14.47, Friday 2 Sep 2005

How does nature take creative leaps? In the fossil record there are repeated gaps that no "missing link" can fill. The most glaring is the leap by which inorganic molecules turned into DNA. For billions of years after the Big Bang, no other molecule replicated itself. No other molecule was remotely as complicated. No other molecule has the capacity to string billions of pieces of information that remain self-sustaining despite countless transformations into all the life forms that DNA has produced. -- Deepak Chopra on Intelligent Design.

As loath as I am to comment on Intelligent Design (the very name of which implies there's an unintelligent design, or rather, an a-intelligent design, which is to intelligence as amoral is to moral), I can't help myself.

I don't understand this missing link thing. That there's a big different between DNA and clay is a matter of perspective. Molecularly, it's a small difference. Okay, there are big consequences (as far as we're concerned). But we don't say there's a "missing link" between a mostly-full bathtub and a flooded bathroom, it's just a bit more water and that's all. We don't say there's a missing link in a cliff, because the height changes discontinuously along the ground, that's just how landscape works. Saying there's a missing link with life, or evolution, is misunderstanding what evolution is. Evolution is about small changes that - sometimes - hit upon a combination of factors that produce a cascade, and become the next level of infrastructure. Molecules to replicating ones; single-celled organisms to multicelled; primates; apes; humans. Hey, even Greek city states and democracy. The two differences (in quality; in arrangement) are just two perspectives of looking at the same thing. But they are two different perspectives. That one appears to be big isn't magical (though it is awesome). A difference between life and not-life does not a missing link between arrangements of matter make.

I want to expand on something I mentioned in the notes of my 3 Steps talk.

The history of the universe is one of moving through a series of emergences. Morowitz's book, The Emergence of Everything, lists 28 of them, with planetary accretation and the metabolic cycle early, and the great apes and urbanism coming later. Another set (of 25 this time) is used in Charles Jencks' The Universe Cascade [another picture] in The Garden of Cosmic Speculation.

If you like, we live on the top of a pyramid of emergences, but I prefer to think we're buried, as deep as will go, in a possibility space--at the very tip of the inverted tree. We dig, we dig.

This is what the universe does, this is what it is: There's a distribution of things, roughly the same but with different parameters. There are selection algorithms that prune the rubbish ideas, and motivating factors (environmental pressures, environmental feedback) that keep the parameters permeating. One day, one set of parameters gets in sync with the prevailing environment: It finds itself not being pruned, but replicating. It has hit the cascade. And why not? It's no more impossible or unlikely (or likely) that there being one way to balance a pin on its tip. The difference with the cascade is that the solution to the equations is self-supporting, self-creating. Autopoietic.

There's nothing magical about the cascade, it just happens. That's what the universe does. It exists, and things which attempt to exist more, exist more. And if it doesn't happen? The environment is always slowly changing. An autopoietic loop, like the water cycle, or the metabolic cycle, or the cycle of life (which, in this era of human generations sprouting like an over-watered spider plant, we know not to be a cycle at all), a loop like one of these will always puff out side-effects. The loop is never totally clean. The metabolic cycle puffs out lemons just as puffers in Conway's Life puff out gliders. These side-effects build up, and build up, and build up. Sometimes they change the environment to such an extent that they operate as new surfaces for emergence, as water did on earth when it become oceans. If you're looking for magic and possibility, there's magic in magnitude.

And what if the cascade doesn't occur, and the build up of side-effects doesn't help? The side-effects become pollution, and a reset occurs. The dinosaurs reset to mammals, societies and philosophies have reset, and who knows how many dead ends there are in the world of quantum virtual particles. The larger the reset, the larger the catastrophe.

Get this. The universe is a depth-first search of possibility space.