The Evolution of Everything

Alan P. Scott - Rants - Editorials

the whole big ball of wax

Adapted from a rant I sent in email to m'friend Hap in early 2005...

Oh. Hm. Well, I have to tell you that I am not a both/and thinker on this one. I am firmly of the belief that evolution occurs, in numerous contexts and on every scale - that evolution is, in fact, the central metaphor of life, the universe, and everything - and that the cosmos, this universe, and everything in it contains the seeds of its own genesis, as opposed to having been created by any sort of volitional entity external to (i.e., exempt from) the rules. There is no omnipotent "guy named God" or, at least, if there is anything like such a being, it's part of the context like the rest of us, an entity perhaps more powerful than most, but still bound by the same basic rules as the rest of it all.

I believe that, in fact, the absence of a creator is a logical necessity. Occam's Razor is often used but never blunt, and invoking an external source for the cosmos merely pushes the problem of "how it all got started" back one unnecessary step. You get into the endless-turtles problem (you know, the old Indian myth - the Earth's a plate on the back of a giant turtle, which is itself standing on the back of another turtle, which is itself standing on the back of another... so "it's turtles all the way down!").

It's only recently, though, that human beings have developed the mathematical tools by which to describe how this might really happen. Quantum physics and the mathematics of complexity, chaos, fractals, self-similarity and rule-based iteration, the observable emergent properties of systems both real-life and computer-based, point the way towards an understanding of just how the universe could be a self-starting entity, and why it is that evolution is the most powerful metaphor, not just for life, but for all of existence.

Here's what I think happened... here's what I think happened. I could be wrong; probably am wrong in many details. This is (still) ad-hoc and quickly constructed, incoherent, full of holes and leaps of logic - I don't often get asked to expound on my beliefs in this regard. But you DID ASK... and it is, in outline at least, what I truly, honestly believe about what we are and where we came from.


In the beginning, all was without form, and void. Nothing - no thing - was. All was potential, a limitless, undifferentiated field, devoid even of frames of reference. But even so it was not chaos - not, in fact, utterly random and unconstrained. This field of potential behaved consistently overall - it displayed specific characteristics. It operated by the rules of physics, rules which may be arcane but which are not inherently unknowable.

The specific name for this potential is "the quantum foam." This is a real thing; its observable traces exist today. The net energy of the quantum foam is zero; it must be zero. Energy can neither be created nor destroyed; the First Law of Thermodynamics always applies, even out here in the singularity before the universe began. However...

The key characteristic of the quantum foam that leads to our observable universe is this: while net energy remains zero, always and forever, it's possible to cheat - for awhile. The quantum foam is constantly in flux, pairs of so-called "virtual particles," opposite in polarity, constantly coming into being. So for brief period you might see an electron and a positron - a -1 particle and a +1 particle - appear out of nothingness, before they annihilate each other. The net energy remains zero, but you see a local region with positive energy, and one with negative.

These events occur constantly but they normally don't amount to anything, because the particles necessarily come into existence close to each other, and simply annihilate each other when they come into contact again, from 0 to +1/-1 to 0 again.


What happens when (not if) a positive particle occurs closely enough to another positive particle for them to interact? And when that interaction knocks one of the particles far enough away from its negative that they can no longer mutually annihilate? And what happens when this happens more than once, when particles cascade, start interacting with each other in greater and greater numbers without annihilating each other - in effect, shouldering aside the quantum foam? There's nothing to stop them, no active force looking for violators of the balance to shut them down. What happens then?

You get a bubble, one that expands on its own, at least for awhile. Maybe even a big bubble, one that could last for millions of years, or more. It must return to the foam eventually - even protons decay in time - but that borrowed time could be very, very long, especially when viewed from inside such a bubble.

This happens an infinity of times, an infinity of bubbles in the quantum foam. Most of these universes would be lifeless and short-lived, returning to the foam after mere billions of years, as barren as when they appeared. Most of these universes would be unstable, as well - while all of them would consist of particles which obey rules, there's evidence to suggest that at least some of the parameters of those rules are arbitrary, and not all combinations would be conducive to a stable, long-lived universe consisting of stars and planets. In fact, such universes might be vanishingly rare. We only know of one example - but that one example is sufficient to prove its own existence.

That's what I think happened "in the beginning." There was no creation by a conscious entity. There was no "big bang" either, though - no dramatic physical event that birthed our universe in an explosion of fire and ice. Our universe simply... occurred. It coalesced, like a solid crystal in a supersaturated liquid. It evolved. Nobody did it - nobody had to.


So how do we get from endless barren universes to one with life, and intelligent life at that, though?

Well, it goes back to the idea that all universes derived from the quantum foam consist of particles derived from the quantum foam, operating according to rules which are implicit in, or consequent to, those first few simple particles. Those rules are simple, consistent and iterative; I believe in fact that they must be so for any kind of stable universe to exist. There can't be an external entity consciously maintaining every single particle; they have to be able to operate on their own - it's more elegant to think of them operating on their own, each proton, each quark, doing the same thing independently.

It turns out that that's enough. Counter to what our intuition would tell us, complexity derives from simplicity. Simple systems of simple particles interacting only with their neighbors, consistent not because they communicate with each other over vast distances but just because they only have a few ways to interact, create systems which have enormously complex emergent properties. This is observably so in our universe; I believe that it is necessarily so for any universe that contains life, or intelligence.


