Evolution’s origin (intro)
A reconfigured history of universal emergence
- Issue 3
In the beginning there was no beginning. There was a unified infinity of nothing. Time didn’t pass.
If matter existed it was indistinguishable from pure energy.
The main event in this cosmos is not evolution. Evolution is a side effect, almost a tertiary after-thought or accidental by-product of the main event. The main event is something far more ordinary, far more mysterious and possibly far more profound than evolution could ever be. As far as great cosmological explanations for the nature of reality go—the theory of evolution is a charlatan.
In this long-read article I highlight the reason for cosmic emergence and how that reason reconfigures how we can approach innovating meaning and purpose for human being in the third millennium.
In the process of doing this I discuss the semantics of talking about evolution, and talk about the science based views of palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould. This article is also in part a critique of the “Directionalists” and “Evolutionary Spiritualists” and their incorrect arguments for an orthogenic force or “evolutionary impulse” that “drives” evolution forwards—which may be a tad boring, but important, I think. I apologise in advance for that. If you stick with it, hopefully you’ll find this an interesting take on how our cosmos works and the implications for thinking about human being in the third millennium. In doing so I’m attempting to help lay robust foundations for any development of a “spiritual” (in inverted commas because I hate that word), but also scientific view of a cosmos from which we can explore new forms of meaning and purpose in a robust and scalable way.
It’s probably also relevant to mention: whilst I have read a few books on the general topic (mostly referenced here) I’ve done no independent research and I just made most of this up by thinking about things a lot and staring at things in my garden.
IN THE BEGINNING
I thought to start by explaining my general point of view (so far) of what Evolution’s Origin is, then compare this with the views of other commentators.
The main engine of evolution in the cosmos is the ever present freedom that has been a fundamental of existence since the dawn of creation. The growth of the cosmos that is often called Evolution is the virtue of universal creative freedom born of the vastness of spacetime, and a vast multiplicity of matter in what appears to be a cosmos fined tuned for optimal creativity (I’ll come back to this later).
In the beginning there was no beginning. There was a unified infinity of nothing. Time didn’t pass. If matter existed it was indistinguishable from pure energy. Physicists talk of an “infinitely dense point of existence” from which everything emerged. But before that there was nothing at all. The universe as we know it didn’t exist. This infinitely dense point was the starting point of what we call the big bang, but, actually, there was no such thing as a big bang as there was nothing to bang into. Space hadn’t been created yet. That’s why theories of what happened in the first second or so of the cosmos are called “inflation”—because space had to “inflate” into existence for there to be any banging going on. Within less than a second the cosmos expanded from a single point to being millions of light years wide.
Apparently the initial forms of matter were not atoms as we normally know them as the early universe was too hot with too much energy to allow them to settle down into a stable form. This period was known as the dark ages of the early cosmos. There were photons of light but they were essentially unable to travel, caught in a dense plasma of matter. Once the universe cooled significantly, around 300,000 years after the “big bang”, these photons were released in a flash of light as matter condensed into hydrogen, helium and some lithium atoms. Apparently all the matter present in our cosmos is just a small percentage of the original amount—which was mostly wiped out by antimatter during this cataclysmic birthing process.
The formation of particles of matter heralded the advent of “agency” in the cosmos. By agency I mean individuation or individuality, albeit at the beginning, it’s in the most basic of forms—subatomic and atomic particles. But, once there was agency amidst the freedom afforded by time and space, the free creative unfolding that we look back upon and call evolution had definitely begun.
Adjacent possibility is a term invented (to the best of my knowledge) by the thinker and writer Stuart Kauffman [REFERENCE 1] that is exceptionally useful in talking about and understanding creative freedom and evolution. Adjacent possibilities are exactly as they sound: those possibilities that are closest. For example, an atom exists. By virtue of it’s existence it has adjacent possibilities. One adjacent possibility may be that it can combine with another atom and form a molecule—if there is another willing and able atom nearby. If you are sitting quietly in a cafe with a random assortment of people—an adjacent possibility is that you all get together and decide to pile the furniture to one side, remove your clothing and run around in a circle singing the national anthem. Yes, I would agree that’s not likely (at least not where I live) but the point is it’s possible because all the components required are more or less present, making it adjacently possible.
I really love this phrase adjacent possibility, as with two words I believe it ever so simply sums up the complex phenomena of what’s known as self-organisation. (And if you’ve ever tried to read the seminal, but quite impenetrable book by Eric Jantsch, The Self Organising Universe, you’ll understand how important this is!). The so-called free creativity I mention is of course, not so free. There are real system constraints acting on any given agent. For example, an apple on your kitchen table won’t suddenly float upwards (unless your kitchen table is in deep space) because of the Earth’s gravity. In other words, the apple’s adjacent possibilities are it’s real and direct possibilities and won’t include any actions outside of it’s current system constrains, including floating.
