by James N. Gardner

from KurzweilAI Website


Excerpted from Biocosm, Inner Ocean Publishing, August 2003. Published on August 26, 2003.

James N. Gardner's Selfish Biocosm hypothesis proposes that the remarkable anthropic (life-friendly) qualities that our universe exhibits can be explained as incidental consequences of a cosmic replication cycle in which a cosmologically extended biosphere provides a means for the cosmos to produce one or more baby universes. The cosmos is "selfish" in the same sense that Richard Dawkins proposed that genes are focused on their own replication.


This book presents a new theory about the role of life and mind in shaping the origin and ultimate fate of the universe. In addition, it reflects on how that new theory might eventually influence religion, ethics, and our self-image as a species.

In important respects, my book is a riff on Charles Darwin's masterwork, The Origin of Species. Following Darwin's lead, I have endeavored to use the insights proffered by a wide range of gifted contemporary theorists—cosmologists, evolutionary biologists, computer scientists, and complexologists—to construct the foundation for a novel and somewhat startling synthesis. The essence of that synthesis is that life, mind, and the fate of the cosmos are intimately and indissolubly linked in a very special way.


To echo the insightful phrase of Princeton astrophysicist Freeman Dyson, it is my contention that,

"mind and intelligence are woven into the fabric of our universe in a way that altogether surpasses our comprehension."

The fundamental credo of science is that physical mysteries that presently elude human understanding will someday, if only in the far distant future, succumb to new explanatory paradigms that are capable of being either validated or discredited through falsifiable predictions.


(Falsifiability of claims, which is scientific shorthand for the empirical testability of new hypotheses and their implications, is the hallmark of genuine science, sharply demarcating it from other arenas of human thought and experience like religion, mysticism, and metaphysics.)


The basic claim of this book is that the oddly life-friendly character of the fundamental physical laws and constants that prevail in our universe can be explained as the predictable outcome of natural processes—specifically the evolution of life and intelligence over tens of billions of years.

The explanation that I shall put forward to elucidate the linkage between biological evolution and the ultimate fate of the cosmos—a new theory called the "Selfish Biocosm" hypothesis—has been developed in papers and essays published in peer-reviewed scientific journals like Complexity (the journal of the Santa Fe Institute, the leading center for the study of the new sciences of complexity), Acta Astronautica (the journal of the International Academy of Astronautics), and the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society.


These papers provide the foundation for a scientifically plausible version of the "strong anthropic principle"—the notion that the physical laws and constants of nature are cunningly structured in such a way as to coax the emergence of life and intelligence from inanimate matter.

The book is divided into six parts. The first part reviews the profound mysteries of an anthropic—or life-friendly—universe. Beginning with ancient Greek philosophy, continuing on through Renaissance thought, and concluding with contemporary speculations by a leading complexity theorist about a mysterious antichaotic force in nature, this section provides the foundation for theoretical speculations about possible reasons why the universe is life-friendly.

The second part of the book plunges deeper into the anthropic mystery and probes some of the novel ideas that contemporary scientists have advanced by way of explanation. These include the conjecture by a leading cosmologist that black holes are gateways to new universes.

The third part makes a risky foray into the dangerous territory that is the situs of the contemporary cultural war between ultraevolutionists and modern creationists, who call themselves "intelligent design theorists." In a proposed harmonization of these conflicting viewpoints, I suggest that the appearance of cosmic design could conceivably emerge from the operation of evolutionary forces operating at unexpectedly large scales.

The fourth part of the book puts forward my new Selfish Biocosm hypothesis: that the anthropic qualities that our universe exhibits can be explained as incidental consequences of an enormously lengthy cosmic replication cycle in which a cosmologically extended biosphere provides the means by which our cosmos duplicates itself and propagates one or more "baby universes."


The hypothesis suggests that the cosmos is "selfish" in the same metaphorical sense that evolutionary theorist and ultra-Darwinist Richard Dawkins proposed that genes are "selfish." Under my theory, the cosmos is "selfishly" focused upon the overarching objective of achieving its own replication. To use the terminology favored by economists, self-reproduction is the hypothesized "utility function" of the universe.

