Cosmic Evolution. Source: Eric Chaisson

The great story of increasing structural complexity from atoms, stars, galaxies, planets, life, intelligence and civilization is often called “cosmic evolution”. This is a misleading phrase, as cosmic change is actually a story of evolutionary development, or “evo devo”. At the scale of the universe, complex structures emerge in much the same stochastic-yet-also-directional way that a multicellular organism develops. For a system to truly evolve, there needs to be reproduction with variation. Reproduction may happen to our universe eventually, if it is part of a larger environment that physicists call the multiverse. But within our universe itself, development is the most obvious cosmic process, when we view the universe over the largest scales of space and time. All cosmic evolution that occurs, both within local domains of our universe and over its future life cycles, is balanced by overarching and constraining processes of cosmic development.

An evo devo approach to cosmology thus proposes that both evolutionary (unpredictable, creative, experimental) and developmental (predictable, conservative, replicative) dynamics determine the origin, nature, and future of the universe as a complex system. Theories of universal replication, such as cosmological natural selection, allow us to define and test for physical and informational processes that are evolutionary (unpredictable, variational, experimental, and selective) and other processes that are developmental (predictable, predetermined, convergent, hierarchical, or elements of a universal life cycle).

Thermodynamics tells us our universe is aging, and will eventually die. Seeking to discover and better characterize its possible replicative processes, if they exist (Smolin 1999; Vaas 2002; Carr 2009), and to understand whether and how universal intelligence might aid in universal replication (Harrison 1995; Gardner 2000; Balázs 2002; Vidal 2014), in the same way that genetic and cultural intelligence aids in replication in biological systems, are natural avenues of research for a more evolution and development-aware cosmology.

In physics, examples of unpredictable and creative evolutionary cosmic processes include quantum mechanics and einselectionism (Zurek 2003), quantum cosmology, spontaneous symmetry breaking, and any process best described by nonlinear dynamics or deterministic chaos. In information and computation theory, evolutionary processes may include associative and selectionist networks (Hebbian learning, Hopfield and other neural networks), rapidly-growing diversity regimes (recombinant networks, ‘combinatorial explosions’), and any algorithmic regime subject to Rice’s theorem (undecidability).

By contrast, developmental physics (conservative, convergent, and far-future predictable dynamics) include its special initial and boundary conditions, laws of symmetry and conservation, thermodynamics, general relativity and black hole physics, classical physics, and the principle of least action. As complex systems move from thermodynamic equilibrium toward greater adaptiveness, their energy rate density, one measure of action efficiency, increases. From the emergence of the first large scale structure (protogalaxies) in our universe to today’s digital computers, a subset of complex systems have demonstrated superexponential growth in the energy rate density of their dynamical “metabolisms” and perhaps also in their adaptive intelligence (Chaisson 2002, Aunger 2007). Why this apparent developmental acceleration occurs is not yet clear.

Developmental information theory might include any fine-tuning of fundamental parameters for the emergence of computational complexity or adaptiveness. Likewise, physical limits to computation (Planck scale), and black hole information theory (Holographic principle, Bekenstein bound) would also seem to be part of the predictable developmental nature of information dynamics (“infodynamics”) (Salthe 1993). As our simulation capacity improves, we should be able to increasingly predict specific forms and functions of universal development, or “cosmic convergent evolution” (Flores Martinez 2014). 

Many topics in cosmology may benefit from both evolutionary and developmental models. Consider the fine-tuning problem (Rees 2001; Barrow 2007; Vidal 2014). The fundamental physical parameters, laws, and boundary conditions that give rise to predictable forms of cosmic complexity can be considered developmental parameters (Smolin 2004). We can make a direct analogy with the special subset of developmental genes in biological organisms, which are usually far more finely-tuned than other genes, disrupting the organism’s developed complexity with even small changes to their values. The remainder of cosmic parameters and laws may be considered evolutionary parameters. In general, such parameters are far more easily changed, producing phenotypic variety (both in organisms and in universes) but without disrupting somatic development.

astrobiologyThe self-organization of complex systems, and their periodic demonstration of hierarchical emergences, or “metasystem transitions” (Turchin 1977) also appears to be both a stochastic (evolutionary) and directional (developmental) process. Neither evolutionary nor developmental models alone seem sufficient to explain self-organization, the origin of life, and the origin of order in our universe. Both approaches seem critical to producing a more accurate and explanatory model of universal form and function.

The emerging field of astrobiology (Lunine 2004, King 2004) seeks to discover, among other things, which processes, including the origin and nature of life, are likely to be developmental (statistically highly probable or inevitable on all Earth-like planets) and which are likely to be contingent and unpredictably different, on all life supporting planets. The study of these two opposing sets of dynamics is presently the most advanced in evo devo biology, the second theme of the EDU blog and community.

Selected References

Contact Us

We're not around right now. But you can send us an email and we'll get back to you, asap.

Start typing and press Enter to search