Family Tree

how sentient life helps the cosmos evolve

As a freshman in college, I read two unassigned books that stayed with me. One presented a theory of an evolving multiverse in which single universes are part of an interrelated family. The other book argued that the laws of our universe are designed to give rise to life, and to humans in particular.

In The Life of the Cosmos, Lee Smolin presents a compelling case that after the largest stars in our universe collapse into black holes, those quantum gravitational entities emerge into universes somewhere else in hyperspace (the infinite set of all possible spatial dimensions) in what would look like a big bang to an inhabitant of the offspring universe. This is a consequential concept; it means our universe wasn't born at the beginning of creation. Further, Dr. Smolin argues from quantum gravitational principles that the daughter universe would inherit laws of physics nearly identical to its parent, but with slight mutations due to the probabilistic nature of quantum mechanics. It follows that Cosmological Natural Selection (CNS) would occur: universes with laws of physics conducive to stable existence and star production (and therefore black hole production) will be most numerous in hyperspace. In this picture, our universe is but one in a vast scattering, and we are part of a lineage. We have already reproduced immensely through black holes, and at the beginning of our family tree, Dr. Smolin posits, was a quantum mechanical vacuum fluctuation that improbably, but surely, had a unique complexity allowing it to reproduce itself. It was a tiny, infant universe with simple laws of physics that, through random mutations during reproduction, led to the sophisticated star factory in which we reside. Smolin estimates we are the two hundred millionth generation.

In Nature's Destiny, Michael Denton looks at myriad aspects of human anatomy, biology, and the general biology of our planet, and he presents compelling arguments that every detail is perfectly crafted to give rise to complex life, and particularly complex life that looks and operates very similarly to us with only minor variations due to the local conditions on the planet on which the species evolved. In this picture, we should expect to discover that our universe is one in which planets like ours aren't rare, and those planets have a reasonable chance of evolving intelligent life like us. The 15 years since my arrival at the university have been a fruitful time for extra-solar explorers, and many earth-like planets have indeed been observed in our cosmic neighborhood. Dr. Denton views humans as a special creature amongst the evolving tree of life—a creature with unique and well-tuned parameters for interacting with our physical universe. He takes the case one step further and asserts the laws of physics are designed to create us; we are so intertwined with the fundamental properties of our universe that we must be their goal.

At the time it seemed these theses were in conflict: one is arguing the laws of physics take their properties from the evolved ability to create universes with long lives and lots of stars. The other argues the laws of physics are designed to give rise to us, to humans, an anthropocentric destiny of the universe. My 18-year-old self thought the resolution was that Smolin was right and Denton was on to something, but had it turned the wrong way. CNS made a great deal of intuitive sense to me, and because the laws of physics are well-tuned to create stars, it made sense that our universe could have evolved to this level of complexity, and that we fortuitously grew up through the cracks of the complex tiling. And I could take Denton's point that we are optimized for the laws of physics in which we reside—Darwinian Natural Selection (DNS) had taken care of that. And I was also ready to believe that humans are creatures set apart from other beings in nature. This was the year 2000, and the previous millennium had seen the most stunning demonstration of exponential transformation in the planet's history. We stood at the dawn of the anthropocene, and I could believe that the humans responsible for these profound planetary changes were something unique in nature—a higher order of particle governed by new forces of consciousness and humanity significantly more complex than the laws governing atoms and planets. I saw humans as the particles that evolved the physical and computational means to develop orders of magnitude faster than through DNS alone. We had reached the age of technological evolution on our planet, and humans were now consciously directing the course of evolution. But at the time, I figured Dr. Denton had over stated the case about the laws being designed for us. The laws are for the stars, and we are a beautiful flower growing from the soils of the supernovae, the stellar explosions of the biggest stars.

These concepts formed the foundation of my worldview for 15 years. The universe is here because the quantum vacuum of nature is constantly inventing. It tries everything, and entities that can find a way to survive and reproduce populate the multiverse. We're here because the pattern repeats itself within. Inside the confines of our space and time, that which can exist does exist—perhaps the most fundamental truth of reality—and fortunate life forms like us have found a way to emerge from the complexity of the star's playground.

Those formative ideas led me to study physics, and these days I work at a national lab. My job is to invent new technologies that utilize light in any way possible to benefit society. I think a lot about the direction of technology. After challenging days in the lab, I walk out in the foothills beyond the parking lot, and the stars are out doing their thing. They'll keep at it for billions of years to come, but we're exploding right now. At this rate, in a billion years we could be making black holes ourselves. Not even a billion years—if congress could prioritize and lead like adults, we could have a program to create black holes within a decade. Not gonna happen (and perhaps it's not a priority), but it's not limited by physics.