The brilliant Brian Eno, who's much more than a musician, described it this way, in his A Year, with Swollen Appendices (his diary for the year 1995, and a much more fascinating book than you might expect):

 "The three rules for complex systems:
 "A rule of generation
 "A rule of reduction
 "A rule of maintenance (or a tendency to persist)"
--entry for 1 September, p. 189

Add to that two implicit assumptions that the universe already makes by default, which are that these three simple categories of rule apply both consistently and iteratively - that is, that there is time, that the state of the universe at time t+1 is the direct result of what existed at time t+0, and is the direct antecedent of time t+2 - and not vice versa. This concept of time as having a direction (though not, surprisingly, necessarily a "flow"), is I think essential.

John Conway's venerable computer simulation "Life" is the canonical example of just about the simplest possible formulation of this. You've probably already run across this in one form or another, but allow me to belabor the obvious in the terms I've borrowed here.

In the simulation, the "game" of Life, you have a two-dimensional grid of binary numbers, spots which can only be turned ON or OFF. This can be as simple as a piece of graph paper with ON squares darkened in pencil. Each spot's state is dependent upon that of its closest eight neighbors; the exact details are available in numerous places but basically, if you have too many neighbors around, the spot "dies" - it goes to zero even if it's a one (a rule of reduction) or stays zero (a rule of maintenance) - same thing if you have too few. If you have just the right number of neighbors, though, the spot either stays a one (a rule of maintenance) or a new one is made from a zero (a rule of generation). The changes are all made iteratively - that is, none of the particles "knows" what's going to happen next - all they "know" is the current state of their nearest neighbors. All of the changes for a given state of the board are computed based on the current state of the board, in a single instant of game time (however long it takes to compute that instant in "real" time), and then occur simultaneously. You then have a new state of the board which is the next instant of game time - the next iteration, to which the same rules apply again. Those slices make up the direction of time for the game of Life (but notice that you could "stack up" the individual slices to create a static, three-dimensional state diagram - viewed from outside, the game could be seen as a single frozen structure. Perhaps if there were an extrauniversal observer, that's how our universe would appear...).

Even in such a deterministic, binary, limited system, extremely complex structures (things like "glider guns," which spawn coherent patterns of dots that traverse the game board) can develop from simple seeds. How much more so, then, can develop when your "spots" are subatomic particles whose interactions are - while still simple and consistent and dependent only on their nearest neighbors one slice of time at a time - also three-dimensional (or maybe even more)? You get structures. Structures that persist tend to persist (tautological but important - this is the part the fundamentalists who insist evolution can't possibly occur have got wrong: structure is more likely than not). Complex structures that cohere over time, that interact, that add to themselves, that make things - only have to happen once to begin to spread. Structures that interact at all - to accrete more structure, to reproduce, to generate - are likely to evolve and, once evolved, to spread.

And... structures that tend to maintain their own boundaries and reproduce themselves - that is, that display volition - that is, life - only have to occur once as well. Once that happens, they're more likely than not to spread - volition wins over non-volition, because volition wants to. So once volition appears even at a rudimentary level, it's more likely to persist and spread, and once volitional organizations begin to interact, the interaction itself fuels more and faster change in each iteration. All that's required is a relatively stable local net input of energy (ours would be the Sun), a small imbalance over long periods of time, to drive the structures to change in each iteration.

As Brian Eno also says,

What makes complexity theory interesting is the idea that 'intelligence' arises out of the concatenation of simplicities: that therefore it doesn't have to come from somewhere else. [...]What are the threads? Evolution through iteration; rules cascaded, simple rules yielding unpredictably complex outcomes; things set in place and left to generate for long periods, and the necessary conditions for that to work.
--20 August, p. 182

Or, to put it another way,

"All reality is a game. Physics at its most fundamental, the very fabric of our universe, results directly from the interaction of certain fairly simple rules, and chance; the same description may be applied to the best, most elegant and both intellectually and aesthetically satisfying games. By being unknowable, by resulting from events which, at the sub-atomic level, cannot be fully predicted, the future remains malleable, and retains the possibility of change, the hope of coming to prevail; victory, to use an unfashionable word. In this, the future is a game; time is one of the rules."
--Iain M. Banks, The Player of Games, p. 48 (2008 Orbit trade paperback edition), as read in March 2009.

This, then, is the engine that drives the evolution of life from nonliving compounds to RNA floating in a primordial sea, to single-celled life, all the way to human beings and their self-referential spirit of inquiry today. There's no need to invoke an extra-universal volitional agent (where, again, did that agent acquire its volition?) - universes, life, and intelligence simply occur, and then evolve, given enough of an implicit structure for anything to occur at all.


One of the biggest holes in this, of course, is that to which I alluded at the beginning of this rant. While I do believe that an entity exempt from the rules is impossible - that there isn't, that in fact there literally cannot be, an omnipotent God; there is no being that can truly decree that 2+2=5 - that doesn't necessarily mean that there isn't some sort of godlike entity outside this universe, a being which does play by the rules and is responsible for generating human beings, using the tools of the universe in which we exist. It is that realization which keeps me an agnostic, rather than an atheist... though even so I wouldn't necessarily be willing to worship such an entity.


Acknowledgements and known influences

Brian Eno, as mentioned in the text, was the principal impetus for this article. Douglas R. Hofstadter probably had a hand in the mix somewhere, too. Rudy Rucker has also done significant work with cellular automata. Stephen Wolfram's enormous tome A New Kind of Science, on the other hand, wasn't an influence, despite its very similar reasoning, since I didn't even try to pick it up until January 2006 - but reading Wolfram (or trying to) did at least remind me about the email I'd sent nearly a year prior...

©2005, 2006, 2009 Alan P. Scott. All rights reserved.

Originally composed February 27, 2005.

Last updated March 14, 2009.

Contact me: