Grammar for Galaxies

Information is a mysterious thing. It's hard to say exactly what it is. Information "flows," as though it were a liquid.

We talk about the "power" of information, as though it were electric power, which also "flows" through conducting wires.

In one sense, information is knowledge that has been made useful. A message contains information -- although if the contents of message aren't very useful, then we'd say it isn't an informative message.

There's a much deeper sense of information which lies outside the context of what's useful for humans. It has little to do with messages traveling between minds. In fact, it doesn't need minds at all, human or otherwise.

In this deeper sense, information is an essential aspect of the universe, just as are time and matter/energy.

Information is a kind of grammar in nature which gives rise to new structures and designs in the physical world, in the same way that grammar in the mind gives rise to meaningful speech.

The clearest example of information, in this deeper sense, is life itself.


The variety of biological structures and designs is immense beyond belief. No one really knows how many different kinds of living things there are on our planet. The number of insect species alone runs into the millions.

Entomologists working in the Amazon rain forest have found single trees that are home to hundreds of species of ants alone.

Our planet is crawling with life -- topsoil, by weight, is largely made up of bacteria and other living things; there are exotic creatures living in the perfect blackness of the ocean bottom; bacteria live as far as the stratosphere, nearly in outer space. How can we account for this exuberant diversity of life?

Darwinism is one of the most misunderstood of all scientific theories. Everyone thinks he knows all about it. In fact, most people, including many scientists, miss some of its main points.

It does not claim, for example, that life evolves randomly. It actually claims exactly the opposite. The mechanism proposed by Darwinism to explain evolution is called natural selection.

Here are some of the main ideas in Darwin's theory, called the theory of "descent with modification":

1. Most living things are capable of leaving many more offspring than their habitat can support. This means that there will be resources for only a fraction of all the offspring born, and so only a fraction of all possible offspring will also survive and leave offspring.

2. No two members of any species, even if they're siblings, are exactly alike.

3. Certain members of a species will be better fitted to their habitat than are others, and so will be more likely to survive long enough to leave offspring, which are likely to inherit some of the successful traits.

4. The more successful variations will gradually come to make up a larger proportion of the population, and in this way favorable modifications will accumulate over many generations.

The question of which individuals in a generation leave offspring and which don't is up to nature to "decide"; hence the term natural selection. Selection is one of the basic features of information, along with collection.

Nature itself provides information by selecting from among the collection of biological designs in each generation of living things.

Evolution by natural selection is gradual and cumulative. The word "gradual" comes from the Latin word gradus, which means "step." Evolutionary change takes place stepwise, with each step no greater than the variation that can occur among the members of a single generation of the same species.

Through inheritance, the results of natural selection on each generation accumulate. It's amazing how powerful the results of gradual, cumulative selection can be.

The mammalian eye is an incredibly complex and effective organ. It's hard to imagine that such an exquisite organ could ever have descended from eyeless animals?

It seems like to be effective at all, the whole eye would have to emerge all of a sudden, with no intervening period for an eye "under construction." Wouldn't its construction have to be planned out completely beforehand?

In The Blind Watchmaker, Richard Dawkins uses the example of the mammalian eye to illustrate the results of gradual, cumulative selection.

Dawkins points out that although a jump from an eyeless worm to a mammalian eye wouldn't be possible, a mammalian eye that worked very slightly better than its ancestors might be possible.

Even among eyes from animals in the same family, there's some variation. Under certain circumstances, some of these variations could well turn out to be slight improvements.

You can see how an eye might in some cases work slightly better than the eye from which it descended, which might also have improved upon its predecessor's, and so on, further and further back.

In the beginning, a worm with a few slightly light-sensitive cells might have had some advantages over its brethren who had none at all.

Animals with eyes that work a little better gain a tiny, but appreciable edge over animals with slightly inferior eyes.

In individual cases, luck and a wide range of traits besides the quality of the eyes might play a strong role in determining the animal's fate.

However, when you take the lives of many animals into account, any improvement in the eyes -- no matter how slight -- will start to make a difference.

Gradual, cumulative selection connects the evolution in each generation with the generations before and after it. Connection is the same informational principle seen in knowledge processing, where the teacher tries to create an unbroken bridge between new knowledge and the learner's existing knowledge.

The results of natural selection in each generation are passed to the next generation. Selection takes place all over again on the following generation, and so on.

By continuously adding to the results of prior selections, after many generations the resulting change can be dramatic.

The biological designs that don't fit successfully in the habitat eventually disappear because those traits get passed on to fewer offspring.

We can all say that every one of our ancestors has been successful, even going back over three billion years to the first single-celled organisms.

Genes and information

How do successful traits actually get passed on? How does the "blueprint" for each living thing get passed from one generation to the next? Today's theory of evolution is actually a synthesis of Darwin's theory of descent with modification and Mendel's theory of genetics.

Genes are the basic unit of inheritance. They give instructions to cells for putting together proteins.

Proteins are the building materials for life itself. Proteins are very complex. Each protein has its own structure which enables it to serve a useful function within a cell.

Proteins are made up of amino acids. There are many types of amino acids, each with unique characteristics.

Chains of atoms, called side chains, give each type of amino acid distinctive properties. The conformation of the protein -- that is, the shape and behavior of the protein -- emerges out of the distinctive properties of amino acids.

There are four layers of complexity in protein structure, which means there are millions of kinds of protein, each able to perform specific functions in cells.

Although proteins are the building blocks of cells, cells also create proteins. The instructions for building proteins come from DNA (which stands for deoxyribonucleic acid). DNA is a double-helix-shaped molecule usually coiled up tightly in the nucleus of the cell.

It's helpful to picture the DNA molecule as a long, twisted ladder. The rungs of the ladder, called bases, are complementary pairs of chemicals called adenine, guanine, thymine, and cytosine.

Adenine pairs with guanine, while thymine pairs with cytosine. The adenine-guanine and cytosine-thymine pairs are like the "alphabet of life."

Just as patterns letters make words, the sequence of bases in the DNA "ladder" are a kind of code. Those chemical patterns are the basic unit of inheritance. They're called genes.

Each gene instructs a cell to build a particular kind of protein or enzyme out of the millions of possible ones.

