Cosmological Evolution and the Future of Life

How life could have a natural purpose, and why it would matter

Posted Feb 14, 2018

Today I'll talk about the one explanation I know of for how life could have some natural transcendent purpose – some purpose, that is, above and beyond the interests of any individual or group. It's a very speculative idea, and I won’t try and convince you it's true, I'll just invite you to join me on a thought experiment about it. Hopefully, I will be able to convince you that this idea is at least compelling, and that if it were true, there would be important implications for human morality and destiny.

Before I begin, let me clarify one thing. I'm going to talk a lot about natural selection, and you're probably already pretty familiar with how natural selection works in biology. Basically, it works by 'designing' organisms for reproduction: individuals who have traits that confer a reproductive advantage (adaptations) have more offspring, so populations come to be dominated by individuals who have inherited these adaptations. What you may not know is that natural selection can actually be generalised and applied to many different natural domains, an approach known as 'universal Darwinism' [1,2]. Natural selection has even been applied to the most fundamental domain there is – the cosmological domain. Theories of cosmological natural selection [3,4] assume that universes can reproduce like organisms, and can become designed for reproduction by a process of cosmological selection, just like organisms are designed by biological selection. Cosmological natural selection may sound like a complicated or strange idea, but it's actually pretty simple and well-known within cosmology. I'll provide a bit more detail about it later, but just wanted to give a head's up that natural selection – applied at both the biological and cosmological levels – is central to the explanation I'll propose about life's transcendent purpose.

 Wikimedia Commons (public domain)
The man himself.
Source: Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

Adaptation, complexity, and purpose. So let me ask you: Could human existence have some kind of transcendent purpose? If you believe in the supernatural, you'd probably answer yes. If your worldview is entirely naturalistic, however, you’d probably say no. That's because there’s no widely-accepted explanation for how life could have such purpose. However, I’ll explain here why adaptationist evolutionary theory actually does suggest one way transcendent natural purpose might exist.

An as evolutionary psychologist, I’ve always been fascinated by the most fundamental explanations for behaviour that science has to offer. And maybe the most important thing I’ve learned about Darwinian theory is that natural selection is the one and only natural process, known to science, that can generate purpose. It does so by generating function – functional adaptations, that solve problems related to survival and reproduction. The human eye is a good example: its function, or purpose, is to see.

Wikimedia Commons (public domain)
The human eye: improbable complexity, obvious purpose.
Source: Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

Note that the eye has a highly complex, non-random design. This improbable complexity is the hallmark of natural selection; all evolved adaptations exhibit it to some degree. This complexity is often assessed in terms of function: to what extent does some trait seem 'designed' to serve some specific function, like the eye seems designed to see? Functional traits display high improbable complexity, and this complexity is how we know that a trait is, in fact, an adaptation, as opposed to being just some random by-product of evolution. Traits that are by-products, in contrast, are non-functional and so tend to be much simpler. Your belly button, for instance, is just the scar left behind by your umbilical cord (shown below in cross-section). The umbilical cord is an adaptation, the navel is its by-product; the cord is complex, the navel is simple. We can distil this adaptationist logic into a simple rule: ‘More improbable complexity = more probably an adaptation’. The more improbable complexity a trait displays, the more likely it to is be an adaptation – not just some random evolutionary by-product, but a mechanism with some evolved purpose.

 Wikimedia Commons (public domain)
Umbilical cord (in cross-section) vs. belly button: complex vs. simple.
Source: Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

Cosmological purpose. As I noted in my introduction, the theory of natural selection has also been applied at the cosmological level. Theories of cosmological natural selection [3,4] allow us to address the question: Could the universe itself possess any purposeful traits? The answer to this question is yes, according to Lee Smolin, a well-known theoretical physicist of the Perimeter Institute of Theoretical Physics in Ontario, Canada. Smolin's theory of cosmological natural selection builds on ideas that are by now widely-accepted among many influential cosmologists, especially, that we live in a multiverse. Our universe, that is, is just one of many in a vast population of universes, in which new universes are constantly being generated [5,6]. Smolin notes that universe designs that were better at reproducing themselves would achieve greater representation in the multiverse, and proposes that black holes are the mechanism by which universes reproduce themselves. Universes, therefore, are selected to contain as many black holes as possible. Black holes are an adaptation, and their purpose is to enable universe reproduction. Where do human beings fit into this scenario? They serve no purpose whatsoever. From Smolin's perspective, the evolution of intelligent life is simply an accidental by-product of universes being selected for black hole production.  

