Q: Is the final step in evolution an ascension into an energy-based lifeform?

Physicist: Awesome question!  The very short answer is: nope.

Energy beings are an old staple of sci-fi (a good one), but they’re almost certainly impossible, or at least, it’s almost certainly impossible for life (as we know it) to evolve into energy.  Even after billions of years on Earth, life is pretty much the exact same stuff that it’s always been.  Several billion years ago single cells figured out how to metabolize, repair damage, and reproduce.  Everything since then has pretty much just been variations on that theme (sincerest apologies to our evolutionary biologist readers).  The word “evolution” evokes ideas of advancement, and improvement, and ascension, but “in practice” evolution is to accidents as a beach is to grains of sand.

Energy Beings: The ultimate end of evolution, or possibly a dude in a body sock.

Part of that is that there’s no goal that life is evolving toward, or even a path that life is taking.  So, humanity is no more the pinnacle of evolution than every other living thing is.

One of the classic examples of evolution in action is the Peppered Moth.  The Peppered Moth, like many species (including people!), appears in a couple different colors and patterns.  Normally they’re grey (and peppered), but during the industrial revolution the area around London became so nasty and coal-covered that black peppered moths became far more common.  By accident of birth, some moths were black and, by accident of circumstance, they found that they could hide from predators better than their suddenly very visible grey cousins.  That’s evolution; it’s not a matter of being better, or even adapting, it’s just a matter of stumbling forward and whatever happens happens.

It would be great if evolution always made things more advanced, but in general, creatures only become as complex as they minimally need to be.  If group of critters can get along by becoming simpler, then tend to evolve (accidentally be born) into that simpler form.  For example, there are several examples of blind subterranean animals that are descended from species that once had eyes.  Again, it’s not that they purposely evolved to be blind, it’s just that sometimes (by accident) you’re born without eyes, and sometimes it doesn’t matter (because you live in a cave).  It’s a lot easier (more likely) to lose a feature and become simpler than it is to gain a new feature and become more complex.

Nothing to see here.

It is the case that the lifeforms with the greatest complexity will be found later in history rather than earlier, but that’s pretty much because it takes time for things to become complex.  However, for the most part living systems have maintained about the same level of complexity for hundreds of millions of years.  The most successful form of life on Earth (arguably) is still single-celled.  Those little dudes really have it all figured out.

Long story short: evolution isn’t “leading up” to anything, it just drunkenly limps along using the same set of tricks in slightly different orders.

On the physics side of things, “energy life” sounds like a cool idea, it’s not really a possibility (as far as we can say).  Energy generally doesn’t exist on its own without matter, and when it does it’s propagating about at the speed of light (for example: light).  Not experiencing time (which is one of the problems with light speed) seems to go against the idea of “life”.  That is, if something never changes at all, can it really be alive?

The concept we (sci-fi aficionados) usually have of energy beings, as a kind of beneficent glowing ghost or a giant Kirk-harassing cloud, runs contrary to the physical understanding of energy physicists have developed so far.  Despite all the different terms that are used to talk about energy, it only takes a couple forms.  At its most base there’s the “energy of stuff” (like the E=mc2 of matter), there’s the “energy of stuff moving” (kinetic energy), and there’s the “potential for stuff to move” (the various forms of potential energy: charged batteries, gasoline, wound clock springs, etc.).  A “ball of energy” that’s independent of matter isn’t really a thing.

It would be cool to think that someday something will “evolve into energy”, but pressed for a prediction, I’d say that evolution will continue to stumble around at random for as long as there are living things around to do the stumbling.  Evolution is a process of accidental baby steps, and turning into an energy being, even assuming it’s possible, is more of a leap.

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15 Responses to Q: Is the final step in evolution an ascension into an energy-based lifeform?

  1. Edward says:

    As soon as I read “ball of energy”, I thought of ball lightning. Would that kind of thing (if in fact it existed) fit the bill, or would it only exist through its interaction with air or something?

  2. The Physicist The Physicist says:

    Ball lightning is a bunch of charged particles zipping around, so it’s kinetic energy and electrical potential. It’s really fancy example, but nothing too special.

