The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or by Stuart Kauffman. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.
Jim Rutt: Howdy, this is Jim Rutt, and this is The Jim Rutt Show. Today’s guest is Stuart Kauffman, one of the foundational figures in complexity science.
Stuart Kauffman: Howdy. Great to be here. It’s wonderful to be told I’m a foundational figure in complexity science.
Jim Rutt: Ah, true. It is true enough.
Stuart Kauffman: Thank you for saying that. Makes an old man feel good. Whether it’s true or not, Jim.
Jim Rutt: It’s true. At least in my opinion. Stuart was trained as a medical doctor, but is best known for his work in developmental genetics, evolutionary theory, theoretical biology, and, especially, the emergence of order and far-from-equilibrium complex systems. He was one of the first generation of resident faculty at the Santa Fe Institute. He has won a number of awards including a MacArthur Fellow, and is the author of several interesting and important books. His most recent book is A World Beyond Physics: The Emergence and Evolution of Life, which we’re going to talk about today.
Jim Rutt: Before we do, I’d like to recommend two other of Stuart’s books. His Origins of Order holds a special place for me. It’s the second book in the area of complexity science that I read checking my Amazon account way back in 1998. It’s both thick and dense, but it’s amazingly rich in ideas, and I still use a lot of those ideas today. It’s one of the most important books I’ve ever read. The other one I’d like to recommend to our folks at home is At Home in the Universe, which serves as both a good layman’s introduction to complexity science, as well as explaining many, though not all, the ideas from Origins of Order in a less dense form. How’d you like that?
Stuart Kauffman: I thought that was great, Jim. I get about a penny and a quarter when the book sells. I’m retired now, and it could become a source of income.
Jim Rutt: It might be at least good for a McDonald’s burger.
Stuart Kauffman: They’re actually good books. Origins of Order is really thick and dense. It’s about 700 pages, took me 10 years to write.
Jim Rutt: Well, I actually love that book, but that’s just me. Before we get started talking about the specifics of your new book, maybe you can start off with some thoughts on the overarching themes of your career. What’s your career been about?
Stuart Kauffman: Jim, that’s an interesting question. What my career has been about, in a funny sense, has been finding interesting questions. One of the important aspects of science is finding an interesting question. People don’t talk about it, and you can’t get a grant for it. Who’s going to give you a grant to say I’m trying to think of a question. I’ve done that number of times. When I was about 25, it had been discovered that genes turn one another on and off by Jacob and Monod in 1960, which answered central problems in evolutionary and development biology. I wondered were there classes of networks of genes turning one another on and off that had spontaneous order. Asked that I, invented random Boolean nets, and lots of interesting stuff followed. They can be exhibit order, they can be chaotic order or critical, and its turning out that genetic nets are critical.
Stuart Kauffman: A few years later, I was wondering about the origin of life, and everybody knew about template replicating DNA and RNA, and I asked a funny question. I said, “Well what if the contents of nature were different, and you couldn’t make nitrogen and carbon, but you could make chemicals. Would life be impossible?” My thought was that just can’t be true. Life has to be a set of molecules that can mutually catalyze one another’s formation. I came up with the idea of collectively autocatalytic sets, and roughly 50 years later, it looks like that’s right.
Stuart Kauffman: Joana Xavier and Bill Martin in Dusseldorf have found a collectively autocatalytic set of small molecule metabolites in archaea and bacteria from before oxygen was in the atmosphere, strongly suggesting that life started as molecular reproducing systems. You might want to talk about it, it’s fascinating.
Stuart Kauffman: I keep finding these wacky things to think about, and some of it’s now standard complexity. The Santa Fe Institute in my early life, which I guess is in my 40s and 50s, not better it was just an amazing adventure. I’ve since gone off in other directions thinking about quantum mechanics, the mind-body problem, and how to answer Descartes’ theorem 50 years later. It’s just a sprawling mess.
Jim Rutt: Isn’t that great that you can do that, right? I probably have had a similar model though at a less grand level. I’ve been in lots of different businesses, and organizations, and projects. I’m not one to let too much grass grow under my feet.
Jim Rutt: Well, let’s hope in and talk about A World Beyond Physics, a little bit. One theme that comes up again and again in the book is the notion that Darwinian Evolution is incomplete with respects to the origins and evolution of life. Could you expand on that?
Stuart Kauffman: Well, Darwin knew that, that’s nothing new. Darwin takes on the evolution of life once it has started, but he’s silent on the question of how life comes to be. That’s not me saying that, Darwin himself said it. He said there’s sort of no point on speculating about that at the present time in 1859 or 1860. He does say that “Oh, what if there were a warm little pond with ammonia and other things, what would happen?” So many of us are thinking of what happens in warm little ponds, and we’re the ones who are concerned with the origin of life. Darwin would have completely agreed, that’s not an insult to Darwin at all.
Jim Rutt: Don’t you also talk about the fact that at least the biological implementation of evolution has other things going on, significant other things going on other than Darwinian evolution? Other ways in which order is formed?
Stuart Kauffman: Well, yes, my first book, my tome, Origins of Order takes up the theme that I don’t think Darwin would have minded this at all. I think he’d have been delighted. There’s a lot of self-organization out there in which things spontaneously get organized. Why wouldn’t natural selection make use of that? That’s what my whole first book’s about, and that looks like it’s true in lots of cases. I could talk about that for a minute. The biggest thing about the new book is it says the evolution of life can’t be explained by physics alone. We should really talk about that.
Stuart Kauffman: Just briefly about self-organization. To get your listeners on board, just think of a snowflake. It’s got six-fold symmetry and beautiful snowflake structure that nobody thinks natural selection did that. There’s a spontaneous order that’s it due to this space of oxygen and couple hydrogen that make up the water molecule. Or think of a quartz crystal, it’s got beautiful structure. Now think of a whirlpool, whirlpool’s got structure, they’re called dissipating structures. There’s structure around all over the place. If you take lipids and put them in water, like cholesterol, they form hollow vesicles called liposomes that are essentially the origins of your cell membranes. Well, didn’t think selection should do that it’s physical chemistry. What I was struck by was, on the one hand, my study of these random Boolean nets is models of genetic regulatory networks. Jim, they just have astounding order.
Stuart Kauffman: When I first found it, as I said, 50 years ago. I was 25, I’m 80 as of a couple weeks ago. It knocked my socks off, and it still does, but that’s a case of self-organization. Not in the sense that there’s a self, just a spontaneous order that appears at the level of a system of simple components.
