Perry Marshall discusses avenues of research that may uncover the mystery of what makes life alive.
Here’s each book Perry discusses in the video:
The Fourth Phase of Water: Beyond Solid, Liquid, and Vapor
by Gerald H Pollack
Margins of Reality: The Role of Consciousness in the Physical World
by Robert G. Jahn and Brenda J. Dunne
The Science Delusion: Freeing the Spirit of Enquiry
by Rupert Sheldrake
The Beauty of Fractals: Images of Complex Dynamical Systems
by Heinz-Otto Peitgen
by Jean-Claude Perez
Dance to the Tune of Life: Biological Relativity
by Denis Noble
From Matter to Life: Information and Causality
by Sara Imari Walker, Paul C. W. Davies, et al.
Biocentrism: How Life and Consciousness are the Keys to the True Nature of the Universe
by Robert Lanza, Peter Ganim, et al.
Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False
by Thomas Nagel, Brian Troxell, et al.
What Is Life?: With Mind and Matter and Autobiographical Sketches
by Erwin Schrödinger, Roger Penrose – foreword, et al.
Transcript of the video:
Sam: Hello, my name is Sam Bart. I’m the Project Manager for Evolution 2.0, and here’s my special guest. I have Perry Marshall, a world-renowned author and the founder of the $10 million dollar science prize of Evolution 2.0. Hi Perry.
Perry: Good to be here. We’re going to talk about how could somebody actually win this today, so it’s a very interesting topic.
Sam: Yes, so could you explain to me how exactly could somebody possibly win this prize?
Perry: Let’s talk about what we’re asking for. This is for origin of information, which is really origin of life, like where did life come from. I think where did life come from is such a complex question that you’ve got to start with something simpler. I think if there’s any way to eat the elephant one bite at a time, let’s go right to what I think is the most central question, which is where does code come from?
A cell requires a genetic code, and genetic code is instructions, and the instructions are very much like digital computer code. There’s only like 1,000 books about that in the world. So where does code come from?
That gets you to a question of where do choices come from, because code is choices. I’ll get to that in a minute, but let’s just talk about what is the prize asking somebody to do. Let’s start with that. The prize is saying, “I want you to start with chemicals and end up with code.”
Maybe that means that you pour a bunch of chemicals in your bathtub and you have them at the exact right temperature and the exact right concentration and the exact right everything and somehow, by whatever you did to set up the initial conditions, you got one end to send signals to the other end in the form of digital code.
Maybe the signals tell you what the temperature is in some data format that could be recognized, and if the other side can recognize it and convert it to something, then you had an encoder, a message, and a decoder, and that is communication.
Sam, if I send you a text, I pull out my phone and I type things into my phone and I press Send, and your phone gets a text and you read it – my phone encoded, the cell phone towers sent a message, and your phone decoded it – encoding, message, decoder. Whether it’s the simplest thing of kids talking to each other through a tin can telephone with words, or whether it’s some big complex technological thing like the internet, it’s still code. It’s communication.
We’re looking for where does communication come from. If somebody can solve that in any way, shape, or form and do it under any conditions, we’ll write them a check for $100,000, and if it’s patentable our investment group will pay for all the legal expenses and we’ll get it patented too, and then we’ll pay the discoverer $10 million dollars and we’ll partner them into the next company that we create with this. It would undoubtedly be a huge technological advance if we do that, so that’s the Evolution 2.0 prize.
We announced it at The Royal Society about a year ago and we got judges from Harvard, Oxford, and MIT. It’s been written up in scientific journals. It’s been written up in Inc and Forbes and a whole bunch of places.
What I thought we might do today, since I’ve been thinking about this and obsessing about this literally for about 15 years, is how do I think somebody might solve this? If I knew how to solve it, I would just go solve it. I don’t know how to solve this. I don’t think anybody knows how to solve this right now, but I’ve had some very serious scientists come to me and say, “I’m going to solve this.” Lee Cronin from the University of Glasgow, for example, is a world-renowned chemist and he’s like, “I’m going to solve that.” There’s an interview in the podcast where we talk about that.
