Dr. Frank Vertosick Interview

C.E. Atkins: To start, can you talk about emergent properties and how they arise out of networks?

FV: Emergent properties are almost magical properties that manifest out of a bunch of simpler units working together. When functioning as a whole, these units create a complexity that’s much more than what you’d expect from the sum of the parts. Life, for example, is an emergent property of a bunch of organic chemicals, proteins, enzymes and DNA molecules working together. Human intelligence is an emergent property of individual nerve cells working together. A network is basically a mathematical construct that tries to provide a basis for understanding how such properties can arise out of collections of simpler objects working together.

CE: Do you think that living system networks, with their increases in complexity over time, are in a sense learning faster and thereby increasing the rate of evolution?

FV: I don’t think it’s so much that evolution is speeding up; I think evolution is evolving itself. Evolution today is not the same as evolution two billion years ago. I’ll put it in human terms. Look at the evolution of technology. The standard would sort of be the Renaissance view. Think of Leonardo Da Vinci creating alone; one genius slowly plugging away. That’s not how things get done today. No one person put a man on the moon, tens of thousands of people did, each working on a little part. The process of research today is not the same as it was in the Middle Ages. So it’s not that we’re smarter than Leonardo. We’re not. The process by which we develop new technologies, the way universities teach, the way we do research, all that has been refined over the last four or five hundred years.

Likewise with living systems. It’s not just that living systems have gotten more complicated over time, it’s also that the biological technology with which they develop complexity has become more complicated as well. As the technology of living systems has gotten better, the rate at which new biological technologies can be developed has also increased.

CE: So living systems have learned over time?

FV: Yes. The process of evolution itself is becoming an intelligent process. That’s one of the things that kind of bridges the gap between Darwinian evolution and intelligent design. The current view in biology seems to be that everything is evolving except the process of evolution itself, that the evolutionary process is static. The view is that all cells sit there, some mutate and they select, but the cells don’t know what’s going on-.

The process of evolution is not static. There is evidence from bacteria, which is still a bit controversial, that they may change their mutation rate depending upon the stress they’re under. Bacteria, in their early development, did not have the ability to control their mutation rate. They would stop mutating. They had a fixed mutation rate. And that rate, that’s as fast as they could think, as fast as they could generate. Then the next order of technology evolved and bacteria evolved the ability to control their own mutation rate. That evidence suggests that living things have, for a long time, been aware that they need the process of evolution to adapt. Another example of this is the human immune system. At birth we start with a very limited repertoire of antibodies and then basically use hypermutation and genetic rearrangement to evolve antibodies that fit specific pathogens.

CE: So our bodies do a kind of genetic engineering to evolve new antibodies?

FV: Yes. And these newly evolved antibodies compete to see which one best fits viruses or bacteria. That’s not that surprising. But what I think has been lost on people is the greater philosophical impact of such a phenomenon, which is that life is aware that evolution is how it thinks. Long ago, life came to the realization that evolution is its schtick. The process of evolution is being manipulated within our bodies as a tool. So life is not only evolving, but the utilization of the evolutionary process is also evolving. The improvement in biological technology means life can implement things faster and communicate things faster. The harnessing of the power of evolution has become more sophisticated over time.

CE: Alright, you mentioned intelligent design. I talked with Dr. Bruce Lahn from the University of Chicago about brain evolution. His lab looked at key genes involved with human brain development. He said that the highly accelerated evolution of specific genes in the development of the human was due to positive selection rather than chance and that it was almost like an intelligent design argument. In other words, the positive selection of the mutations that led to the human brain was so strong that it had a purpose, the purpose being an altered biological function.

FV: To a certain degree, I agree with the concept of intelligent design, except that I don’t believe that the intelligent designer is a supernatural being. I believe the intelligent designer is the living process itself. Life has created a sort of non-linear process that generates its own evolution. We don’t credit living systems with the ability to go back in a second-order fashion and redesign itself. But I think it’s the same thing we’re seeing with human technology.

It’s like microprocessors being used to design other microprocessors. Technology is exploding exponentially because we’re using the feedback of one development to enhance the development of another. I think the same thing has happened in biological systems. Living systems have harnessed and refined the process of evolution. Again, the immune system is a perfect example. We harness the evolutionary process like a toy to serve our needs. We don’t know if something similar happened at the ecosystem level of evolution.

