Cosmological Natural Selection

Messier 92 in the Hercules constellation.

I came across a wonderful piece in the June 10, 2014 issue of Scientific American, “The Logic and Beauty of Cosmological Natural Selection” by Lawrence Rifkin MD.  (He writes at or you can follow him on Twitter@LSRifkin.)

Rifkin argues that “The hypothesis [of] cosmological natural selection, and its power, beauty, and logic provide what may be the best scientific explanation for the existence of complexity and life in the universe.” CNS has been most extensively formulated by the physicist Lee Smolin in his 1992 book The Life of the Cosmos. Here is a basic description:

Throughout the universe, stars that collapse into black holes squeeze down to an unimaginably extreme density. Under those extreme conditions, as a result of quantum phenomenon, the black hole explodes in a big bang and expands into its own new baby universe, separate from the original. The point where time ends inside a black hole is where time begins in the big bang of a new universe. Smolin proposes that the extreme conditions inside a collapsed black hole result in small random variations of the fundamental physical forces and parameters in the baby universe. So each of the new baby universes has slightly different physical forces and parameters from its parent. This introduces variation.

Given these “inherited characteristics, universes with star-friendly parameters will produce more stars and reproduce at a greater rate than those universes with star-unfriendly parameters. So the parameters we see today are the way they are because, after accumulating bit by bit through generations of universes, the inherited parameters are good at producing stars and reproducing.” Of course, the existence of stars is crucial because the molecular material contained in stars is a prerequisite of life.

One of the advantages of CNS is that it directly addresses the so-called “fine-tuning problem”—why the laws and parameters of nature are remarkably conducive to life. It answers that the laws of our universe “are the way they are because of non-random naturalistic cumulative inherited change through reproductive success over time.” CNS also explains the complexity and the apparent design of our universe without positing gods, analogous to how natural selection explains the complexity and apparent design of our biology.

Critics might argue that there is no evidence for CNS, but Rifkin points out that there is no direct evidence for other scientific alternatives that would explain the existence of our universe like quantum fluctuations, multiverses, cyclic universes, or brane cosmology. And CNS has the advantage of explaining the fine-tuning problem better than the alternatives, which is why Rifkin thinks CNS will eventually be vindicated.

Furthermore, CNS has profound implications for the question of life’s meaning. “In a world of branching universes conducive to life, ultimate cosmic doom may be avoided, keeping alive the possibility of eternity—not for us as individuals, or for Homo sapiens, but for the existence of life at large in the cosmos.” So the future of the cosmos is open, still to be determined—surely a more hopeful message that inevitable cosmic death. Yet this does not imply that we were meant to be here, that the universe cares about us, or that any teleology is at work—Rifkin definitely rejects any god of the gaps.

In the end, CNS, like any scientific idea, stands or falls on the evidence. “If evidence proves any one of the cosmological alternatives—or an entirely new idea altogether—we will embrace reality, no matter where it leads, and be struck with awe at our ability to discover the grandest of cosmological truths and our place in the universe.”


I am unqualified to adjudicate between various cosmological theories but CNS is a robust theory that is consistent with perhaps the greatest idea of all time—the idea that everything, from the cell to the cosmos, evolves over time. Moreover, CNS provides a straightforward solution to the fine-tuning problem. I have no doubt that there is a naturalistic solution to this problem—assuming we can even be sure the cosmos is fine-tuned. (Some theorists suggest we don’t know enough to say for sure.) But if our universe is fine-tuned, then naturalistic solutions will explain it. Scientific solutions will close this gap in our knowledge like they have previously closed so many others. This is after all one of the main reasons why so few philosophers are non-naturalists.Science works.

Still, people will find their gods hiding in the gaps of quantum or cosmological theories, or in dark matter or energy. If you are determined to believe something it is hard to change your mind. But defenders of the gods fight a rearguard action—scientific knowledge is relentless—and these hidden gods are nothing like the traditional ones. Those gods are dead.

And as science closes the gaps in our knowledge the gods will recede further and further into the recesses of infinite space and time until they vanish altogether, slowly blown away, not by cosmic winds, but by ever-encroaching thought.

Liked it? Take a second to support Dr John Messerly on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!

17 thoughts on “Cosmological Natural Selection

  1. It is elegant speculation and a big idea. I too am unqualified to evaluate cosmological theory, particularly one as dramatic as this. My skepticism comes with use of the term evolution, because I do not think of that as beyond the realm of living things. I guess my mind is just not wrapped that way. Other great thinkers have grappled with black holes and the origin(s) of the universe(s), how many of them there may be. Deep space is a deep subject. Maybe I’d feel better with *emergence*. Or, *creation*. THE big question, for me, is not what can know, but whether there are things we can never know. This may be one of the latter, IMHO. Thank you, Dr.

  2. Gödel’s Theorem says that in any axiomatic mathematical system that is sufficiently rich to do elementary arithmetic, there will be some statements that are true but cannot be proved (from the axioms). In technical terminology, the axiom system must be incomplete.

