Biocosm: Lecture at Hayden Planetarium

February 9, 2006

This is a transcript of a lecture originally delivered at Hayden Planetarium, as part of the "Distinguished Authors in Astronomy" lecture series. Reprinted on February 10, 2006.

It is, in the view of Columbia physicist Brian Greene, the deepest question in all of science. Renowned cosmologist Paul Davies agrees, calling it the biggest of the Big Questions.

And just what is this momentous question?

Not the mystery of life’s origin, though the profundity of that particular puzzle prompted Charles Darwin to remark that it was probably forever beyond the pale of human comprehension. A dog, Darwin commented famously, might as easily contemplate the mind of Newton.

Not the inscrutable manner in which consciousness emerges from the interaction and interconnection of neurons in the human skull, though a cascade of Nobel prizes will undoubtedly reward the teams of neuroscientists who achieve progress in understanding this phenomenon.

And not even the future course of biological and cultural evolution on planet Earth, though the great Darwinian river is surely carving a course that today’s most visionary evolutionary theorist will have difficulty even imagining.

No, the question is more profound, more fundamental, less tractable than any of these. It is this—why is the universe life-friendly?

Life-friendly, you might ask incredulously? The universe is life-friendly? The heck it is!

We have been taught since childhood that the universe is a horrifyingly hostile place. Violent black holes, planets and moons searing with unbearable heat or deep-frozen at temperatures that make Antarctica look tropical, and the vastness of interstellar space dooming us to perpetual physical isolation from our nearest starry neighbors—this is the depressing picture of the cosmos beyond Earth that dominates the popular imagination.

This vision is profoundly wrong at a fundamental level. As scientists are now beginning to realize to their astonishment, the truly amazing thing about our universe is how strangely and improbably life-friendly or anthropic it is. As Cambridge evolutionary biologist Simon Conway Morris puts it in his new book Life’s Solution, “On a cosmic scale, it is now widely appreciated that even trivial differences in the starting conditions [of the cosmos] would lead to an unrecognizable and uninhabitable universe.”

Simply put, if the Big Bang had detonated with slightly greater force, the cosmos would be essentially empty by now. If the primordial explosion had propelled the initial payload of cosmic raw materials outward with slightly lesser force, the universe would long ago have recollapsed in a Big Crunch. In neither case would human beings or other life forms have had time to evolve.

As Stephen Hawking asks, “Why is the universe so close to the dividing line between collapsing again and expanding indefinitely? In order to be as close as we are now, the rate of expansion early on had to be chosen fantastically accurately.”

It is not only the rate of cosmic expansion that appears to have been selected, with phenomenal precision, in order to render our universe fit for carbon-based life and the emergence of intelligence. A multitude of other factors are fine-tuned with fantastic exactitude to a degree that renders the cosmos almost spookily bio-friendly. Some of the universe’s life-friendly attributes include the odd proclivity of stellar nucleosynthesis—the process by which simple elements like hydrogen and helium are transmuted into heavier elements in the hearts of giant supernovae—to yield copious quantities of carbon, the chemical epicenter of life as we know it.

As British astronomer Fred Hoyle pointed out, in order for carbon to exist in the abundant quantities that we observe throughout the cosmos, the mechanism of stellar nucleosynthesis must be exquisitely fine-tuned in a very special way.

Yet another bio-friendly feature of the cosmos is the physical dimensionality of our universe: why are there just three extended dimensions of space rather one or two or even the ten spatial dimensions contemplated by M-theory? As has been known for more than a century, in any other dimensional setup, stable planetary orbits would be impossible and life would not have time to get started before planets skittered off into deep space or plunged into their suns.

For centuries, it seemed that the dimensionality of the universe—three dimensions of space plus one dimension of time—was a matter of axiomatic truth. Rather like the propositions of geometry. In fact, precisely like the propositions of geometry. That was before the birth of superstring theory, and its successor, M-theory. I am going to get into M-theory more deeply in a moment but for now I want to highlight its insistence on the fact that there are, in fact, ten dimensions of space and one dimension of time. The mystery is why only three of the spatial dimensions got inflated into cosmic proportions by the Big Bang while the remaining seven stayed inconceivably minuscule. If anything else had happened—if only two spatial dimensions had been inflated or if four had been inflated—then the universe would not have been set up to allow the emergence of life and mind as we know them.

