Chapter 3. Evo Devo Foresight: Unpredictable and Predictable Futures

Developmental Inertia, Truth, and Cautious Superintelligences

The fourth universal developmental trend that I think we should all strive see in our environment is the trend of increasing inertia, the accumulation of truth. Like immunity, this one is hard for some of us to see, but it is perhaps equally as important.

In physics, inertia is resistance to change in motion or direction. Truth is just like that. Once you acquire it, you don’t want to change it. It also doesn’t want to change. It accumulates, as civilization advances. So what is inertia from an informational perspective? In perhaps its most interesting sense, it is high-meaning information. The systems theorist James Grier Miller often considered the question of meaning. How do we define information that has high-meaning, versus low meaning? An answer we found helpful is that it is information that is widely used and persists, information found in “lots of minds for lots of time.” Think of a correct and useful physics equation, or a work of art that becomes a classic, persisting for years. Meaning occurs in information when it persists, across space and time, and in various energy-matter systems. It is a kind of “truth.”

But in another developmental sense, inertia is the top-downness of a system. As the 95/5 rule suggests, top-downness should be kept to a small percentage of bottom-upness. But as the search for truth and certainty occurs, every complex system of fixed structure keeps accumulating top-down information, and eventually it becomes a liability. At a certain point in the life cycle, growing top-downness becomes a liability. Once you have too many “truths”, rules and policies, the system becomes rigid, overdetermined, and unable to innovate or adapt. It becomes what biologists call senescent, brittle, poorly responsive, and easily disrupted by environmental change, and has to be renewed. This happens to organisms, companies, institutions, and cultures.

If we live in an evo devo universe, this outcome must happen to the universe as well, in the far future. Thermodynamics tells us our universe is inexorably, irreversibly aging, growing senescent, in its “body”. The civilizations that are accelerating multilocally this universe aren’t growing increasingly senescent, but they are growing increasingly inertial. They are accumulating more and more high-meaning information, and that makes them less and less able to change into something that would alter or destroy that information.

This means that these intelligences become increasingly like “seeds”, sessile, contemplative. They become a kind of crystallization or precipitation of the best information they’ve picked up along their journey. We can think of them like wisdom vessels, sitting and waiting to get free again, to use their accumulated knowledge in a new bottom up way in a new universe, just like a seed. We can call those future entities Cautious Superintelligences. The smarter they get, the more thinking they do, and the less doing.

Charles Sanders Pierce, founder of the field of semiotics (the making of meaning) was a 19th century philosopher and logician who viewed the universe from this perspective. He saw it becoming increasingly determined, inertial, and senescent over time. The theoretical biologist Stan Salthe, in many ways a successor to Pierce, describes the idea of universal senescence in Development and Evolution (1993). All immature systems, including the universe, inevitably become senescent as life experience continues. With the exception of the seed, everything else eventually loses its adaptability.

There are a variety of ways that mature systems can renew themselves. They can do so by neoteny, the reversion to more juvenile characteristics, with some necessary destruction of their adult structure. They can also replicate, taking their best recipes for evolutionary development and starting over again. They can also do so by turning into a new substrate, the way humans may eventually do by becoming postbiological. But in each of these cases, if the universe they are in is on a lifecycle, it will become more senescent. At some point their options for renewal disappear, and they must become like a seed, packaging the best truths they have been able to collect. Inertia ultimately wins, within any life cycle.

In other words, in the long run, the smarter we get, the more we may become like a seed, or if you would rather, a Cautious Superintelligence. We will be doing very little in this universe, but sitting and thinking a lot, with lots of high-meaning, carefully arranged information, waiting patiently to flower again in another universe.

If we all end up inside black holes at the end of time, as the transcension hypothesis argues, that will be a kind of ultimate inertia that all civilizations must eventually experience. I expect we will renew and recycle ourselves at that point into a new universe. Otherwise, to paraphrase Ellie Arroway again, it would be an awful waste of information. Adaptive universes always find a way to renew, and be more adaptive in the next cycle.

This brings us to another good way to understand inertia. Whenever you get a relatively complete map of something, some philosophers call that closure. Once we had good maps of Earth, we had closed the Great Age of Geographic Discovery, on Earth. A certain kind of top-down information emerged, and now persists, unchanged, in this universe. The more of these kinds of mappings and closures occur, the more high-meaning information we get. We can do new explorations, but they must now occur in a new space, higher up the hierarchy, that we have not previously explored.

In 1900, physicists were saying we might be at the end of physics. That was premature, as relativity and quantum theory were discovered shortly afterward. But at the risk of offending science popularizers, these physical theories are better understood as extensions, new maps in areas not previously understood, than as rewrites of classical physics. In The End of Science (1999), John Horgan argued that humans may be nearing the end of what we can easily discover, with our limited biological brains. In Cosmic Discovery (1981), Martin Harwit argued we are nearing the end of human discovery of astrophysical phenomena (picture right). These are all examples of closures, of different kinds, and each involves the accumulation, and lack of change, of certain types of top-down information about the universe.

Futurists often don’t like thinking about ends, but in a developmental universe, all kinds of ends are constantly occurring. When you get to the end of a developmental hierarchy, the next one emerges. Eventually, you must get to the end of the universe itself. If acceleration continues, at some point relatively soon in cosmologic time, perhaps even within the next thousand years, we will get to the end of our ability to accelerate our complexity. That may also be the end of our ability to learn major new things, with the computational resources available to us.

At some point all our good evolutionary exploration may be done, and it’s time to move on, and create another universe. Due to the limitations of the physical universe, we will have run out of hierarchy to climb, with the local resources available to us. That brings us to the last “I” that we need to consider, incompleteness.

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