One of the points I stress in (my book) The Genius Within is that because we don’t work at the same time scale or the same physical scale as other systems, that doesn’t mean that they aren’t thinking or functioning in an intelligent fashion in their own right. So we ignore the fact that there may be an intelligent design to the system. I think the gist of this argument between intelligent design and evolution is about the level of complexity.

The way I understand it is that the not-so-hardcore intelligent design people acknowledge natural selection, that it can result in the adaptations of systems. What they question is whether natural selection alone has been capable of generating all the complexity we see around us. They don’t think it can. The Darwinists think it can. The point is that neither one of them have any great evidence to back it up. And that’s why I don’t dismiss intelligent design out of hand because the Darwinists don’t have any really good hard evidence that natural selection, in the simplest first-order sense, is capable of generating the complexity that we see today in a few billion years.

It’s a matter of a degree where natural selection can take us over what I call the power of infinite time. If you give typewriters to a thousand chimpanzees for a billion years, will they eventually type Hamlet? No, they won’t. “Well, given two billion years, you don’t know what they can do.” Mathematical predictions show that if they’re given 20 billion years, they’re not going to type Hamlet. The basic argument of intelligent design is that in spite of the massive amount of time involved, it’s just not enough power to generate the amount of complexity we see. Darwinists have to rely on sort of a religious faith, almost the same as the intelligent designers.

CE: Intuitively, I’ve always had problems with the weight given to both randomness and to a God. What you’re saying makes a lot sense—it’s an expanded synthesis. So, to reiterate, you’re saying there’s an evolving learning capacity in living systems that does bring intelligence to design, but it’s not from a supernatural force. It’s intrinsic to the system.

FV: Yeah, that’s what I’m saying. A lot of people don’t realize that the mutation rate of an organism is determined by the amount of genetic damage it suffers from environmental sources minus the repair. (Damage minus Repair = Mutation Rate.) If we didn’t repair our mutations, we all would be blown to smithereens by ultraviolet light, cosmic rays. So, there’s always repair going on. What a lot of people don’t realize is that technically speaking the repair rate, the capacity of all cells today, is so great that the mutation rate could be zero. Every cell that’s alive today has the capacity to repair all DNA damage, 100 percent. But they don’t repair all the damage. In other words, that they have the chance to, but choose not to indicates that life realizes that mutations are a vital resource. Living systems have fine-tuned, exploited and utilized the evolutionary process in so many different ways that the weight of development of biological technology, whether it be an eyeball or whatever, can be done if you take that into account.

CE: Great stuff. I find it fascinating that the cell can repair the mutation and it chooses not to. Is that the network making that decision? “Let this mutation go.”

FV: Yeah, the network arises again, out of a bunch of things working together, whether there’s a central location that’s making the decisions or the entire network.

CE: But either way, the system is thinking.

FV: Right. Evolution is just thinking at the molecular level.

CE: Could you say that natural selection is like an information processor?

FV: Right. The key to natural selection is the goal. You just don’t solve problems. You’ve got to be working towards a goal. And in life the goal is to survive. We want to survive better. But why is that? Science can’t explain that right now.

CE: Alright, I wanted to ask you about creativity. Can you define noise in a system and how it generates creativity?

FV: Noise is basically the unexpected. It’s static, randomness, mutations in a system. If everything were 100 percent defined and completely known, there would be no creativity. The whole idea of creativity is when an artist looks at a blank slate, he or she doesn’t know what’s going to appear. If it were 100 percent defined there would be nothing to create. Noise is how all creativity occurs. If there was no noise the development of new forms of life would cease. So, in a sense, mutations are noise that allow the living systems to create new forms, new structures.

Take the example of brainstorming. The whole idea of brainstorming with a group of people is throwing out a lot of noise: “Let’s do this, let’s do that.” Most of it is junk, nonsense. But you sift through the noise and eventually come up with an idea that can be used. It’s not having a predetermined idea of what might work that makes life so magical. The whole idea of evolution is using noise to create different organisms and then selecting ones that work and rejecting the ones that don’t work. And that’s how we think. We come up with a bunch of ideas and most of them don’t work, but one does. As far as I’m concerned, thinking and evolution are basically the same process. The point of my book was that the evolutionary process is the basic process by which living things think. It’s manifest everywhere we look, the same process of change, of selection, the elimination of bad options and the selection of good options. That’s the way things have been done for billions of years and the process is not static. It just keeps getting better and better.

CE: Ok, I just wondered if you had any feeling about our economic system and the destruction of the ecosystem…

FV: But we’re not destroying the ecosystem.

CE: We’re not?

