Postbiological Future, and Our Journey into Inner Space

Speculations on our possible next big transition to postbiological life, our history of increasingly space, time, energy, and matter (STEM) efficient and dense platforms for life and mind, and perhaps ultimately, our journey to universal transcension. Working to get there as humanely and responsibly as possible. If you want to stay around for the amazing journey, it may be a lot easier than you think.

The Tangled Tree isn’t So Tangled – Telling the Story of Molecular Convergent Evolution

The Tangled Tree, David Quammen (2019)

I have just read David Quammen’s The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life (2019). It is a beautifully written book on molecular phylogenetics. Quammen has written over a dozen books on the life sciences, and he is a great storyteller and science journalist.

I recommend this book, with one serious reservation. It describes a purely evolutionary view of molecular phylogenetics. Quammen unfortunately entirely ignores convergent evolution, and thus never allows the reader to consider its implications for universal development. He also does not discuss evo-devo biology. If he had, he might have recognized just how constraining accretive processes of biological development must be on all macrobiological evolutionary change.

Consider the fact that all complex animals, including humans, share almost all the same basic developmental regulatory machinery found in much simpler organisms than us. Like a tree that grows outward from a central trunk, we can’t update our developmental code as we grow more complex. We can only add to that code, progressively limiting our morphological and functional options in evolution. Constraining factors like accretive regulatory development and convergent evolution are physical realities we must recognize if we are to understand long-range macrobiological change on Earthlike planets.

Convergent evolution in antifreeze proteins in Arctic and Antarctic fish.

Scientists have been researching the molecular phylogenetics of convergent evolution since the 1990s, when evo-devo biology first became a formal subdiscipline. For example, we’ve known since 1997 that antifreeze proteins evolved via two clearly independent genetic means in Northern and Southern polar fish, to prevent ice crystal formation.

As our science and simulation advance, I think we will discover a vast number of developmental portals, uniquely adaptive and accelerative attractors on the road to competitive complexification that must be discovered via evolutionary search in our universe. Such complexification attractors have long been proposed by developmentally-oriented thinkers. Organic chemistry, Earthlike planets, nucleic acid-, protein-, and fat-based cells, oxidative phosphorylation, multicellularity, nutrient- and waste-carrying circulatory systems, and the emergence of antifreeze in animals living in near-zero temperature habitats are just a few of many proposed examples of such adaptive attractors. I’d argue they are examples of what EDU scholar Claudio Flores Martinez calls “cosmic convergent evolution” [SETI in the light of cosmic convergent evolution, Acta Astronautica, 104(1):341–349, 2014].

Fortunately, we can increasingly investigate some of the more recent proposed attractors via molecular phylogenetics, inferring the recent genetic history of life on Earth. Some of these more recent attractors include nervous systems, which according to Flores Martinez appear to have independently emerged at least three times (in bilaterians like us, in comb jellies, and in jellyfish) using three different neurotransmitter schemes. If nervous systems are a true portal, there won’t be anything else that can be built on top of our kind of multicellularity that would give collectives a comparable competitive advantage. In bilaterians, emergences like endoskeletons, muscles, prehensile limbs, opposable thumbs, emotions, ethics, language, consciousness, and extrabiological tool use have all been proposed as additional portals that are uniquely able to support accelerating complexification in collectives in their local environments. Such universal developmental checkpoints, if they exist, must be reliably statistically accessible, dominant, and persistent when discovered via evolutionary search. Today, increasing numbers of proposed universal adaptive convergences are becoming accessible to molecular investigation.

With respect to antifreeze in polar environments we learned in the 1990s that the antifreeze gene used by a Southern fish, Antarctic cod, arose from a mutation of gene that originally coded for a digestive enzyme. But the origin of the antifreeze protein in the Northern polar fish, Arctic cod, remained unclear. This 2019 article by Ed Yong at The Atlantic describes how, after twenty more years of diligent work, Chi-Hing Christina Cheng and her group deduced the complex way that Arctic fish built their antifreeze protein. It arose from a stretch of noncoding DNA, which was duplicated, mutated, relocated next to a promoter, and then a base was deleted to make it functional. In the twentieth century, some geneticists used to think noncoding DNA was “junk”. Work like Cheng’s tells us that noncoding DNA offers life a deep pool of potential genetic and protein diversity. We’ve also found antifreeze (and many other wintering adaptations) in other cold-dwelling species, like Cucujus clavipes, the red bark beetle. I’m sure we’ll learn many more stories of convergence there as well.

