TCS Daily

Selfish Baby Universes

By Kenneth Silber - August 11, 2003 12:00 AM

Has an Oregon lawyer discovered the secret of the universe?


This question arises in connection with a new book titled Biocosm, by James N. Gardner. Gardner presents an imaginative, even bizarre, speculation about life's role in the cosmos. Yet unlike some scientific outsiders, he has made impressive efforts to gain scientific credibility, by publishing in peer-reviewed journals and suggesting how his hypothesis can be tested.


Gardner's hypothesis is called the "Selfish Biocosm." It states that intelligent life plays a key role in a cosmological cycle whereby the universe, over enormous timescales, creates new copies of itself. The laws of physics, in this view, strongly favor the emergence of life and intelligence -- and indeed are designed to do so. However, this design is not of supernatural origin. Biocosm (Inner Ocean Publishing) carries the subtitle "The New Scientific Theory of Evolution: Intelligent Life is the Architect of the Universe."


The universe, in Gardner's telling, is "selfish" in the same metaphorical sense that genes are regarded as "selfish"; it is geared for self-replication. The Big Bang thus resulted from a Big Crunch in a previous universe. Our universe will end with a similar event, giving rise to one or more baby universes. Intelligent life arises in each universe, and eventually develops the ability to create new universes friendly to intelligent life.


But how did the cycle begin? Isn't there a gigantic chicken-and-egg problem? One might suppose the first universe containing intelligent life arose by accident, perhaps as part of an ensemble of universes that were mostly unfriendly to life. But Gardner regards this as an unsatisfying explanation. Rather, he proposes a notably strange idea. There may be a "closed timelike curve," a gravitational warping of space and time such that future events can influence the past. Thus, the universe may have been created by its own inhabitants!


Gardner is a former Oregon state senator and U.S. Supreme Court clerk. His legal training, he states, helps him trace patterns of evidence across the traditional boundaries of scientific disciplines. Some of his interests are at the intersection of science and politics. He first delved into scientific publishing with a scholarly paper on complexity theory and the behavior of subnational regions (such as the Pacific Northwest or Spain's Catalonia); he also heads an organization called the Conference of World Regions. Gardner has published on the Selfish Biocosm hypothesis in the scientific journals Complexity, Acta Astronautica, and the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society.


In Biocosm, Gardner acknowledges, quite appropriately, that his hypothesis is highly speculative. At times, he lapses into an unbecoming pretentiousness, for example asking readers to "savor" the radicalism of his ideas. Still, he puts a laudable emphasis on trying to make the hypothesis testable (or "falsifiable," as he puts it, using terminology developed by the philosopher of science Karl Popper).


For example, the detection of alien radio signals would support the Selfish Biocosm proposition that intelligence arises readily in the universe. So would studies of dolphins and other non-primate species showing strong language potential or convergent evolution toward intelligence. Similarly, the emergence of consciousness in artificial-life computer programs, or of superhuman intelligence through a combination of computing and bioengineering, would suggest that intelligence is a robust feature of the universe.


Gardner also notes that the Selfish Biocosm jibes well with a recent idea in cosmology, the "ekpyrotic cyclic" scenario, which involves repeated creations and destructions of the universe. However, as he acknowledges, the ekpyrotic scenario has come under growing criticism from cosmologists. In any event, despite Gardner's efforts, a definitive test for his hypothesis is elusive. Intelligence could be widespread in the universe even if the Selfish Biocosm is false; or, intelligence might be rare but still ultimately robust enough for the cosmological task Gardner assigns to it. Similarly, Gardner's basic idea and the ekpyrotic cosmology are compatible but not strictly dependent on each other.


Nonetheless, Gardner has produced an intriguing speculation, one that adds a new wrinkle to the debate over whether the universe shows signs of design. If Gardner is right, moreover, there are additional questions worth asking. For instance, do the intelligent beings in a Selfish Biocosm universe have any choice about whether to create new universes? Or do the laws of physics compel them to facilitate such replication? If there is a closed timelike curve, does that mean the course of events is precisely predetermined?


And if there is a choice, will there be some kind of debate billions of years from now among competing superintelligent factions as to whether to go through with the Big Crunch project? Will environmentalist robots argue that it shouldn't be done? Will Tech Central Station be covering events, edited by a huge brain at the center of the galaxy?


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