring that fertile idea in full would require a whole other post of its own. I’ll restrict myself to a quote that shows clearly how pace layering and nested evolutions are highly complementary ideas… Also, I love this passage.
“Take a coniferous forest. The hierarchy in scale of pine needle, tree crown, patch, stand, whole forest, and biome is also a time hierarchy. The needle changes within a year, the crown over several years, the patch over many decades, the stand over a couple of centuries, the forest over a thousand years, and the biome over ten thousand years. The range of what the needle may do is constrained by the crown, which is constrained by the patch and stand, which are controlled by the forest, which is controlled by the biome. Nevertheless, innovation percolates throughout the system via evolutionary competition among lineages of individual trees dealing with the stresses of crowding, parasites, predation, and weather. Occasionally, large shocks such as fire or disease or human predation can suddenly upset the whole system, sometimes all the way down to the biome level…”
Go read the full piece, in MIT’s Journal of Design and Science, it’s absolutely terrific.
End of aside.
WHERE WERE WE? OH YES, HUMAN CULTURAL EVOLUTION
Anyway, modern western technological society evolved (again, with humans as the replicators) out of the Industrial Revolution, which evolved out of the earlier rediscovery of Greek and Arabic knowledge in the Renaissance, which… well, you can go back to the Stone Age and the first stone tools – and, as Ursula Le Guin would dryly point out, the first woven bags.
Which I think is worth another aside…
AN ASIDE ON URSULA LE GUIN’S CARRIER BAG THEORY
As Le Guin argues in her great essay, The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, the first tools were probably for gathering rather than hunting: bags of woven grass, so you could carry both your child and the food you had gathered. Or as she put it,
“If you haven't got something to put it in, food will escape you – even something as uncombative and unresourceful as an oat. You put as many as you can into your stomach while they are handy, that being the primary container; but what about tomorrow morning when you wake up and it's cold and raining and wouldn't it be good to have just a few handfuls of oats to chew on and give little Oom to make her shut up, but how do you get more than one stomachful and one handful home? So you get up and go to the damned soggy oat patch in the rain, and wouldn't it be a good thing if you had something to put Baby Oo Oo in so that you could pick the oats with both hands? A leaf a gourd a shell a net a bag a sling a sack a bottle a pot a box a container. A holder. A recipient.”
But grass, of course, doesn’t survive as well as stone, which has hugely warped our sense of our own past… The whole essay can be downloaded for free here.
End of aside.
Hmmm, two asides in a row. I am losing focus. OK, time to wrap this up.
FEEDBACK LOOPS BETWEEN NESTED EVOLUTIONS
Anyway, all that human cultural evolution is nested inside (and enabled by) DNA evolution: as our brains grew larger, as we evolved language, as we spent more time upright, and our hands specialised and became capable of finer movements, cultural evolution could speed up. But as cultural evolution sped up, it fed back into DNA evolution, as intelligence and dexterity became as valuable, or even more valuable, than strength.
And that fed back into technological evolution, as we could use our new dexterity to make better tools. Weaving and arrow-making are superpowers that completely transformed our relationship to our local environment. We are a lot less physically strong than chimps and gorillas; but we are, at this point in our evolution, a lot smarter, and can use that, plus our technology, to do things which are simply impossible for them, or any of our fellow animals.
Indeed, the feedback loops between those three nested levels of evolution have helped us to become a species so ludicrously dominant that we can alter the entire global environment to suit ourselves (for better and worse).
So those three nested levels of evolution, operating in this universe, rapidly led to a fistful of fermions and bosons becoming a smartphone held in the hand of a former ape.
But a theory of evolution at the level of universes would argue that the nesting of evolutions goes far further back than the birth of this particular universe; it would argue that DNA evolution is itself nested inside chemical evolution, and chemical evolution is nested, in turn, inside the evolution of fundamental particles and forces.
Those evolutions, though, are invisible to us, because they happened before the birth of our universe.
Those distant, hidden levels of evolution would explain just how elements like, say, carbon and phosphorous in this universe – in our DNA, our proteins, our enzymes – have exactly those fixed traits (bond strengths, and the precise angles they connect to each other, etc), which happen to be so good at efficiently generating complex life.
Combine phosphorous with three oxygen atoms, for example, and the negative charge, bond strength, and shape, of the resulting phosphate molecule is beautifully balanced, like the glue on a Post-It note, to be sticky-but-not-too-sticky. It’s almost as if it was designed (by the evolution of chemical properties, at the level of universes) to effortlessly zip and unzip strands of something awfully like DNA, or to hyper-efficiently create and destroy something awfully like the astonishingly optimised molecule ATP (which every single animal and plant on earth uses to transport energy)… it’s just spookily useful to life.
Likewise, carbon, and the subtly balanced bonds it can form with hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen, show all the hallmarks of an evolved chemical ecosystem, optimised (by evolution at the level of universes) for organic chemistry: for the production of the insanely complex and flexible chemistry of proteins, of enzymes, of life.
And these basic building blocks are REALLY efficient at building living things: 99% of a human being is made up of just six elements – carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium and phosphorous. It takes just 20 elements in total to make a person, or a tree, or a frog. (We’ll get to why the heavier elements exist later.)
And thus, to sum it up, the DNA evolution that gives us bacteria and birds and camels and koalas is just one in the middle of a set of nested evolutions, with each new level of evolution moving faster than the one before, because the earlier ones have smoothed the way (over many, many generations), and optimised the environment for the next one.
NESTED EVOLUTIONS AND THE HIERARCHY OF SCIENCES
It’s interesting how precisely those stages in the evolution of the complexity of universes map onto the hierarchy of sciences in P. W. Anderson's paper More is Different (which I discussed in the last post):
Elementary particle physics
Solid State or Many-Body Physics
…And so on, up to psychology and social sciences.
Is the reason we have different sciences at different levels of complexity perhaps because those levels of complexity reflect different evolutionary eras in the history of the evolution of universes? No wonder biology isn't simply applied chemistry, nor chemistry applied physics…
Anyway, it's a ridiculously big subject, crossing so many scientific fields, from astrophysics to zoology, that I could happily spend the rest of my life researching it.
But that’s probably enough on the theory for now. This post is getting loooooong, and I need to move onto the predictions.
Oh, wait, before I go, just to clarify: my book, and the theory that drives it, require nothing metaphysical, nothing woo woo, nothing extra at all – no God standing outside the universe busily designing things on a metaphysical whiteboard, no magic of any kind; just evolution, at the level of universes, optimising the basic parameters of matter for generation after generation of earlier universes, so as to eventually produce the kind of complex universe we see all around us today.
And bear in mind, we already believe in evolution, and have evidence for it, at the DNA level! We are the result of it! And we already believe in universes, and have evidence for them, at the individual level! We live in one! Nothing new has been added. It's just more evolution, and more universes.
Our universe evolved.
OK, let's take a break. Next post, I’ll make some predictions.
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