Summary: Life is Meaningful

Many take the cosmic smallness of humanity as proof of its insignficance. However, this line of thinking neglects two primary dynamics of life expansion:

  1. Life builds recursively: atoms form amino acids form proteins form cells form tissues form a human. Life continues to build recursively, with humans joining to form “super-organisms.”
  2. Life’s output rate (life created per unit time) is exponentially increasing.

Taken in combination, the principle of recursion and the principle of exponential creation rate should, eventually, make the cosmos smaller than life. One can find significance in life by contributing to that process.

Evolutionary Timescales

Life evolves temporally. To visualize the timescale of life’s evolution, one can project the time scale onto a length scale, letting one year map to one millimeter. To get a sense of the distance to time mapping:

  • 2.6cm, two fingers lined up next to each other = 26 years, my lifespan so far.
Two fingers side-by-side, measuring 2.6cm (26 years).
  • 12cm, your hand = 120 years, my aspirational lifespan in totality.
A hand, measuring just over 12cm (120 years).

Now imagine the history of life on Earth, 4600km on this new length scale. A 4600km trip from North-to-south would take you from the frigid Prince of Whales Island in northern Canada

Sattelite imagery of Prince Of Wales Island, Canada.

to the warm Texas capital building in Austin, Texas

Satellite imagery of Prince Of Wales Island, Canada.

Below are a few more waypoints on the journey. It would take travelling through most of Canada to get to Eukaryotic cells. Only in the warmer midwestern regions do most modern animals appear.

Timeline of different points on a 4600km trip from Prince Of Wales Island, CA to Austin, TX.

One interpretation of the evolutionary timescale is that a human’s hand-length lifespan seems embarassingly short, relative to the evolutionary timescale of life on Earth. How could anyone find meaning in a forgettable half-step, on the long journey from Northern Canada to Austin?

Re-thinking Evolutionary Timescales: Towards Super-Organisms

Transpose the notion of embarassing, human smallness against a great, cosmic vastness: one discovers embarassing, cosmic inefficiency against innovative, human productivity. Scientists can grow more prokyarotic cells in an overnight experiment, than evolution could yield after a painfully long 500 million years, in the early days of Earth.

The power in one year of life has exponentially increased as life has progressed.

Why? One main source of the power boost is simply that life builds recursively on itself. Consider recursive building blocks below, which successively merge to form increasingly complex building blocks.

Life Recusion LevelMade ofInputOutputEnergy SystemHeld Together With
Eukaryotic CellOrganellesGlucose, OxygenPyruvate, CO2ATPCell Membrane, Osmosis
OrganismOrgansFoodCO2, ExcrementGlucoseConnecting/supporting tissues
CompanyEmployeesResourceWidget, ServiceCredibility, MoneyProfit, Purpose
Economy (City, State, Nation)CompaniesNatural Resources, PowerGoods, PollutionMoneyGovernment, Ideology, Force

Eukaryotic cells band together to form organisms, and organisms similarly collaborate to form super-organisms (like tribes, cities, economies, and nations) 1. Each level of recursion adds increasing capability: while cells can move proteins, organisms can move rocks, and super-organisms move mountains.

Life will continue to build on the super-organisms of today. One can envision that these super-organisms will expand to inhabit entire planets, galaxies, and perhaps the entire universe itself.2

Third Dimension to Life’s Meaning

While many believe that liberal and conservative social values are opposites, the pure ideological extremes of each side actually converge to remove meaning from an individual’s life. Purely relative nihilism removes lasting meaning, and purely absolute tradition removes the individual choice for meaning 3. One can certainly create a well-lived life along an efficient frontier between the left’s relativism and the right’s absolutism, tuning the balance to one’s own preferences and values

However, the super-organism offers a new dimension to choose, beyond classic left-wing and right-wing alternatives. With the principle of recursive life-building, and a vast time horizon over which that building will compound, one’s actions today can influence exponentially more powerful generations to come.

Just as lichens decide where forests can spring from rock, we humans direct an infinite chain of increasingly powerful super organisms. With our hand’s-worth of lifespan, we can find cosmic significance in such an important responsibility.

  1. The COVID-19 pandemic shows that a super-organism can become sick. Just like a human can have a fever where all but the most fundamental functions stop, an economy can be forced to pause all but essential services. ↩︎

  2. While it’s not clear if life will continue forever or not, consider to set the null hypothesis strategically: there is a bright future where it can and will. ↩︎

  3. The dichotomy between left and right values is worthy of an essay in itself, but briefly: the contrast in the positives amplified (left: self-discovery; right: family formation) and the negatives scorned (left: infringement on rights; right: infringement of tradition) by each value system underscores the emphasis on an individual life (left), compared to the emphasis on continuity of a particular line (right). ↩︎