Transcript of EP 228 – Jeremy Sherman on the Emergence and Nature of Selves

The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or Jeremy Sherman. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.

Jim: Today’s guest is Jeremy Sherman. Jeremy is a writer, a researcher, and a strategic coach. For the last 27 years, he’s collaborated closely with Harvard and Berkeley neuroscientist and biological anthropologist, Terrence Deacon. Together they have studied how organisms struggling for existence emerged from chemistry, something that’s not explained by either natural selection or DNA. Welcome, Jeremy.

Jeremy: It’s a pleasure to be here, Jim.

Jim: Today we’re going to talk about his book, Neither Ghost nor Machine: The Emergence and Nature of Selves. This is going to be good. And got to tell you just a little funny story is that as you could probably imagine, I get a fair bit of nut email, probably at least one a week, somebody with their theory of everything or blah blah, whatever. Jeremy, as people do sometimes, reached out to me and my first reaction was, hmm, is this nut mail? I looked on his LinkedIn and said he was a strategy coach and my nut lover went do-do-do.

But then I saw he had an actual book. The first call on nuts is that their 174 page theory of everything is up there with no blank lines on their WordPress site in green and orange. But he had a real book.

Jeremy: Peer-reviewed.

Jim: And reviewed and I downloaded it. I’m a sucker to buy a book, what the hell. Authors need to eat, occasionally. I saw, well damn, there’s a foreword in it by Terrence Deacon. Holy moly. Then I looked at it, looked around the book. This is a good book, I think. I started to read it and I said, “This really is a good book.” Turns out what he’s done is something that very much needed doing. Fans of the Jim Rutt Show may well remember back in EP 157, we actually had Terrence Deacon on and we talked for two hours plus on incomplete nature: how mind emerged from matter. And when it was done, I told my wife, “I think I’ve gone too far this time. I don’t believe anyone’s going to understand what the hell we were talking about.” Because I had read the book very carefully. We went into great detail. As you know, Terrence is capable of going into unlimited detail.

Jeremy: That’s true.

Jim: But as it turned out, this became one of the top 10 most popular episodes out of 375 or whatever the hell I’ve done. It does show that there is an audience for a very deep job. But what Jeremy has done here is actually done something I think will be very helpful and very much more accessible to people. He’s taken the ideas, and without diluting them, has laid them out in very common sense ways and given some nice little homey examples. My fans know that I often stop people like Terrence and make them give homey examples, which he wasn’t very good at, by the way.

This book has got a lot of good homey examples. One of the other reasons I figured, oh, I got to have this dude on. I’m looking at his website and he says, “These days a lot of my attention is devoted to psychoproctology. I study how humans can become assholes, or their plural, cults. You got to love that, right? I think of assholery as a bigger problem than nukes or climate crisis. Huge, though they are, I figure we’ll never be able to address those other huge problems. We can’t put a leash on our tendency towards assholery. It’s that grave.” I love that. I actually agree. I sometimes phrase it slightly differently, but I say that sociopaths such like that have seized our levers of power. Lots of problems, but assholery, or better still, psychoproctology. I like that. Anyway, let’s get onto the book. I like the second sentence in the book, something like that, “This book is about a likely candidate, the mystery of purpose.” Tell us a little bit about what do you mean by purpose. And then in a story like this, we got to lay out the four Aristotelian causes.

Jeremy: We can get to them. I’d actually like to give a little context for why I would write a book like Neither Ghosts nor Machine. Then my next book would be, What’s Up With A-holes? I should also say that I hate the term asshole because it’s vague. And I chose the name psychoproctology because you need a light name for this deadly serious topic. You can’t afford to take yourself too seriously in that work. There’s continuity between these books that most people wouldn’t necessarily recognize. Hey, there’s continuity across the work I’ve done with Terry for these 27 years. Really lucky to get to work with this guy. At Harvard, they described him as a saint and a genius. The saint part was that he’ll talk to anybody who’s curious about the questions.

Though I wasn’t necessarily qualified, I had a master’s in public policy before I met him and he was on my PhD committee, we’ve been collaborating for years. He was my mentor and now we go on dog walks three or four times a week, which has been very fortunate for me. For one thing, it’s easier to understand him in conversation than in his books. I also said at Harvard that he writes like a truck, which I think is somewhat true and some of my motivation as well, because I saw early on that I could try to make his theories more intuitive. They are intuitive. The way I see it these days is that the current methods in science that are considered rigorous make his work look unduly abstruse. But if you actually impose the rigor that he does, they look as simple as possible, no simpler. It’s not hard for me to make it intuitive and come up with intuitive examples.

But what do I mean by purpose? Teleology is an old topic and for the longest time it was handled as what life means or is a value to for someone outside the universe. That is, it was supernatural teleology for the longest time, and then it was kind of dropped during the enlightenment. Back to Aristotle’s four causes, there’s material cause, the stuff that stuff is made of. Sometimes it’s illustrated as material cause is the wood you make a house from. Formal cause is the form or blueprint of the house. Efficient cause is the cause and effect, the hammer’s banging nails kind of thing. Final cause is what you’re building it for. That is what it’s for, what use you’ll make of it.

I think of it as trying, as effort, starting with the struggle for existence. That is, that’s purposeful behavior, and we don’t see it from inanimate stuff and we see it from animate stuff. And Terry around the time I met him, he had just finished writing a book based on his 20 years research at Harvard on the evolution of language and how it makes us a radically different organism from others. He was just turning his attention to a topic that he touched on at the end of the book, which is basically what are selves in trying and how do they start within nothing but physical chemistry? No smoke and mirrors. Basically, how do you get mattering from matter? How? Not whether it happens, not some abstract description. How, in strictly physical terms, would you ever get a system that is struggling for its own existence out of chemistry, which isn’t struggling for anything?

Jim: In fact, as you allude to in the book, for quite a long while, teleology or purpose was a more or less taboo topic.

Jeremy: Yes, and it remains that way in many forms. There’s a lot of what I’d call cryptocartesianism out there. On this question, how do you get mattering from matter? Some people say, “You don’t. There is no mattering.” This would be like Sapolsky’s determinism book. Some people say, “Well, it’s always already been there. That is, there’s a little mattering in all chemistry.” This is called panpsychism. People who say it’s an unanswerable question, this would be a little bit like the hard problem in consciousness studies. Then what there mostly is, is a lot of equivocation. People will dance around between alternative uses of the term. They’ll double count.

For example, information, we think of it as the Shannonian information. Basically a difference, a physical difference. Well, that’s double counting. But at the same time they’ll talk about information as if it’s about something for someone who’s trying to do something. That kind of equivocation dances all throughout the field and I think distracts from Terry’s question. What are selves in trying? How do they emerge within nothing but physical chemistry?

Jim: Then you start off by taking a look at the more traditional safe forms of physics and chemistry where talk about cause and effect. While those are true, and this is very important, you’re not one of these whack jobs that send me shit over the transom that says, “Oh, physics and chemistry aren’t actually true. It’s all in our head,” or some such thing. But it’s not enough. At the highest level you say, “All right, cause and effect, important, et cetera, but we need selves and aims to make more sense of it.”

Jeremy: That’s right. Selves and aims. Aims are another way of talking about trying. In this work, you’ve got to get really fussy about the language because the temptation to equivocate is all over the place. Aims is an interesting version of it. The way I think of it actually is how from simple chemistry would you ever get work that works to keep a chemical system working in its workspace? I got to translate it all into physical work and those works that I just named. Work that works is effort that functions. That is, it’s useful for or good for to keep a chemical system working.

