The Living Principle

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What is life, according to science? An open thermodynamic system that is capable of reproduction. Accurate, but misleading. In this perspective man is a purely material beast, born to suffer and die in the void with no purpose. I propose an alternate model that takes into account the forces that gave, and continue to give, rise to life. Life may not have a fixed meaning, but progress has a definite form.

What was the first life? I hold that it was the union of two elementary processes. First, an explosion of chemical diversity. As the number of unique chemical species increases in a bath, the chances of one chemical finding another one with which it can interact also rises: new products create the materials and processes to make in turn other new products. At some point, we pass a critical diversity value which causes the system to explode into a comprehensive stable of molecular tools. Second, some portion of this chemistry was individuated by the first cell wall. Next, look at what we see in the fossil record, with the pattern of punctuated equilibrium. Evolution does not occur at a constant rate. First, we have an explosion of diversity as living creatures create opportunities for new creatures, then a long period of stability and more mild selection, and then a mass extinction that specifies only a handful of forms, much as the original cell wall specified only a small subset of the active chemistry. With each completion of the proliferation-selection cycle, life has accumulated adaptations like sexual reproduction, body plans, nervous systems, and increasingly complicated brains. Durable progress. Life as the union of the proliferating and selective processes.

Let’s look at what comes out of those brains, with technology. It follows a similar pattern. A new technology is discovered, and a number of different forms proliferate as the new technology mixes with existing ideas; as it matures, a handful of implementations win out, before the whole system is brought down by an ecosystem shift, and the durable portion of the technology’s particulars endures. Over and over we see this pattern. We can even simulate this in abstract, computational environments as in Kauffman’s At Home in the Universe. It seems to me to be an inevitable result of sufficiently complicated regulatory networks. We could also speak of how this process is manifested culturally, artistically, and politically with the philosophical concepts of the Apollonian and Dionysian, which I believe come out of these two elementary forces.

This is why, for me, design thinking represents a durable methodology. It makes explicit the proliferation of ideas in a low-selection environment, and then, separately, the selection of ideas according to probable fitness. This is part of why it works as an innovative process.

So for me, the meaning of life is to go through as many honest cycles of this process as I can. With each cycle, I can incorporate better neurological adaptations that work for me, and to let go of the ones that no longer serve me. This belief allows me to both fearlessly let go of preconceptions, to mix freely and proliferate ideas, and then to just as boldly select and test these new ways of being. My greatest wish for society is that we all get an appreciation for this underlying structure of life — most of the suffering we saw in the 20th century was from ideologues overly-committed to one or the other force, resulting inevitably in massive death tolls as we came unglued from the balance at the heart of life. I hope we can see each other as necessary to true progress, that we each have our role to play in this cycle, and that we would not be complete without the other. My secret hope is to reform dialectical materialism in academia with a more complete dialectic founded on the forces that actually give rise to life and durable progress. I would see a new critical theory based not on economic and racial differences, but on how well cultural constructs incorporate the proliferating and selective forces in one being. I firmly believe this is the only thing that can create the resilient and just world we all desire.