The genes are expressed, or "read" by another molecule called mRNA, or messenger ribonucleic acid. A special cellular "machine," called a ribosome, translates the mRNA into protein.

The DNA molecule is unique among molecules because it can actually replicate itself. Self-replication is one of the properties of life

 Even at the molecular level, then, the special properties characteristic of all living things begin to emerge out of matter itself. DNA is a molecule that is alive.

In another of his books, The Selfish Gene, Dawkins suggests that an organism is best seen as a "gene machine," existing merely for the purpose of making a useful home for its genes, and serving as a vehicle for their perpetuation.

Such thinking really turns our world upside down. We're accustomed to seeing ourselves as having some purpose more transcendental than just being a nest for tiny coils of a semi-living molecule called DNA.

The designs for bodies -- gene machines -- that don't succeed in making more copies of the genes they house quickly disappear.

By tautology, the only kinds of gene machines that still exist are the ones that are successful at spreading their genes.

Each time a cell divides, a new copy of the genes has to be made for the new cell. The nucleus of a cell makes copies of the genes with uncanny accuracy. Few manmade machines are as accurate.

Nevertheless, the copies aren't always perfect. Small distortions and inaccuracies in the way genes get copied are called "mutations." Mutations are "typos" in the genetic code.

They are the ultimate source of genetic diversity (although in sexually reproducing species, there are other sources as well). If the genes got copied perfectly, then there would be no variation. Without variation, there'd be no evolution by natural selection.

Genes are like blueprints that show the designs for the proteins making up living cells. Genetic mutations cause minute changes in those designs, so some proteins manufactured in the cells will be slightly different.

Very small differences between proteins may result in dramatic differences in the cells that they make up, however.

Sickle cell anemia, for example, is the result of sickle-shaped red blood cells that can't carry as much oxygen and that clog up narrow passages in the bloodstream.

It's a very debilitating disease which mostly strikes people with African or Mediterranean ancestry.

At the molecular level, sickle cells differ only very slightly from normal blood cells. People with sickle cells have a higher resistance to malaria, and so the sickle cell trait proliferated in regions where malaria has been a problem.

Just as in the example given in the previous chapter of finding a diamond in a mound of dirt, life has to gather and filter -- collect and select -- new designs and structures.

The genes gather the possibilities for new designs. They serve the informational role of collection. They store the treasury of engineering wisdom accumulated by the species so far, which is the fruit of countless selections on previous generations.

Genes also collect the new possibilities which emerge out of random mutations.

The fate of each organism carrying the genes for a genetic design determines the fate of that design. The chance events in the daily life and times of each individual are what provide biological systems with selection.

The information of life resides in the interaction between the organism's environment and the patterns in its DNA, just as the information in a book resides in the interaction between the reader's mind and the patterns of words on the page.

The words themselves don't contain the information or meaning of the book, nor does the mind of the reader.

The information emerges only through the interaction of the reader's mind with the words as the reader looks at them and comprehends their meaning.

The patterns of DNA don't actually contain information either. The information is contained in the relationship between the DNA and the physical world, through the medium of the "gene machine."

Other views of evolution

To many people, biological designs seem much too complex and diverse to have come about through natural selection alone.

Those people believe that even with natural selection, the chances of anything as complex as a human brain evolving are so remote that it couldn't happen even during many stellar lifetimes.

There are lots of theories of evolution competing against Darwinism. For example, Fred Hoyle, a physicist, suggests that evolution is driven by viruses borne on meteors from outer space.

Darwinism, properly understood, is quite simple and straightforward. Usually, people fail to understand two things about natural selection.

First, they don't realize how cumulative selection makes extremely unlikely events become more likely through a kind of "process of elimination." And second, they don't realize how dramatic the effects of gradual change can be over a long period.

The rate of evolutionary change is the subject of some debate among biologists. Some people mistakenly take that debate to mean that some biologists have rejected the Darwinian concept of gradual evolutionary change.

At the center of the debate is a theory called punctuated equilibrium, which holds that evolution proceeds in fits and starts with long periods of little or no change in between.

Punctuated equilibrium still considers evolution to take place gradually (relative to the lifetimes of single organisms), but it claims that the rate of evolutionary change isn't necessarily uniform.

It's hard for humans to imagine the expanse of geological time. Since the days when the first bacteria began their dance of life, generations of mighty mountain chains have many times been hoisted up, and then have withered away into dust by wind and gentle rain. Our minds simply cannot grasp that much time.

Dinosaurs once inhabited every ecological niche currently dominated by mammals. They hunted, swam, and flew -- ruling the earth for a hundred million years longer than any human-like animal has even existed.

Some dinosaurs were even bipedal, like us, able to walk around on their hind legs. Did some of those dinosaurs learn to use tools with their hands? Did they become intelligent enough to develop language and complex cultures?

Perhaps there was even a dinosaurian civilization with art and science just as rich and refined as ours. It's interesting to imagine that the dinosaurs suddenly disappeared from the earth because they had a civilization that faced the same critical choices we do now -- but they failed, and destroyed themselves along with much of what was alive at the time.

Yet, a couple hundred million years later, here we are again at the same crossroads. Whether that really happened or not is probably impossible to know.

All traces of a dinosaurian civilization would have been erased like sand castles on the beach. From our perspective the rise and fall of their great civilization would have been just a twitch in history too small for us to notice.

Some people object to Darwinism by claiming that a beneficial mutation has never been observed actually taking place. That objection misses an important point. No mutation is ever beneficial except in hindsight.

Beneficial mutations are extremely rare. There are many more lethal mutations possible than beneficial ones.

As Dawkins puts it, there are many more ways to be dead than to be alive. Since there's no way to predict the future, it's impossible to tell whether a mutation will be beneficial, whether it will be lethal, or whether it will make no appreciable difference at all.

That means that beneficial mutations can't be predicted or engineered, even if anyone were around to try it.

When humans do actually direct the selection process, however, a species can change dramatically in just a few generations. For example, cauliflower, broccoli, and cabbage all descend from a wild mustard plant which humans have selectively bred.

There's no way to know whether these new species would survive without us around, though. (And there's no way to know whether we'll survive either.)

Life on earth is full of examples of evolution as a makeshift affair. Although a careless observer can get the impression that certain biological designs have been purposely planned out in advance, a closer look reveals how the name of the game is survival on a moment-to-moment basis.

