One of the slow-burning realizations we keep stumbling face-first into is that our beloved tendency to compartmentalize the world may be effective on some fronts, but it obscures us from seeing the bigger pictures at play.
To see these bigger pictures — we’re starting to realize — requires an approach that’s not fragmented into individualized disciplines of study.
Cosmologists become engrained in their own perceptions of reality; as do physicists in their own dimensions and as do mathematicians in their own equations. Philosophers follow about like vultures that nip at the decaying flesh of this approach, forcing progression in a system of inquiry that’s overly-prone to rigidity and convenience, often resistant to change.
But every once in a while, we begin to see the tremendous effect of unification. It’s something that can often be felt between the lines of inquiry that we weave around the mysteries that underpin the fabrics of our reality.
From these unified fronts we can glimpse a truer kind of knowledge, either via tantalizing common denominators that offer irresistible validations or the explanation of various anomalies that are otherwise ignored for their rogue inconvenience.
And one such front, a panoptic and versatile assembly of specialized perspectives, has recently coalesced into an investigative team that has authored a pivotal paper with a groundbreaking theory.
Modestly titled On the roles of function and selection in evolving systems, the authors suggest “that all evolving systems — including but not limited to life — are composed of diverse components that can combine into configurational states that are then selected for or against based on function.”
In essence, they’re proposing something of a fundamental explanation — a law — that underpins the evolution of, well, everything.
“Accordingly, we propose a “law of increasing functional information”: The functional information of a system will increase (i.e., the system will evolve) if many different configurations of the system undergo selection for one or more functions.”
Where this begins to really take off is in the reverberations that it may have on just about every singular discipline of study. Whereas Darwinian theory has transformed the way we view biology, this theory may similarly impress upon the very way we view the evolution of any given system within our knowable universe.
Below is part of an interview with one of the leading authors — astrobiologist Dr. Michael Wong.
Stay tuned, as there are many more insights to be gained from the co-authors, including Robert Hazen and Carol Cleland.
Woronko: As we refine our instruments of observation, both on microcosmic and macrocosmic scales, what do you anticipate we’ll find that will help bolster your theory all the more?
Wong: One of the main messages from our theory is the idea that evolution is not specific to biology. Obviously Darwinian evolution is a shining example of evolution and perhaps one of the most open-ended forms of evolution, nonetheless, we see evolution in physical and chemical systems, and so the more examples that we can really point to, and especially the more examples that we can quantify this evolution happening in, the better.
In the paper, we go through a couple of examples.
Woronko: Titan is an interesting one…
Wong: Titan, exactly, so that’s the piece of the puzzle that Jonathan Lunine really brought in — that was a major contribution from him… [and] Robert Hazen has been studying mineral evolution for decades, using mineral complexity and information content.
Obviously we can rely on a huge swath of literature from biological evolution, and then cosmically speaking, thinking about nucleosynthesis in the way that atoms and isotopes and elements have grown and complexified over cosmic time.
I think there are so many other examples that we could potentially look into. One of the most exciting ones right now is artificial intelligence. This is an evolving system that we are responsible for kick starting and for helping to grow right now but it could easily spin off into its own thing. So trying to understand laws of information might help us reckon with what’s happening with AI.
And then of course there are all sorts of other natural sciences that I’m really interested in. Ecology, for instance, as the climate changes; as ecological functions change or maybe even cease to exist because certain networks in our biosphere degrade or are disrupted.
These are really pressing questions for the future of our planet and thinking in a functional sense may help us also, again, reckon with what we’re doing to the rest of the biosphere and our role in it.
I think drawing in numerous scientists from different disciplines beyond the core group we have now is essential for just understanding the implications of this theory and to help try to verify it by finding examples of it in systems both natural and synthetic.
Woronko: In a way, I guess, you’re identifying common-denominators through the inter-disciplinary approach and I think it serves so many different purposes, but the main one is that you have this kind of cross-validation occurring.
