Cosmic Information Transducers
On the meaning of life in its broadest sense
I recently started hearing about the work of the Russian polymath Vladimir Vernadsky. The guy was a brilliant scientist – he was the founder and first president of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences, so not exactly a fringe thinker in his time. Vernadsky took Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s concept of the noosphere and grounded it in his own deep appreciation of biological, geological, and chemical processes – which was a profound understanding indeed as he pretty much invented the field of biogeochemistry. His views seem to have gone far beyond the Gaia hypothesis, probably ultimately inspired by his writing, that was popularized well beyond his death, which merely posits that the biosphere achieves a high-level homeostatic equilibrium.
Full disclosure: I haven’t actually read Vernadsky, so everything that follows is just me riffing on what I’ve gathered from a few podcasts and blogs. I first heard of the man’s work from that brilliant lunatic Clif High (see for instance here), the conspirasphere’s bald old mountain wizard; while I take everything Clif says with an extra helping of salt, he’s consistently one of the Internet’s most interesting people. Matthew Ehret’s study group has also been getting into Vernadsky recently.
What the heck is life for?
I don’t mean that in the existential meaning-of-life sort of way, although maybe this will end up going there. I mean it in the much more specific sense of, what is the actual function of biological life?
Some would say that’s a meaningless question, like asking ‘what is a rock for’? Life doesn’t have a purpose, it just is, it’s just there, doing its thing. At one level that’s very true, more or less tautologically and universally true. It’s also boring so I’ll just leave that line of thought there so I can play with more amusing toys.
A Darwinist would answer that the function of life is simply to reproduce itself. Life is a survival machine, optimized for replicating itself. Organisms are just elaborate biochemical machines built by ‘selfish genes’ for the purpose of making more selfish genes, and there’s nothing more to it than that. This poses a number of questions, for instance, if the whole purpose is replication, then surely life isn’t actually very good at this since, what with all the sexual recombination, mutation, and the ability of bacteria to rewrite their genes on the fly as the need arises, it doesn’t seem that life is actually very good at replicating itself at all since the same pattern is never precisely repeated. The whole process of evolution, by definition, requires that the pattern change in such a way as to become essentially unrecognizable over a long enough sequence of generations. Now, the Darwinist would say that organisms that have changed to get a leg up on the competition will crowd out the competition, and this certainly seems to be true, but again ... where’s the replication in this?
I had a go at this in a previous essay, where I cheekily suggested a theory of Natural Shitlection in which organisms are built by selfish poo with the goal of making more selfish poo. This was deliberately absurd but it made, I think, the point that Dawkins’ centering of the ‘selfish gene’ is a bit silly. It singles out one of the many things that organisms do, and somewhat arbitrarily says that’s the only function that really matters. Reproduction is a key part of the life-cycle of any organism, but it’s just one part of it ... and for most organisms, a very tiny part, occupying a minuscule fraction of its attention and activities. One can just as easily pick out some other part of the cycle, say that’s the whole point of it all, and construct an equally plausible narrative around it. From poo we came, to poo we return, and from poo we shall rise again. I meant that pretty much as a joke, but the more I think about it the more it seems it might be getting at something fundamental.
One of the core properties of life is metabolism. Organisms take in matter and energy, process it, use some part of it to maintain or to grow the pattern that comprises them, and excrete what is unnecessary or harmful. Stop the metabolism and death follows ... indeed that’s practically the biological definition of death. Organisms are sort of like standing waves of matter, energy, and information, requiring a constant flow to matter, energy, and information to exist. No flow, no organism.
In the Darwinian view, the presence of organic life on the Earth is more or less a happy accident. The Earth is just a ball of rock which, due to the right combination of surface temperature, gravity, atmospheric density, minerological contents, and surface water, together with some fortunate combination of organic chemicals early in its history, happens to have developed self-replicating molecules (which never actually really replicate but anyhow) which then spread across its surface like pond scum. It will exist for some few hundred million more years, mindlessly replicating itself, before ultimately being extinguished when conditions cease to be suitable. At the end, the Earth will return to being a lifeless rock, and its organic history will have been nothing but an interesting epiphenomon of complex chemistry, remembered by none, in a universe where ‘interesting’ has no meaning for the pitiless stars that gaze down have no ability to take interest in anything.
