Part 2: Mate, Spawn, and Die
Let's set the existence-of-god issue aside for a later volume, and just stipulate that in some way, self-replicating organisms came into existence on this planet and immediately began trying to get rid of each other, either by spamming their environments with rough copies of themselves, or by more direct means which hardly need to be belabored. Most of them failed, and their genetic legacy was erased from the universe forever, but a few found some way to survive and to propagate. After about three billion years of this sometimes zany, frequently tedious fugue of carnality and carnage, Godfrey Waterhouse IV was born, in Murdo, South Dakota, to Blanche, the wife of a Congregational preacher named Bunyan Waterhouse. Like every other creature on the face of the earth, Godfrey was, by birthright, a stupendous badass, albeit in the somewhat narrow technical sense that he could trace his ancestry back up a long line of slightly less highly evolved stupendous badasses to that first self-replicating gizmo -- which, given the number and variety of its descendants, might justifiably be described as the most stupendous badass of all time. Everyone and everything that wasn't a stupendous badass was dead. (Cryptonomicon)
So, roughly 15 or so billion years ago, an event occurred: one that we are still trying to reconstruct, decipher, and find the receipt for. This event was rather significant, to me at least, insofar as the universe (at least the one that I think I may be sharing with you right now) was created during this spectacularly odd incident. Since then, a whole raft of things have happened, but one of particular interest to this discussion is that few billion years ago, a class of self-replicating, self-organizing thingamajigs came forth from the muck in what could be fairly described as the strip-mall-and-condo-portion of the suburban Milky Way galaxy.
There are a number of ways to look at what, exactly, the point of having living creatures around actually is, most of which I intend to leave to the professional god-botherers, logic-choppers, and other assorted denizens of the musty halls of the ivory tower. Naturally, there is a lot of really good material on this subject which explains in great and gory (and mostly true) detail the things that I'll be skimming over or just plain making up. Since I am a Bear of Very Little Brain who is often vexed by complex things, this is more of a narrative than a literal accounting of what RNA and DNA have been up to for the last few billion years.
The specific sense in which I'm interested in evolution deals with the notion that a defining characteristic of a living creature is that it is a spontaneously and continuously self-ordering system. Rather than simply breaking down and decaying in the traditional matter of all material things, or even ticking along as a complex, chaotic system, living creatures are, for at least a while, both self-healing and self-sustaining, and try to the best of their limited abilities to fend off the inexorable onslaught of entropy. To be absolutely fair, there are some sorts of non-living systems which are, in a limited sense, locally self-ordering, such as crystal growth. However, such systems do not heal, and as such are not continuously self-ordering and just plain don't make for good discussion in talks about breaking things and killing stuff.
Heretofore, all systems and things generally approached entropy the same way -- they decayed, decomposed, or otherwise faded away. This, being in keeping with the Second Law of Thermodynamics, is not entirely unforeseen. However, the development of systems that were spontaneously locally self-ordering was at the time, I imagine, quite a shock. For the first time ever (and far as we know, the only time), entropy was no longer automatically lord and master of all systems it surveyed. If you think about it, it's kind of like a set of parts that suddenly deciding to assemble themselves into a Lear jet, or something -- or even a less likely event, like the papers on my desk spontaneously filing themselves.
The behavior of these systems is governed by rule sets, or programs. When the first primitive self-healing and self-sustaining gadget emerged from the primordial muck, the programs that ran these baffling mechanical contrivances basically did their thing. Now some of these devices â€œdiscoveredâ€� (through natural selection) that code sets that produced machines that were self-replicating and carried copies of their rule sets did fairly well, as the inability to replicate makes a given set of rules terribly susceptible to single-point failure. This led to development of replication.
The instructions that governed the behavior of these programs were encoded in these bits of inanimate stuff (components of living creatures being inanimate on their own) suffered the same inevitable decay that afflicts all inanimate objects. Hence, there was always an ongoing process of mutation and damage to the records that held all of the behavior guidelines for the given organism.
This caused greater problems than one would initially imagine. On the one hand, one would like to keep the amount of corruption in the code -- be it from errors in replication or from environmental damage -- down to a dull roar. However, this results in a situation such that if errors in replication never arise, then there aren't a whole lot of ways to change the genetic code and actually evolve. Quite a conundrum, for any would-be evolutionary heavies or other assorted itinerant masters of the planet.