NASA (public domain)
A black hole: cosmological adaptation for universe reproduction?
Source: NASA (public domain)

Smolin’s theory is compelling in some respects. However, in its application of adaptationist logic, it breaks that key rule I mentioned earlier. If we’re trying to identify the aspects of the universe that are most likely to be adaptations, we should be looking for its most improbably complex aspects. And the most improbably complex aspect of our universe is not black holes. It is, in fact, intelligent life. A black hole is essentially just an outcome of gravity – a region of spacetime where gravity's pull is so strong that nothing, not even light, can escape. Living creatures, in contrast, are generally regarded as the most improbably complex known entities in the universe [7,8], a point which is, interestingly, emphasised strongly by Smolin himself [3]. When I say that 'intelligent life' is our universe's most improbably complex trait, I am referring to humanity itself, which is the most improbably complex species of all, thanks to its uniquely sophisticated brain. But I also mean all the highly specific cosmological conditions that had to be met, so that life was able to evolve on earth; all the laws and parameters of physics that, cosmologists say, seem so ‘fine-tuned’ to allow for the emergence of life [9].

Wikimedia Commons (public domain)
The most improbably complex known entity in the universe.
Source: Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

What could it mean to propose that intelligent life is an adaptation for universe reproduction? It would mean that the purpose of life is to develop the expertise that will eventually enable intelligent beings to create new universes – new cosmic habitats for themselves. In the process of generating new universes, life would simultaneously be enabling the universe to reproduce. This idea is called 'cosmological natural selection with intelligence' (CNSI), and I published a paper about it in the journal Complexity in 2017 [4]. It may sound like science fiction to propose that life’s transcendent purpose is to create new universes. And it is, indeed, a highly speculative and in some ways counter-intuitive idea. Nevertheless, it's where the logic leads, if you apply the adaptationist principle that the most improbably complex traits are most likely to be adaptations. The theory of CNSI is simply the logical destination that you reach, after you apply adaptationism to the domain of cosmological evolution.

The Future. So what does CNSI suggest about the future of humanity? According to CNSI, intelligent life is the universe's reproductive system, and contemporary humans represent a developmental stage of this system. At our present stage of biocultural evolution, we humans are like the reproductive system of a child that is not yet physically able to reproduce. We cannot yet create new universes, because we do not yet possess the ability to do so. From this perspective, human biocultural evolution is a developmental subroutine of cosmological evolution. As life evolves, it should continually be acquiring more and more of the expertise that will eventually enable it to generate new universes. The most important kinds of expertise required for this goal will be scientific and social. Scientific progress will be vital, because if future humans are going to create new universes – perhaps by building structures resembling intelligently-designed black holes [10,11] – they'll require knowledge and technology far more advanced than what we currently possess. And social progress will be equally key, because scientific progress and large-scale scientific efforts don't occur in a vacuum, and don't happen in societies that are chaotic, fragmented, and unstable. They require a social foundation that is stable, cooperative, humane, and economically productive.

