Principles of Life

Chapter 13 from A Different Universe by Robert Laughlin.

Life is especially fun to talk about from a physical perspective because it is the most extreme case of the emergence of law. In fact, the entire idea of emergence was invented by biologists to explain why some aspects of living things – the rodlike shapes of some bacteria, for example, or the tendency of bunnies to run away from foxes – are stable and reproducible, while the microscopic laws of chemistry from which they descend are random and probabilistic. There are lots of examples of such things from intermediate-scale chemistry – gels, surface structure of crystals, and so forth – but the granddaddy of them is the functioning of large organisms, such as people.

… science and engineering differ in one central respect; in science, you gain power by telling people what you know; in engineering, you gain power by preventing people from knowing what you know.

The engineering value in biotech is not in understanding life but rather in designing drugs, inventing new health therapies, and creating new artificial organisms for agriculture. For these purposes, correct theories of regulatory processes are less important that rough, simple ideas that can motivate chemical manipulation.

Collective instability would create a Barrier of Relevance capable of destroying the predictive power and falsifiability of theories, and it would also fool people, through the Deceitful Turkey effect, into thinking they had found explanation for things where they actually had not. In other words, the machinery of life is rendered inaccessible by the very physical principle central to its function. This being the case, nature itself is the censor, not legislators or bureaucrats.

Evolution by natural selection, for instance, which Charles Darwin originally conceived as a great theory, has lately come to function more as an antitheory, called upon to cover up embarrassing experimental shortcomings and legitimize findings that are at best questionable and at worst not even wrong. Your protein defies the laws of mass action? Evolution did it! Your complicated mess of chemical reaction turns into a chicken? Evolution! The human brain works on logical principles no computer can emulate? Evolution is the cause!

The reflection of emergence is justified as defending science from mysticism. The ostensible scientific view is that life is chemical process, and that the bold, manful thing to do is identify and manipulate them with stupendous amounts of money and supercomputers. The corresponding mystical view is that life is a beautifully unknowable thing that can only be screwed up by humans with all their money and computer cycles. Between these extremes we have the profoundly important, but poorly understood, idea that the unknowability of living things may actually be a physical phenomenon.