Academia crushes the joy out of lots of intellectuals, but not Tyler Volk. Volk, whom I’ve known for 14 years, is a professor of biology and environmental science at New York University. In person and on paper, he exudes curiosity about the world and enthusiasm for ideas that might explain it. He has written seven books, all about big topics: climate change, ecology, death, evolution. His latest, Quarks to Culture: How We Came to Be, from Columbia University Press, is my favorite. Volk explores a wide range of fields, from particle physics to social sciences, in search of insights into the origin, evolution and future of life. It’s a grand adventure, which takes you from the singularity that spawned our cosmos to a possible human singularity. He recently answered questions about his book and career. --John Horgan

Do you ever regret becoming a scientist?

Gut reaction: no. I could plow my mind down into the furrows of what I like to call one’s cognitive evolutionary dynamics. And imagine alternative scenarios, have fun, or despair, and in either case drive myself nuts with an explosion of counterfactuals. But I’ll just make an upper level “selector” move and affirm my initial “no.”

Why did you write Quarks to Culture?

I started work on a follow-up book to my earlier Metapatterns Across Space, Time. I soon realized I needed to better understand the metapattern of things-and-relations-in-systems as a primary challenge, or master metapattern, and then realized that going down into the nested systems of one’s biological body is a way of diving back in time in terms of the origins of types (examples: cells as types originated before the animal body, molecules as types originated before cells). This chain of realizations fired up a question that triggered an inquiry and eventually the book: Could I count fundamental levels of types of things? All I had to do was answer that. Then cool findings unfolded.

What is combogenesis?

In answering the question about a count I was led onward to a next one: What were the innovations that developed along the forward path in time that went from quarks to culture to form a sequence of transitions to new fundamental levels? To help focus, I coined the term “combogenesis.” Combogenesis is the genesis of new types of things and relations by combination and integration of previously existing things. For those into “emergence” theory, I would say that combogenesis is a special subset of emergence. But combogenesis is more precisely defined and leads to a logical way to distinguish levels and then ask questions about contrast and comparison across levels. Its use is restricted in this book to the levels that built-up a “grand sequence,” from the fundamental particles of physics through biology and to geopolitical states. See the figure, below, taken from my preface.

A related concept is offered in the book’s Part 3: combogenic convergence. Once one has in hand the levels of combogenesis as a set of similar “things,” one can ask about themes or parallels within that set. Examples include parallels in the levels that originated biological and cultural evolution (respectively, prokaryotic cells and human tribal metagroups), and in the levels that followed those “evolutionary base levels” (respectively, eukaryotic cells and agrovillages).

Credit: Columbia University Press

Could the next great transformation spawned by combogenesis be what some call the Singularity?

The final level I cover is the geopolitical state. It originated thousands of years ago at different sites around the world at different times. The obvious question is, what happens next? The logic of combinogenesis would indicate a merger of nations. I see nations as cultural evolutionary descendants of the ancient states, all on the same level of the geopolitical state, similar to the way that ancient simplest animals and modern large mammals are on the same level of multicellularity.

Now the logic of combogenesis would indicate that for a planetary scale to develop as a truly new level in the grand sequence, that scale will not take place from the domination by any current government or government system. Were that to become the case, it would not be a substantial innovation but simply an increase in size of a current pattern. Thus the logic leads us to think more radically about the structures that might result in a coming planetary stage.

Now, those into the Singularity—where cheap machines match and then surpass human general intelligence—can spin scenarios of utopias or dystopias. I agree with Nick Bostrom, we need to be thinking about the matter of AI a lot more. The internet-AI is participating in the coming planetary scale. In fact, we all need to be thinking and talking about and debating the human future a lot more, rather than simply letting it happen or letting certain powerful individuals in government, tech, or finance determine it (a complex topic, because voters and consumers weigh in). I tend to think about new international “organs” of the planetary scale. Please, no Borg-like future. I personally lean toward a desirably complex world but one more decentralized across multiple modalities compared to today. 

Personal, cognitive evolutionary dynamics (one’s internal decision-making, with its evolutionary “recipe” of processes of propagation, variation, and selection) need to be part of this evolution toward planetization. After all, important structures of cultural evolution are linked to patterns laid down in earlier levels of the grand sequence. Specifically, the animal body (level 8) participates in the next level of the animal social group (level 9), with the animals themselves remaining the main unit of evolutionary adaptation, because the animal body had and has a life cycle that involves death and therefore was subject to intense selection. In our genus Homo ancestry, this led to increased brain size and new cognitive capabilities. Despite our current lives in multiply nested social systems, we have inherited this intense degree of individuality from several levels down. Let us keep that, even if a planetary scale is coming into being.

