This article was published in the Winter 1997-98 issue of Formulations
by the Free Nation Foundation
An Engineer's View of Morality
Set in a Model of Life
by Richard O. Hammer

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Robots for a Distant Planet
Life: That Which Exploits Patterns
Organizations: The Ability of Insignificant Creatures to Exploit Large Patterns
Tabletop Critters
How Will the Rules Be Learned
Morality: Biased Experimentation
Life Advances Through New Rules, New Organizations
Rules for Testing Rules
Specialized Leadership
Morality: A Means for Settling Public Space
Reason Can Override Instinct
Organizations Which Live Need Not Be Moral
Life Is Expanding, Dissolving the Hard, Cold Universe

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I feel moral impulses routinely, sometimes moment to moment. While these impulses suggest what I should do, many of them arrive in my consciousness with tags of doubt attached. I am given, in addition to an impulse, the option to reconsider it.

I have long had the impression that moral impulses are programmed into me, more or less as an appetite for food is programmed into me. Thus I have a practical view of morality, rather than a moralizing view of morality. I feel moral impulses, that something is right or wrong, not because that thing is inherently right or wrong, but because the choice suggested by the impulse serves, perhaps in ways I am not wise enough to see, the needs of me and my community. As sociobiologists might say, the choice serves my genotype in the long run.

Recently, since reading and discussing books1, 2, 3 which summarize the new science of spontaneous order, my theory has grown to offer new explanations for morality. This theory rests within a larger theory about life in general. As such I will have to tell parts of that larger theory as well.

Some readers will ask, quite reasonably, what this has to do with the work of the Free Nation Foundation. As I have been arguing, I believe that we libertarians should be able to organize and establish a zone of liberty for ourselves. And I believe that we can achieve this through easily-accessible mechanisms. Yet almost all libertarians hang back, waiting and watching. This suggests to me that they do not believe what I believe.

So I continue describing more of the underpinnings of my belief. This paper tells how I view us, as living, moralizing, and organizing beings. I hope that this attempt, to cover some abstract and far-flung bases, might ease doubts felt by a few more libertarians, and induce them to join the free-nation process with more resources and enthusiasm.

And of course it does not hurt that, apart from our political fate, I find this subject fascinating. I hope you will enjoy it too.

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Robots for a Distant Planet

Suppose you have been given a job, to write the computer program which will go into a population of robots which will settle upon a distant planet. I will start by telling more about this challenge, as it sets the stage for what follows.

The goal which you have been given is simple: to instruct the robots so that they will survive and, if at all possible, flourish. The robots have physical capacities, to sense and move. They have a good memory, which is initially empty. They arrive with a supply of necessities, which will get them started. But before long they have to find ways to sustain themselves, from what exists on the planet. When circumstances permit they can reproduce.

But you, the programmer, know almost nothing about the planet upon which the robots will land. Probably you can bet that it will have gravity. But beyond that you have to give the robots power to discover for themselves whatever behaviors will help them survive.

Now these robots might be complex, having dozens of acts which they perform and thousands of things that they can sense. But, for most of the examples in this paper, we will be looking at simpler creatures, which can act in only a few ways and sense only a few things. Because, when we start to speculate about how the robots must learn from experience, we see that simpler creatures will serve to illustrate many of the problems.

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Life: That Which Exploits Patterns

Living things, in order to survive, must exploit patterns in their environments. This follows from logic, and from the second law of thermodynamics.

Usually we apply the second law to machines, but it applies as well to living things. A living thing necessarily consumes usable energy. In order to keep on living it must occasionally recharge its store of energy from some relatively-concentrated source of energy. Likewise, it must occasionally recharge its store of certain raw materials from relatively-concentrated sources of these raw materials.

For example, suppose our robots can live on doughnuts, and suppose they find themselves on a planet which has many doughnuts lying about on the surface. About one doughnut can be found in every living-room-sized parcel. But there are lots of rocks lying about too. In fact there are about a hundred times more rocks than doughnuts. And unfortunately, every time a robot tries to eat a rock, it breaks one of its ten teeth.