An implication of the Selfish Biocosm hypothesis is that the emergence of life and ever more accomplished forms of intelligence is inextricably linked to the physical birth, evolution, and reproduction of the cosmos. This section also provides a set of falsifiable implications by means of which the new hypothesis may be tested.

The fifth part of the book enters a more speculative realm by considering methods by which a sufficiently evolved form of intelligence might replicate the life-friendly physical laws and constants that prevail in our universe. In addition, it advances the idea that if the space-time continuum (i.e., our cosmos in its entirety) constitutes a closed loop linking one gateway of time (the Big Bang) to another (the Big Crunch), then our anthropic universe could conceivably, in the words of Princeton astrophysicist J. Richard Gott III, be its own mother.

The sixth and final section ponders the possible implications of the Selfish Biocosm hypothesis for fundamental evolutionary theory and for our self-image as a species. It also takes a brief look at possible religious and ethical implications of the hypothesis.

A major caveat is in order before we begin. This book is intentionally and forthrightly speculative. Following the example of Darwin, I have attempted to crudely frame a revolutionary explanatory paradigm well before all of the required building materials and construction tools are at hand. Darwin had not the slightest clue, for instance, that DNA is the molecular device used by all life-forms to accomplish the feat of what he called "inheritance."


Indeed, as cell biologist Kenneth R. Miller noted in Finding Darwin's God,

"Charles Darwin worked in almost total ignorance of the fields we now call genetics, cell biology, molecular biology, and biochemistry."

Nonetheless, Darwin managed to put forward a plausible theoretical framework that succeeded magnificently despite the fact that it was utterly dependent on hypothesized but completely unknown mechanisms of genetic transmission.

As Darwin's example shows, plausible and deliberate speculation plays an essential role in the advancement of science. Speculation is the means by which new paradigms are initially constructed, to be either abandoned later as wrong-headed detours or vindicated as the seeds of scientific revolution.

Scientific speculation plays another equally important role, which is to shine the harsh light of skepticism on accepted verities. As the brilliant and controversial Cornell physicist Thomas Gold put it,

new ideas in science are not right just because they are new. Nor are old ideas wrong just because they are old. A critical attitude is clearly required of every seeker of truth. But one must be equally critical of both the old ideas as of the new. Whenever the established ideas are accepted uncritically and conflicting new evidence is brushed aside or not even reported because it does not fit, that particular science is in deep trouble.

Science is an inherently conservative discipline, and iconoclastic ideas like those entertained by Gold (the existence of a deep hot biosphere far beneath the planet's surface as well as the nonbiological origin of natural gas and oil) are legitimately relegated to what Skeptic magazine publisher Michael Shermer calls the borderlands of science. But what must never be forgotten is that these dimly illuminated borderlands have frequently proven to be the breeding ground of revolutionary ideas.

Scientific revolutions differ profoundly in character from the normal practice of scientific investigation. Scientific historian Thomas Kuhn observed in his classic The Structure of Scientific Revolutions that normal science consists of puzzle solving within the framework provided by prevailing scientific paradigms (like Newtonian mechanics or Darwinian theory), which are themselves the fruit of earlier revolutions. Revolutionary science, by contrast, is a hazardous but utterly exhilarating process of creative destruction—the erection of fundamental new paradigms to supplant or supplement a foundational structure that has become hopelessly flawed.


As science popularizer James Gleick put it in Chaos: Making a New Science,

Then there are the revolutions. A new science arises out of one that has reached a dead end. Often a revolution has an interdisciplinary character—its central discoveries often come from people straying outside the normal bounds of their specialties. The problems that obsess these theorists are not recognized as legitimate lines of inquiry. Thesis proposals are turned down or articles are refused publication.


The theorists themselves are not sure whether they would recognize an answer if they saw one. They accept risk to their careers. A few freethinkers working alone, unable to explain where they are heading, afraid even to tell their colleagues what they are doing—that romantic image lies at the heart of Kuhn's scheme, and it has occurred in real life, time and time again.