That’s what a being is. A being is both verb and noun. We’re in the business of remaining or being beings. It takes ongoing work to be us. We’re really fragile things. Today, besides what else is on my to-do list, I’m going to regenerate 330 billion cells just to keep up with the degeneration I deal with as a fragile system. In my workspace is about interpretation, which is different from cause and effect. A stop sign cause you to stop unless you crash into it. Interpretation is different. It’s a different phenomena from nothing but physical cause and effect. That’s the framing of the challenge as Terry poses it. I think it’s a great framing.

Jim: And you gave a good homely example. As soon as I read it, I said, “And that is when those of us taking physics, fair bit of, physics 101, there’s a lot of billiard balls bouncing around tables, but nobody ever says where the balls are going. Literally you talk about aims. If I’m a human and I want to beat you out of the 20 bucks you put on the table, I aim the ball to go to the pocket.”

Jeremy: That’s right. And so aims is also a useful term because it points to something that we tend to overlook in this work, especially because we think in terms of billiard balls and not sweets of behavior and concentrations. The ball could go anywhere. I’ve got my to-do list. I can name it a human and have language. But the way I get to my to-do list is by constraining my own behavior. That’s to keep myself from dithering. What’s nice about aim is that it’s about a narrowing of possibilities and it’s not the kind of arrowing that you see with vectors in physics necessarily, which is a great way to model it, but it tends to distract us. There’s a bunch of different ways I could get the ball into the pocket. Not an unlimited range.

What I’m doing by aiming is actually constraining my own behavior. Terry’s got his big question, how does mattering emerge from matter or what are selves in trying and how they start? He’s got his methodology which is, you don’t get to bring in these equivocating smoke and mirrors thing. No hand waving, no skip steps. Then he’s got his hunch, which is that life is not something added to chemistry. It’s a way that chemistry can limit itself to the stuff that keeps itself going.

Jim: That made a lot of sense actually, because one of the ways that the old second law of thermodynamics makes everything go away, is it tends to radiate stuff more or less evenly, while constraints allow us to do actually useful stuff. By interesting coincidence, I did a podcast yesterday, which will be out a few days before Jeremy’s with Stuart Kauffman, who thinks about a lot of similar things. He came up with a wonderful homey example of constraint, which was a cannon. You can take gunpowder, you put it out on the ground, light on fire, and it just goes and nothing much happens. But you can put it in a cannon where all that force is directed down the cannon barrel by the structure which constrains the motion of the atoms of the gases that are created and use that work to fire a cannonball half a mile or two miles or whatever the case may be. He is also of the view that the world of life in particular is constructed from things that you can’t do, constraints. The eliminating of the randomness from the world, essentially.

Jeremy: When we think about constraints, one of the problems with human language is that you can reify anything. You can turn anything into a solid and a constraint can sound like a wall. A wall constrains me, and by the way, I rely on those kinds of constraints. For example, when I drive to my gig in a little bit, I’ll be driving on a road. It’s a narrowing that there’s a bunch of different positions I can be on it, but it’s got guide rails. And so there are physical imposed constraints. Rivers run down through the channel of a river bank.

But what’s interesting also in Terry’s work is emergent constraint and it’s kind of different. I think that the most homey example for it, though it’s not alive, is traffic congestion. We’re talking about likely and unlikely paths. Traffic congestion is not a physical thing. It’s a form and forms only manifest in physical stuff. So you could say traffic congestion is made of cars, or actually you could say made through cars because cars are passing through. But it does make some paths less likely than others, and so we’ll take a detour around it. That’s an emergent constraint. Terry’s work is on how if you end up, by accident, with two emergent constraints that are pitted against each other that are keeping each other from ending, they’re basically thwarting each other’s dissipation, then you’ve actually got something that… You’ve got work that works to keep a system working in its workspace. In addition to his question, his methodology, his hypothesis about constraint, he’s also got a model for how life could emerge within nothing but chemistry. That’s his autogen model.

Jim: Another classic example of a emergent constraint is a whirlpool. When you pull the plug in your bathtub. There isn’t actually anything. There is no god of the whirlpool telling the water to go around in the circle. It’s basically an emergence from relatively simple physics that actually it turns out, that’s the fastest way for the water to go out.

Jeremy: Exactly, which is why we engineer roundabouts as the most efficient way to handle turbulence in traffic congestion. Once again, language comes in here and confuses us. We could talk about the whirlpool as top down causality. That’s not what it is, nor is it a basin of attraction, which makes it sound like it’s some kind of point that it’s driving for or aiming for. It’s actually something that happens. It’s kind of co-constraint, a bunch of different molecules constraining each other. You can think about it as trying to leave a crowded theater where people are entering from all sides. Some paths will be faster than others. Once you get on those faster paths, you’re not going to take a slower one. Pretty soon you’ve poured out by the most efficient way, which will include threads. You’ll be threading your way through the crowd and there will be some simplification of the pathways.

Jim: An interesting point that you make pretty clearly is that things like this, they’re not material, they’re not even dynamics of material. They’re in some other weightless class of things about… But they’re real. They are in our world. If you even want to use the dire M-word, metaphysics, you can say that these things have some place of being in the universe. It’s one of the reasons why when people say, “Are you a physicalist or this, that or the other thing?” I say, “No, I’m a naturalist. I accept a world that includes matter, energy, it’s relationship and these kind of weightless but real things like whirlpools and traffic congestion.”

Jeremy: Right, so this has been a theme with Terry these days. On our dog walk this morning we’ve come back to hylomorphism, which is an Aristotelian term, and it’s basically his counter-argument to Plato who talks about things that exist in other realms. Aristotle’s saying, “No, you never get form without substance and you never get substance without form. Yes, you can transform substance. A substance can take different forms. And also, a form can travel from one substance to another.” Just like everything we’re doing in this conversation is being transferred between different material forms, it never leaves material form.

When I was writing the book, I asked Terry about this thing about whether we’re physicalists or naturalists or materialists, and he said, “Nature includes the spaces between things,” so that’s where the idea of congestion comes in. That’s relative difference is in the space between things. Some things are so closely spaced that they stick together, those are the solids, but you got to be thinking in terms of these emergent constraints and flows. And you got to then try to explain how trying, effort, purpose, aims could ever emerge within nothing but them and you can’t pull out extra realms. That’s why hylomorphics is back out on our minds these days.

Jim: Interesting. So we have various forms of emergent regeneration. Oh, not regeneration, emergent cycles.

Jeremy: We call this stuff self-organization. I don’t like the name at all. It’s terrible.

Jim: That’s what I was getting at, that this was a better term than self-organization.

Jeremy: Yeah, and this is actually a debating point we have with Kauffman sometimes. We’re all great, old friends. He liked my book, which was a total honor because I was a fanboy of his early on. But at the same time, there’s a tendency these days for people to think that self-organization explains life, and we think it’s an important bridge to it, but by itself doesn’t. The whirlpool is a good example. The whirlpool drains the water faster than it would otherwise drain. If it was just turbulence at the drain, it would drain slower. It’s a way that stuff flows through more efficiently, and yet it doesn’t maintain its own form. It’s completely at the mercy of the throughput of water. If you run out of water, it’s gone. Well, we’re not quite like that, and we’re still in matter at all times and we’re still always taking in matter, but somehow maintain are selves.

