Evolution vs thermodynamics

It is an old point, it turns out, that the scope of evolution seems arbitrarily determined if we think of the process as one that only occurs in what we call the biosphere. If we, instead, argue that evolution should be thought of as a principle that applies to everything, unless a determination of scope can be reasonably proven, we end up with a far more interesting universe.

I thought this idea was fairly recent (See Smolin & Kauffman), but it turns out that Chauncey Wright was on to the same idea back in the late 1900th century in his Philosophical Discussions.

It seems tricky to reconcile with the second law of thermodynamics, is all. But it feels right. The conclusion then seems to be that the universe is not an isolated physical system. Oh, ok, then. (I will leave the question of what the universe is as an exercise for the reader.)

On that note, though, Chauncey Wright is a really interesting figure. I especially like his observation that we should compare systems we are trying to predict with the weather to try to gauge if they are as complex as or more complex than the weather. If so, we should expect the same success. He ends his long essay on the weather by doubling back and using his observations to discuss human nature:

Man finds himself everywhere mirrored in nature. Wayward, inconstant, always seeking rest, always impelled by new evils, the greatest of which he himself creates, – protecting and cherishing or blighting and destroying the fragmentary life of a fallen nature, incapable himself of creating new capacities, but nourishing in prosperity and quickening in adversity those that are left, – he sees the workings of his own life in the strife of the elements. His powers and activities are related to his spiritual capacities, as inorganic movements are related to an organizing life. The resurrection of his higher nature is like a new creation, secret, sudden, inconsequent. “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth; so is every one that is born of the Spirit”.

Are we more or less complex than the weather? The answer to that question should have consequences for our worldview.

2 thoughts on “Evolution vs thermodynamics”

  1. I’m skeptical that we have the capacity to accurately gauge the relative complexity of natural systems, or even that we have the ability to meaningfully identify discrete systems by which to ascribe a measure of complexity. The best we could hope for is a measure of complexity (as it appears to us based on present knowledge, etc.) for an apparently discrete physical system.

    That’s not particularly satisfying and leads to all sorts of anti-realist positions in other areas of science.

  2. Well, I think that is a bit of a cop-out, but I do see your point. We can assess complexity, though, by proxy, by using Kolmogorovcomplexity and assess the length of the algorithm that effectively (not fully) models the system in question.

Leave a Reply