Energy, Entropy, Evolution and
the Paradox of Life's Complexity
Without gradients to be reduced nothing of interest could or would ever arise in the first place.
I have dealt with Ken Wilber's reflections on evolution and entropy in several essays on Integral World. Briefly, Wilber has expressed doubts on several occasions about science's capability to explain the phenomena of biological complexity. Instead, he has suggested some cosmic Force (of Eros) is pushing life from its simple beginnings to the most complex biological phenomenon on earth: the human brain. Apparently, he sees no other way this could have happened.
I have argued that this anti-scientific stance disregards the advances made in the realm of the life sciences, and resonates with creationist sentiments about the limitations of science. As to entropy—a slightly more abstruse subject related to the origin of order in a world that seemingly is heading for heat death in a cold universe—he has opposes the notion expressed in the famous Second Law of Thermodynamics that disorder will increase (or alternatively order will decrease) by stressing that "the universe is winding up, not winding down". In a recent online communication he even ventured to say:
In A Theory of Everything (2000) he presents an argument for this sweeping statement based on "simple observation":
The Second Law of Thermodynamics tells us that in the real world, disorder always increases. Yet simple observation tells us that, in the real world, life creates order everywhere: the universe is winding up, not down. The revolutionary new understanding found in "chaos" and "complexity" theories maintains that the physical universe actually has an inherent tendency to create order... (A Theory of Everything, p. x)
Wilber hasn't engaged the areas of evolutionary theory or complexity science in much detail, except in his magnum opus Sex, Ecology, Spirituality (1995). In this volume (the first volume in a planned Kosmos-trilogy, which never saw the light of day but of which a "second volume" is in preparation) he pointed to chaos theory, complexity theory and non-equilibrium thermodynamics—usually summarized as the "new sciences of complexity"—for evidence for his belief that "something other than chance is pushing the universe" (Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, p. 26). He suggested that though part of the universe is "winding down", other parts, related to life and consciousness, might actually show an opposite trend of "winding up".
The new sciences dealing with these "self-winding" or "self-organizing" systems are known collectively as the sciences of complexity—including General Systems Theory (Bertalanffy, Weiss), cybernetics (Wiener), nonequilibrium thermodynamics (Prigogine), cellular automata theory (von Neumann), catastrophe theory (Thom), autopoietic system theory (Maturana and Varela), dynamic systems theory (Shawn, Abraham), and chaos theories, among others. (Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, p. 14)
In Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, which was his bid for academic acceptance, Wilber expresses as his opinion that some aspects of the physical realm ("subtler and originally hidden aspects of the material realm") do show signs of increasing complexity, so the split between the physiosphere and the biosphere could be healed. In some situations, systems—"far-from-equilibrium" can occasionally make a jump to a higher level of complexity:
The closing of the gap between the physiosphere and the biosphere came precisely in the rather recent discovery of those subtler and originally hidden aspects of the material realm that, under certain circumstances, propel themselves into states of higher order, higher complexity, and higher organization. In other words, under certain circumstances matter will "wind itself up" into states of higher order, as when the water running down a drain suddenly ceases to be chaotic and forms a perfect funnel or whirlpool. Whenever material processes become very chaotic and "far from equilibrium," they tend under their own power to escape chaos by transforming it into a higher and more structured order—commonly called "order out of chaos." (Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, p. 13-14)
But what is so special about being "out-of-equilibrium" that it generates transformations towards higher order and complexity? We will go into this further below. How can this paradox really be explained? For a paradox it is: in a universe that shows all signs of running down, some phenomena point in the opposite direction of winding up. Are there two forces in operation, for example Eros and Thanathos? And if so, which of the two will win out in the end? Or is this opposite tendency of increasing order perfectly explainable within a naturalistic framework? Do these complexity sciences really have an explanation for this "upward" trend towards complexity? In my opinion Wilber deeply feels they don't, because he postulates an "intra-natural" (as opposed to super-natural) force of Eros in nature—a notion none of the complexity theorists will subscribe to.
On a rare occasion when discussing the criticism he has received for this views on evolution, Wilber pointed out how he sees this "non-metaphysical", "intrinsic" drive towards self-organized complexity:
The universe is slightly tilted toward self-organizing processes, and these processes—as Prigogine was the first to elaborate—escape present-level turmoil by jumping to higher levels of self-organization, and I see that "pressure" as operating throughout the physiosphere, the biosphere, and the noosphere.…
The alternative [to neo-Darwinism] is to see some sort of Eros operating in the universe. It doesn't have to be a metaphysical force, just an intrinsic force of self-organization. As Jantsch put it, evolution is “self-transcendence through self-organization.” This is exactly the point Prigogine was making with dissipative structures, and exactly the point I am making when referring to wings or eyes: they are metaphors and examples for this extraordinary capacity of creative emergence that is intrinsic to the universe (exactly as Whitehead explained it). (www.kenwilber.com, Re: Some Criticisms of My Understanding of Evolution, December 04, 2007)
But loosely speaking of "just an intrinsic force of self-organization" does very little to explicate the processes involved. Wilber very easily switches from "some aspects of the physiosphere" showing signs of self-organization to "the universe is winding up"—a case of faulty generalization if you ask me. And don't let the phrase "It doesn't have to be a metaphysical force" mislead you. In recent communications Wilber unambiguously wrote:
One thing for sure about evolution is that, as the Intelligent Design folks have aptly pointed out, it cries out for a spiritual explanation. ("Towards a Fourth Turning of Buddhism", July 14th, 2014).