Kauffman came up with this whole idea of self-organization, or at least celebrated its form, like whirlpools. It’s not easy to see how it’s true, but autocatalyst is basically a chain reaction, is like a whirlpool in a way. That is, its moving towards the most efficient way for transformations of chemical molecules. He tends to think that that might be enough for life. We’re saying, “No, you need actually two processes that are pitted against each other.” His process plus another one that keeps this process from just draining out.

Jim: Let’s talk about two other things, which is regularization versus disorder and the second law.

Jeremy: Got it. One thing we know about life is it has to adapt to its environment, and every environment is different: Where you stand depends on where you sit, what you’re dealing with, all that sort of stuff. At the same time, there is nothing more universal in the world than something that’s a real problem for life, which is that order or regularity, it tends to dissipate. For example, if I had a bunch of toothpicks in a box and they were regularly aligned and I toss them into the sea, they would become irregular for the simple statistical fact that there are more regular possibility or configurations than irregular ones. Coming back to Kauffman for a second now, to give you a sense of the autocatalysis, suppose that these toothpicks, when they go into the water, they split like the sorcerer’s apprentice’s broom, they become a bunch of different toothpicks, so they multiply in the water.

That’d be cool. That’s a lot like what you get from an autocatalysis. Is that the maintenance of order? Well, it’s a concentration. You’d get a concentration of these toothpicks that are replicating in the water. But no, overall if you’re talking not about individual billiard balls or toothpicks, no. The order is still becoming disordered. The irregularity continues to grow. That’s why we think there’s actually a further challenge there. What we have to recognize is that organisms are highly regularized. That is, there’s pattern. What I mean by regularity is basically if you know the location of one kind of orientation or molecule, does it tell you anything about any of the other molecules or toothpicks or whatever?

You could talk about it as desegregation. When something’s desegregated, you don’t know what’s next to what. This is a way of getting around the kind of conceptual version of it where the playing cards start out in order, but once you shuffle them, they become disordered. Well, that’s all in the eye of the beholder. I was the guy who came up with the idea that this was a particular order. What we’re talking about with regularity is simply whether you know anything about anything else in the system by the position of one or the other molecules. That kind of thing.

Jim: One area I was a little kind of shaking my finger at when I read it was your description of complexity and the measure of complexity as just order versus disorder. As a bit of a complexitarian, we kind of recoil at that. Oh, shit. As you point out, that basically means that a frog that you put in a blender is more complex than a living frog, while any intuitive sense of complexity would say quite the opposite. Just as static on your TV screen is highly complex, is incompressible, while a picture of you compressed quite a bit. In turn, like Kauffman language, the edge of chaos is where real complexity lives. Not out in chaos, nor in the highly ordered realm. Many of us complexitarians reject the classical computational length argument for what it is to measure complexity.

Jeremy: Well, me too. That’s another example of the equivocation that comes so naturally to us. I don’t think I use this distinction in the book. I might. There’s complex and then there’s intricate, the frog is intricate, but the frog smoothie is complex in the Kalmagorov sense of it.

Jim: Yes. Only in that sense.

Jeremy: I should also tell you, we’re right with you. This is a me too movement, Jim, because Terry’s had to come up with a different measure of complexity, which he calls dynamical depth, and he’s written great articles about it. I haven’t simplified any of those articles because the term is so confused. He wants to explain the difference between Kalmagorov. I would say half of our walk time is spent trying to come up with terms that don’t have baggage or don’t get equivocated, or come up with new ones that aren’t a burden.

It’s interesting because I have coined over 3,000 neologisms. I have a word of the day on YouTube, one minute shorts, and I come up with them all the time. Psychoproctology I didn’t come up with, but I really coin them at a bizarre rate. Terry got in some trouble for having coined a few terms in his book, and in my book I reversed our roles, because he’s the one who mostly doesn’t want the neologisms and I just spew them. In my book I didn’t use any. At the back, there’s a glossary for translating from his neologisms to my language, but I wanted to avoid that completely in this book.

Jim: That actually makes it very helpful because in Terry’s book you were having to, you know, what the hell’s that mean? Right?

Jeremy: Yeah. You got to remember, anytime you have to remember what a word means, you’re moving from implicit memory to explicit. It’s a hassle.

Jim: Let’s get back to the second law. Second law is basically trying to wear everything down.

Jeremy: Once again, really fussy about language. Not trying. It falls towards that. It’s the natural disposition of the universe. It’s what’s common to every organism’s environment, no matter what, is that we are falling apart.

Jim: Yeah, and thanks for correct me on that because I know very well that it’s strictly… It’s a simple phenomenon, as you lay out and as everybody knows. There’s far more disordered states than there are ordered, so.

Jeremy: Exactly.

Jim: If you’re not working to build and preserve order, you will get disorder at an increasing rate.

Jeremy: That’s right. Hence, my 330 billion replacement cells today. Busy day.

Jim: Busy like every day. The things I like to shock people with occasionally that don’t think about these things much, I’m sure you’re well aware of this, is that every single person on earth, every bacteria, every yeast, every bird, every squirrel is a descendant of a last universal common ancestor probably about three and a half billion years ago. The chain of homeostatic biochemistry has never failed for three and a half billion years. We are people whose parents always fucked and successfully reproduced as long as there’s been sex. It’s about 500 million years. Before that, the predecessors before that all fissioned successfully. We are in a line of hand-carried biochemistry that’s never failed three and a half billion years. How many devices do you know that would run for three and a half billion years without failing?

Jeremy: A couple things about that. One is it’s not just that they reproduced. You can’t reproduce if you are degenerated and we’re all degenerating all the time. Terry actually sees self-repair or self-healing, the kind of stuff I’m doing with these replacement cells, as more fundamental than self-reproduction. The other thing I want to say is we are fragile. It might be impressive that a rock has lasted 330 billion years. It’s lasting by durability. We have to struggle for our existence, and this is a thing that’s often overlooked. Darwin did not explain the struggle for existence. He knew it. He assumed it. And so to say that natural selection explains us, it doesn’t. It actually doesn’t explain the business end of life, which is the struggling for persistence, which we have to do against the second law 24/7.

Jim: And then against each other, too, as it turns out. The co-evolutionary context.

Jeremy: All the worst. I’m glad we’re getting along so well, Jim, at this point. Who knows what would happen.

Jim: One of us doesn’t decide to eat the other, right?

Jeremy: I know, I know. I’m worried.

Jim: Look at all that high quality protein sitting there.

Jeremy: Right.

Jim: [inaudible 00:25:34]. I think we’ve done a good setup here. Now let’s start turning towards Terrence’s solution to this. First let’s talk about what is an autocatalytic network?

Jeremy: Good. Catalysts are molecules that make it easier for the molecules that they transform. We call them reactants. And so you drop a catalyst into a solution and it’s more likely than it would otherwise be that the reactions will happen. Now what Kauffman focused on was, what if you get an autocatalytic set, which is where you’ve got one molecule, let’s say catalyst A, that happens to speed up or make more likely the transformation of reactants into another catalyst, which I’ll call catalyst B, this is a super simple, too simple model of it, that happens to turn reactions into yet another copy of that catalyst A? Well, you’d get a population explosion of catalysts A and B, and it’d be like an epidemic. It’d be spreading faster and faster and becoming more and more, you could say, less and less likely that the reactants will stay unreacted because they’ll be surrounded on all sides. They’ll be crowded out by all this population growth of A’s and B’s.