All that counts is that a design works a little better than its competitors, or else that it has better luck than it competitors, at least.

An interesting fact about the vertebrate eye is that the light-sensitive cells in the retina are actually facing backwards! The cells in the retina of an octopus, on the other hand, are facing toward the light.

Some remote events in evolutionary history got the vertebrate lineage off to what we in hindsight would say was a bad start. We can't complain, though. After all, "it works, don't it?" This is what biologists like to call a "kludge."

Many well-adapted species fell on bad luck and are no longer around. Likewise, other species, such as a certain clumsy sloth that eats only acacia leaves, would also be gone, but for a dollop of dumb luck.

The fossil record isn't necessarily a story of forward progress, with organisms proceeding steadily from simpler to more complex. Evolution isn't monotonal -- there are often backtracks.

The fossil record reveals no particular purpose or teleology in evolution except fitness to the environment.

Many philosophers have been inspired by the dream of evolutionary progress. Teilhard de Chardin, a Roman Catholic priest who also worked as a paleoanthropologist, believed in an evolutionary Omega Point toward which the noosphere is progressing.

The noosphere (from noos, meaning mind in Greek) refers to earth's entire ecosystem. Hegel also wrote about an absolute, final end of what he saw as a progressive, dialectical process.

Lamarck, one of the earliest biologists to think about evolution, believed in a vital force driving evolutionary progress.

Darwinism certainly isn't complete. Cells can only come from other cells. How did the first cells emerge from the polypeptide stew? How did DNA first emerge? The riddle of life has hardly been solved at all -- there's still plenty of room for everyone to be wrong.

Science never claims to have the complete truth. Rather, science is a method for filtering out ideas that don't work at all. It's a mechanism for collecting and selecting ideas.

The danger comes in the process of correction -- that is, in evaluating the assumptions made during collection and selection.

Given a choice between believing in one idea or another, the scientific method is a way to test them both to see which one works better.

The best scientists always cultivate a healthy skepticism, even towards their own ideas. If you doubt the results of an experiment, you're free to try it yourself.

The scientific method isn't an oracle or a knowledge machine. Thinking people still have to provide the imagination and insight for creating the new ideas, which the scientific method can then put to the test.

Design in science

Biological designs are by far the most sophisticated that we know of. It's remarkable how effective and appropriate to their function that they can be.

Organisms have evolved in such a way as to take advantage of very subtle characteristics of the physical world.

All living species are magnificently adapted to the rules of physics. Natural selection certainly isn't random or arbitrary, however. An underlying order determines which biological designs best fit in a given habitat. But what then determines that underlying order in the physical world?

When Newton published his Principia Mathematica, one of history's most profound intellectual revolutions began. It's hard to adequately appreciate the importance of his work.

Among other things, it showed that the same gravitational attraction that we readily observe on earth is the same force that "governs" the movements of the planets.

The same acceleration due to gravity which Galileo measured using balls rolling down inclined planes was the same kind of force that held the planets in the orbits described by Kepler.

Most amazingly of all, this force could be precisely described using mathematics.

Later, scientists such as Gauss and Maxwell mathematically described the behavior of electricity and magnetism. The scientific revolution was running at full throttle.

The universe seemed to be a consummately mathematical one. In fact, it seemed mysteriously and uncannily mathematical. In the 20th century, a physicist would write about the "unreasonable usefulness of mathematics in the physical sciences."

To give one famous example of how improbable and remarkable this can sometimes be, Wolfgang Pauli predicted the existence of the positron solely through his equations. When physicists later looked for it in the lab, lo! there it was, just where Pauli said it would be.

Ask any mathematician to describe what makes for great mathematics, and you're bound to hear words such as "refined," "subtle," "elegant," or even "beautiful" or "gorgeous."

Mathematicians sometimes describe themselves as being more like artists than scientists. A fine mathematician needs to have a sense of esthetics and a well-developed taste for interesting patterns and relationships.

What does this say about the universe, if the universe is mathematical, and mathematics is beautiful?

The Newtonian revolution deeply affected the way Europeans viewed the world. Such thinkers as Laplace described the universe as mechanical, like an enormous clock.

If you could ever learn the position and momentum of every object in the universe, you could then deduce everything that has happened and everything that will ever happen.

Deism, the philosophy that God set the clockwork of the universe into motion and then went home to bed, was fashionable after Newton and Laplace.

All this began falling on hard times during the 19th century. For one thing, thermodynamics, which studies the flow of heat, could only describe the overall, statistical nature of heat.

In real-world systems, there are simply too many moving molecules to be able to calculate the position and momentum of each one. This was awkward for the mechanical view of the universe, but not crushing.

Another problem was more serious, though. Physicists were having a hard time with something they called "ether," which they believed had to exist as the medium through which light waves are propagated. The ether, they thought, should be at rest. 

Therefore, as the earth travels through it on the way around the sun, the speed of light should be affected, just as wind changes the path of smoke.

The famous experiments done by Michelson and Morley failed repeatedly to find this effect, however, even though their instruments were extremely sensitive.

Einstein had the amazingly revolutionary idea that there was no ether at rest. In fact, nothing is absolutely at rest anywhere. Things may only be at rest relative to an observer, and any observer may validly claim to be at absolute rest.

Instead of the speed of the ether being a constant, it has to be the velocity of light that's constant.

This idea had such thumping repercussions that physics had to be rebuilt. Einstein went ahead and took on the job of rebuilding it himself with his relativity theory.

Other problems, such as explaining the behaviors of certain kinds of radiation, were leading to more difficulties with the old Newtonian mechanics.

Again, Einstein saved the day (he published three papers in the same Annals of Physics, any of which would have made him one of the greatest modern physicists).

His paper on the photoelectric effect, which won him a Nobel prize, described how light waves behave as packets of energy, called photons. This paved the way for an altogether new kind of physics, called quantum mechanics.

Quantum mechanics is a tool for predicting the behavior of the very smallest bits of matter/energy, called "quanta." Quanta behave both as particles or as waves, depending on how you choose to measure them.

Quantum waves are "waves of probability." In theory, a quantum could be anywhere at any time, but the regions where it's most likely to be found form a kind of mathematical wave.

