A problem I’ve been thinking about for the last twenty-five years or so (I’m a slow thinker, and it’s a big problem) is how new levels, or layers, of reality are created.
For example, what exactly is the process by which the molecular layer of reality is created from the atomic layer of reality? How does the genetic or biological realm or layer emerge from the molecular?
We know how these things happened, specifically. For example we know that atomic elements (like hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen) were ejected into space from stars. Some of these atoms linked to each other with a new type of bond (a covalent bond, where the electron rings overlapped, as opposed to the simpler ionic bond). In this way the first molecules of the universe, like water and ammonia, were formed. Thus the molecular layer was born.
We also know, more or less, how the genetic/biological layer was created. Certain types of protein macromolecules — chains of amino acids, or nucleotides — developed the trick of self-replication; assembling copies of themselves from smaller pieces (amino acids). This led, eventually, to a kind of proto-RNA, and eventually (with the addition of cellular membranes), the first prokaryotic lifeforms. Hello biological layer.
What we don’t know, is the rule-set, or algorithm, for how a new layer of reality is created. Can the process be abstracted? Does the jump follow a particular set of consistent rules? There don’t seem to be very many people even asking these questions. To me, these questions are incredibly important. I’ll explain why in a moment.
There is plenty of room for debate regarding what constitutes a new layer. For example, life, on Earth, goes on for some time before anything even resembling what we consider to be a body emerges. So perhaps we can separate the somatic layer of reality from the biological layer. But what triggers the creation of the somatic layer? Is it the emergence of a new cell structure, the nucleus, that gives rise to eukaryotic lifeforms? Or is the ability of cells to specialize that creates the first true somatic forms (like the famous hydra).
Each new layer of reality is fully dependent on the lower layers (you can’t have molecules without atoms) but it is also distinct — the new layer offers new types of structures, agents, interactions, rules, spaces, etc. You can even apply the general principles of evolution (like mutation, selection pressure, fitness criteria, etc.) to each layer of reality in the abstract model we’re constructing.
But how do we get from one layer to the next? This question is often ignored.
For example, the Maxis game “Spore,” created by Will Wright, models several layers of reality. There is a cellular layer, a biological layer, and a cultural/technological layer. The mechanics of the transitions, however, are glossed over. What are the overarching rules that apply to all the layers, and how, exactly, do we get from one to the next?
On planet Earth’s evolutionary time-line, things start to get interesting when consciousness emerges (and I realize not everybody thinks that consciousness is an emergent phenomena–Daniel Dennett won me over to this idea). What I would call the social layer of reality emerges, with animals, propelled by emotional impulses, interacting sexually, familially, and territorially.
Relatively soon after, big-brained primates learn to think abstractly, plan, and manipulate their environment in complex ways, thus introducing the cultural layer of reality.
Various technological layers follow. Our current state of reality, the half-cyborgified human operating half in physical reality, half in virtual space, with instantaneous access to all the world’s information, with a just-emerging ability to manipulate its own genome, is most likely not the end of the line. It’s likely, unless we self-destruct sooner than expected, that new layers of reality will continue to emerge.
But how? What exactly is happening? Is there any way to simulate the emergence of a new layer? There isn’t, unless you have a model and an algorithm.
It’s necessary to define, in abstract terms, what exactly constitutes a new layer. And that’s just the first step.
So why is answering this question important?
1) So we can perform interesting simulations.
With quantum computing, we’ll have an enormous amount of processor power at our disposal. We’ll be able, potentially, to model evolution itself (not just biological evolution, which we can already model in a fairly sophisticated way, but the multi-layered evolution of the universe itself). But we’ll need models — algorithms and rule-sets — to plug into the computer. We need to better understand the multi-tiered nature of reality in order to simulate it.
2) So we can understand extra-biological evolution, beyond the realm of metaphor.
Richard Dawkins introduced the concept of memetics — applying the principles of biological evolution to culture. Certain memes (words, phrases, melodies, ideas) survive and thrive in memetic space (in our minds and media) because they are more fit than others (fitness in this context being catchiness, replicability, aesthetic value, usefulness, entertainment value, etc.).
It’s a brilliant idea, but the study of memetics is arguably dead. The field has failed to advance beyond the realm of metaphor. The most basic question — what is or isn’t a meme — has never answered to the degree where memetic evolution could even begin to be measured.
By understanding and defining exactly what constitutes a layer of reality, and what constitutes an agent, or unit of evolution, within that layer, we might be able to start looking at extra-biological evolution (evolution in general) as a quantifiable field, and not just a grand analogy.
In my next post, I’ll offer my take on The Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything (and it won’t be 42). I’ll present my definition of what defines a level of reality, and put forward one possibility for how we can model the jump from one layer to the next.