Let’s talk about where the solution might be found. What I’m going to do today is I’ve got about a dozen books here and I’m just going to hold them up and tell you a little bit about them and say, “This is a rock that somebody could turn over and go look for a solution,” so that’s what we’re doing today.
The first one I want to put in front of you is What Is Life? by Erwin Schrodinger. He’s a very famous physicist and he wrote this book in 1943. And not only that, but in 2018 I went to a conference in Dublin, Ireland called What Is Life? and it was the 75th anniversary conference of this book. Six Nobel Prize winners were there and they were still talking about the questions raised in this book. Most books written in 1943 are almost useless.
Sam: As far as modern technology goes. Can you tell us a little bit about the questions that he asked in that book?
Perry: This is why the book is so good. He defined the questions really well. There are two things that people especially remember about this book. He described DNA as an aperiodic crystal. The word aperiodic means it’s not just the same repetitive pattern over and over like salt crystals, but it’s a continuously varying pattern. That was not too far off.
Sam: Yeah, that was ahead of its time.
Perry: Very much, and he introduced an extremely useful term called negative entropy or neg entropy. Entropy is when toast gets cold when it pops out of the toaster and it doesn’t get warm again, it only gets cold. Exhaust comes out of your muffler and doesn’t go back in. That’s entropy.
He said living things exhibit negative entropy. They don’t turn order into disorder, they turn disorder into order. You clean up your room, you build a company, you cook food over a fire, and you make order, not disorder. You order the world around you. You build a house, you put a fence around your yard, and all living things do this sort of thing. He said they’re not violating the laws of physics when they do this, but there must be some other law of physics that we don’t understand.
I think he hit the nail on the head. A lot of people have read that and go, “Yeah, that’s kind of what they appear to do.” No, I think that’s what they really do. I agree they don’t disobey a law of physics, or I don’t think they do.
Sam: Things still decay even after you build a house. It still decays, but the act of building a house is the opposite of decay.
Perry: Right. Now, I’m going to come back around to this subject of negative entropy in a few minutes, but I think that is the central question. What is the source of making order? What is it? This question has perplexed and bothered and angered and frustrated scientists, and people have argued about this, because life is so obviously different than non-life.
There’s a whole bunch of people that go, “Oh, no, no, it’s really the same.” Even a 6-year-old can tell the difference between a live bird and a dead bird, right? This is a great starting point for the whole journey.
Here’s another book, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False by Thomas Nagel. He is a philosopher at a university in New York, and this book created quite a stir when it was introduced something like 8 or 10 years ago. This book does not have any answers. It only has questions. He’s a very respected philosopher, who happens to be an atheist, by the way.
The thesis of the book is that in the universe we have this thing called consciousness, and nobody’s physical laws explain any of it, and who’s kidding who. He has a lot of negative things to say about the standard Darwinian synthesis. He describes it as a triumph of ideology over facts, but he’s not in a position to solve any of these problems, but he’s definitely like, “Hey people, the emperor has no clothes. We have not figured this out, and stop pretending that we’ve figured this out.” So that’s Mind and Cosmos by Thomas Nagel.
Here’s another interesting book, From Logos to Bios: Evolutionary Theory in Light of Plato, Aristotle, and Neoplatonism by Wynand de Beer. Now, I know this guy. After he wrote the book I reached out to him because I thought it was very interesting. What he does in this book is he explores the view that the Greek philosophers had about biology 2,500 years ago, and he says they were more right than wrong.
The Greek philosophers have largely been rejected by biology and science in the last 100-200 years. The Greek philosophers believed in logos and telos. Logos is the power of words and language. It’s the power of intentionality. The Greeks defined the logos as the thing that bridges the gap between the eternal principles of math and geometry and that sort of thing, and the dynamic ever-changing world that we live in – that there has to be some connection between the eternally-pure principles and the active evolving world, and they called that the logos and they absolutely believed that it was all very purposeful.
Around the beginning of the 20th century, biology wholesale rejected the notion that any of it was purposeful, I think in complete defiance of what is plainly obvious right in front of your eyes. As we know from politics and everything else, people can do that all the time. There’s all kinds of versions of, “No, the sky isn’t blue, the sky is orange,” and “No, the sky isn’t blue, the sky is purple,” and “No, the sky isn’t blue, the sky is magenta.”