Stuart Kauffman: Here they’re just a bunch of light bulbs hooked to one another, turning one another on and off. All you have to do is make that works with a thousand light bulbs turning on and off. Each light bulb has inputs from two other light bulbs, and is guided by some rule called a Boolean function like ‘or’ or ‘and’. Where ‘or’ says, “I will be on if either one of both of my inputs are on.” ‘And’ says, “No, both of my inputs have to be on.” For two inputs there’s 16 Boolean functions like ‘if’, ‘and’, ‘or’, and so on. Just make a random network with a thousand light bulbs. Everybody having inputs from two light bulbs, and give each light bulb a random Boolean function like ‘or’ or ‘if’ those networks turn out to be just stunning order. Which I ran across and was thrilled about when I was 25. Why wouldn’t evolution make use of that? It does.
Stuart Kauffman: Those networks are dynamically critical. Literally 50 years later, maybe in the last couple years, we now have good evidence that genetic regulatory networks are critical. They’re, critical means they’re dynamically critical, they’re poised in Doyne Farmer’s lovely phrase, “On the edge of chaos, they’re between order and chaos.”
Jim Rutt: Yes, that was one of the big takeaways out of Origins of Order, is the whole idea of criticality.
Stuart Kauffman: Much credit to Chris Langton, who did much to discover it, and hasn’t been able to pursue it for other reasons.
Jim Rutt: Why don’t we take a little aside here, because this is something I know our audience is interested in. It’s this idea that fruitful things, this is an oversimplification, but fruitful things happen at the boundary between order and chaos.
Stuart Kauffman: Well, they do. There’s something else I want to talk about, Jim, as we get along. I wrote down an equation about two years ago, that is utterly relevant to us now, and it’s not in my last book. Lets just talk about fruitful things on the boundary between order and chaos. An example is your brain is dynamically critical and, as I said, genetic networks are dynamically critical. What happens in such networks is that, just imagine a bunch of Christmas tree light bulbs twinkling on and off in some pattern. You can ask the following question, if you change a given light bulb from right now from on to off, just transiently flip it, call it damaged, color it purple. Now watch if any other light bulb that’s connected to it, one-two-three steps away, does something different than it would have done, color it purple. That’s called a damage by Dietrich Stauffer. You get avalanches of purple guys. What Dietrich and others have found is, you get a lot of little avalanches and very few big ones.
Stuart Kauffman: A bit of mathematics, if you plug this on a log-log plot, we all learned logs in 10th grade. So 10 is 10 raised to the first power, 100 is 10 raised to the second power, 1000 is 10 raised to the third power. It’s just the number of zeroes. If you make a log-log plot of these avalanches, it’s a straight line down to the right. The steepness of the thing is minus 1.5. That’s called dynamically critical. Critical networks do that, and part of what it means is one variable can sometimes influence things nearby, but sometimes things far away. It’s got a pretty wide spat of control. Deep in the order regime, if you trigger a light bulb, nothing much happens. If it’s in a chaotic regime, if you flip one light bulb, roughly half the guys change what they’re doing. These vast avalanches and that maybe why it’s good, being on this edge of chaos.
Stuart Kauffman: Or another thing’s a fancy word called transfer entropy. It’s roughly, how much do the variables now control what happens in the future. That’s maximizing critical networks.
Stuart Kauffman: Let’s see if we can think of some other examples. I think there’s work that I know a little bit about my wife Catherine does. I believe that this is true, if you think about birds flocking. Birds try to stay some reasonable distance from the other birds, they try to head more or less in the right direction. I think that bird flocks are dynamically critical. I think ant nests are dynamically critical. I’m not sure about this, Jim, but it seems to be a general feature.
Jim Rutt: Interesting. We have human artifacts like the electrical grid, which is known to be on the edge of chaos. If you make it too ordered, it’d be too expensive. If you made it too chaotic, it wouldn’t be very useful.
Stuart Kauffman: Right.
Jim Rutt: In fact, some Santa Fe Institute folks have worked with people at Argonne National Labs. Essentially proven that the electrical grid is inherently unstable, and does indeed have failures on a power law distributions. Which would lead us to believe that it’s somewhere at the critical range.
Stuart Kauffman: Right, and that’s interesting work that has grown up. When I did my first work 50 years ago, I made what are called [inaudible 00:11:55] networks. It just means you’ve got a bunch of light bulbs, and you randomly connect everybody. All I could think about is a random wiring diagram, [inaudible 00:12:04] or a regular lattice, like you put everybody on the corners of a tile and connect them to their four nearest neighbor in two dimensions. I knew that this was stupid, there’s something in between it, like everything, but I didn’t know what to do. Well, people have thereabouts seen Mark Newman, and others have developed a whole thing called network science. In which you have a some notes that have lots of things that are connected to, they’re called hubs, and others that are connected to not too many things. That’s power law distributed. A lot of people study that, because they’re resistant to damage. If you knock out the rare hubs, you damage a lot, but if you knock out guys that aren’t connected to much you don’t damage very much. There’s a whole literature about that.
Jim Rutt: Indeed. Of course we’re finding in the social sciences, social systems that at least roughly power law distributions are turning up all over the place. A lot of dispute on how close they actually are to power law distributions, but they do have that attribute. Deaths in wars, size of traffic jams, size of a company, size of cities that have this similar kind of distribution. Seems to be a regularity that appears again and again in complex systems.
Stuart Kauffman: Yeah. By the way, there’s a wonderful book by Geoffrey West called Scale that your readers might enjoy.
Jim Rutt: In fact, we’ll be having Geoffrey on here in November.
Stuart Kauffman: Good, but look I want to talk to you about this equation that I wrote down.
Jim Rutt: Let’s do it.
Stuart Kauffman: Jim, I think I’ve stumbled across something that is much more important than I realized when I wrote it down. I’m not much of a mathematician. Literally here’s what happened, my wife Cate, Jim Harriott, a friend, and I were up at our summer home on a little island near Seattle called Crane. I wondered about the following thing, suppose I know there’s ‘M’ goods in an economy at time ‘T’. So ‘M’ sub ‘T’, ‘M’ is 24 goods in the economy now. Could I write down some equation for how many goods would be in the economy at the next time that ‘M’ of ‘T’ plus one. I thought something really simple. ‘M’ of ‘T’ plus one will be what we’ve got now, and ‘M’ of ‘T’ plus, and here’s the central idea, Jim, plus all the new things we can make out of the 24 things we’ve got lying around now. I could take any one of the 24 things, and see if I can do something interesting with it. Or I could take any pair of things and try to make something out of it. Or anything triple of things and try to make something out of it and so on.