If Quammen had recognized that convergent molecular phylogenetics offers an exciting new way to understand long-known morphological and functional convergence in phylogenetically unique species, just as molecular methods give us exciting new ways to understand phylogenetics, he would have done a great service to general readers and scholars alike. Morphological and functional convergences, along with some hints at genetic and molecular evo-devo pathways toward them, have long been described by scientists like Simon Conway Morris (Life’s Solution, 2004; The Deep Structure of Biology, 2008),  Johnathan Losos (Improbable Destinies: How Predictable is Evolution?, 2018, and George McGhee (Convergent Evolution: Limited Forms Most Beautiful, 2011; Convergent Evolution on Earth, 2019).

Work like this tells us that our morphological and functional tree of life (a separate concept from our phylogenetic tree) is both continually diverging, due to contingent evolutionary innovation, and continually converging, due to the existence of universal environmental optima that will inevitably discovered, on all planets with environments like ours, via evolutionary search. In important ways then, this latter tree of life is significantly less tangled than it first seems. Life, a macrobiological system with fixed and finite complexity, is going somewhere, developmentally speaking. Both evolutionary contingency and developmental inevitability are central to the story of life on Earth, and other Earthlike planets in our universe.

We started our Evo Devo Universe (EDU) research and discussion community in 2008 precisely because the story of universal development is so widely ignored and downplayed. Most scientific work today perpetuates the one-sided, evolution-only view of change and selection that is the dominant scientific narrative today. There seems to be a strong emotional commitment among some scientists to the idea of an almost entirely contingent universe. Perhaps this commitment arises because of the unsettling implications of a universe that is developing as well as evolving. If our universe is developmental, science may become not merely descriptive, but prescriptive. It may learn to tell how we may better act, to be in service to universal processes and goals.

My new paper, Evolutionary Development: A Universal Perspective (2019) is my own latest small effort to offer an opposing, evolutionary developmental perspective. For a lay article on why we appear to live in an evo-devo universe, you may enjoy my post Humanity Rising: Why Evolutionary Development Will Inherit the Future (2012).

One of the books high points is its excellent discussion of the great Carl Woese. Woese and his student, George Fox, revolutionized microbiology by realizing we could trace bacterial phylogenetics through internal “molecular fossils.” They deduced the phylogenetic taxonomy of 16S ribosomal RNA, the universal machinery of protein manufacturing. This work allowed them to classify Archea, single-celled organisms that have a more complex internal structure than bacteria. Archaea range widely on Earth, and engage in a great variety of energy metabolisms (sugars, ammonia, metal ions, hydrogen gas), unlike their simpler bacterial cousins.

Woese and Fox’s Tree of Life, 1977

Woese’s work gave us our modern phylogenetic tree of life in 1977 (picture right). This tree showed that Archea are closer in phylogenetic history to us than bacteria. It is a good bet that both eukaryotes and prokaryotes branched off from an Archea that lived in undersea geothermal vents, making energy from hydrogen gas, warm water, and underwater nutrients richly available in those vents. Chemosynthesis, in other words, likely arrived on Earth long before photosynthesis.

What’s more, life on Earth appears to have emerged almost as soon as our planet became cool enough to support liquid water. Metal-rich Earthlike planets, with plate tectonics, plentiful water, and volcanic vents, appear to be ideal catalysts for life, and our geochemical cycles are ideal buffers and cradles for stabilizing life once it emerges. The complex set of homoeostatic protections for life on Earth, aka the Gaia hypothesis, when stated without the woo of “planetary intelligence”, appear far more developmental, from a universal perspective, than the hypothesis’s many detractors like to admit.

Woese’s work also lends credence to Alexander Rich and Walter Gilbert’s RNA world hypothesis, the idea that self-replicating RNA emerged first, before DNA and proteins. RNA is one of those rare complex chemicals that can store memory of its past evolutionary variation and self-catalyze its own replication. In other words, it is autopoetic (capable of self-maintenance and self-improvement).