And around the same time he opined in a members-only audio on IntegralLife:
This seems to be the general overall thrust of evolution—and one of the things that is certain about it, is that it won't give up. It simply is there, with an extraordinary power, in the entire cosmos. If you want, the entire Spirit, an infinitely powerful Force, "Eros in action" is covering all of these areas. ("Taking Evolution into Account", www.integrallife.com, July 21st, 2014)
In my opinion Wilber has never fully fleshed out his ideas on entropy and evolution in a manner acceptable to scientific discourse; he has taken resort to poetic expressions such as "the Spirit of Evolution", "Eros in the Kosmos" and "a creative advance into novelty". Needless to say, with this quasi-spiritual attempt at explaining life's complexities he has forfeited any chance of achieving credibility in the field of science.
"Nature abhors a gradient"
Eric Schneider & Dorion Sagan Into the Cool: Energy Flow,
Thermodynamics and Life,
The Univ. of Chicago Press, 2005.
Researching this area of science in more detail I stumbled on a work of Dorion Sagan and Eric Schneider called Into the Cool (2005). Sagan is the son of the late evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis and the famous science communicator Carl Sagan. The authors explore the intricacies of thermodynamics, especially in areas that are "out-of-equilibrium": they call this discipline NET or Non-Equilibrium Thermodynamics. Living organisms are systems that feed on energy-gradients (i.e. ingest food, which has indirectly been created by solar energy) to sustain a situation of non-equilibrium. When deprived of this flow of energy, they quickly return to a state of equilibrium which spells death. Equilibrium is death, in terms of thermodynamics. Non-equilibrium makes life possible. Without gradients to be reduced nothing of interest could or would ever arise in the first place, they argue convincingly.
What makes this approach interesting is that it looks to be more relevant for biological complexity than the usually rather abstract complexity sciences, which have a mathematical basis. It is not so much "order" they are after, but "organization", the hallmark of biological complexity. Other than complexity scientists such as Kauffman (whom Wilber sometimes presents as an ally) they argue that energy flows or gradients are paramount in creating the conditions for complex life. Not only does life thrive because of a constant flow of energy, they maintain, it arose in the first place to "reduce" or minimize the differences set up in gradients. "Nature abhors a gradient" is their maxim. So far from life going against the Second Law of Thermodynamics, it fully works in accordance with that Law. Thus, the paradox is solved in which complexity seems to increase when all of Nature tries to undo it in a state of sterile equilibrium. It turns out that a local increase in complexity is very well possible within a global trend towards entropy (or increasing disorder).
This approach strikes me as more intelligent, more informed and more rewarding compared to Wilber's quasi-spiritual one. It is fully naturalistic, and doesn't need any hints of special forces or innate tendencies that make complexity possible. I have always wondered why, if a Kosmic Eros was so important, it did not seem to have worked on other planets within our own Solar System, or even our own Moon. Were conditions on those planets too unfavorable for life? But if conditions are so all-important (remember Wilbers vague references to "certain circumstances"), why not focus on these conditions instead of introducing extra-natural influences that can never be specified in any believable way? The fact that life arose (only, as far as we can tell) on Earth has everything to do with Earth's proximity to the Sun: not too distant to be a freezing hell and not too close to be an equally burning hell. We actually live in Paradise, as far as life is concerned: temperatures are "just right" to make water soluble and allow life to benefit from the constant flow of solar energy. If anything drives evolution, it is not Eros but Sol!
A focus on gradients is especially fruitful because they can be seen in so many different contexts:
This idea that nature abhors a gradient, one of the key ideas of this book, is very simple. A gradient is simply a difference (for example, in temperature, pressure, or chemical concentration) across a distance. Nature's abhorrence of gradients means that they will tend spontaneously to be eliminated—most spectacularly by complex, growing systems. The simple concept of collapsing gradients encapsulates the difficult science of thermodynamics, demystifies entropy (as important to the universe as gravity) and illuminates how all complex structures and processes, including those of life, come naturally into being. (p. 6)
The wind blows, by definition, because there's a gradient between a high pressure area and a low pressure area. One could say that Nature "tries" to reduce the difference between these two areas to zero, resulting in a wind still moment, but Nature isn't trying anything—this is just how things work. Why don't all winds die down? Because the Sun continuously keeps pouring energy into the Earth's atmosphere, even on clouded days. This constant influx of energy, over a gradient going from hot to cold, is what makes the difference. The heat of the Sun makes the air expand and rise, in the process of which it cools and expels moist. The turning of the Earth and other intricate conditions create the well known weather patters on the Earth's surface. With a steady wind, sailing ships can transport their cargo—"do work"—whereas without it they would be useless. Life, for some reason, has found ways of reducing the (mostly chemical) gradients it finds on Earth. By eating, we "degrade" high level energy found in food to low level energy in the form of heat. By thus creating order (and organization) we also create a lot of disorder (heat) around us—not to mention our burning of fossil fuel to sustain our industrialized civilization, while causing global warming in the process.