Well, as it turns out, this whole replication thing turned out to be quite a boon. Without getting into details, replication was quite an effective solution to this whole problem of dealing with code corruption while permitting updates and upgrades, by swapping genetic material during the replication process. Hence, these now-replicating creatures developed some of the earliest communications -- the local operating systems for each machine were able to evolve and spread their instruction sets as far and wide as Darwin's system would allow.
With the gradual increase in the number of living things, a sort of proto-economics emerged with the discovery of scarcity. One can easily imagine that creatures seek out the conditions most favorable to their own ongoing prosperity. The main problem being that a whole lot of creatures sought similar environments.
Well, since actual economists weren't going to arrive on the scene for billions of years yet, early creatures had a limited number of responses available, which Neil Stephenson alludes to in the quote at top. They could spam the environment with crude copies of themselves, they could expand into marginal niche environments, or they could get medieval on their neighbors. We've touched on the spamming approach above. Expanding into niches has been pretty successful, but isn't always the best answer, since these niches are quite often marginal and aren't necessarily very conducive to this whole business of going forth and ensuring the dominance of your particular set of programming instructions through procreation. While one beast is busy trying to eke out an existence on an ice floe, another competing program is feeding and breeding in a green pasture somewhere a lot more bucolic.
So that leaves us with the third option -- doing other each other in. Far and away, the most common mechanism for one of these self-ordering machines to do one another in is to radically increase the amount of disorder in an opponent, to the extent that it completely overpowers self-repair mechanisms, causing the unfortunate victim to expire. Having figured out how to heal themselves, the self-ordering organisms discovered that giving entropy a helping shove was a pretty effective means of booting other critters off of the mortal coil.
Now the astute reader will note that not all natural competition involves killing opponents, some, like contention over mates, isn't necessarily fatal (excluding odd cases like Helen of Troy, or Joey Buttafuco). For the time being, however, I am just focusing on critters knocking each other off -- as that is a critical factor driving natural selection. Moreover, if such a mode of competition didn't exist, we wouldn't all be the happy, go-lucky "nightmarishly lethal, mimetically programmed death-machines" that we are, sitting around and reading blogs and whatnot, and I would be deprived of something to write about.
The details of the methodology of lethal natural competition, while critical to a whole bunch of discussions evolution, aren't of a lot of specific interest in the very broad sense we're looking at now. We must remember that in the context of complex, chaotic systems, a small injury is seldom enough to totally disrupt a chaotic system. However, once influences on that system become large and comprehensive enough, the robustness of the chaotic system itself can be overcome. And once that's happened, our formerly hale and healthy complex, chaotic system can usually check right on out and meander off to the watering hole of the hereafter to chat with other failed contestants.
At any rate, individual machines started realizing the benefits of collective action in the microbial world, and started agglomerating into larger blobs of multi-celled creatures. These larger critters did, of course, require more resources, but in the community of single-celled organisms, a multi-celled blob can make itself heard. This was a big step up, system-wise, as now the thing created by these rule sets and programs was actually larger and more complex than the things bearing the instructions. Prior to this, all living organisms were these sort of independent musicians, each carrying their own sheet music, going off to pursue solo careers. Now, these individual things were now grouping together into marauding bands of cells that actually constituted individual organisms. In other words, this was the first appearance of organic systems larger and more complex than the individual constituent components.
Very shortly thereafter, specialization arose. Some of the cells of one of these blobs took it upon themselves to start doing things like being a tough skin or armor, others started to worry about sensory perception and reconnaissance. Other sorts of cells seized upon the problem of locomotion and mobility while still other unfortunates got drafted into the alimentary system and microbial KP. This was an astonishing vote for the viability of multi-celled critters, insofar as these newly specialized sorts of cells (excepting seeds and the like) couldn't generally jump ship and strike out on their own. This, of course, has been a great relief to many college students whose brains and livers would have probably scuttled off for parts unknown if left to their own devices.
So far, all these self-ordering machines are wandering around and operating according to some hard-wired instruction set that each of the critters carried around, generally in their cell nuclei. These instinctive sets of behaviors were a great way for programs to continue their propagation, as instinctive behaviors are incredibly easy to implement -- think about having to teach toddlers to be messy. Along the way, programs that contained instructions arose that were very good at ensuring the continued success of the instruction sets and the survival of the machines that carried these programs. Instruction sets for machines that were less good at ensuring the survival of its carriers either changed to get good at ensuring such survival or were exiled, often forcibly, from the gene pool altogether.