These mathematical waves behave as "real" waves, interfering with and reinforcing each other just like waves in a swimming pool.

From the perspective of quantum physics, the universe isn't a precise clock wound up and then abandoned by the Deist demiurge. The quantum mechanical universe is probabilistic, not deterministic.

According to this probabilistic way of looking at quanta, there are inviolable limits to how much you can know about quanta. If you know a lot about its momentum, for example, your knowledge of its position will be strictly limited.

Each event in the world of the quantum is ghostly and insubstantial -- existing only as calculations showing the likelihood of such an event happening.

If this view of the universe makes you uncomfortable, take heart in knowing that no less a mind than Einstein himself also found it unacceptable, even though he was one of the founders of quantum mechanics.

He made the famous comment that "God does not play dice with the universe."

One of the consequences of the new physics has been to strengthen the view that the universe is mathematical, regardless of whether it's a clockwork mechanical universe or a slippery, probabilistic one.

Both relativity and quantum mechanics lie outside our everyday intuitions of a mechanical universe. The phenomena described by these theories can get so weird that the only way to handle them at all is mathematically. Incredibly, though, the math works.

Legend has it that when news reached Einstein about the observation of certain subtle movements of the planet Mercury, which had been predicted by his theories, he replied matter-of-factly that of course the theories were correct.

They had to be because the math said so.

Emergent design

The underlying mathematical reality of the universe is a kind of code or grammar that selects which events are possible, and which aren't. It selects which biological designs survive, and which don't.

The cosmic grammar is the source of the information which natural selection imparts to living systems. Through natural selection, the cosmic grammar informs or gives form to matter in living systems.

In this sense, life is "richly informed matter," while matter that isn't part of a living system is less informed.

Information is the process by which new designs emerge spontaneously out of the underlying mathematical order of the universe. The universe itself is creative.

The underlying mathematical order of the universe is the source of new and effective designs. This contradicts a common, deeply held assumption that only humans can be creative.

We normally reserve the word information to talk about what's contained in messages. That might still be appropriate, in the sense that messages create new forms in the mind.

Language is a selective process, similar to biological evolution. Language comprehension involves selecting the concepts that fit best with what's in the message -- together with what the listener knows about the world -- and rejecting the ones that don't.

Those concepts that end up surviving are what the message "says." That's why we think of information as always having to do with "messaging."

Actually, though, information doesn't need messages, or even minds, at all.

It's a fundamental characteristic of the universe itself. Some physicists have even argued that the universe is made of "pure information."

The emergent properties of life are present at each level of complexity. Quanta themselves are lifelike in many ways.

The characteristics of polymeric macromolecules work together to give proteins their essential qualities so they can contribute to the life of cells.

At higher levels, even entire ecosystems seem to take on the nature of a living organism. Like all living systems, ecosystems are self-organizing and self-sustaining.

Although living systems are usually stable, their equilibrium is a busy, dynamic one, never rigid or static.

In the world of living things, the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts. The characteristics of the whole can't be easily predicted by examining its component parts.

The characteristics of the whole emerge out of the dynamic interplay of the parts. That dynamic interplay is closely guided by the laws of physics -- the properties of matter itself.

Water is a miraculous solvent because of the bonding properties of hydrogen. Carbon's valence number is part of what makes it the backbone of organic compounds.

The hydrophobic properties of certain monomers in lipids make them useful in membrane walls. It's the way all these properties work together, however, that makes matter come to life.

The brilliant variety of new biological designs that continuously bubble up and then sometimes vanish over the vastness of geological time are all the result of complex patterns inherent in the behavior of matter itself.

Those patterns are a kind of expression of the underlying mathematical order of the universe. For billions of years, new biological designs have been seeping out of the backdrop of the cosmic order.

They represent an unthinkably vast bounty of information. The diverse structures of living things reflect the commotion of the eons.

They echo the clattering and jiggling of gene machines being rudely sifted through the mathematical sieve of nature's laws.

Living systems are always open. They're always exchanging matter and energy with their environment.

At the same time, however, they're also acquiring information from the underlying mathematical order through their interaction with the environment.

To evolve, systems must remain open to their environment. Otherwise, they no longer collect new variations to be selected by the "cosmic grammar."

Systems evolve as filters gather and select filters, which gather and select other filters -- and so on.

The more refined the filtering, the better able the system is to cope with noise, or anti-information, in its environment. In other words, the system becomes more adaptive.

Natural selection insists on consistency. Fitness means "consistent with the rules of physics." It's as though the universe were pressing for the simplest, "tightest" fit, the shortest shortcut. Inconsistencies gradually erode away like boulders on a beach.

Every process ultimately follows the path of least resistance. Maybe a kind of cosmic laziness is the source of creativity in the universe!

The anthropic principle

During the 1980's, the Vatican at last closed its case on Galileo Galilei, the founder of modern science. For hundreds of years, he had stood accused of heresy for teaching that the sun -- not the earth -- was the center of the solar system.

The Ptolemaic view of the universe with the earth sitting smugly in the center seems silly to us now. Now we know that our planet orbits a plain, ordinary star stuck out on the edge of a rather banal galaxy lost in an unimaginably large ocean of galaxies.

The urge to make man the measure and center of all things persists, however. Its latest incarnation is called the anthropic principle.

If any of the basic features of the cosmos were even slightly different, we would not exist. Modern physics knows of four fundamental forces in the universe -- gravitation, electromagnetism, the strong nuclear force and the weak nuclear force.

Physicists have equations that very precisely describe and predict the characteristics of those forces.

Based on those equations, some physicists have built computer models to simulate how the universe might look if the strengths and characteristics of the four forces were different.

It turns out that if any of their values were even the tiniest bit different, human beings could never have existed in this universe.

As an example, if either positive or negative charges were stronger, matter in the universe would blow apart, since like charges repel. The balance between positive and negative charges is so fine that there's nothing in daily human experience to compare with its precision.

In the hot centers of stars, the nuclei of atoms knock together with such violence that they can fuse to form the nuclei of heavier atoms. Those heavier, more complex nuclei fuse to form yet heavier elements.

All the elements get born from hydrogen, the lightest and simplest element, in the bellies of stars. All the materials making up our planet -- and our bodies -- are really "stardust" that came from stars that went extinct eons before our sun was even born.