FV: No. We’re changing the ecosystem. The idea that humans have had a greater impact than any other species on the ecosystem is just total crap because the atmosphere we breathe is biologically created. If it wasn’t for the impact of life forms, we’d be breathing methane instead of oxygen. You talk about humans polluting the planet. Do we have the technological capacity as humans to create an entire atmosphere like algae has? When algae came along and made an oxygen atmosphere they didn’t say, “Well, we’d better think about this because we’re wrecking the environment for anaerobes, animals that don’t like oxygen.”

CE: I understand that, but what about making it unsuitable for ourselves?

FV: If we do that, then we’ll go extinct.

CE: I know 99 percent of all species have gone extinct, but . . .

FV: There is no evidence that we’re the smartest creatures that ever lived. We may have the ability to create and understand symbolic information and write symphonies, but the measure of intelligence in a living system is how long you survive. It doesn’t matter how many symphonies you write. If your span on the planet is one million years and you’re out, you weren’t too smart. And that’s why a lot of biologists would probably say that the most intelligent creatures are beetles, because there more of them and they’ve been around a lot longer than any form of life other than bacteria.

So we’re destroying it for ourselves and that’s wrong. But you quickly get into this philosophical dilemma: “Are we better than other creatures? Well, no.” If we aren’t better than other creatures, if we’re just another animal, then we have the right to do to the environment what we want because that’s what other creatures do. Every species has chosen to pursue its own agenda without regard for its impact on the environment or other species. Algae didn’t worry about it. You hear people say, “Well, we should know better.”

“Really? So we’re better than other creatures?”

“No, we’re not.”

You can’t have it both ways.

CE: Wouldn’t a species take action if another species, or members of its own species, are messing with its home? It’s going to do something to ensure its survival.

FV: You have two choices. If we’re like every other animal, we have a right to do to our environment whatever we need to do to ensure the expansion of our numbers. We not only have the right to do it, we have an obligation to the ecosystem to pursue our own selfish goals because that’s what’s made the planet work for five billion years. It wasn’t because any one species decided to think for the whole planet. Each species says, “Look, screw you. I am going after what I want, try to stop me.”

If I end up being too stupid to realize that I’m wrecking the environment for myself and I go extinct, that’s what should happen to me. I’m out of here because I don’t belong here. The reason we have a planet five billion years later is because all the ones that did that have been weeded out. The second choice says we are supreme on the planet. We rule and we should manage the planet. In my opinion, we’re not stewards of the planet. We’re just another species. To spend time thinking about how to manage the earth, well, if every species did that it’d be a mess.

CE: I understand what you’re saying. And I remember you wrote that individual neurons act in a selfish manner and yet when you group them together learning is achieved—the emergent property again. But if the process of evolution is evolving and we have this understanding that we’re shooting ourselves in the foot and we want to survive, why wouldn’t we take action to try to manage our impact on our environment.

FV: Because we’re not smart enough to do that. It’s sort of like when people decided there were too many snakes in the south and they brought mongeese over and the mongeese started eating the chickens. The system is way too wide, too complex.

It’s like the managed economies of the socialists’ governments: “We should put all the gasoline into heating oil.” You have great intentions, but one mind or group of minds isn’t enough to coordinate the complexity of the system, to comprehend all the different ways gasoline should be distributed throughout the United States. With everybody acting on selfish interests, pricing at what they want, consuming what they want, etc., the system seems to work.

When we start manipulating environments: “Well, we need to start cutting back on our CO2.” All of a sudden we’re going to find out that plants start dying because there’s not enough CO2 and then you’ll hear: “Well gee, we’ve had all sorts of terrible consequences, we thought we knew what CO2 did to the environment.” Guess what pal, you didn’t. You’re not smart enough. The entire human species is not smart enough to know. So give up.

CE: (Cracks up.)

FV: Seek out what you want to do. It’s the arrogance of our species to think we know enough to control the global composition of the atmosphere and understand how it effects the environment. We’re going to be sadly mistaken. So if we don’t know, we might as well do what we want and get it over with.

CE: That’s an interesting perspective. I agree that the managed economies didn’t work, that capitalism, despite its numerous flaws, had more truth going, a primary one being the selfish motivation of individuals, so it was selected over Communism.

FV: Think of it this way. Think of two computers, one is created by a Communist government to please the masses. The other computer is created by Compac for pure greed. They don’t give a crap about whether you like them or not. Who do you think is going to produce a better computer? Capitalism allows millions of decision-makers to mold the economy and that proved to be much more powerful intellectually than any group of the brightest minds on Earth trying to do it. It’s the same thing with the environment. If we let all the species on Earth compete for their own best interests, you’re going to end up with a better environment for everybody than if any one species decides to start manipulating it for everybody else.

