We’re often told that persistence is a virtue. But it’s something beyond morality — it’s far more fundamental than that.
As it turns out, everything in the universe of any real interest is persistent. Only some things persist for long periods of time: Stars, planets, life. But before you get smug — this doesn’t include particular instances of life, only the process of evolution as a whole. No, each and every particular living thing is just a flash-bang in cosmological time.
But some things in the universe are relatively stable, like stars. The simplest atom is hydrogen (it’s just a single proton and an electron), and it was the only element in existence shortly after the big bang. So a star is a collection of hydrogen held together tightly by gravity, which causes a slowly dissipating nuclear reaction. It slowly showers energy outwards, and for no real reason, other than that is what stars do.
A planet is stable as well; when stars die, sometimes they explode, and their guts fly outwards. Star guts are more complicated atoms than hydrogen. And sometimes star guts accumulate such that they exert a gravitational pull on other nearby matter — and further attract more star guts. This creates a feedback loop resulting in what we call a planet — because ‘fetid file of star guts’ doesn’t have exactly the same ring to it.
On at least one planet that we know of, conditions were such that a new bold form of persistence emerged: Life. The dominant strategy for persistence before life was stability. That is, if you find a stable structure that is relatively immune from outside influence and that dissipates very slowly — then that is a simple yet very effective strategy to be around for a long time. A star is a collection of hydrogen atoms that exhausts itself very slowly. A planet is just a hunk of matter in a relatively stable orbit around the sun. They persist because they are stable.
But life is different. Life persists exactly because it is unstable. The process of evolution enables life to adjust to changing circumstances. An individual organism will eventually die, a particular species is almost guaranteed to go extinct, but life on Earth will likely persist for a long time. So life is a more intelligent form of persistence; it adapts, it changes, it has a more complicated and interesting strategy for persistence. It’s more dynamic than a star or a planet.
And then there’s us humans. We persist too, in different ways; doggedly we persist to live in the most basic sense. A man might cut off his own leg to escape from a bear trap. But also we persist in a more cognitive way, separated from the lower animals: We struggle achieve our goals, even those far removed from the basic struggle for life. This is different from any other persistent structure or process in the universe. I persist in my research to uncover how to recreate natural evolution in a computer, and you persist towards your goals as well.
So to say ‘persistence is a virtue,’ is to embrace a useful piece of human wisdom. But the truth is actually grander: Persistence is the story of the universe, and we’re just the latest chapter.