EDGE 2 — January 6, 1997


An Interview with John Doerr


Scott McNealy, John Dvorak, Ted Leonsis, and Richard Shaffer on THE COACH (John Doerr)

"Implications of Natural Selection and The Laws of Physics:" Lee Smolin, Richard Dawkins, Nicholas Humphrey, Brian Goodwin, Jaron Lanier, George Johnson, Marcelo Gleiser; response by Lee Smolin

(7,983 words)

John Brockman, Editor and Publisher | Kip Parent, Webmaster


An Interview with John Doerr

DOERR: I'm an alumnus of Intel, possibly the best managed company in the country. A child of the microprocessor, a "refugee" from the semi-conductor industry. Before Intel I earned a degree in electrical engineering from Rice University in Houston Texas. Came to Silicon Valley in 1974 without a job — rented half a garage apartment near Stanford for $55 a month from a professor. Wanted to start a company with some friends and fancied that I'd apprentice myself to a venture capital firm. (Heard that venture capital had something to do with starting companies). However, in 1974 there weren't any summer jobs in venture capital.

Fortunately, Bill Davidow and Jim Lally hired me at a small chip-maker called Intel. Intel had just invented the 8-bit microprocessor. It was exciting. I stayed there through the remainder of the decade.

In 1980 I joined the partnership Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers (KPCB). Was lucky again, in the right place at the right time. In the early 80's the microprocessor was the common denominator for a whole industry of rapidly growing new companies. In fact from 1980 to 1990, the new companies based on the microprocessor helped create a hundred billion dollars a year revenues. And a hundred billion dollars of stock value. That's the largest single legal creation of wealth we've witnessed on the planet. In a decade. (In 1990 Microsoft was about a third of that value. KPCB sponsored new companies representing another third.) This summer I became a part-time political activist, helping organize the defeat of California's proposition 211.

BROCKMAN: Congratulations on Proposition 211.

DOERR: We're very grateful to the voters of California; it's terrific that it was defeated. Prop 211 was written by, and for, securities lawyers. It would have encouraged frivolous shareholder lawsuits threatening every company in the country and costing California 159,000 jobs. Several economists estimated the stock market would have declined 15%. That's trillions!

Defeating 211 was a big and broad effort. It needed to be a big effort. Think of frivolous lawsuits as a national business environmental issue - like a massive oil spill along the entire East, West and Gulf coasts. All the securities lawyers have to do is pass this legislation once, in one state, and the damage will be irreparable. So, until we get uniform national standards we must defeat the securities lawyers again and again.

BROCKMAN: How much of your time was involved?

DOERR: About 15% of my day time but most of my sleepless nights. I was worried. I didn't think we were going to win.

BROCKMAN: Did you set up an organization to run this project?

DOERR: It was like starting a new venture. We got great management team in place, raised money and got the word out. We had a terrific campaign manager and a lot of support from a broad coalition: the technology community, the media industry, banking, lawyers, accountants, educators, seniors, individuals, non-profits, labor, Democrats, Republicans - all pulled together.

BROCKMAN: Wasn't this a breakthrough in social consciousness for Silicon Valley?

DOERR: Yes, though it was a national issue. I think of Silicon Valley is a state of mind. We had volunteers and companies from Massachusetts and Washington, from Colorado to San Diego - from South Florida - all involved in this effort.

BROCKMAN: Funny, every time I utter the words "non-profit foundation" to digerati, their eyes glaze over as their heads slowly nod into hypnotic sleep.

DOERR: That's the conventional wisdom about Silicon Valley. But, often conventional wisdom is wrong. There's a growing sense of responsibility and philanthropy in our community. It's private, it's anonymous and it's personal, as opposed to corporate. As computing and communications converge, we're using public resources and airwaves to deliver our products and services. Privacy, encryption matter. Our greatest need is better educated citizens. The Valley (some would say finally) is growing up.

BROCKMAN: Is there a political career in your future?

DOERR: The only office I'm running for is partner of the next KPCB fund.

BROCKMAN: The people who rant against Bill Gates seem to forget how many jobs he has created. Can you project how many jobs you and your colleagues at KPCB have helped to create?