Kauffman’s work, computational work, was in showing how easy it is for such networks to get going. We have found plenty of natural examples of them. This is what they call self-organization. I don’t like the word because I don’t want to use the word self about any of the stuff until we know that we got a self. Like I said, I got to be really fussy about the words here. The tendency to equivocate or smuggle in your solution into your answer, it’s a big deal. I know self-driving cars, nobody thinks of them as selves and yet, you still got to be fussy.

Autocatalyst is a good name for it. It’s just a natural tendency. It is also going with the flow of the second law of thermodynamics. You’re still going to get a dissipation. It’s basically like the whirlpool that is going to speed up the depletion of the reactants. If you got all of this population explosion of catalysts, you’re going to have more and more reactants turned into catalysts and pretty soon there’s no more reactants. Then what you got left? You got the toothpicks on the ocean. They’re floating away from each other, never to be seen again or unlikely to become an autocatalytic set again.

Jim: That’s actually an argument I’ve had with Stuart for 20 years, is that stuff’s going to disperse in most scenarios, right?

Jeremy: Exactly. Exactly. Once again, this is where language becomes a problem. You can talk about the autocatalytic set. The autocatalytic set is the A’s and B’s. They ain’t a set. Not in physics, they aren’t. They’re individual molecules like those individual toothpicks. They’re sets in our minds. You call it a system, but that’s because that’s us deciding what’s inside and what’s outside. I don’t use the word system in my book until I get to living beings, because they have a self-other relationship that they maintain. Before that, it’s just systems in the eyes of the beholder.

Jim: One last pause before we turn to autogens. Do a quick summary of some of the leading theories of origin of life, other than Terrence’s.

Jeremy: Got it. There are three basic schools. One is information first, and information is a term I mentioned. It’s a term that gets equivocated all the time, but you somehow assume that you got these information-bearing molecules like RNA. And so the classic version of the information-first model would be that you got these RNA molecules, it’s called RNA world. RNA molecules and they start copying and sooner or later they get ornamented with features that make them copy faster, and that’s the origins of life. Now that would be information first.

Another one would be metabolism first. And Kauffman’s model’s not a bad example of that, which is what you got first is growth. You got something that burns through fuel. It takes energy and makes more of itself, like the autocatalytic set I just described.

Then the other version is membrane first. You got to be enclosed first. This is probably best represented by Dave Diemer’s work. He did wonderful important work on viruses around COVID. He, for years, been working on explaining how you could end up with a sack that has stuff growing inside of it that could become the beginning of life. Now, Terry’s approach is different. He’s saying you need self-regeneration first, and it will involve all of those things, but you don’t get to just assume information. And you don’t have to assume that a living being is always enclosed. Yeah, it is now, but we’re talking about something that has to start way simpler than that. One of the reasons he was optimistic about finding a solution is if you don’t have engineering and you don’t have these abstract models that you could make as an engineer, basically reverse engineering stuff you don’t have to build, it’s got to be incredibly simple.

We’re happening at the level of classical physics and chemistry. That was one of the reasons he went at this. He says, “I got to explain the struggle for existence,” which Darwin didn’t explain. And so his model involves those all, but he recently written an article, how molecules become about something for some being, in effect, because DNA by itself replicating isn’t life. You don’t get to just say, “Well, it’s got this phantom stuff in it called information.” You actually have to explain what information is and it’s got to be real information, not just another name for physical cause. It’s got to be information about something, for someone, with respect to its circumstance. That someone’s going to be really simple. Obviously no consciousness, no feelings, and yet still, it’s trying.

Jim: All right, now let’s turn to talk about what is an autogen? And talk about the two different things and how they work together and all that stuff.

Jeremy: Good. Good, good, good. We’ve talked about autocatalysis and we haven’t talked about another thing which happens a lot in nature, bubbles form. Lipid molecules happen to align in a way that makes sheets and bubbles and all of that. There are also proteins that do this. They just kind of fall toward… This would be another example of self-organization. If you pour a bunch of them into water and you stir the water, they’ll tend to form into shells. A typical example would be a capsid molecule. Capsid molecules are the kind of molecules you see as the shells on viruses. You got a little DNA within a capsid shell. Terry imagines, what if you had autocatalysis? So, A is producing B, and B is producing A. Also with catalyst, you’ll often get a byproduct. Maybe catalyst A splits a molecule, so you got a catalyst B and you also got this extra little bit. It’s just a side product, a byproduct.

And what if that byproduct happened to be a capsid molecule? Okay, so then you got this chain reaction. You got catalyst A and B making more of themselves in the midst of a bunch of these capsid molecules that happen to self-assemble or auto-assemble into shells. You got shells forming right in the present of these catalysts, and they’re likely to capture some of the catalysts. Then we can talk about a set or physical set because if you hold them close together, remember traffic congestion, you make it more likely that something will happen simply by their proximity. Should the shell break open in the presence of more reactants, then the autocatalysis will start up again. The chain reaction will start up again and will be pumping out these byproduct molecules, the shell molecules that form into shells, and the process could repeat itself. Now notice this about it, when it’s open…

He calls the overall process autogenics. He calls these autogens, but it’s not just when it’s closed in the shell, it’s the whole process. And why? Because the thing is maintaining its constraints, whether it’s closed or open, it has a disposition to regenerate itself. And so even when it’s open, it’s not the stuff, it’s the form that the stuff has, and the form tends to constrain itself. You can think of it this way: It’s not true that the autocatalysis wants to grow. It doesn’t want anything. It’s our argument with Stu Kauffman. Still, it has a disposition to grow that is thwarted by the shells. The shells capture these molecules and keep them from catalyzing. It prevents the autocatalysis from ending. In meantime, that shell molecules, when it breaks open, those shell molecules are also going to dissipate. They’re also going to drift away. But the autocatalysis, by producing these byproduct shell molecules, is replenishing the supply. And so that’s his minimal model for a self struggling for its own existence.

Now one of the interesting challenges I face on this is a kind of a missing link issue. When we present this stuff to people, we say, “Look, this is a physical system. I can describe every aspect of it, and it is also a self trying.” And people say, “Wait a second, it can’t be a self trying. You just described it in physical terms. It’s just cause and effect.” And you say, “Yeah, it is just cause and effect, but it has this extra feature that is it’s emergent phenomena within nothing but cause and effect between these material products. That is, it’s just the form and matter relationship transmitted over different molecules. That is, not even the same molecules at the same time.”

This is an interesting kind of blind spot, the missing link blind spot. If you can explain it in physical terms, then some people think, wait a second, then it’s not. If I can explain it in physical terms, then I can’t. This is fascinating because I talk to researchers who’ve been dealing with this question for decades. It’s their life’s work, yet they still have this interesting missing link blind spot. Yet I’m trying to say what we were looking for was something that could be described honestly, both ways, with no abstractions.

Jim: Critique me if I put words in your mouth that aren’t quite right, which is that you have a autocatalytic set that makes its own ingredients to continue the set going basically. But it also makes side products. I made that point with Stuart yesterday, that he tends to ignore the side products, which can be problematic in a lot of ways. You’re saying in autocatalytic set, one of the side products is something that tends to come together to form a shell. As I recall from the book, the shell is chemically very similar to the shells around certain classes of viruses, so we know that such shells of this sort are physically capable.