Stuart Kauffman: To give an example, the Gutenberg printing press is a recombination or combination between a winepress and movable type. The Wright Brother airplane is a combination between an air file, a light gas engine, bicycle wheels, and a propeller. See? I just wrote down literally, the simplest equation you can write down, it just says: got the ‘M’ things you got now. You’ve got some chance of making something useful out of all the single things. Some smaller chance of making something out of all of the pairs of things. There’s a lot more pairs of things than there are single things, right? An even smaller probability of making something useful out of triplets of the 24 things, but there’s an awful lot of those. This equation does something amazing. Apparently it hadn’t been written down. There’s now theorems about it that Mike Steel has produced. There’s two papers on archive, but nothing published yet.
Stuart Kauffman: Here’s what it does, Jim. Put time on the horizontal axis and ‘M’, the number of goods on the vertical axis. This thing goes along and increases very, very, very slowly, glacially, for a long time then all of a sudden it skyrockets upward in a hockey stick. Most importantly, it goes to infinity at some finite time. It goes vertical, it’s called a pole mathematically. That was interesting. I got in touch with a friend named Roger Copple. You might want to talk to Roger about it, it’s at the University of Syracuse, an economist. Roger said, “You know, that looks like the Industrial Revolution.” We worked with this equation which we call TAP. Boldly, it’s the theory of the adjacent possible, and it turns out, I’m finding this remarkable. Let’s pause there, because it actually has societal import.
Stuart Kauffman: Two million years ago, our ancestor Australopithecus, three million years ago, started making stone tools. They had maybe ten really crude tools, like unifacial stone scrapers. Over a couple million years not much happens, we get to Homo erectus and then Homo habilis. Homo sapien is around three hundred thousand years ago. Some Homo sapien bones were just found in Greece from two hundred and ten thousand years ago. Not much happens. You get to Cro-Magnon, who’s us, thirty thousand years ago. They now have a few hundred tools, ranging in complexity from arrowheads to, do you know what the atlatl is? It’s really neat.
Jim Rutt: Yeah, it’s a spear thrower.
Stuart Kauffman: Yeah, they invented the spear thrower. It’s a really complex thing, it helped a lot. You could throw your spear at the aurochs from 15 feet away rather than running up to it and jabbing it. Particularly if it was something bigger than an auroch. They had a few hundred tools, ranging in complexity from simple things to more complex things. Part of what I want to convey is how long everything took. It took a hundred thousand years to get to Cro-Magnon, that’s humans, ignoring Neanderthal. It takes another eight-ten thousand years to get to agriculture. When agriculture comes, we get to Mesopotamia five thousand years ago, four thousand years ago on the Tigris and Euphrates. They had few thousand kinds of things ranging from needles that had been around for sixty thousand years to chariots. See an increasing diversity of things, and an increasing diversification into simple and complex things.
Stuart Kauffman: All of this falls out from this little TAP equation. Well, then you get to us now and this process skyrockets upward. We now have billions of goods ranging from needles to space stations. Jim, nobody knows how that happened. I think this ridiculously simple equation says it, but it says more. What it says is that the more things you’ve got, the easier it is to make yet more things out of what you’ve got. We are now zooming upward almost vertically, that’s why we’re in the Anthropocene. Now we’re the same species, we can invent things so trivially now, we have a hundred trillion dollar global economy growing at 4% a year, inventing more new things. Lifting millions of people out of poverty, and invading every nation on the planet. We’re destroying the planet with our own creativity. This simple little equation says it. That’s it.
Stuart Kauffman: So it’s TAP, it’s this process, buried in it are a couple more things. You make the next more complex thing that you make out of the less complex things you’ve got now. You couldn’t make a space station until we had rockets. You couldn’t make a crossbow until you had a bow. This little process reinterpreted says the same thing. It says that any time ‘T’, the last thing you made is the most complex thing you’ve got. The next thing you’ve got is more complex, and therefore it gives rise to an increasing number of things with increasing differentiation to simple and more complex things. Okay?
Stuart Kauffman: Tim Kohler is an archeologist who I’m now working with. Tim’s looked at the onset of inequality in humans in Neolithic sites, in 67 Neolithic sites from thirty or forty thousand years ago. It’s called the Gini index, there’s already inequality way before agriculture. You find Neolithic sites with simple graves, and in the same places more complex graves. I was stunned to find that in one of them, I read, there’s three adolescents buried, and they have very complicated necklaces around their neck with shells from a couple hundred miles away. That tells you that thirty thousand years ago, since they’re adolescents, there’s inheritance, there’s a marked differentiation in wealth, and people are gathering shells from a couple thousand miles away. A couple hundred miles away. You have the onset of inheritance, inequality, and this same little equation says inequality, if you can make chariots and you cane make needles, people who own chariots have more valuable property than people who have needles.
Stuart Kauffman: This same process give arise or is part of giving arise, to inequality, and inequality is now one of the overwhelming things on the planet. Look at inequality in New York, it’s the worst it’s been in history.
Jim Rutt: Go to San Francisco, and see ten thousand people living on the street in the richest city in the world, probably.
Stuart Kauffman: Right. Somehow an awful lot of this is consequence of the same simple process. Even more, it’s struck me, it’s taking me some time, but think about the Big Bang. We were both there, fourteen billion, I’m older than you. Here you have the Big Bang, and you have quirks, and gluons, and stuff. Three quirks get together, and it’s called hadronization, it’s roughly the same process. All this TAP process does is it says take what’s lying around and make new things out of it. Doesn’t have to be a person. What happens in the early universe is you get quirks and anti-quirks, they combine to make protons, neutrons, and electrons which combine to make hydrogen and helium. Then three helium nuclei get together to make carbon. What happens is two heliums get together, and they make beryllium. Watch two things have gotten together to make new things. Then beryllium and helium combine to make carbon. Now you’ve got the nucleus synthesis in the stars of a hundred nuclei that are stable. Then you start getting space chemistry. You’ve got the atoms of organic molecules, carbon, hydrogen and so on, and you start making molecules of increasing complexity.