Fairly early on, programs developed differing strategies for doing their respective things. A couple of them are worth touching on. Among these strategies was the notion of cooperation. The rule sets in governing a given type of critter came to â€œrealizeâ€� that even if a specific critter could not itself reproduce, ensuring that another organism of the same species was able to reproduce still helped to ensure the overall survival of a set of coding instructions. This was a revolutionary development as it meant a situation had arisen in which one animal might start actively working to ensure that another animal was able to reproduce, simply because the other animal shared sufficiently similar genetic code that the overall instruction set would be able to spread.
This development means we start seeing the arrival of program and instruction sets that govern the behavior of systems larger than the individual multi-celled critters carrying the instruction sets. From another point of view, this means that instruction sets had discovered external systems. These systems were a rather interesting development, as they were comprised of individual organisms (or systems), each carrying a similar set of instructions that allowed the creation of a much larger system. By way of analogy, the rise of one-celled organisms is to multi-celled creatures as multi-celled creatures are to groups of creatures.
On some level, instructions evolved to the point that information and rule sets governing behavior adapted to the point that individual creatures could impart certain knowledge to other members of the same species, particularly young ones. This is how learning and learned behavior arose. This gigantic improvement allowed for the rise of global rule sets larger, more detailed, more comprehensive, and more adaptable than could otherwise be managed by purely instinctual rule sets governed wholly by the information contained in genetic code.
More significantly, it meant that all the sudden a change in behavior could occur in less than one generation -- often much, much less. If you think about it, it's a pretty big deal if you don't have to wait for natural selection to teach folks that sticking one's tongue to a frozen light pole is a bad move. Rather than having to wait for natural selection to go through the incredibly tedious process of winnowing out beasts that did stupid things, animals were able to learn that stupid behavior is bad, without having to communicate that point solely through evolutionary change in genetic code. This was pretty significant insofar as it allowed for rule sets larger and more complex than could be coded in one set of genetic instructions to be created and propagate.
When this ability to learn was coupled with the ability of large numbers of organisms to cooperate, we have now the proper and full arrival of spontaneously self-organizing and self-healing systems larger than the individual creatures of which they are comprised. When combined with the rules governing the behavior of individual beasts, it now made sense to look at a group of animals as an individual organism of sorts. Or, viewed another way, the ability of an individual creature to pass on and ensure the domination of instruction sets was governed by rule sets that operated on both the level of the individual and the group.
The creation of the herd, school, hive, and flock permitted the development of a form of specialization, which allowed for synergistic cooperation among like critters. Granted, the specialization was often quite limited -- some animals specialized in being old and injured, and provided the service of being easy prey while younger, productive animals fled death and so on. In other cases, the young bucks protected the herd against some kinds of aggressors and predators, while females gave birth and raised the new generation of animals. In cases like insect hives, individual insects can become relatively specialized in roles as warriors, drones, and queens.
Overall, perhaps it's not so much the notion that self-ordering, healing, and replicating machines appeared on the scene that is quite as surprising as the fact that all the ordered rule sets that govern these groups gizmos themselves act sort of like living organisms. The rule sets are self-ordering, self-healing, and self-replicating and started to generate systems of living organisms that themselves behave in the manner of organisms, meta-organisms, if you will. As odd as is it to consider a set of parts that spontaneously organizes itself into a jet, imagine that these self-building jets started to spontaneously organize themselves into airlines.
Now cooperation became a matter of both learned behavior and genetic imperative. In a distinct break from a long history of simple life-or-death struggle, some creatures were now compelled to cooperate and ensure that, failing all else, their siblings, peers and offspring were able to give rise to healthy progeny, as it still allowed for the spread of the larger instruction set.
This tendency to cooperate was also offset by the increased competition associated with the fact that each of these groups of animals sought out and competed for the same exact environments.
One thing that bears explicit mention about these self-propagating instruction sets is that the ones that survive for any length of time are pretty damned serious about the business of staying in business. The â€œwillâ€� for these instruction sets to live and procreate is generally stronger than any other imperative guiding the behavior of these sets. Any organism or meta-organism guided by an instruction set that is less than absolutely deadly serious about continuing the survival of itself and its progeny simply becomes a runner-up and has-been in the stupendous badass sweepstakes: i.e., dead.
It has been roughly 3 billion years or so since living creatures appeared in these precincts. 3 billion years is an awfully long time -- almost too large to contemplate. It is a number of years just about equivalent to the number of seconds in a century. And for every day that critters have been populating this globe, they have been engaged in a literally life-or-death Hobbsean struggle, searching for some minor edge or bit of leverage that would simply allow an instruction set to stay in the game for another round. Anything that has evolved from this long, difficult, and quite often violent process, is a stupendous badass, indeed.