Collectively, this stunning set of coincidences render the universe eerily fit for life and intelligence. And the coincidences are built into the fundamental fabric of our reality. As British Astronomer Royal Sir Martin Rees says, “There are deep connections between stars and atoms, between the cosmos and the microworld . . . . Our emergence and survival depend on very special ‘tuning’ of the cosmos.” Or, as the eminent Princeton physicist John Wheeler put it, “It is not only that man is adapted to the universe. The universe is adapted to man. Imagine a universe in which one or another of the fundamental dimensionless constants of physics is altered by a few percent one way or the other? Man could never come into being in such a universe.”

Scientists have been aware of this set of puzzles for decades and have given it name—the anthropic cosmological principle—but there is a new urgency to the quest for a plausible explanation because of two very recent discoveries—the first at nature’s largest scale and the second at its tiniest.

The first was the discovery of dark energy, which resulted from the observations of supernovae at extreme distances. Contrary to all expectations, the evidence showed that the expansion of the universe was speeding up, not slowing down. No one knows what is causing this phenomenon, although speculative explanations like leakage of gravity into extra unseen dimensions are beginning to show up in the scientific literature.

But for our purposes, what is particularly puzzling is why the strength of dark energy—which the new Wilkinson microwave probe has revealed to be the predominant constituent of our cosmos—is so vanishingly small, yet not quite zero. If it were even a tad stronger, you see, the universe would have been emptied long ago, scrubbed clean of stars and galaxies well before life and intelligence could evolve.

The second discovery occurred in the realm of M-theory, whose previous incarnation was known as superstring theory. Those of you who have read Brian Greene’s terrific book The Elegant Universe or watched the Nova series based on it will know that M-theory posits that subatomic particles like quarks, electrons and neutrinos are really just different modes of vibration of tiny one-dimensional strings of energy. But what is truly strange about M-theory is that it allows a vast landscape of possible vibration modes of superstrings, only a tiny fraction of which correspond to anything like the sub-atomic particle world we observe and that is described by what is known as the Standard Model of particle physics.

Just how big is this landscape of possible alternative models of particle physics allowed by M-theory? According to Stanford physicist and superstring pioneer Leonard Susskind, the mathematical landscape is horrifyingly gigantic, permitting 10500 power different and distinct environments, none of which appears to be mathematically favored, let alone foreordained by the theory. And in virtually none of those other mathematically permissible environments would matter and energy have possessed the qualities that are necessary for stars, galaxies and carbon-based living creatures to have emerged from the primordial chaos.

This is, as Susskind says, an intellectual cataclysm of the first magnitude because it seems to deprive our most promising new theory of fundamental physics—M-theory—of the power to uniquely predict the emergence of anything remotely resembling our universe. As Susskind puts it, the picture of the universe that is emerging from the deep mathematical recesses of M-theory is not an “elegant universe” at all! It’s a Rube Goldberg device, cobbled together by some unknown process in a supremely improbable manner that just happens to render the whole ensemble miraculously fit for life. In the words of University of California theoretical physicist Steve Giddings, “No longer can we follow the dream of discovering the unique equations that predict everything we see, and writing them on a single page.” Or a tee-shirt! “Predicting the constants of nature becomes a messy environmental problem. It has the complications of biology.” Note the key word Giddings uses—“biology”—because we will be coming back to it shortly.

This really is, as Brian Greene says, the deepest problem in all of science. It really is, as Paul Davies says, the biggest of the Big Questions: why is the universe life-friendly?

If we put to one side theological approaches to this ultimate issue, what rational pathways forward are on offer from the scientific community? I suggest that three basic approaches are available. Two are familiar while the third is radically novel.