So, in order to survive, the robots must have some sense which can distinguish rocks from doughnuts and must learn to act appropriately in response to this sense, trying to eat only doughnuts. This is what I mean by "exploiting a pattern in the environment."

For life to be possible:

1. the environment must have patterns, such as concentrations of nourishment;

2. living things must sense these patterns;

3. the living things must choose appropriate actions to enable them to exploit the patterns.

For another example, imagine an exceptionally simple creature. It meets only two types of objects in its environment: food and predator. And it finds itself equipped with two actions which it can perform: it can attempt to ingest or attempt to defend. If it is to live long it must choose appropriately: attempting to ingest when it meets food and attempting to defend when it meets predator.

In this usage you may notice that I intend a broad meaning for "choice." It could be conscious, as in high-level animals, but more commonly it is unconscious. Most commonly, I expect, this choice happens at the molecular level, when a molecule responds in a given way to a given circumstance.

And note that choices need not be perfect. A creature can occasionally make mistakes, and must succeed only often enough to maintain its vital stores of energy and materials.

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Organizations: The Ability of Insignificant Creatures to Exploit Large Patterns

I have tried to show that, in order to have any hope of surviving, individual living creatures must pattern their actions in particular ways in response to patterns that the creatures sense in their external environments. Now I will try to extend this, to show that organizations of creatures can hope to survive only if the organizations (through the actions of their constituent creatures) pattern their actions in response to features which exist in the environment.

Here is an example. Suppose there is a planet which has two continents. The first, a frozen polar continent, gets 99% of the planet's precipitation, but is so covered with glacier that only a few blades of grass grow during the warm week of summer. The second is a vast, warm desert, with fertile soil but no water. Notice the possibility for agriculture, if water can be transported from one continent to the other.

Suppose that this agriculture, if achieved, could support a population of one billion humans for the foreseeable future. But suppose that at present, with no agriculture, only ten thousand humans live on this planet, and they live near starvation in scattered bands.

Now obviously the task which we see, which promises vast wealth in the form of crops, cannot be achieved by any one of the humans. This task requires companies, or whole industries, of ice carvers, shippers, and farmers. But, equally obviously, the humans can achieve it, if they organize and combine their efforts appropriately, each doing a small part of the whole task.

Now, here are three points:

1. The organization of efforts is not arbitrary or random. A human, even though he can act in thousands of different ways, if he aspires to contribute to the success of the whole organization must choose from among only those few acts which contribute to exploitation of the large environmental feature.

2. The life of the vastly-larger population is made possible by exploitation of the noted environmental feature, and this larger population could not exist if it did not exploit this feature (or some other later-discovered feature which produced as much sustenance, or more).

3. If we step back and view this abstractly we could sympathize with an alien who, looking through a telescope from a distant planet, noticed not a billion things, individual humans all struggling to make their best in life, but only one thing, one organization exploiting one environmental feature. The alien might think this organization was one organism. Indeed, this view of life is becoming common in modern science.4

For another example consider a green plant, with its millions of cells in roots, leaves, and stem. The environment in which these cells live has a feature: above the ground there is abundant energy in sunlight and below the ground there is abundant water; but the distance between these two necessary resources is too great for any of the cells, acting alone, to exploit. The plant is an organization in which each cell plays a part. Without participating in the scheme of the plant probably few of these cells could have survived in this environment.

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Tabletop Critters

Now I will develop one more example, which will serve to illustrate my points about morality.

Imagine a flat surface, perhaps a tabletop, upon which some tiny, perhaps one-celled, critters live. These critters need both water and sugar to live, and this tabletop upon which they find themselves is basically a desert. The wind blows, and occasionally deposits a few molecules of water or sugar within reach. This just barely enables them to survive and reproduce themselves.

Now suppose that onto this tabletop fate places a drop of water at some spot, and a crumb of sugar at another spot a centimeter from the water. Suppose that this distance, a centimeter, is much further than any one of these critters can travel in its entire lifetime, but suppose that the critters do have ability to pick up raw materials, carry them for small distances, and then drop them again.

