New Year’s Eve, 2015

December 31, 2015, on Logarithmic History corresponds to the whole year 2015 in the history of the universe.

So for this final post of 2015, are there any lessons from the history of life and the universe about how we should live?

Going straight. Darwin’s theory implies that some organisms are adapted, as a result of cumulative natural selection, to survive and reproduce, often at the expense of others. We’ve seen on Logarithmic History how much of evolution has been driven by evolutionary “arms races,” especially between predators and prey. And we’ve seen that group-against-group competition is arguably a major motor of human social evolution. It’s possible to draw a grim lesson from this: that we must embrace violent struggle and population replacement as our destiny. But there are more palatable options.

So here’s a different take: At the beginning of The Godfather, movie and book, Michael Corleone, the scion of a mafia family, is set on getting out of the bloody family business, and going straight. In the story, he fails, and is drawn back into a life of violence. The tragic arc makes for a great story, but there’s nothing inevitable about it. By analogy, every one of us is the product of a long evolutionary history including generous helpings of violence. But history is not destiny: there’s no reason we can’t get out of the old bloody business of our species, and go straight.

On the Nature of Things. The Roman poet Lucretius had a different theory of adaptation. He imagined creatures being assembled at random. Some happened to have harmonious combinations of parts and survived, others happened to have disharmonious combinations and aren’t around any more. This isn’t really survival of the fittest, more “survival of the viable.” Lucretius extracted an ethical lesson from this theory: since life is a lucky accident, one ought to enjoy the pleasures of this world (in moderation). Some theories of physics imply that the suitability of our universe for life is just a Lucretian accident. Our universe just happened to be one of the rare ones that allows intelligent life to evolve.

Theories of the Multiverse allow for wilder possibilities. According to many theories of inflationary cosmology, existing universes occasionally spontaneously bubble off brand new universes. But the formation of new universes might also be artificially induced. A sufficiently powerful particle accelerator (vastly beyond anything we’ve got now) might be able to start up a new universe with deliberately engineered physical properties. The new universe would be causally separate from our own. so there would be no material payoff to making a new universe, only a certain moral satisfaction. You can probably see where this is going: just as we might create new universes, so our universe might be an artificial creation. (Cosmologist Edward Harrison actually made this suggestion.) If this theory is true (and no, I’m not prepared to make a bet on it) then our existence actually has a larger Darwinian purpose: we are the gonads (actually juvenile gonads at this point) of the universe.

Regarding the principles that should govern the design of new universes, and in the spirit of New Year’s Eve, I repeat this quotation from the science fiction writer Jack Vance:

The waiter departed to fill the orders. He presently returned with four tankards, deftly served them around the table, then withdrew.

Maloof took up his tankard. “For want of a better toast, I salute the ten thousand generations of brewmasters who, through their unflagging genius, have in effect made this moment possible!”

“A noble toast,” cried Wingo. “Allow me to add an epilogue. At the last moments of the universe, with eternal darkness converging from all sides, surely someone will arise and cry out: ‘Hold back the end for a final moment, while I pay tribute to the gallant brewmasters who have provided us a pathway of golden glory down the fading corridors of time!’ And then, is it not possible that a bright gap will appear in the dark, through which the brewmasters are allowed to proceed, to build a finer universe?”

“It is as reasonable as any other conjecture,” said Schwatzendale. “But now.” The four saluted each other, tilted their tankards, and drank deep draughts.

Jack Vance Lurulu p. 181

This is the last post of the year on Logarithmic History. Sometime after midnight, Pacific Time, I’ll go back to the beginning, and start tweeting the Big Bang. Happy New Year!


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