This happens all the time. We’re swimming in it in the news media, but I think they were completely wrong. This is a really great book and it explores this.
I’ll also just add that I think one of the reasons that Lynn Margolis was such a good scientist was because she read the Greek philosophers when she was 16-18 years old at the University of Chicago, in an original writings program that they had there. Michael Ruse talks about this in a book that he wrote, The Gaia Hypothesis: Science on a Pagan Planet.
Basically, I think the rejection of Greek philosophy is a big reason why science has gotten itself back into a real serious corner in biology. Science doesn’t have any explanation for origin of life. It doesn’t even have a good explanation for why things evolve, which is a whole other conversation.
The next book is Biocentrism: How Life and Consciousness are the Keys to the True Nature of the Universe by Robert Lanza. This is a book about the relationship between conscious observations and measurement in quantum mechanics. This is a very well-known problem, with a whole bunch of different interpretations of what it means.
There’s a double-slit experiment in quantum mechanics where, depending on what you’re looking for, you either get a particle or a wave. It depends on what you’re looking for as to what you actually get. The observer and the act of observation actually changes the measurement. The measurement is not complete until the observation is made, which is a very mind-bending idea. He explores this idea and he explains it in great detail.
He says that biology is firmly in the world of things where conscious observation is the determining factor, and that we’re ignoring this. We can’t get out of the traps of a reductionistic mindset until we acknowledge this, and this is really the way out. That is the essence of that book.
Let’s go back to Schrodinger’s neg entropy or negative entropy. Paul Davies has a book called The Demon in the Machine: How Hidden Webs of Information Are Solving the Mystery of Life. Paul Davies is the guy who invited me to Arizona State University to announce the Evolution Prize when it was at $5 million. I’ve become friends with him since, and I’ve been reading his work for years and years. He’s a pretty famous scientist.
This book explores the idea of biological organisms possessing a point of intentionality that he calls the demon in the machine. This is based on a thought experiment by James Clerk Maxwell from 150 years ago. Maxwell is the guy who figured out Maxwell’s equations, which are the backbone of electromagnetism and fields and waves and antennas. I would say Maxwell is easily one of the top 20 scientists in history.
Maxwell was interested in all kinds of stuff, and one of the things he was interested in was thermodynamics – the whole subject of entropy and why does your toast get cold instead of warmer when it pops out of the toaster?
He came up with this brilliant realization. He said let’s say you’ve got a refrigerator, and it’s turned off so the outside and the inside are the same temperature. He said if I had a little tiny microscopic molecule-sized demon with a refrigerator door – at that level there’s cold particles and hot particles all mixed together everywhere; there’s slow molecules and there’s fast ones, and the fast ones are hot and the slow ones are cold – if the demon could open the door when a hot one came zinging by, and go out of the refrigerator and then let a cold one in, and if he could just open that door at the right times it would get colder and colder and colder in the refrigerator and the laws of entropy would be reversed.
Well, gee, if you had those in your car engine you wouldn’t need any gas because you could just let hot air into the cylinders and then they could push the cylinders and out they would go. So then you start asking, “Well, is that possible? And what would that involve?”
Eventually what people figured out was this – the demon has to see what the molecules are doing in order to open the door, and the act of observation of the molecules consumes energy. So if that door existed, you would not violate the laws of physics because it would take energy for the demon to process the information, so there really is no free lunch.
But here’s where Davies goes with it, and quite a few authors have played around with this idea. Davies goes, “Okay, but what that says is that even though it consumes energy to process information, as everybody with a hot computer knows, and the laws of physics say the computer is going to get hot when it processes information, there’s no way around that, but if you can consume energy and process information, you can create order out of disorder.”
Davies says we don’t know exactly how biology does it, but that’s what’s going on. Life is cellular computation and processing, so it doesn’t violate the laws of physics. You have to eat, to clean up your room, to paint your house, so he’s working out the details of the enigma. He talks about lots and lots of interesting things in this book, so it really is a great book and it goes into some great areas and it kind of isolates the information problem.