The first approach is to continue searching patiently for a unique final theory—something that you really could write on your tee-shirt like E = mc2—which might yet, against the odds, emerge from M-theory or one of its competitors (like loop quantum gravity) aspiring to the status of a so-called “theory of everything.” This is the fond hope of virtually every professional theoretical physicist, including those who have been driven to desperation by the horrendously messy and complex landscape of theoretically possible M-theory-allowed universes that distresses Susskind and other superstring theorists. Perhaps the laws and constants of nature—an ensemble the late New York Academy of Sciences president and physicist Heinz Pagels dubbed the cosmic code—will, in the end, turn out to be uniquely specified by mathematics and thus subject to no conceivable variation. Perhaps the ultimate equations will someday slide out of the mind of a new colossus of physics as slickly and beautifully as E = mc2 emerged from Einstein’s brain. Perhaps, but that appears to be an increasingly unlikely prospect.

A second approach, born of desperation on the part of Susskind and others, is to overlay a refinement of Big Bang inflation theory called eternal chaotic inflation with an explanatory approach that has been traditionally reviled by most scientists which is known as the weak anthropic principle. The weak anthropic principle merely states in tautological fashion that since human observers inhabit this particular universe, it must perforce be life-friendly or it would not contain any observers resembling ourselves. Eternal chaotic inflation, invented by Russian-born physicist Andrei Linde, asserts that instead of just one Big Bang there are, always have been, and always will be, zillions of Big Bangs going off in inaccessible regions all the time. These Big Bangs create zillions of new universes constantly and the whole ensemble constitutes a multiverse.

Now here’s what happens when these two ideas—eternal chaotic inflation and the weak anthropic principle—are joined together. In each Big Bang, the laws, constants and the physical dimensionality of nature come out differently. In some, dark energy is stronger. In some, dark energy is weaker. In some, gravity is stronger. In some, gravity is weaker. This happens, according to M-theory-based cosmology, because the 10-dimensional physical shapes in which superstrings vibrate—known as Calabi-Yau shapes—evolve randomly and chaotically at the moment of each new Big Bang. The laws and constants of nature are constantly reshuffled by this process, like a cosmic deck of cards.

And here’s the crucial part. Once in a blue moon, this random process of eternal chaotic inflation will yield a winning hand, as judged from the perspective of whether a particular new universe is life-friendly. That outcome will be pure chance—one lucky roll of the dice in an unimaginably vast cosmic crap shoot with 10500 unfavorable outcomes for every winning turn.

Our universe was a big winner, of course, in the cosmic lottery. Our cosmos was dealt a royal flush. Here is how the eminent Nobel laureate Steve Weinberg explained this scenario in a New York Review of Books essay a couple of years ago: “The expanding cloud of billions of galaxies that we call the big bang may be just one fragment of a much larger universe in which big bangs go off all the time, each one with different values for the fundamental constants.” It is no more a mystery that our particular branch of the multiverse exhibits life-friendly characteristics, according to Weinberg, than that life evolved on the hospitable Earth “rather than some horrid place, like Mercury or Pluto.”

If you find this scenario unsatisfactory—the weak anthropic principle superimposed on Andrei Linde’s theory of eternal chaotic inflation—I can assure you that you are not alone. To most scientists, offering the tautological explanation that since human observers inhabit this particular universe, it must necessarily be life-friendly or else it would not contain any observers resembling ourselves is anathema. It just sounds like giving up.

In my view, there are two primary problems with the Weinberg/Susskind approach. First, universes spawned by Big Bangs other than our own are inaccessible from our own universe, at least with the experimental techniques currently available to scientists. So the approach appears to be untestable, perhaps untestable in principle. And testability is the hallmark of genuine science, distinguishing it from fields of inquiry like metaphysics and theology.

Second, the Weinberg/Susskind approach extravagantly violates the mediocrity principle. The mediocrity principle, a mainstay of scientific theorizing since Copernicus, is a statistically based rule of thumb that, absent contrary evidence, a particular sample (Earth, for instance, or our particular universe) should be assumed to be a typical example of the ensemble of which it is a part. The Weinberg/Susskind approach flagrantly flouts the mediocrity principle. Instead, their approach simply takes refuge in a brute, unfathomable mystery—the conjectured lucky roll of the dice in a crap game of eternal chaotic inflation—and declines to probe seriously into the possibility of a naturalistic cosmic evolutionary process that has the capacity to yield a life-friendly set of physical laws and constants on a nonrandom basis. It is as if Charles Darwin, contemplating the famous tangled bank (the arresting visual image with which he concludes The Origin of Species), had confessed not a magnificent obsession with gaining an understanding of the mysterious natural processes that had yielded “endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful,” but rather a smug satisfaction that of course the earthly biosphere must have somehow evolved in a just-so manner mysteriously friendly to humans and other currently living species, or else Darwin and other humans would not be around to contemplate it!

