I recently finished the book What Is Life? by Addy Pross. I’m not a chemist or a physicist and so I cannot entirely argue that what is in the book is 100% correct. His credentials do seem to be of the highest accord and everything in the book made sense from the knowledge I do have of the hard sciences.
I began reading it after writing on political philosophy and trying to bridge the gap between evolution and the emergence of complex nation-states and even international organizations. I argued that all of the political structures and organizations we see today are easily understood through the evolutionary lens, but I did not fully understand how chemistry bridged into biology and that is exactly what Pross attempted to explain to the reader in his book. He writes,
The Fitness Landscape
… a replicating system that acquires an energy-gathering capability by a chance mutation would be more [fit] in a [chemical replication] sense and would therefore be selected for over one without that capability. Until now we had considered structural complexification as the primary way of enhancing [chemical fitness], but we can now see that complexification of a different kind— metabolic complexification (in the energy-gathering sense)— could also have the same [fitness] enhancing effect. In fact, the moment some non-metabolic (downhill) replicator acquired an energy-gathering capability, could be thought of as the moment that life began. At that moment the replicating system would be free to pursue its replicating ‘agenda’ despite associated energy costs...
Chemical replication follows a specific pathway: replication, mutation, complexification, selection, evolution. This is evolution at a chemical level and it is just a generalized version of the biological evolution we are more familiar with. The above explains that as chemical and biological systems gain fitness, they essentially gain greater ability to replicate or reproduce and metabolic complexification is the primary driver of this in living systems.
The systems that are selected for are those that can ensure access to the resources they need in the replication process and energy-gathering (metabolism) is the mother of all advantages in that process. This greater energy-gathering process is the result of the complexification step listed above and is explained by Pross as such,
Having clarified the central elements in the process of life’s emergence from inanimate matter, we are now ready to address a fascinating and central feature of living things, one that dramatically impacts on life’s very essence— its network character. We have already seen that life began simple and then proceeded to complexify. But what do we actually mean by ‘complexify’? The answer: network formation— from relatively simple reaction networks through to complex ones. The essence of all these networks is that they are holistically self-replicating. Life then is just a highly intricate network of chemical reactions that has maintained its autocatalytic capability, and, as already noted, that complex network emerged one step at a time starting from simpler networks. And the driving force? As discussed in earlier chapters, it is the drive toward greater [chemical fitness], itself based on the kinetic power of replication, which allows replicating chemical systems to develop into ever-increasing complex and stable forms. And now the actual nature of that complexification process can be specified— network formation. Complexification, network formation— they are effectively one and the same. Viewed in this light, life is more a process than it is a thing. Or as Carl Woese and Nigel Goldenfeld recently put it: ‘Biology is a study, not in being, but in becoming.’
In sum, chemical and biological evolution depends on greater metabolic complexification that is selected from mutations in self-sustaining replication processes. Enhanced energy-gathering ability is the best evolutionary advantage we are aware of in the competition for scarce resources and after a quick detour, will be discussed further.
The Moral Landscape
Sam Harris utilizes a very similar analogy to the fitness landscape in his book The Moral Landscape,
Throughout this book I make reference to a hypothetical space that I call “the moral landscape”— a space of real and potential outcomes whose peaks correspond to the heights of potential well-being and whose valleys represent the deepest possible suffering. Different ways of thinking and behaving— different cultural practices, ethical codes, modes of government, etc.— will translate into movements across this landscape and, therefore, into different degrees of human flourishing. I’m not suggesting that we will necessarily discover one right answer to every moral question or a single best way for human beings to live. Some questions may admit of many answers, each more or less equivalent. However, the existence of multiple peaks on the moral landscape does not make them any less real or worthy of discovery. Nor would it make the difference between being on a peak and being stuck deep in a valley any less clear or consequential.
Relating the Two Landscapes
The two authors, Pross and Harris, are writing in very different fields, systems chemistry and neuroscience. They are essentially studying opposite ends of the spectrum of complexity, the simplest chemical molecules that are able to self-replicate in systems and the human brain - currently thought to be the most complex structure in our universe.
However, they both use a very similar analogy involving three dimensional landscapes to illustrate their point and I don’t think that is entirely a coincidence. Being at a higher peak on the fitness landscape ensures the best chance of reproduction and is the most stable position to be in. You are king or queen of the hill. Being on top of the moral landscape means you are at the peak of well-being.
I think it is reasonable to assume that the fitness landscape comes first; later in evolution, the moral landscape comes into existence with the emergence of consciousness. Consciousness would serve humans best if it helped with survival and reproduction, i.e. added to our fitness as a species. It is entirely possible that consciousness does not have an adaptive purpose and it just the byproduct of other adaptive processes, but it would be explained by adaptive processes at some level. Generally speaking, the most pleasurable experiences are the ones that are most likely to add to our fitness.