DOERR: At year-end 1995 - 131,000 jobs. Since the virtual corporation is the rage, every year we put together a virtual annual report. If viewed as a single keiretsu, at year end 1995 KPCB ventures had 44 billion in revenue - and were worth some 84 billion dollars. Obviously the credit for this goes to the entrepreneurs, but we're proud to have helped.

DOERR: Among the digerati, you're considered the default venture capitalist. What, exactly, do you do?

DOERR: We help assemble and then invest in a team of entrepreneurs or scientists. Usually the ventures are startups. Sometimes they're already going - I call those "speedups" (like Intuit, Shiva, or Amazon.com). Occasionally, we'll see a huge opportunity, like two way paging, or cable modems, and pull together "co-ventures" of entrepreneurs and corporate partners. MTEL/Destineer and @Home are examples. In the end, we're recruiters who pay you for the right to help build your team. You reward us with shares of stock. We both work like crazy to make the stock valuable.

Money is actually the easy part of the equation. There's lots of sources for money. Netscape is a good example. Co-founder Jim Clark personally had all of money needed to finance Netscape. However, he wanted the help in team-building. In a hundred twenty days or so after we shook hands, my partners and I helped Jim hire a world-class team: five vice presidents and an awesome CEO. Without that team, by now Netscape might have been killed by Microsoft. Last quarter was one hundred million dollars in revenue and they're at a four hundred million run rate. At two years old they're the 18th largest software company and most rapidly growing ever. Ideas are easy. Teams win.

BROCKMAN: Is there publishing business to be done on the Web?

DOERR: Absolutely. All Internet revenue is divided into three buckets. First, there's folks who make money principally from advertising. They're basically like our broadcast media but they're more personalized. Examples are Excite, Yahoo and C/Net - media businesses driven by advertising, supported by sponsors. Second, there are Web businesses which are based on subscription services. Sports Line, for example has a subscription service for tens of thousands of sports enthusiasts (typically white males). Many are betting on sports in office pools. It's a big business. TEN is the new Total Entertainment Network, a multiplayer game service. Another example would be the Wall Street Journal, which I understand now has some 40,000 subscribers paying $5 a month. They get advertising support as well. (It's not clear you can make it on subscriptions alone).

The third revenue source is transactions. Some of the compelling new web businesses are Amazon.com, OnSale.com, Preview Travel, or PC Order. Those businesses are growing faster than the natural growth rate of the Web, which still clocks in around 6% a week. A number of transaction companies are profitable already.

BROCKMAN: Is Amazon profitable?

DOERR: No, because Amazon's investing heavily to build their brand. Amazon's caused me to triple my book-buying budget. Friends like Marc Andreessen, Bill Gates and Bill Joy all complain (kiddingly) that Amazon's caused them to buy more books than ever before. On the other hand, Jerry Kaplan's OnSale.com auction is profitable. And Mark Andreessen and the Netscapers made 9 million dollars profit last quarter on a hundred million in revenue. That's less than two years after first commercial release.

BROCKMAN: Future of Netscape?

DOERR: Forrester Research forecasts the enterprise intranet market they address will be $10 billion in 2000. Who will get 40% share? 60% share? Netscape? Microsoft? A new player?

Ever since December 5, 1995, the trade press and industry insiders have believed Microsoft will drive Netscape out of business. Microsoft is an able and fierce competitor, who I admire a lot. Their monopoly in operating systems gives them lots of advantages. But The Net is such a large opportunity, its not likely to be a zero-sum game or binary outcome.

BROCKMAN: So is this so-called "browser war" a non-event?

DOERR: Hardly. Browsers, or clients, (soon to be "communicators") accounted for 60% of Netscape's revenue last quarter. So last quarter it was a $60 million dollar "non-event"? The battle is about browsers, but also about servers, APIs, object models, open directory standards, platform choice, and above all, new function.

The battle between Microsoft, the industry's more powerful company and Netscape may be the most titanic battle for market share we ever witness. Bigger than Coke vs. Pepsi. With far greater consequences. But bear in mind, in the heat of the battle, that the size of the opportunity - $10 billion in 2000 - overwhelms the ability of either Netscape or Microsoft to serve the market need.

BROCKMAN: What technology areas are most interesting to you?

