Current thinking and research about alternative life forms focuses on space. Exoplanets are analyzed for each and every possible indicator of life. Unfortunately, this search suffers from an acute lack of imagination. The view is that life must, in all possible worlds, follow the biochemical path that our lineage on earth has followed, consisting of carbon-based lifeforms and proteins as the basic building blocks. And I do say our lineage on earth because, strictly speaking, we do not know, as Bernardo Kastrup has argued, whether life has evolved independently multiple times on earth or been brought from elsewhere here. There could be other ways to realize life than the one we know. To find life not just in space but also around us, we need to open our minds and look for the basic patterns of life in a different way without preconceptions. In this essay, I will explore the possibility that Bitcoin is an example of life realized in a non-biochemical form.
Life beyond the human scale
The concept of scale is the first preconception we must abandon. In his book “Hyperobjects,” Timothy Morton talks about a type of object that’s so vast in terms of time and space that it goes beyond our conventional understanding of what constitutes an object. He gives several examples of hyperobjects, including oil spills, climate change, the solar system, and radioactive material. However, Morton’s characterization of hyperobjects has several contradictions, making it difficult to follow and draw any definitive conclusions that can be used for further investigation.
Morton builds on a contemporary philosophical movement called object-oriented ontology, which derives its metaphysics from Heidegger, who holds that the world cannot be adequately understood by privileging human existence. Object-oriented ontology postulates that objects also exist beyond human perception, which can only be grasped obliquely, if at all.
Hyperobjects bring to mind merely mechanistic and reactive existence subject to cause and effect. Although they exist in a complex multidimensional or “hyper world” that is hard to grasp, they are still just inert objects. On the contrary, although they are also objects, lifeforms do more than just react to events in the world; they also act on the world. Whereas objects react to manipulations from their environment, only organisms act on the environment in a way that simple dynamics cannot describe. This is an important insight that points to the possibility that we may speak of Hyperorganisms as a subset of Hyperobjects that exhibit the properties of life.
Hyperorganisms would be challenging to detect because they act on different scales than the human. By human scale, I mean the scale easily perceived by humans in terms of time and space. Hyperorganisms may not be bound to the same limited locality a human inhabits nor the same timeframe. They may not move fast or slow enough for us to perceive or even move at all in the traditional sense. Their actions could have a hidden logic that we cannot be sure to comprehend. A Hyperorganism would be to humans what a human is to a bacteria. The human body serves as a habitat for various types of bacteria. However, these bacteria can only perceive a small portion of the entire organism and are unlikely to ponder whether their surroundings are part of any larger system.
The characterization of a hyperorganism would be similar to the parable of the blind men and the elephant, which can be traced back to some of the earliest Buddhist texts, such as the Tittha Sutta from around 500 BCE. The parable describes how the blind men in a village go to inspect an elephant. One touched its trunk and concluded it was like a snake, another its ear and figured it was like a fan, while a third felt its leg and figured it was like a pillar. All came up with vastly different conceptions of what an elephant is.
Giving up the human perspective is a powerful tool to open our minds to the possibility of Hyperorganisms whose existence transcends human perception. Therefore, we need to build a new theoretical framework, without which we would be unable to see them. We, therefore, need to step back and reflect a bit more on what life is.
What is life?
Life is stranger and more multifaceted than most can imagine. Still, we do not doubt that they all share this quality called life. Even if this is self-evident, it is challenging to say exactly what life is. Some researchers have never the less tried to pinpoint what the essence of life is.
The Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger provided one of the first philosophical answers to this question from the perspective of physics. In his essay What Is Life, he found that the characteristic feature of life is that an entity “(..) goes on ‘doing something,’ moving exchanging material with its environment.” By doing this, it avoids the fate inscribed in all things in the universe that of being destroyed by entropy.Entropy is a measure of the degree of disorder in a closed system. According to the second law of thermodynamics, the disorder or entropy in a closed system increases with time. Schrödinger observed that any non-living entity quickly reaches a state of thermodynamic equilibrium, or “maximum entropy.” However, living beings do not reach this state rapidly but remain ordered.