This environmental feature, the pair of reserves of water and sugar, looks like a niche ready to be exploited. If the critters can learn appropriate rules of behavior, millions of them can start to live in a filament of trade between the water and sugar.

The critters who would make up this chain of trade would need to follow some simple rules. Such rules might be:

1. If you see water on the left, carry it to the right and set it down.

2. If you see sugar on the right, carry it to the left and set it down.

3. If you get thirsty or hungry, help yourself to what you need from the materials that pass through your possession.

With this model before us, we can consider two points.

1. The rules (reminiscent of the planet with two continents) are not arbitrary. The rules work because they help the critters exploit an environmental feature which is bigger than any of the critters, and which none of the critters can change. So in a sense the environment in which the critters live determined the rules, more than the critters themselves.

2. The perhaps-surprising fact that millions of critters can live successfully by following only a few simple rules derives from the simplicity of the environmental feature. The rules are simple because the feature (a distance separates the two essential resources) is simple.

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How Will the Rules Be Learned?

While this much seems obvious, we arrive now at a difficult question: How are the rules to be learned in the first place?

We can imagine one case in which the rules will be relatively easy to discover. This is the case where the whole chain of traders can see, or sense in some way, the significant environmental feature which supports the rules. If each of the critters can see the mountain of water in one direction and the mountain of sugar in the other direction then, if the critters possess some powers of logic, the rules will quickly be discovered.

But in other cases the rules will not suggest themselves to the senses of the critters. This turns out to be a complex field. Hundreds of books could be written on ways to discover rules. For this paper I will introduce just a few ways.

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Morality: Biased Experimentation

Generally I suppose that the creatures will be programmed to learn from experience. Assuming they have prior experience which seems relevant, they will be biased to favor an act which has previously led to success and to avoid an act which has previously led to failure. But if they lack experience (if they find themselves in a new circumstance) they will be programmed to try something anyhow, perhaps an act selected at random.

Thus programmed we can expect that a community of creatures will, given enough time, eventually stumble onto the combination of actions which constitute a chain of mutually beneficial trade. But of course the length of time required by random experimentation could be too long. So these creatures need clever ways to speed up discovery of rules. Indeed, the species of creatures that survive best will be those who have, encoded in their genes, the cleverest possible strategies for discovering new sets of rules (to exploit new environmental features). Here, I propose, we might find morality.

For example, suppose Sam is one of these critters. At the moment Sam finds himself fat and happy. He lives adjacent to a drop of water, so he will never go thirsty, not in a thousand lifetimes, and fortunately he has also taken in a full store of sugar, enough for his needs for six months.

Not compelled by circumstance to forage for sugar, Sam has a choice: He can bide his time, or he can do good. He can sit in his living room and watch TV. Or he can, with not much more drain upon his store of sugar, carry units of water outward from the vast wealth with which he is bestowed, and leave them in the nearby desert, in locations which he learns are sometimes visited by thirsty brethren. It costs Sam almost nothing, and it feels good to help those poor critters.

Now, this charity in distribution of water might be named "morality" by one outside observer. But another might name it "investment in research." If the needy critters out there in the desert move about randomly, until they either find what they need or die, Sam may connect with a greater density of wanderers who need water if he carries his gifts of water outward in a particular direction. That direction will probably be toward some nearby crumb of sugar, although Sam may never comprehend this.

As life on this tabletop continues, with Sam sometimes trying to connect with critters who need water, Sam may one day find himself the recipient of a gift of sugar.

Now, recall that Sam was undertaking this charity because, enjoying some reserves, he had a choice. But he continues to be a self-interested critter. Initially Sam felt no expectation that he would receive sugar when he carried water out to a particular spot. But, having once received sugar there, he may start to feel some hope upon returning to that spot.

If the probability increases that his offering will be reciprocated, he may start to think of carrying water to that spot as a wise gamble. And if the probability increases still further, to near certainty, he will think of it as a way to get sugar. He can reasonably see himself as possessing a choice to get sugar whenever he wants it. Thus, charity can be an investment that grows to private trade.

Now consider these three points.

