Lee Smolin [5.30.06]


...there is a deep relation between Einstein's notion that everything is just a network of relations and Darwin's notion because what is an ecological community but a network of individuals and species in relationship which evolve?  There's no need in the modern way of talking about biology for any absolute concepts for any things that were always true and will always be true.


Last year Edge received an invitation from Juan Insua, Director of Kosmopolis, a traditional literary festival in Barcelona, to stage an event at Kosmopolis 05 as part of an overall program "that ranges from the lasting light of Cervantes to the (ambiguous) crisis of the book format, from a literary mapping of Barcelona's Raval district to the dilemma raised by the influence of the Internet in the kitchen of writing, from the emergence of a new third culture humanism to the diverse practices that position literature at the core of urban creativity."

Something radically new is in the air: new ways of understanding physical systems, new focuses that lead to our questioning of many of our foundations. A realistic biology of the mind, advances in physics, information technology, genetics, neurobiology, engineering, the chemistry of materials: all are questions of capital importance with respect to what it means to be human.

Charles Darwin's ideas on evolution through natural selection are central to many of these scientific advances. Lee Smolin, a theoretical physicist, Marc D. Hauser, a cognitive neuroscientist, and Robert Trivers, an evolutionary biologist, travelled to Barcelona last October to explain how the common thread of Darwinian evolution has led them to new advances in their respective fields.

The evening was presented by Eduard Punset, host of the internationally-viewed Spanish-language science television program Redes, and a best-selling author in Spain. A Redes television program based on the event was broadcast throughout Spain and Latin America.

The house was packed. The Barcelona press was present (see El PaisLa VanguardiaEl PaisEl Mundo, and a cover story in "Culturas", the magazine fo La Vanguardia).

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(LEE SMOLIN:) I'm a theoretical physicist, and I'm here to talk about natural selection and Darwin.  The main thing that I'll have to communicate is why somebody who thinks about what the laws of nature are has something to say about Darwin and the impact and the role of Darwin in our contemporary thinking over all fields. 

But as a way of getting into that, I want to say something—and you're going to hate me for this—about John.  When John talks about the Third Culture, what he has done, besides create the idea, is create a group of people.  I don't know if it's a community, there are very close friendships in it, many of which—in my case they are with people whom I met through John.  This conversation that he talks about is a real conversation, which, at least as far as I know, was not happening and would not be happening were it not for John. 

I think it is not so usual that John appears with the people whom he talks about and writes about and it is wonderful to be here with him.  So I wanted to say ‘thank you' publicly because when I started to think about Darwinism, I didn't know any biologists and I didn't know any psychologists—the academic world is very narrow—and I didn't know any artists or digerati.  It is because of this involvement that I met many of the people I admired and whose work has inspired me. 
Now I want to make a claim and my claim is that while Darwin's ideas are certainly completely absorbed and verified within biology, the whole impact of Darwin's ideas is as still yet to be absorbed and felt and the impact is going to happen in my field of theoretical physics and cosmology and I see it happening in other fields –mathematics, social fields, and so forth.  Also I want to make a hypothesis about why—and I'll speak about my field because I don't have any rights to speak about another field, but I think the resonances and the similarities are there. 

In my field, two things happened in the 20th century that we're absorbing.  One of them is Einstein and the revolution of physics started by Einstein, both relativity theory and quantum theory. And I'm going to claim in my brief time—I'm not going to have time to fully justify—that the main development and the main meaning of Einstein's contribution is closely related to the main meaning of Darwin's contribution.  At least I'll say why in a few minutes.

The other thing that's happened in my field, and this has been accelerating really for the last five years—I can't see the audience, so I don't know if any of my friends who are physicists here in Barcelona are here in the audience, but I think they will agree that a very strange thing has happened to our field, which is that we used to think that the purpose of theoretical physics was to understand what the laws of nature are—to learn the laws of nature—and we're not done with that.  But what we've discovered on the way is that we really have to answer a different question—and for our field a very new question—which is, why these laws and not other laws? 

I don't actually believe it's going to work all the way through, but the most successful approach to putting all the laws together and unifying physics is string theory and in the last few years we've learned that there are an infinite number of these theories, and the best we can do looking for a unified theory so far is to have an infinite list of theories, one of which might describe our universe.  So the question has gone from, what are the laws? to, why these laws and not other laws?  Now I think that the only rational way to approach that question is through Darwin's thinking, that is, through evolution by natural selection. 

If  I had been an educated person rather than a narrowly-educated person in science, I would have known the quotation that I'm going to read to you, which is from the 1890s from the American philosopher Charles Pierce, who was one of the founders of the philosophical school called ‘pragmatism.'  Already in the 1890s he was worrying about the question of, why these laws, which shows that sometimes philosophers really are a century ahead of the scientists. 

He wrote—and I'll read it slowly so that a translator can get it:

"To suppose universal laws of nature capable of being apprehended by the mind and yet having no reason for their special forms but standing inexplicable and irrational is hardly a justifiable position."  He's saying, it's not enough to know what the laws are, you want to ask why these laws, and just to say ‘these are the laws, tough,' is irrational and unjustifiable. He says: "Uniformities are precisely the sorts of facts that need to be accounted for.  Law is par excellence the thing that wants a reason."  And now here his thesis is this: "The only possible way of accounting for the laws of nature, and for uniformity in general, is to suppose them the results of evolution."  By which, from the context, we know it's evolution by natural selection because he was fully absorbing the impact of Darwinism and that's a lot of what his philosophy and the American Pragmatists' philosophy was about.