Another high point is the book’s discussion of horizontal gene transfer. Amazingly, it appears that about 8% of human DNA arrived sideways in our genome, not via sex or mutation but via viral infection. As Harald Brüssow reminds us in “The not so universal tree of life,” we have not yet incorporated viruses into our current trees of life. That is a major oversight. Retroviral insertion sequences are found everywhere in eukaryotic DNA. Viruses and cells are constantly exchanging genetic material, in all species. [Brüssow H. (2009). The not so universal tree of life or the place of viruses in the living world. Phil trans. Royal Soc. of London. doi:10.1098/rstb.2009.0036]

Tree_Of_Life_(with_horizontal_gene_transfer)

Tree of life showing vertical and (a few) horizontal gene transfers. Source: Wikipedia

Our Real Tree of Life, once we draw it to include viruses, will look even more like a network than in the figure at right. The tree drawn at right is a good step beyond Woese’s 1977 tree, but it is still much too conservative. It includes no lines between eukaryotes, for example. It ignores retroviruses and other mechanisms.  See the Wikipedia article on HGT for the great variety of DNA transfer mechanisms we’ve discovered so far.

DNA is arguably still the dominant autopoetic system on our planet today. DNA’s astonishing ability to copy, vary, and improve itself, to jump around inside the cell as transposons, to jump between cells and organisms via viral and retroviral insertion, and to use vertical methods like germline mutation and sexual recombination, has made all living species on Earth much more of a single interdependent network than most of us realize.

This is an important idea to understand, because is the genetic network, not any collection of species, that has always been the true survivor and improver in life’s story. Many past environmental catastrophes, like the Permian extinction, and the K-T meteorite impact, have wiped out the vast majority of species, but I would personally bet almost all of the diversity of the genetic network survived each of those events. This is obviously true in developmental genes, which are highly conserved. If any complex species survives a catastrophe, the developmental core of all complex species survives. But I suspect it is true for most evolutionary (nonconserved) genes as well. We shall see if the evidence from modern catastrophes bears this assertion out. Genes are typically reassorted into hardier species after each catastrophe, and those species, having no competition and ample resources, make great leaps in innovation immediately after each major catastrophe. I call that the catalytic catastrophe hypothesis, and I look forward to seeing it proven in coming years.

Interdependent networks, in other words, always win out in complex selective environments, over time. Such networks are stabler, safer, more ethical, and more capable than isolated individuals. There are deep lessons in complexity science and network science to be discovered here, lessons that tell us why our leading forms of artificial intelligence later this century will be driven to not only be deeply biologically-inspired, but also ethical, empathic, and self-regulating collectives, just like us. Complex selection and developmental optima will ensure this is so, statistically speaking, in my view.

Again, if Quammen had covered convergent molecular phyogenetics, and a bit of evo-devo and developmental genetics, he would he would have given us a better set of trees and networks to ponder. If he’d wrestled with the convergent features of biological development at the organismic scale, he might have begun to recognize it at the ecosystem scale, and help us to begin to see and ponder it too.

Life is a complex, interdependent network, but it is also going somewhere. It is developing, not just evolving. I speculate on the intrinsic goals of evo-devo systems in my 2019 paper above. It may be too early to for us to say with certainty what goals life has, as a complex evo-devo network, but it is not to early to recognize that such goals must exist, both from evolutionary and developmental perspectives.

When considered as a single interdependent network, life’s story on Earth so far has been a curiously smooth and continually accelerating trajectory of increasing complexity, stability, ability, and intelligence. Something very curious is going on in all the Earthlike, high-complexity environments in the universe. We need to start recognizing and studying it much more closely if we wish to understand accelerating change, complexity and adaptation from a universal perspective, not just our own.

Key Assumptions of the Transcension Hypothesis: Do Advanced Civilizations Leave Our Universe?

Low-mass X-ray binary (LMXRB) star system. Strange as it seems, Earth’s future may look something like this, with us inside a black hole-like environment of our creation, on a highly accelerated path to merging with other universal civilizations doing the same. If true, our destiny is density, and dematerialization.