Indeed, the situation that confronts cosmologists today is eerily reminiscent of that which faced biologists before Charles Darwin propounded his revolutionary theory of evolution. Darwin confronted the seemingly miraculous phenomenon of a fine-tuned natural order in which every creature and plant appeared to occupy a unique and well-designed niche. Refusing to surrender to the brute mystery posed by the appearance of nature’s design, Darwin masterfully deployed the art of metaphor to elucidate a radical hypothesis—the origin of species through natural selection—that explained the apparent miracle as a natural phenomenon.

The metaphor furnished by the familiar process of artificial selection was Darwin’s crucial stepping stone. Indeed, the practice of artificial selection through plant and animal breeding was the primary intellectual model that guided Darwin in his quest to solve the mystery of the origin of species and to demonstrate in principle the plausibility of his theory that variation and natural selection were the prime movers responsible for the phenomenon of speciation. So, too, today a few venturesome cosmologists have begun to use the same poetic tool utilized by Darwin—the art of metaphorical thinking—to develop novel intellectual models that might offer a logical explanation for what appears to be an unfathomable mystery: the apparent fine-tuning of the cosmos.

The cosmological metaphor chosen by these iconoclastic theorists is life itself. What if life, they ask in the spirit the great Belgian biologist and Nobel laureate Christian de Duve, were not a cosmic accident but the essential reality at the very heart of the elegant machinery of the universe? What if Darwin’s principle of natural selection were merely a tiny fractal embodiment of a universal life-giving principle that drives the evolution of stars, galaxies, and the cosmos itself?

This, as you may have guessed, is the headline summarizing the third (and radically novel) approach to answering the biggest of the Big Questions: why is the universe life-friendly? It is the approach outlined at length in my new book BIOCOSM.

Before I get into this third approach in more detail, I want to say something upfront about scientific speculation. The approach I am about to outline for you is intentionally and forthrightly speculative. Following the example of Darwin, I have attempted to crudely frame a radically new explanatory paradigm well before all of the required building materials and construction tools are at hand. Darwin had not the slightest clue, for instance, that DNA is the molecular device used by all life-forms on Earth to accomplish the feat of what he called “inheritance.” Indeed, as cell biologist Kenneth R. Miller noted in Finding Darwin’s God, “Charles Darwin worked in almost total ignorance of the fields we now call genetics, cell biology, molecular biology, and biochemistry.” Nonetheless, Darwin managed to put forward a plausible theoretical framework that succeeded magnificently despite the fact that it was utterly dependent on hypothesized but completely unknown mechanisms of genetic transmission.

As Darwin’s example shows, plausible and deliberate speculation plays an essential role in the advancement of science. Speculation is the means by which new scientific paradigms are initially constructed, to be either abandoned later as wrong-headed detours or vindicated as the seeds of scientific revolutions.

Another important lesson drawn from Darwin’s experience is important to note at the outset. Answering the question of why the most eminent geologists and naturalists had, until shortly before publication of The Origin of Species, disbelieved in the mutability of species, Darwin responded that this false conclusion was “almost inevitable as long as the history of the world was thought to be of short duration.” It was geologist Charles Lyell’s speculations on the immense age of Earth that provided the essential conceptual framework for Darwin’s new theory. Lyell’s vastly expanded stretch of geological time provided an ample temporal arena in which the forces of natural selection could sculpt and reshape the species of Earth and achieve nearly limitless variation.

The central point is that collateral advances in sciences seemingly far removed from cosmology can help dissipate the intellectual limitations imposed by common sense and naïve human intuition. And, in an uncanny reprise of the Lyell/Darwin intellectual synergy, it is a realization of the vastness of time and history that gives rise to the crucial insight. Only in this instance, the vastness of which I speak is the vastness of future time and future history. In particular, sharp attention must be paid to the key conclusion of Princeton physicist John Wheeler: most of the time available for life and intelligence to achieve their ultimate capabilities lie in the distant cosmic future, not in the cosmic past. As cosmologist Frank Tipler bluntly stated, “Almost all of space and time lies in the future. By focusing attention only on the past and present, science has ignored almost all of reality. Since the domain of scientific study is the whole of reality, it is about time science decided to study the future evolution of the universe.”