The borderlands of science, in short, are the natural habitats of scientific revolutionaries—those free-spirited souls who cheerfully risk professional ridicule in return for the sublime privilege of attempting to pull one more veil from nature's deeply shrouded visage.

For me, the pathway to the particular scientific borderland that is the subject of this book has meandered through the novel intellectual landscape illuminated by the new sciences of complexity. These sciences, which explore phenomena like "emergence" (the generation of complicated phenomena such as consciousness from the interaction of relatively simple components like individual nerve cells), self-organization, and the operation of complex adaptive systems (like sets of coevolving species comprising a biosphere), have generated not only scholarly excitement but a rapidly rising level of popular interest.


The great appeal of these sciences is their inherently holistic quality, so different from the reductionist approach favored by practitioners of so-called hard physical sciences like physics and chemistry. These traditional sciences tend to foster a "silo" mentality that frowns on cross-disciplinary thinking. By contrast, scientists studying complexity deliberately seek out the recurrence of similar patterns of evolutionary development and emergence in a wide range of seemingly disconnected phenomena, from embryology to cultural evolution and from theoretical chemistry to the origin of life.

The key experimental tool utilized by complexologists is not physical measurement but computer simulation; the "experiments" of complexity scientists generally take place in what mathematician John Casti calls "would-be worlds" that exist only in the memory and logic chips of a computer.


As Casti puts it,

"With our newfound ability to create worlds for all occasions inside the computer, we can play myriad sorts of what-if games with genuine complex systems. No longer do we have to break the system into simpler subsystems or avoid experimentation completely because the experiments are too costly, too impractical, or just plain too dangerous."

The holistic philosophy embodied in the sciences of complexity is uniquely suited to the mission of the intellectual voyage on which we shall presently embark: to seek out and delineate, as precisely and exhaustively as possible, a specific theory concerning the linkage and "consilience" (in biologist Edward O. Wilson's resonant phrase) between the basic laws and constants governing the behavior of inanimate nature and the role of life and mind in the universe. As we shall see, the very fact that such consilience and linkage should exist is itself a profound ontological commentary.

Now, why am I—an attorney, a complexity theorist, and a science essayist—qualified to serve as your guide on this daunting journey to the outer limits of cosmological theory? In part because, as an attorney, I am trained to search for faint and elusive patterns of evidence that a layperson might overlook—including evidence that crosses traditional disciplinary lines demarcating the borders of disparate scientific fields.

I first began probing the mysteries of complexity theory in a scholarly paper that proposed an interpretation of the behavior of subnational geopolitical regions (like Flanders in Belgium and Catalonia in Spain) as the operation of complex adaptive systems. After this essay was published in Complexity, I turned my attention to another set of complex phenomena: the probable future co-evolution of "memes" (hypothetical units of cultural transmission) and genes in the context of the rapidly emerging technological capacity to engage in human germ-line genetic engineering. That essay—which is reproduced here in appendix 1—was likewise published in Complexity.

With that foundation in place, I decided to use the approach of complexity theory to probe an odd feature of cosmology that has intrigued me ever since I began studying philosophy and theoretical biology as an undergraduate at Yale: the strangely life-friendly quality of the physical laws and constants that prevail in our universe. As a lawyer, I was goaded by the sense that the patterns of evidence seemed to be pointing in a direction that most mainstream scientists were unwilling to explore.


As a student of philosophy and biology, I was convinced that issues of profound importance were being overlooked or deliberately shunned. And as a recent convert to the holistic philosophy represented by the sciences of complexity, I was becoming increasingly convinced that the pathway to genuine enlightenment about the import of an anthropic universe—a universe adapted to the needs of life just as thoroughly as life is adapted to the exigencies imposed by the universe—must surely pass through the strange and intriguing intellectual terrain revealed by these new sciences.