DOERR: I have pretty broad, catholic (with a small "c") - interests. In the world of the Web and Net I'm keen on any technologies that will increase bandwidth - @Home, Ascend, Shiva, gigabit Ethernet, IP over SONET, multicast, more bandwidth. Those are huge opportunities. Java is the first real improvement in software technology in decades. And in the life sciences genomics and innovative medical devices are exciting. Also, there are huge opportunities to lower cost and improve outcomes in education and health care.

Have you read William Manchester's A World Lit Only By Fire? Just 300 years ago the European continent was covered with trees. Traveling from town to town you could cover 25 miles a day. The average life expectancy was 30 years. Chances are you'd be waylaid by robbers. The "roads" were muddy dirt paths. That was six to eight generations ago. The time of your grandfather's grandfather.

In less than five years today's "information highway" and internet will appear just as primitive as those medieval roads. Today's congested 45 Mbps IP backbones must become autobahns, real superhighways. 14% of American homes are online, typically at 14.4 dialup. We should enter the next century with high band connects available to at least 10% of American homes.

BROCKMAN: When is this realistically going to happen?

DOERR: It won't happen overnight, but be patient. The easiest way to figure this out is to head over to Fremont California and talk to @Home subscribers. 35 people signed up yesterday. They are well on their way to over a thousand. When will it happen?... maybe 5% of homes by the year 2000. Probably available to 10% of homes. This is hard infrastructure building, with backhoes and trenches. You've got to make sure your cable system is hybrid fiber coax - two-way capable. It won't be as rapid as when browsers took over the desktop. But it's inexorable. It will happen. And it will redefine the Net experience.

There was a piece on @Home by a reporter in the San Francisco Chronicle last Sunday. The company's been trying to keep a low profile. The Chronicle, however, found subscribers and interviewed them. They said, "now our PC is online all the time". One customer has @Home on in the bedroom. When they are interested in Thai massage they just type it in and find out about it. When there's no wait and the web's always on, it changes everything..

But, back to my interests. Bandwidth is one. I'm also interested in the sort of super-verticals, the opportunities to create new and compelling services. Like health care. We can now build applications and systems that will span lots of enterprises. The same is true of education. There's an appropriate role for technology in education and to connect parents and teachers and kids and administrators..

We're very enthusiastic about the revolution underway in molecular biology, our understanding of genomics, which is possibly the most interesting programming problem around. We now can understand the genetic basis for thousands of human diseases; breast cancer, obesity, diabetes and cystic fibrosis..

There's an amazing guy you ought to meet sometime, Eric Lander, who has a forecast in the current issue of Science magazine about where genomics goes from here. Lander is a fellow at the Whitehead Institute. He's a mathematician who taught courses on entrepreneurship at the Harvard. He was a co-founder of Millennium, a venture we backed in Cambridge Massachusetts. Millennium may be the finest collection of scientists working in genomics and understanding molecular basis of important diseases.

BROCKMAN: Now that 211 has been defeated, what are you going to do next?

DOERR: We need a new network that complements industry trade associations. It should spans industries and focus on key issues for our community, the Silicon Valley "state of mind".

The network should be responsible and effective, playing hardball politics to win, pursuing an agenda that is pro-education, pro-economic opportunity, pro-growth - and pro-legal reform. Even with the defeat of 211 our job is not done. We need a new framework of law and thinking to help us govern in the new economy. I, and many others, will help form that new network. We'll get a bunch of good people together, raise money, get a good management team in place and let 'em run.

BROCKMAN: Two years ago you said that the new companies in the PC industry went from zero to a hundred billion dollars in a decade, which was the largest legal creation of wealth we've ever seen on the planet.

DOERR: Right. And after the Netscape public offering, we started keeping track of the new Net companies. They are worth around 20 billion dollars in value today. That's less than 2 years into the mission.

It's easy to get dazzled with numbers, but more instructive to ask "why?" What's the underlying engine, the dynamic that's making this possible? If you oversimplify, the PC in the 80s was used to lower costs. It let us prepare manuscripts and do financial analyses. The big 4 applications were spread sheets, word processing, spreadsheets and word processing - and they lowered cost. The new Net applications lever the top line of an organization. Even if it's nonprofit. If it's an educational institution it helps it teach, if it's a hospital it helps heal. The new Net apps help us entertain, inform, inspire, communicate, educate, govern, collaborate — even make meaning out of life (and death).