Seeing life as a controlled burning process, a pattern of energy flow, is illuminating. Instead of burning ourselves up due to the high levels of Oxygen in the atmosphere, we take in minimal portions of Oxygen by breathing, and allowing these molecules to reach the food molecules in our blood and intestines, so they can be used. This is instructive, for too much Oxygen or too little wouldn't work, we would surely die. Biological processes work in a "near-equilibrium" zone, not the more spectacular "far-from-equilibrium" zone studied by physics.
The Thermodynamics of Life
At the end of the day, there is no distinction between simplistic or sophisticated misreadings of science.
Non-Equilibrium Thermodynamics works at the interface of physics and biology (precisely the areas briefly dealt with by Wilber in his Sex, Ecology, Spirituality treatise). It was discovered and expanded in the context of steam engines. The Second Law of Thermodynamics is relevant in so-called closed systems. When a closed container contains both hot and cool air, and is left to its own, the heat will spread towards the colder areas until perfect equilibrium is reached. Living organisms, however, are not closed systems, they continuously need energy inputs from their surroundings. Nor is the Earth as such a closed system, for it is continuously impacted by energy from the Sun (and by thermal energy from its own interior core).
Sagan and Schneider explain their interest in "open systems thermodynamics" or "non-equilibrium thermodynamics" (NET):
Historically NET appeared after traditional thermodynamics, which dealt with relatively simple systems. But because the systems NET deals with are open to energy flow, NET is in fact the broader, more basic science. If deals after all with systems that are the norm in the universe, not the exception. The universe is a complex place, and its most common and its most interesting systems, including those of life, are open systems. Seal them up, imprison them, and they collapse. We are a particular material pattern of energy flow with a long history and a natural function. Our essential nature has more to do with the cosmos and its laws than with Rome (or any other human society) and its rules. (Into the Cool, p. xiii)
The irony or the paradox, whichever you want to call it, is that complex organisms which seem to go against the universal tendency to produce entropy, are in fact more efficient in creating entropy than simpler systems. In terms of energy-use, per time and mass unit, we produce and use more energy than simple organisms. This fact should tell us something about why these complex systems have originated in the first place. As the authors conclude: "The second law thus helps us understand who, what and why we are." (p. xv) These claims are substantial, and it all depends on how the details are fleshed out. Unfortunately, integral students, most of them coming from the humanities or the field of human transformation, just lack the expertise or the inclination to understand these fields of science. Wilber, being a biochemist by training, supposedly has understood these areas of science well enough to complete his Theory of Everything—but I have my doubts here.
It is not only physical and biochemical processes that are thus clarified, the authors also apply these insights to the fields of ecology, economics, trends in evolution and the cooling effect of trees. They conclude with a useful discussion of "purpose in life". In their final chapter they provide a brief history of this concept in both science and religion. I have often argued that Wilber's insistence of an extra-natural force in evolution puts him in the camp of the creationists, though he would argue that his views are more sophisticated. At the end of the day, there is no distinction between simplistic or sophisticated misreadings of science. It is a shame that Wilber has never fully explicated his stance regarding both neo-darwinism and creationism, other than in brief footnotes or blog postings.
Sagan and Schneider conclude their reflections on the nature of life:
Our view is that life is a curiously persistent means of gradient reduction, one whose differences should not overly distract us from its revealing similarity to other natural cyclical processes that tend to reduce gradients. Despite its peculiar history and longevity, which includes us, life is a thermodynamic system that arose naturally to reduce a gradient. People and life can be seen as extensions of directed behaviors in inanimate systems seeking ways—increasingly efficient and elaborate ways—to reach equilibrium. (p. 305-306)
And regarding creationists' (and Wilbers) attempts to discredit science by arguing that life cannot have been originated by chance alone, they correctly point out that
[C]reationist arguments calculate the immensity of odds for nonequilibrium structures and then quickly wheel in divinity [or Eros] to explain the production of what they believe must require a nonscientific, or at best, metascientific explanation. As we have seen, however, NET is in the business of producing complex structures from surrounding gradients. If the gradients are not taken into account, then the structures do indeed seem impossible to the point of miracle or near miracle. NET explains such otherwise improbably structures: they are natural processes that either have come together spontaneously in areas of energy flow, or have been produced (as we see in life) by ancestral gradient-reducing forms. (p. 315)
If Wilber had his "Twenty Tenets" on evolution (Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, p. 35-78), Sagan and Schneider offer their own eleven "Principles of Open Thermodynamic Systems" (Appendix, p. 327-330). Of these, the eleventh and final one is:
Life and other complex systems not only do not contradict the second law but exist because of it. Moreover, life and other complex systems reduce preexisting gradients more effectively than would be the case without them.