I explored that possibility in an essay published in Complexity entitled "The Selfish Biocosm: Complexity as Cosmology." I was privileged to have as the chief reviewer for this paper an individual who is one of the most distinguished theoretical cosmologists in the world. And I was equally privileged to have the services of a courageous editor—John Casti—who was willing to take a chance on a relatively unknown theorist advancing a radically new hypothesis about the intimate relationship of life and intelligence to fundamental cosmic forces and laws. That essay, of which this book is an expanded and augmented version, was my first attempt to crudely map out what is, for me at least, a singularly exciting new borderland of science.

Like a medieval European map maker piecing together the borders of an imagined America from travelers' tales and the misty recollections of ancient mariners, my role (at least as I perceive it) is not to serve as an explorer or experimentalist but rather to sketch the larger features of a vision of cosmic reality profoundly at odds with traditional wisdom. In medieval times, the orthodox view was that the surface of Earth was flat.


In the contemporary era, the prevailing scientific mindset is captured curtly and elegantly by Nobelist Steven Weinberg's pithy epigram that "the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless." It is my fervent hope that those who consider seriously the speculative exercise in intellectual cartography presented in this book will conclude that Weinberg's assertion may eventually prove to be as mistaken as the flat-Earth orthodoxy espoused with such strenuous but utterly misplaced confidence in a bygone age.

With that preface, I invite you to enter what I believe to be the least tamed and most challenging scientific borderland of all: current theorizing about the ultimate nature and destiny of the vast cosmos that envelops our tiny speck of Earth like an endless sea. Perhaps you will find in the speculative discourse that follows some useful nugget of fact or some momentary flash of insight that helps pierce, to at least a minuscule degree, the perplexing darkness that surrounds the outer ramparts of twenty-first-century cosmological science.


If so, I will have succeeded in communicating a faint echo of the sense of wonder and awe at the abiding mysteries of nature so perfectly captured by Isaac Newton three hundred years ago:

"I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay undiscovered before me."

Questions and Answers

from Biocosm Website

Question: What is the basic idea expressed in BIOCOSM?

The basic idea is that life and intelligence are the primary cosmic phenomena and that everything else—the constants of nature, the dimensionality of the universe, the origin of carbon and other elements in the hearts of giant supernovas, the pathway traced by biological evolution—is secondary and derivative. According to this theory, the emergence of life and intelligence are not meaningless accidents in a hostile, largely lifeless cosmos but at the very heart of the vast machinery of creation, cosmological evolution, and cosmic replication.

Question: How does that idea fit into current mainstream thinking about the nature of the universe?

We have entered an exciting era of precision cosmology. New tools like the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) are permitting scientists to study the universe and its origin with unprecedented clarity. While the experimental results are unambiguous, their implications are startling and disconcerting.


For instance, the WMAP measurements reveal that the cosmos is composed predominantly of a mysterious “dark energy” that acts like anti-gravity. The problem is that no one has the slightest clue about the nature of dark energy. Another problem is that the closer we examine the details of the natural laws and constants that govern the behavior of every object in the universe, the more it appears that those laws and constants have been mysteriously fine-tuned to be life-friendly. BIOCOSM attempts to unravel this particular mystery.

Question: What is the “hidden” role of the laws and constants of nature under the Selfish Biocosm hypothesis?

Under the hypothesis, the capacity of the universe to generate life and to evolve ever more capable intelligence is encoded as a hidden subtext to the basic laws and constants of nature, stitched like the finest embroidery into the very fabric of our universe. The oddly life-friendly laws of nature that prevail in our cosmos serve a function precisely equivalent to that of DNA in living creatures on Earth, providing a recipe for development of a living universe and a blueprint for the construction of offspring (so-called “baby universes”).

Question: How does your work on this hypothesis differ from that of scientists in more traditional settings?

My role, at least as I perceive it, is not to serve as an experimentalist or a number-cruncher but rather as a synthesizer of a host of emerging ideas now being advanced in a variety of seemingly unrelated scientific fields, including cosmology, astrobiology, M-theory, artificial life, and evolutionary theory. I have endeavored to extract key insights from these disparate disciplines in order to “connect the dots” and map out a plausible scientific explanation for the inexplicably life-friendly quality of the physical laws and constants that prevail in our universe—a dazzlingly improbable feature of the cosmos that poses, as Paul Davies says, “the biggest of the Big Questions.”