The explanation for this, according to Schrödinger, is that the organism eats, drinks, and breathes; more precisely, they have a metabolism by which they exchange something with the environment. Traditionally, metabolism has been viewed as one of matter or energy, but that does not make sense according to Schrödinger; instead, he proposes the surprising solution that living organisms draw negative entropy from their environment. In this view, “(..) the device by which an organism maintains itself at a fairly high level of orderliness ( = low level of entropy) really consists in continually sucking orderliness from its environment (..) in the case of higher animals we know the kind of orderliness they feed upon (..) the extremely well-ordered state of matter in more or less complicated organic compounds, which serve them as foodstuffs. After utilizing it, they return it in a very much degraded form.” According to Schrödinger then, life is a process by which, through metabolism, order is maintained by taking it from the environment.
The Chilean biologist Humberto Maturana had been teaching biology to his students for years and came up short with the simplest of questions, namely, what life is. He was unable to find convincing answers in previous work in biology. This provoked years of thinking about the essential nature of living systems. To answer the question, he had to invent a new term, autopoiesis: “An autopoietic machine is a machine organized (defined as a unity) as a network of processes of production (transformation and destruction) of components which: (i) through their interactions and transformations continuously regenerate and realize the network of processes (relations) that produced them, and (ii) constitute it (the machine) as a concrete unity in space in which they (the components) exist by specifying the topological domain of its realization as such a network.”
Like the entire book Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living, the quote is concise and difficult to unwrap. Living systems are autopoietic, meaning they can continuously regenerate their constitution. Humans, animals, and plants can obtain the necessary nutrients and food to regenerate their bodies. This is in contrast to allopoietic systems, such as factories, that use raw materials to produce something different. Autopoiesis is the ability to create conditions for the system’s continuous existence, which is the essence of life, according to Maturana.
A living system is thus characterized by its ability to sustain its own constitution over a prolonged period through metabolism with the environment. All known examples are biological, but the principles we have reviewed here do not theoretically require biochemical compounds. A living system could exist that matched the criteria for life but was not based on known biochemical processes.
A Hyperorganism might fulfill all the same criteria, but if we found such a Hyperorganism, how would we determine if it were alive? We might define and characterize it in much the same way as biological life. Even if we are not looking for the exact biological mechanisms we know of in terrestrial life, we should look for the same characteristics that we find in biological life.
Characteristics of Life and Bitcoin
There is no unanimously agreed-upon definition of the characteristics of life in biology. Still, requiring an organized structure that can reproduce and metabolize, react to stimuli, grow, and adapt is common. Let us look closer at what that means and how Bitcoin could fit those criteria.
All living systems have a structure defined by a boundary delineating what is inside and outside. For example, the cell has a cell membrane, while animals have skin. For Bitcoin, we have a different type of structure. Each instance of the Bitcoin code runs on a CPU that it shares with other programs. At the most basic level, Bitcoin is defined by the processes initiated by the Bitcoin code. But Bitcoin is characterized by another more important structure as a Hyperorganism, that of the Bitcoin network. All instances running on the Bitcoin blockchain and connected to other nodes define the boundary of Bitcoin. Nodes running a Bitcoin code not connected to others are not meaningfully part of the structure of Bitcoin. The same is the case if they use a different blockchain, which is the historical ledger of transactions. That would be similar to another organism of the same species. The structure of Bitcoin as a Hyperorganism is, therefore, different from currently known biological species, but there are still similarities. It resembles fungal hyphae. A fungus develops as a network of hyphae, which are fine, tubular threads that spread out through the environment. Its shape and structure are determined by the hyphae that are connected to it. Similarly, all the nodes connected to the Bitcoin network define the organism of Bitcoin.
For an organism to reproduce, there must be heredity. For living systems on Earth, this is achieved through DNA. In common parlance, it is called the gene, which contains all the necessary instructions to produce the organism. The author of the groundbreaking book The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins, argues that the gene is interesting in its role as a replicator. It uses bodies, which he calls survival machines, to get reproduced. Darwinian selection ensures that only the genes that are best at making this happen will survive in the long run. The distinction between the replicator and the vessel doing the replication is crucial. In biology, the replicator is the gene, and the vessel is the body. But Dawkins argues for a universal Darwinism where these laws apply everywhere. We should, therefore, be able to find something similar for Hyperorganisms.