This is how free emergence works. When the there is freedom (tick) and agency (tick), adjacent possibilities can be explored. The entire history of emergence in the cosmos has been as the slow but inexorable exploration of adjacent possibilities.
CREATIVITY THRESHOLDS IN COSMIC EMERGENCE
With increasing complexity there are developments in the cosmos’s capacity to be creative. For example: Atoms have few creative options, whilst molecules have far more reactive opportunities. Livings cells have again even more—and so it goes. The cosmos has moved through several of these “creativity thresholds” (Fig 1)—every time it’s ability to be creative has been amplified. I like to think exponentially amplified, but I have no idea of the maths of the probabilities. Simply said as the cosmos crosses these creativity thresholds, the increase in adjacent possibilities is immense at each stage.
For example any Oxygen atom has it’s own set of reactive capacities, but upon inclusion into a CO2 (Carbon dioxide) molecule or a NO3 (Nitrate) molecule, it’s reactive options (adjacent possibilities) are now embedded and subsumed into a new greater “whole” of the molecule it is now in. Carbon dioxide and Nitrate have entirely different natures, thus entirely different adjacent possibilities. The original Oxygen atom has now been part of a creative emergence where it’s inclusion into the adjacent possibilities afforded these new molecules, means there are radically (numerically) more adjacent possibilities than the Oxygen ever had—and it’s involvement has enabled this to take place. The atom has passed trough what I’m calling a “creativity threshold” of possibility, from free atomic creativity (less creative possibilities) to free molecular creativity (more creative possibilities) [NOTE 1].
As the cosmos has grown there has been increasing agency or individuation—and with increasing agency there are increasing adjacent possibilities. For example a grain of sand has some agency—it can move, it can have chemical reactions, but in very basic ways. A rabbit has far greater agency, it can do more, far more wilfully. With increasing agency there is increasing exploration of options in this ever present freedom. Generally speaking, the greater the complexity of an entity, the greater the agency it will likely have. The more abundant agency is, and the more sophisticated agents are, the more creativity there is—which in turn increases the rate of the emergence of complexity.
The advent of self-reflective mind has yet again amplified the cosmos’s adjacent possibilities, even with the most elemental components. Humans mine metals out of the earth and use them to build thinking machines, use chemistry to enhance our industry and turn sand into concrete skyscrapers. We harness microbiology to ferment new foods, we corral animals to convert starlight to calories via their native ecological behaviour, for our exclusive consumption. Mind takes the emergent results of wild cosmological creative exploration and redirects them into ever more and new adjacent possibilities that, without self-reflective mind, wouldn’t exist. Of course, self-reflective consciousness also introduces new qualities that are purely unique to itself, like moral, philosophical and scientific perspectives and the subsequent adjacent possibilities that arise from these.
The increasing capacity of our universe to be creative is a fascinating point. For example, when the very first star formed there would have been: Space (lots of), Time (also lots of), Hydrogen, Helium and probably some Lithium (lots of these), Gravity and a bit of light bouncing around. In hindsight of knowing that these are the ingredients of a star, what else is there to do? So repeated occurrences of these combinations across millions of light years would often do exactly the same thing—form stars. The system constraints dictate few other truly evolutionary possibilities. However, the further you get into the history of the growth of the cosmos, adjacent possibilities explode. With biological life or self reflectivity, adjacent options are multifarious in the billions, the uncounted , inconceivable gazillions, instead of one dumb and (hindsight being a wonderful thing) obvious option—become a ever more dense cloud of gas. This is the greatest hallmark of universal growth—the growth in it’s capacities to be creative, the growth in it’s emergent options.
As agency increasingly gets involved in creative processes, the more they seem “directed” towards greater complexity. This has been misunderstood by the “directionalists” (of whom I’ll discuss more later) to be a fundamental property of evolution itself, an implicit directedness. This is one of the problems that has arisen from the initial development of the theory of evolution—it was discovered via biology in relation to species variation—and so is often considered to be only a biological phenomenon. But of course, by the time you’ve reached a biological level or threshold of creativity, evolution’s origin is buried amidst several layers or thresholds—each one of them amplifying the possibilities afforded to the previous level of creative possibility. So trying to clearly deduce what’s going on via biology is that much more difficult.