Many of those elements were formed only as the result of very subtle and complex characteristics of matter. If nuclear fusion took place even the slightest bit differently, the matter out of which our bodies are made would never have existed.

At first, this seems like evidence that the universe was made especially for humans. There are strains of anthropic principle -- weak and strong.

The weak anthropic principle holds that if any of the characteristics of matter/energy were at all different, we would not be here to observe the universe -- but we are here, so this just happens to be the only universe in which we could exist out of a numbingly wide range of possible universes.

The strong anthropic principle holds that the universe was especially tailored to make intelligent life possible.

Some of the people who support the strong principle do so because they also believe in a certain unusual interpretation of the results of quantum mechanics which asserts that matter/energy cannot exist without there being a conscious being to observe it.

To me, it seems much more reasonable to believe that humans have turned out the way we have because of the underlying mathematical order of the universe, which informs the nature of galaxies and stars as well as human bodies.

The same underlying mathematical reality out of which the characteristics of matter/energy have emerged is also the source of the blueprints for human beings. That would seem to imply that life exists elsewhere in the universe besides here.

Possibly this fleck of grit we call the earth is the only place in the universe where life exists. It seems more likely that the universe is brimming over with life, however, just as the earth itself is.

Our scope may simply be too narrow to see any life other than what's on our planet. In fact, biologists haven't even finished discovering all the forms of life on earth yet.

In the galactic scheme of things, our situation may be like that of a colony of bacteria that lives in the desert and is unaware of other life on earth.

The distances separating us from other stars are so great that it's perfectly reasonable for us to be unaware of other life in the universe.

Mathematics and reality 

For a really exotic intellectual experience, ask yourself where this mathematical structure I'm calling the cosmic grammar could have come from. Not from "outside" because there's no outside there.

If there were an outside, then we could know absolutely nothing about it. If we could conceive of it at all, then it would be mathematical, and would therefore still be "inside" the cosmic grammar.

Even creativity is mathematical, so the act of creation must also be within the cosmic grammar, which means that the cosmic grammar couldn't have been created.

Everything we can see or touch, from galaxies to quarks, probably had a beginning, and perhaps will also have an end. The universe itself had no beginning -- if by universe we mean all that exists -- including the cosmic grammar.

The cosmic grammar is what determines the nature of beginning-ness and end-ness -- it determines what beginnings and ends actually are. It has no beginning or end itself.

Thinking about such things forces us to abandon our human instinct always to look for beginnings and causes for everything.

An ancient Chinese cosmology pictured the earth resting on the back of a giant turtle. What did that turtle rest on, then?

Another, even larger turtle? And an even larger one beneath that one? Our puny minds frantically grope for the turtle at the bottom, even though there are turtles forever.

Kurt Goedel, a mathematician and logician, developed some famous theorems that imply, among other things, that no mathematical system can ever be complete.

Mathematical reality is endless and causeless. No matter how advanced human knowledge of mathematics becomes, it will always be an incomplete picture of mathematical reality.

The world of mathematical forms and relationships is like a landscape that stretches to infinity in all directions. Anyone can travel wherever they please over that landscape. When they return to a spot where they've been before, it will remain exactly as they'd left it.

Other people can visit the same place, and will discover the same sights and marvels you had seen.

The mathematical landscape is as real and tangible -- even more real perhaps -- than the physical universe.

Perhaps Plato had that same landscape in mind when he wrote about the world of ideal forms.

When we say that the universe is mathematical, then, we mustn't make the mistake of thinking that it is mathematical in the sense of today's knowledge of mathematics.

We have to distinguish between mathematical reality and what human beings have managed to learn about that reality. The combined achievements of all human mathematicians amounts to nothing when compared to the endless, unexplored terrain of mathematical reality.

The physical universe isn't a reflection of the mathematics known today. However, the physical universe as well as humanity's present collection of mathematical knowledge both arise out of the same infinitely rich, underlying mathematical reality.

No mathematical model of the physical universe can ever be final or complete, either. Until the 19th century, Newtonian mechanics had been stunningly successful at describing motion and forces.

In this century, physicists incorporated the Newtonian model into the broader, more complete relativistic and quantum mechanical models. Modern physics has been successful beyond imagination.

Even the remotest corners of physical reality seem to neatly conform to relativity and quantum mechanics.

Some people say that modern physics is coming close to wrapping it all up -- that the synthesis of relativity and quantum mechanics is the turtle at the bottom of the heap.

As we learn more, though, we'll surely discover new things that modern physics won't be able to handle -- the living universe will always elude us because it's a reflection of mathematical reality, which is infinite.

The ethics of bioengineering

As you read this, a project is underway that has been proclaimed as the scientific equivalent of building the Great Pyramids of Egypt.

The aim of this scientific effort, called the Human Genome Project, is to map out all the genes, base-by-base, that go into making up a human being.

Billions of nucleotide bases have to be sequenced. Scientists estimate that with present laboratory techniques it'll take two decades or longer to complete.

Comparing the Genome Project with the building of the Pyramids isn't at all far-fetched. The project is immense. Even the computer engineering challenges it presents are daunting.

For example, how do you catalog the hundreds of thousands of gene sequences so that as new ones come in, you can compare them with previous ones to verify that they aren't duplicates? Special computer techniques are being invented for handling that problem alone.

Data gathered by the Project will be useful in finding treatments for genetic diseases, maybe also for finding a cure for cancer, and perhaps even for getting the big picture of how life works at the molecular level.

However, critics would rather compare the Genome Project to the Manhattan Project than to the Pyramids. They believe that unleashing the genetic genie may prove more deadly than has the nuclear one.

It doesn't have to be deadly, though. The fundamental rule for safety in bioengineering is to preserve genetic diversity.

Based on that general rule, I've thought up a simple code of genetic ethics:

1. Never introduce a new life form into any ecosystem that contains every specimen known to exist of any species.

2. Never introduce an artificially mutated variety into the habitat of the species from which it was derived.

3. Always store enough germ plasm to be able to reintroduce any native species whose habitat you are affecting.

The first rule is based on the assumption that you can never know for sure what effect a life form will have on an ecosystem until after it's been introduced into that ecosystem. However, then it may be too late; whole species may have been wiped out.