Stuart Kauffman: It’s roughly the same process, new things get make out of old things. It doesn’t matter whether it’s pots or ideas or molecules. It’s the same wacky process in which you take things and combine them. I’m starting to think the following: if you look at the chemical evolution of the universe, it probably looks like TAP. It goes along very, very slowly for a long time, and then it starts shooting upward. Some evidence for that is that meteorites, the Murchison from five billion years ago, has thirty-five thousand organic molecules. So does the moon of Saturn, if you go through its jets have thousands of organic molecules.
Stuart Kauffman: A guy in Germany, Albrecht Ott has just done an experiment. It’s worth pausing over this, Jim. Do you know the Miller–Urey experiment?
Jim Rutt: Oh, yes. Where the lightning and the bottle and the ammonia?
Stuart Kauffman: Miller and Urey did this in the ’50s. They took a flask, and they have water in it, carbon dioxide, methane, and ammonia. They were trying to mimic the atmosphere of the earlier and they sent electric sparks through it, trying to mimic the early atmosphere. Miller was a young graduate student and Urey was a Nobeler in chemistry. Three days later or four days later, they had a brown foam or scum on the bottom. They looked at it, and it was full of amino acids of different kinds. Everybody was rightly excited. It said, “Gosh, look at this. We can have the synthesis out of simple things of the building blocks of life.” That started a 40-year search to see what else you could make that way on Earth. Then we learn there’s in fall of meteorites that brought stuff too, like the Murchison.
Stuart Kauffman: Roughly in the last two years, this guy Albrecht Ott who is at a university in Germany, I can’t remember what. He’s done the following amazing experiment, Jim. He’s taken the Miller-Urey experiment and he’s let it run for a month. He gets thousands of organic molecules. I’m calling it a spray. I think he’s getting what the universe has done for the past thirteen billion years. Molecules make more molecules which can combine to make more molecules that get more complex and I’m wondering whether or not there’s a hockey stick evolution gradual for a long time, then scooting upward really fast as the universe makes more complex molecules.
Stuart Kauffman: For example, this means that five billion years ago, if the earth had a soup of 35 thousand or so organic molecules, so did planets everywhere in the universe. This TAP thing may be catching something really general. It looks like it’s capturing something about technological evolution, about cultural evolution, about the evolution of the chemistry of the universe. It’s so simple, you just take what you’ve got and combine it and see what new you can make out of it.
Jim Rutt: Though you do have to have a pruning rule, which is that many, in fact, most combinations make no sense, right? Have no utility. The generativeness of the preexisting set is highly dependent upon the rule of which combinations make sense, and which ones don’t. It’s certainly possible to have a transition matrix in which the result is only minimal increasing complexity over time.
Stuart Kauffman: Let’s hold right there. Lets’ get to economics, which is what you’re talking about right now. I’m not sure that applies to molecules. I don’t know. There’s going to be some stability for different molecules. One way of asking it is taking this Albrecht Ott system and say, “What does this look like over time?” I don’t know that Albrecht’s looked at it. One could look at it. In fact, a group of us is trying to get money from SEARN to look at just that.
Stuart Kauffman: Now let’s take the economy. You’re right, my old example is I take a parachute, and I put it over the stack of the Queen Mary, and you just get a mess. If you put it at the back of an airplane, and it’s pops open when the airplane lands, you’ve made an air break. Only some combinations will produce something useful for a given task. Maybe you want to put it over the smoke stack of the Queen Mary for some stupid task. Yeah, only some combinations will prove useful. That’s already in this little equation, it’s says, “Out of all the possible subsets of three things out of a thousand, which is something like a thousand times a thousand times a thousand, which is a billion. Only a modestly small subset will be useful for any particular thing.”
Stuart Kauffman: One of the ways I think about that is like jury-rigging. Would you rather jury-rig with a garage full of junk or almost nothing? Well, you’d rather jury-rig with a garage full of things because if you’ve got a bunch of stuff out there, I said technically, you’ll find something to jury-rig to do lots of different things. That’s a real technical talk, but it’s true. Jury-rigging is not algorithmic, we just go do it.
Jim Rutt: Indeed, it certainly speaks to both common sense, and quantitative analysis. That the more components you have to try, the more likely you are to find something that actually does make sense.
Stuart Kauffman: Right. The thing that I’d like us to pause over, Jim. We really are in the Anthropocene. We are living in a hundred trillion global economy. It really is growing at 4% a year. It really is lifting millions of people out of poverty in China, for example, right now. It really is invading every nation on the planet. Did you see the UN report about extinction events?
Jim Rutt: Oh yes.
Stuart Kauffman: That came out a couple of months ago? That it’s expected by 2050, 20% of all species is going to be extinct, a million species? What are we doing to the biosphere? We’re eradicating it. You can recover from global warming, which is a catastrophe, in a thousand years. Recovering from a mass extinction event is millions of years. We have no idea what we’re doing. I don’t even know how to say it, Jim. What can you imagine that will slow down this juggernaut of an expanding economy, inventing ever new things, doing ever more huge projects, decimating the globe?
Jim Rutt: We’re getting close to the edge. Two of my favorite scary statistics are the mass of humans, and their domestic animals, mostly cattle, in terms of actual weight. Is now something like 60% of all large mammals on earth. That’s absurd, right? For birds that number’s even higher. The weight of all birds in the world is utterly dominated by domestic fowl.
Stuart Kauffman: Is that true?
Jim Rutt: Yes. I couldn’t believe it when I read it. I researched it, and found it referenced in multiple places.
Stuart Kauffman: Jim, that’s terrifying. Something that really struck me, we debate whether or not humans are having an impact on the globe. Just think of this, so thirty-five thousand years ago there’s Cro-Magnon, and they’re living in the caves down in the North of France and Spain. They’re there for fifteen thousand years, and they paint the walls of the caves. They go from a few hundred kinds of tools to a few hundred kinds of tools, and then some of them migrate north when the ice sheets go away. The guys in the north of Spain stay there and go clam fishing, or whatever. For ten thousand or fifteen thousand years they’re there. They’re the same species and nothing much changes.
