What Evolution Doesn’t Tell Us

Evolution is an excellent theory that explains how life could have changed over time through natural selection. But in order for evolution to make sense, it has to start with living things. Evolution doesn’t explain how life got started. If we had that explanation we could start new forms of life from scratch. We can’t do that.

So to explain life, we need 1) evolution to explain how life changes over time, and 2) another theory that explains how to start life from scratch.

If we took a bunch of elemental matter and mixed it together so that part of it formed genetic material and the other parts sucked in energy and used it to activate the genetic material to make a continuous self-correcting form of organization, then it reproduced offspring with that genetic material and at least some of these offspring did the same for many generations, most people would say that this matter was alive. That would be starting a new form of life from scratch.

No molecule of any sort would count as genetic material if it couldn’t be activated to replicate itself. And we have no idea what molecules could theoretically be genetic material, because we don’t know how genetic material is activated. So the missing part of the explanation for life can really be summarized as, “What process activates the genetic material?”

This is the question that epistolution is designed to answer. This question does not overlap at all with the questions that evolution answers. It is a pre-requisite problem to the evolution problem. There would be nothing to evolve if something had not first used epistolution (or something like it) to activate something that then became genetic material.

The activation of genetic material has certainly been shaped by evolution, but this doesn’t explain how it works. The process has been taken to new dizzying heights of complexity and majestic functionality with evolution, and every living thing no matter how simple or how complex has been continuously doing this process all its life. But we still have no idea what in fact anything that is alive is doing to stay that way. To explain it we have to actually invent theories about genetic activation and then test them.

In order for a theory of genetic activation in organisms to work, it has to fit with every observable fact about living creatures on Earth, because every single one of them activates genetic material at every moment while they are living. It has to explain all the phenomena that we see in every organism, including especially ourselves, because presumably we are the hardest to explain. All the fundamentals of life, including the parts that are hard to account for have to be explained in this theory. Some of these questions might include why many animals sleep and dream, why lifespans are so extremely variable, why starvation makes organisms live longer, why optical illusions work, why we have morality, why humans are creating more universal rights, what general intelligence is, why we transmit symbolic memes, why the placebo effect works, why we experience beauty in sunsets, why we invented God, why we fear death, and so forth. It might even give us some tiny clues as to what consciousness is, and how we might create artificial consciousness one day.

This is a tall order, but there is a good caveat. We can leave entirely out of the theory all the facts that are already explained by evolution. There is nothing wrong with the theory of evolution. It already works fine, and it explains a lot about how organisms came to be shaped the way they are. It just doesn’t explain how they work. The reason why the unexplained questions about life are so important here is that they are the only clues we have that point us toward the solution to our problem. The things that are not explained are like a map leading us to the solution, so we need to follow all the pointers we can find.

Epistolution is the first guess that I am aware of that squarely addresses this problem in a realistic way and proposes a testable theory.

Any theory of genetic activation has to grapple with the problem of context. Our genes are activated by our interactions with the world. As I wrote in my article “Epistolution for Kids,”

Genes are turned on and off by long loops of causation…Imagine a string of dominoes set up in a circle. If you tip one, each one knocks over another one until eventually the domino falls back at the start. Making proteins is like that. If there is a need in the cell for a certain protein, the loop of dominoes goes faster and the cell makes more. If there are already enough of that protein, the dominoes go slower…The problem is that these loops don’t stay just inside the cell. If I go into a donut shop, it changes the proteins my cells make. First, I smell the donuts, then my mouth waters, then my stomach grumbles, then I reach for my wallet, then I eat some donuts, then I get a little fatter. Each of these things happens by causing my cells to make certain proteins…If things like donuts and donut shops are in the loop that makes my proteins, then it means that there must be some logic to the way our bodies interact with the world other than the list of genes. Otherwise, our cells would be going haywire when we change environments.

This is why the problem is actually identical to artificial general intelligence. If we knew how to make anything that was responsive to its environmental context the way an organism is, I think that thing would possess AGI. After that, it might be a fairly humdrum feat of engineering to scale it up to human-level and beyond human level. But so far we have not even started the process of developing AGI because we have not tried to address the contextual genetic activation problem.

That is what I have been trying to do with epistolution.

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Charlie Munford

Charlie Munford is a writer based in New Orleans who explores the meaning of living systems and the boundaries of our ecological knowledge.