Evo Devo Fine-Tuning: In Organisms and Universes
Recall our discussion of the physical and informational universe in Chapter 2. We’re now ready to explore a fascinating concept, the apparent fine-tuning of many of our universe’s physical and informational parameters for the production of complexity and life. Philosophers and physicists call this the fine-tuning problem. Roughly thirty fundamental parameters, most recently including the dark energy parameter, discovered in 1998, are not given in the standard model of physics. They are instead empirically discovered values or constants that we need to make our cosmological equations work. These parameters act like genes, or initial or boundary settings or conditions, which direct the evolutionary development of the universe in a very specific way. Many of these parameters, if changed even a small amount, would lead to universes devoid of complexity and life. We live on a Goldilocks Planet, in a Goldilocks Universe, where the physical conditions are just right for life, but if several of these conditions were changed even slightly, they wouldn’t be.
We’ve had a sense of the Goldilocks Nature of our planet for life since chemist Lawrence Henderson wrote The Fitness for Life (1913). Astronomer Fred Hoyle famously championed the fine-tuned universe in his book The Intelligent Universe (1984). One of his widely reported observations was that a particularly improbable resonance in quantum mechanics allowed the production of carbon, a key building block in universal complexity. Science writer John Gribbin and astronomer Martin Rees summarized the fine-tuned features in their book Cosmic Coincidences (1989). Many others have taken a crack at this problem since. Dark energy, discovered in 1998, is just the most recent of these improbable parameters, yet it is one of the most improbably fine tuned. If the dark energy constant was just a bit stronger, gravity wouldn’t have worked well enough in the early universe to form galaxies and planets.
So again, the genes of our universe appear to be incredibly finely tuned for the emergence of life, complexity, and yes, intelligence. Let’s look at this gene analogy a bit closer.
There are few things in our universe more astonishing, to the average person who thinks about it carefully, than that the fact that two genetically identical human twins are almost always incredibly similar in their systemic emergence patterns throughout their life cycle. How can this happen? This incredible similarity in the future specificity of form and function in identical twins extends even to many of their major personality attributes, especially if they are separated at birth and are thus unaware of each other’s existence while growing up, and thus have no “drive to differentiate” from each other, only from other people.
But up close, at the molecular and tissue scales, almost everything about the two twins has been built bottom-up in unique, stochastic, selectionist, competitive, evolutionary ways. Their fingerprints are different, even the way their brains are wired up are entirely different at the microarchitectural level.
More amazingly, less than 1,000 developmentally-associated genes (to a rough approximation) in each of those twins, in concert with isomorphic (the same everywhere) environmental attributes (physical laws and boundary conditions) determine all their systemic and emergence similarities throughout their life cycle, as long as they grow up in very roughly similar environments. What’s more, virtually no tinkering with those developmental genes is possible, or the organism won’t develop. That is what information theorists call extreme parametric fine-tuning. A small set of parameters are very finely tuned to produce adapted complexity.
The other 19,000 evolutionary-associated genes in human beings (as we are defining evolution in this chapter, see A Meta-Darwinian Model) can be recombined or changed much more easily, often without penalty, to create evolutionarily (phenotypically) unique offspring. Indeed, the variation, interaction, and selection (VIS) on those 95% of human genes is the primary way evolutionary experimentation occurs, and diversity grows.
In replicating organisms evolutionary genes self-organize to ensure variation and information production, and developmental genes self-organize to ensure convergence and information protection. Both of these kinds of self-organization are needed to maximize adaptation. What’s more, it is clear that these two kinds of self-organization often work against each other. Too much variation threatens convergence, and vice versa. Evolution and development are always kept in some kind of adaptive balance, via natural selection.
Now let’s consider cosmological fine tuning. Since the mid 20th century, cosmologists have noted that several of the fundamental parameters of the Standard Model of particle physics appear to be very sensitively tuned for the emergence of long-lived universes capable of supporting complex life. These are as finely tuned as the developmental genes we’ve just described. Very small changes in them will make dramatic changes in the kinds of universes that emerge, most of which would not support complexity and life, as best as we can tell from our simulations today.
There are many debates as to how these finely-tuned parameters may have emerged, but the most parsimonious proposal, in my perspective, involves the self-organization of those parameters over many prior universe replications. An evo devo universe, seeking to maximize adaptation, as with all other RVISC adaptive systems.
Unfortunately, most philosophers and cosmologists who have considered the universal fine-tuning problem have had no training in biology, and fewer still have any knowledge of the still-poorly- understood phenomenon of biological development. So the comparison between biological and cosmological fine-tuning that we have just drawn remains almost entirely absent from the scholarly literature, to my knowledge.
But I think this is a key analogy to further investigate, if only because biological development is the most miraculous thing we can point to in the known universe, save the very existence and curious life-fitness of our universe itself. What’s more, this “miracle” of development happens every day right in front of our eyes, so the informational and self-organizing aspects of fine-tuning in developmental genetics is very hard to deny, and must be much better understood in coming years.
