Biological Complexity

Chapter 3


Everything that is has emerged from what was and still may be. It has emerged from that which had already emerged from what was prior to that, giving everything that is a history that streams back through all of the eons, back to the products of the Big Bang. The trail from what is, whatever it is, to what has been as it is, unchanged from the birth of time itself, winding back, passing by forks, where it meets again with a myriad of might have beens awaiting the traveler with the perseverance and courage to follow the signs.

Remember that we are examining what we seem to find in the universe around us, using only the power of reason. The data we are applying our reasoning powers to are in general agreement among those who look in the same places that we do. If everything that is, that is what we agree exists, exists because it has emerged out of the interactions of some things that have already existed; they too, at some prior time, emerged out of the interactions of what they are made of, then we are looking at a temporal sequence as well as a hierarchical structure. We are accustomed to seeing the hierarchical sequence described by Simon, but this new view adds another dimension to our examination of the universe. We are therefore looking not only at a series of hierarchically structured objects, we are also looking at a sequence of ordered events.

These events mark the coming to be of each something that is but was not. Whatever it is that constitutes the new existence has now become part of our experience. Yet its component parts may still exist in their own right. This event has triggered a change not necessarily in the constituent parts themselves, but in the interactions between the parts such that they now act together as a new existence. Taking a cue from H. H. Pattee and other researchers in hierarchical theory, I will identify this as the coming into being of "Complex Hierarchical Constraint."  This constraint emerges out of the interactions and communications among the constituent parts. By constraining the variability of the component parts, it gives identity to the new existence, determines its properties, and opens up a new world of possibilities.

Let us begin with language, an example that is certainly not simple but is at least familiar to us. In any given culture, over perhaps millennia of experimenting in communications, there has emerged something those within the society call a language. This consists of an alphabet of sounds and symbols and a set of rules for organizing them into meaningful sequences. It is the constraint that language places on the sounds and symbols that provides the power through which the day-to-day business of the society is conducted, to say nothing of the entire repertoire of literature developed throughout the history of the culture. A simple examination of the variety of languages and cultures that have existed on the planet Earth illustrates dramatically that it is not the sounds and symbols that provide the variety that gives life to a culture (In many languages there is no correlation with its sounds and those of any alien language).  The meaning lies in the structure of the hierarchical constraints.

It is the same kind of constraint that makes it possible for a small variety of subatomic particles to form the hundred or so elements that make up our physical universe and for those hundred or so to combine to form every physical object we are aware of in the universe. And none of these constraints existed in the products of the Big Bang. They emerged, they came into being, through the free interactions between the particles at each stage in the evolution of the universe. We began with the 2600-year-old words of the sage of Miletus who said "All things change from one thing to another, therefore all things must be made of the same thing."  Plato said that everything in the sensible world was "coming to be."  It would seem that nothing is permanent. But there must be something permanent, otherwise there would not be anything. It is quite clear that everything that we sense in the universe around us is made up of something else, something smaller, faster, perhaps simpler, perhaps not. We say that something exists when we can identify it, put a name to it, or mention it to another person with the expectation that the other person would recognize what we were talking about.

The universe exists. It is a structural hierarchy. Some of us use tools, from the Hubble Telescope to electron microscopes, to look at it. Although we may know very little about the forces that make it a unity, we can still talk about it to one another, even among those who have never seen a telescope or looked into a microscope. Each thing in the universe that we can identify is also a structural hierarchy. When I use the term hierarchical constraint, I am referring to the myriad ways that these hierarchies are held together. Regardless of the details of these constraints, we can still follow the trail from the universe to galaxies to star systems to planets to the materials that make up the planets, to the molecular structures, the atomic structure, even down to the hadrons. We can look at any point in the scale and identify at least some of the characteristics of the constraints that bind it into existence. When we reach the lowest level, have we reached the ultimate particle?  The "Arche" of Anaximander? The Atoms of Democritus?  No! What we have reached is the limits of our tools. Because hadrons come in assorted flavors, it would seem that they too are organizations of an alphabet of smaller particles, but we lack the tools to find out. And, considering the success of the wave theory of matter, perhaps we lack even the language to explain it.