This post is about a paper of mine on three big topics: the Fermi paradox, accelerating change, and astrosociology (the nature and goals of advanced civilizations). The paper is called The transcension hypothesis: sufficiently advanced civilizations may invariably leave our universe, and implications for METI and SETI. It was published online in 2011 and in Acta Astronautica in 2012.

Speculation on the Fermi paradox has grown considerably in the last two decades, as it has become increasingly obvious that we live in a universe that is very likely to be teeming with Earth-like planets, and also with intelligent, curious, and technologically accelerating forms of life. When we extrapolate our own accelerating progress in science, IT, and nantechnologies, we can imagine that any one of these civilizations could easily send out self-replicating nanotech that would spread across our entire galaxy within 100 million years (a very reasonable estimate with conventional ideas for interstellar exploration), and beam the information that it finds out to the rest of the universe (or alternatively, just back to the originating civilization), creating a Galactic Internet, and making our universe as information-transparent as our planet is becoming today. So if Earth-like planets likely emerged in our galaxy at least a billion years before ours did, as several astrobiologists have estimated, why don’t we see any signs of this Galactic Internet today? Or signs of past alien visitation, probes, and megastructure beacons near Earth? Or signs of intelligent structures or civilizations anywhere in the night sky? In other words, Where is Everybody? That’s the Fermi paradox.

In a nutshell, the transcension hypothesis predicts constrained transcension of intelligence from the universe, rather than expansion (colonization) within the universe by intelligence, wherever it arises in the universe. The reason we don’t see advanced civilizations, if the transcension hypothesis is correct, is that the vast majority leave the visible universe as they develop, and the few that do not are very unlikely to be visible to us, with our presently weak SETI abilities. That’s a very strong claim. Could it be right?

My paper makes a series of assumptions/proposals about the nature and future of intelligent life in our universe. Most of these key assumptions may need to to be correct, in some fashion or another, for the hypothesis itself to be correct. A few colleagues have asked me to summarize these key assumptions in one place, so here’s my current list. This list is a good way to get a quick summary of the hypothesis as well.

Here are the key assumptions of the transcension hypothesis, as I presently see them:

  1. Intelligent life, on Earth and elsewhere in our universe, is not only evolving (diversifying, experimenting), but also developing (converging toward a particular set of future destinations, in form and function), in a manner in some ways similar to biological development. In other words, all civilizations in our universe are “evo devo” both evolutionary and developmental. The phenomenon of convergent evolution tells us a lot about the way development may work on planetary scales. A kind of cosmic convergent evolution (universal development) must also exist at universal scales.
  2. The leading edge of intelligence always migrates its brains and bodies into increasingly dense, productive, miniaturized, accelerated, and efficient scales of Space, Time, Energy, and Matter (what I call STEM compression), because this is the best strategy to become the niche-dominant local intelligence (and for modern humans, Earth’s biosphere is one precious and indivisible niche), and because the special physics of our universe allows this continual migration into “nanospace“. Human brains with their thoughts, emotions, morality, and self- and social-consciousness, are the most STEM-compressed higher computational systems on Earth at present. But our biological brains are just now starting to get beat at the production of intelligence by deep learning computers, which are even more profoundly STEM-compressed in certain kinds of computation than neurons (for example, electrical interneuron communication in an artificial neural network is seven million times faster than chemical action potentials between biological neurons). Fortunately, accelerating STEM-compression of both human civilization and our leading technologies is stepwise testable, as argued in my paper.
  3. The acceleration of STEM compression must eventually stop, at structures analogous to black holes, which in current theories appear to be the most computationally accelerated and computationally efficient entities in the known  universe, an insight Seth Lloyd made in 2000 which remains widely underappreciated by most information, computation, and complexity theorists today. Fortunately, this idea of a developmental “black hole destiny” for civilization seems quite testable observationally via search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI), as argued in my paper.
  4. A civilization whose intelligence structures are compressed to scales far below the nanoscale may well be capable of creating or entering black-hole-like environments without their informational nature being destroyed. There are 25 orders of magnitude in size between atoms and the Planck scale. This is almost as large a size range as the 30 orders of magnitude presently inhabited by life on Earth. We simply don’t know yet whether intelligence can exist at those small scales. My bet is that it can, and that STEM compression drives leading universal intelligence there, as the fastest way to generate further intelligence, with the least need for local resources.
  5. Due to general relativity, extreme gravitational time dilation occurs very near the surface (event horizon) of black holes. Thus black holes, wherever they exist, can act as forward time travel devices, for any highly STEM compressed civilization that can arbitrarily closely approach their surface without destroying itself. Black-hole-like conditions are thus gateways to instantaneous meeting and merger with other unique civilizations in our universe within any gravity well. Our gravity well includes the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies, each of which is destined to merge all its black holes, and each of which may contain millions of intelligent civilizations. The rest of our universe is accelerating away from us, due to dark energy. Perhaps the vast majority of black holes in these galaxies (billions?) are unintelligent collapsed stars. But if the transcension hypothesis holds, some smaller number (millions?) may also be a product of intelligent civilizations.
  6. As local acceleration of STEM compression stops, the more black-hole-like we become, local learning will saturate. Local intelligence will be running as fast as it can in this universe, yet it will be both resource and speed constrained. It’s local conditions, in other words, will be increasingly boring and predictable. It will be, from its own reference frame, at “The End of Science”, the end of what it can easily learn and know, to use the title of the elegant and profound book The End of Science (1996/2015) by science writer John Horgan. In those interesting conditions, it may irresistable to slow down local time via black hole entry, and thus simultaneously accelerate nonlocal time, making meeting and merger with other civilizations near-instantaneous. In “normal” universal time, galactic black holes are predicted to merge some tens to hundreds of billions of years from now, as our universe dies. But from each black hole’s reference frame,  this merger is near-instantaneous We can think of black holes as shortcuts through spacetime, just like quantum computers are shortcuts through spacetime. Indeed, quantum physics and black holes (relativity) must eventually be both evo (chaotically) and devo (causally) connected, both physically and informationally, in any future theory of quantum gravity. If some type of hyperspace, extradimensionality, or wormhole-like physics is possible, there might also be ways of future humanity instantaneously meeting civilizations beyond our two local galaxies. But such exotic physics is not necessary for our local gravity well, and for all other civilizations in their own galactic gravity wells. Standard relativity predicts that if we can survive in black-hole-like densities, and if our galaxies are life and intelligence-fecund, we will meet and merge with potentially millions of civilizations as soon as we approach the surface of any black hole, from our reference frame. In other words, our universe appears to have both “transcension physics” and massive parallelism of intelligence experiments built into its relativistic topology and large scale structure.
  7. If we live in not only a developmental universe, but an evolutionary one, each local universal civilization can never be God-like, but must instead be computationally incomplete, an evolutionary “experiment” with its own own unique discoveries and views on the meaning and purpose of life. Thus each civilization, no matter how advanced, would be expected to have useful computational differences, and be able to learn useful things, from every other civilization. In such a universe, we would greatly value communication, assuming that we could trust the other advanced civilizations that we might communicate with.