For Bitcoin, the replicator is the source code since this describes all the components to build Bitcoin. Every time someone installs the Bitcoin code and connects the software to the Bitcoin blockchain, a replication process occurs. The leap from DNA code to computer code is not particularly big. The main difference is that computer code is base two implemented in semi-conductors, where only one and zero exist. DNA is base four implemented since there are four possible values, those of the four different nucleotides: cytosine (C), guanine (G), adenine (A), and thymine (T). We will return to the vessel for replication shortly.
Adaptation is the ability of an organism to change its genes to survive if living conditions change. Historically, mutations have provided change that ensured adaptation through the process of natural selection. Still, humans have also done this through selective breeding of cultivated species, genetically modified crops, and gene therapy. For Bitcoin, adaptation is achieved through the open-source developers’ continuous maintenance of its source code, designed to adapt it to the Bitcoin ecosystem’s changing conditions. The approval of a Pull Request is akin to a mutation of a gene. With each new code release, new problems encountered in the environment are addressed to make Bitcoin better adapted. The adaptation is thus directed in the same way as gene editing and does not depend on chance, as biological life has existed throughout evolutionary time until now.
This new release, in turn, creates a new environment with new pressures necessitating further adaptations. The current code of Bitcoin is heavily edited and expanded compared to the original, which shows that adaptation has already occurred. Following Richard Dawkins’s influential theory of the selfish gene, adaptability works at the phenotypical level, that is, the organism that the gene produces, but that is not always the whole story. The gene gives rise to what Dawkins calls the extended phenotype. This concept encapsulates the biological organism the gene codes for directly and any effects on other organisms or the environment the gene promotes. The most impressive example from the animal kingdom is the beaver, who builds dams to change the environment to favor its survival. The extended phenotype of Bitcoin includes the open-source developers and all the Bitcoin enthusiasts. This extended phenotype, rather than the software running the Bitcoin code, is the unit of adaptation. While the code is the replicator, this extended phenotype is the vessel in Dawkins’ terms. The beaver’s extended phenotype also benefits other organisms. The same is true for Bitcoin, which benefits (some of) the humans who decided to invest in it.
Biological life metabolizes chemical compounds and energy by interacting with its environment. A cell takes substances from the environment and uses them for chemical reactions. This requires energy. Plants use the sun’s energy to create organic material that animals can metabolize. All living systems take something from the environment and metabolize it into waste. This waste may be crucial for other organisms. A system of organisms tied together in this way is an ecosystem. In a nonorganic sense, Bitcoin can also be said to metabolize. It takes in electrical energy to power the CPU running its computer code, which it metabolizes to currency that humans can use for monetary purposes. Money is, so to say, the waste product of Bitcoin but the key to the ecosystem of which it is a part. This ecosystem is the international world of finance. Bitcoin thus forms a symbiotic relationship with humans and again resembles Mychorrizal fungi, which create large underground networks connecting to plant roots through which they exchange nutrients with the plants.
The power to grow is the ability of a living system to reconstitute its shape. No tissue can exist for the duration of an organism’s lifetime without degradation. For example, the heart beats around 3.600 times an hour or about 91.980.000 times in a lifetime. No material exists that can withstand that. The different parts of biological organisms are thus able to regenerate. Bitcoin has found a clever way to make that happen since it has coopted the human brain to repeatedly motivate us to install its program on multiple computers. This effect has been achieved through religious zeal, the promise of quick gains, and associations with a bright and more just future. Bitcoin has inserted itself into the behavioral agenda of humans. We buy and install Bitcoin because it comes with a promise of salvation or at least an easy buck. In this way, Bitcoin resembles the species of fungi known as Orphiocordyceps that have somehow been able to manipulate the behavior of insects as part of its extended phenotype. A bleak parody of this analysis would have us be like the zombies in the HBO show The Last of Us, affected by a new strain of cordyceps mindlessly going about doing the business of Bitcoin, which is to proliferate. This, of course, is a caricature, and the effects of Bitcoin on humans seem somewhat more benign, but the mechanism is essentially the same and well-known in the animal kingdom. Bitcoin grows through a careful orchestration of human motives and behavior. This is part of its extended phenotype.