We know it's possible to make black holes. When starting up the Large Hadron Collider, many were concerned we would create black holes inadvertently as a biproduct of particle collisions. But what if we did pursue this goal? What if we figured out a way to make zillions of black holes ourselves—a way to corral all the asteroids, the barren, icy planets, the white dwarfs and neutron stars, and collapse them into the seeds of our offspring? We'd be playing with the statistics of cosmological reproduction; we'd make it seem like the stars of our universe are more effective at making black holes than they really are. Except, the stars made us. We grow from the yolk of their explosions, so it's as if the stars excelled at making black holes, but then plateaued and invented us as a means to become even more efficient, even more inclusive of all the energy in our universe for reproduction.

It occurred to me this resolves the apparent conflict between the ideas of Smolin and Denton. The laws of physics were originally optimized to create black holes via stars, but then evolved further to create black holes via sentient tinkerers and, beautifully, those tinkerers come from the dust of dying stars. It is difficult to prove the laws of physics are precisely optimized for reproduction in the complicated interplay of matter, energy, and life. As a scientist I am always open to evidence calling my assumptions into question, but I know of no such evidence to date. If I'm being honest with myself I realize I whole-heartedly believe this is what's going on in the big picture of our cosmological, biological, and technological evolution. We are here because prior generations of universes evolved, through CNS, to have complex, conscious life that proved even more successful at creating progeny. Humans are part of nature's cause to evolve into beings sophisticated enough to figure out how reality works at the subtle level of quantum gravity, figure out how to develop technology, harness energy, and create from our stellar dirt a great tree of offspring.

"It means we are supposed to be here. It means we are part of the inner workings of nature, the very mechanism of cosmological reproduction."

This perspective hit me as a revelation. It means we are supposed to be here. It means we are part of the inner workings of nature, the very mechanism of cosmological reproduction. As Denton argued, the laws of physics are tuned to make us, and we are tuned to emerge and feed into to the great river of creation. Our ancestors on this earth believed we were the center of creation, but Copernicus and Galileo saw through the telescope that we revolved around our star. Then Hubble completely changed the scale by showing a universe of galaxies scattered like grains of sand and accelerating apart. Then Smolin argued even our universe is but one in an inconceivable set. It can make one feel meaningless in a cold, dark expanse. But this picture puts complex life in a noble position of symbiosis with the stars: we revolve around them and they grow through us; the stars create the soils from which we emerge, and we create vast reaches of star-glittered skies across mind-bending swaths of hyperspace and time.

Within this picture, we should expect to keep developing in technological complexity and eventually gain the ability to harness force and matter to efficiently create black holes, and to travel through space to collect the material for the task. On the mission, we should expect to find solar systems teeming with complex life with the same goal in mind. We won't get mired in wars over resources if we have the same objective. We may instead communicate and learn to work as a team. After all, we came from the same family tree.

This model has ramifications for technological development. To create black holes, we will need advanced computing and information technology, we will need new sources of energy—especially fusion, we will need advanced spacecraft, and we will need the correct theory of quantum gravity—the beautiful and elusive wilderness beyond known physics in which black holes can be properly understood. But if our laws of physics are optimized in a global sense for reproduction, and we are an archetypal vessel to develop the technologies of artificial cosmological reproduction, we should find that certain properties of the universe are optimized to facilitate development of technologies useful to this end. For example, carbon is recognized for it's fantastic properties in living organisms and molecular biology. Just below on the periodic table, silicon has been a major success in the last 60 years as it spawned the information age based on integrated electronics, and this may imply that silicon-based electronics are the intended way of doing digital computing. Put another way, if we could look into our parent universe, or child, or to species evolving alongside us in this universe, we are likely to find them using (or having passed through a phase of using) silicon integrated electronics for classical computing. We may find future technologies that utilize the properties of silicon in fortuitous ways currently not utilized. For example, the indirect band gap of silicon is often seen as something of a nuisance. It makes efficient light emission much more difficult if not impossible. But the indirect gap makes it possible to create four-level systems, useful for more subtle optical technologies, as well as isolated spins useful for quantum information. We may one day find the properties of silicon optimized for myriad technologies beyond what we have presently developed. Similarly, I suspect we will discover and fine-tune a controlled fusion technology, or perhaps several on different scales, that again seem to be the intended way to utilize the materials of the periodic table and the physical laws of the universe. More generally, invention usually proceeds by assuming the materials of our world are what they are, and we should be creative in how we use them to do things that suit us. But the concept here implies there are various archetypal technologies that nature has evolved over cosmic generations, and we ought to ask, "How does nature intend for us to solve this problem?" This is in the same vein as the idea that great innovations are discoveries about nature more than new inventions from the vacuum.

