by James N. Gardner
Biocosm, Inner Ocean
Publishing, August 2003. Published on KurzweilAI.net
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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."
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
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
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
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
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
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.”
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
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
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:
First, that humankind is
ethically obliged to safeguard the welfare of future
Second, that a spirit of
species-neutral altruism should inform our interactions
with other living creatures and with the environment we
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
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.