That bleak view emerges more or less directly from the framing of life as an elaborate construction of selfish replicators, which have spread for the simple reason that they’re good at replicating. But what about if we look at life from a more metabolic perspective? After all, unlike reproduction, metabolism is something that life is always, must be continuously, doing.
Metabolism is essentially just the reprocessing of matter and energy. Ultimately, everything that happens on the Earth is a consequence of cosmic energies. On a day to day basis, most of this comes from the Sun in the form of solar radiation, some very tiny fraction of which gets intercepted by the Earth’s surface. Some of it is temporarily absorbed by the atmosphere, land, and water, driving weather, which in turn changes the surface by erosion. Most of that energy is reflected back into the void. There’s also a small contribution from moonlight, reflected light from the other planets, starlight, the light from distant galaxies, and so on; but while it looks pretty that doesn’t play any significant energetic role.
Then there’s tectonic activity – continental drift, earthquakes, volcanoes. At first glance this looks like something the Earth produces itself, as it comes from the interior rather than from the heavens. The source of the Earth’s tectonic activity is in the latent heat emanating from the core. That heat ultimately derives from two sources. The first is from the gravitational potential energy of the giant molecular cloud from which the Earth formed – a structure spread out over light-years, condensed into something a few thousand kilometres in radius, with the gravitational potential energy converted into thermal energy. The second is from the decay of radioisotopes, principally uranium, potassium, and thorium, with which the Earth’s formative material was seeded thanks to the detonation of a nearby star, the vast energies unleashed by that supernova (themselves ultimately the result of the conversion of gravitational potential energy into thermal energy during the star’s collapse) having been required to produce those heavy elements in the first place.
The Earth is not a closed system. Everything that happens here ultimately has a cosmic origin.
Now, in the absence of life – if Earth were more like Mars, say– pretty much all of that energy would just get lost. Some very small fraction of it would go into reshaping the geology, shifting the sands around, eroding the mountains, and so on, but the bulk of it would either be reflected or radiated back to space.
With life, something rather remarkable happens.
Life intercepts those energies, and turns them into complex new patterns. Plants absorb the light of the Sun, pass it through the photosynthetic process, and convert that light into storable energy that they use to survive and grow. Herbivores eat the plants, converting that energy into new forms, which then gets converted again when herbivore flesh is consumed by carnivores, which then gets converted again by scavengers after the carnivores die. More or less the same thing happens with the chemosynthetic ecologies collected around volcanic vents in the ocean floor, or spread through the deep hot biosphere of the Earth’s crust. The ultimate source of energy in the Earth’s crust is cosmic, thus, the life that resides there is also reprocessing cosmic energy.
The cosmic energies intercepted by life don’t just get transformed; they get trapped, or at least delayed. A photon that hits a chlorophyll molecule results in a tiny bit of energy that enters that biosphere, and persists within it for a much longer time than that same energy would persist in the lithosphere, the hydrosphere, the atmosphere, the ionosphere, or the magnetosphere if it just got reflected or temporarily absorbed and radiated away. The energy doesn’t stick around forever: life is a flow, and one way or another, that energy must return to whence it came. But it spends quite a bit more time working its way through the biosphere than it would otherwise. The longer that energy persists inside the system, the more transformations it can go through, and the more it can be used to alter the system itself.
From this perspective, life, while it may indeed be a thin layer of chemicals coating the planet, has the effect of increasing the planet’s ability to utilize the available energy: grabbing more of what comes its way, and putting it to use. The evolutionary history of terrestrial life, its gradual spread and complexification, is a process by which two things happen, which both have the same result: first, the total biomass increases; second, the complexity of life itself increases; both of these result in the biosphere becoming capable of utilizing an increasing fraction of the available energy, which then results in that biologically reprocessed energy playing an ever-larger role in the development of the Earth.
As an aside, in this context the apparently competitive behaviour of life – given such a central role by Darwinian ideologues – takes on an entirely new meaning; at the level of the biosphere, competition for surival becomes essentially cooperation in the search for more efficient uses of energy. When the lion chases the gazelle, one of two things will happen: it catches and eats the gazelle, or it doesn’t. That outcome makes a big difference to the lion and the gazelle, but from the biospheric point of view, it’s irrelevant: the outcome merely determines which use of energy is most efficient. It’s in exactly the same way that the competition between two boxers in the ring is, at a higher level, a cooperative endeavor to find the best boxer. Seen in this way, with competition being a subset of cooperation, the collaborative nature of life becomes much less of a mystery; no need to get into debates about group selection and so on.