European colonists during the so-called Age of Discovery were notorious for shipping plants and animals to foreign continents, where they proliferated and wiped out indigenous species by competing for available resources.

If you introduce a species of fish from another continent into a lake on your continent, then to obey the first rule you must make sure there are other lakes on your continent that also have every species that lives in the lake where you're introducing the foreign fish.

Otherwise, if by chance the foreign fish sets into motion a chain of ecological events that lead to the extinction of some of the species in your lake, then you're responsible for destroying genetic diversity.

If the life form you're introducing is dramatically different from every living thing on earth, then you have to consider the earth itself to be the "lake" in the above example.

In that case, you should do any experiments with the life form in a laboratory in outer space, or at least in a completely sealed and isolated one on earth.

The second rule of genetic ethics involves protecting not only species, but also varieties of species. During the 19th century, a blight struck potato crops in Ireland, causing a terrible famine.

Through starvation, disease, and emigration, the island's human population fell from nine million to less than one in just a few years.

Fortunately, the blight struck Ireland, and so was confined there; the Poles and Germans depended on the potato for food as much as the Irish.

To end the blight, botanists had to go back to Peru, the cradle of the potato. High in the Andes grow hundreds of varieties of wild potatoes -- all shapes, sizes, and colors.

Using some wild stock, the botanists were able to breed a strain of potato that was resistant to the blight.

Suppose that the second rule had earlier been violated, and that an artificially mutated strain of potato had been started in Peru -- a strain which, perhaps, competed against the native varieties in their habitat and drove some of them to extinction -- then the blight might eventually have wiped out the whole European potato crop, with enormous social and political consequences.

It's shocking to realize that the human race largely subsists on only a handful of grass plants, or grains: rice, maize, wheat, rye, millet, barley, sorghum, and soy, a leguminous grain.

We're out on a thin limb because many of these plants have already driven their wild cousins to extinction.

The third rule of genetic ethics basically says, "Before messing around with a computer file, be sure you make a backup copy."

Right now, we're fiddling with the living earth's computer files in a big way, and we haven't taken the trouble to back them up.


From Oregon to Madagascar, humans are vigorously exterminating the earth's forests, the sole habitat for millions of species of plants and animals.

Sometimes forests get replanted, but very often they don't. Even when they do, however, the new-growth forests are relatively sterile, lacking the diversity of life supported in native forest ecosystems.

Although most wood is used as a building material, or as a fuel in poorer countries, a lot of wood is used unnecessarily, making the sacrifice of so many forests a terrible waste.

For example, we use "tree carcasses" to make paper for use as a crude medium for transmitting messages. The price of paper doesn't reflect the true cost of destroying forests to get it.

If it did reflect that cost, we would all have more incentive to turn to fully electronic alternatives to paper.

In many parts of the world, exploding population growth is forcing desperate people to burn forests for making new farmland. The soil on the forest floor is so thin and meager that the farmers fail to make a living on it, and they have to burn their way deeper into the forest in search of more land.

Whenever a species goes extinct, a treasury of genetic information is lost forever.

It's true that mass extinctions have always taken place periodically, but today's loss of genetic diversity is one of the most disastrous ever. This is happening all for the misplaced interests of just one extravagant species.

We have to become educated enough to understand the value of diversity -- including its economic value.

One example of that economic value is in developing new medicines. Nearly all medicines are synthetic forms of chemicals derived from living things.

The chemistry of life is far too complex for pharmacologists to successfully mix up a completely new medicine in the lab from scratch. Pharmacologists rely on living things -- the wisdom of evolution -- to improve their odds of finding a compound that heals.

A burgeoning new field, ethnopharmacology, sends chemists, botanists, and anthropologists deep into the rainforests to seek out the wisdom of the peoples living there.

Over the thousands of years, those people have learned to gather some highly effective medicines from the living pharmacy that surrounds and nourishes them.

Tragically, human cultures are blinking out almost as quickly as are plant and animal species. Of the 3,000 or more languages thought to have recently existed, only a few hundred are still being spoken, and most of those only by a handful of elderly people.

With languages go whole cultures. Those cultures -- along with their fortunes in knowledge and wisdom -- are quickly being exterminated as their young are drawn away by the enticing glow of the world's literate societies.

Before we gloat over those cultures, jeering "survival of the fittest," we should remember that the truer saying is "fittest is he who survives longest."

Some of the cultures that are dying out today have been around since Stone Age times, for tens of thousands of years. On the other hand, what would happen to our fancy modern civilization if anything ever wrecked our electrical power grid?

Evolution as information

Anyone who's ever studied a chart with a "tree" showing the world's language families has probably been struck by how languages seem to evolve like plant or animal species.

Languages adapt to their habitat just as species do. Through a continuous gradation of shifting dialects, French, Spanish, and Provencal descended from the Latin spoken by Roman soldiers and farmers, just as fruit flies descended generation-by-generation from earlier kinds of bug.

Unless invasions or politics have dictated otherwise, languages usually have fuzzy, gradually changing frontiers.

One language doesn't end exactly where a completely different one begins. Instead, a spectrum of intermediate dialects smoothly connects one language with another.

This is exactly the case in the biological world, as well. Species descend smoothly from other species through a continuous spectrum of intermediate varieties.

Precise demarcations between species are actually the artifacts or inventions of taxonomists -- people who classify and name living things -- and not anything inherent in life itself.

There is a sense in which languages truly are alive. What do we mean by "alive," though? What defines something as being alive?

Viruses can't reproduce themselves -- they have to commandeer the machinery of another living cell in order to replicate their DNA and continue to survive.

Are viruses alive even though they lack such a basic characteristic of life as reproduction? On the other hand, they're definitely not dead.

The only characteristic that's held in common at every level of complexity -- from viruses to ecosystems -- seems to be the Darwinian dance of mutation and selection.

That dance is the defining characteristic of life itself. Life is evolution.

We can turn that principle around, and say that anything that evolves is also in some sense alive. In other words, evolution and life are the same process.

It's the process we can call information -- form and design emerging from the mathematical order that underlies the physical world.

Languages truly are alive, then, because they also evolve through chance mutations getting selected by the vagaries of history.