Stuart Kauffman: Two things, my father was born in 1903. I’m getting at the rate of change, and it’s varying into the fact that the more stuff you’ve got, the more stuff you can make in the same period of time, right? My dad was born in 1903, my son was born in 1969. My dad was born the year flight was invented, my son was years 66 years later when we landed on the moon. The pace of change is enormous, because we can make so many things so fast. Now for the impact on the planet. I’m 80, gosh, I was born in 1939. I grew up with milk being delivered in milk bottles. In The Graduate, Dustin Hoffman is famously told, “Think plastics.” Well, plastics was a big thing in 1960. That’s 1960; sixty years later, 2020, we have crashed our oceans, and our seashores all around the planet with gargantuan piles of plastic crap that will not decay in thousands of years, and we’re making more of it. Have we affected the planet in sixty years? There’s masses of plastic floating in the oceans, and we didn’t even have plastic sixty years ago.
Stuart Kauffman: Let’s not debate the fact that humanity’s impacting the planet. We’re overwhelming it. We’re not being mean, nobody’s mean-spirited. It’s not capitalism, it is the inventiveness of the TAP process in which we inevitably invent more things that are useful for stuff, and we just keep doing it.
Jim Rutt: If it’s inevitable, the TAP equation at least says the adjacent possible will exponentially increase over time. How do we get out of that? Is there any way to get out of it? Or are we just going to go up against the limits and crash? TAP, if it’s fundamental, would indicate that might be what happens.
Stuart Kauffman: Jim, it’s worse than exponential. An exponential never reaches infinity in finite time. This thing goes vertical, it reaches infinity in finite time. I think we’re now going steeply up this curve, and this is the Anthropocene. What we’re confronting is global, and what we’re confronting is civilizational. This is our own humanity creating and creating and we’re wonderful it. We’ve been doing it for three million years, overwhelming the planet.
Stuart Kauffman: This image came to me couple of weeks ago, you know Easter Island? There’s Easter island and the stone figures facing east. It’s an island out in the middle of the ocean. What did the person who cut down the last tree think? The earth is an island in space. Jim, we’re cutting down the last tree. We have to find a way of becoming aware of this as a species, with all of our interscene identity politics, and Muslims verses Jews verses Hindus verses whatever. In the civilizational goods and bads of the global civilization emerging. If conceivable, makes some transformation in which we find valuable human lives when we are of nature, not above it. There’s this amazing line by Francis Bacon in about 1660, the width is just turning to look at the real world. This is the start of empirical science, and Bacon says, “I take all knowledge to be my province,” which was easier then, there wasn’t as much. Then he roughly says, didn’t quite say this, but it’s his meaning, “to put nature on the rack and rest our due.” Well, that’s the center of extractive modernity.
Jim Rutt: It works within the context of the rules of modernity. The problem is we’ve now reached the limits. Our own social operating system seems to have no way to constrain itself.
Stuart Kauffman: That’s right. It is overwhelming. I’m living in a beautiful house in Santa Fe with Cate, and it’s got all the conveniences, and as Geoffrey West says, “Enough energy per person to be a thousand slaves.” We’re already comfortable. We have as a species, a planetary species essentially to become aware of the implications of this TAP thing that I wrote down two years ago. That’s why it’s happening. It’s not malintent, we’re no different in our intent than people were forty thousand years ago. Not much happened for thousands of years with the same emotional structure then as now. It’s just that we can create so much out of what we’ve created, that we keep creating, we’re going to die by our own creativity.
Jim Rutt: As we were talking about earlier before we went on the air, there’s something charming about life in America in the 18th Century. The energy density was vastly lower, we would not be destroying the planet if we had somehow found a way to say, “Stop.” Right?
Stuart Kauffman: What happened in 1840 was we were on the frontier of the Industrial Revolution, and we’ve exploded since then. Our per capita GDP has gone up faster than population growth can. Population for the first time in history started exploding a couple of centuries ago, and there’s seven billion of people now. Per capita GDP is going up faster than population.
Jim Rutt: Yeah. You multiply the two together in at least a rough order load on the ecosystem. As we were just saying, we’ve got to be close to getting to the limits. The operating system itself has no means to correct itself, or at least it’s very, very difficult. In my own work in politics, I analyze the engine of money-on-money return. It’s now become unleashed from human control. Everybody dances to money, and money corrupts politics. Until we learn to develop a new social signaling network, or constrain the power of money. It’s not obvious to me how we can stop this beast driving us right over the cliff.
Stuart Kauffman: I think you’re right, it’s driving us over two cliffs. It’s certainly that the rich get richer, the top 1%, the top tenth of the percent. Have you seen Thomas Piketty’s discussion of this?
Jim Rutt: Oh yeah. I’ve read Capital, and I’ve read some of his more recent articles.
Stuart Kauffman: Well, I’ve only read Capital, but I think I understand it. His basic idea with respect to this is a tax that just taxes people on big estates. Just take any estate over fifty million, and take away 2% of it every year, and put it into a general pot. What that would do, and it’s good, if it ever passed I would do it. In a sense, Elizabeth Warren’s doing that, or proposing that. Jim, that won’t do anything about the fact that we’re inventing ever new things, and processes and ways to make bubble gum, purple plastic penguins for the poolside, apps, new kinds of penicillin, new kinds of gadgets, and new kinds of vast projects, like the Silk Road that the Chinese are doing now. That is just going to keep invading the planet. Even if we were to distribute the money better and help inequality, what’s going to slow down the juggernaut that’s growing?
Jim Rutt: Yep, and here’s the part that a lot of people have not caught, which is not only do we have this TAP-driven exponential, faster than exponential wave of new products. Most of which we don’t need or want, probably. The money-on-money return machine drives the psychologically-informed marketing to invent new needs for you. Right?
Stuart Kauffman: Well yes, but pause. There’s the inventing of new needs, since who was the guy? Bernays who was the nephew of Freud [inaudible 00:37:19]. He invented in about 1920 advertising, and cigarettes are freedom candles or something. It’s more indulgence than that, Jim. If you invent something, if you invent screwdriver, no. If you invent a screw, it needs its compliment, the screwdriver to be useful. Goods in the economy call forth the invention of still more new goods that are the compliments or substitutes of existing goods. Once you’ve got cell phones, you get apps. Once you’ve got rockets, you get the space station. Advertising is a piece of it, but this has been going on since long before advertising.
Jim Rutt: That’s true enough. In fact, you made a big point of that in your book that complementarity by itself draws forth the future. Right? Especially in the economy.
Stuart Kauffman: By thy way, it’s time to mention Brian Arthur. Brian’s book The Nature of Technology 2009 talks about lots of this. We’re old friends. Brian doesn’t have this equation, but he’s got lots of the central tenants. You should really read the book.