Energy, however, isn’t the end of the story. It’s certainly necessary: any far-from-equilibrium, open thermodynamic system requires free energy in order to sustain complex structures. But it also needs information.
In an important sense, energy and information are pretty much equivalent. At the basic level energy is transmitted by light: one atom emits a photon, losing energy, which is then absorbed by another, which gains energy. This is true even for apparently mechanical interactions: when one rock bumps into another, for instance, if you go down to the subatomic level, you’d see a bunch of atoms interacting by throwing photons back and forth at one another. Each atom is a positively charged nucleus comprised of protons and neutrons, surrounded by a cloud of negatively charged electrons; the first parts of the atoms to come into contact are their electron clouds; and when one electron approaches another, they exchange virtual photons that cause them to move apart.
When an atom absorbs a photon, it doesn’t just absorb energy; it absorbs information. Its internal state changes (one of its electrons jumps up an energy level), and a change in state is a change in information content. There’s no way to disentangle the two. Thus, light doesn’t just move energy around the universe: it’s how the universe moves around information. That’s at the heart of the measurement problem in quantum mechanics: the only way to perform a measurement is to add or remove some information from the system, but the moment you do that, you’ve changed the system, because changing the information content changes the energy. When energy and information are transmitted simultaneously by the same process, there’s no way around it.
Now, back to life. One of its most obvious features is that as time goes on, life has increased in complexity. It’s not a linear process – you’ve got your die-backs and mass extinctions, events that temporarily reduce the size of the system and wipe out the largest and most sophisticated life-forms – but broadly speaking it’s quite apparent. For billions of years, life was comprised entirely of single-celled organisms; initially prokaryotes, archaea and bacteria, followed by the more structurally differentiated eukaryotes. With the Cambrian explosion (or really, the Ediacaran explosion), cells figured out how to cooperate as cohesive organisms (no doubt after a great deal of experience cooperating in bacterial colonies, slime molds, and the like), with differentiated cell types adopting specialized roles in a cooperative cellular economy. Looking in the fossil record, we can see an early, chaotic exploration of a variety of bizarre body plans, which then settled on a smaller number of high-performing blueprints, which are then refined over time to adopt more efficient means of locomotion, protection, respiration, and so on and so forth. As time progresses, the capabilities of life also progress: initially, life moved around mainly by growing; later, it figured out how to crawl, then to swim and to walk, and then to fly.
That increase in biological complexity means that the biosphere isn’t just absorbing, processing, and retaining cosmic energies. It isn’t just a battery. It’s also a repository of information. Greater complexity implies more information, by definition. And where did that information come from? The same place the energy did, because it’s ultimately the same thing. It’s all cosmic.
The biosphere, then, is a vast repository of cosmic information. It functions to grab that information, hold onto it, store it within itself, and uses it to rearrange the structure of its environment. Keep in mind, this isn’t an additional process to the energetic process; at root, they’re the same thing. Energy and information are just two lenses through which we can view the same phenomenon, highlighting different aspects of it.
One of the many ways in which life has grown more complex is neurologically. So far as we know, nothing like the human brain existed ten million years ago. Look in the fossil record, and brain sizes (or more accurately, brain-to-body-mass ratios) increased steadily through geological time. Brains are essentially coordination and correlation engines – they’re optimized for absorbing, retaining, and reorganizing somatic and environmental information, then identifying the useful information, and providing that information to the rest of the organism. Since information is energy and vice-versa, brains are fantastically energetically expensive, which is no doubt one of the reasons why big brains took so long to evolve. They’re also incredibly valuable, because they enable an organism to collate vast amounts of information, and to do so much more rapidly than can be accomplished without them.
The development of language enabled different brains to pass information between one another much more effectively than they could before. This had several notable impacts. First, information could be transmitted over very large distances, which enabled large-scale social organization and continent-spanning trade networks (which, yes, existed even in paleolithic times). Second, it enabled cultural knowledge to be retained over very long stretches of time.