By looking at language this way, we can grasp more tangibly how living processes work in general. Languages live in the interactions between human beings, just as cells are alive because of the interactions among the macromolecules composing them.

The essence of life -- that is, evolution or information -- is intelligent coordination of form and function.

Multicellular organisms all share common ancestors that were single-celled organisms. The first multicellular organisms were actually colonies of single-celled organisms that lived closely together and provided each other mutual benefits.

Coordination gave them such an advantage that they gradually evolved the structures of single, multicellular organisms.

In a sense, our bodies are like massive colonies of single-celled organisms that have evolved sublimely well-coordinated structures and functions, and that completely rely on each other to maintain and perpetuate themselves.

Lending evidence to that view, biologists have discovered that mitochondria, tiny organelles within cells that play an important role in respiration, actually have their own DNA. They're like pets that the cells have kept around because they're so useful.

In the same way, languages are made out of coordinated events in the minds and bodies of humans. Languages cannot live without humans. Interestingly, though, humans couldn't actually survive without language, either. The reason is the human pelvis.

Language seems to have co-evolved with humans in order to create and sustain the complex social bonds needed to care for infants.

Human beings are unusual among mammals in that we give birth to our young while they are still essentially in the fetal stage of development.

Calves are able to walk within hours after birth, foals can run, and whale calves can of course swim. If humans carried their unborn until they were developed to a similar stage, the head would be so large that the mother would be incapacitated, and would be devoured by a hungry predator.

The human evolutionary strategy is a fascinating one: give birth to the young prematurely before the brain gets too large, but then provide diligent and intensive care through a tightly knit social structure.

We're like "cultural marsupials"; we carry our newborn in a pouch made out of rich social fabric. Such a social fabric relies heavily on language.

In that sense, the human species depends on language for its very survival just as language depends on humans.

Selective systems and mind

The evolution of species isn't the only place where Darwinian processes are at work. Many other biological systems work in similar ways.

The immune system takes advantage of a highly accelerated Darwinism to create designs for antibodies that can recognize the stellar variety of microorganisms and other harmful substances that invade the body.

One of the major themes of this chapter has been that biological evolution -- and Darwinian processes of cumulative selection in general -- are examples of what we can appropriately call information.

Any system where such processes are at work is to some extent an informational system.

A scientist named Gerald Edelman, who was awarded a Nobel prize for showing how Darwinian processes work in the immune system, has also suggested that Darwinian processes give rise to the human mind. This theory is sometimes called "neurodarwinism."

So far, it's quite controversial, although many neuroscientists are studying how it might work. It's very tempting to look at the brain as being a sophisticated informational system -- or, most likely, a system of informational systems -- where intricate structures of thought, perception, and behavior arise out of neural chaos through the same kind of cumulative selection that gives rise to new species.

Neurodarwinism isn't yet a well-accepted theory. However, from a strictly psychological point of view, at least, you can imagine how the perceptions and gestalts that finally end up as part of consciousness are the winners in a very fast race among a mob of competing possibilities.

A noisy crowd of perceptions jostle for the limited space under the spotlight of the mind's attention. The perceptions which most aptly fit the cues given by the sense organs are the survivors.

The memory of past perceptions also plays a strong selective role. The successful perceptions -- that is, those that make it into consciousness -- are the ones that are most consistent with current signals from the sense organs as well as with what's already known about the world.

In other words, sense input and past memories are the environment in which competing perceptions get tested. The fittest of the contenders are the ones that make up conscious awareness. The runners-up dwell in the misty world of the subconscious.

The eyes seem to play tricks sometimes, such as at twilight or when you're trying to make sense of extraordinarily complex and unfamiliar scenes. Sometimes the wrong perception wins the race. When that happens, the false perception seems like a hallucination.

Perhaps the mind always hallucinates, however. Some of those hallucinations serve a useful function -- they work to organize signals from the senses into meaningful experience.

Messages from the sense organs select from the stream of hallucinations gushing up out of the depths of the mind, filtering out all but a few of them.

Memories of previous experiences also work as filters. When we're dreaming, the hallucinations rush on without getting filtered by the sense organs. When we're awake, though, the sense organ filters are more firmly in place.

Like the cursor on a computer screen, consciousness is the focal center of the mind's attention. It roves around, alighting on whatever competes most successfully for it.

It's the homunculus -- the little "I" inside your head that seems to be watching the big movie entitled, This is your life. Consciousness is an artifact of the brain's functioning, just like the hum of a motor.

Arbitrary though it may be, it serves a purpose that's very useful for survival. It enables the mind to organize signals from the sense organs into a meaningful whole, which is the person's experience.

It also enables the brain to concentrate its limited attention on those events that will more likely impinge on survival, such as the shape and color of a poisonous berry, or the sound of an approaching predator.

If the brain could somehow pay equal attention to every stimulus, our sense of "I," or self, would disappear, and we would feel a kind of unity with the world around us.

That's the sensation that people often claim to have who practice various meditations which alter the brain's allocation of attention. Just as mystics claim, the self truly is an illusion.

There still isn't enough evidence to know whether the mind really works this way or not. What's interesting is that it's possible, at least, that mentality could be a selective process, just like biological evolution.

If that turns out to be true, then the line separating the quick and the dead -- life and non-life -- will seem even more more hazy and insubstantial.

To some observers, quantum particles seem to have their own independent will, and the characteristics of evolution and life begin to emerge even at the molecular level.

Looking at things this way breaks down the old Manichaean matter/spirit duality. Instead of being separate and opposing essences, matter is spiritual, and spirit is material. The animate quality of life -- anima is Latin for spirit -- is a straightforward feature of the cosmic grammar governing matter.

Insofar as the cosmic grammar unfolds through the emergent properties of matter, matter also is actually alive in a certain very real sense.

The universe itself is alive. Spinoza, a rationalist philosopher who lived in the Netherlands not long after the Protestant Reformation, thought that God is the universe -- the whole universe.

He believed that the way to worship God was to learn and teach about the universe. That kind of thinking was a little advanced for his time, however, and it got him excommunicated from his synagogue for being an atheist.

Have you ever had the experience of standing several blocks away from a football stadium filled with a cheering crowd? You no longer perceive the individual shouts. They all blend together to sound like a windstorm or an ocean beach.

