The answer to the fermi paradox, why we are the chosen ones, and the meaning of life
A few life altering thoughts occurred to me recently following this epic thread on Kyle McDonald’s facebook wall about the simulation argument, the Fermi paradox and Sci-fi (thanks to all for the engaging discussion). Especially after the dialogue with Jamie Zigelbaum on Jeremy England’s hypothesis on Dissipation Driven Adaptive Organization, and having watched, re-watched, read and re-read England’s radical new hypothesis on the origins of life (video, article), a possible new answer to the Fermi Paradox dawned on me, as well as a new approach to the meaning of life.
First a little bit about England’s radical hypothesis.
According to England, life arising and evolving is a fundamental law of nature and “should be as unsurprising as rocks rolling downhill”. In fact he claims “You start with a random clump of atoms, and if you shine light on it for long enough, it should not be so surprising that you get a plant.”
You see, you could take the same atoms that make up you or me, and re-arrange them in a different way, so that it is not a living, breathing human, but just a lump of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen etc atoms. From a physics point of view, the one thing that living things do better than the same molecules re-arranged differently (i.e. not living), is that they capture energy from their environment and dissipate it as heat more efficiently.
From the article (emphasis is mine): “[England] has derived a mathematical formula that he believes explains this capacity. The formula, based on established physics, indicates that when a group of atoms is driven by an external source of energy (like the sun or chemical fuel) and surrounded by a heat bath (like the ocean or atmosphere), it will often gradually restructure itself in order to dissipate increasingly more energy. This could mean that under certain conditions, matter inexorably acquires the key physical attribute associated with life.”
England calls this phenomena “Dissipation-Driven Adaptive Organization” (I’ll refer to it as DDAO).
Interestingly, if I've understood correctly, this fundamental physical law might even supersede Darwinian evolution by natural selection. This doesn't mean that Darwinian evolution is wrong, it just means that it might be a special case of Dissipation-Driven Adaptive Organization. Perhaps a bit like how Einstein’s General Relativity superseded Newtonian mechanics. Newtonian mechanics still explains motion in non-relativistic conditions really well, and so we use it today for many situations. But General Relativity is a broader theory applying to the same conditions as Newtonian mechanics and more.
However, I don’t think Darwinian evolution is getting away that easily. From the article: “Natural selection doesn't explain certain characteristics,” says Ard Louis, a biophysicist at Oxford University “[they might find that] the reason that an organism shows characteristic X rather than Y may not be because X is more fit than Y, but because physical constraints make it easier for X to evolve than for Y to evolve.”.
It seems this hypothesis has a solid mathematical foundation, however some of the conclusions and extrapolations are a bit speculative at the moment. The following is my speculation on it (as a non-biologist, non-physicist, so read with caution), if I've understood the hypothesis correctly.
Darwinian evolution by natural selection has no foresight, it has no end goal. It meanders incrementally, selecting for the most successful traits in a population in an environment at that time. Tiny incremental mutations accumulate over thousands, millions, billions of generations. “Descent with modification” as Darwin put it. Simply a series of dynamic filters, nature killing off the weak and keeping the strong (I use the words ‘weak’ and ‘strong’ as how well the organisms are suited to the environment). Some species go extinct, some diverge (speciation), some even independently evolve same or similar features. But this evolution happens without there ever being a plan or destination for long-term goal.
However it seems that DDAO does have an end goal. “[a group of atoms will] gradually restructure itself in order to dissipate increasingly more energy”. DDAO wants to reorganize matter such that the new structure maximizes the increase of entropy.
We might even say this is the reason why life exists. The universe wants to have high entropy. It’s the inevitable direction the universe moves in, and the evolution of life is a fundamental natural mechanism that accelerates this process.
Thus the purpose of life seems to be to maximize entropy as quickly as possible, to bring the universe closer to thermodynamic equilibrium.
Furthermore, it seems that dissipation driven adaptive evolution should ultimately converge to create the most efficient energy dissipater. The perfect entropy maximizer.
Another way of saying “to maximize entropy” or “to bring the universe closer to thermodynamic equilibrium”, is to say “to spread concentrated matter and energy evenly across a much larger area”. So the most efficient entropy-maximizing-species, would ultimately be one that can take a whole planet, star, solar system, or even galaxy, and spread all of its matter and energy (along with itself most probably) evenly across the universe. You don’t need to be a nuclear physicist to realize that blowing stuff up fits into that description rather nicely.
Perhaps that’s the answer to the Fermi paradox?
The natural and inevitable consequence of any Dissipation Driven Evolutionary Apex is the Ultimate Annihilator.
Self-annihilation has been one of the proposed answers to the Fermi paradox for a while, but not as a natural consequence of the laws of nature. Now DDAO explains why this might be inevitable.
But having to re-evolve life from scratch to the level of perfect annihilator each time for every galaxy, star system etc. is probably an intense amount of effort for the universe. It’s not very efficient. An even more efficient maximizer of entropy would be one that manages to blow up planets, stars, solar systems, galaxies without wiping itself out. Instead, the same species would spread, destroy, spread, destroy, spread, destroy etc.
And perhaps that’s where we come in.
We've established that living matter maximizes entropy better than non-living matter. And it’s clear that some living organisms do this a lot better than other organisms.
Perhaps the most successful organism in this field (that we know of), is us humans. While all known other organisms are limited to their in-built biological processes to dissipate energy, us humans have gone beyond this and can build devices to extend our entropy-increasing abilities.
See, dolphins are very intelligent, and perhaps even creative, (actually this is now in question), but they don’t seem to be driven to spread, invade and conquer. They’re just happy chilling and riding waves. Likewise with the other great apes. They’re smart, they can build and use tools. They can be very territorial and aggressive, but they’re still limited by their biological capacity to spread and dissipate energy. They’re good at increasing entropy, but their capacity to do so is bounded by an upper limit.
Us humans however, have all the right traits to really maximize entropy on a massive, global — perhaps even unlimited — scale.
In an earlier article I’d claimed that Consciousness evolved as a way of coping with nature’s big data (i.e. modeling and interacting with other complex organisms). But given this new information and England’s hypothesis of dissipation driven adaptive organization, perhaps that’s not entirely accurate. Perhaps consciousness evolved to more efficiently maximize entropy.
I’ve always rejected anthropocentric human exceptionalism as proposed for example by the Abrahamic religions, that ‘we are a special species, created in His image’ with a special purpose in the universe. I’ve always believed that we’re essentially hairless primates, and due to the alignment of a number of environmental parameters, we evolved a larger than usual cerebral-cortex, that allowed us abstract thought etc.
But now I think that I might have been wrong, perhaps we are the chosen ones.
Over the centuries we’ve demonstrated our ability to spread ourselves across the planet, and adapt to and survive in all kinds of hostile environments. From deserts to arctic regions to the depths of the Mariana trench to the top of Everest, and even space, the moon, mars, and now beyond the end of the solar system.
Not only do we have this desire to spread ourselves and conquer all, we also have the talent of harnessing the power of nature to build excellent entropy maximizers. Devices that spread matter and energy evenly across vast spaces. Gun powder, nitroglycerin, dynamite, atom (fission) bombs, thermonuclear (hydrogen fusion) bombs etc.
I used to think that humans are inherently evil. I used to think that we’re parasites, infecting the earth. Now I realize that it’s just the second law of thermodynamics, and dissipation driven adaptive organization has made us this way. We could very well be The Chosen Ones, on the path to an evolutionary apex, destined to blow up the universe, and bring it closer to thermodynamic equilibrium.
If the purpose of Life is to bring the universe closer to thermodynamic equilibrium, by golly we humans are on the right track.