I want to show you another book by Paul Davies and his colleague, Sara Walker, called From Matter to Life: Information and Causality. They’re considering the same question, but they have a bunch of other authors in here. They’re applying Maxwell’s demon question to “Where did life come from in the first place?” It’s one of the best books on the information problem in biology that you can get. If you want to understand the Evolution 2.0 problem, read this book.
Now, he doesn’t talk about Evolution 2.0, and the book came out before any of that, but it’s exactly right. They haven’t solved it, but they’ve defined it really well.
I want to insert something. Remember that I talked about Mind and Cosmos and the consciousness problem. I think that the demon in the machine is the unit of consciousness, whatever that is. I could be wrong, and I’m perfectly happy to be wrong about this, but having thought about this for say 15 years, here’s what I think is going on.
I think there is some construction of a mechanism that is capable of having and exercising consciousness, and that is the demon in the machine. Yes, the demon requires information and energy and all of that, but at the end of the day I believe that what turns chaos into order is choice, and choice is only made by conscious beings. Computers don’t make choices. Rocks don’t make choices. Dead planets don’t make choices, but living things do.
Sam: The demon has to decide to open the refrigerator door.
Perry: Yes. He’s got to decide to open the refrigerator door. If you back it up a step, you go, “Oh, but a computer program could just detect the information and open and the close the door.” I know, but you have to decide what the computer program would do, and that is a choice. You cannot get away from choice, which actually brings it back to the Greek philosophers who believed that life was purposeful. Yes, it is. In fact, purpose is the only way that you turn chaos into order.
The next book is Laws, Language and Life by Howard Pattee. Howard Pattee is in his 90s and he’s been writing about this for 60 years. What he’s been saying for 60 years is that there’s a dotted line in the universe, and on one side of the line is objects, and on the other side of the line is subjects.
Objects are rocks and buckets of water. Subjects are beings, and beings observe and act and generate language. They’re conscious and they have perception and they don’t do what they do just based on the past. They do what they do based on what they want to do in the future.
People have been arguing about the subject/object dotted line for 2,000 to 4,000 years. This is not new. Mostly that argument has been happening about humans and the mind and the body. Is there a soul? Is there a spirit? What really is a human being?
What Pattee says is this problem goes all the way down to the cell. It goes all the way down to the most basic code, DNA, that a cell is a subject, not an object. I believe he’s right. Now, am I saying that cells brush their teeth and say their prayers before bedtime? No. I don’t know what it means.
Sam: But they do preserve themselves.
Perry: And they talk to each other. There’s a famous TED talk by Bonnie Bassler called “How Bacteria Talk.” It’s on their website and it’s probably my favorite TED talk. She explains in incredible detail how bacteria send all of these communication messages back and forth to each other at all kinds of different levels, so I don’t think there’s any question that this is true. This is just really hard for some people to accept. It weirds them out. They’re like, “Oh my word. The world is so much weirder than I thought it was.”
The view that Pattee espouses in this book is called semiotics. It’s the study of signs and symbols in biology, and there are journals devoted to this but it doesn’t get a great deal of attention. You could call it the study of linguistics in molecular biology, and it’s a very deep subject. I think it’s one of the most important subjects. I think it’s way under-rated.
The next book is Dance to the Tune of Life: Biological Relativity by Denis Noble. I’ve admired Denis’s work for years. I eventually became friends with him, and he came on the judging panel of Evolution 2.0. He’s an extraordinary scientist – one of the most celebrated scientists in Great Britain.
Denis has a theory that he calls biological relativity. Biological relativity says there is no privileged level of causation in biology. Now, I need to unpack what he means when he says this. I think this is a very profound insight.
Denis is famous for figuring out what makes the heart rhythm work. What makes the heart beat? He figured that out in the 1960s. He was the first person to model a human organ on a computer, which he did in 1962, I believe, in the basement of University College London on borrowed computer time with punch cards, and he worked out all these differential equations on how the heart works. His discovery about how the heart works has everything to do with his biological relativity theory, so let me explain it.
Your heart is not a watch. If you know anything about a digital watch, what you know is that there’s a crystal and it vibrates at a certain frequency, and something picks up the vibrations and they turn it into pulses, and then the pulses get divided and they count out seconds, and the seconds get divided into minutes, and you have a digital watch. It’s pretty simple. It’s like you start with this vibration and just start dividing it out, and the whole thing is a straight line.
