The Riddle of Development and the Challenge to Cosmology


I wrote the following today for our EDU wiki page on Evolutionary Development. It explains how valuable and yet how neglected models of biological development are in our current cosmology, and what I think needs to happen for cosmology to develop a better understanding of universal change:

Proliferation, migration, and differentiation in embryonic development.

There is nothing in science more magnificent and more mysterious than biological development, including genetic, embryonic, organismic, and psychological development. How is it that developing organisms can reliably converge on far-future form and function (from the molecular perspective), under chaotic and variable environmental conditions, with just a handful of developmental genes? Development employs stochastic, contingent, and selectionist processes at the molecular and cellular levels in service to statistically deterministic, modular, hierarchical and cyclic emergent change, from embryo to organism, and from organism to reproduction, senescence, and death (recycling). Our mathematical models of development are incomplete today, but they continue to make progress. Our models of evolution, of random genetic reassortment and selection in populations, are much more advanced. Development also involves teleology, or the assumption of goal-driven, end-seeking behavior, including successful replication. For these and other reasons, most scientists have focused on the idea that our universe may be evolving, while ignoring the idea that it may also be developing. This oversight, more than any other, has motivated the creation of the EDU commmunity. The great challenge to cosmology today is to change this state of affairs, to learn from biology to better understand universal change.

Like living systems, our universe broadly exhibits both stochastic and deterministic components, in all historical epochs and at all levels of scale. It has a definite birth and it is inevitably senescing toward heat death. The idea that it is also engaging in replication, to preserve its internal complexity, is an obvious hypothesis. Yet very few cosmologists or physicists, even in the community that theorizes universal replication and the multiverse, has entertained the idea that our universe may be both evolving and developing (engaging in goal-driven, teleological, directional change and a replicative life cycle). There is a reasonable frequency of discussion, in the cosmology and astrophysics literature, of the idea of universal evolution. But none of it takes an evo devo approach. We find plenty of random, Monte Carlo models of change, applied to our universe’s initial conditions (eg. various chaotic inflationary universe-multiverse models), but no models in which adaptive complexity emerges via evolutionary development in replicating universes in the multiverse, just as it does in all living replicators, and in several nonliving ones, such as hierarchical prebiotic chemistries on the path to RNA, and hierarchical populations of increasingly chemically complex stars. Even our best current models of universal replication, like Lee Smolin’s cosmological natural selection, do not yet use the concept of universal development, or refer to development literature. This must change.

Our current cosmological models are implicitly developmental, but do not yet use biologically-inspired models of cosmic evolution, development, and replication.

Organisms are evolutionary, and most of their genes recombine and change to generate diversity, but they are also developmental. Their handful of developmental genes generally can’t change, without destruction of the organism. These genes have become very finely tuned, over many past replications, for the production of complexity and life cycle, just as a handful of our universe’s fundamental parameters are breathtakingly finely tuned, in their mathematical values, for producing stable, long-lived, complex universes. Just as we observe in all living systems, the most parsimonious explanation for this incredible developmental fine tuning is a history of past universal replication, and an adaptive value for the intelligence that exists within our universe. Yet at present, the courageous scientists exploring the fine-tuned universe problem presently do not use the phrase “universal development.” Instead, we find fine-tuning research disproportionately dominated by intelligent design creationists championing the idea of fine-tuning as “evidence for God”. Perhaps as a result, the field remains professionally controversial for orthodox science, and a minority of astrophysicists even try to argue that fine-tuning doesn’t exist. But it does. It is baked into our standard model of physics and our best current cosmological models, just as it is in our models of biological development. The hypothesis of universal evolutionary development offers a fully naturalistic explanation for fine-tuning, and it deserves to be carefully investigated.

The primary bias that exists in our cosmological models today is not observer selection bias, which is real but overrated. The primary bias at present is our failure to consider the concept of universal development, the idea that our universe’s special initial conditions and stunning internal complexity are likely self-organized, via evolutionary development, just as our initial conditions and complexity have self-organized in all living systems. If our universe is a replicator, then evo devo self-organization is the most parsimonious explanation for the surprising levels of fine-tuning, massive parallelism, and fitness for life we find in our universe, not randomness alone, and not “design.” See the fine-tuned universe hypothesis – evidence for ED on our Evolutionary Development wiki page for further discussion.

Our leading scientific theories of universal change are presently missing the concept of evolutionary development—the best model we presently know for managing complexity. For us to correct this oversight, cosmologists, astrophysicists, geochemists, astrobiologists, information theorists, philosophers, scholars of Big History and other scientists considering long-range universal change must improve their understanding of biological evolution, biological development and evo-devo biology, and consider how they may well apply to the universe as a complex system. So too must our scholars of long-range biological, social, and technological change consider how their theories and models may be improved by a better understanding of processes of universal evolution and universal development.

Do you find this a convincing argument? Feel free to comment, or send me your private feedback (johnsmart att accelerating dott org). I am reasonably hopeful that over time, we’ll come to understand our universe as a complex replicator, and in the process develop a much better understanding of our evolutionary and developmental purposes, and become better at the roles we each play in our families, organizations, and society in the grand scheme of universal complexification and adaptation.

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