It is only with the great discoveries of 20th century science such as Hubble’s discoveries at Mount Wilson Observatory of galaxies and an expanding cosmos, the understanding of material evolution via supernova explosions (etc), that we have come to discover evolution’s origin is a cosmological one, not a biological one. It would have been much more convenient if we had discovered first the big bang, then universal expansion, then the evolution of matter and chemistry and then the evolution of life. But we didn’t, so for many, even though it’s not, Evolution is still mainly thought about as only a biological phenomenon.
Reviewing and renewing conceptions of universal emergence
DARWIN AND WALLACE
As you may well know, the theory of evolution was the inventive conclusion of not one but two Englishmen and explorers: Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. In Dover, England, March 14th 1831, a young Charles Darwin boarded the HMS Beagle for what would be a five year voyage of exploration. On that trip, during a visit to the Galapagos Islands, Darwin assembled collections of finches and mockingbirds from the different islands. He wrote: “Seeing this gradation and diversity of structure in one small, intimately related group of birds, one might really fancy that from an original paucity of birds in this archipelago, one specimen had been taken and modified for different ends.”[REFERENCE 3] Later, Wallace, using Singapore as his base spent 8 years (1854-1862) in what then was called the Malay Archipelago, exploring the islands and jungles and collecting specimens of the creatures he encountered. Surrounded by an endless diversity of species, Wallace inevitably renewed a contemplation of how on Earth such biological diversity could arise (he was already partial to an idea called “transmutation of species” which preceded evolutionary theory). He wrote in his autobiography: “The problem then was not only how and why do species change, but how and why do they change into new and well defined species” [REFERENCE 4]. Wallace subsequently sent his latest ideas in an essay to Darwin who had been developing the same ideas on Evolution back in England for some 20 years, prompting Darwin to finally publish them, alongside the essay Wallace sent.
It’s important and interesting to note that the reason that Darwin and Wallace came up with their theories of natural selection was because of the stunning and incredible diversity of differences between otherwise very similar species. What they were preoccupied with was the prolific native creativity in nature. How could there be distinct adaption and difference, but also so much similarity between the differences. They were not looking at difference as complexity to which evolution is so often attributed as being about—but differences full stop. They were awed and fascinated by the prolific variation in the biological world.
It’s not a well noted fact that Darwin’s original edition of The Origin of Species does not contain the word “evolution” anywhere (though it does contain the word “evolutionary”—“evolution” was added to the last edition released thirteen years later in 1872). It was not mentioned in his works until The Descent of Man in 1871. Apparently Darwin didn’t like the word used it because it was becoming common parlance [REFERENCE 2a]. I find this an intriguing story, because so much of the discussion of evolution and it’s most famous definitions are about the “vertical” emergence of complexity, that is, for example, from single celled to multi-celled organisms and so on, as opposed to the “horizontal” change seen in Darwin’s collection of Galapagos finches, where there is no real difference in biological complexity.
It was the biologist Herbert Spencer who advocated the term evolution which meant “progress” or from it’s original latin “unfolding”. “Unfolding” has never meant “variation”—which is probably why Darwin was reticent to use the word in the first place. Using “evolution” to describe adaption and variation is a twisting and contorting of an otherwise perfectly good noun. Its not an abuse of the word so much as the point of view Darwin was espousing. Variation is creative and unexpected, it experiments and invents, but is not so unfoldy or progressive.
THE SEMANTICS OF CREATION
I suspect that because we’ve not really been doing it for that long, our vocabulary for discussing the subtleties of creation is rather limited and undeveloped. We need far more differentiated language with which to talk about these things more clearly. Lack of the subtle enough definitions can lead to glib thinking. In particular the term “Evolution” has started driving me a little nuts, and I’ve come to realise we need to talk about it’s definition, because “Evolution” has apparently come to mean two things: a) emergence of “vertical” complexity and b) manifest variation which—in terms of vertical progressive complexity—is horizontal, there’s no distinct change in complexity. It’s is confusing because most people use it to mean only the first definition and for good reason—“unfolding” or “progression” don’t really work as descriptions of horizontal variation (See Fig 2).
An interesting fact of any word beside it’s definition, is how it’s actually used and perceived by the users. There’s the original or dictionary definition of a word is one thing—then there’s the current subjective and social reality of how and in what context a word comes to be used. I personally don’t experience the word “Evolution” to ever mean the non-progressive emergence described by Darwin’s finches. It’s not commonly used to refer to non-progressive emergence that doesn’t result in complexity—only the emergence that does. For some people “evolution” means both. Well, God bless their cotton socks. But I think for the rest of us it’s actually quite confused. We clearly have always needed two words: one for the development of “vertical” complexity, and one for non-progressive emergence. I’ll come back to this in a minute with my suggestions on what to do.