BROCKMAN: I expect it will help my literary agency sell our clients' rights to our customers.

DOERR: It will help your agency sell and that's great. Top line leverage is much more important than below the line savings. Think of where we are in Net development as 10 seconds after the Big Bang. The laws of physics are in place but the universe is very young. We're very, very early in a revolution that's going to have long legs. I think it's conservative, even unadventuresome, to say the Net's going to be three times bigger than the PC. On a continuing basis for a decade. It may hit 30 on a Richter scale.

BROCKMAN: You're talking about the Net. Are you also talking about the Web?

DOERR: For the moment, yes. But distinguish. The Web is a very popular protocol on the Net. I suspect it will be augmented if not supplanted by other protocols. We're seeing innovative work already from companies, like Marimba, redefining the experience.

In fact as you pointed out, this notion of visiting places with browsers is something that our children will look back on as very antiquated, today the way we remember manual typewriters. In the near future we'll subscribe to information services, or in the Marimba paradigm there'll be transmitters and receivers that are delivering channels. It's about communication. That much is clear.

BROCKMAN: Where do Internet companies stand today with regard to the stock market.

DOERR: People believe the stock market has been really frothy, but I'm told that if you subtract Intel, Cisco and Microsoft from the S & P 500, the market is down 5% this year. We're in one of these rare periods of time that I would characterize as sane, and normal. Good companies can go public and have successful offerings. Those that are not yet ready to be public companies can't.

America's capital markets are an incredible treasure. They're a real economic advantage, and we need to preserve and nurture them. They are one of the ingredients that fuels entrepreneurial innovation. The possibility of financial independence, sending our kids to college, is the heart of the American dream.

BROCKMAN: What else?

DOERR: I like to play with my daughter. And we've just adopted another little baby girl, she's five weeks old. Sorry, I'm a bit sleep-deprived. My daughter and I like to ride bikes together and play games - Scrabble, Monopoly. She also likes chess - and changes the rules as she plays. Given my druthers I'd rather be hiking in the mountains than anywhere else.


Scott McNealy, John Dvorak, Red Leonsis, and Richard Shaffer on THE COACH (John Doerr)

Post: 1 Submitted:
From: Scott Mcnealy

John Doerr is the Eveready Bunny on steroids and hardwired to the Hoover Dam power plant. He burns brighter than mere mortals yet is one of the most human people I know. Everyone should have a friend like John.

Post: 2 Submitted:
From: John C. Dvorak

John Doerr is the Bill Gates of venture capitalists.

Post: 3 Submitted:
From: Ted Leonsis

John Doerr is always right. Always.

Post: 4 Submitted:
From: Richard Shaffer

Enjoyed your interview with John Doerr. Did you once tell me you were videotaping these sessions? Hope so, because I think it's difficult to convey an impression of John without watching him in action. A wag once called him the human hummingbird. Unflattering as that may be, it does help get across the sense of constant motion you feel around him — and his very high rate of intellectual metabolism. He's on the road more than most VCs I know. At industry conferences, he not only networks but pays attention to the program, which is rare. He's an enthisiast in the best sense of the word; John gets excited about the world around him, and that helps him inspire and guide. For a man who may be the most successful venture capitalist of the last decade, he's also surprisingly modest, particularly about the role of the VC. He often says, and I think believes, that what he does is much easier than actually running new companies. A coach, to use your word, is just how he thinks of himself.

"Implications of Natural Selection and The Laws of Physics" — Lee Smolin

Lee Smolin, Richard Dawkins, Nicholas Humphrey, Brian Goodwin, Jaron Lanier, George Johnson, Marcelo Gleiser; response by Lee Smolin

Post: 1 Submitted: 1-4-97
From: Lee Smolin

To: Richard Dawkins

I have two kinds of questions for Richard Dawkins about the further implications of evolutionary theory. These are about his responses to the ways that some of us physicists have been thinking about natural selection, both to try to apply our methods to biology as well as to use it to try to resolve the puzzles of our own science.