Then, so that we have an impermeable shell, this is very different than much thinking about origin of life where people consider that there has to be an semi-permeable shell. Otherwise, you have the problem, well, how does new chemistry come in? You use up what’s inside your shell and then you don’t have anything, so most of these membrane first models very quickly are forced to come up with a semi-permeable membrane. Terrence does not. He comes up with an impermeable membrane. Explain why that’s important and perhaps more realistic.

Jeremy: First, it’s not just semi, it’s selectively permeable in, for example, autopoietic approaches to this. It’s got to be selectively permeable to let in the right molecules and not the wrong ones, which is really fussy business. Not only that, because they’re doing all the chemistry on the inside, you got this question, how do they ever replicate? And the idea is, well, they might bud off from each other. And so you got the chemistry going on on the inside and Terry is turning those bugs… Also, autopoiesis is basically a definition. It’s not an explanation, it’s a definition of what would count as life. It’s kind of abstract. One of the most abstract things about it is that it doesn’t… They just assume it’s unity. They’re not really paying attention to the fact that these things are likely to break apart. Now they could say, “Well, yeah, natural selection would break them apart and then they would evolve better ways to protect against breaking apart and they would fine tune their selective permeability,” that kind of thing.

But Terry is turning that bug into a feature. It’s really unlikely that from spontaneous organic chemistry, you would ever get something that has a selectively permeable membrane that could grow itself and split itself, but you don’t need that. You don’t need… The membrane first approach has its place, but it doesn’t have to be there all the time because you are not trying to maintain a physical static form. You are trying to maintain an emergent constraint. It’s not at the same level of emergent constraint as traffic congestion, whirlpools. It’s up a level from that. It’s an emergent constraint that’s a product of the conflict between two emergent constraints, the autocatalysis and the shell formation.

Once you’ve got that, when they break open, the thing is open. There’s no shell around it. It’s doing its metabolizing and its still got a disposition to regenerate actually multiple autogens. Basically, you can think about it as a seed cycle, a seed life cycle where it spends some time in a dormant state. By the way, being in a dormant state is really useful if you’re dealing with the second law of thermodynamics. Hunkering down is really useful. Just being durable for a minute is really useful. From the autogen model, Terry has a model for how an autogen might evolve a capacity to be more likely to open in the present of reactants than otherwise.

Jim: I’ve got two questions about the basic autogen model. First, once it’s inside the impermeable shell, wouldn’t the autocatalytic network tend to run to completion and deplete all of its reagents and end up in kind of a degenerate state?

Jeremy: Well, they’re not actually doing any reaction in there.

Jim: Well, let’s think about this. The autocatalytic network is a subgraph in a soup, which includes the raw materials. Because one of the things about autocatalytic networks, they have to have a continual input of raw material to do their thing.

Jeremy: Yeah, they’re not doing anything inside it. They’re dormant.

Jim: Wow. Not quite, right?

Jeremy: Not quite. I agreed. Not quite.

Jim: Initially, as soon as you form this bubble, you’re going to catch the subgraph, which is the autocatalytic network, but you’re also going to catch some of the soup, which includes the…

Jeremy: The reactants.

Jim: The reactants. And so the autocatalytic graph will continue to cycle for a while until it’s used up all of the reactants, all the inputs, or all the food, essentially. Then it’s going to essentially be a dead network because the network no longer can spin when it doesn’t have its reactants. You’re not going to be having a live network. It’s not like the thing suddenly got frozen. It will continue to run down until it’s used up all the reactants inside the shell. Isn’t that right?

Jeremy: Yeah, inside the shell. You don’t have to buy this, but this is my point. Yes, you’re right. There would be probably some reactants in there, so maybe you’d be generating a few more catalyst A’s and B’s, and at some point, it goes dormant. That’s my point.

Jim: So it will run for a while, but then it will-

Jeremy: It’ll be dormant but not dead. Here’s why. Because of a disposition. That is, if it breaks open in the presence of reactants, then it resumes.

Jim: That’s my next point, just to make clear.

Jeremy: That’s how we think about it. You may disagree with it, totally fine, but we were not thinking that it needs to be metabolizing inside. Basically, you can think about it, remember I’m talking about the metabolism first people and the membrane first people, we’re saying you are both half right. Yeah, when it’s inside, it’s got to be in a membrane and it’s going to be closed. It’s a division of labor. Then when it’s open, it’s going to be generating metabolism, be growing more. But it’s not going to be just growing more toothpicks on the sea, the way that I was talking about before. It’s not just autocatalysis, it’s autocatalysis with a disposition to produce the thing that stops the autocatalysis before it dissipates. That’s how I think of it.

Jim: It is a very cool pulse. It’s a two cycle engine.

Jeremy: Terry does think of this as it’s a non parasitic virus. Obviously there’s no other life around. We’re talking about first life. We’re talking about case one. It also doesn’t have DNA, because I have to explain how information comes out of this process, not how information… I don’t start with information. That’d be smuggling my conclusion in my answer. I got to explain information, and it’s not just physical difference. Information is about something for someones with aims.

Jim: What is very clear about this, was that reading this, is that it does eliminate two hard problems. To your word, selective permeable membrane, which is how do you get that right-

Jeremy: From a cold start. It’s really rough.

Jim: Then also the whole information beads on a string thing, which is also pretty tricky.

Jeremy: Translating that stuff into proteins, really tricky. You’re not going to get that from a cold start. That doesn’t have in one step.

Jim: This could be much, much, much earlier. But now my next point about this is that one, the thing breaks open on some basis. And it wasn’t too clear about it bumped into another one or something, I don’t know. There has to be some optimal rate at which these things break, or at least an acceptable rate at which they break. If they’re too strong, they never open back up again. If they’re too weak, they break up again almost immediately. And statistically, the soup that they’re in hasn’t changed any. They’ve already depleted the soup, and so it’s not a particularly good move to encapsulate for 20 milliseconds or something. That’s number one, the mechanism by which may be selection for the right duration of the shell.

Then the second is, this is very much dependent on the nature of the soup that it’s in. If a thing got encapsulated in and needed a certain set of input reactants, then it drifted away to a part of the ocean that’s totally different… That’s to use one of the models people talk about. It was originally formed in one of these black smokers that’s very rich in hydrogen sulfide, for instance. But then it drifted a ways out into the ocean, away from the black smoker. It’s just plain old ocean water, breaks open, it cycles, don’t know what the hell to do. They can’t do anything because they don’t have a key reactant which, say, is hydrogen sulfide. There is also a fittedness of this two-phase proto life to the substrate, the soup that it’s in. Maybe if you could talk about those two things.

Jeremy: Wonderful. These are exactly the right questions from my perspective. So, don’t eat me yet. A few things about it. I’m assuming there’s an old story about a woman trapped up in a castle and a guy trying to save her and she tosses down a thread. I forget exactly how it goes. The thread turns into… She ties a string to it, she ties a cord to it, she ties a rope to it, and suddenly there’s rope. Sorry, that may be irrelevant here, but what I’m trying to get at is, life is really unlikely at first. Here we are, we live in cultures that have evolved so much and with so many affordances that we think of it as extremely likely.