We need more imagination about all this. David Grinspoon, for example, in his book Earth in Human Hands, is wonderfully on the case here, proposing a “Sapiezoic aeon” to come (if we are successful). My hope is that pattern-thinking-tools developed from the grand sequence and prior transitions of combogenesis can help contribute to such new imaginings of our future.

How optimistic are you? Do you think we can solve the problem of climate change? What about the problem of war?

I have to be cautiously optimistic. Otherwise it would be immoral—in a sense of global fairness—if I were leading a lifestyle that I thought was not going to be possible for 9 billion people (7.3 billion today and growing). Now, I might have fallen into system justification here. However, globally, energy is abundant in potential (for example, Earth’s reception of solar flux). Planetary potential is there with water, too (that doesn’t mean local crises are not huge issues right now). Regarding food, Jon Foley and colleagues have shown that we should be able to double food supply with no additional deforestation.

The challenges to reaching global prosperity are enormous, and almost certainly require changes in world politics, economics, technology, and personal consciousness. All this hopefully will progress in a way we billions collectively, consciously choose. Solving climate change has to go along with achieving global prosperity. And so does a secure solution for world peace. I have gained much from your work, John, in emphasizing the cultural aspects of war, which can be changed, and in de-emphasizing biological aspects.

Thomas Nagel argues in Mind and Cosmos that conventional, materialistic science cannot explain the origin of life and consciousness. To account for these mysteries, we need radical new theories or principles, perhaps incorporating teleology. Do you agree?

I don’t think we need new principles, say along lines of panpsychism or bringing in multiple hidden dimensions. But I do think we need new insights. Your question allows me to get on soapbox and start with a fact of existence I think tends to be too little noted in consciousness studies.

It’s your visual field. Close your eyes and it disappears. (Yes, yes, the world stays.) So the visual field is an “organ” within our total, personal field of consciousness, which also includes what many of us normally think of as central to consciousness, or even as consciousness itself, namely, our thoughts and “I”-language of the internal dialogue (as well as recognizable feelings). When did the visual field begin? I would say at level 8 of multicellularity and more specifically with animals capable of remote sensing with eyes and ears.

I assume that when a squirrel jumps to a new branch, it “sees” the branch. It has a visual field. I’m not saying, of course, that it can report on that seeing. Such reporting likely began on level 10 with people in cultural metagroups. In between 8 and 10 was level 9 of the animal social group, with social learning, in which animals of the same species could create a non-linguistic “we” through corresponding individual patterns of cognition about who is “in and who is “out.” Crucial was the use of sound and light by individuals in these social networks. Smell was important, too, but sound and light with their special physical properties could be modulated later into rapid fire language (and later, writing) as biological evolution transited to cultural evolution.

At the base level of cultural evolution (level 10), animal agency with social learning progressed to increasingly powerful human agents capable of reporting mental contents to themselves and to others. I make a case that cultural evolution consists of a double tier of internal cognitive evolutionary dynamics and social evolutionary dynamics. Those tiers are complexly coupled. And the coupling itself is capable of cultural evolutionary changes.

So I definitely see consciousness in its human manifestation as a process that involved both biological and cultural evolution and that was built from phenomena that came in during early levels. I think that considering fundamental levels and their sequential built-up of innovations can help frame the evolution of this consciousness we know and even love because we so often identify with it.

Scientists debate whether our emergence was a highly probable outcome of the laws of nature or a once-in-infinity fluke. What do you think?

Some of the dozen levels I develop from the logic of combogenesis are more determined than others (given the existence of the just-prior levels). After the almost absurdly enigmatic standard model of particle physics (“our” standard model—why are its fundamental constants the values they are?) the path was set for the first four events of combogenesis that took the grand sequence to molecules. This is why we can observe and know types of molecules in space.

The origin of life, following molecules, is a different matter. It’s has a lot more outstanding mysteries, and that’s an understatement. Many aspects of the origin of the amazing innovation of the next level of the eukaryotic cell are understood. But not the fact of its singular origin (see my answer to your next question). To my mind, it’s also not easy to characterize as deterministic the singular origin of the animal as a particular kind of nutrient-gathering strategy with compact body, very different from the strategies of extended surface areas of multicellular plants and fungi. Also, the origin of culture has many outstanding mysteries.

After the early cultural metagroups, however, came a pair of more probable transitions. Archeologists claim that the level of agrovillages was invented multiple times independently at different sites around the world. The same pattern occurred for the next level 12, the geopolitical state. If ancient Mesopotamia had not had its early states, those in regions of China, Mexico, and Peru would still have evolved.

