For millennia we’ve assumed that life is an add-on to physics, a vital force breathed into inanimate matter--a soul, a spirit, a ghost in the machine, something more than physics itself.
Scientists have looked and looked for that added something and found nothing. Many have therefore concluded that there really isn’t a difference between living and non-living things. Everything is just matter in motion. You could think of us as just very elaborate machines--no ghost-like spirits inhabit the matter that we are.
Still, the religious and spiritual and even just our common sense insist that something is indeed added, a vital spirit that scientists may never find. But you can bet it’s there.
And in between the scientists who insist we’re just machines and the spiritual who insist we’re added ghosts that make matter come alive, there are fence-sitters who think organisms are neither ghosts nor machines but something about relationships between the parts within the machine: Synergy, which translates as “working together,” synergy which makes “the whole greater than the sum of its parts.”
Sounds more scientific than talk of spirits, but just what is it about the whole that makes it greater than the sum of its parts? Try as they might, synergists haven’t been able to offer a good scientific answer.
Until now. There’s a new scientific explanation of synergy that turns the concept on its head. Its proponent, UC Berkeley’s Terrence Deacon teases at it by saying, “The whole isn’t more than the sum of its parts; it’s less.”
By which he means that, within the whole, the parts, working together, limit each other’s range of motion to less range than they would have were they not working together. The whole is less varied than the possibilities of its parts.
For an intuitive example, think of peer pressure. Social synergies constrain your range of behavior. You’re capable of all sorts of things you just don’t do in social settings. The whole functions as it does because its members reduce each other's range of behaviors.
Or consider the interacting parts of a wristwatch, each limiting the other parts range of motion. Those same parts disassembled and shaken in a bag could interact in vastly more ways than they do in the watch, all of them physically feasible, none of them synergistically functional. Indeed a broken watch often does more things than a working watch, a greater range of behaviors making it unreliable.
Minding your P’s and Q’s in public and watchmaking are conscious and intentional actions. Organisms are not consciously assembled and their parts are not consciously minding their P’s and Q’s. But all of life has this constraint-based logic in common: Synergy as parts working against each other, constraining each other’s range of behaviors. Disassemble an organism’s parts and shake them in a bag. You’ll find them in millions of physically feasible but dead configurations, whereas in an organism the parts constrain each other just so, limiting each other’s behaviors to a small subset of the total physically feasible configurations, and as a result, the whole becomes a whole lot more interesting.
We think of synergy as all for one and one for all, but it’s more accurate to say it’s all against one; one against all, each part constraining the others keeping them from falling too far out of the range of behaviors that keep the whole together.
Which has more possible configurations, physics or life? We intuit that life does. You would never get the works of Shakespeare out of plain physics.
But we know Shakespeare's works are perfectly feasible physical forms, a tightly constrained fraction of the physically possible combinations of ink stains on paper. Deacon’s view of synergy has this in common with the steno pool of monkeys banging away on typewriters--so many possible configurations of letters, a miniscule number that hold together the way Shakespeare’s works do.
And likewise so many possible physical configurations of the molecules that made up Shakespeare’s body, including the configuration they’re in now, scattered across the globe no longer writing masterworks.
But life, for a time, held those parts together synergistically, constraining each other into the form they took in the bard himself. To quote him:
What a piece of work is man; how noble in reason
how infinite in faculties, in form and moving…
We are all pieces of work. A whole person is of a piece because of the work its parts do to constrain each other’s range, keeping each other in line.
Infinite in faculties—it’s true life brings about extraordinarily exotic faculties in us, all of which are physically possible but none of them at all likely to arise spontaneously before life. Most of Deacon’s work is on how life started and with it the emergence of functional constraints—things not happening for the good of whole organism’s form.
In form and moving—unlike letters on a page banged out by Shakespeare or monkeys, the molecules or parts in our bodies are not static. They're not even the same molecules from day to day. We organisms aren’t made of matter but made through it, the matter that passes through us. And yet though the matter moves on, the form holds together in you from day to day and in your family line from generation to generation.
Again, this makes intuitive sense. Think about a group you’ve worked with. In groups the people come and go but the constraints that hold the group together are maintained by the people through the people, a whole not made of static parts but parts passing through, parts that limit each other’s range of activities during their time participating in the whole.
The history of life from its origins is a history of the physically possible constrained to fewer possibilities in more fruitful ways, fruitful in keeping the form moving over generations. Life evolves not by a process of active creation but by a process of elimination.
And in a way this is not news. Darwin’s natural selection is a higher-level process of elimination. The organisms that natural selection eliminates are those whose internal constraints were insufficiently limiting, constraints that didn’t eliminate enough of those deadly yet physically possible configurations of an organism’s parts.
Death then isn’t the loss of some added spirit, some giving up of the ghost. It’s actually the termination of all of the parts’ reciprocal constraints upon each other. Corpses begin to visit the vast range of configurations, constrained out during a lifetime, a loss of form through your molecules’ release back into their expanded range of behaviors. The dead become like those parts in the bag, freer to move in more ways.
Life doesn’t add to physical behavior, it limits it. Life is a tiny sliver of the physically possible.
Deacon’s focus on what’s eliminated can take a while to sink in. It’s simple, yet somehow elusive. I find its implications staggering, a new angle on very old mysteries, a new practical source of heartwarming spirituality, and even a new approach to the economic challenges we face, which I’ll sketch here since it’s my newest idea about life as a process of tuned constraints.
From evolution through economics, life has always accumulated ways to do more with less. All successful biological adaptations are “better mousetraps” because they catch more of what we want with less effort and resources. How do they do so? Finer tuned constraints, the parts limiting each other more precisely to deliver only what’s functional.
The explosion of new technologies available to us today is the product of being able to engineer and produce to ever tighter constraint standards. While no thing is new under the sun, new constraints are possible. The industrial revolution is still in full swing. We’re not half done doing more with less by getting parts to limit each other’s counterproductive behaviors to ever-tighter tolerances.
And not a moment too soon, though indeed it could be a moment too late. For millennia people have fought over the means of production, by which they meant the matter and energy itself. We’re facing into new shortages of stuff which is likely to escalate the competition for it. And yet it turns out the stuff isn’t what matters, but how efficiently it's constrained. There’s still a chance that life’s ever-tuning constraints could yield us a world with enough for everyone, true freedom and security gained through finely tuned constraint. Dying with the most toys never was the name of the game. It has always been living generation to generation through the best constraints--survival of the snuggest fit to what works, evolution as a process of elimination, preluding the possible states of being that just won't work.