January 24, 2003
When will we solve the riddle of life?
Evolutionary theory has greatly enhanced our understanding of how life developed, and has been embraced by all reputable scientists. But much about life’s origin and the mechanisms that propel evolution remain mysterious. How was life first created? Did life begin with RNA or proteins? Were they both involved? Such questions have spawned many controversies within the scientific community.
Now a new branch of research, called the “sciences of complexity,” offers novel ways to explore these questions. Complexity theorists use computers to develop models of living systems. They are guided by the theory of “emergent order,” which shows that systems behave in ways that cannot be explained by studying their components alone. After all, even the interactions of the simplest living creatures can be much too complicated to predict. As Richard Morris puts it, “For that matter, scientists cannot explain why a little whirlpool forms when the plug is pulled in the bathtub if they rely only on their knowledge of the behavior of water molecules.”
In their laboratories, complexity scientists have been experimenting with complex chemicals that display some of the characteristics of life, and have created electronic computer-virus-like life-forms that are born, die, reproduce, mutate, and evolve. Through these artificial worlds they have actually been able to monitor evolution as it happens, since it takes place at a much more rapid pace within a computer – where new species can evolve in as little as an hour. Among the phenomena that the scientists hope to observe are the evolution of multicellular life forms, and possibly even the evolution of electronic intelligence. Could it be that life itself is an emergent property that arises spontaneously when a chemical system attains a certain degree of complexity?
At the cutting edge of discovery, this exciting new branch of science has fostered a rare and intriguing dialogue between innovators across a broad range of disciplines, from mathematicians, computer scientists, and economists, to anthropologists and biologists. Richard Morris makes this major field of inquiry accessible to a popular readership as never before, while he reveals its potential to solve the greatest of all questions to puzzle humankind – what is life?
Richard Morris is the author of nearly a dozen books explaining the wonders and intricacies of the scientific world. Among these are Achilles in the Quantum Universe (Henry Holt, 1997), Cosmic Questions (John Wiley & Sons, 1993), The Edges of Science (Prentice-Hall, 1990), The Nature of Reality (McGraw-Hill, 1987), and Time’s Arrows (Simon & Schuster, 1985). He has a Ph.D. in theoretical physics from the University of Nevada. He currently resides in San Francisco California.