The first is about the possible applicability of the mechanism of natural selection outside of biology. Dawkins himself has invented the notion of the meme, an idea which propagates from mind to mind and survives as long as it reproduces itself. But there are a few of us who have wondered whether it might apply on a much larger scale, perhaps even to the laws of physics themselves. This seems a possibility that might be looked into as the current status of our search for a unified theory of all the interactions is that the best candidate so far-string theory, seems to have a large number of different solutions, each of which describes a different world. These worlds may differ in dimensionality as well as in the kinds of elementary particles and forces that are observed. They are something like different phases of the fundamental theory, rather analogous to the different phases of water, except there are many more. We cannot draw definite conclusions about this because we only have an approximate form of the theory under our control, but it seems possible that a principle is needed to pick out which combinations of particles and forces we find in our world that is not in the fundamental theory itself.

In this case it seems natural to wonder if some kind of historical explanation might account for how the actual particles and forces we see were picked out of a large set of possibilities. Such an explanation would have to account for the fact that it seems that the present set allows a much more complicated world-in terms of the existence of a large variety of different kinds of atoms and molecules-than the average set. This makes possible galaxies, stars and, of course, life. Some people have tried to account for this with the anthropic principle, but a few of us have felt that it might be possible to do better and explain it through a genuine mechanism of natural selection whereby regions of the universe reproduce themselves, with some small variations in the properties of the elementary particles and their forces. Given plausible assumptions about physics at very small scales, you can actually make such a theory work. I will not go into this here, but one can actually make a testable theory along these lines.

This idea was anticipated by the American pragmatist Charles Sanders Pierce, who wrote about a hundred years ago:

"To suppose universal laws of natural capable of being apprehended by the mind and yet having no reason for their special forms, but standing inexplicable and rational, is hardly a justifiable position. Uniformities are precisely the sort of facts that need to be accounted for. Law is par excellence the thing that wants a reason. Now the only way of accounting for the laws of nature, and uniformity in general, is to suppose them results of evolution."

I would thus be very curious what Richard Dawkins thinks of the possibility that the logic of natural selection might apply to the laws of nature and the history of the universe itself.

My second question is what Dawkins thinks of the possibility that collective effects can occur in systems in which many species are evolving together via natural selection. For example, Per Bak, Maya Paczuski, their collaborators and others have simple models of many species evolving together in which the system as a whole reaches a self-organized critical state in which one sees collective effects including punctuated equilibrium and a power law distribution of extinctions (both of which are observed in nature.) To physicists such as myself these do not seem in conflict with the point of view of Dawkins, but it seems also necessary to take these kinds of effects into account as they can occur in a system of many selfish genes interacting in such a way that their "extended phenotypes" overlap. I have the impression from some conversations and remarks that some evolutionary theorists dismiss this mistakenly as a kind of mystification. I would be very curious what Dawkins thinks of these issues.

Lee Smolin

Post: 2 Submitted: 1-4-97
From: Richard Dawkins

To: Lee Smolin

I have long been intrigued by Dr Smolin's idea of a natural selection of universes. It is the only correct way known to me of applying the word 'evolution' to cosmology. Usually, when people speak of the 'evolution' of the universe, they mean 'development' (an individual animal develops, changes in its own structure, it does not evolve. A lineage evolves, and it is an individual sequence of successive developments. Authors speak of stars 'evolving'. Stars do not evolve, they develop. For things to evolve, they have to give birth to a changing lineage of daughter things.

The reason Smolin's idea is interesting is that it may answer the challenge, "The universe is too good to be true. It looks like a put-up job." But, note that the Smolin hypothesis cannot be used to account in particular for the BIOLOGICAL part of that "too good to be true". Smolinian selection may account for the fact that our universe has the necessary constants, dimensionality and laws to last for last for a long time (not fizzle out or crunch immediately its initiating bang), long enough to spawn daughter universes (and INCIDENTALLY long enough to breed life). But Smolinian selection cannot account for the fact that our universe is specifically congenial to life, or to intelligent life, or to us. My negative conclusion would break down only if life itself is in the habit of engineering the spawning of daughter universes. As far as I am aware, this hasn't been suggested, but it is, I suppose, a theoretical possibility that daughter universes are generated as a consequence of the fooling around of highly evolved physicists.

