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"OH WATERS, TEEM WITH MEDICINE TO KEEP MY BODY SAFE FROM HARM, SO THAT I MAY LONG SEE THE SUN." - Rig Veda
From the standpoint of physics, there is one essential difference between living things and inanimate clumps of carbon atoms: The former tend to be much better at capturing energy from their environment and dissipating that energy as heat. Jeremy England, a 31-year-old assistant professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has derived a mathematical formula that he believes explains this capacity. The formula, based on established physics, indicates that when a group of atoms is driven by an external source of energy (like the sun or chemical fuel) and surrounded by a heat bath (like the ocean or atmosphere), it will often gradually restructure itself in order to dissipate increasingly more energy. This could mean that under certain conditions, matter inexorably acquires the key physical attribute associated with life.
England’s theory is meant to underlie, rather than replace, Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, which provides a powerful description of life at the level of genes and populations. “I am certainly not saying that Darwinian ideas are wrong,” he explained. “On the contrary, I am just saying that from the perspective of the physics, you might call Darwinian evolution a special case of a more general phenomenon.
Ancient population expansions and dispersals often leave enduring signatures in the cultural traditions of their descendants, as well as in their genes and languages. The international folktale record has long been regarded as a rich context in which to explore these legacies. To date, investigations in this area have been complicated by a lack of historical data and the impact of more recent waves of diffusion. In this study, we introduce new methods for tackling these problems by applying comparative phylogenetic methods and autologistic modelling to analyse the relationships between folktales, population histories and geographical distances in Indo-European-speaking societies. We find strong correlations between the distributions of a number of folktales and phylogenetic, but not spatial, associations among populations that are consistent with vertical processes of cultural inheritance. Moreover, we show that these oral traditions probably originated long before the emergence of the literary record, and find evidence that one tale (‘The Smith and the Devil’) can be traced back to the Bronze Age. On a broader level, the kinds of stories told in ancestral societies can provide important insights into their culture, furnishing new perspectives on linguistic, genetic and archaeological reconstructions of human prehistory.
A number of years ago, a team of research scientists tried to improve the design of a certain kind of computer circuit. They created a simple task that the circuit needed to solve and then tried to evolve a potential solution. After many generations, the team eventually found a successful circuit design. But here’s the interesting part: there were parts of it that were disconnected from the main part of the circuit, but were essential for its function. Essentially, the evolutionary program took advantage of weird physical and electromagnetic phenomena that no engineer would ever think of using in order to make the circuit complete its task. In the words of the researchers: ‘Evolution was able to exploit this physical behaviour, even though it would be difficult to analyse.’
This evolutionary technique yielded a novel technological system, one that we have difficulty understanding, because we would never have come up with something like this on our own. In chess, a realm where computers are more powerful than humans and have the ability to win in ways that the human mind can’t always understand, these types of solutions are known as ‘computer moves’ — the moves that no human would ever do, the ones that are ugly but still get results. As the American economist Tyler Cowen noted in his book Average Is Over (2013), these types of moves often seem wrong, but they are very effective. Computers have exposed the fact that chess, at least when played at the highest levels, is too complicated, with too many moving parts for a person — even a grandmaster — to understand.
While we can’t actually control the weather or understand it in all of its nonlinear details, we can predict it reasonably well, adapt to it, and even prepare for it. And when the elements deliver us something unexpected, we muddle through as best as we can. So, just as we have weather models, we can begin to make models of our technological systems, even somewhat simplified ones. Playing with a simulation of the system we’re interested in — testing its limits and fiddling with its parameters, rather than understanding it completely — can be a powerful path to insight, and is a skill that needs cultivation.
We also need interpreters of what’s going on in these systems, a bit like TV meteorologists. Near the end of Average Is Over, Cowen speculates about these future interpreters. He says they ‘will hone their skills of seeking out, absorbing, and evaluating this information… They will be translators of the truths coming out of our networks of machines… At least for a while, they will be the only people left who will have a clear notion of what is going on.’