Wong: I think it’s really critical to try to figure out where this applies to and in our paper we run through this idea of conceptual equivalencies.
All natural laws are built on conceptual equivalencies, which tie a bunch of ostensibly disparate systems together. They all kind of obey, or are governed by or at least described by, some kind of law.
For Newton, it didn’t matter if it was an apple falling from a tree or a planet going around the sun. It’s just one law and it’s because both of those objects have mass.
I think for us, we’re trying to identify conceptual equivalencies in complex evolving systems and that has to do with the fact that they’re composed of lots of diverse interacting components, a mechanism that can sample new configurations of those components and then finally this idea of selection for function that there are certain functions, fundamental sources of selection, that sort of favor certain functions over others, or favor the ability to do a function, like homeostasis and dynamic persistence.
Woronko: That would be the ‘selective pressures’ that you refer to in the paper?
Wong: Yeah exactly, selective pressures, so if you have those three things, no matter what you’re made of, it doesn’t matter what your building blocks are — if they are subatomic particles, if they are elements in the periodic table, if they’re molecules or if they’re cells or if they’re maybe even more macroscopic things too — as long as there’re a bunch of interacting components, they’re trying new configurations, and then there’s a selection pressure -- you’re going to get an evolving system.
Woronko: This is where the specialization on your team makes a lot of sense — there are so many things at play. The more we zoom in and the more we look out, the more we’ll find. It’s got to be overwhelming because you’re covering a lot of ground with this [theory] and the hardest part that I can envision is the balancing act between science and philosophy.
If you keep coming across common-denominators that naturally coalesce and reduce themselves to some kind of theory of everything, how will you handle that? Are you finding it hard to navigate the line bwteeen philosophy and science?
Wong: In terms of being a theory of everything, in a lot of things that I see in our natural world, I can identify this kind of natural law of complexity taking place. But I also think it’s not a theory of literally everything.
One thing that I’ve learned from our philosophy colleagues is the difference between one of these universal/fundamental laws and what they call ‘special science laws’ - so laws that have to do with certain emergent sectors of the universe.
For instance, Mendel's laws of genetics are laws of biology, but they only apply to a very tiny corner of the universe, which is biology as we know it here on earth. You can think of the laws of fluid dynamics — those are laws, but they only apply to when you have this macroscopic consortium of tiny particles that move together. Similarly, our natural law (that we’re proposing) is a bounded law. It is a law that is bounded by those three essential conceptual equivalences.
If you don’t have a diverse array of interacting components and if those components don’t combine into new configurations, and if there are no selection pressures, then you’re not going to have an evolving system.
Our law applies only to when all three of those things get checked. And then you can say something about the complexity and the functionality and the evolution of that system; if one of those things isn’t there, the law doesn’t apply. Just like Newton’s law of gravity doesn’t apply to something doesn’t have mass — it doesn’t apply to a photon, for instance.
That’s something that I want to stress — in some of the news pegs that I’ve seen, people are like “it’s like a universal theory of everything” and I’m like “well it’s a theory of a lot of things, but not everything”.
Woronko: There’ll be certain junctures where you can exit towards a theory of everything and it would be tempting to do so but, at the same time, logic would demand that it’s too good to be true — to stumble upon something like that.
But then you have these more effervescent incidents where you want to attribute or personify the universe with something like curiosity. Curiosity seems inherent in every system — to what degree can you humanize that? I once spoke with professor Brian Swimme who has developed this theory of creativity inherent in the universe — that creativity is interwoven through everything. You can look at it one of two ways: you can apply a conscious element to it or you can just apply that evolutionary perspective where all systems creatively become more complex.
On that point of curiosity, your paper discusses art, literature, music, games — for us, it’s easy to delineate that; but when you look at other systems, it’s interesting to see the overlay with physics and thermodynamics. I just assume that quantum physics throws everything for a loop — have you had a hard time with the quantum world or has it been more favorable for your theory?