The very fact that I am an outsider from the viewpoint of the scientific establishment means that I am not captive to the paradigms and prejudices of a particular discipline. This is a weakness inasmuch as I lack the depth of expertise in cosmology possessed by traditional astrophysicists like Andrei Linde and Neil Turok.


But it is also a key advantage because, as a synthesizer and a scientific generalist, I was able to formulate a “crude look at the whole,” in the wonderful phrase of Nobel laureate Murray Gell-Mann. My approach also happens to coincide with the methodology of complexity theory, the field of science with which I am most comfortable and in which I have published.

Question: What do mainstream scientists think of BIOCOSM?

BIOCOSM has received lavish and outspoken praise from some of the top cosmologists, physicists, and mathematicians in the world, including UK Astronomer Royal Martin Rees, Paul Davies, John Casti, and Seth Shostak. Others have commented that the ideas advanced in the book are impermissibly speculative or impossible to verify. A few have hurled what scientists view as the ultimate epithet—that my theory constitutes “metaphysics” instead of genuine science! I beg to differ.

Question: What prominent thinkers have advanced ideas similar or related to those put forward in BIOCOSM?

UK Astronomer Royal Martin Rees; British astrophysicist John Barrow; physicists Freeman Dyson and John Wheeler; cosmologists Lee Smolin, Paul Davies, and Frank Tipler; evolutionary theorist and Nobel laureate Christian de Duve; evolutionary biologists Lynn Margulis, Harold Morowitz and Simon Conway Morris; complexity theorists Stuart Kauffman and Stephen Wolfram; French religious philosopher Teilhard de Chardin; popular science author Robert Wright; computer theorist Ray Kurzweil; and, to some degree, Stephen Hawking.

Question: How does BIOCOSM treat Darwin’s theory of evolution?

Under the “Selfish Biocosm” hypothesis articulated in BIOCOSM, the immense saga of biological evolution on Earth is a minor sub-routine in the inconceivably lengthy process through which the universe becomes increasingly pervaded with ever more intelligent life. Thus, BIOCOSM does not argue against Darwinism but seeks to place it in a cosmic context in which life and intelligence play a central role in the process of cosmogenesis. Put differently, the hypothesis reconceives the process of earthly phylogeny as a minuscule element of a vastly larger process of cosmic ontogeny.

Question: What are the religious implications of the hypothesis?

The hypothesis is inconsistent with traditional monotheistic notions of an unknowable supernatural Creator. Freeman Dyson has famously written that the idea of sufficiently evolved mind is indistinguishable from the mind of God. The Selfish Biocosm hypothesis takes Dyson’s assertion of equivalence one step further by suggesting that there is a discernible and comprehensible evolutionary ladder by means of which mortal minds will one day ascend into the intellectual stratosphere that will be the domain of superminds—what Dyson would call the realm of God.


To use Dyson’s terminology, the hypothesis implies that the mind of God is the natural culmination of the evolution of the mind of humans and other intelligent creatures throughout the universe, whose collective efforts conspire, admittedly without any deliberate intention, to effect a transformation of the cosmos from lifeless dust to vital, living matter capable of the ultimate feat of life-mediated cosmic reproduction.

Question: Is BIOCOSM really just a religious screed in disguise—a subtle form of creationism or “intelligent design” proselytizing like Michael Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box?

Definitely not. BIOCOSM is adamantly and consistently naturalistic in focus. The ideas that underlie the book—including the radical “Selfish Biocosm” hypothesis—were originally presented in prestigious peer-reviewed scientific journals (Complexity, Acta Astronautica, and the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society). Indeed, the prime objective of the book is to provide the framework for a scientifically plausible and testable formulation of the strong anthropic principle—the notion that life and intelligence have not emerged in a series of random accidents but are essentially hard-wired into the laws of nature and into a vast cycle of cosmic creation, evolution, death and rebirth.

Question: Are there immediate and long-term implications of your book?