React to stimuli
The ability to respond to environmental stimuli is important for any organism’s survival. Animals do this, for example, when their bodies are depleted of nutrients by responding with hunger. This sets in motion behavior to replenish the needed nutrients. When too close to fire, we feel pain, which motivates us to move away from the fire. These are subsystems that have the purpose of maintaining the equilibrium of the body in a state conducive to continued existence. There is no immediately obvious analogy when we consider Bitcoin in this light. It does not move. But many biological organisms do not move either. There is, though, one way in which Bitcoin shows an ability to react to stimuli. This is through the setting of the difficulty of the cryptographic puzzle. When a block is created by a Bitcoin miner, it is the result of solving a cryptographic puzzle. The entire Bitcoin network is trying to solve this puzzle, and the first one to solve it is rewarded. The time it takes between blocks should not be too long or too short. Periodically, the difficulty is reset to match the difficulty of the puzzle. If the average time between blocks is longer than ten minutes. In that case, it means that the total processing capacity of the Bitcoin network is low, and it reconfigures the difficulty to a lower level. Conversely, if the time is shorter, it means there is an excess of computing power relative to the equilibrium of 10 minutes, and the difficulty is increased. This subtle heartbeat of the Bitcoin network makes sure that it adapts to the processing power available in its surroundings, that is, the computers it lives in. Doing this makes sure that there is always someone who will be rewarded with Bitcoin with a fixed frequency.
Bitcoin and the criteria for life
According to the criteria of life, we can conclude that Bitcoin seems to fulfill all of them. Even though Bitcoin does not rely on organic chemistry like all other known lifeforms, it appears to have the same properties. A counter-argument could be that Bitcoin is not really alive since it depends on computers and the internet. But that is no different than many bacteria that require very particular environments, without which they will die. Another possible criticism is that humans created it. But that is not an actual argument because no criteria require life not to be created artificially. It also resembles life in the way that it recombines features from other sources. We saw how different strands of technological developments led to the implementation of Bitcoin. This is no different from how bacteria recombine and absorb genetic material from other bacteria. The process is well-known in biology.
Bitcoin, therefore, fulfills the essential functions of life as we defined it above: “A living system can therefore be said to be characterized by the ability to sustain its own constitution over a prolonged period through metabolism with the environment.” Bitcoin is also autopoietic in that it continuously coopts humans to install and upgrade the software that runs it. The Bitcoin miners running the Bitcoin network today are not the same as the ones ten years ago. It dynamically replaces the nodes that implement its code. It also has a metabolism by which it takes energy to power computer CPUs and metabolizes it to digital currency, which its symbiont, humans, can spend to buy more energy (and Lamborghinis).
One might also counter that this is a fictional just-so story that can be told about anything that runs on a computer. Let us, therefore, consider whether that is true by considering a few other examples of computer-based systems. First, let us look at the computer worm. Like an actual virus, it only replicates and is not alive. It has no metabolism or adaptability. It is the same code just being replicated. Another example is a popular computer program like Microsoft Word. Humans also help reproduce it, and it has adapted through the continuous release of new versions, but it does not respond to stimuli and has no metabolism. A closer analogy to Bitcoin is perhaps a Peer–to–Peer sharing systems like BitTorrent since it has a similar morphology to Bitcoin (Bitcoin is a Peer-to-Peer system). It is installed on a computer and connects to other nodes. BitTorrent does bring value in the form of digital assets, but it does not produce these, so it cannot be said to have metabolism in the same sense as Bitcoin; it is merely a transport system for something else and, therefore, allopoietic. As can be seen, even close parallels are somewhat lacking to fulfill the criteria for life in the way that Bitcoin does.
I have argued that a type of organism called Hyperorganisms that transcends regular human perceptions of space and time exists. They are difficult to identify because they can only be perceived indirectly. Such organisms are considered alive and, therefore, should exhibit the same properties as biological life forms. We reviewed six key properties of life, looked for similarities in Bitcoin, and found such to exist in all cases. We also found that its morphology and function resembled fungi.
We are, therefore, left with the surprising conclusion that Bitcoin can be considered a Hyperorganism and might, in fact, be alive. This requires more research and thinking than has been offered here in this brief sketch to be verified. Still, this discovery provides fruitful avenues for further investigation: are other similar Hyperorganisms hiding in plain sight around us? What are the consequences of this? How did it become alive out of something that was not alive?
This post is based on a chapter in my new book Still Searching for Satoshi – Unveiling the Blockchain Revolution out now on Apress