We’re talking about something that is unlikely to start, but once it starts, it’s like a thread and life can evolve. In fact, what I would say is that we tend to think of, even scientists, I hear scientists talk as though natural selection was this new force that came into the world and started life going. No. We’re saying you have to explain the struggle of existence because rocks aren’t evolving. There’s differential survival of rocks, but they don’t evolve. You need to have some continuity, and that’s what we’re arguing for. Yes, evolution starts once you have that kind of sustainability and it’s going to be a rough start, so there could be false starts in it.

Now the other thing to keep in mind, I said earlier, I talked about narrowing not arrowing. That is, I might think as a human I’m going to put the eight ball into the side pocket, but that’s not actually how it goes. There’s a variety of different ways. When I drive someplace, I’m driving in a range. And there is that kind of latitude in autocatalysis. That is, there are replacement catalysts that sometimes do a better job or sometimes do a worse job. It’s not like only catalyst A and only catalyst B. We’re talking about a catalyst increases the likelihood of some reactions and some molecules types will increase it more than others. So there’s that.

Now there’s also a problem that comes with this. That is that we’re dealing with… It is a super simple model and I haven’t talked about all the other interlopers and loafers and loiterers, molecules that are lying around. A lot of them might get in there too, and you end up with error catastrophe. Another major problem with autocatalysis is the larger the system gets, the more problematic it gets. Just like in a complicated production line, you can end up with a surplus of something or a shortage of something, bottlenecks and all sorts of stuff.

One of the questions that Terry deals with, and one of the advantages we get for the autogen is that it’s self-purging. If inside the shell you end up with some molecules that don’t replicate, that aren’t part of the autocatalytic set, they’re not going to probably end up in the next generation of them. They’re kind of self-purging. Those are some answers to the question and I may not have caught all of it, so feel free to remind me of what I missed.

Jim: This was again my question about the importance of the soup and that one of the way these things think, if you want to call it, cognate in some simple way, is by moving in the soup. They may have locally depleted their reactants and, let’s just call it a random stochastic process, they happen to get encapsulated. And then they drift off to a place where the soup is not depleted and they open up again.

Jeremy: Well, they might or they might not. They’re stupid. They’re really not thinking at all.

Jim: It’s just stochastics, total luck, flip the coin.

Jeremy: And not only that. They’re not trying to evolve. No life tries to evolve until much later.

Jim: I’m not sure they ever actually try to evolve-

Jeremy: I’m trying. I don’t know about you, Jim.

Jim: I’m degenerating at a rapid rate. Damn proud of it, right?

Jeremy: I’ve wasted my whole life learning things I now already know.

Jim: Exactly. Exactly. That’s absolutely true. Now I will forego the second half of my question, but we’ll combine it into talking about the first selective autogen, which I thought was extremely clever. Now you’re getting to a point where it’s pretty hard to deny that we’re talking about a self here. Talk about the first step of selective autogen is…

Jeremy: Good. This is a great question. Let me just take a quick sidebar on information. Information, you were talking about thinking is way up at a higher level. Obviously we’re not talking about that, we’re using that metaphorically, but there is a kind of memory in this thing. It is re-presenting itself. That’s a more technical argument than I want to get into right here, but what this minimal autogen is doing is regenerating its own form, and that’s the struggle for its own existence. But is it responsive? Because remember I said a minute ago that a stop sign cause you to stop unless you crash into it? Rather, it’s a kind of interpretation. Well, is it interpreting its environment? In a minimal kind of way that’s hard to see, which is that given that the environment includes a second law, like all do, it is fitted to an environment that includes that. It includes its dormancy.

Okay, but it’s not really responsive. It doesn’t have a kind of, if-then-like logic. None of these guys would have if-then logic. It doesn’t have threshold effects where it responds differently to different environmental circumstances, the way that a tree might respond to different changes in seasons. How would you get that? Well, remember a minute ago I said that this stuff is all more or less. We might model it as black and white, as if catalyst A can’t get its reactants, then it’s a dead end. But actually, there’s a bunch of variation. Some are more likely than others. That would also be true of the capsid molecules. You could end up with different byproducts, and one kind of byproduct you might end up with is capsid molecules that form shells that are a little more barbed in a way that… Or you could say they’re more likely to have a kind of stickiness. One way or another, they’re more likely to break open in the presence of reactants.

Because this is a problem it’s got to deal with, it’s basically the serenity prayer at the most fundamental level. What can you transform and what can’t you transform? And there are two kind of mistakes, not trying to transform something you could or trying to transform something you can’t. In a way, it’s dealing with that because it is… Terry imagines a kind of system, it could come about from a variety of different shell processes, shell mediums, different kinds of capsids that are more likely to break open in the presence of reactants than they otherwise would. And so at that point, I would start to talk about a kind of responsiveness where it’s actually attending to changes in its environment. That’s easier to imagine as information. You can even say if reactants are present, be open; If reactants aren’t present, say closed.

Jim: And one can immediately see how that could start, at that point, a real natural selection going on. Those autocatalytic networks that build capsids that signal for their own reactants, but only their own reactants, would have a tendency to open. Versus the earlier generations just opened at random, let’s say. These that open in the right place will have a more likely to actually prosper and be able to have a next generation.

Jeremy: Yes. So I’m actually going to make a sidebar broad leap here. The challenge for life is selective interaction. Life has to regenerate itself. That means that we have to take in energy and resources. The problem with energy is that energy tends to degenerate things, not generate them. We have to be very selective what we take in. We take in food, not poison. We have to be selective about what we let into ourselves. You’ve got that issue from the get-go, and the minimal autogen can’t deal with. It’s too simple. But the selective one begins to have that capacity to open itself up to what it can use in its work.

Terry defines life… Let me put it this way: I define myself as a constraint that channels energy into work to prevent the degeneration of the constraint I am. That’s what I think I am. I’m lots of other things too, but if I lose the capacity to do that, to constrain myself, to keep myself from dithering, then I’m dead. I just want to make a brief leap up to psychoproctology. Once you’ve got emotions and you’ve got thoughts, selective interaction becomes confirmation bias. I distinguish decent people as people who recognize that confirmation bias is a problem they have to manage and absolutist, because I don’t like the word asshole, even though I use it because popular; It’s what the folk psychology term of the day is, or narcissist or any… But anyway, those guys are people who treat confirmation bias as a solution to all their problems.

Jim: Interesting you mention that. I generally take a six month break from social media every year, do a six month sabbatical from July 1st to January 2nd. I went back on January 3rd I think this time. After six weeks, I threw up my hands and said… Particularly Facebook. Twitter, I still enjoy. But Facebook, all it is, is team red, team blue, motivated reasoning, confirmation bias. It’s way worse than it was even six months ago. Something really screwed up has happened on Facebook and it is not worth even looking at, at the moment. When I come back, I may come back as a jester or a jokester or something. I certainly am not going to deal with it unironically, because it is no longer a suitable environment for that.

Jeremy: I get irony out of Terry’s theory, too. I think the biggest cosmic wedgie from Darwin was not that we ascended from primates or that god has a lower role, but there is no formula. That is, it’s guesswork. It has been from the start. I’m a fallibilist, which means no matter how confident I am in a bet, I remain more confident that it is a bet. And so I flaunt irony everywhere because an ironic response to life is the adaptive one. You can make a really good bet that turns out bad. That’s an ironic situation. You can make a bad bet that turns out good. That’s an ironic situation. That’s the definition of an ironic situation. How are you going to deal with life if you’re not going to be ironic about it? My only problem with the word ironic is that it sounds like comedy. It’s tragic comedy. That is, slipping on a banana peel, you could lose everything you ever value. You could crack your head open. I call it dirony. It’s dire irony, or you could die from it.