The evo devo universe hypothesis argues that both natural selection and biological development offer a tractable and conceptually parsimonious model of fine-tuning in all replicating complex adaptive systems, whether they be living systems or universes. Natural selection, via both evolution and development, is the only known force that produces ordered, adaptive complexity in living systems. Development is the only known way that simple initial conditions (in life’s case) developmental genes) can produce predictably specific material and energetic forms and functions in future space and time. Given our knowledge that the universe is finite, had a particular time of birth, and is aging and dying, and that there are parts of our universe, like black holes and dark matter, that are conceptually at least partly outside our universe, is conceptually the most parsimonious explanation to assume that the complexity of the universe itself is a product of these processes, and that a multiverse exists. We don’t yet know what kind of multiverse it is, and many of our multiverse models are not yet directly testable, but I would argue that is set of ideas is a more reasonable and probable explanation of the universe than the idea that its complexity was a random product of randomly produced processes. That view seem seriously deficient, to be blunt. It also entirely ignores any role for observation, intelligence, and mind.
Scholars are often happy to talk about evolution (stochastic and selectionist recombination of parameters during replication, in our definition), but most remain unaware that evo-devo theory is now telling us that evolutionary process is just half the story of living systems. Development in living systems, or self-organized special initial and environmental conditions (genes and laws) that maintain a predictable life cycle, and hierarchy of future complexity emergence and replication, is a very precise way to understand fine-tuning of initial parameters in replicating complex systems.
An evo devo understanding of self-organization provides a rejoinder to theologian William Paley’s famous watchmaker argument, that only a God could have designed our planet’s breathtaking complexity. The evo devo model offers instead the curious example of replicative self-organization of complexity, observable a great variety of dissipative RVISC complex systems on multiple scales in our universe. It is a more human-useful model as well.
As much as some might find comfort in believing in a God who designed our universe, it is perhaps even more comforting and useful to believe, tentatively and conditionally, in a Universe with such incredible self-organizing and self-protecting features, as evidenced in the amazing history and abilities of evolutionary and developmental processes in living systems themselves. Evo devo processes have apparently created matter and, empathy, morality, and mind, and have been astonishingly resilient to generating complexity and intelligence at ever-accelerating rates. Big History, the science story of the universe so far, is sufficiently awe-inspiring, humbling, useful, and hopeful to give us guidance, once we place it in an evo devo frame.
Applying biology’s evo-devo model to the universe provides an intuitive, life-analogous, and conceptually parsimonious explanation for several nagging and otherwise improbable phenomena. Not only does it explain fine-tuning, it explains the presumed great fecundity of terrestrial planets and life (soon to be validated by astrobiology, in our prediction), when an evolution-only framework would lead us to predict a Rare Earth universe. As we’ll discuss when we turn to developmental immunity, an evo devo universe also explains the surprisingly life-protective and geohomeostatic nature of Earth’s environment, a poorly-understood phenomenon called the Gaia hypothesis. It also explains the unreasonably smooth and resilient nature of accelerating change and leading-edge complexification on Earth, the topic of Chapter 2.
Recall our discussion of Biocentric Bias in Chapter 2. We mentioned several future stories, like humans in space, genetic engineering, and biosuperlongevity, that we love to tell, because we are biological organisms. There is also a model of universal foresight, fittingly called the biocentric universe, which is another such example of biocentric bias. We will briefly mention it now.
The model’s author, physician and scholar Robert Lanza, observing the fine-tuned nature of the universe, proposes that our universe itself is, in its deepest nature, actually a mental construct of biological organisms. Lanza’s interesting book on this idea, Biocentrism (2010), is a version of the philosophical position of idealism, a view that claims reality is fundamentally mental, rather than both informational and physical, as we described it in Chapter 2.
The Enlightenment philosopher George Berkeley proposed the concept of idealism in 1709, and it’s a biocentric view that has never gained much traction outside of philosophy circles in the centuries since. Lanza argues that the observer principle in quantum mechanics legitimates this perspective again, but I don’t buy it. Just as the universe appears to be both evolutionary and developmental, it appears to be both mental and physical, not just one of these pairs of things. Understanding both of these pairs, reconciling information theory with physics, seems the top agenda for the future of universal foresight, and evo devo seems to me to be one small step toward that reconciliation.
How do we know the evo devo universe model is not itself just more biocentric bias? Are we simply looking at evo-devo, a powerful way of understanding biology, and unjustifiably extending it to the universe as well? As a systems theorist, I believe that there are a common set of rules describing complex adaptive systems. We will know for sure that the evo devo model is not biocentric bias when we can quantitatively and scientifically describe evo devo dynamics in all RVISC complex systems, not just in living beings. We can do so qualitatively today, as we will see in this chapter, but much more work will be needed to make the proof.
If this and our last chapter are roughly correct, concepts like information and physics, and evo and devo, are at or near the roots of adaptive complexity. Like replicating geophysical and chemical systems before it, biological life is just the most complex product we’ve yet seen from those more fundamental universal processes. If life goes postbiological, as it seems like it will, we will eventually see less and less biology, but always more evo and devo ahead.