  3. Well, technically we are energy-based lifeforms. It just so happens that said energy is in the form of particles, atoms and molecules. We don’t glow, but that’s engineerable. So, yeah. :)

  4. Ron says:

    In short terms…at which point would we make the transition? Probably never. Maybe we would compete with them and then die? To that end, where did THEY start?

  5. MacGregg says:

    How about gravity as the container… like the Sun? Very complex behavior with magnetic and electric fields could be much more complex then human brain behavior! Maybe the Sun is conscious.

  6. The Physicist The Physicist says:

    That would be awesome!
    But that’s still a bunch of energy and matter interacting in the Sun. By stretching the definition of “energy lifeform” that far, every living thing can be said to be an energy being. In the Sun it’s not that the EM fields are held in by gravity, it’s that they’re being created by the material of the Sun moving around.

  7. Adrian Paleacu says:

    what about ghosts? they are a form of energy strap in this world.

  8. The Physicist The Physicist says:

    Clearly, ghosts are the exception that proves the rule.

  9. Adrian Paleacu says:

    :D

  10. Brandon says:

    I think when some people ask this question they may not be referring to evolution in a purely biological sense, as in the phenominon of natural selection. From a broader perspective you might consider that humans have begun to evolve in other ways as our tools have become more advanced. Tools work at both ends, as they say. Modern technology has largely usurped natural selection and replaced it with a sort of memetic selection where ideas mutate and are selected from a pool, a crapshoot of trial and error in which desirable ideas are passed on and others die off. I won’t get into transhumanism but in my humble opinion this have some exciting implications in where we may one day end in the course of our “evolution” but it is as difficult to predict from our perspective as it would have been for a person from the 1800′s to predict that one day people would use a large and fast communication medium to send funny pictures of cats to each other.

  11. The Wonderer says:

    Unless I missed some force, there wouldn’t be anything holding this life form together. It would dissipate before it was born.

  12. Tanner says:

    Consider that maybe, energy created from the workings of some alternate form of matter, ( anti matter, silly matter ) was made, and then sent into our part of the universe, maybe this energy works on different principals?
    Also, maybe these beings originally came from another dimension/quantum disposition and did not have to originally obey our laws of physics, but found a way to transition.
    Maybe they are bound by a 5th level of dimension, or maybe they are held together by some powerful universal force, like time itself.
    Maybe, when crossing over to our relm, they appear, but exist out of reality?

  13. Tanner says:

    Maybe they evolved in a different dimension, and became sentient, then intelligent, there.
    After awhile, they figured out how to survive here.
    Maybe they, themselves, are made of a form of energy found only.in themselves, in that this rare form of energy is alive in its very state of existence, and from there several different forms of energy life could have evolved.
    While we not be able to explain it, there’s no doubt in my mind that it’s possible.
    I like the idea of gravity, maybe they evolved around small tears in quantum space time, and are actually energy coalesced around a small black hole, or.some form of gravity well.

  14. Dr. Ressatin says:

    ‘Life’ has no distinct definition, but most biologists agree, that all organisms:
    i)Have a food source,
    ii)Reproduce
    iii)Evolve over time
    iv)Eventually die, or cease biological functioning
    Energy beings could have a food source-made.of matter, however. A small portion of the energy could be used to catalyse chemical reactions, liberating energy in the process, while another pirtion could synthesis such high-energy compounds.
    Let me jump to point (iv), Death. Energy can’t be destroyed. But it can be rearranged. In matter-based life, the only differentiation between a dead organism and a live one, is the arrangement, the configiration of atoms of various rlements

  15. Bradley Martin says:

    Although to our current understanding, a cluster of energy such as an energy being isn’t theoretically possible. We still don’t fully understand what consciousness and intelligence are. What if the smallest thing that underlies everything in the universe is consciousness, and that that consciousness is intelligent? Similarly to the thought of the Sun being conscious due to the presence of EMFs.

    Perhaps all the bizarre elements of physics, especially in Quantum Theory, such as Quantum Entanglement is all down to an underlying intelligence – reminds me of a science fiction I heard once that the fastest thing in the universe is the power of thought!

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