Sometimes the complexity and sheer wonder of life can catch up to us and blow our minds. Sure, we all know that life is pretty amazing and admit to having a hard time understanding it but normally we tend not to think about it. It's only every now and then that you really think about it properly and it hits you: your ability to think, feel and plan is all down the complex operation of tiny cells that are more complicated on their own than even the most powerful computers. How did this all come to be? Evolution tells us that we emerged simply by chance from a set of random variables… but could our biology really be an accident?
If your head is now reeling at the thought though, don't worry. There actually exists a very good demonstration of how it all works and how evolution can take us from a few blobs of protein into the walking, talking people we are today…
Introducing the Game of Life
This demonstration is called 'The Game of Life' and was originally developed as a board game by mathematician John Horton Conway (not to be confused with the other 'Game of Life' game by Milton Bradley). While the original can loosely be described as a computer game, it is not one in the conventional sense but rather a 'one player' game with no objective. Rather the game is conceived as an experiment designed to emulate how complexity can arise from simplicity through a combination of random factors and simple laws. Check it out – http://xefer.com/gameoflife
How to Play
To 'play', you start off with a chequered board and a random selection of 'pieces' and then 'seed' the board by laying the pieces out randomly across the board. The tiles with pieces on them are known as 'cells'.
Now on each turn you are going to move the cells in a manner dictated by a set of simple rules. There are three rules to be precise:
• If a cell has less than two neighbouring cells, it dies (as a result of 'under-population')
• If a cell has two or three cells next to it, it survives until the next turn ('turns' are known as generations)
• If a cell has more than three neighbours, then it dies of suffocation
• If an empty tile has exactly three neighbouring cells then it will become a live cell (due to 'reproduction')
With these rules in place, each generation will bring about changes to the individual cells as they die off and reproduce around the board.
What Does This Have to Do With Biology?
At the moment you're probably wondering how a seemingly pointless board game could possibly hold any answers to the nature of evolution. That's a fair question, and to find out I highly recommend downloading an app version of the Game of Life to find out for yourself. These apps will randomly scatter the cells and will then automate the generations rapidly so that you can see the board change quickly over time with no input. You can dictate the size of the board and the number of cells, then just sit back and watch it 'evolve' over time.
What happens at this point is really quite amazing, as the cells begin to arrange themselves into shapes that almost appear to be alive. In some cases they will create beautiful symmetrical patterns, while in others they will form into small arrows called 'gliders' and move diagonally across the screen. Some whole regions will 'die out' while others will 'stabilise' into fixed states or repeating patterns.
While none of these 'creatures' are anything more than just a selection of dots, they nevertheless appear to almost have minds of their own. Some will even explode in symmetrical fashions that look quite amazing.
Perhaps the most amazing 'creatures' that can emerge in this system are the ones that have the ability to produce other creatures or even reproduce copies of themselves. Sometimes these can occur entirely by chance, though these more complex life forms are obviously less common than simpler configurations.
Seeing the potential for this game, a large community has grown around the creation of different systems based on starting 'seeds'. And the complexity of some of these creations is mind-blowing, with some people going as far as to create actual 'calculators' that let you input numbers and then 'print' the response to the screen.
When you launch a program that runs the Game of Life you will instantly be amazed at how 'lifelike' the movements look and at how much complexity can emerge from some randomly scattered dots and a few rules. It feels like watching bacteria under a microscope.
In most cases running the simulation will yield a few gliders and a few pretty explosions before you get left with a couple of stabilised dots. It's impressive, but hardly anything approaching the amazing complexity of life.
But now imagine that there was a computer powerful enough to run the simulation on an infinitely large grid over an infinite time period. Suddenly, any combination that could emerge would. You would by pure 'chance' see formations like calculators and self-replicating 'computers' emerging, and a type of evolution would take place where the forms most likely to survive would eventually reign supreme. Who knows what those would look like?
This really is a fantastic analogy for just how complex life could have evolved in our vast universe. And when you consider just how much more complex our universe is, with so many more laws (different planets have different 'variables' when it comes to things like gravity, while quantum physics has laws so complex we're still trying to work them out), it's no wonder that such diversity has emerged. This, better than anything, is a fantastic demonstration of how evolution and the chemistry that controls our biology, really work.
The question remaining is whether that's all we are – or whether there's some extra 'added' ingredient needed in the recipe of real life…