Jim: I had a thought while you were speaking when we were still not going to the next stage yet, but still in the selective autogen. We talk about the selective autogen that develops attributes on its shell such that when it’s in an environment that has reactants, it will be useful for it to open, it does. But there’s also the other side, which is one could also imagine at this very early stage sensors, or probably not even sensors yet, they’re just simple chemicals that react with the soup and change the attributes of the shell, that could say, “Don’t open.” When we’re in the presence of poisons, we know that in chemical reactions there are up regulators and down regulators. And so if there’s a metal ion that’s going to suck up all your catalysts and kill your reaction, one could imagine this still very, very, very early, much simpler than life is generally envisioned, could have shell states that avoid opening in the presence of down regulators for the enclosed autocatalytic network. Does that make sense?

Jeremy: Makes perfect sense. It relates to this thing about selective interaction and about the fundamental problem. That’s hurricanes don’t regularize things. That’s a lot of energy, and no, energy tends to degenerate things, not generate them. There’s lots more energy we can’t afford to take in. We haven’t actually talked much about the ways that it might develop a more bulletproof shell, but those would also evolve. We think it’s possible that they would evolve, and that’s not the only thing. The other thing, and I’m jumping the gun by mentioning it, but Terry has to explain how we’d ever get template molecules like DNA and RNA. But all I’m saying is that that is also part of the protection that Terry sees.

What they’re up against most is the second law. Degeneration’s everywhere. Not only that, we’d like to be able to protect are selves completely from it and we do in our houses, but no, not at the beginning of life. You’re up against the elements and they’re mostly going to degenerate you, so you really got to be able to regenerate yourself. Jobs one are protecting against degeneration and regenerating what degenerates. That’s job one for life.

Jim: All right, so now let’s take the next step. We start with this very simple autogen, which forms, grabs a sample of soup, including an autocatalytic network sometimes, and then arbitrarily breaks. And hopefully the soup that it breaks into is favorable for the autocatalytic network to start back up and create more shells and the R is greater than one, you get a growth scenario. It’s going to be tricky with just the first, but then the second, the selective autogen has some aspect of its shell that makes the shell more likely to open in the presence of the right soup, or Rutt’s addition, to not open in the presence of negative. The positives may be there, but there may be negatives that would overwhelm it. It’s simple, but it’s there. Now the next step, and this is the next step towards more like the life we think of as life, is his templated autogen. Tell us about that.

Jeremy: Good. Remember I’m saying that there’s some mix-and-match experimentation that can happen because these aren’t engineered with precision. It’s narrowing, not arrowing, and there’s variety. One kind of molecule that might be useful, functional for keeping the system working, would be molecules that afford energy when it breaks open, because autocatalysis takes energy. The shell process actually dissipates energy, just like crystal formation. It turns out there are polypeptides that are… So this is a Freeman Dyson came up with this notion a while ago. He recognized that some of the polypeptides that provide energy have a feature, they’re somewhat like the molecules that we see in RNA and DNA. You can say there are another variety on polypeptide. One of the things about them is that they form their aperiodic crystals in that they can combine into chains with varied beads along the chain. That is, the individual molecules that form the chain. And not only that, when they do form like that, they end up with an outer surface that is not regular. There’s variety in the outer surface.

I’m not going to give much detail on it here, but what he’s imagining is you get these polypeptides that might end up inside of another autogen and that they would provide energy first, but they would also enable a solution to a problem that we have with the autocatalysis. I mentioned it earlier when I was talking about production lines. Error catastrophe, it’s called. That is, there’s advantages. There are more efficient and less efficient ways that the catalysts can sequence what they produce. And so as a result, you could end up with the catalysts bonded to this polypeptide, the contours on the outside of it, in a way that enables the release. The molecules would release off of, the catalysts would release off of it in a sequence that would be more efficient for… More likely to reproduce the whole process.

And so this is how Terry begins to see. He’s very speculative about all this stuff, but he sees a way in which you could have something that functions for one thing first. That is, it’s an energy store within the autogen, that then ends up becoming useful for something else, which is sequencing the molecule release of the capsids, such that it makes for more efficient autocatalysis.

Jim: It’s probably one step more detail than we really need, but I thought it was sufficiently elegant that I thought it’s worth calling out, which is you laid out, I guess Terrence probably did it originally, but you picked it up and translated it, that this phenomena of energetic things attached at various points in a long chain, while initially the order doesn’t matter, one could imagine a more advanced autocatalytic network where the order in which these catalysts are released and this energy is released turns out to be significant.

Jeremy: That’s right. Terry would describe it as once you have a way to record the order, you have the capacity to have a more complex autocatalytic set. That is, it could involve more than just A and B and C. It could involve a bunch of different molecules. At every point in this process, we’re maintaining what Terry calls the hologenic constraint. That is, there are all these constraints within the processes. Autocatalysis or self-organization is its own kind of constraint. But what is the difference between being alive and being dead, what’s maintained whether the system is open or closed, is its hologenic constraint; Its ability to regenerate the hole that it is. This is also why it’s not the same as multiplying toothpicks or autocatalysis where the disorder, yes, it’s making more stuff of a certain kind, but it’s not actually maintaining any irregularity.

Jim: I’m going to point the audience to a episode I did with a totally unknown independent scientist who’s done something extremely interesting that’s relevant here. Back in EP 135, I talked with Dennis Waters on a book that he wrote, which is extremely curious one, it’s called Behavior and Culture in One Dimension: Sequences, Affordances and the Evolution of Complexity, where he goes into great detail on how encoding things in one dimension are then interpreted in a context. This is back to your information, without the context, the code is worthless. But is then interpreted in some context to produce three-dimensional, or I argued four-dimensional because they’re dynamic in time, structures. And that the creation of that in our universe was one of the great thresholds of the complexification of the universe, essentially. He would argue that the first time was something like DNA or some other ordered coding system that could persevere over time.

Jeremy: That’s beautiful and I don’t know that work and we got to get in touch with him, because this is fundamental to what Terry’s wondering about these days.

Jim: Then another thing you have, which is not obvious at first until you think about it a little bit, is you also have some quite simple semantics and syntax on how to modify these one-dimensional strings. You can do point mutations, you can do crossover. There’s a number of quite simple syntactical things that’ll have a semantic difference, and the syntactical things are physically plausible.

Jeremy: That’s right.

Jim: Which, think about, how am I going to evolve really complex three-dimensional chemistry? That’s kind of fucked up, right? But how am I going to evolve a linear string? That’s a lot simpler from a syntactical perspective.

Jeremy: It is, though actually, Terry sees this process as reversed from what, let’s say, they see in the RNA world. In the RNA world, they start with the sequence template and they imagine that protein generation comes later. Terry is going the other direction. I mean, that’s how we would read it now, that’s how we would think about it now. But if you want to talk about its etiology, it would start with functional proteins that then get recorded into a template. That is, the compression comes later.