Jim Rutt: Not only did I read the book, I actually read some of the chapters before it was published, and gave him some feedback on it. Brian and I were actually office mates when I was at full time at the Institute back in 2002 to 2004.
Stuart Kauffman: Oh, really?
Jim Rutt: Oh, yes. I’m very familiar with that book, and that’s a must read for anybody that’s thinking in these areas. That book got less attention than it should have.
Stuart Kauffman: I agree.
Jim Rutt: That is one of the most profound books on network models of one important part of the economy, which is the evolution of technologically-driven products and businesses.
Stuart Kauffman: I think I agree with you. Brian set the foundation, and the stuff I’m talking about that grows out of it, there’s now a bunch of it. Brian’s doing it, to. Brian even gets to the idea, well I did, too, in 1998. Brian and I were friends at the early Institute. We kept going to Babe’s for lunch. It was really cute, because we’d go to Babe’s and Brian would order fish stew and each time he’d say, “This fish stew is just terrible.” He’d keep ordering fish stew, and it was very cute. Brian taught me some economics, and I wrote a paper in 1988 about it. Actually, I wanted Brian to be a co-author, but for some reason he didn’t want to be, and it didn’t happen.
Stuart Kauffman: Once you start thinking about things making things, it’s growing on me how simple it is. Suppose that you have a number of things ‘N’ and, in general, two things can get together and make a new thing. Like what we’re talking about. Then the differential equation for the number of things is ‘DNDT’ is equal to ‘N’ times ‘N’ or ‘N’ squared. Even I can integrate it, I’ve checked it with Ricard Sole. If you integrate ‘DNDT’ is equal to ‘KN’ squared, if you integrate it, ‘N’ is equal to ‘N’ to the third time and that’s hyperbolic, it goes infinite.
Jim Rutt: Times two. Yeah, times to the third.
Stuart Kauffman: Once you’ve got a general process, it takes pairs of things, and makes new things out of it. You can sample pretty much the things that are around now. There’s a process that looks like it’s going to reach infinity in finite time.
Jim Rutt: I’ll point out again, the fecundity filter makes it go not that fast, because not all the combinations work. In fact, the combinations that work are quite sparse, and if they’re sparse enough, it changes from a hyperbolic to a parabolic or even to a super linear. The point is-
Stuart Kauffman: Pause, pause, Jim. The actual theorems that Mike Steel have produced in the paper that we’ve got online. This process is hyperbolic, but the model doesn’t have things die.
Jim Rutt: Things fail or combinations fail.
Stuart Kauffman: Right. If you put into that things just go away, call that death rate. So things can just drop out at any moment, call that mu. Then if mu is zero, it goes to infinity theorem. If mu is a little greater than zero, it either goes to infinity or it goes to zero at finite time with some probability. We know a little bit about that. That’s still not adequate because things don’t die alone. When one thing dies, a bunch of other things die with it. In [inaudible 00:41:42] guilds it created destruction, and we don’t know very much about that yet.
Jim Rutt: Well, this has been an amazingly interesting back and forth about all kinds of cool things, but we’ve gone a long way from your book. One of the cores of your book is the origin of life. Why don’t we talk about what you think about the origin of life today? After having studied it for lo, these many years.
Stuart Kauffman: It’s so fascinating, Jim. Let me tell you how it’s interesting how the problem arose. Before, about the middle 1900s, there was no problem about the origin of life. If you looked at a rotten log after a rain, there were maggots. They obviously had sprung forth from the rotten log. Wim Hordijk whose just written a review, I’ll send it to you, finds this wonderful thing in which there’s some doctor in 1740 who says that if you take piece of clothe that is laden with sweat from your armpit, and you mix it with wheat, and you put it in a box, a mouse will emerge. [inaudible 00:42:45]
Stuart Kauffman: What happened is somewhere in the late 1900s or mid-1900s, there was a prize set by the French. People now had microscopes, and they were making wine. They found that if you put a broth out, a couple days later it was all milky, and it was full of bacteria. The question was is this spontaneous life? So Pasteur did a brilliant, simple experiment. He made a flask, and the neck is S-shaped, it comes up then down then up. He fills the neck where it’s down with water so air couldn’t get in from the outside air to the sterile flask. Ten days later, there was no bacteria in it. After a very fine dinner of foie gras, and [inaudible 00:43:31] people write differently. He says, “Life only comes from life.” That’s right, but then the question comes “Where did life come from?”
Stuart Kauffman: Pasteur sets the problem of the origin of life at 1870 or whenever. Basically nothing happened around 1920, Haldane and Oparin, Oparin in Russia, and Haldane start to think about. [inaudible 00:43:56] “Haldane,” Oparin says, “there’s going to be [inaudible 00:43:58] are little jotten-like things in the early earth. Somehow, they’re going to have complex chemical mixtures and life’s going to happen. Haldane comes up with the idea of a primitive soup in which there’s kinds of organic molecules in the ocean. For many years origin of life talks often had somebody with some Campbell’s Soup can labeled ‘primitive soup.’
Stuart Kauffman: Then Miller and Urey come along in the ’50s, and they show you can really make amino acids out of just the atmosphere. Origin of life field sort of exploded then, and for around twenty or thirty or even now, people are showing that out of beginning things you can make things like sugars, nucleotides, and lipids, and so on. People don’t know, yet, about this guy Albrecht Ott’s result with the spray. I don’t know why it’s not getting more attention. It’s amazing. You wait for a month, and you get thousands of organic molecules.
Stuart Kauffman: Then what happened in the origin of life field is by 1954 we knew about DNA replication, because of Watson and Crick. When I was coming into biology around ’63 or ’64, the obvious view about the origin of life was DNA is the double helix, it specifies its own sequence. So is RNA, you can make a double helix of RNA. Everybody had the idea, take a single strand of RNA, ‘AUCG’, it’s not a long polymer, call it the Watson Strand. Will it please line up three nucleotides that were assigned to the Watson Strand. You’ve got a bunch of free nucleotides, and then something links them together, and now you’ve got the Crick Strand, which is its compliment. They melt apart and cycle, and that’s how life started. That’s a perfectly reasonable idea, it’s a fine idea. That’s what [inaudible 00:45:44] and others have tried to do it for 50 years. The experiment doesn’t work, it should, but it doesn’t. The reasons are chemical. If the replicated strand is full of Gs not Cs, it folds up in little knots and precipitates. DNA and RNA have three prime-five prime phosphodiester bonds, but thermodynamically they’d rather do two prime-five prime.
