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On the Natural Selection of Universes

(an earlier draft of the paper in Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society 37:369-371)

John Byl, Ph.D.



            It has recently been proposed that our universe, with its finely tuned physical constants, has come to be via a process of natural selection, wherein intelligent beings in parent universes create offspring universes. It is argued that this proposal does not give an adequate explanation of why the physical constants have their observed finely tuned values or why the universe is comprehensible to the human mind.




It seems that the physical laws and constants of our universe are very finely tuned to support life. How can this be accounted for? The two most popular explanations have been (a) the theistic principle (God created the universe) and (b) the anthropic principle (the universe is the way it is because we exist).


Recently Dr. Harrison (1) has proposed a third option, wherein the values of the fundamental constants most conducive to the origin and evolution of life are naturally selected. He proposes that our universe was made by highly intelligent forms of life living in another universe. Since their universe must be compatible with their existence, it must be essentially similar to our own. In the following I describe this proposal and discuss whether it is indeed a viable alternative to the theistic and anthropic principles.



As Harrison notes, a theory of natural selection of universes that satisfies the anthropic principle has three essential components:

(1) a population of self-producing universes

(2) "genetic" variations in the values of the physical constants

(3) a process that selects for reproduction only universes that are inhabitable by organic life.

A scenario by Smolin (2) addresses the first two conditions. According to this theory new universes are born in black holes. The black hole interior collapses to a singularity which rebounds, with shuffled physical constants, into a new universe with its own spacetime. Such a scheme would favour the creation of universes containing black holes. However, it does not satisfy the third condition, which would require a connection between black holes and intelligent life.


Harrison's proposal concerns primarily this last condition. He contends that, as shown by Farhi & Guth (3), it may be possible to create a universe, under controlled laboratory conditions, by forming a black hole of about 10 kg mass from particles at energy ~1015 GeV. The physical constants in the offspring universe would then probably be much the same as the values in the parent universe.


Thus, Harrison speculates, it may be possible for intelligent beings to create new universes that would be hospitable for intelligent life. In this scheme universes containing intelligent beings are likely to reproduce; universes not containing intelligent life remain barren.


Universes are created, not spontaneously, but by means of the intelligence of their inhabitants. Suppose there were an initial ensemble of universes, in which the fundamental constants have random variations, containing at lest one universe where intelligent life occurs. Thereafter, by reproduction, intelligent universes dominate the ensemble. Universes most hospitable to intelligent life are naturally selected by their ability to reproduce.


This explains, according to Harrison, why our universe is comprehensible: it was made by beings similar to us, yet much more intelligent. Also, it explains why the constants of physics are finely tuned.


Harrison argues that belief in a supernatural creator "terminates scientific inquiry", whereas the anthropic principle implies a vast wasteland of mostly barren universes. His option, on the other hand, has life itself taking over the creation business, which then drops out of the religious sphere and becomes a subject open to scientific investigation.



One wonders, however, whether this proposal really does offer a better explanation of the origin of our universe. A number of difficulties are readily apparent.


First, the proposed scenario of universe creation is, to say the least, highly speculative. It is based on cosmological conceptions and particle physics theories that have not been empirically tested. The whole process, to the extent that it postulates a parent universe no longer spatially or causally connected to our own, is inherently unverifiable.


Second, natural selection, as an explanation of complexity, generally involves an evolution in the direction of increased complexity. Here, however, the direction is reversed: our universe is postulated to have been created by superior, rather than inferior, beings. Of course, this notion could be rescued if intelligent life in our universe were eventually to become more advanced than that in our parent universe, but this is again mere speculation.


This is much like, to use Paley's analogy, finding a watch and inferring from it, not a watch maker, but a sophisticated watch-making machine. It may offer an explanation of origin, but at the high expense of replacing the original problem with a more difficult one.


One might suggest that our universe is comprehensible to us because it was created by beings similar to us, but this still leaves the question as to why our parent universe was comprehensible. This proposed explanation merely adds compounds the problem by adding a (highly speculative) step. As Hume (4) notes, "to multiply causes without necessity is indeed contrary to true philosophy". Hence it is more rational to consider our universe as the first one to contain created intelligent beings. On the theistic principle our universe is comprehensible to us because both the universe and our minds were created by the same God.


As Harrison himself notes, even in his scheme we are still left with the question as to what created the first intelligent universe. We must choose, it seems between either the theistic principle, involving the super natural creation of our universe, or the anthropic principle, involving a vast ensemble of universes with all possible combinations of physical constants. Where did the initial ensemble in the anthropic principle come from? Harrison suggests it might have created by Hume's (4) sorcerer's apprentice in another universe. If so, this reduces to just another version of the theistic principle. Harrison's discussion of the anthropic principle is marked by expressions such as "produced by chance", "accidental", and "random". It seems as if chance is elevated to the status of a causal, creative agent. Yet, in the words of Hume (5), "there is no such thing as chance in the world", "chance" is a negative word indicating our ignorance of the real cause.


In conclusion, the proposal that our universe was created by intelligent beings in a parent universe is not a viable explanation of the origin of our universe. The natural selection scenario is post hoc, unverifiable, and ultimately reduces merely to an unnecessarily more elaborate version of the theistic or anthropic principles.



(1) Harrison, E.R., Q.J.R. Ast. Soc., 36, 193.

(2) Smolin, L, 1992, Class.Quantum Gravity, 9, 173.

(3) Farhi, E. & Guth, A.H., 1987, Phys. Lett. 183B, 149.

(4) Hume, D., Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779) in Hume On Religion, ed. Woolheim, R. (Collins, London, 1963).

(5) Hume, D., An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1777) (Open Court, La Salle, 1958).

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