Wong: Lot’s of great things to respond to here. Let me talk about the creativity and the curiosity real briefly. The creativity — we’re basically trying to come up with an explanatory framework for why we see this richness all around. When we look through telescopes like JWST, why is there all this stuff? This kind of creativity inherent in the universe — we call that novelty generation.
And then in terms of curiosity, I think that has to do with information processing and this idea that you can try to generate and experiment with new configurations and the best way to learn is to just try to make lots of mistakes — generate a bunch of possibilities and then see which ones get selected forward.
That’s kind of like the way evolution in terms of biology — just sample different kinds of configurations and then see what happens.
I think of our curiosity and our creativity almost the same way — I can think of a bunch of different scenarios and then I can run through my mind “oh maybe that way will work but if I do this it’s not going to be as great” - just trial and error. Trying to get that informational feedback between yourself, your behaviour and the environment.
Okay, now, the quantum realm. Really fascinating question.
We don’t have a quantum physicist on the team yet and that’s something that we definitely want to branch into. One of those other fields we want to wrap into all of this.
Woronko: And there are so many sub fields to consider too..
Wong: Yeah absolutely. So the way we phrased a lot of this shielded us from the quantum realm because we talked about macroscopic laws of physics, things that describe what we see in our daily lives and we don’t really experience the quantum realm in our daily lives. It wasn’t just fancy word play where we’re like “oh if we say macroscopic then we don’t have to consider quantum mechanics” — I think there are actually really good reasons why you may not need to consider quantum mechanics, in that the laws of physics that we have in terms of ‘can you describe the way that a ball will roll down a hill?’ or ‘can you describe the way that a computer is going to work?’. You don’t actually need to take into account quantum indeterminacy or any sort of quantum effects to be able to describe the systems very well.
So it may be that when you get to systems that are large enough in which you would want to describe them using our law of functional information, you also don’t need to take into account quantum effects just like you don’t need to take in account quantum effects to understand how a baseball is going to arch through the air.
Woronko: It’ll be a difficult juncture to navigate through and I don’t know if one, two or ten specialists will be enough.
In terms of the distribution of the theory, what do you think will be the most difficult hill to climb? One thing I can forsee is that if we start applying the process of evolution and increasing complexity not to just biological life but to abiotic life, that’s one example where public opinion can have a hard time grasping things, but what other elements do you feel may be difficult to try and convey with the theory?
Wong: Some of the fiercest feedback and rebuttals against us so far have come from the evolutionary biologists. A lot of them seem to think that you just can’t speak about evolution beyond biology.
Evolution, that is the defining aspect of biology. Why would you ever talk about mineral evolution or planetary evolution or chemical evolution? I just disagree with that. I think that there are forces of evolution that occur in chemical and physical systems as well and there may be an over-arching framework like the one that we’ve proposed that can include all of these different systems.
We’re not saying Darwinian evolution is wrong. It’s absolutely not wrong. And some people get scared that we’re trying to say that. I guess the evolutionary biologists are coming from a view where they’ve probably had to defend Darwinian evolution against creationists..
Woronko: They’re naturally defensive in a way — you can make a joke out of that.
Wong: Yeah exactly. So they feel very defensive about their ideas of Darwinian evolution because they’ve defended against attacks from all sorts of sides, and now we’re saying "let’s expand the boundaries of evolution even more". Because they have this defensive mindset, I don’t know, I don’t want to speak for them, I don’t know what goes through their minds but that’s just my guess as to what’s going on.
Hopefully one day we can have actual dialogue and we can converse with them and explain what we’re thinking about, and they can explain to us what their hesitations are, and we can come to some kind of agreement over things. Maybe it’s just a misinterpretation of the idea.
Woronko: It’s bound to happen that there’ll inevitably be some kind of discourse. There’s this rigidity to academia, and you need discourse like you need night and day — one part of it naturally resists novelty because it clings to that existing paradigm or set of paradigms and the other part has to be the disruptive force.
