Heat was a profound puzzle in the early 19th century. Everyone
intuitively knew that a hot object cooled to its surroundings and a cool
object likewise warmed up. But a comprehensive theory of how heat really
worked eluded scientists.
A real theory of heat had to explain some weird happenings. Yes, a very
hot object and a very cold object in a room would converge to the same
warmth over time. But some objects, like a basin of ice and water
mixture, would not warm up equally fast as the same basin of all ice or
all water. Hot things expanded; cold things contracted. Motion could
disappear into heat. Heat could spark motion. And when certain metals
were heated, they gained weight, so therefore, heat had weight.
The early explorers into heat had no idea that they were investigating
temperature, calories, friction, work, efficiency, energy and
entropy -- all terms they were to invent later. For many decades no one was
sure what it was they were actually studying. The most accepted theory
among them was that heat was an all-pervading elastic fluid -- a material
In 1824, the French military engineer Carnot (rhymes with Godot, the
tardy lead in Samuel Beckett's play) derived a principle that later
became known as the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Roughly paraphrased it
goes thus: all systems everywhere run down over time. Together with the
First Law (that energy is conserved overall), Carnot's Second Law was
the key framework in the following century for understanding not only
heat but most of physics, chemistry, and quantum mechanics. In short,
the theory of heat undergirds all of modern physical science.
Biology, however, has no grand theory. The joke currently making the
rounds of complexity researchers is that biological science today is
"Waiting for Carnot." Theoretical biologists feel equivalent to the
19th-century thermalists just before the advent of thermal dynamics.
Biologists talk about complexity without having a measure for
complexity; they hypothesize about evolution without having a second
instance of it. That reminds them of discussing heat without having the
concepts of calories, friction, work, or even energy. Just as Carnot
framed physics by his overarching law of heat death and plunge to
disorder, some theoretical biologists hope for a Second Law of Biology,
which would frame the overarching tendency of life to find order amid
disorder. There is a touch of satire within the joke, because in
Beckett's notorious play, Godot is a mysterious figure who never shows
The search for a Second Law of Biology, a law of rising order, is
unconsciously behind much of the search for deeper evolutions and the
quest for hyperlife. Many postdarwinians doubt that natural selection
alone is powerful enough to offset Carnot's Second Law of
Thermodynamics. Yet, we are here, so something has. They are not sure
what they are looking for, but they intuitively feel that it can be
stated as a complementary force to entropy. Some call it anti-entropy,
some call it negentropy, and a few call it extropy. Gregory Bateson once
asked: "Is there a biological species of entropy?"
This quest for the secret of life is not usually made explicit in
scientists' formal papers. Yet in conversations with them late at night,
this is what many of them feel. They allude to a vision only
half-glimpsed. Each sees a different part, like the blind men patting an
elephant. They hunt for cautious scientific words to cover their beliefs
and hunches. The vision they hint at, I synthesize thus:
From the crack of the big bang a hot universe runs down for ten billion
years or so. About two-thirds along into its history something clicks,
and an insatiable force begins hijacking the slipping heat and order
into local areas of higher order. The remarkable thing about this
hijacker is that (a) it is self-sustaining, and (b) it is
self-reinforcing: the more of it around, the more it makes of itself.
Two currents were thus born out of the white flash. One current runs
downhill all the way. This force begins as a wild hot party and fizzes
out into silent coldness. This dive is Carnot's depressing Second Law, a
ghoulish rule if there ever was one: all order will eventually succumb
to chaos, all fire will die, all variety goes bland, all structure will
eventually extinguish itself.
The second current runs in parallel, but with opposite effect. It
diverts the heat before the heat disperses (since disperse it must) and
extracts order out of disorder. It borrows the failing energy and raises
the ante into a rising flow.
The rising flow uses its short moment of order to snatch whatever
dissipating power it can to build a platform upon which to extract the
next round of order. It saves nothing and spends all. It invests all the
order it has to amplify the next round of complexity, growth, and order.
In this way it taps chaos to breed antichaos. We call it life.
The rising flow is a wave: a slight rise amid a degrading sea of
entropy; a sustainable crest always falling upon itself, forever in the
state of almost-toppled.
The wave is a moving edge throughout the universe, a thin line between
the plunging sides of chaos. One side slopes away to frozen gray
solidness, the other slips into overexcited black gaseousness. The wave
is the eternally moving moment between the two -- the eternal liquid. The
gravity of entropy cannot be defied; but as the crest forever falls,
biological order rides it down like a surfer.
The order accumulated by the rising wave serves as a plank to extend
itself, using energy from outside, into the next realm of further order.
As long as Carnot's force flows downhill and cools the universe, the
rising flow can steal heat to flow uphill in places, building itself
high by pulling on its bootstraps.