Your heart does not work that way at all. Your heart has at least three major feedback loops, and they are redundant. This is a really uncircumcised Philistine explanation of Denis’s career here, but there are three systems where the information goes around in a circular fashion, and they are influenced by all kinds of things in the body.
Are you running, or is it hot, or is it cold, are you nervous, and all kinds of other things. There’s all kinds of systems that affect those loops. If you break the machinery of one of these loops, the other two will keep going, so it’s redundant. It’s got back-up systems, so you have to kill all three in order to kill the heartbeat.
Here’s Denis’s point. There is no one place where it starts. There’s almost a chicken and egg problem in every step of this loop. The previous piece of information affects the heartbeat, but then the heartbeat affects the thing that affects that piece of information.
He says everything in physiology is like this. There isn’t one starting point for anything in biology. It’s loops within loops within loops, and cycles and systems within systems within systems. There’s no one system that is in charge of everything.
This got him to realize that we had to completely revise evolutionary biology, because for the last 50-75 years we’ve believed that the gene is the starting point of biology. He says absolutely no, no, no, it is not, because not only did genes build the organism, but the organism modifies the genes. And not only that, but you can’t build an organism just from the genes. The genes don’t have nearly enough information to build the whole organism, which is a whole other conversation.
This is a very, very, very important reorientation of how you understand biology. It completely changes your perspective on the whole entire discipline. I’m not going to belabor this further. You can read the book Dance to the Tune of Life: Biological Relativity if you want to, but notice that everything that I’m telling you keeps reinforcing a holistic view of life rather than a reductionist view of life.
The next thing I want to talk about is fractals. This is the first fractals book that I ever read. The Beauty of Fractals by Heinz-Otto Peitgen. There are lots of fractal books out there. I’m not necessarily saying you ought to start with this one. Start with any one that you think looks good, or any YouTube videos or what have you, but fractal patterns in nature are one of the most universal things that most people never quite notice.
A fractal is a pattern in a pattern in a pattern in a pattern. There’s a tree outside and I can look at the whole tree. I can zoom into the trunk, zoom into the branches, zoom into the leaves, zoom into the veins in the leaves, zoom into the veins in the veins in the veins of the leaves. Literally at a million-to-one scale there’s branching, branching, branching, branching, and it just goes down and down and down and down. There are all kinds of fractal patterns in biology.
Another book – and this is really obscure, and it’s also in French – is Codex Biogenesis by Jean-Claude Perez. Perez is a retired IBM mathematician who studies genetics in his retirement. He’s been writing books and papers for 10 or 20 years about the fractal patterns in the genome, in proteins, in DNA structures. You can Google him and you’ll find all kinds of interesting stuff.
It’s not usually easy to read because it’s badly translated from French into English, but there is an article on Evo2 called “The Mathematics of DNA” which gives you a really concise summary of a paper that I helped him write about 10 years ago. I think that fractals and self-organization are inevitably a component of where did life come from.
We’re getting close to the end here. The next book is The Science Delusion: Freeing the Spirit of Enquiry by Rupert Sheldrake. I believe he was studying biochemistry or some related topic at Cambridge, and years ago he came to the conclusion that most of biology was just missing the boat by being too reductionistic.
He saw way too many giant questions that nobody had any answers for – for example, the question of what determines the overall physical form of an organism is not really known. We know that electric fields make the body of a tadpole into the body of a tadpole, and different electric fields make a snake, but we don’t know how those are generated. We don’t know where those originally come from.
Sheldrake also says we have good reasons to believe that biological memory is stored somewhere in the universe, or somewhere, and is accessible by means that we do not currently understand. One of the things he talks about in one of his books is how they did experiments where a guy who never goes home for lunch decides to go home for lunch, and they put video cameras in his house and watched his dogs. When he gets a couple miles away from his house, the dogs know he’s coming home and they start acting like they do at 5:00. They showed with reliable statistical consistency that the dogs could tell that he was coming home, even though we don’t know any mechanism that would make that true.