  3. That name, Rifkin …why does it seem familiar? I will do a search, but am pretty certain the person I am thinking about was not an MD. Will let you know what I uncover. No matter. you already know, right?

  4. I did a search on the Rifkin I vaguely remembered. Jeremy. Born in 1945, younger than both my brother and me, Bit of a polymath., though interested in economics primarily and known for that. So, if there is a connection, it might follow interests, motives and preferences. If there is no connection between these men, then this dog barks silently.
    Intersections meet in odd places, especially when non-parallel lines cross.

  5. I had never heard of this hypothesis, so I spent some time thinking it over as I worked outside. Now, it is easily rejected on the grounds that it is not subject to empirical rejection. It is theoretically impossible to disprove it, which by common standards puts it beyond the ken of science. However, I also realized an even stronger basis for rejecting the hypothesis: it is meaningless. The newly-created universes cannot affect our own universe. Nothing that ever happens in those new universes can ever affect anything that happens in our universe. Therefore, these universes have zero significance to us. They mean nothing to us.

    This seems such an obvious objection that I very much doubt that a physicist as smart as Mr. Smolin would have failed to address it.

    But I have a further reservation about this hypothesis: it seems unnecessary to me. The fine-tuning problem has never bothered me. I could just as well inquire into the astoundingly complex series of events that ended up producing that Crown of Creation, Chris Crawford. Think about it: of all the billions and billions of possible human beings, how did the universe come to bestow Chris Crawford upon us? This is clearly a conundrum requiring recourse to either theism or some new theory applying black holes, quantum mechanics, and general relativity.

    There’s even another argument arising from one of the most brilliant arguments I have ever experienced. This is Stuart Kaufmann’s explanation of how the immensely complex cycles of chemical reactions that drive life arose. Creationists argue that the probability of one of these cycles developing due to chance is infinitely tiny. Kaufmann’s response, brilliantly exposited in his book “At Home in the Universe”, is that, while the chances of that particular cycle arising randomly are one in zillions, there are zillions of different cycles that could produce life. Persons who did not endure the hell of Biochemistry 101 will have difficulty appreciating this truth. The chemical cycles that drive our biology are not perfect; they just happen to be the cycles life got started with. The same can be said of our universe. Yes, the physical constants that control our universe are astoundingly well-configured to produce life. But if they were different, you’d get a different universe. What’s so strange about that?

    By the way, I will never forget the shock of realization that swept over me when I read Kaufmann’s argument. It was one of those rare moments in life when our minds encounter a totally new and unexpected idea, and idea that makes everything fit together neatly. I’ve had only a handful of such experiences, and I hold them in special reverence.

  6. I’m familiar with Kaufmann’s work although not with this particular idea of his. let me investigate this more before responding further.

  7. I noted Mr. Crawford’s reference to * Smolin*, who is not the person, *Rifkin* who wrote the book. The name, Smolin, is familiar, but not part of this topic, as far as I know.

    Researched Lee Smolin. He is a theoretical physicist and has written a book on cosmology. I knew I had heard the name. Respected fellow.

  8. I am not related to Jeremy Rifkin. (Of course, we are all related).

    I appreciate the conversation. Responding to some of the above comments:

    Cosmological natural selection (CNS) is not disprovable, in the same way one cannot absolutely disprove the existence of God. But CNS is amenable to scientific evidence and support, as outlined by Smolin in his academic writings and at the end of his book on the subject. Lack of current strong evidence of all such theories is addressed in my article. That column makes the case for the compelling explanatory logic (and beauty) of the idea.

    As for Mr. Crawford’s suggestion above that the idea of CNS is meaningless in the sense that other universes cannot affect our universe, well, in that sense the distant future of life on earth is also meaningless in that it cannot affect current life on Earth. To the extent that the distant future of life on Earth has meaning, the existence of life via “baby” universes after our current universe can no longer support life has even greater potential meaning.

    As for the Kauffman explanation Mr. Crawford offers, that would be applicable to CNS if there were “zillions” of different configurations of the laws of nature that are conducive to complexity and the formation of life. That is not consistent with what current biology or physics now supports. That is why apparent fine tuning needs explanation – it is one of the remaining areas that has not been substantially accounted for with a naturalistic explanation.