That is exactly what I have attempted to do in BIOCOSM in order to explore, in a tentative way, a possible third pathway to an answer to the biggest of the Big Questions. I call that third pathway the Selfish Biocosm hypothesis.

Originally presented in peer-reviewed scientific papers published in Complexity, Acta Astronautica, and the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, my Selfish Biocosm hypothesis suggests that in attempting to explain the linkage between life, intelligence and the anthropic qualities of the cosmos, most mainstream scientists have, in essence, been peering through the wrong end of the telescope. The hypothesis asserts that life and intelligence are, in fact, the primary cosmological phenomena and that everything else—the constants of nature, the dimensionality of the universe, the origin of carbon and other elements in the hearts of giant supernovas, the pathway traced by biological evolution—is secondary and derivative. In the words of Martin Rees, my approach is based on the proposition that “what we call the fundamental constants—the numbers that matter to physicists—may be secondary consequences of the final theory, rather than direct manifestations of its deepest and most fundamental level.”

I began developing the Selfish Biocosm hypothesis as an attempt to supply two essential elements missing from a novel model of cosmological evolution put forward by astrophysicist Lee Smolin. Smolin had come up with the intriguing suggestion that black holes are gateways to new “baby universes” and that a kind of Darwinian population dynamic rewards those universes most adept at producing black holes with the greatest number of progeny. Proliferating populations of baby universes emerging from the loins (metaphorically speaking) of black hole-rich “mother universes” thus come to dominate the total population of the “multiverse”—a theoretical ensemble of all mother and baby universes. Black hole-prone universes also happen to coincidentally exhibit anthropic qualities, according to Smolin, thus accounting for the bio-friendly nature of the “average” cosmos in the ensemble, more or less as an incidental side-effect.

This was a thrilling conjecture because for the first time it posited a cosmic evolutionary process endowed with what economists call a utility function (i.e., a value that was maximized by the hypothesized evolutionary process, which in the case of Smolin’s conjecture was black hole maximization).

However, Smolin’s approach was seriously flawed. As the computer genius John von Neumann demonstrated in a famous 1948 Caltech lecture entitled “On the General and Logical Theory of Automata,” any self-reproducing object (mouse, bacterium, human or baby universe) must, as a matter of inexorable logic, possess four essential elements:

1. A blueprint, providing the plan for construction of offspring;

2. A factory, to carry out the construction;

3. A controller, to ensure that the factory follows the plan; and

4. A duplicating machine, to transmit a copy of the blueprint to the offspring.

In the case of Smolin’s hypothesis, one could logically equate the collection of physical laws and constants that prevail in our universe with a von Neumann blueprint and the universe at large with a kind of enormous von Neumann factory. But what could possibly serve as a von Neumann controller or a von Neumann duplicating machine? My goal was to rescue Smolin’s basic innovation—a cosmic evolutionary model that incorporated a discernible utility function—by proposing scientifically plausible candidates for the two missing von Neumann elements.

The hypothesis I developed was based on a set of conjectures put forward by Martin Rees, John Wheeler, Freeman Dyson, John Barrow, Frank Tipler, and Ray Kurzweil. Their futuristic visions suggested collectively that the ongoing process of biological and technological evolution was sufficiently robust, powerful, and open-ended that, in the very distant future, a cosmologically extended biosphere could conceivably exert a global influence on the physical state of the entire cosmos. Think of this idea as the Gaia principle extended universe-wide.

A synthesis of these insights lead me directly to the central claim of the Selfish Biocosm hypothesis: that the ongoing process of biological and technological emergence, governed by still largely unknown laws of complexity, could function as a von Neumann controller and that a cosmologically extended biosphere could serve as a von Neumann duplicating machine in a conjectured process of cosmological replication.