Now, a whole lot of us human beings have had experiences of that sort which we cannot explain, but that we know. Carl Jung called it synchronicity. He talks about experiments with rats, where if he taught rats in Boston how to run through a maze, rats in Australia would learn how to run through the same maze faster.
This gets us to another book which addresses the question at a larger level. This book is called Margins of Reality: The Role of Consciousness in the Physical World by Robert Jahn and Brenda Dunne. I interviewed Brenda on the Evolution 2.0 podcast about a year ago. This book was written by the people who ran the lab at the Princeton University Engineering Anomalies Research Lab. For 28 years there was a department at Princeton that investigated psychic and paranormal phenomena.
My friend Howard Jacobson recommended this book to me and I read it and I thought, “This book is so boring, nobody could have ever possibly made this up.” The reason it’s boring is because it has excruciatingly precise descriptions of meticulously performed experiments and how they all worked.
These authors are working against a bias in science that none of this exists, so they have to triple-document everything they do, and they do. In fact, there’s a huge body of literature around this kind of stuff. They’ve proved with five nines of statistical confidence that beads falling from the ceiling to the floor could be slightly deflected by a person concentrating. They could get the bell curve distribution of the beads that fell to the bottom to shift measurably one way or the other.
They proved with five nines of statistical confidence that humans can change the outputs of random number generators slightly. They proved that people can – they call it remote viewing – send images from themselves to a recipient, and they describe in excruciating detail the experiment they did to show if you send me a picture and I’m drawing a picture, how good is my drawing? They had all these criteria for measuring the accuracy of the drawing. There’s a whole bunch of stuff like this.
In fact, if you get into the genre of literature that is in this book and that is cited by this book, you will find that there are thousands of scientific studies and thousands of scientific papers about this kind of stuff, and most of them confirm that these things do get results. The only thing is, they don’t know why it’s true. They know that it’s true, but they don’t know why it’s true. Mainstream science publishing has never accepted this as real, so it just gets ignored, but it’s there.
If you have the ability to read a scientific paper and look at all of their set-ups and all of their tests and see if their conclusions match with their experiments, you can read it and decide for yourself. There are volumes and volumes and volumes of literature about this.
What does this have to do with Evolution 2.0? I just simply believe that anytime you ignore something that you don’t like, you don’t know what it costs you to remain intentionally blind. Do the margins of reality experiments have anything to do with consciousness or Maxwell’s demon? They might. Why wouldn’t they? I don’t know, but you certainly can’t declare at the outset that they don’t. I think there’s something to look into there.
The last book that I’ll bring to your attention is called The Fourth Phase of Water: Beyond Solid, Liquid, and Vapor by Gerald Pollack. There’s a whole body of literature around this. Everybody learns in high school chemistry that water has three phases – water, steam, and ice – but there’s a lot of researchers that say water has a fourth phase, that at certain very small distances like nanometers, when in contact with certain kinds of surfaces like lipids, which are the fatty molecules and cells, that water exhibits a different set of properties than it does normally. A lot of these people also say that water has memory.
There’s a lot of work on this, and it’s also been very vigorously opposed by reductionist scientists, so when you go into this subject you’re going to find there are advocates and there are haters, and they are very passionate.
So read this book and the references and the descriptions and the pictures and all of that. It’s meticulously documented. Then start reading the other authors and so on, and come to your own conclusions. I have a suspicion that we’ll never solve origin of life, or even major problems in life, until we fully understand water, and I don’t think we fully understand water.
So there’s literally 6 or 8 or 10 rabbit trails that you could go down, all of which may have possibilities for solving the Evolution 2.0 prize.
Sam: Excellent. This has been an amazing overview of these different books, and some eye-opening and interesting questions posed by the different authors. We’ll have links below this video here on this page to each and every book that we’ve talked about. You can get them on Amazon or wherever else.
We’d love to hear your thoughts if you could send us an email or comment on the blog. We’d love to hear if you’ve read these books, what you think of them, and hear from you soon.
Perry: Let’s talk about it. Thanks, Sam.
Sam: Thanks, Perry.
Where Did Life And The Genetic Code Come From? Can The Answer Build Superior AI? The #1 Mystery In Science Now Has A $10 Million Prize. Learn More About It, Here – https://www.herox.com/evolution2.0