Note that any Darwinian theory depends upon the prior existence of the strong phenomenon of heredity. There have to be self replicating entities (in a population of such entities) that spawn daughter entities more like themselves than the general population. This appears to be true of the Smolin model of Darwinian universes. It is certainly true of the normal Darwinian selection of genes I suspect that it is not true of the "collective effects" mentioned at the end of Smolin's note. I suspect that these collective effects are best handled in an alternative way. Replicators (such as genes) flourish in their environment, but what is often forgotten is that an important part of the environment is the other genes. Therefore you get mutually compatible partnerships evolving, NOT because the partnerships themselves are units of selection but because the lower level units (genes or whatever the replicators are) are selected for their mutual compatibility. I suspect that this may be what Smolin means when he says 'in a system of many selfish genes interacting in such a way that their "extended phenotypes" overlap.'

But this may not be very coherent since I am suffering from flu (like most other people in England at the moment).

Richard Dawkins

Post: 3 Submitted: 1-5-97
From: Nicholas Humphrey

Smolin refers to C.S.Pierce as having anticipated the idea that the universe evolved by some kind of selection. But there was a much earlier statement of a similar idea by Denis Diderot in his "Letter on the Blind, for the Use of Those who See" published in 1749. In this "Letter" he imagines the blind Cambridge mathematician and atheist, Nicholas Saunderson, arguing furiously with a clergyman about whether or not the existence of order and beauty in nature implies the existence of a divine creator. In an extraordinarily prescient passage, he first discusses how living animals might have evolved by competitive elimination of "unfit" forms, and then goes on to argue that what was true of animals might have been true of the universe as a whole. The following is Jonathan Kemp's 1937 translation:

"You may imagine, if you wish, that that order which impressed you has always existed. But leave me free to think it has done no such thing, and that if we went back to the birth of things and of time, and perceived matter in motion and chaos becoming unravelled, we should encounter a multitude of shapeless beings instead of a few highly organized beings. . . I can maintain to you that . . monsters annihilated one another in succession; that all the defective combinations of matter have disappeared, and that there have only survived those in which the organization did not involve any important contradiction, and which could subsist by themselves and perpetuate themselves. . .

"But why should I not believe about worlds what I believe about animals? How many worlds, mutilated and imperfect, were perhaps dispersed, reformed and are perhaps dispersing again at every moment in distant space, which I cannot touch and you cannot see, but where motion continues, and will continue, to combine masses of matter until they shall have attained some arrangement in which they can persist. O philosophers, transport yourselves with me to the confines of the universe; move over that new ocean, and seek among its irregular movements some trace of the intelligent Being whose wisdom so astounds you here!"

Post: 4 Submitted: 1-6-97
From: Brian Goodwin

I think that Lee Smolin's ideas about the differential abundance of universes that have different degrees of self-reproductive potential are extremely interesting, not to mention other similaritites he has identified between biological and physical processes such as excitability in galactic dynamics and the properties of autonomous agents. However, there is a fundamental point that needs to be clarified in order to pursue these analogies (possible homologies). In physics, the objects of investigation (e.g., the elements, superconductors, galaxies) are all regarded as natural kinds - that is, structures generated by dynamic processes that have distinctive intrinsic natures described by the causal factors at work in their production and maintenance. In the current biological view of evolution (i.e., Darwinism, or NeoDarwinism), the fundamental objects of study (species) are not natural kinds. They are historical individuals, accidental conglomerations of parts (characters originally, now genes) that have passed the survival test. The philosopher of biology, David Hull, has given definitive expression to these concepts. So looking for analogies between evolutionary and physical processes may get bedevilled by this basic difference of explanatory mode between the two subjects: biology as a historical science (no natures, only contingencies), physics as a rational science that has both contingent factors (e.g., initial and boundary conditions) and causal dynamics that explain intrinsic natures. My own view is that Darwinism is a scientific aberration that needs to be embedded in a more comprehensive dynamic theory that will bring it into line with the rational tradition in science. Then life and its manifestations can be understood as expressions of intrinsic organisational principles in particular states of matter (those we call living). Species, the attractors of this dynamic order, are then natural kinds, though of course their manifestation requires particular contingencies, just as does carbon or water.

