Life at Scale
Life as we know it is full of incredible diversity and change. From single-cell to multi-cellular organisms, from asexual reproduction to sexual recombination, from bacteria to plants to fungi to vertebrates, life evolves, transforms, and grows before our eyes. It produces species like the blue whale, the coral reef, and the human being. More, it produces symbiotic networks, dynamic biological relationships between everything from cooperative genes to intertwined ecosystems.
We stand on the verge of this life spreading beyond our planet. Humans have set foot on the Moon, and will soon set foot on other worlds. With us, we will bring life: bacteria, plants, microorganisms, and eventually trees, grasses, birds, and fish. From these beginnings, new ecosystems will grow. World after world will bloom into life, and develop and be developed in its own unique way. We will learn new things about the growth and cultivation of ecosystems, and this knowledge will be used to help the ecosystem of Earth survive and flourish.
In the process, perhaps we will create unique habitats for particular species, turning "endangered" on its head, and giving them new worlds in which to flourish. Planets of whales, buffalos, and mammoths; planets designed for previously extinct species; planets designed to explore the incredible capacities of life itself.
But life will not stop there. As we've seen with our own planet, life will soon integrate and connect at larger scales, until there is a higher-order web of life playing out across our solar system. New modes and forms of life will arise, and create dynamic transformation and feedback across the worlds.
And then, eventually, life will spread to the stars. First one, then another, then another—star systems will "wink on" with light and life reaching back out to us, sharing new discoveries and creations. These systems may recapitulate on a smaller scale the history of life in this solar system, beginning on one planet, then gradually growing to become interplanetary. By the time they span their own solar systems, the possibility of interstellar life will have arisen, and tentative connections and dynamic exchange will have begun between the stars.
This process will continue, with new distances and new scales and new forms of life. At each level, the logic of life itself will drive onward and upward. But the only inevitability in this process is growth and change and transformation; each living being, entity, and ecosystem will be unique and free, exploring the full diversity of the possibilities of life. This is what makes life so incredibly significant and valuable: it holds agency within itself—it is embodied freedom and exploration. And this is why it will continue: because new modes and new forms of life are possible, and the exploration must go on.
And so it will continue, and new creatures will arise and populate new worlds, until life is acting at the scale of galaxies and superclusters and universes. The cosmos will have come to life, knit together in a vast cosmic web of freedom and creativity and exploration.
This life will continually bring forth new living worlds, living galaxies, and perhaps even living cosmos_es_. Physicist Lee Smolin has hypothesized that black holes are baby universes, and that our universe may itself have emerged from a black hole within another universe. If so, then future cosmic life will use this process to create living baby universes, designed to bring forth an even greater diversity and breadth of life.
At this point, we step beyond the limits of our current comprehension. If there are greater worlds to explore, and more forms and modes of life to experience, then life will reach them. And unless something fundamental presents an unscalable barrier, life will keep rising, and exploring, and experiencing forever.
But this raises a set of questions. What are the characteristics and attributes of such life? What kind of life can survive and thrive at these scales? What are the things life will have to leave behind, and what are the things it will cling to?
I've come to believe the fundamental attributes of such life are relational values, such as trust, cooperation, and compassion. These in turn entail the values of freedom, diversity, and independence. The move outward, as embodied in all living things, entails the value of diversity and independence. The move upward, to connect into larger symbiotic networks and ecosystems, entails the value of connection and trust. When life not only embodies these values, but is fully and deeply conscious of them, then these values will shape the galaxies, and direct the orbit of stars.
But there is another value, entailed by these, but under-recognized and under-appreciated. That is humility. Humility is entailed by the willingness to transform and grow. Humility is entailed by the willingness to cooperate and trust. Humility is entailed by the willingness to let others explore and change. Humility is the bedrock of science, baked into it at a fundamental level, far deeper than the superficial arrogance of many of its practitioners. And humility is the defining character of the life that will span all things.
This life will have to stoop, to bend, to kneel—over and over again, as a gardener with a plant, as a farmer with the soil, as a parent with a child. This life will look from on high with joy at new life springing forth; and this life will then stoop to meet it, to embrace it, to raise it up. That will involve risk, and it will involve trust, and it will involve being willing to change. And thus, it will involve humility.
This is the nature of the life that will span all things. It will embody compassion, cooperation, and trust. It will embody exploration, diversity, and freedom. It will embody humility and transformation. It will embody love.
If life as a whole does not end soon, then this kind of future will unfold in front of us. And we will have the glorious opportunity to rise and participate in it.
And as we do so, we will be pressed to consider the possibility that elsewhere in the multiverse, this kind of life is already growing, surviving, and thriving at scales beyond our wildest imagination.