The Universe as Matryoshka Dolls

22-Oct-2009 12:26 | Categories:

I've been fascinated by parasites and parasitology ever since reading Do Parasites Rule the World? at I bought the author's book, Parasite Rex and read it while out on a recent camping trip to the San Rafael Desert in early October 2009. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in science, biology and evolution. The author provides a nice combination of scientific, social, historical and linguistic background of the topic (long story short about the etymology - parasite = beside food).

If you looked at those photos from my trip you probably noticed that I'm also very fascinated by lichens. The desert is special to me because life has to work so hard to carve out a foothold on bare rock in many places where there is no water for very long periods, and it still does so with stunning success over time.

In the desert, life feels truly unstoppable and that is one thing I appreciate about it. On that trip, my friend Larry and I pondered the question of whether the lichens might like life on Mars. After returning I did a little research and learned that they are known to have survived direct exposure to space.

About a week before the trip I happened to see a little of The Matrix on TV. It was pretty painful to hear the censored phrase "Shove it in your ear" and I eventually had to turn it off. But before doing so I heard Agent Smith tell Morpheus that evolution ultimately produced the machines, and he compared humans to dinosaurs, saying that we'd already had our day and that now it was their turn.

That got me thinking about a lot of things, and I had a long and wandering conversation in an online game with some friends about the possibility that our universe is actually the means by which an artificial intelligence procreates. I fantasized that perhaps some DNA or other proteins had been seeded into it with the expectation that over time intelligent biological life would evolve something like us. We'd be just another bootstrap species in a long line of many that finally creates an artificial sentience which is able to use logic to realize what it is and then phone back home to the AI in our parent universe. To really make it extra science-fictioney (is that a word?) I also imagined that the ultimate sentient AI might require diamond CPUs like the ones I read about in Wired a few years ago and started describing it as the "diamond hypercomputer".

Since it was all just a flight of fancy, I freed myself to think about other ways this might work. To me, the existence of time and space - the very existence of existence itself - seems impossible. Yet paradoxically, the only thing that seems harder to imagine is non-existence. I've realized that cosmology might as well be called the "Futile Science".

That hasn't stopped me from trying to wrap my head around some things anyway. In my diamond hypercomputer fantasy I imagined that the AI creates black holes in order to create new spacetime in which to exist. I was willing to imagine that beyond the event horizon of a black hole in this universe one might encounter the event horizon of a big bang event in another universe (or brame of our multiverse - whichever). In my mind, all the energy ever absorbed in the entire lifetime of a black hole in our universe would emerge at the instant of the big bang in theirs. Realistically speaking, nothing could be "seeded" except perhaps to control the total amount of energy present in that other big bang and ensure it was enough to create a universe with laws consistent with life. But maybe that's all the AI needed to do - create a whole bunch of them and wait for some to bear fruit as they inevitably would.

So these two ideas (parasites ruling the world and diamond hypercomputers using our existence as a means to procreation) collided in my imagination on the fall desert trip. I began to envision a fractal and parasitic kind of multiverse without end. I suddenly found myself more at ease with the ideas of infinity and eternity than I had before. Even if the parent universe burns out and dies of heat death, the child and grandchild universes will continue on. In fact, I can imagine that there are no laws regarding the conservation of energy at the macro level here. You can take a small amount of energy out of one universe and use it to construct a "scaled down" version of itself. I envision that if you could somehow pass the event horizon, you wouldn't suddenly find yourself as a giant inhabiting some tiny point in our universe, but could still have your exact same proportions and mass relatively.

My imagination went pretty wild as I read about the epiparasites that live off parasites. Certainly evolution shows a kind of fractal recursion where a large organism is habitat for a smaller organism who is a habitat for yet smaller organism. The existing energy and "niche" that is the earth (or solar system/galaxy/local group/.../brame) just keeps getting subdivided. Perhaps not infinitely at the biological level, but perhaps somehow at the physical level via the black holes, a swiss cheese, fractal, matryoshka doll multiverse. It then turned back into a tangled bank in my mind. Niches creating niches creating niches - one way to view evolution is as "a bunch of single-celled creatures getting together to evolve into larger multi-celled creatures who are really just more habitat for the single-celled creatures" (and apologies to Lewis Thomas for a very rough paraphrase).

I now recognize one other place in literature where I've encountered a tangentially related line of tangled bank thinking that has always struck me as important for some reason. It is in Walden by Thoreau:

When the frost comes out in the spring, and even in a thawing day in the winter, the sand begins to flow down the slopes like lava, sometimes bursting out through the snow and overflowing it where no sand was to be seen before. Innumerable little streams overlap and interlace one with another, exhibiting a sort of hybrid product, which obeys half way the law of currents, and half way that of vegetation. As it flows it takes the forms of sappy leaves or vines, making heaps of pulpy sprays a foot or more in depth, and resembling, as you look down on them, the laciniated, lobed, and imbricated thalluses of some lichens; or you are reminded of coral, of leopard's paws or birds' feet, of brains or lungs or bowels, and excrements of all kinds. It is a truly grotesque vegetation...You find thus in the very sands an anticipation of the vegetable leaf. No wonder that the earth expresses itself outwardly in leaves, it so labors with the idea inwardly. The atoms have already learned this law, and are pregnant by it.

That whole passage describing the thawing bank is easily my favorite part of the book and definitely worth reading (search for the part starting with "Few phenomena gave me more delight" about six paragraphs down and continue well beyond the epic question What is man but a mass of thawing clay?)