So the grand sequence from quarks to culture seems to be a mix of more probable levels and less probable levels (or at least less well understood), either because of the hugeness of some of the transitions to certain levels or the singular and therefore probably more contingent origins of certain levels. Personally, I like the fact of this mix! It’s part of the awe (see more below).

Particularly rich for special contemplation are the 3 levels that share the property of being base levels of what I propose as three dynamical realms. These base levels are: the standard model of physics (level 1), the prokaryotic cell and the origin of life and biological evolution (level 6), and the human tribal metagroup and the origin of cultural evolution (level 10). All 3 of these levels rate pretty high on any enigma scale. Level 1 is unique because we have no established textbook idea of what went before it. Levels 6 and 10 created the evolutionary realms of biology and culture, respectively. That these levels are chock full of questions, referring to our understanding, make some sense because the shift into and origin of new relations of the new “things” at those 3 base levels were so massively consequential in setting forth new dynamics for subsequent transitions of combogenesis within the three respective realms (physical law, biological evolution, and cultural evolution).

You say in your book that your research has led to “ever-growing awe.” Do you ever suspect that God exists?

First, the “god” thing: To me, it’s pretty clear that, as John Lennon said in one of his post-Beatle songs, “God is a concept  . . .” The concept does more than allow us to measure our pain (continuing with Lennon’s lyrics, and I love the poetry as well as emotion there). The god concept has been powerful at multiple scales. The concept—whether gods or god, we are talking cross-culturally and across history— has worked well for many in terms of people’s internal cognitive dynamics because the concept fit mental needs of various kinds and thus was selected, even if that meant pleasing parents. The concept has also has worked well socially, for bonding, organization, and power maintenance (even wonderful architecture), and thus can be seen as operating successfully in history. I like to think about the concept as culturally evolving because it’s subject to the dual-tier dynamics of propagation, variation, and selection noted earlier. Think Hebrew god evolving into the Christian god for some cultural lineages.

God(s) have been an interest of mine. Years ago I ran a panel on the “evolution of god(s).” I call out Robert Wright’s great book here, The Evolution of God (worth reading twice), as well as work by many in the field of the cognitive psychology of religion, such as Pascal Boyer, Daniel Dennett, David Sloan Wilson, Scott Russell Atran, as well as researchers such as Sheldon Solomon and Jeff Greenberg in terror management theory, which you have covered on this blog. In terms of religion and the level of the tribal metagroup, the level that followed (in my proposal) the animal social group and that started the realm of cultural evolution, I’ll note Matt Rossano, with his proposed sequence from ecstatic rituals to shamanistic healing rituals to ancestor worship. I also like Yuval Harari’s idea in Homo Deus about ancient religions as seductive and successful virtual realities.

Now, for the “awe” thing. As I started asking about fundamental levels of types of things and relations along a grand sequence to the geopolitical state, I found that it was personally rewarding to know more and more about each of the levels. I was forced to do that, to be able to ask common questions across scales about the core innovations that enabled each level to progress to each subsequent level. But I found more rewards than what emerged from framing a logic of inquiry. The levels kept revealing incredibly interesting and rich dynamics in mixtures of knowns and unknowns. They are simply fun to explore. After all, the levels are main aspects of who we are. We might as well befriend them. 

Regarding this richness, down deep are fascinating issues about the mathematical structures of physics, and fine-tuning fits such as the instability of neutrons (level 2) when solo and yet they get stabilized when bonded with protons into atomic nuclei (level 3). Or, consider (again) the “singular” origin of the eukaryotic cell. Was that combogenesis of prokaryotes extremely difficult to achieve? Or were there alternate sort-of-eukaryotes that went extinct? And then consider the many avenues of insight back to early human culture, joining those who ponder its origins by emphasizing language or mental gains such as working memory. But then I discovered that many experts see innovations in social structure as key, with human groups comprised of groups of groups —metagroups—with material culture and language as bonding agents to make larger groups across webs of geographically spread out smaller groups not in daily contact with each other. That innovation fits with the logic of combogenesis.

It’s all so amazing to me, this our universe, and I emphasize I don’t mean the universe of cosmologists but the universe of nested scales of things and relations we have within our bodies and the scales of which we are members within larger social things, potentially, again, on the way to a new planetary scale.

What’s your utopia? 

John, having this opportunity to focus for a spell on your great questions: this is it!

Back at you.

Further Reading:

See Q&As with Steven WeinbergGeorge EllisCarlo RovelliEdward WittenScott AaronsonSabine HossenfelderPriyamvada NatarajanGarrett LisiPaul SteinhardtLee Smolin, Stephen WolframRobin HansonEliezer YudkowskyStuart KauffmanChristof KochRupert Sheldrake and Sheldon Solomon.