Big Systems

The Intelligent Universe


Transterrestrial thinking

No stranger to big questions is complexity theorist James Gardner. In this ambitious book, which is something of a reprise of his seminal first book, Biocosm, he takes to task just about every quandary left in the cosmos (there’s a lot of them), particularly that most important of mysteries: Why is our seemingly barren universe so conducive to biological life? The result is something of a primer on the rapidly changing future, sown from the fertile mind of a scientific generalist. Gardner encourages us to climb under Sputnik’s wing and look at the Earth from a decidedly more galactic perspective, pummeling us with cogent, and barely conceivable, ideas about the role of artificial intelligence in human evolution, superstrings, robotics and the potential impact of extraterrestrial contact on our metaphysics.

Having laid out the outrageous fecundity of human potential, Gardner unveils his own “Selfish Biocosm” theory, a sort of utopian trans-humanism. Gardner sees our planet — our galaxy, even — as part and parcel of a vast transterrestrial community of intelligence. He posits, quite powerfully, that the seemingly unlikely biological evolution of our planet is not the result of chance and evolution, but of a cosmic reproductive cycle, a “coming alive” of the Universe.

Even though they teeter at the edge of science fiction, Gardner’s ideas are compelling, and, ultimately, place us at center stage of an inspiring, still-unfolding cosmic saga.

It is works like this which provide us with a rare combination: a commitment to “truth,” and, usually, a view of humanity as being part of a larger, more complex system — which is very empowering. After all, when you’re thinking about Big Questions, like whether or not the Universe is shrinking, the petty trials of everyday life are much simpler to overcome.

— Claire L. Evans

The Intelligent Universe: AI, ET, and the Emerging Mind of the Cosmos
James Gardner
2007, 269 pages
Available from Amazon

DISCLOSURE: As it turns out, I attended grade school with Jim Gardner’s son.
I didn’t make the connection until I interviewed him a couple weeks ago. — Claire L. Evans

Sample Excerpts:
If the Selfish Biocosm hypothesis is correct, it means that we are not only the spawn of stardust, but the architects of star-laden universes yet to come. It means that physics and chemistry eerily adumbrate the details of biology in a very specific way and that the emergence of life and intelligence is a predictable climax to the impressive but lifeless symphony of inanimate nature. It means that, against all odds, the impersonal laws of nature have somehow – amazingly and miraculously — engineered their own comprehension. And, strangest of all, they have done so by catalyzing the evolution of a conscious primate on one obscure planet who dares to dream of uncovering the ultimate secrets of the entire universe.

The emergence of life and intelligence are not meaningless accidents in a hostile, largely lifeless cosmos but at the very heart of a vast machinery of creation, cosmological evolution, and cosmic replication.

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 into it as though it were 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 [Selfish Biocosm hypothesis], 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.

Above this hierarchy [Of biological life on Earth] floats the elegant grand dame of the whole shebang — our beautiful and perplexing cosmos — that was born from the loins of nothing at all and it waltzing inexorably toward a distant rendezvous with highly evolved life and intelligence, perhaps including our own progeny. And through it all, from Big Bang to Big Crunch to new Big Bang, from Alpha to Omega and back to Alpha, runs a great unstoppable river — an everlasting cosmic flood tide of counter-entropic energy that complexity theorist Stuart Kauffman memorably called the force of anti-chaos. That river, that tide, that force — is life itself.

There is at least a plausible hope that extraterrestrial civilizations and our own terrestrial civilization will eventually evolve toward a roughly equivalent state of intellectual competence, and that the forces of cultural evolution will someday, if only in the far distant future, converge in a manner that will make genuine interstellar communication possible, even among species that began the long trek toward sentience at very different starting points in time and space. If it eventually occurs, this moment of convergence might conceivably prove to be the opening motif in a cosmic concert of cultures — the sounding of a deep chord heralding the birth of a cosmic community.