CREATIVE VARIATION VS EVOLUTIONARY COMPLEXITY
In my attempt to innovate a way thinking more clearly about emergence, I started by inventing two labels for different types of complexity: “hard” and “soft”. In this thinking, Hydrogen atoms bouncing around in a cloud in deep space will obey some kind of gaseous or fluid dynamic (I guess) and have some kind of complexity as a cloud but it is “soft”. Most of this freedom causes nothing at all except random movement, interaction, distribution etc. But occasionally there is the emergence of greater “hard” complexity—when the cloud condenses and compacts under the force of gravity to form a star. In this approach, that star is a “hard” emergence of complexity, as were the atoms in the cloud, but not the cloud itself, which is “soft”. Playing devils advocate to my own idea: I find these distinctions blurry and not helpful enough. On reflection I realised that complexity isn’t the right thing to focus on in the first place. I mean, Darwin’s finches weren’t manifesting more or less complexity in their differences, just variations at the same level of complexity. Thinking along this vein I’ve come up with a different approach that finally encapsulates my thinking on all of this: Durable vs Transient Variation (Fig 3).
All evolutionary manifestations occur via the process of variation. Free creative variation into adjacent possibilities is the fundament of, and the process of universal emergence. Variation is the normal daily life of the cosmos. This includes durable and transient variations. Evolutionary perspectives usually concentrate on the durable results, only. But in every free moment of the cosmos, the life of the cosmos is in motion. Earthworms munch on soil matter, leaves rustle, gases billow. Every transient non-durable moment of the cosmos is as much a significant part of it, as any durable development. But it is only the durable ones we seem to study. We have traditionally looked only at the durable results of emergence, such as species variation in Darwin’s finches, and ignore the main happening—the ever present creative freedom that is always present and that allowed them to emerge in the first place.
Figure 3 describes this in terms of the emergence of “vertical” complexity as described in Figure 2.
At any given moment one of three things can happen in terms of “progressive” or “vertical” emergence: a) destruction b) variation that doesn’t result in the progression or regression of complexity c) vertical or progressive emergence. Critically all of these three are the result of the ever present freedom to be creative into adjacent possibility. Also critically, all of these are some type of variation on what has gone before, some exploration or another of an adjacent possibility. They are all a category of variation. Of these, horizontal variations are main events in our cosmos. They can be either durable or transient, and the main occurrence of these two, the most common event in our cosmos is transient variation. Wherever you are reading this, transient horizontal variation is going on all around you. It’s the virtuous exploration of the creative freedom afforded to every moment of existence.
Amidst limitless freedom, the emergence of more complexity is an inevitability. Thus the emergence of complexity, or evolution as we define it is an inevitable but really secondary or tertiary side effect of universal freedoms and creativity. It is not the main occurrence. The main event is idleness, simple freedom, ever present newness and endless unknown potentialities amidst infinite adjacent possibilities.
It’s not possible to call a rustling leaf (transient horizontal variation) in the wind “Evolution” and be making any sense. Because either version of what’s commonly considered Evolution isn’t the key event that occurs or the reason any evolution actually occurs, I’m of the opinion that the “Theory of Evolution” should be renamed the “Theory of Universal Emergence” and Evolution should be talked about for what it is—not a process, but a view of the results of emergent processes—“The Evolutionary Perspective” which would be included as per Fig 3 into the Theory of Universal Emergence. This would lessen confusion and clarify thinking for everybody.
The main event is idleness, simple freedom, ever present newness and endless unknown potentialities amidst infinite adjacent possibilities.
The Directionalists vs The Scientist
One of the triggers for me to even write this article occurred upon reading the excellent book by Robert Wright, Nonzero [REFERENCE 5]. The 19th chapter of the book is an extended critique on the work and ideas of the late great palaeontologist (and—in certain circles—infamous reductionist) Stephen Jay Gould. In particular Wright critiqued Gould’s book Life’s Grandeur—whilst Wright championed his own views on directionality in Evolution. I was fascinated and subsequently read Life’s Grandeur to find that in fact I agreed with much of what Gould was saying. Having described what I believe to be a robust and useful approach to the origin of Evolution, I think it’s a good exercise to run it through the arguments and views of both Wright and Gould to gain some perspective on the relevance of it as a point of view.
Ding! Round one
The Scientist: Stephen Jay Gould on Evolution
What I learnt from Gould is the general perspective that’s know as “progressionism”, in the industry of Darwinian palaeontology and the like is not well received, and Gould spent this entire book explaining why. Gould was a Darwinian through and through, and that meant he had a healthy regard for the original theory of natural selection from which this whole fuss arose, and the essential key that I have been rabbiting on about: variation is key to understanding evolution.