In my last post I described my take on the venerable idea that reality is composed of cumulative layers, and that the “layer cake” view of reality may give us a framework to consider evolution in a broader context (“extra-biological” evolution, if you will).
The question I posed; can we infer any commonalities regarding how one layer emerges from the previous? Can we construct an algorithm that describes 1) how the molecular layer emerges from the atomic layer, 2) how the biological layer emerges from the molecular layer, 3) how the somatic layer emerges from the biological layer, and so forth? And if we have such an algorithm in hand, what can we do with it? Given a sufficiently powerful computer, can we simulate the entire universe? Can we predict the next layer, or actually generate it within a simulation?
Let me start by warning of a few traps — traps I’ve fallen into at various times while thinking about the question above.
The first trap is looking for any sort of neatness or directionality, when examining the results of evolution. The “stuff” we find in the universe may be generated by simple mathematical algorithms (watch this video to see what I mean), but the results are generally quite messy. Everywhere we look we find complexity, exceptions, and irregularities. For example, in the realm of biology, the core concept of “species” is notoriously hard to define (so much so that there is even something called “The Species Problem“). So we should be wary of any model that classifies reality into neat, fixed categories (like the pre-Copernican map of the solar system below).
The same goes for directionality. It is tempting to look at relatively simple bacteria (which have been around for a rather long time), and then look at relatively complex human beings (who have been around for a rather short time), and then conclude that evolution is moving in a direction; from the simple to the complex, or from the stupid to the intelligent. This idea, as any biologist will tell you, is wrong. Evolution (biological evolution, at least) moves towards whatever forms are most fit for a given environment. Evolution actually prefers simplicity in a way (simpler forms are often more efficient, and thus more fit); the only reason complex forms (like people) exist at all are because all the environmental niches for simple lifeforms are all filled up. It’s mighty competitive, down there, for bacteria and the like. Evolution goes in whatever direction it finds success, be it towards simplicity, complexity, stupidity, intelligence, speed, sloth, or whatever.
The second trap (or third, if you want to count neatness and directionality as separate) is taking a human-centric view. This has been a common trap in the history of scientific and philosophical inquiry. The geocentric map of the solar system above is one example. Copernicus (with help from the earlier work of Aristarchus) displaced Earth (and everyone on it) from the center of things, instead putting the sun at the center of the solar system. Isaac Newton furthers our discomfort and reduces our specialness with his theory of universal gravitation; the same force that makes objects fall to the ground governs the movement of the planets and moons. Darwin pushes human beings out of the spotlight with this Theory of Evolution; instead of being created in a divine image, human beings evolved from apes. We’re but one species on one planet. Modern telescopes push our little planet out ever further; our little solar system isn’t even in the center of the galaxy, and how many galaxies are there? 125 billion, says Hubble? The denigration and humiliation continues to this day; modern physicists ask us to consider that the term universe may be a misnomer; the thing we consider to be everything may be just another grain of sand on a beach of multiverses. The more we look at reality, the further from the center of things we find ourselves.
How does the human-centric trap relate to the consideration of extra-biological evolution? It relates to the question; what is a unit of evolution? What entity, or agent, is evolving, on each layer? Genes evolve on the biological layer, bodies evolve on the somatic layer, and memes or ideas evolve on the memetic or cultural layer. But where do people fit in? On what layer are we evolving?
In short, we don’t have our own layer. We exist on multiple layers. At least in the way we think of ourselves, we aren’t replicable units. On the somatic layer, human bodies can make more human bodies, but even identical bodies don’t make for identical people (as anyone who has known twins can tell you). We think of ourselves as bodies with personalities; both our cultural and genetic heritage make up our identity. And of course we also exist on the quantum, atomic, and molecular levels, though most of us don’t commonly think of ourselves that way.
This doesn’t preclude that within some future layer, some future version of humans beings might become replicable units (if our bodies and personalities were entirely digitized, and living in a virtual world or worlds, perhaps). But that’s a different question.
The last trap, for lack of a better term, is uni-dimensionality. An example of this type of thinking is supposing that stars and solar systems are on a different evolutionary layer than molecules, or that a structured community of creatures, like a beehive, or a human city, is on different evolutionary layer than the individual lifeforms. The Global Brain concept is an example of falling into this trap.
Ken Wilber presents a better option for looking at extra-biological evolution; the Four-Quadrant model.
Wilber divides reality into four quadrants, along two axes. The first axis is the individual/collective axis. Galaxies are the collective form of atoms; planets are the collective form of molecules, and so on. The second axis is interior/exterior. Our subjective experience as human beings is the interior form or manifestation of our brain-body as a physical, exterior form.
I think Wilber himself falls into the neatness trap, and possibly the directionality trap, with his four quadrant model, but the multiple quadrant idea is still a good one. I think Wilber’s 2nd axis (interior/exterior) is something that emerges with complex brains. Wilber’s model seems to imply that consciousness is a fundamental property of matter, and brains merely refine it. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve switched over to Dennett‘s camp with regards to consciousness.
As for directionality, Wilber’s main interest is higher consciousness, so that’s his bias when looking at evolution. There’s no harm in taking a closer look at the particular evolutionary vector that may be leading towards higher consciousness or intelligence, but I’m more interested in the general algorithm that describes (and can hopefully predict) the emergence of new layers (regardless of whether or not higher consciousness is a result).
So, I’ve promised a lot, haven’t I? An algorithm (or at least a model that can be easily simulated) that describe the emergence of new evolutionary layers. My model will not fall into the traps of neatness, directionality, human-centrism, or uni-dimensionality. Will I deliver? You’ll have to wait for the next post.