I don’t have a crystal ball but this is what I hope. I hope that it will encourage more scientists (both professionals and amateurs) to think holistically about the challenge of deciphering what the late physicist Heinz Pagels called the cosmic code—the full suite of life-friendly laws and physical constants that prevail in our universe. I hope it will provoke students of science to recall, in the spirit of Newton, that our minuscule island of scientific knowledge is surrounded by a fathomless ocean of undiscovered truth.


And I hope that it will rekindle the sense of wonder at the achievements of science so perfectly captured by the great British innovator Michael Faraday when he summarily dismissed skepticism about his almost magical ability to summon up the genie of electricity simply by moving a magnet in a coil of wire.


As Faraday noted, “Nothing is too wonderful to be true if it be consistent with the laws of nature.”

Ideas and Implications

from Biocosm Website

  • BIOCOSM places the story of our origin and destiny in a cosmic context.

    What is humankind’s place in the universe? That fundamental question underlies both scientific inquiry and millennia of religious thought. The traditional answer of science is that life and human intelligence are of no cosmic consequence but merely the random outcome of the interplay of natural forces.


    Mainstream religions answer the same question in many different ways but most share the view that the mind of the Creator of the universe is ultimately inaccessible to mortal minds. BIOCOSM challenges both viewpoints and suggests that the emergence of life and mind is a cosmic imperative encoded in the basic laws of nature and, further, that highly evolved intelligence will eventually play the key role in reproducing the cosmos.

  • BIOCOSM provides the framework for a new style of final theory.

  • BIOCOSM suggests that in attempting to explain the linkage between life, intelligence, and the bio-friendly qualities of the cosmos, most mainstream scientists have, in essence, been peering through the wrong end of the telescope.


    The book asserts that life and intelligence are, in fact, the primary cosmological phenomena and that everything else—the constants of inanimate nature, the dimensionality of the universe, the origin of carbon and other elements in the hearts of giant supernovas, the pathway traced by biological evolution—is secondary and derivative. In the words of British Astronomer Royal Martin Rees, BIOCOSM embraces the proposition that “what we call the fundamental constants—the numbers that matter to physicists—may be secondary consequences of the final theory, rather than direct manifestations of its deepest and most fundamental level.”


    Rees’s insight yields a glimpse of a new kind of final theory that views the oddly bio-friendly qualities of our anthropic universe—a universe adapted to the peculiar needs of carbon-based living creatures just as thoroughly as those creatures are adapted to the physical exigencies of the universe—not as an irksome curiosity but rather as a vital set of clues pointing toward a radically new vision of the basic nature of the cosmos. BIOCOSM attempts to follow those clues to their logical conclusion.


  • BIOCOSM provides the foundation for a new set of ethical imperatives and insights.

    Science should not divorce itself from the ethical, legal, and social implications of new theories. BIOCOSM identifies three key ethical imperatives and insights that derive from the new cosmological theory articulated in the book:


    1. First, that humankind is ethically obliged to safeguard the welfare of future generations.

    2. Second, that a spirit of species-neutral altruism should inform our interactions with other living creatures and with the environment we share.

    3. Third, that we and other living creatures throughout the cosmos are part of a vast, still undiscovered transterrestrial community of lives and intelligences spread across billions of galaxies and countless parsecs who are collectively engaged in a portentous mission of truly cosmic importance. Under the BIOCOSM vision, we share a common fate with that community—to help shape the future of the universe and transform it from a collection of lifeless atoms into a vast, transcendent mind.


    The inescapable implication of the Selfish Biocosm hypothesis is that the immense saga of biological evolution on Earth is one tiny chapter in an ageless tale of the struggle of the creative force of life against the disintegrative acid of entropy, of emergent order against encroaching chaos, and ultimately of the heroic power of mind against the brute intransigence of lifeless matter.


    Through the quality and character of our contribution to the progress of life and intelligence in this epic struggle, we shape not only our own lives and those of our immediate progeny but the lives and minds of every generation of living creatures down to the end of time.


    We thereby help to shape the ultimate fate of the cosmos itself.