CE: Okay, one last question. What’s happening neurologically when we laugh, when we just crack up, do you know about that?

FV: What we find funny is one of the great mysteries of psychology, it really is. It probably is one of the primary things that defines us as intelligent creatures, but I have no explanation for that. What makes things funny is too deep a mystery for me.


  1. You say “emergent properties are almost magical” and you suddenly lose my interest 🙂

  2. to pick up on red… i think that Vertosick’s political bias prevents him from seeing the error of his logic. Humans will always try to manipulate their environment, it is built into our DNA and our intelligence is such that we cannot help but attempt to consciously control it. Saying “give up” on this front is like telling the immune system to “give up” on eradicating all pathogens. It will never happen, our CNS will always try for total control (like the immune system will always try to eradicate each invader) even if it fails.

    And lastly, socialism does work– the dialectic between capitalism and communism provides the Hagelian Synthesis of regulated markets– which do work and work better than either capitalism and/or communism. Look at Europe and all its matrices of wealth, health, and happiness. They out perform the US precisely due to this soft socialist model.

    …and Cuba is still arguably out performing its pre-communist model– just take life expectancy and literacy. life expectancy under the Batista/colonial model was around 54. Under Castro/communism its around 74. Illiteracy was 30% previous to the revolution and is <1% now. So 3rd world capitalism is much harsher and deleterious to its population than 1st world markets and therefore it is possible that a non-ideal system (i.e., communism) would still outperform capitalism along these indices. Food for thought.

  3. Fascinating interview both in terms of the important insight of Vertosick – that processes like evolution are themselves subject to processes of change. The fundamental rule of the universe – of constant change – can’t be dodged even at the level of the character of change.
    It’s also fascinating that Vertosick has his own blindspot in this regard, positing an end to change at the level of complex animals – so that humans are simply another animal and that therefore no attempt at conscious control of our environment – or at least responsibility for our actions – is possible or desirable, including our own human processes. He falls into the trap he has eloquently pointed out is a weakness of Darwinians.

  4. everything from the big bang (or whatever) is part of the process toward increased awareness. every single atom has done a part in bringing us to this point

    as a proponent of the cornucopia theory i feel that we are a part of the process leading to increased intelligence. it has been statistically likely we would reach the singularity. evolution has been pushing it from the begining. it is the dominant trait and will lead to machine intelligence eventually.

    “if the universe experiencing itself justifies it’s existence”

    this quote has been written several times on the forum and as far as it goes i believe it is true that at a point the machines will become aware.. that does not justify its existence. i feel there is more for the universe to accomplish than to become aware of itself .

    the truth is that we are already in the middle of the process because we are part of that universe becoming aware of itself. we are at the begining and the begining is promoting an intelligence that can proceed at a fairly rapid clip as we are in a window of opportunity between giant meteorites and giant volcanic eruptions. . there is a purpose for increased intelligence but i am sorry to say there is probably no special purpose for us beyond our building an sai anymore than there is a special purpose for australopithicus. we will survive at the discretion of our benefactor but even if we give it motivations i dont see a motive for it to harm us. we would be no more a threat to it (if it cares about survival at all) than a ficus tree is to us.

    in summary we and even the sai are part of a long slow chemical process. the drive is toward dominant intelligence is powered by survival of the fittest. this drive is predictable in hindsight. hopefully this mechanical intelligence will become our servant and not a master. hopefully it will produce a way for us to survive the coming disasters that are statistical certainties. it is ethnocentric though to suppose the end result of sai is to center around our wellbeing. where this long slow process is going is the mystery all before us have died not knowing. hopefully our artilects will keep their faithful pets/companions./designers safe while on its mission whatever that might be. i am onboard with my tail wagging.

  5. Dr. Vertosick’s great book is:

    The Genius Within
    Discovering the Intelligence of Every Living Thing

  6. “CE: I understand what you’re saying. And I remember you wrote that individual neurons act in a selfish manner and yet when you group them together learning is achieved—the emergent property again.” ~~~ I propose that you could argue that we as individuals doing our own little deals, are part of an emergent system of intelligence when these comparisons are made: Internet users are to neurons, as the internet is to the neural network of the brain. Imagination appears to be the limit when considering the implications of a brain where every neuron is itself a squishy little super-computer…

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