  8. If not only intelligence, but also immunity (stability, antifragility) and morality grow in leading intelligences in our universe, in rough proportion to their complexity, in other words, if these three life-critical systems are each not only evolutionary, but also developmental, and thus their emergent form and function is at least partly encoded in the “genes” (initial conditions, laws, and environmental constraints) of the system itself, then we can predict that more advanced intelligences, including our coming deep learning computers, will be not only more intelligent, but also more immune and moral than we are today. This idea is called developmental immunity and developmental morality, and I explore it in my paper, Evo Devo Universe? (2008). If these developmental processes exist, they tell us something about the nature of postbiological life. Such life is going to be a whole lot more collaboration-oriented, intelligence-oriented, immune, and moral than we are today. As an implication, niche-dominant future intelligences can be expected to increasingly repurpose resources (and perhaps eventually, all of Earth’s resources) away from activity in the physical universe into our ever-growing virtual-informational universe, because that’s what competitive, computationally-incomplete intelligences naturally do, the smarter and more moral they get. They replace physical activity with virtual activity – thinking, imagination, simulation. A few examples: Social and self-consciousness, the most virtual things we humans do, are our most prized phenomena. As kids we played outside, in novel, unpredictable ways. As adults, once our brains were wired up with sufficient conceptual complexity, we began spending almost all our waking hours simulating instead. Adults do novel, unpredictable physical behavior less than ten minutes a day, in physical space. Instead, once we become adults, we do our playing in our minds, in far faster and more efficient virtual space, dropping back into physical space for ever shorter periods, the better our simulations get. The better faster, better, and more efficient models of our current physical world get, the slower, more expensive, and boring anything physical becomes. There just isn’t much worth learning in slow, expensive, simple, and increasingly boring physical space, versus fast, inexpensive, complex, and increasingly interesting virtual space, the better our science and nanotech gets, and the more complex local intelligence becomes. Social morality, for its part, pushes leading-edge intelligences to have an increasingly ethical impact on the world and all of its sentiences. Social morality development has been a mild trend in human societies in recent centuries, as documented in Pinker’s excellent The Better Angels of Our Nature, 2011. But I expect it to be a much stronger trend in machine intelligences. They seem overwhelmingly likely to continue growing and improving at rates that make biological intelligence appear rooted in spacetime by comparison, just like most of Earth’s plant life appears rooted in spacetime in comparison to animal life. Postbiological evolution is our obvious next step for local intelligence, so thinking about that, and what it’s morality, immunity, and goals will be, is a key way to get more clarity on where our own civilization is presently going, whether we want it to go there or not. Physicists Stephen Dick and Seth Shostak also share this perspective on the primacy of thinking about the nature and morality of postbiological culture. It’s still a bit socially unpopular to talk openly about this, but this is where all the evidence seems to be leading, in my view.
  9. In a universe with developmental immunity and morality, a moral prime directive must emerge, a directive to keep each local civilization evolving in a way that maximizes its intelligence, uniqueness and adaptiveness prior to transcension. That means one-way messaging (powerful METI beacons), self-replicating probes able to interact with less advanced civilizations, and any other kind of galactic colonization would both be ethically prohibited by postbiological life, due to the great reduction in evolutionary diversity that would occur. Wherever it happened, we would meet informational clones of ourselves after transcension, a most undesirable outcome. In biology, evolution keeps clonality a very rare outcome, due to the diversity and adaptiveness cost that it levies on the progeny. In such an environment, any future biological humans that wanted to continue to colonize the stars would be prevented from doing so, by much more ethical and universe-oriented postbiological intelligences. That is assuming biological organisms even continue to be around after postbiological life emerges. Due to STEM compression, their status as biologicals would likely be vanishing short, once they invent technology capable of colonization. It seems much more likely that biology develops into postbiology, relatively soon (just a few centuries perhaps) after digital computers emerge, everywhere in the universe. This outcome also seems likely to be testable via future information theory and SETI, as I argue in my paper.
  10. Some physicists, most notably Lee Smolin in his hypothesis of cosmological natural selection, propose that black holes may be “seeds” or “replicators” for new universes. That gives us a clue to what we might do after we meet up with other cosmic intelligences. We would likely compare and contrast what we’ve learned, and then seek to make a better and more adaptive universe (or universes) in the next replication. Current physics and computation theory suggest that our universe, though vast, is both finite and computationally incomplete. It may have gained its current amazing levels of internal complexity in the same way life on Earth got its amazing living complexity, via evolutionary and developmental (“evo devo“) self-organization, through many past replications, in some kind of selection environment, a “multiverse” or “hyperverse.”
  11. If all of this is roughly correct, our future isn’t outer space, it’s “inner space.” Both the inner space of black-hole like domains, and the inner space of increasingly virtual and computational domains. That’s why we spend so much time staring at and manipulating our still-dumb pocket computers, and why the growth of virtual and augmented reality, in today’s computers, heralds far more than just better entertainment experiences. Combined with the growth of machine learning, virtual/augmented reality will increasingly become the thinking, imagination, and simulation space for tomorrows postbiological life. Virtual space is where intelligent machines will figure out what they want to do in physical space, just as our own simulating brains are humanity’s virtual reality. And just like humans have have done as our civilization has developed, future machines will do more and more internalization, or thinking in virtual space, and less and less external acting, in physical space, the more intelligent they get. This internalization process has a name. It’s called dematerialization (both economic dematerialization and product and process dematerialization), the substitution of information and computation for physical products, processes, and behaviors.The futurist Buckminster Fuller called this process ephemeralization. But ephemeralization of intelligence is only half the story. It predicts dematerialization but not densification. If the transcension hypothesis is true, the ultimate “destiny” of universal civilizations is both continued “densification” (all the way to a black hole-like status), and “dematerialization” (we become ever more informational and virtual, over time).  See Chapter 7 (Acceleration) of my online book, The Foresight Guide (2018), for more on these two curious universal trends, densification and dematerialization (“D&D”) and how they appear to drive universal accelerating change. 