In my own work, I began to worry about this problem about 15 years ago—why these laws and not other laws—and I went looking for a method to attack that problem because there's another side to that problem, which is that the laws we happen to have are very special.  The laws we happen to have have a number of free constants that can be freely adjusted and about 25 years ago, Martin Rees and colleagues—these are great cosmologists and astrophysicists—began to realize that if you varied these numbers—these numbers refer to things like the mass of the elementary particles, the mass of the electron, the mass of the proton, the strengths of the different forces—the world we live in would fall apart. 

Imagine that the universe can be set up by a dial—by a machine with a set of dials where you dial these constants.  If you go away—in any direction—from the settings of the dials that we have, there's no more stars, there's no more hundred-something nuclei which are stable, there is just hydrogen. There's no structure, there's no energy, the world is just dead internal equilibrium. 

So the fact that we live in a world which is as complex as it is, which has stars that live for billions of years, which enables life to evolve on planets, which is a process that takes hundreds of millions to billions of years, is due to these constants being finely-tuned—the dials being precisely tuned.  They were worried by that and most of the people who found it are sort of liberal British Anglicans, and they have an answer that vaguely has something to do with God, or is something which is logically equivalent to God.  And I was disturbed by that, and was looking for an alternative which would be a scientific explanation of how the dials got turned. 

At about that time, somebody gave me a book by Richard Dawkins and I started to read it and it opened up my eyes to the kinds of explanations which are possible in biology. I copied it and I made a little cosmological theory that I don't have time to tell you about, but I might in the discussion discuss, in which these dials get tuned by a process which is just like natural selection. 

It works better than the theory that it was made by God or is logically equivalent to made-by-God in that—and I think that this is characteristic of biology and Darwinian thought/Darwinism—The process of natural selection produces not just what we see, but a whole very complicated set of interrelations among the different species and among the individuals of the species which leads to predictions that these guys can test.  Similarly, the style of Darwinian thought and cosmology and physics has led to predictions that we could test.  That impressed me very deeply and I started to look into it more and, as I started to look into it more, I began to see a connection with what really was the field I was trained in, which is relativity and quantum theory. 

Roughly speaking the connection is the following—and I'm just going to say some key words and define them and key statements and then, if people want, I can elaborate on it—What did Einstein do, in one sentence?  Before Einstein—and what this has to do with is the nature of space and the nature of time—physics, which was based on Newton's physics, was formulated the following way: there's a fixed absolute space, it's eternal, it goes on forever, it was always there, and particles come and move around in this space, and they have all their properties defined with respect to that space. 

The space never changes.  Similarly, time is absolute, flows whether anything's happening or not, the same way: in a certain sense, space and time are outside the phenomena that we observe and prior to it.  And Newton believed that for a good reason, which is, he believed that space was really God's way of sensing his creation. These were really theological ideas for Newton and they became how people did science.

Einstein replaced that with another idea, which is much more common-sense, which is that what space is is a system of relations amongst things in the world.  Where this pen is in space is not some absolute thing that only God can see, it's where it is relative to the glass, the bottle, Mark here, and so forth.  So space has no meaning apart from a network of relationships and time is nothing but change in that network of relationships.  And that was an idea that some philosophers—of course we scientists don't pay attention to philosophers, I said—but some philosophers, like Leibnitz and Mach had been arguing for against the success of Newton's physics.

But it was Einstein who first took these ideas and made them into science, and made them into science which, as far as we know, is true, is much better science than the previous Newton science. So the changes from a world in which things exist against an absolute preexisting framework to a world which is nothing but a network of relations, where change is nothing but change in those relations.

Now here's something that's fascinating: we draw pictures in our work—when I work on the theory of space-time and quantum space—we draw pictures which are networks of relations and how they change in time and our pictures look just like pictures of ecological networks that these people study.  Or the Internet.  Or networks of people in interaction, in social interaction.  And we began to notice that: why do our pictures look the same as these pictures from biology and social theory and the Internet and so forth?  I think the reason is that there is a deep relation between Einstein's notion that everything is just a network of relations and Darwin's notion because what is an ecological community but a network of individuals and species in relationship which evolve?  There's no need in the modern way of talking about biology for any absolute concepts for any things that were always true and will always be true.

That what I think is important about Darwin and, again, why I think that it's closely related to Einstein's ideas.  It's just the start of what I hope is a conversation.

Let me close by saying what's the scariest idea for me because these are really revolutionary ideas and that means that they're scary to those of us who think about them. We look forward to the generation to whom they will not be scary, which will mean that the revolution is over and we can go and have fun—not that we don't have fun, but they can take over. 

The scary thing is that if the laws evolve, what does that really mean?  If what we're used to thinking of as laws which are absolutely true, true for all time—the phrase 'God-given' comes to mind because that's how the founders of modern physics like Newton thought about them. If laws instead become, as Pierce said, explainable through a process of evolution, then that means time is very real, in a way that it is not in other representations of physics. 

But it's also very scary because we're used to thinking of laws as absolute and if laws evolve, then at least I and the people I work with get very confused.  What does it mean?  Is there nothing? What is guiding the evolution?  Are there just other laws, which you guys don't have to worry about because you have our laws to hold things steady, but when our laws start to evolve, is there anything under anything / everything?  Or is it possible that people in the future, when this revolution that Einstein started is over, will be perfectly comfortable living in a world described the philosopher Pierce in which there is nothing to laws but this temporary momentary result of an on-going process of evolution.

LEE SMOLIN, a theoretical physicist, is the founding member and research physicist at the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo Canada. He is the author of The Life of The Cosmos, Three Roads to Quantum Gravity, and the recently published The Trouble With Physics: The Rise of String Theory, The Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next.

Lee Smolin's Edge Bio Page