Stuart Kauffman: The quick summary is all these years later nobody’s made it work. Pause. It’s still the dominant view, and it became even more dominant in 1986. Ribosomes had been discovered, these are RNA molecules that catalyze reactions. Wally Gilbert published an article in Nature, saying, “We can conceive of a world just with RNA molecules.” Let’s call it the RNA world and that view has dominated. What has dominated in that view of life is template replicating RNA. It might work someday, and people are trying to make it work.
Stuart Kauffman: Wim Hordijk, he’s just written an article that came out in biological theory, literally in a day. Wim has traced the history of this theory of autocatalytic sets, which actually, I started and published in ’71. That ideas that I catalyzed the formation of you out of two Jim-parts, and you catalyze the formation of Bill out of two Bill-parts, and Bill catalyzed the formation of Stu out of Stu-parts. It’s a mutually autocatalytic set, nobody catalyzes his own formation. There’s been a lot of work started by me in 1971 that in 1986 was some theorems and some work done with Doyne Farmer and Norm Packard that you really could get these systems. Fundamentally, if you get a complicated enough system, it’ll spontaneously make autocatalytic sets. That was theory for some time, then real ones were made.
Stuart Kauffman: [inaudible 00:47:32] made the first autocatalytic set out of DNA in ’94. In about ’95, [inaudible 00:47:41] at Scripps made the first self-reproducing protein. He took a protein sequence like 32 amino acids that sent alpha helix that curls back on itself, making coiled coil and he reasoned, as they say after the fact, that if he took the two fragments 15 and 17 long the two fragments could bind to the 32 mirin and glue together and he’d get the 32 merida to reproduce itself. Well, it does. Within a few years, [inaudible 00:48:13] had made a 9 peptide collectively autocatalytic set.
Stuart Kauffman: Pause. That tells you that molecular reproduction absolutely does not depend on template replicating DNA or RNA. It just doesn’t. Okay?
Stuart Kauffman: That happened experimentally, then I told you that I think about 2012, Niles Lehman and [inaudible 00:48:38] published an article in Nature. They did what I think was the most important experiment on the origin of life experiment. They took some ribosomes and chopped them in half where ribosome A chopped in half could glue together with one of the halves of B chopped in half. They put it in a pot, and it spontaneously made autocatalytic sets of ribosomes. That was superb. Except that they, one did the spontaneous formation of collectively autocatalytic sets, and a bunch of us are writing about that now. They’re still using evolved molecules.
Stuart Kauffman: What we want to know is, if you take random polymers, could you make autocatalytic sets. There’s hints that you can. It’s possible the fellow named Lee Cronin is doing that, but I’m not at liberty to tell you the details. He hasn’t published it yet. We have this money I told you about, to try to do it from SEARN, and I told you the next most important thing that’s happened is Joanna Xavier and Bill Martin did a paper, still not published. Mike Steel, Wim Hordijk on the paper, I’m a co-author, but I did nothing much on the paper except, they put my name on it. I thanked them. They have found this metabolic autocatalytic set where it has no polymers in it at all. It’s almost sure now that life started in a rich soup of organic molecules everywhere in the universe around five billion years ago. What’s missing, Jim, is how hard is it to get an autocatalytic set in a bunch of small molecules? Totally unpublished, Mike Steel has just proving theorems right now that should be pretty easy. If so, we might be able to detect it pretty soon, experimentally.
Stuart Kauffman: So I’ve got significant dreams that we can do that. The group of us that’s got money from SEARN is meeting soon, and maybe we’ll think it’s plausible to play it out. Suppose that works. You’ve got molecular reproduction five billions years ago all over the universe, because the universe has cooked up this stuff. Now you’ve got this metabolic autocatalytic set, you’d like to get some polymers going. How would you glue the two together so that you had the polymers catalyzing the reactions of the metabolism? How do you put the thing in a liposome that I told you about? Roberto Sera has shown they will synchronize the division of the molecular system in the autocatalytic and the polymer system. Could we actually make proto-cells in the reasonably near future? Well, maybe. People always say it’s around the corner when it’s not. Maybe we can. That’s huge if we can do it.
Stuart Kauffman: [crosstalk 00:51:23] science, how does life emerge? It’s sort of a process of TAP in autocatalysis, maybe.
Jim Rutt: Let me push back just a little bit. I’ve been following this for many, many years, spent time talking to Norm Packard. I’ve spent time talking to you back when I was at SFI. The one part of it that I have a hard time getting my head around and over is that these earlier pre-biotic chemical regimes are not, by any means, high fidelity replicators. We know from mathematically in evolutionary theory there’s something called the Error Catastrophe that if the fidelity of copying is not greater than X, and X is actually a pretty crisp number for any well-defined system. The ability to ratchet evolution is surprisingly small. Entropy quickly breaks down what evolution builds up. These are all low fidelity replicators, and yet our world, the world of all life that we know, is built on a high fidelity replicator. It’s DNA plus replication plus Error Correction, which appears, at least comparatively, to be well past the Error Catastrophe stage. How in the world does this pre-life proto-cell chemistry world ratchet itself up with worse than Error Catastrophe driven evolution to create high fidelity information transfer? If we can’t do that, we don’t actually get life as we know it.
Stuart Kauffman: The short answer is you’re right, Jim. I’ve got about 12 minutes, so here’s sort of what we know. What I’ve told you does not get us to RNA template replication or DNA template replication, or coding, in coded proteins is where the deep mystery is proteins that are encoded are the amino acids synthesis that translate the code. There’s some chick-and-egg problem that’s huge. How did that ever emerge? We don’t know. Peter Willis’s work, you’ve got a lot of people that’ve worked on it for a long time. It’s not cracked yet, there’s some ideas. I, David Deamer, and others can fiddle around and have little proto-cells floating around without any DNA or RNA. Or you could put DNA and RNA, you could make an autocatalytic set out of RNA. Nukes Lehman did year ago.