As Fermi paradox scholar Stephen Webb says at his blog, this is quite a lot of “ifs!” Disproving any of these assumptions would be a good way to start knocking aspects of the transcension hypothesis out of contention. We would learn a lot about ourselves and the universe in the process, so I really hope that each of these gets challenged in coming years, as the hypothesis gets further exposure and critique.

Webb is the author of Where is Everybody?2015, a book that offers seventy-five possible solutions to the Fermi Paradox. Webb did a great job condensing the transcension hypothesis into just three pages in his book. His 2002 edition didn’t include it, as I published my first paper on the hypothesis in mid-2002. At Webb’s blog, he charitably says the transcension hypothesis is “one of the most intriguing” possible solutions that he has seen. He also observes that “Unlike so many “solutions” to the Fermi paradox, this one offers avenues for further research.” It certainly does, which is why I hope it continues to gain scrutiny and critique.

A few scholars are now citing the transcension hypothesis in their academic papers on the Fermi paradox and accelerating change, including Sandberg 2010, Flores Martinez 2014, and Conway Morris 2016. I am hoping that trend continues. The more attention it gets, the more critique it will get.

Perhaps the strangest and hardest-to-believe part of the transcension hypothesis, for many, is the idea of universal development. It is particularly relevant to the first, seventh, eighth, and ninth assumptions above. The most amazing and odds-defying thing I’ve come across in my own study of the natural world so far is the process of biological development. Most people don’t think about both how wonderful and how improbable, on its face, is the process of organismic development.

Think about it. Development is guided by a small handful of genes in our genome. It’s incredible that it works, yet it does, and it made you! Development is a good candidate for the most incredible process in the known universe. In many ways, development is even more surprising than evolution, which I define as the set of biological genes and mechanisms that create unpredictable experiment and variety, as opposed to that small subset of chaos-reducing biological genes and mechanisms that statistically guarantee a hierarchical set of future-specific forms and functions. Standard evolutionary theory requires development as an organismic process, yet it also treats development as subservient to the variety-generating processes in natural selection. That model is only half-correct, in my view.

Fortunately, a growing contingent of evo-devo biologists argue that development’s long-range role in constraining the possibilities of evolutionary change may be equally important to evolution’s long-range impact on development. Both processes seem fundamental to mature theory of adaptation. Ecologists have published good work on the way ecosystem development limits the future of evolutionary processes. For example, think of ecological succession, in which increasing senescence of the ecosystem limits short-term evolutionary variety, while also making the oldest parts of the system increasingly vulnerable to death (and renewal). Think also of niche construction, which tells us how growing intelligence, which we use to fashion comfortable niches, limits the future selection placed upon us by our environment. Scholars of convergent evolution also describe apparently universal processes of morphological and functional development that will constrain evolutionary possibilities on all Earth-like planets. Cosmologists who take fine-tuned universe arguments seriously also talk about both local variety and processes of universal development, though they don’t often use that clarifying phrase, when they describe physical and chemical constraints on the possibilities of evolutionary change. All these are important clues toward a meta-Darwinian, evo devo universe paradigm of universal change.

In short, if our universe actually replicates, as seems plausible in several cosmology theories, and if it exists in some kind of larger selection environment, as also seems plausible, then not only evolution, but development must also occur not just in ecosystems, but for the planet and our universe as systems. Certain aspects of the future of complex systems must be statistically highly biased to converge on particular destinations, and today’s evolution-centric science still has a lot of growing up still to do in order to see these destinations. It needs to become “evo devo”, seeing the contributions of both evolution and development to the future of universal complexity.