According to recent scientific thought, the hadrons emerged during the first few microseconds following the Big Bang. But this view of time is irrelevant. Time has two characteristics: sequentiality and periodicity. As far as we know, only man experiences the periodicity of time. Everything else experiences only sequentiality. A weathered stone is weathered not because it has been out in the elements for a long period of time; it is weathered because of the repeated actions of the weather. Events in a dog's life might imprint themselves on the dog's memory, but I have never heard anyone suggest that the dog knows how long the event took or where he was last week. The point here is that before there could exist any more complex particles, there had to be hadrons, and before there could be complex atoms, there had to be both the hadrons that comprise them and the structures that developed regions of concentrated energy required for them to emerge into existence. The length of time for these activities to occur are just numbers.

We are usually cognizant of the constraining effect of scientific laws on physical entities in a stable equilibrium. Einstein's special theory of relativity says that scientific laws are consistent for all bodies in uniform motion. The universe has never been in an equilibrium state at any time since the Bang itself. The universe in a state of equilibrium would be a state of infinite entropy, or in other words, heat death. In a state far from equilibrium, we can add another trait of scientific lawsthat is, they become the tokens of an alphabet that produces what we call hierarchical constraint. As such, they not only produce stable physical structures, they are also the fundamental source of freedom and variety.

I would like, for the second time, to use the words of a philosopher completely out of context. This time it is Leibniz. His problem was answering a question he found reading the Bible. His understanding of the Bible said that God created the world and then pronounced it good. Could God have made a world that was not good?  He began with the concept of compossible worlds. Though there are infinite possible things, the number that are compossible, that is, that can exist in the same world together, is finite. And there are a large, though finite, number of such compossible worlds. It is from this variety of possible worlds that, in Liebniz' view, God chose to create the world that He did indeed create. All of the other worlds exist only as possible creations in the infinite mind of God. This world was chosen for existence actively by God only after examining all other possible worlds, and it was chosen for rational reasons. This world resulted in the greatest variety with the simplest of means. God did choose well because God sees nothing that is not the very best that is possible. But He did so for rational reasons. But if you think about it, Complex Hierarchical Constraint accomplishes the same thing, and all that God, or nature if you prefer, had to do was to develop the set of physical laws that organize to form the constraints.

Where did all of these possible worlds come from?  We have determined that if all of those things we have discussed are true, and I have purposely avoided anything that was controversial or questionable, then each of these worlds would have to emerge from the interactions of those things that comprised it. Also, we have determined that it certainly looks clear that whatever anything is composed of had to exist prior to its emergence, and so on back to the Big Bang itself. Also, the source of the constraints that cause things to emerge and the source of constantly increasing variety are both derived from the same physical laws that are the subject of science. All this seems clear, that is, if the universe is a rational place. Then all of these compossible worlds would be derived from the variability inherent in the trail of emergences back to the Big Bang. In other words, if the universe we live in is the direct result of the dynamic actions of physical laws, then each so-called compossible world would represent a different but equally possible sequence of events. Their existence in the mind of God, important though they might be, is irrelevant to our study, which is to show how our universe physically came to be.

If we examine the picture of evolution provided by modern science we run into a very important problem. The engine of evolution according to the scientists is natural selection. In their description, it appears that in the early years of the planet earth, God or nature sent a lightning strike into the primordial ooze and bang, there was life; then after a few million years of natural selection, we get man. This description, regardless of how they dress it up, does not fit their own data. For natural selection to be the primary engine for evolution, it would require that life begin as a large variety of forms and gradually, through the elimination of the less fit, evolve into a smaller selection of stronger individuals. On the contrary, according to their own data, life began as a few molecules of amino acids and has evolved into millions of types over the millions of years since.

What is required for anything to emerge, as we have seen in the above descriptions, is that the materials that were to make them up be present in the environment. Then, under the right energetic conditions, including perhaps a little lightning, amino acids, and later living cells, emerge. This means that evolution did not begin with a lightning strike in the primordial ooze; it began with the Big Bang. The forces that form the constraints that bring about the emergence of anything are organized out of the basic laws of physics. This is the source of the variety needed to make the universe emerge. Natural selection is a very important force in the evolution of living things. It plays the same part that entropy does for inanimate things.

Complex Hierarchical Constraint, then, is the mechanism through which things come to be. However, the difference between the emergence of an atom of gold and that of a living thing is distinct. Our next step will be to examine the sequence of events that lead from the Big Bang to living organisms.