Regarding quantum gravity, we must and will elucidate the subject. Within this picture, quantum gravity and the correct theory of black holes must be comprehensible, and we must evolve to be intelligent enough to comprehend the theory. Quantum gravity is a central pursuit in the ongoing project of understanding physics and, perhaps not surprisingly, throughout this pursuit humanity and human minds have proven capable of grasping the deep inner workings of nature. The empirical approach of interacting with the world to determine its properties has facilitated our development since Homo Erectus began to control fire, and we are now at an exciting phase where understanding the relationship between the two great theories of modern physics—quantum mechanics and relativity—may occur in our lifetimes—unless you're already pretty old.

Now the task of the hyperspace physicist is to account for all possible universes in nature, to model their evolution from a vacuum fluctuation to a complex, stable, reproductive specimen, and to accurately predict the number of each type of universe as a function of time. Assuming we did evolve to collect matter to convert into progeny, then for the physicist to succeed at predicting the final matter and energy distribution of our universe as well as the number of offspring, the model of nature will have to correctly predict our emergence and behavior. We don't just come from nature, we also affect it. So the correct physical theory must also be a theory of us; we are like emergent bosons: discrete particles mediating a force of nature.

This is a unique theory in that we get to decide whether or not it's true. If we invent the technologies and do the work of making zillions of black holes, more universes like ours will emerge in hyperspace, and each of them will have their own chance to repeat the dance. We will have altered the statistics of hyperspace and shown that universes with these laws of physics are capable of survival and reproduction. And we may or may not make the choices that lead to this. Once it occurred to me we have the choice whether or not to create black holes, and that if we do, orders of magnitude more universes of our variety could populate hyperspace, it seemed obvious that our presence results from cosmic ancestors making the choice to take this on, and therefore hyperspace abounds with worlds like ours. The Anthropic Principle doesn't present a philosophical conundrum in the framework, but rather a natural manifestation of statistical mechanics: one simply counts the microstates and finds that our kind resides on a peak. The cosmological constant is also not as puzzling in this context. As many have speculated, it's not so important exactly what value this quantity takes, but rather that it is very small, leading to a universe with a lifetime long enough to allow conscious beings to evolve and convert all matter to progeny.

There are also spiritual dimensions to this concept. We find ourselves here as compassionate, curious beings, and this is not an accident. We wonder about the world; we feel awe at natural beauty; we feel we are part of this swirling earth; we feel connected to it and to each other; and we feel love for humanity, for all creatures, and for our time alive. We feel these emotions because creatures who have felt these emotions have been more likely—over generations, on this planet and across universes—to propagate our kind. In Artificial Cosmological Selection (ACS), we are fibers in an expansive tapestry. Our ancestors reach back long before this universe, and our contributions affect a much larger tree of kin.

One could still feel small, alone, or overwhelmed. The purpose of life described here is greatly more than any one being could accomplish in isolation. That's fine by me. It takes all of us—all the stars, all the dust, the oceans, the ecosystems to survive for eons, to evolve and cycle again into something new. Each of us, however we help the human family survive and thrive, is contributing to the great project of the emerging world. I picture existence as a canvas of infinite dimensions roiling with vacuum fluctuations, some of which spawn trees which evolve out, expanding every way. Nature is invention; it holds great beauty, wonder, suffering, complexity, and void. And we are intricately woven into the cloth. We are here to learn, to invent, to explore, and to give forth to what is next.

"We're here on this planet and in this universe because our great ancestors had what it took to pull together, be clever, love one another, and survive long enough to serve the stars."

I haven't conceived of a way to prove or falsify the concept. For now it serves me well as a world view. We live at a time of transformation. The days when the earth was vast are gone, but the day we reach maturity has not yet come. We could wreck our earth before we reach our purpose. But if this picutre of nature is correct, it means we do survive, we do get there, at least in a statistical sense. We're here on this planet and in this universe because our great ancestors had what it took to pull together, be clever, love one another, and survive long enough to serve the stars. Our existence is it's own spoiler: we're gonna make it. We're a part of the great cosmic dance, and there is a reason to strive, to contribute, to love your children and the next thousand generations, and to read up on black holes and quantum gravity.

Having seen the world through this lens, no other cosmological framework resolves as many paradoxes or includes and accounts for as many properties of nature. I was compelled to mention it to Dr. Smolin and Dr. Denton. Smolin immediately let me know that at least two cosmologists had come to this idea independently: Edward Harrison and Louis Crane. Harrison passed away in 2007, but I was able to find a talk by Crane. Armed with a few new keywords, I arrived at a book entitled The Beginning and the End by Clément Vidal. Vidal presents several concepts regarding the role of consciousness in nature, and ACS is among them. This idea is out there. Will it catch on? Will evidence be gained in favor? Will it be falsified? Will it provide a unifying philosophical framework to coherently direct our evolution? Will it reveal to us that, on a level even deeper than we suspected, we are all kin?

Jeff Shainline
Boulder, CO
September, 2015