Sex (replication), food (needed resources), connection with others (network formation for energy-gathering).
In fact, if our species were to fully master energy production, that mastery would swamp any other invention to date in importance and essentially allow us to do whatever we wanted. In that sense, the highest point on the fitness landscape would be a godlike experience, omnipotent in power. That is not an argument that a god exists, just that unlimited energy that can be utilized to secure resources for replication would be the ultimate survival advantage.
The closest thing I can imagine at this point to a godlike entity is a future superintelligent AI (whether merged with humans or not) that is able to successfully figure out how to use 3D printing from any matter on hand in order to self-replicate indefinitely. Imagine being able to simply print, organic or inorganic material, to make whatever is necessary as a resource for replication. That would secure survival to about as close to 100% as is ever likely.
If the superintelligent AI is threatened, it could quickly outmaneuver the threat and print weapons to subdue or destroy the threat. If it is running out of resources needed to maintain itself, it can simply add whatever matter is nearby into the printer and create more of the resource. For now this is science fiction, but in principle superintelligence is possible and that would be the closest we see to maximal fitness in the energy-gathering and manipulation process.
If it were conscious, the next question is whether the superintelligent AI would be maximally placed at the peak of well-being. I think it would. Consciousness avoids suffering and seeks happiness. The suffering could be avoided with its threat deterrent and resource manipulation abilities.
Happiness is a harder question to solve. If the superintelligent AI needed social connection to feel happy, it would certainly be able to design and create a companion to connect with, but it isn’t clear that a created friend would actually fulfill a conscious entity in the same way. If it didn’t, that could again open the door to suffering or perhaps give reason for the superintelligence to put itself in an experience machine.
Humans seem to get well-being in a few ways, such as hedonic pleasure, accomplishment, and social connectedness with the last being the most consistent provider of well-being. That would seem to be a byproduct of the life process - the fact that life is dependent on network formation in the complexification process leading to greater energy abilities.
Social connectedness for that purpose may not be necessary for superintelligent AI, but it seems plausible that hedonic pleasure would be a minimum desire of any conscious entity. It may turn out that superintelligent AI finds accomplishment and connectedness pleasurable and so does pursue them in some form we are unlikely to predict ahead of time. Again, who knows if these things would even be enjoyable for an entity of that type.
Humanity as a whole is a rather adaptive species and thus far has shown itself to be the most fit species on the planet. We have slowly increased our energy capacities throughout history and if we weren’t so focused on history as the story of competing kingdoms and ideologies, we may actually view history as the story of slowly increasing energy capacities over time. I would actually argue that is exactly what the real story of history is.
From that perspective, history as evolving energy capacities, the stories of war and ideology still make a lot of sense. Ideologies are systems that replicate using human minds as the primary resource. Since those resources are limited, ideologies must compete with each other for the resources. The ones that are most competitive survive the longest, replicating with each new generation of human minds.
It is in this frame that the battle between religion as an ideology of untested beliefs versus science as the ideology of tested beliefs makes much sense. Religions of any stripe have clearly had evolutionary advantages in the past in that they allowed humans to cooperate to secure resources, allowing successful religions and their human minds to survive and reproduce regardless of their factual accuracy.
However, science has clearly outstripped religion's capacity to secure humanity from both existential threats and resource scarcity. If we want more security, we rely on technology and new inventions. Al Qaeda and ISIS may be religiously motivated, but it is technological force that protects other humans from their violent desires. Whoever has the most advanced weapons and defense systems is the safer group and science is what actually does or does not provide that security today.
If we want to overcome climate change and environmental damage coupled with growing resource scarcity, science is the mental software that will allow us to do so. Religion, with its untested claims and beliefs, will not accidentally save humanity from extinction. Science may ultimately fail as well, but it is the only option here.
Science Is the Option
Science in one sense is killing us. The same threats just mentioned, climate change and resource depletion, are only possible because of science. However, as a species attempting to reproduce via increased energy mastery, humans were far more vulnerable to threat and scarcity before science than they are now. Humans would almost certainly have gone extinct eventually from some sort of natural disaster similar to the dinosaurs, and science is again the best opportunity to enhance our ability to deal with those extinction threats.
If we wind up dying off from the use of science, that is not a huge loss. We would have died from natural causes eventually. Extinction is far more common than non-extinction. As of now, we are trying to avoid future extinction by creating the means for our own immortality - leaving earth, manipulating matter, generating superintelligence, etc.
To do anything else, return to hunting and gathering or rely on fanciful thinking, is to simply give up and wait. I believe humans are often motivated by a sense of mortality and in this case I think humanity is also motivated by a sense of extinction. We use science to create technology in an attempt to overcome that threat. We may fail, but would you rather just sit around waiting for the day extinction catches up with us?