Right now, I assume that you and your team are the enterprise of disruption and it’ll come with a lot of friction going forward but do you feel like the academic climate is ready to adopt this understanding or do you envision that it’ll be a few generations before it’s accepted?
Wong: I’m looking forward to the ride. I’m looking forward to the response. The response so far has been largely positive. It has also been cool to see the publics response, see all the news articles about how the general public is processing this proposed law.
In terms of being the pioneers, in a way, Carol Cleland — one of our philosophers on the paper — says she likes to be a trouble-maker. She was the second author on the paper and she’s big into something that she’s been talking about in terms of anomalies. She’s trying to tell scientists “Hey, when you find an anomaly, it’s not necessary just an outlier, you can’t necessarily just disregard it”.
Like you said, scientists like to cling to previous paradigms and when they see an outlier they think “oh that’s just an outlier, it doesn’t mean anything”, but what Carol is saying is that science advances by finding those outliers and understanding that they’re true anomalies and that they will actually change our fundamental theories of the way things work.
The transition to a Newtonian paradigm, to an Einsteinian paradigm of space time and gravity — that required building up a whole bunch of anomalies.
Don’t just assume that your current theoretical framework is the right one. You always have to be trying to update that. You need to recognize that the data will teach you how to update that but if you don’t listen to the data and you put too much faith in your old theory, your old theory’s just going to tell you that the new data is crap.
Woronko: Do you have an example of an anomaly within your work, whether one that you successfully converted into a fitting variable or one that you’re still trying to decipher?
Wong: If you took an old approach to evolution, which is the traditional “evolution occurs in biology and biology only”, seeing all these different examples of complexification in non-biological systems would have been an anomaly — something that begs to be explained by a grander theory.
So I think a lot of Bob's [Robert Hazen's] work on mineral evolution showing that the diversity and complexity and the information content of minerals on earth has just increased over time, over [the] geologic history of 4 billion years and especially with the feedbacks between how minerals generated and the dynamic processes of our earth like plate tectonics, and also the interplay between minerals and biology — that organisms can make new minerals. In fact, 50% of the mineral diversity on our planet can be attributed to life.
So this co-evolving system together, of life and the biosphere and the geosphere, makes you think: “wait a minute, we can’t just confine evolution to biology, we have to expand it”. You can almost look at mineral evolution as one of those anomalies in a traditional biological framework.
Woronko: One of the interesting things to see will be when you get into questions about life’s origins. The more you wade through the weeds on this topic, the more you’ll flirt with questions about how everything originated. Do you fear that it’ll get too big or out of control at some point or do you embrace the grandiosity that you’ll stumble into?
Wong: Well I hope it doesn’t get — no well, I hope it does get big enough that it can help us understand the origin of life. Because that is one of the biggest astrobiological questions that gets me out of bed in the morning. And so I think of the origin of life as one step in the evolution of a planetary system.
Somehow, in some way, organic molecules and inorganic molecules, just swirling together in some geological setting. Early earth generated the first living system and how did that happen? That probably happened through an evolutionary process. Not just any old evolutionary process but probably some kind of evolutionary leap where the selection pressures for something changed at the origin of life such that you’re no longer selecting for individual molecules persisting independently but actually molecules working together in some kind of dynamic system, because life as we know it is a dynamic system of all these different molecules playing together and reinforcing one another and keeping the entire system stable and able to resist perturbations but then also learning about its environment and being creative and curious.
So I view the origin of life as one of those points in the evolutionary history where certain factors changed significantly, and hopefully our theory of evolution can encompass that, and I think that would be so profoundly groundbreaking.
The authors have a steep hill to climb, chiseling away at paradigms as they swim against the mainstream currents of belief; any force of disruption to an established belief system bears the onus of satisfying a higher standard of proof.
But there appears to be no more suitable team than Wong et al., which continues to grow and evolve just as their proposed law itself seems to dictate.
Stay tuned for forthcoming interviews with the other co-authors of this paper.