I went on to speculate that the means by which the hypothesized cosmological replication process could occur was through the fabrication of baby universes by highly evolved intelligent life forms. These hypothesized baby universes would themselves be endowed with a cosmic code—an ensemble of physical laws and constants—that would be life-friendly so as to enable life and ever more competent intelligence to emerge and eventually to repeat the cosmic reproduction cycle. Under this scenario, the physical laws and constants serve a cosmic function precisely analogous to that of DNA in earthly creatures: they furnish a recipe for the birth and evolution of intelligent life and a blueprint, which provides the plan for construction of offspring.

I should add that if the fabrication of baby universes, which is the key step in the hypothesized cosmic reproductive cycle that I just outlined, sounds to you like outrageous science fiction—an “X-file too far,” in the words of one of my critics—you should be aware that the topic has begun to be rigorously explored by such eminent physicists as Andrei Linde of Stanford, Alan Guth of MIT (who is the father of inflation theory), Martin Rees of Cambridge, eminent astronomer Edward Harrison, and physicists Lawrence Krauss and Glenn Starkman.

This central claim of the Selfish Biocosm hypothesis offered a radically new and quite parsimonious explanation for the apparent mystery of an anthropic or bio-friendly universe. If highly evolved intelligent life is the von Neumann duplicating machine that the cosmos employs to reproduce itself—if intelligent life is, in effect, the reproductive organ of the universe—then it is entirely logical and predictable that the laws and constants of nature should be rigged in favor of the emergence of life and the evolution of ever more capable intelligence. Indeed, the existence of such propensity is a falsifiable prediction of the hypothesis.

Now, at this point you are probably saying to yourself, “Wow, with a theory that crazy and radical, this Gardner fellow must have been shunned by the scientific establishment.” And indeed some mainstream scientists have commented that the ideas advanced in my book BIOCOSM are impermissibly speculative or impossible to verify. A few have hurled what scientists view as the ultimate epithet—that my theory constitutes metaphysics instead of genuine science.

On the other hand, some of the brightest and most far-sighted scientists have been extremely encouraging. John Barrow and Freeman Dyson have offered favorable comments and reviews. In particular, BIOCOSM has received outspoken endorsements from Sir Martin Rees (the UK Astronomer Royal and winner of the top scientific prize in the world for cosmology) and Paul Davies (the prominent astrophysicist and author and winner of the Templeton Prize).

As I continue to explore this hypothesis in the future, what will be of utmost interest to me and my sympathizers is whether it can generate what scientists call falsifiable implications. Falsifiabiliy or testability of claims, remember, is the hallmark of genuine science, distinguishing it from metaphysics and faith-based belief systems.

I believe that the Selfish Biocosm hypothesis does qualify as a genuine scientific conjecture on this ground. A key implication of the hypothesis is that the process of progression of the cosmos through critical thresholds in its life cycle, while perhaps not strictly inevitable, is relatively robust. One such critical threshold is the emergence of human-level and higher intelligence, which is essential to the scaling up of biological and technological processes to the stage at which those processes could conceivably exert an influence on the global state of the cosmos.

The conventional wisdom among evolutionary theorists, typified by the thinking of the late Stephen Jay Gould, is that the abstract probability of the emergence of anything like human intelligence through the natural process of biological evolution was vanishingly small. According to this viewpoint, the emergence of human-level intelligence was a staggeringly improbable contingent event. A few distinguished contrarians like Simon Conway Morris, Robert Wright, E. O. Wilson, and Christian de Duve take an opposing position, arguing on the basis of the pervasive phenomenon of convergent evolution and other evidence that the appearance of human-level intelligence was highly probable, if not virtually inevitable. The latter position is consistent with the Selfish Biocosm hypothesis while the Gould position is not.

In my book BIOCOSM and in a preceding scientific paper delivered at the International Astronautical Congress, I suggest that the issue of the robustness of the emergence of human-level and higher intelligence is potentially subject to experimental resolution by means of at least three realistic tests: SETI research, artificial life evolution, and the emergence of transhuman computer intelligence predicted by computer science theorist Ray Kurzweil and others. The discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence, the discovery of an ability on the part of artificial life forms that exist and evolve in software environments to acquire autonomy and intelligence, and the emergence of a capacity on the part of advanced self-programming computers to attain and then exceed human levels of intelligence are all falsifiable implications of the Selfish Biocosm hypothesis because they are consistent with the notion that the emergence of ever more competent intelligence is a robust natural phenomenon. These tests don’t, of course, conclusively answer the question of whether the hypothesis correctly describes ultimate reality. But such a level of certainty is not demanded of any scientific hypothesis in order to qualify it as genuine science.

