New research by Oxford University is trying to demonstrate how the mathematics underpinning Darwinian natural selection can be used to further our knowledge about black holes and the origins of the universe.

The Oxford-based team, which includes evolutionary theorist, Andy Gardner, and theoretical physicist, Joseph Conlon, have been working on a paper which builds on the ‘cosmological natural selection hypothesis’ – a theory first advanced in the 1990s which uses the mechanics of natural selection to explain the apparent ‘fine-tuning’ of the universe’s basic parameters.

Cosmological natural selection proposes that new universes are actually born inside black holes. This means that a ‘multiverse’ of many possible universes could be shaped by a process similar to natural selection so that successive generations of universes evolve to become better at making black holes.

Speaking to Cherwell, lead author Dr Gardner explained the significance of the
research: “The Standard Model of physics has 30 parameters, and the values of these parameters seem to be entirely arbitrary, but cosmologists have suggested that if they were even slightly different then the universe would not be able to support life.”

“For example, if the cosmological constant was very slightly higher or lower, then the universe would either have very quickly collapsed in on itself or else very quickly undergone a heat death, before stars and galaxies had a chance to form. Cosmological natural selection leads to the idea of the universe being adapted to produce black holes, and in order to have black holes you need stars, so that is one possible explanation for the apparent fine-tuning.”

The paper itself proposes that Price’s theorem – a basic equation from the science of evolutionary genetics – can capture the process of cosmological natural selection and explain how the universe seems ‘designed’ for the purpose of making black holes in the same way that a fish can appear ‘designed’ to swim or a bird can appear ‘designed’ to fly.

Speaking about his motivation for conducting the research, Dr Gardner said: “I’m an evolutionary biologist, and I’m interested in the fundamentals of how selection gives rise to adaptive design, so it was interesting to explore how the logic of Darwinism plays out in a non-biological medium. The idea that cosmological natural selection has led to the universe being designed to produce black holes had not previously been expressed in a way that evolutionary biologists would consider mathematically proper, and so this is
what the paper is doing.”

One second-year Hertford physicist commented on the research, saying
that: “Cosmological natural selection is a highly speculative topic.” Adding that: “Still, we should always be open about which avenues of investigation we decide to pursue. Some of our greatest discoveries in physics were only made after pushing a concept to its logical extreme.”

A report of the research is due to be published in the online journal Complexity
later this year.