So, you’ve got life developing as a way of retaining and transforming cosmic energy and cosmic information. Brains develop as one way of doing that more efficiently. Language emerges as a natural extension of those functions. The noosphere – the envelope of thought represented by human societies, with our trade networks, information networks, libraries, schools, and so on – serves the same functional imperative as the biosphere. As time goes on, the general trend is for the Earth’s information content to increase, encoded within the increasingly elaborate, intricately baroque architecture of the biosphere. As the energy liberated, captured, stored, and utilized by life increases, the information content also increases; with both, the ability of life to rearrange the Earth increases, both in terms of the amount of the Earth that can be reorganized, and the subtlety with which it can be done so.
Life isn’t just feeding from the universe. It’s learning from it.
Or, looked at from another direction, Universe is teaching itself to life.
Universe is writing itself into the surface of the planet, leaving more and more of traces of itself behind as time goes on. You might think of life as a sort of symbolic representation of the cosmos ... a library, a tapestry, a symphony, that grows in majesty and subtlety as Universe impregnates ever more of itself into its artistic handiwork. The remarkable thing about this artistic project, however, isn’t just that it’s a profoundly beautiful act of creation; it’s that it’s an artwork which is itself capable of creation.
And that is what Life is for.
I suggested at the beginning of this piece that it might end up touching on the meaning of life in the more existential sense. If you think about it, that’s exactly what it does.
If you enjoyed this, you can come explore more of Barsoom any time you want, friend.
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That might seem weird to humans, who have evolved to mate more or less continuously, with our females having mutated specifically to hide every sign of fertility in order for sex to be repurposed from its primordial function of mingling gametes towards recreational emotional bonding, in the process of which the hominid mating season expanded from ‘one glorious week in spring’ to ‘you know, whenever.’ But look at it from the point of your typical fish, which spends most of its life swimming around and eating, and for whom sex consists of perfunctorily squirting some fluids into the water before swimming away again. Would a fish have come up with a theory of life that said that reproduction was the whole point of it all?
The more nihilistic minded might dispute the ‘happy’ part.
People usually assume a few billion, taking the life expectancy of the Sun and imagining that the Earth will be habitable until our star becomes a swollen red giant and eats us. This is actually much too optimistic. Most estimates are that the Earth will be rendered an uninhabitable airless desert long before then, due to a combination of slowing tectonic activity and the Sun’s gradually but inexorably increasing brightness.
The greatest trick the Barsoomians ever pulled was convincing terrestrials they don’t exist.
Fun fact: the total biomass of the intraterrestrial biosphere, comprised as far as we know (which ... isn’t very far) more or less entirely of chemosynthetic bacteria and archaea feeding off of the Earth’s minerals and powered by volcanic energy, and extending at least several kilometres below the surface, is at least comparable to the biomass of surface life, and may be much greater.
When you stop and think about it, you only really have one sense: vision. The other senses – whether touch, hearing, smell, or taste – ultimately come down to physical contact between external atoms and those currently residing in your body, and all of those interactions are at the most basic level an exchange of photons between electrons.
You’ve almost certainly heard of mass-energy equivalence, Einstein’s famous E=mc2, where E, m, and c are respectively energy, mass, and the speed of light. That’s actually incomplete: the full equation is E2 = (mc2)2 + (cp)2, where p is the momentum; its through the momentum of the full equation that the massless photon can carry energy. One consequence of this is that when an atom absorbs a photon (which has no mass), the atom’s mass actually increases a tiny bit, because absorbing the photon increased the atom’s energy. The atom has also had information added to it; it follows that the increase in information is accompanied by a tiny increase in mass.
Which are really the first multicellular organisms as eukaryotes are basically symbiotes comprised of larger cells encasing a multitude of mitochondria (in the case of animals) or chloroplasts (in the case of plants) living inside of them, with the mitochondria and chloroplasts being descended from bacteria, and still retaining their own independent genomes.
John, This is so profound I don't even know how to comment intelligently. They need to have a new Academy of Philosophy of Science and make you the founding member. Would be appropriately circular. Thanks for this. Will have to reread more-than-once, I expect, to get all the under-the-covers thinking.
The universe is expanding, and expanding, and expanding/Expanding at a million miles a day...
At your best, you're a poet in a lab coat. This is one of your best. Deeply satisfying essay.