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Out of Control

A swarm of honeybees absconds from the hive and then dangles in a cluster from a tree branch. If a nearby beekeeper is lucky, the swarm settles on a branch that is easy to reach. The bees, gorged with honey and no longer protecting their brood, are as docile as ladybugs.

I've found a swarm or two in my time hung no higher than my head, and I've moved them into an empty hive box for my own. The way you move 10,000 bees from a tree branch into a box is one of life's magic shows.

If there are neighbors watching you can impress them. You lay a white sheet or large piece of cardboard on the ground directly under the buzzing cluster of bees. You then slide the bottom entrance lip of an empty hive under one edge of the sheet so that the cloth or cardboard forms a gigantic ramp into the hive's opening. You pause dramatically, and then you give the branch a single vigorous shake.

The bees fall out of the tree in a single clump and spill onto the sheet like churning black molasses. Thousands of bees crawl over each other in a chaotic buzzing mass. Then slowly, you begin to notice something. The bees align themselves toward the hive opening and march into the entrance as if they were tiny robots under one command. And they are. If you bend down to the sheet and put your nose near the pool of crawling bees, you can smell a perfume like roses. You can see that the bees are hunched over and fanning their wings furiously as they walk. They are emitting the rose smell from a gland in their rear ends and fanning the scent back to the troops behind them. The scent says, "The queen is here. Follow me." The second follows the first and the third the second and five minutes later the sheet is almost empty as the last of the swarm sucks itself into the box.

The first life on Earth could not put on that show. It was not a matter of lacking the right variation. There simply was no room in all of the possibilities accorded by its initial genes for such a wild act. To use the smell of a rose to coordinate 10,000 flying beings into a purposeful crawling beast was beyond early life's reach. Not only had early life not yet created the space -- worker bee, queen relationship, honey from flowers, tree, hive, pheromones -- -- in which to stage the show, it had not created the tools to make the space.

Nature dispenses breathtaking diversity because its charter is open ended. Life did not confine itself to producing its dazzling variety within the limited space of the few genes it first made. On the contrary, one of the first things life discovered was how to create new genes, more genes, variable genes, and a bigger genetic library.

A book in Borges's Library spans a million genes; a hi-resolution Hollywood movie frame, 30 million. Yet as immense as the libraries built out of these are, they are only a dust mote in the meta-library of all possible libraries.

It is one of the hallmarks of life that it continues to enlarge the space of its own being. Nature is an ever-expanding library of possibilities. It is an open universe. At the same time that life turns up the most improbable books from the Library shelves, it is adding new wings to the collection, making room for more of its improbable texts.

We don't know how life crossed the threshold from fixed gene space to variable gene space. Perhaps it was one particular gene's duty to determine the total number of genes in the chromosome. Then by mutating that one gene, the sum of genes in the string would increase or decrease. Or the size of the genome might have been indirectly determined by more than one gene. Or, more likely, genome size is determined by the structure of the genetic system itself.

Tom Ray showed that in his world of self-replicators, variable genome length emerged instantaneously. His creatures determined their own genome (and thus the size of their possible libraries) in a range from his unexpectedly short "22" to one creature that was 23,000 bytes long.

The consequence of an open genome is open evolution. A system which predetermines what each gene must do or how many genes there are can only evolve to predetermined boundaries. The first systems of Dawkins, Latham, Sims and the Russian El-Fish programmers were grounded by this limitation. They may generate all possible pictures of a given size and depth, but not all possible art. A system that does not predetermine the role or number of genes can shoot the moon. This is why Tom Ray's critters stir such excitement. In theory, his world, run long enough, could evolve anything in the ultimate Library.