1. This example should make it clear to us that many organizations create themselves. Generally speaking, these organizations were not planned. And no plan for these organizations ever existed. The organizations just grow, where capable creatures live within reach of exploitable environmental features.

2. Furthermore, organizations generally exist without any creatures, who are part of the organizations, recognizing that they exist. Indeed, conscious recognition that organizations exist, such as we humans experience, has probably appeared only recently in the evolution of life on Earth.

3. Even if organizations which exist have been planned by some Great Gardener, the powers of the gardener in this model are limited. The gardener cannot create any arbitrary organization, on whim, because the only organizations which hold together are those which enable the constituent critters to live better than they could otherwise. The most that the gardener can do is to foster growth of organizations by bringing together, in appropriate juxtaposition, the necessary resources and a seed of rules.

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Life Advances Through New Rules, New Organizations

When I consider the progress of the human species, it seems to me that most of the rules, which once discovered have enabled the astounding success of the species, are not at all obvious, not to my senses anyhow. For instance:

Now I will make a pair of statements, which seem to follow from what we have developed so far.

Looking to the past, most of the advances that have been made by life on Earth have consisted of discovery, by creatures, of new rules of behavior which have enabled the creatures, within organizations, to exploit environmental features which the creatures had hitherto been unable to exploit, either as individuals or through existing organizations.5

Looking to the future, most of the advances that we living things might make consist, likewise, of discovery of new rules which will enable us to exploit environmental features which we have hitherto been unable to exploit.

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Rules for Testing Rules

Any given organism may possibly live its entire life successfully by following rules programmed into it from birth. But species which survive best will experiment, will seek success in new decision rules. This is because no niche can be expected to last forever. And the possibility normally exists that a species, by altering its behavior slightly, could propagate into a neighboring niche. And the neighboring niche might prove larger or longer-lasting than the original niche.

Surely the species which survive in our present world must, for the most part, be those whose ancestors experimented regularly with new decision rules. Therefore I expect that one of the rules most regularly programmed into surviving species is this: experiment with new rules.

This experimentation need not dominate the behavior of the species. Indeed, in many cases the wise strategy may be conservative: in the vast majority of instances to continue to apply the old and proven rules, and only rarely or in special circumstances to experiment with a new rule.

The propensity to test new rules would be programmed, I believe, at the genetic level. So it is not necessarily conscious.

Here I think we are looking into another subject which is vast and complex. Again, hundreds of books could be written, on ways to challenge established rules. In this paper I will touch just a few more points.

Considering whole populations, probably some populations stand to gain more than others from tolerating, or encouraging, tests of rules. Considering individuals within populations, similarly, probably some stand to gain more than others from launching a test of the rules. And considering the rules themselves, probably some beg to be challenged more than others. I assume that the programmer of my genes figured this out long before I did.

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Specialized Leadership

A species might wisely employ a strategy of sprinkling, among its progeny, a certain proportion of natural-born rebels. Thus, while most individuals might be stalwart citizens, wanting success only within existing norms, a few will feel happier with themselves if they rattle the cage. This is specialization, which we recognize normally increases efficiency in production.

These "rebels" as I have first named them, will in fact be known in history by many different names. What they are called will depend upon their style, and upon whether they succeed. The other names include: prophet, psychopath, loner, laureate, and entrepreneur.

Returning to the tabletop, there may be some few among the critters who are given vision which the others lack, and who try to induce other critters to join them in the initial sacrifices necessary to establish a new line of trade, between as-yet-unexploited deposits of water and sugar.

Of course these visionaries might be wrong. Or they might be not visionaries but frauds—running a scam. As such, critters will rarely find it easy to decide whether to heed a call to self sacrifice.

The work that I do in FNF seems to me to fit this description. I think that I see a way that we who value liberty can get it, if only we will join our efforts appropriately.
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Morality: A Means for Settling Public Space

Now I will tell how the view presented in this paper, that morality can be viewed as a practical and necessary search for new rules of behavior, fits with my view of public space, about which I have written a number of times.