Let me conclude by asking whether the Selfish Biocosm hypothesis promotes or demotes the cosmic role of humanity. Have I introduced a new anthropocentrism into the science of cosmology? If so, then you should be suspect on this basis alone of my new approach because, as Sigmund Freud pointed out long ago, new scientific paradigms must meet two distinct criteria to be taken seriously: they must reformulate our vision of physical reality in a novel and plausible way and, equally important, they must advance the Copernican project of demoting human beings from the centerpiece of the universe to the results of natural processes.

At first blush, the Selfish Biocosm hypothesis may appear to be hopelessly anthropocentric. Freeman Dyson once famously proclaimed that the seemingly miraculous coincidences exhibited by the physical laws and constants of inanimate nature—factors that render the universe so strangely life-friendly—indicated to him that “the more I examine the universe and study the details of its architecture, the more evidence I find that the universe in some sense knew we were coming.” This strong anthropic perspective may seem uplifting and inspiring at first blush but a careful assessment of the new vision of a bio-friendly universe revealed by the Selfish Biocosm hypothesis yields a far more sobering conclusion.

To regard the pageant of life’s origin and evolution on Earth as a minor subroutine in an inconceivably vast ontogenetic process through which the universe prepares itself for replication is scarcely to place humankind at the epicenter of creation. Far from offering an anthropocentric view of the cosmos, the new perspective relegates humanity and its probable progeny species (biological or mechanical) to the functional equivalents of mitochondria—formerly free-living bacteria whose special talents were harnessed in the distant past when they were ingested and then pressed into service as organelles inside eukaryotic cells.

The essence of the Selfish Biocosm hypothesis is that the universe we inhabit is in the process of becoming pervaded with increasingly intelligent life—but not necessarily human or even human-successor life. Under the theory, the emergence of life and increasingly competent intelligence are not meaningless accidents in a hostile, largely lifeless cosmos but at the very heart of the vast machinery of creation, cosmological evolution, and cosmic replication. However, the theory does not require or even suggest that the life and intelligence that emerge be human or human-successor in nature.

The hypothesis simply asserts that the peculiarly life-friendly laws and constants that prevail in our universe serve a function precisely equivalent to that of DNA in living creatures on Earth, providing a recipe for development and a blueprint for the construction of offspring.

Finally, the hypothesis implies that the capacity for the universe to generate life and to evolve ever more capable intelligence is encoded as a hidden subtext to the basic laws and constants of nature, stitched like the finest embroidery into the very fabric of our universe. A corollary—and a key falsifiable implication of the Selfish Biocosm theory—is that we are likely not alone in the universe but are probably part of a vast, yet undiscovered transterrestrial community of lives and intelligences spread across billions of galaxies and countless parsecs. Under the theory, we share a possible common fate with that hypothesized community—to help shape the future of the universe and transform it from a collection of lifeless atoms into a vast, transcendent mind.

The inescapable implication of the Selfish Biocosm hypothesis is that the immense saga of biological evolution on Earth is one tiny chapter in an ageless tale of the struggle of the creative force of life against the disintegrative acid of entropy, of emergent order against encroaching chaos, and ultimately of the heroic power of mind against the brute intransigence of lifeless matter.

In taking full measure of the seeming miracle of a bio-friendly universe we should obviously be skeptical of wishful thinking and “just-so” stories. But we should not be so dismissive of new approaches that we fail to relish the sense of wonder at the almost miraculous ability of science to fathom mysteries that once seemed impenetrable—a sense perfectly captured by the great British innovator Michael Faraday when he summarily dismissed skepticism about his almost magical ability to summon up the genie of electricity simply by moving a magnet in a coil of wire.

As Faraday said, “Nothing is too wonderful to be true if it be consistent with the laws of nature.”