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James Gardner, Vice President, Gardner & Gardner, Portland, OR, United States

The String Landscape as Genetic Alphabet: The Subtle Virtues of a Non-Unique Cosmic Code (Evo Devo Universe 2008)

In his classic reflection on the nature of life—Life Itself: Its Origin and Nature—Francis Crick contrasted the genetic code employed by every organism on Earth with the periodic table of chemistry by underscoring the arbitrariness of the former and the ineluctable cosmic universality of the latter. Because it was both inherently random and universally pervasive throughout the terrestrial biosphere, Crick concluded that the genetic code’s very ubiquity on planet Earth conveyed a subtle but powerful message about the origin of life: If this appearance of arbitrariness in the genetic code is sustained, we can only conclude that all life on earth arose from one very primitive population which first used it to control the flow of chemical information from the nucleic acid language to the protein language. A quarter of a century after publication of Life Itself we continue to marvel at the uncanny degree of terrestrial biochemical unity—a degree of unity greater even than Crick suspected. But, ironically, the presumed universality of the laws and constants of physics (which underlie the periodic table and every other law and principle of interest to chemists) has been called severely into question. The culprit responsible for this disquieting development is string theory—more precisely, the concept of a string theory landscape containing numerous low-energy vacuua that manifest a dizzying array of physical constants and dimensional set-ups, none of which appear to be mathematically favored by the underlying theory.

The physics community has reacted with predictable horror to this messy environmental problem. Physicists, after all, had hoped that string theory (and its successor, M-theory) would, in the end, yield a “brittle” unique solution, dictated by invariant mathematical principles, that would correspond tightly to the parameters of the Standard Model. Thus would the dream of a final theory have been finally realized. That hope has been dashed. Now string theorists, more out of desperation than conviction, have rushed to embrace the weak anthropic principle as the deus ex machina that selects our cosmic code from the googolplex of alternatives that lurk in the mathematical recesses of the theory. But is despair and desperation the appropriate response to this development? Or might the very arbitrariness of the cosmic code prevalent in our universe be trying to tell us something important, much as the arbitrariness of the genetic code was saying something important to Crick? The thesis of this paper is that the very arbitrariness of the Standard Model—the bitter pill of non-uniqueness that string theorists have been forced to swallow— possesses a subtle and largely overlooked virtue. This arbitrariness may imbue the Standard Model with the capacity to function as a genuine code—a kind of cosmic DNA—that (1) prescribes a developmental program of cosmic ontogeny and (2) serves as a heredity mechanism in a hypothesized process of cosmological replication.