To review briefly what I mean by public space: it has to do with who has power to make what choices. The divide between public space and private space follows, not necessarily state-enforced property lines through three-dimensional space, but—more importantly—the power of individuals to effect choices in their own interest. Ownership of the choices which constitute public space has either been claimed by the state (and then in most cases poorly defined and badly policed) or has never been claimed effectively by anyone.6

Morality concerns behavior in the public space. To introduce this concept, consider the difference between the words "immoral" and "stupid." Littering your own living room, for instance, we would probably label as "stupid" but not as "immoral." And this extends to choices which injure other people—in those relationships in which rules are clearly defined and policed. Shoplifting—while in full view of the store's armed guard—we would again label "stupid" more than "immoral." If a choice has predominantly private consequences for the person who makes the choice, then I would say the choice had been made in private space. Such a choice falls, it seems to me, outside the scope of what we usually mean by morality.

As I now think of morality, it represents an attempt to privatize some choice, or set of choices, in the public space. Moral choices are examples, of actions which would take place under rules which the actor hopes might become predictable. I would say that a choice had been privatized when rules of behavior have been clarified to the extent that reciprocation on the part of trading partners can be predicted with near certainty.

For instance, when one of the critters described above knows, with confidence, that he can get sugar by depositing water on a certain spot, then I would say that he has private control of a choice to get sugar. In this case I would say that a part of the public space has been successfully privatized, in that certain important behaviors on the parts of other critters, which had been unpredictable, are now predictable.

As I have argued, the advance of life consists of the discovery of new rules. We naturally hunger for order, to know the rules in the environment in which we live. As soon as we do know the rules, we can start to act, productively for our own good, within the context of those rules, without paying the cost of uncertainty.

When we become sure of a set of rules, we can take them for granted. We can decrease our investment in policing that part of our lives. We can increase our investment in searching for new rules to exploit yet-untapped environmental features. We can seek to discover or create new order in a realm that, to our senses, previously had contained only chaos. When we feel secure at one level we typically start to hunger for success at a higher level.

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Reason Can Override Instinct

Let me introduce this topic with an example: A human, knowing that she has a parachute strapped to her back, can choose to jump out of an airplane, overriding the veto of her instincts.

In the evolution of the nervous systems and brains of animals, the higher, reasoning centers grew on later in evolution than the lower, primitive centers. I propose that the higher centers served the animal through the ability of those higher centers to discover environmental features which the lower centers were too simple to detect.

But the lower centers had served the animal thus far, so it must be that these lower centers were able and prepared to make choices: to choose the action, from among the creature's set of choices, which the creature would perform in each situation it might encounter. So, in order for the higher centers, as they grew on, to be of any value, the lower centers had to surrender some control to the higher centers. At a high level, which I experience in my consciousness, this surrender of control seems to consist of presenting the problem to the conscious reasoning mechanism, and offering that mechanism a chance to select a solution other than the solution which would be selected by the lower center.

It is as if the boss (the older, lower-level center) calls a subordinate (the newer, higher-level center) and says, "Look, a situation has come up. I know what I would do. But I am not sure it is best. You are a bright kid. See if you can recommend something better."

Here are two more examples which illustrate this action:

1. We are able to swallow bad-tasting medicines.

2. An animal with a certain level of sophistication can decide not to take bait which a lower-level animal would take every time.

We can view morality in this light. As I said earlier, I suspect that moral impulses are coded in the lower centers of our beings, probably even in our genes. Thus morality is not a higher-level function, felt only by humans, but is an attitude we can generally expect to find in all life.

So our low-level moral impulses routinely get passed, from the low-level centers to the high-level centers, for review and recommendation. We can consider how to be moral, and we can judge whether blindly following our basic moral instincts will serve in the long run.7

If you agree with my arguments so far, you may be prepared to join me in lowering morality from the pedestal upon which we often find it placed. Morality is an instinct which serves survival. As such it is no more noble than our instinctive appetites for food and sex. Survival of the genotype, it seems, is the higher goal. Morality is merely the subordinate, the tool of survival.