Like a pyramid scheme, or building a castle in the air, the game of
leveraging order as a means to buy more order is a game that's got to
keep expanding or collapse. Our collective history as living beings is
the story of a trickster who has found a foolproof gimmick and is
pulling a fast one -- and getting away with it so far. "Life might be
defined as the art of getting away with it," said the theoretical
biologist C. H. Waddington.
Perhaps this rather broadly poetic vision is mine alone, a vision which
I have mistakenly read into the comments of others. But I don't think
so. I have heard strands of it from too many scientists. Nor do I think
it is pure mysticism any more than one would call Carnot's Law
mysticism. Sure, the story is couched in human hope, but the hope I
share is to find a falsifiable scientific law. Although there have been
theories akin to the rising flow that were outright vehicles for
vitalism, a second force doesn't have to be any less scientific than the
laws of probability or Darwin's force of natural selection.
Still, an air of hesitancy blocks the vision of the rising flow. It
stirs up larger concerns, chiefly that a Rising Flow implies a
directional charge within the universe. While the rest of the universe
runs down, hyperlife steadily proceeds in the contrary direction up the
universe. Life progresses toward more life, more kinds of life, more
complexity of life, more something. At this point skepticism sets in. A
modern intellectual detects the scent of progress.
Progress smells of human-centeredness. To some it stinks of religiosity.
Among the earliest and most fervent supporters of Darwin's scandalous
theories were Protestant theologians and seminarians. Here was
scientific proof of the dominant status of mankind. Darwinism offered a
beautiful model for the orderly march of insentient life toward the peak
of known perfection: the human male.
The continuing abuse of Darwin's theories to bolster racism didn't help
the notion of evolutionary "progress" either. More important in the
story of progress's demise has been the wholesale downshift of human
position from the center of the cosmos to an insignificant wisp on the
edge of an insignificant spiral in a dusty corner of the universe. If we
are marginal, then what progress can evolution have?
Progress is dead, and there is nothing to replace it. The death of
progress is nearly official in the study of evolution, as well in
postmodern history, economics, and sociology. Change without progress is
how we moderns see our destiny.
A theory of a second force rekindles the possibility of progress and
raises troublesome questions: If there is a second law of life -- a rising
flow -- what is it flowing toward? What direction could evolution have if
indeed it has a direction? Does life progress, or just wander? Perhaps
evolution has a mere slope, which shapes its possibilities and makes it
partially predictable? Does the evolution of life (both organic and
artificial) follow even small trends? Do human culture and other
vivisystems mirror organic life, or can one variety progress without the
others? Would an artificial evolution have its own agenda and goals
completely outside the desires of its creators?
Our first answer would have to be that all progress seen in life and
society is a human-induced illusion. The prevalent notion of a "ladder
of progress" or a "great chain of being" in biology doesn't hold up
under the facts of geological history.
Start with the first instance of life as the initial point. In a visual
metaphor, imagine all descendants of that first life forming a slowly
inflating sphere. The radius is time. Each creature alive at a given
time becomes a spot on the surface of the sphere at that time.
At the 4-billion-year mark (today's date), the globe of life on Earth
shows some 30 million species cramming its circumference. One dot, for
example, represents humans; another dot on far side of the sphere, the
bacterium E. coli. All points on the sphere are equidistant from the
first life; therefore none is superior to the other. All creatures on
the globe at any one time are equally evolved, having engaged in
evolution for an equal amount of time. To put it bluntly, humans are no
more evolved than most bacteria.
Gazing at this spherical graph, it is hard to imagine how one spot, the
humans, could somehow be the apex of the entire globe. Perhaps any of
the other 30 million coevolved spots -- say, the flamingo, or poison
oak -- are the whole point of evolution. As life explores new niches, the
whole globe expands, increasing the number of coevolved positions.
The globe graph of life quietly undermines the recurring image of
progressive evolution: that of life beginning as a blob and climbing the
ladder of success to the pinnacle of humanness. That image leaves out a
billion other ladders that should be in the picture, including the
all-too-common story of life as a blob climbing a ladder-going-nowhere
to the pinnacle of a slightly different blob. In nature, there is no
pinnacle, just a billion-spotted sphere. It doesn't matter what you do
as long as you make it.
Hanging out and staying the same works too. There are many more cases of
species who spent their evolutionary time treading water than who spent
it transforming radically. The rewards are identical, however. Both Homo
sapiens and E. coli are elite cosurvivors. And neither particularly has
an advantage over the other in surviving the next million years.
(Actually, some pessimists give E. coli 100-to-1 odds on outliving
humans, even though E. coli can currently live only in our guts.)