Could it be that what we call a "mind" is really just how our own minds perceive Darwinian systems?

Each of the individual successes and failures taking place in a mind are perceived by another mind as blending together into a seething, living rush of sensation.

What is called a "soul" is the impression made by an active, Darwinian system. When you talk with another human, your own mind vibrates in tune with the Darwinian jostling also going on in their mind, and the impression that gives you is what you call their "mind" or "soul."

Before Mesopotamian monotheism -- Judaism, Christianity, and Islam -- spread throughout the world, animism was a universal religious sentiment.

Animists claim to be aware of minds inhabiting all things, even things that monotheists regard as inanimate. 

f you're peaceful and open-minded enough, you might actually feel the Darwinian dance of "chance and necessity" being played out in nature, as well, and it might strike you as a kind of mind or soul.

Perhaps that's why we sometimes sense the presence of a Mind when hiking in the wilderness.

Information and conservation laws

There are many difficult questions about the nature of information. In coming years, as our picture of this mysterious aspect of nature grows sharper, then perhaps some of these questions will find answers.

Nature is a meticulous bookkeeper. It insists that every physical system keep strict account of its matter and energy. Nature allows a system to juggle those accounts, but they must always balance in the end.

Matter and energy may change from one form to another, but may never be created or destroyed. Physicists call that the First Law of Thermodynamics. The universe is rather pushy about enforcing that law.

Everybody has observed the conservation of energy when driving on hilly roads. The kinetic energy -- the energy of motion -- that you gain going downhill balances the extra energy it took to get to the crest of the hill in the first place (minus the energy lost due to friction).

Information appears to follow conservation laws, as well. When looking at knowledge-processing, we noted that there was always a price to pay for collecting, selecting, connecting, or correcting knowledge. What is it that gets conserved? Why?

Digital computers process symbols very accurately. They give precise answers to numerical problems.

Solving complex, real-world problems, however, becomes very time-consuming for a digital computer -- both in terms of programming the computer and running the program.

On the other hand, neurocomputers -- sometimes called neural-like networks -- are altogether different from ordinary computers. They don't work by executing a set of coded instructions, or program.

The nets work by strengthening or weakening their internal connections. Certain connections may come to represent specific characteristics of the input to the network.

Because the whole network is so densely interconnected, changes in one part affect the network everywhere.

The relative strengths of the many connections in the network create a kind of landscape with peaks and valleys.

When the network first receives input, there's a lot of jostling as the connections adjust to each other's strengths. Eventually, the network begins to settle into a more stable configuration of peaks and valleys. This configuration is rich in new knowledge.

Neurocomputers have caused a great deal of excitement among cognitive psychologists and AI (Artificial Intelligence) researchers because they display some of the same traits as humans sometimes do.

Like humans and other animals, neural-like nets have to be trained, not programmed. They also sometimes forget or confuse what they've been taught. They're able to make powerful generalizations after being given a set of conditions, just as humans do.

Yet, they sometimes also make inappropriate associations. They seem to be fairly good at handling the kinds of everyday tasks that involve making fast judgments in complex situations using incomplete data. Ordinary computers fail stupendously at this sort of thing.

One of the great surprises in the history of computer science has been that computers have turned out to be quite good at performing logical tasks, such as playing chess or solving certain kinds of math problems, but very poor at coping with dirty, real-world problems, such as recognizing a person's face after they've put on a little weight.

Computers are famous for their lack of common sense; and the more common the sense, the more they lack it.

Neurocomputers provide answers to complex problems very quickly. However, those answers won't be as precise as what a digital computer could provide.

A bank might use a neural-like computer to quickly spot irregular activity stemming from embezzlement or laundering drug money.

However, if you asked it for your current balance, it would probably give you an unacceptably vague answer. In other words, there's a tradeoff between the precise answer given by the digital computer and the quick-and-dirty but broad-scoped answer given by the neurocomputer.

You don't get something for nothing by using a neurocomputer instead of a digital computer. Just as with other physical quantities, there's a conservation law at work here.

What exactly is being conserved, however? What governs the relationship between time and precision?

Another puzzle has to do with the speed of light. As every schoolboy knows, the fastest anything can travel in the universe is the speed that light travels in a vacuum, about 300,000 kilometers per second.

Not only is that the fastest any thing can travel, no message can travel faster either. In other words, it's not only the speed limit for matter/energy, it's the speed limit for communication, as well. It's a kind of speed limit for the flow of information.

Why should this be so? What's so special about 300,000 km/sec? Considering the enormous distances separating structures such as galaxies or clusters of galaxies, this speed actually seems quite slow.

The cosmic speed limit has the effect of slowing the speed of interactions between very widely separated objects. Why? It's hardly arbitrary, because the laws of physics seem to conspire most ingeniously to enforce this limit.

A peculiar number, called Planck's constant, keeps turning up in relationships between quantities at the level of the quantum.

It figures in many equations that describe the nature of quanta. It also shows up in Heisenberg's uncertainty principle.

The uncertainty principle defines the limits of how much can be known when measuring certain attributes of quanta; that is, it defines certain limits of information regarding quanta.

What's so special about this number? How does it relate to the nature of information?

Einstein, Podolsky, and Rosen invented a "thought experiment," called the EPR paradox. It challenges quantum physicists over some apparent difficulties in the new physics.

The EPR paradox raises some serious problems for physicists because it forces the conclusion that either action can occur at a distance, as if by magic, with no intervening medium, or that quantum mechanics is somehow incomplete.

Another important discovery, called Bell's Theorem, takes even further some of the same problems raised by the EPR paradox.

An experiment done in 1984 by Alain Aspecte, a French physicist, has demonstrated that those issues of simultaneity and action at a distance aren't merely theoretical.

David Bohm, an important quantum physicist who worked with Einstein himself, has strongly suggested that these paradoxes may have to do with the nature of information in the universe. He says that there's both an "implicate" and an "explicate" order in the universe.

The explicate order is more or less the one we know. It's the measurable one. The explicate order folds out of the implicate order (from Latin: ex meaning "out" or in meaning "in," plus plicare, "to fold"). The implicate order is the infinite, underlying mathematical order in the universe.

Michael Webb, 1992

previous chapter ]
next chapter ]

home ]