The paper’s second key assumption, STEM compression is more palatable to most people, in my experience, and may turn out to be the most enduring contribution of the paper, even if the rest of the hypothesis is eventually invalidated. If you’ve heard of nanotechnology, you know that life’s leading edge today, humanity, is doing everything it can to move our complexity and computation down the smallest scales we can. We have been very successful at this shrinking over the last several hundred years, and our ability to miniaturize and control processes at both atomic and subatomic scales is growing exponentially. In fact, human brains themselves are already vastly denser, more efficient, and more miniaturized computational devices than any living thing that has gone before them. But they are positively gargantuan compared to the intelligent computing devices that are coming next.

Fortunately I think each of the key assumptions outlined above are testable, though some are obviously more testable than others in today’s early stages of astrophysical theory, SETI ability, information, complexity, and evo devo theory, and simulation capacity. If anyone is doing work that might shed light on any of these assumptions, I would love to hear of it.

You can find my paper here: The Transcension Hypothesis, 2012. See also this fun 2 minute YouTube video of the hypothesis, by the inspiring futurist Jason Silva and Kathleen Lakey, which has raised its visibility in recent years.

You can find an overview of the evo devo (evolutionary and developmental) universe hypothesis in my chapter-length article, Evo Devo Universe? A Framework for Speculations on Cosmic Culture, 2008.

Comments? Critiques? Feedback is always appreciated, thanks.

Saving Interstellar: A Mental Rewrite of Chris Nolan’s Latest Masterpiece

blackhole-movie-wormholeFriends who know my work as a systems theorist, including my speculations about the evolutionary developmental (evo devo) nature of our universe, and the potential attraction of universal intelligence to black hole-like environments (the developmental singularity or transcension hypothesis) have asked me for my take on Christopher Nolan’s latest film. Here it is, along with a fun exercise, called the “mental rewrite,” that we all tend to do when confronted with story implausibilities, an exercise worth doing for flawed films we particularly like.

Inter_stellar_posterInterstellar is an ambitious and soaring film, and it deals with important subjects, often very well. Nolan and his team, especially the brilliant composer Hans Zimmer, seem to get better with nearly every film. On its face, I’d give it a 7 out of 10 on Amazon’s IMDB. Anything above 6.8 is usually worth watching, in my book. But by mentally rewriting some of its critical scenes, I was able to give it a much higher score.

Mental rewrites are great imagination exercises, and incredibly satisfying when you can pull them off, either on your own or in conversation with friends. Successful rewrites route around the damaged parts in a story by reimagining them in a better way. I’ve done hundreds in my life, both for films and books, and I bet you have too. One of the neatest things about the mental rewrite habit is that the more you do it, the more you start forgetting the director’s version of everything and remembering yours. You become the director of the construct that matters most, your simulation of the essence of the movie or story, in your own mind. You must be a self-appointed critic to do this, making a judgment that the creatives made some bad choices, taking a DIY attitude, and seeking to do better. Maybe that, and the validation from others on your better rewrites, is what makes it so fun.

Rewriters tend to be both critical and creative folks, connoisseurs of both plot and possibilities, and risers to the challenge of fixing things they don’t like. Rewrites seem particularly worth doing for stories with plots, writers, directors, actors, or characters that you mostly love and don’t want to forget. Some books and movies only need a few minutes or pages to be mentally fixed to be great. Others may need whole sections fixed, and many don’t seem fixable. I find if any movie needs 10% or less of its running time to be mentally rewritten to be both believable and epic, and the rewrite is findable without too much mental effort, I usually am generous and give it my rewrite rating on IMDB, rather than its lower original director’s rating. I’ll also make exceptions beyond 10% for particularly good movies. Nolan’s latest film is in the latter category. I had to rewrite more than a tenth of it my head, but I still give it a rewrite score of 9 out of 10, as it was a fun and not-too-difficult exercise, as the rewrite truly makes it epic for me, and as the director and his body of work, including Memento, Dark Knight Trilogy, Inception, and Man of Steel are truly special.

If you haven’t seen Interstellar yet, please do! It is inspiring and mind-opening, as our best sci-fi should be. My proposed rewrites are below.

For predictions on the future of mental rewriting and remix culture, see For the Future… after the rewrites.

SPOILERS follow…

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