Jim: Oh, I would though say that you’re both right, which is, I like the fact that the proteins come first because easier to explain. It’s more plausible. But then once you get it written, you guys do talk about this, redundancy where at some point the peptides become redundant to the physical structure. Initially, you have just physical structure it replicates, and then you have the peptide as essentially a template, and that’s sort of a belt and suspenders thing. But I would also suggest that Waters insight, that there are these syntactical tools that work way more efficiently on one-dimensional than three-dimensional objects actually allows you to accelerate evolution at that point. That’s very important.

Jeremy: I agree.

Jim: This basically is the story so far. What do we know about attempts to actually do this in vitro?

Jeremy: There haven’t been any. We’ve got a few computational chemist types or simulators. One guy is a guy who worked at Google and just got very interested in Terry’s work and he’s begun to model it. Some people see as a fault of our theory is that it’s not actually empirically tested yet. What we would argue is that it is testable, and we’ve been fussing over the refinement of it. Terry continues to wonder. He’s currently working on something related to redundancy. Redundancy is a way to make a system more robust, but it’s also a way of generating new possibilities. He calls this inverse Darwinism. He sees it as a complement to what we think of as Darwinism. He sees this as explaining things all the way up and down. All the way up to society and all the way down to the autogen.

It’s basically once you’ve got multiple copies of things, they can morph, they can erode, they can evolve, and you end up with distributed functionality. For example, multicellularity would be a result of redundancy. Redundancy isn’t just for error correction, it also has this added feature. Lately he’s been looking at whole genome duplication in speciation, which would have probably… The indications are that it comes up when life becomes more fragile. But once it’s there, you end up with a capacity to do a variety of different things in interaction by a kind of mix and match process. I could give you human examples. I could give you organismic examples. One example that Terry uses a lot is that humans and primates are rare among mammals in our need to produce vitamin C. What happened is 35 million years ago, we ended up in trees where there was already a symbiotic relationship between birds and fruit, and we ended up starting eating fruit and we had a redundant source of vitamin C and we lost our capacity to produce our own vitamin C.

But in the process also, we evolved all sorts of new capabilities that enable us to… For example, color vision enables us to distinguish between ripe and unripe fruit. And so you end up with these networks of codependency, you could say, and often it will happen. He calls his book that he’s working on Falling Up. It happens by losing capacity to do what is available externally. There’s plenty of examples and they relate to this whole idea of affordances. Once you have an external affordance that does something for you, you don’t have to do it. We call it lazy gene hypothesis, and that’s if you don’t have to produce it yourself, don’t.

Jim: Yeah, a famous one actually, the human digestive track got much less robust once we invented fire.

Jeremy: That’s right.

Jim: We could partially digest our food outside our body either by roasting it or boiling it. Our guts ain’t nothing compared to our gorillas, let me tell you. A guy who eats leaves all day and shits piles of green. What else is worth talking about here in the last, say, 10 minutes or so?

Jeremy: Let me make this clear. Terry and I are very different people. He’s the love of my life, actually. I can say that. I mean, I feel like I lucked into a conversation that I wouldn’t have otherwise had with a guy who is continuously curious. But we are different by temperament. And though we talk a lot about the stuff at the social level, he doesn’t write about that. He says, “You got to walk before your run. I want to really understand life from its origin.” He’s mostly been focused there.

In the meantime, I’ve done a lot of work with his first book, the Symbolic Species, and his idea that symbols, like language, make us radically different from other organisms. I just want to make a small connection over from this work, autogen and all that, to the kind of work that I’m also doing. Because I’m mostly in the social sciences. I’ve written a thousand articles for Psychology Today. Two of my books are on social science kind of stuff, and I’m looking at the implications and applications.

I would argue, and this is going to sound pretentious as hell, that I am one of the only social scientists in the world who has an explanation for motivation. This is, the core currency in the social psychology. You can’t talk about it without it… In the social sciences, we just assume a motivation whenever we see effort. It’s not much different from assuming a spirit or something. That is, I have a physical explanation for how motivation starts and what it is. This capacity to constrain down to aims, that kind of thing.

In the meantime, humans are intensely emotional beings with this overlay of symbols by which we can imagine anything, real or unreal. And so I see us as trudging through a sandstorm of mojo eroding possibilities. We are an extremely anxious species because we can imagine all sorts of threats and missed opportunities, past, present, future. We can foresee our own deaths. We are throwing all into life, knowing we’ll be thrown out. We are incredibly, intensely anxious as a species. I call us FOMO-sapiens. That is, a fear of missing out would be huge for us.

It’s underappreciated for obvious reasons. We don’t want to see are selves as needy. We might want to see other people as needy, but not ourselves. We live with a constant fear of inadequacy that we can’t quite admit to. Why? Because we can imagine ideals. That is, with language, you can imagine the ideal state. You can imagine reaching heaven. You can imagine the ultimate success. I focus a lot on affirmationomics. If you really want to understand human behavior, you have to look at where people find their affirmation. Their way of saying, “Well, at least I’ve got this. At least I am this. At least I’m not that. At least I’ve got that.” We just will tend to accumulate them. That’s what we’ll gravitate towards as a way of keeping our mojo maintained while we’re living with this undertow of being FOMO-sapiens.

That also bridges over to my work in psychoproctology. What come naturally to us is to pretend that we are eternally right, righteous and mighty, basically playing god. It’s incredibly easy for us to do with language. Language makes us extremely anxious and gives us ways to self-idealize in a kind of robotic way. My replacement word for a-hole is trumpbot, and it’s not named after Donald. Though he is the quintessential one, it’s not about him. You can be a Buddhist trumpbot. It doesn’t matter what you claim to believe. Basically, it’s robotically playing wild card trump cards so that you are perfectly safe and perfectly free.

It’s often done with a master excuse, because I must be right because I’m X. I have this, I belong to that, whatever. Once you do that, you can pretend you’re perfectly free with a wild card. The word trump means fake, as in Trompe-l’œil, the kind of painting that’s got optical illusions, or trumped up. But it also means, beats everything, so it’s a perfect name. It’s the perfect term. What I’m saying is that there’s a kind of robotic behavior that people can get into effortlessly, and it would be a huge temptation because we’re this strange loop relationship between our vegetative sentience, the stuff we’ve been talking about, the autogen, and our emotional sentience, a product of our neurons, our hedonic tone, our pleasure and pain, the constant need we have to feel comfort in our own skin.

Then on top of that, the overlay of language where we’re all trudging through a sandstorm of concepts that trigger these emotions. I really understand why we would be in the state we are with this trumpbotic epidemic going on that you say is turning you off to Facebook. Me, too. We’re a creature that needs to grandstand to compensate for our FOMO-sapien nature.

Jim: Isn’t that a pleasant thought to end up on?

Jeremy: We may be short-lived because of it.

Jim: Yep. If we don’t figure out our way out of this trap, boy, we’re on a self-terminating trajectory, which is something we talk about quite a bit here on the show.

Jeremy: That’s right. And so I do consider the most challenging challenge is, how do you humbly humble people who will say or do anything to avoid human humility? It’s just huge. It’s huge. If we don’t solve that, we can’t solve these other problems.

Jim: Indeed. All right, on that note, I want to thank Jeremy Sherman for a really interesting conversation, mostly about his cool book, Neither Ghost nor Machine: The Emergence and Nature of Selves. If you’re interested in all the hubbub about Terrence Deacon, but it hurts your head to read his book, read this one instead, or just listen to the podcast.

Jeremy: It’s a pleasure to be with you.

Jim: Thanks.