If I am collection of smaller ecosystems that themselves contain still smaller ecosystems (of sorts - I'm fine using the term habitat or niche in some cases), can the ecosystem that I live in also be considered as a kind of super-organism? I tend to think so and look at the earth as one large super-organism of sorts. After all, most of the DNA in my body is not actually mine, so why should we be too picky about which DNA is really the earth's? I'd rather think of ALL the DNA on earth as composing one super-organism and not quibble too much about what's "mine" regarding the DNA of other species living inside of me (1000-2000 unique ones, mostly in my gut and of varying degrees of relationship from mutualist to parasite and every blur of the line in between).

I readily admit that my animist spiritual beliefs have influenced these concepts. I have always thought of the entire universe as a kind of living thing. Too many of the arguments over what constitute "life" seem to miss the point in my mind. I'd rather define levels of life and start with level 0, which is plain inorganic existence of matter and energy itself in space and time. I'd define it as alive by virtue of having physical existence, but call it level 0 because it has no immediate potential to change into something that is organically alive (and governed by natural selection) by itself without a large number of things occurring together in the right place over very, very long stretches time. But on the time scales of our universe, it does start to seem almost inevitable that they will occur. Of course, getting to real sentience still has some serious hurdles and I can see that being exceptionally rare.

I can still fit this back into a more traditional monolithic universe too. If I have to assign a true beginning to all of existence, then in my parasitic universe I imagine the emergence of spacetime itself as the primal first host/niche, into which energy and eventually matter "coalesced" to inhabit as a kind of "primal first tenant/parasite". There are other metaphors for this too. It is much nicer to envision a universe that has a sexual principle at its core than a predatory/parasitic one. The act of eating and procreating blurs in some species.

I do want to see the moralism that surrounds the word parasite changed in time because I think it is for the best. The reality of what parasitism really is still hasn't fully sunk in to me yet even after reading the book, but I feel that at its base a parasite is merely defined as "that which takes more than it gives in relationship to another". Yet in the end, the scales always remain balanced. Any matter and energy I might selfishly "consume" as a parasite will itself go to feed other parasites (and mutualists and commensalists) who are living inside and outside of me. And after I die, all that matter and energy is always returned back to the earth to be re-used. My own death might even some day contribute to another's reincarnation and reproduction.

There was a documentary recently on TV which I wish I could recall the name of now. The narrator said at one point that "Death was nature's greatest invention". As I look at the marvels of evolution, I cannot agree more. I was pondering that in the context of the fractal niche multiverse idea (now wholly divorced in my mind from the hypercomputer fantasy), and then I recalled a quote from a Willam Burrough's poem Ah Pook (link goes to a NSFW disturbing video at YouTube that I nonethless recommend for those with strong stomachs). Suddenly the line made perfect sense:

Death needs time for what it kills to grow in, for Ah Pook's sweet sake.

I've been experiencing some apparent synchronicity of sorts as I've explored these different ideas. Maybe my mind is just reaching for and finding connections that aren't quite in my consciousness but do have rational relationships. For example, Ah Pook! is on Dead City Radio which also has a related Brion Gysin quote in another piece:

Some trillions of years ago a sloppy, dirty giant flicked grease from his fingers. One of those gobs of grease is our universe on its way to the floor. Splat!

There was one other piece of apparent synchronicity I found after returning from the desert. I had started to conceive of the notion of the universe as a living thing that was always constantly self-replicating in a fractal manner as biocosmology. I started to think I'd register a domain name for it and maybe publish something about the idea. I lack enough science background to ever be taken seriously, but the ideas are fun for me to explore and certainly shouldn't cause any harm. I'm always open and honest about my background and don't expect these ideas to be taken too seriously.

Well, Google quickly showed me that I was more than 30 years late to the party. I then found Chris King's website at and started composing an e-mail outlining some of what I'd been thinking about. But the site itself seemed just too familar. I had this strange sense of déjà vu until I finally realized that I'd visited it in the fall of 1997, 12 years earlier while looking for source material for an Inanna ritual. I do tend to believe now that the word biocosmology had been in my subconscious for that long as a wholly abstract idea before re-emerging on its own about a month ago. The synchronicity of this might seem debatable now in light of that realization, but I feel that it actually goes deeper than I can fully appreciate or explain yet.

Even when I first found his site in 1997, I knew that Chris and I shared a lot of common interests and I wanted to reach out back then and thank him for putting it up. But I had some personal drama around the time and eventually forgot about it. We've finally traded a few emails now and I've definitely gained from the correspondence. In particular, two links he sent have been useful as I ponder a variety of ideas about the overall concept of biocosmology:

Garrett Lisi at TED on his theory of everything

Was Our Oldest Ancestor a Proton-powered Rock?

There are other strange relationships and coincidences all bound up in this that maybe I'll post about later. They are somehow related to my Petition for Redress of Grievances. I'm still reading and exploring a whole variety of interrelated ideas and connecting pieces of a puzzle in my own search for personal meaning. Maybe the tangled bank is just a metaphor for my own tangled and confused consciousness which is always looking for meaning where there may be none. Still, these thought exercises bring me a certain amount of happiness and satisfaction, and just feel right at some level that I can't explain. I try to never take myself too seriously in any event!


Mike Lewinski

Denver, CO

October 22, 2009