It is certainly speculative, and may seem overly optimistic, to suggest that humanity is on its way to acquiring the scientific and social expertise that will one day enable it to create new universes. But if you think about the progress that the human lineage has already made, over millions of years of biocultural evolution, this prospect starts to seem more realistic. As books by people like Robert Wright, Steven Pinker and Ray Kurzweil have shown, the trajectory of human biocultural evolution has long been in the direction of increasing technological sophistication, cooperativeness, and nonviolence. And not only are we continuing to make this progress today, we're making it an ever-accelerating pace [12-15].

public domain
According to CNSI, the end is probably not nigh.
Source: public domain

Optimism. CNSI takes an optimistic view about the future of humanity, because it suggests that intelligent life will ultimately succeed in fulfilling this function of universe reproduction. This is true for the same reason you’d expect any adaptation to succeed; for the same reason you'd expect an eye to actually see, for example, or for a child's reproductive system to eventually be able to create new life. That doesn't mean our species' success is 'guaranteed'. No outcome in the universe can be 100% guaranteed, because the universe is probabilistic and not deterministic; that's a basic implication of quantum mechanics. Nevertheless, if CNSI were true, then we could justifiably expect our species' probability of success to be high. We could expect that the end is unlikely to be nigh, because human biocultural evolution will continue to make progress for a long, long time.

Because CNSI predicts that human scientific and social progress will continue into the far future, it also predicts the continuous ascendancy of the cultural values which make this progress possible. These are values associated with knowledge acquisition and cooperation – essentially, the values that are already emphasised by Humanist-type organisations. These progressive values will always be in conflict with their regressive opposites – the forces of ignorance and hate. But CNSI predicts that these progressive values will always prevail in the long term, no matter how bleak their prospects may seem at any given time. There are some loud voices in the world right now advocating on behalf of ignorance and hate. CNSI suggests not just that these voices are on the wrong side of history, but that they will also be on the losing side of human destiny.

Conclusions. In conclusion, let me emphasise again that CNSI is highly speculative, and my goal here is not to argue that it's correct. And even if we considered that it could be correct, this would raise lots of new questions about how the process of CNSI might actually work. So in its current form, CNSI is like a book with many pages or chapters missing. Despite this incompleteness, I think there's already enough to the idea to make it compelling, especially in three aspects. I'll leave you with these three:

  1. Darwinian selection is the only known natural process that can create purpose, so CNSI is the only explanation for how life could, in principle, have a natural transcendent purpose.
  2. In applying Darwinian theory to the cosmological domain (as Lee Smolin does), we should consider the universe's most improbably complex trait (intelligent life) as the trait most likely to be an adaptation.
  3. If CNSI were correct, this would have important implications for human morality and destiny.

Thanks for coming along on this thought experiment, and hope I've succeeded in at least provoking your curiosity about CNSI!

Click here to visit Michael Price's personal site

Copyright 2018 Michael E. Price


1. Dennett, D. (1995). Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. Schuster.

2. Campbell, J. O. (2011). Darwin Does Physics. CreateSpace.

3. Smolin, L. (1997). The Life of the Cosmos. Oxford University Press. 

4. Price, M. E. (2017). Entropy and selection: Life as an adaptation for universe replication. Complexity, article ID 4745379, doi:10.1155/2017/4745379.

5. Guth, A. H. (1997). The Inflationary Universe: The Quest for a New Theory of Cosmic Origins. Vintage.

6. Tegmark, M (2014). Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality. Knopf.

7. Dawkins, R. (1986). The Blind Watchmaker. Norton.

8. Schrödinger, E. (1944). What Is Life? The Physical Aspect of the Living Cell. Cambridge.

9. Davies, P. (2006). The Goldilocks Enigma: Why is the Universe Just Right for Life? Penguin.

10. Crane, L. (2010). Possible implications of the quantum theory of gravity: An introduction to the meduso-anthropic principle. Foundations of Science 15: 369–373.

11. Price, M. E. (Forthcoming). Cosmological natural selection and the function of life. In Evolution, Development and Complexity: Multiscale Evolutionary Models of Complex Adaptive Systems. Springer.

12. Wright, R. (1999). Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny. Pantheon.

13. Wright, R. (2004). The Evolution of God. Little Brown and Company.

14. Pinker, S. (2011). The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Viking.

15. Kurzweil, R. (2005). The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. Viking.