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Organizations Which Live Need Not Be Moral

In nature, as I model it here, opportunities abound for living things to cooperate, to form mutually supportive networks in which individuals specialize in tasks for which they are well suited.

If, however, benefits of cooperation with others do not appear, or if attempts to effect cooperation with those others fail, the drive to survive and prosper, having given morality its chance, will "dehumanize" the others and treat them as objects to be harvested or taxed. Unless, that is, those others have enough power, to retaliate with sufficient force to discourage further attempts. In this case coexistence (a mutually-respectful standoff) ensues, in a relationship which is neither synergistic nor parasitic.

Therefore we should not expect to find morality in all relationships in nature. Life abounds with predators. In fact we survive by eating other living things. And we had better be on the lookout for creatures which see us as their food or tax base, because those creatures will not lament consuming us.

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Life Is Expanding, Dissolving the Hard, Cold Universe

This paper deals mostly with morality. But here I will tell a view of life which meshes with morality. It is a wildly optimistic view. Grand prospects await both life and morality.

It seems probable to me that the amount of life on Earth is growing. Assuming that life started a long time ago as a few organic molecules, and noting the amount of life which surrounds us today, we have two data points, with a definite increase from the first to the second. It looks like a trend to me. With each passing year, I bet, if we could place all of Earth's living matter on a scale and weigh it, we could see, like any proud parent, that it grows steadily. This is the nature and course of life.8

Each living thing feeds wherever it can, munching on whatever energy and raw material it can find. Now, for us humans, and for many living things generally, we find energy and raw material to suit our digestion only, for the most part, in other living things. And because it seems that we must eat other things that live, or have lived, I think it is natural for most humans at present to believe, incorrectly, that any form of life which expands its turf can do so only at the expense of some other form of life which it must exploit. But this is not so. Some creatures in the food chain digest energy and raw material that have never been part of any life since the big bang. These increase the amount of biomass.

The second law of thermodynamics tells us that the universe is changing from centers of concentrated energy and matter to a mixed up, lukewarm pea soup. The observation which I present here suggests that the soup will pass through a phase in which it is, in large part, alive.

Until the dying days of the pea soup (billions of years from now, assuming the second law lasts that long), there will exist environmental features which have not yet been exploited by life. And thus there will exist opportunities for life to expand its turf without stealing habitat from existing life.

Looking to the sky I see the sun. Plenty of energy, almost all of it going to waste, as far as the advance of life is concerned. Also up there I see Jupiter. Plenty of raw material, a snack waiting for an appropriately-scaled organization. Morality, the quest to find new ways to cooperate with other life in settling frontiers not yet privatized, has a bullish future. But we have barely started. D
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 1 Kevin Kelly, Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems, and the Economic World, Addison-Wesley, 1994.

 2 Michael Rothschild, Bionomics: Economy as Ecosystem, Henry Holt and Company, 1990.

 3 M. Mitchell Waldrop, Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos, Simon & Schuster, 1992.

 4 John Stewart reviews this concept in the Introduction to his paper "Evolutionary Transitions and Artificial Life," Artificial Life, Vol 3, No. 2 (Spring 1997).

 5 Rothschild, op. cit., p. 92, tells a part of this history that was new to me.  Eukaryotic cells (the constituents of modern plants and animals), which are thousands of times bigger than prokaryotic cells (bacteria), as well as two billion years younger, probably first appeared as "...a collaboration of ancient bacteria."

 6 For a more complete description, see my "Hit 'Em, But Not Too Hard: Institutions for Giving Negative Feedback in Small and Manageable Increments," Formulations, Vol. IV. No. 2. (Winter 1996-97).

 7 I suggest guidelines for deciding when charitable giving is appropriate in "Circles of Support: A Libertarian View of Charity," Formulations, Vol I, No. 2. (Winter 1993-94).

 8 Kelly, op. cit., pp. 106–108, expresses a similar view.  In this section Kelly cites physicists Erwin Schrödinger and Freeman Dyson, as likewise expressing collaborating views.

Richard O. Hammer worked for one year as a bioengineering research assistant at Harvard Medical School in Boston. This was his first job after completing undergraduate study in 1973.

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