Stuart Kauffman: The question is how do you get to something like template replicating DNA and RNA. Actually Paul Davies rightly points out in his book on the origin of, called Demon in the Machine. The ribosomes plus the code is in [inaudible 00:54:07] a universal constructor. It can make any protein out of the standard 20 amino acids. That’s amazing and just imagine what it led for the origin of life when that happened. You could explore protein space trivially just by making proteins. There’s some ideas of how the code could have emerged. I even have some ideas of how the codes could have emerged. I’m not competent to talk about it. You should talk to Peter Wills.
Stuart Kauffman: It is clear that these autocatalytic systems can evolve without encoded protein synthesis. The reason is due, basically, to Mike Steel and Wim Hordijk. I’ll send you the link that they just sent me, that Wim just sent me. His article came out today. An autocatalytic set is made up of a large number of irreducible autocatalytic sets. [inaudible 00:54:58] led a group of us to show that these irreducible autocatalytic sets could be gained and lost. They’re little replicating systems, and they’re acting like genes. You get comparable evolution from that and has done far more that, and as Doyne Farmer and Rick Bagley showed years ago, you can imagine that uncatalysed reactions happen. They can be captured by the system and the system can evolve to some extent. Not like it can with encoded protein synthesis.
Stuart Kauffman: There’s no talk of energy in all of this yet, either. If you put things through a wet-dry cycle, it’s called the plastein reaction. I was writing about it in 1993. Dave Deamer and Bruce Stamer are focusing on it now. Dehydrating and re hydrating the liposome is adding energy to the system. People are finding, Dave Deamer’s got some wonderful things about the onset of transport across membranes. He’s in Santa Cruz, he’s really worth talking to. It’s not there yet, Jim, but it’s not as far away as it was.
Jim Rutt: Interesting. One of the topics we talked about a lot on this show is the Fermi paradox. Right?
Stuart Kauffman: Where are they?
Jim Rutt: What was that?
Stuart Kauffman: Fermi’s paradox about where are they.
Jim Rutt: Yeah, where are they? Right? The, call it, the Stuart Kauffman view, “Life’s probably ubiquitous!” Right?
Stuart Kauffman: Well, pause. There’s 10 to the 22 stars in the universe, it’s now estimated that something like half of them have solar systems, that’s 10 to the 22 solar systems. Suppose one in a thousand of them have life, that’s 10 to the 19th biospheres out there. That’s a lot of biospheres.
Jim Rutt: If it turns out that life is actually easily, if true life is easily reachable across this information gap, this Error Catastrophe gap. When I was a 14-year-old nerd, I would have bet any sum of money that I had, which wasn’t much. That there was lots of intelligent species out there, but the more I thought about it, more I’ve read on the Fermi paradox and the various pruning rules. It’s possible we might be the only one, right? If it turns out this gap is unbelievably hard and low probability…
Stuart Kauffman: It could be unbelievably hard and low probability, you’re right. If by my crude calculation, there’s 10 to the 20 biospheres out there. For there to be none, it’s going to have to be really small compared to 10 to the 20th.
Jim Rutt: To make that clear, 10 to the 20 pre-biotic autocatalytic metabolistic networks-
Stuart Kauffman: Just waiting for something like you and I.
Jim Rutt: This is where I come out is that Stuart Kauffman is correct. That probably there is an unbelievably large number of integrated autocatalytic and metabolic networks.
Stuart Kauffman: It’s out of liposomes and [inaudible 00:57:51].
Jim Rutt: Yeah, inside of fat, buds, and all that. The question is what percentage of them ratchet up to having high fidelity information transfer?
Stuart Kauffman: Until we have some understanding of about how hard it is to get to template replicating DNA or RNA, or some other molecule to compare. We’re really talking about Schrodinger’s what is life. An aperiodic solid, of which DNA and RNA are the wonderful examples, that can carry, as he says, a microcode for the organism, which DNA does. Until we know how that happens, in the micro-code is reliably transferred. We don’t know, but it can’t be that far away, Jim.
Jim Rutt: Well, we’ll find out, as people are working on it. I still remain Agnostic, right? I will say that I now give fair credit to those who say that that leap may be so damn hard it only happened once. If that is true, this talk we had earlier about us about to destroy our ecosystem is even more morally loaded. If we’re the only life in the universe, and one could say, perhaps our destiny is to bring the universe to life. If we snuff out intelligent life, it’ll not be good.
Stuart Kauffman: Well, I think some bacteria will survive.
Jim Rutt: Yeah, I think they will, too. Probably even other animals, but will they get back to intelligence?
Stuart Kauffman: Cockroaches will make it.
Jim Rutt: Cockroaches we always have with us. Thank you, Stuart. This has been great. We’ve had a few technical difficulties, the audio’s not going to be as good as it usually is, but, man, what a great conversation. That’s the important thing.
Stuart Kauffman: I’m glad that we got the opportunity. Please, we all have to think about what TAP means for the Anthropocene and what we’re going to do as a species. Everything else is trivial, Jim.
Jim Rutt: Yeah. It’s interesting the idea of TAP. You actually expressed TAP without the equation in your book. Right? You talked about this common rhetoric unfolding of both life and economy. Once you have the equation, it actually is more stark and in our face that unless we figure out how to stop TAP, we’re going to run outside of all the borders of every resource and crush our planet, probably in the next hundred years.
Stuart Kauffman: I think that’s roughly right, Jim. We are chopping down the last tree.
Jim Rutt: That is an unpleasant thought. With that thought-
Stuart Kauffman: When will this go online?
Jim Rutt: It’ll be about two weeks or thereabouts.
Stuart Kauffman: Would you send me a link, please?
Jim Rutt: I certainly will. We’ll give you heads up about three days in advance.
Stuart Kauffman: How many people does it go out to?
Jim Rutt: It goes out to everybody in the universe. It goes out to my podcast platform, currently about six thousand people a week listen to the podcast. A typical podcast will on average get about that many listeners in the first four weeks.
Stuart Kauffman: What has to start happening, Jim, is we as a species have to take on what this means. That is sobering beyond anything we can say.
Jim Rutt: Fortunately there’s some people working on that, some of the people I’ve interviewed on the show and will be interviewing on the show. What is the operating system of the future look like that has the attributes of allowing us to have interesting, and intellectually probing species, yet not destroy our planet? We’ll say nobody has solved that equation yet, but there are people working on it.
Stuart Kauffman: I want to hear more from you about it, Jim. Thank you. Bye.
Jim Rutt: Bye-bye, take care. Be good.
Jim Rutt: Production services and audio editing by Jared Janes. Music by Tom Muller at ModernSpaceMusic.com.