In relation to Lee's particular enquiry, natural selection operating on universes that vary with respect to reproductive potential would be a perfectly natural expectation. What this shows is that natural selection, seen from the perspective of dynamical systems, is a statement about dynamic stability: those entities that make more of themselves (other things being equal) will tend to predominate. But natural selection in biology does not explain anything about the entities to which it gives rise, except that they survive (tautology), and this is as far as current evolution theory goes. Some of us are exloring explanations of life and its expression in species and other taxa at a somewhat deeper level than this, akin to the causal explanations used in physics. This of course is within the tradition that goes back to Goethe, Cuvier, Geoffroy St Hilaire and includes W. Bateson, D'Arcy Thompson, Needham, and Waddington. A recent book dealing with the conceptual issues is: Form and Transformation: Generative and Relational Principles in Biology, by Gerry Webster and Brian Goodwin. Cambridge UP, 1996. Excuse the advertising. I hope that Lee's query will initiate a dialogue on all these issues.

Brian Goodwin

Post: 5 Submitted: 1-7-97
From: Jaron Lanier

The most intriguing passage in Lee Smolin's note is the assertion that inheritance, selection, and evolution among universes is a testable idea. I would love to know more about this.

It's possible to derive mathematics from the most minimal initial ideas, and that makes it all the more annoying that the physical universe seems to arise from quirky and seemingly irreducible features. The program of finding an evolutionary reduction of the arbitrariness of cosmology is vulnerable, however, to falling into an infinite regress. There would have to have been some proto-cosmology analogous to the primordial soup that launched life, and then the question would be whether THAT had evolved. (This is not a problem for biology, since biology doesn't have to explain its origin from a void, only from chemicals.) Is it possible to pose ultimately simple, non arbitrary, initial conditions that could give rise to an evolution of physical universes?

It might be the case that there's only a layer of evolution that has risen from non-trivial initial conditions that were themselves not evolved, but that would make our universe out to be even more capricious than we had initially feared.



Post: 6 Submitted: 1-10-97
From: George Johnson

The exchange between Dr. Smolin and Dr. Dawkins reminded me of a theme that obsessed me while I was writing Fire in the Mind. If you'll allow me to quote from the book:

"Traditionally, biology has been seen as a historical science, while physics is regarded as a search for absolutes. Physicists seek that which is constant throughout the universe. Biologists are supposed to be content to pick their way through the accretion of mechanisms and mechanisms built on top of mechanisms that evolution happened to lay down on earth, to describe natural artifices — organisms — that, with a different roll of the Darwinian dice, would be unrecognizable to us. But this division between physics and biology seems to be breaking down. Biologists like Stuart Kauffman are looking for timeless truths, principles of complexity — laws of the organism that might be reflected in all creatures, domestic or extraterrestrial, and even in metaorganisms like societies and economies. Conversely, physicists are seeking signs of contingency in the way the universe happened to crystallize from the big bang. Perhaps the particles and forces we observe and the laws they obey are 'frozen accidents,' just like biological structures. If so, it would be no more required that we have neutrinos than that we have hemoglobin, no more necessary that we have four fundamental forces than twelve ribs and thirty-three vertebrae."

Post: 7 Submitted: 1-10-97
From: Marcelo Gleiser

On chapter 6 of The Dancing Universe I start a discussion of how premature it is to attribute "intelligent design" to the Universe, when we don't even understand our own intelligence. I identify the discovery of "complex patterns" in Nature as a consequence of a brain that is the product of natural selection; as identifying complex patterns is one of our brains foremost powers, "finding" them is easy too. In a sense, this means that we are trapped within our one modes of functioning, so that our reconstruction of Nature is inherently "human".

Post: 8 Submitted: 1-11-97
From: Lee Smolin

The idea of cosmological natural selection is one that was concocted out of desparation, out of the apparent failure of string theory to lead to unique predictions for the spectrum of elementary particles. It took me a long time to take it seriously, I have recently been pleased to see that some biologists and astronomers do seem to think its plausible, if, of course, unproven.

As for Richard Dawkin's point that cosmological natural selection could not account for life in the universe, I think that there is a possibility that it might, or at least could go a long way in this direction. The reason is that carbon chemistry seems to play an important role in the processes that govern star formation. The clouds out of which stars form cool themselves to temperatures of as low as 10 degrees above absolute zero through processes in which carbon and oxygen play the key role. The main mechanism of cooling is believed to be rotational transitions of CO, the clouds are also filled with dust grains that are made largely of carbon, these serve both to shield the interiors of the clouds from star light and as sites for molecular binding. This is not nearly all of the role that carbon chemistry plays in astrophysics, but it gives a hint: it seems that the existence of carbon chemistry might be explained by cosmological natural selection because without it not so many massive stars that become black holes would be formed. Other conditions necessary for life, such as the fact that the universe has stars might also be explained by cosmological natural selection.