  9. To correlate from Chris Crawfords comments:
    (disclaimer. The following are not my ideas. I am repeating from multiple other sources that at least sound plausible. I trained in engineering, but lack the in-depth rigor in Physics and Chemistry to fully evaluate )

    Matter is organized energy, which means it carries information in the form of chemical and atomic structure. Information is fundamental to knowing. If there is knowing, is there then an implied awareness? Can there then be intention which could grow to consciousness?
    Take the above backwards to where we currently assume ‘everything’ began (begins?)—-pure energy. (here borrowing from Meadows and her “Thinking in Systems”) Starting with energy, via untold number of feedback loops a successful universe learns to assemble itself. It attempts over and over, (as long as there is enough energy), using feedback loops to create structure….and so on.
    Self-organizing systems are fundamental in successful systems, which leads to ever greater complexity in evolving systems. Why would our Universe, in the aggregate, differ?
    I suspect we live in a universe that figured it out. One success amidst untold failures.
    And, if an open universe it will wind down, perhaps the black hole creations of baby universes will be it’s (our?) progeny. As the song says, a new baby born to carry on, to carry on.
    Then again, my knowledge may be so superficial as for this to be nonsense.
    Thank you for writing about Cosmology, Professor.

  10. I see in my post I didn’t explicitly state my main point.
    That is that any universe, and everything in it, be it living or inanimate, must LEARN to assemble itself.
    This also implies that we currently lack the ability to terra-form another planet. While all physical process is mechanistic, such projects are simply too complex, with too many feedback loops, for Man to deterministically attempt. It would devolve to chaos.

  11. S.J. Gould (he of Project Steve) noted that evolution is not unidirectional, though we pay more attention to the direction of increase in variation and sophistication (e.g., in biology, we particularly noted increases in species, until realization of massive species losses).

    We are, er, ‘designed‘ to notice somethings more than nothings; hence, the eternal loaded question, why is there something rather than nothing? The Virgin Mary on toast is just a folksy form of this systematic bias. Took us a while to even notice we needed the concept of a zero, and as more than mere placeholder.

    Cosmology is so breathtakingly intriguing, me I want it to hurry up and tell me stuff, but I suspect that, as we ask more and more difficult questions, science holds the ‘answers’ ‘hostage’ until we shed more and more of our most deeply entrenched cognitive biases. If arriving at, say, quantum mechanics, sent us beyond our comfort zone and even sent the Relativity dude into denialism, I am curious to see what extreme cognitive ‘chiropractic adjustments’ will be needed, in order to make the next jump onto fundamentally new physics.

  12. Thank you for your comments, Mr. Rifkin. I am in a weak position, not having read any of the source material, so my comments are unavoidably speculative. Still, I cannot imagine any possible evidence for what happens inside a black hole; the entire notion of an “event horizon” does render physically impossible any actual evidence. I realize that there have been a great many attempts to determine the internal state of a black hole from strictly mathematical calculations and a variety of assumptions. Particularly interesting have been the efforts to determine the information content of a black hole as well as its internal entropy. But these remain entirely speculative, as they cannot be based on any empirical evidence.

    You argue against my claim that other universes are meaningless (because they cannot affect us) by pointing out that the future cannot affect us, either. In other words, these other universes are no less meaningless than our own future. But there’s a crucial distinction that your argument misses: our future is, to some extent, predictable, and, to an even greater extent, subject to anticipation. A man who jumps off a cliff has not died yet, but his future is clear enough as to be meaningful to him. We know that the sun will eventually exhaust its reserves of hydrogen and go through changes that will result in the destruction of earth; that is meaningful to us even though it is billions of years in the future. We can use our knowledge of the current state of the universe to make meaningful statements about some aspects of our future. But we can never see beyond the event horizon of a black hole. We can never have any idea of anything in those universes. Indeed, we cannot even know that such universes exist. We have lots of fascinating speculations — and that’s all we have. No data — just speculation.

    And by the way, the very notion that a black hole could somehow spawn a universe does grossly violate the conservation of mass/energy. We put a few stars’ worth of mass into a black hole and an entire universe of zillions of stars spews out of the other side? Why shouldn’t it spew forth an immensity of candy bars, thundering herds of unicorns, or a teenage boys’ fantasy of millions of large-breasted nubile nymphs?

    You argue against my suggestion that other universes might produce other forms of life by noting that my suggestion “… is not consistent with what current biology or physics now supports.” That’s certainly true — but it misses my point. Yes, another universe with different values of the fundamental constants would not produce life just as we know it. Indeed, even a universe with exactly the same values of the fundamental physical constants would not produce the same life we have. See Steven J. Gould’s discussion of the highly contingent nature of life on earth, especially his observations that the evolution of Homo Sapiens was dependent upon a wide range of accidents unlikely to be replicated in an imaginary replay. In other words, the evolution of Homo Sapiens was a fluke. Consider, for example, the ramifications of a certain small asteroid arriving in the vicinity of the earth 65 million years ago one second later than in a previous history. We’d have a dinosaur in the White House.

    Lastly, I want to emphasize that this entire discussion runs beyond the extremes of speculation. We are arguing over what kind of hats angels might wear, or whether ghosts can have pimples, or how long leprechauns grow their hair. There is absolutely nothing in the way of empirical information to work with.

  13. I completely agree that our cognitive biases impede our understanding of the world and moreover they undermine human flourishing. As I’ve written many times on this blog and elsewhere, we need to augment human moral and intellectual capacities if we are to create a better world.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.