Book review – Quarks to Culture: How We Came to Be

How did we get here? It’s a simple question, but as all parents will affirm, the simplest questions can have the most complicated answers. With Quarks to Culture, Tyler Volk, a professor in biology and environmental studies, looks at our human culture and goes all the way back to the beginning (yes, the very beginning) to ask: “Is there a pattern here?”. What follows is a book that should be taken as a spirited thought experiment.

Quarks to Culture

Quarks to Culture: How We Came to Be“, written by Tyler Volk, published by Columbia University Press in May 2017 (hardback, 250 pages)

Biologists are fascinated with these questions, and plenty of books have marvelled at the vast chain of being, trying to discern patterns. This ranges from popular treatments such as Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution or Restless Creatures: The Story of Life in Ten Movements to more scholarly ones, such as The Major Transitions in Evolution, The Major Transitions in Evolution Revisited, or Biology’s First Law: The Tendency for Diversity & Complexity to Increase in Evolutionary Systems. Some say it is energy, others that it is information. “No, physics is life’s silent commander”, says a third (see respectively The Vital Question: Why is Life the Way it is?, and my reviews of The Demon in the Machine: How Hidden Webs of Information Are Finally Solving the Mystery of Life and The Equations of Life: The Hidden Rules Shaping Evolution). But Volk wants to look beyond this, at, as he puts it, “the whole shebang”, all the way from elementary particles to political states, from quarks to culture, to search for a universal pattern. And Volk sees one.

See, Volk says, our world, our whole universe, is like a giant Matryoshka doll, one set of things nested inside the next. (Actually, he does not refer to these Russian dolls anywhere, I do – but it’s a fitting metaphor.) Simple things combine to form larger complex wholes that have new properties. This is the phenomenon of emergence (see e.g. Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities And Software) and is the domain of systems theory and complexity studies. And that is the universal pattern that Volk sees.

But he is not content with calling it emergence, instead calling it “combogenesis”: things combine and integrate with other things into new, larger things at a new level. At this new level, these larger things can form new kinds of relationships with others at the same level, giving rise to yet another new level. And so on, in an upwards cascade of nestedness, something he dubs the “grand sequence”. Now, throwing around your own terms and calling things “grand sequences” all sounds a bit, well, grandiose and reeks of hubris. Luckily, that is not at all the spirit of this book, and Volk keeps things uncomplicated and pragmatic, talking of “things” and “levels”.

“[…] our world, our whole universe, is like a giant Matryoshka doll, one set of things nested inside the next.”

In twelve chapters, Volk takes that logic to reason his way up twelve levels. So, fundamental quanta (quarks, leptons, bosons, etc.) combine to form nucleons (protons and neutrons), which combine to form atomic nuclei, and on it goes to atoms, molecules, prokaryotic cells, eukaryotic cells (here Volk invokes endosymbiosis, see One Plus One Equals One: Symbiosis and the Evolution of Complex Life), multicellular organisms, animal social groups, human tribes, agricultural settlements, and finally geopolitical states.

A final series of chapters looks at the whole sweep, highlighting several interesting observations. First off, as he acknowledges, it is unapologetically anthropocentric. I am sure that following the same reasoning you could draw up other “grand sequences” with different endpoints (molecules, stars & planets, galaxies, superclusters?). But Volk wants to focus on how we humans got to where we are. Second, are there more levels further down or higher up? The latter is something he speculates on in the epilogue. The former, as he points out, is what physicists are labouring over worldwide, with string theory being one, albeit controversial candidate (see e.g. The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory versus Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String Theory and the Continuing Challenge to Unify the Laws of Physics).

It also spans several fields, from physics to biological evolution to cultural evolution. Volk introduces the idea of dynamical realms, with certain steps (such as from molecules to cells) heralding a major transition, literally opening up a new world of possibilities. Cells, then, are the base level of the realm of biological evolution. Is there an explanation for these major transitions? Here he names one last new concept: the alphakit. An alphakit contains a small number of elements that can be combined into an enormous number of possible ways. The first example to come to mind is how a limited number of letters (or really phonemes: distinct units of sound) can be combined into almost unlimited arrays of words, sentences, books, etc. You can do a lot with those basic building blocks.

“Volk introduces the idea of dynamical realms, with certain steps (such as from molecules to cells) heralding a major transition, literally opening up a new world of possiblities. “

The argument is not so neat that an alphakit automatically signals a major transition. For example, there are only 92 stable kinds of atoms, but the number of possible molecules is huge. However, molecules are not, by themselves, alive. At this point we’re still in the realm of physics. Indeed, how inanimate matter becomes alive remains a vexing question, see e.g. What is Life? How Chemistry Becomes Biology. But the reverse seems to hold: major transitions seem to require these alphakits. On the border of the realms of physics and biology few atoms give rise to many molecules. Some of these molecules (the combo of four DNA bases and a small number of amino acids) give rise to larger numbers of other molecules (genes and proteins). Same at the transition from biological evolution to cultural evolution where a small number of phonemes gives rise to language, allowing for the next series of iterations. Also invoked here is the concept of a field of possibilities, which are all the theoretically possible combinations of elements. Wagner introduced this in his fascinating Arrival of the Fittest: Solving Evolution’s Greatest Puzzle to argue how evolution can probe these multidimensional spaces of possible protein sequences to rapidly come up with innovative solutions to life’s problems.

Earlier on, Volk makes a distinction between what is and is not a case of combogenesis. So, cells combining to form multicellular animals is combogenesis, but whales evolving from worms is not. The latter is a matter of “more of the same”, not “more of a different kind”. By that logic, the alphakits Volk introduces sometimes involve combogenesis (from atoms to molecules), but sometimes they don’t (from amino acids to proteins, these are both types of molecules).

No doubt readers both inside and outside of complexity studies will find plenty to question and criticise here. I mentioned the possibility of other “grand sequences”. Harold Morowitz did a similar exercise in his book The Emergence of Everything: How the World Became Complex, but required 28 steps. And I wonder: is combogenesis really different enough from emergence to warrant its own term?

My impression is that Volk would be delighted to see his ideas discussed. Quarks to Culture is engagingly written, often chatty (a style I personally enjoy). To wade into subatomic particle physics as a biologist is courageous of Volk, but he seems to have read up on the topic and spoken to plenty of colleagues who explained it to him. Volk excels at translating that for his readers, kindling a new interest in me. Despite the questions and eyebrows this book might raise for some, if you read it in the spirit it was intended – a thought experiment rather than a fully fledged theory – I expect you will find it a rewarding and thought-provoking intellectual exercise.

Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

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