For me this is enough for the present, but two people I know have suggested that intellegent life might make a universe more fit, because they would make many black holes. Louis Crane, a mathematician who has contributed a lot to topics related to quantum gravity, has suggested that far in the future, after all the stars have burnt out, intellegent beings would make small black holes so as to provide energy and keep warm from the Hawking radiation. A great many small black holes would be necessary for this! Edward Harrison, a distinguished astrophysicst, has suggested that intellegent being, having figured out the game, might make black holes just to increase the probability of life like ourselves in future universes.

I myself prefer to let people far in the future worry about such things, and concentrate on the question of testing predictions from the original idea, on which some progress it seems can be made.

About Richard Dawkins response to my query about collective effects in natural selection: I am trying to suggest that his view is completely compatible with the behavior of the models of Bak and Kauffman. It is true that heridity strictly speaking is not necessary to get the kinds of collective effects one sees in some of the models of Per Bak and collaborators, where the only attribute things have is a number corresponding to fitness, and the only rule is that things with a lower fitness number are most likely to become extinct and be replaced by an entity with a random fitness. This is enough to get effects like power law distributions of extinctions (which is apparently what is observed and punctuated equilibrium.) But this is only a very simple model designed to explore such effects, the idea is that when the fitness is defined by the actual properties of the organism and its relation to its environment, it gets its meaning from heridity. That is, it is possible to model systems with heridity by using only an abstract attribute of fitness. But the model would not be relevant to biology were there not heridity. So I agree with the point that the genes are the units of selection, and that this is sufficient to understand collective effects, such as "partnerships". But I do also suspect that one needs to concepts that come from the study of self-organized critical systems to understand the general systematics of the history of life, such as rates of extinction.

What Brian Goodwin says is very provocative, because of his use of the concept of "natural kinds". The idea is that as he puts it, there are "structures that are generated by dynamical processes that have inrinsic natures described by the causal processes at work in their production and maintanence." Certainly there are things like this, and it is important to study them from this point of view. But I think there are some important things we don't know about them: Just how complex can such a thing be, in the absence of heridity, or control under some entity utilyzing coded information (i.e. DNA, RNA)? There certainly are such systems, such as the disks of spiral galaxies, that do appear to have spontaneously organized themselves. As there are enormous numbers of examples, it really seems that galaxies might be considered natural kinds. But they are much less complex than living things. Second, there perhaps are intrinsic organizational principles in non-equilibrium statistical physics, and I am among those who think the search for them is worth undertaking. But the burden is on us to find these principles and understand their scope. Third, I am not sure how powerful a concept of natural kinds can be in the absence of a general framework of natural selection. Perhaps I am reading in, but I suspect this concept carries with it a kind of Platonism, in which one imagines that one could enumerate and classify before hand all the possible "natural kinds". I think it is worth wondering whether this is even possible in principle. If not, then a science of natural kinds might be itself necessarily at least partly historical, and thus tied to the framework of evolution by natural selection.

Finally, to Jaron Lanier's point, yes of course, but there is nothing to prevent us from going step by step. If cosmological natural selection, or an idea like it, is going to be useful, it is going to be because 1) it leads to real predictions about what would happen if the parameters that come into fundamental physics were chosen differently, that are not contradicted by what we can deduce from our best astrophysical theory and observation and 2) our understanding of the fundamental principles of physics, (one candidate is string theory, or better the unknown exact theory behind string theory) leaves us in a situation in which there are many possible versions of elementary particle physics consistent with it. For the present, both of these conditions appear to be satisfied.


Copyright ©1997 by Edge Foundation, Inc.


Home | Digerati | Third Culture | The Reality Club | Edge Foundation, Inc.

EDGE is produced by iXL, Inc.
Silicon Graphics Logo

This site sponsored in part by Silicon Graphics and is authored and served with WebFORCE® systems. For more information on VRML, see vrml.sgi.com.