Negentropic Agents and the Increase of Entropy
By: Dr. Sam Vaknin
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The Second Law of Thermodynamics predicts the gradual energetic decay of physical closed systems ("entropy"). Arguably, the Universe as a whole is precisely such a system.
Locally, though, order is often fighting disorder for dominance. In other words, in localized, open systems, order sometimes tends to increase and, by definition, statistical entropy tends to decrease. This is the orthodoxy. Personally, I believe otherwise.
Some physical systems increase disorder, either by decaying or by actively spreading disorder onto other systems. Such vectors we call "Entropic Agents".
Conversely, some physical systems increase order or decrease disorder either in themselves or in their environment. We call these vectors "Negentropic Agents".
Human Beings are Negentropic Agents gone awry. Now, through its excesses, Mankind is slowly being transformed into an Entropic Agent: antibiotics, herbicides, insecticides, pollution, deforestation, global warming, etc. are all detrimental to the environment and reduce the amount of order in the open system that is Earth.
Nature must balance this shift of allegiance, this deviation from equilibrium, by constraining the number of other Entropic Agents on Earth – or by reducing the numbers of humans.
To achieve the latter (which is the path of least resistance and a typical self-regulatory mechanism), Nature causes humans to begin to internalize and assimilate the Entropy that they themselves generate. This is done through a series of intricate and intertwined mechanisms:
The Malthusian Mechanism – Limited resources lead to wars, famine, diseases and to a decrease in the populace (and, thus, in the number of human Entropic Agents).
The Assimilative Mechanism – Diseases, old and new, and other phenomena yield negative demographic effects directly related to the entropic actions of humans.
Examples: excessive use of antibiotics leads to drug-resistant strains of pathogens; cancer and deteriorating sperm counts are caused by pollution; heart ailments are related to the modern Western diet; AIDS, avian flu, SARS, swine flu, and other diseases are a result of hitherto unknown or mutated strains of viruses; latter-day technologies (telecommunication, transportation, social networking, the Internet) cause massive dislocations and anomies which lead to precipitous declines in the number of children, sexless marriages, the atomization of societies, alienation, and malignant individualism (narcissism). Indeed, technology has displaced warfare and famines as the main engine of decline and decadence of civilizations.
The Cognitive Mechanism – Humans limit their own propagation, using "rational", cognitive arguments, devices, and procedures: abortion, birth control (the pill), getting married and procreating later, or family planning.
Thus, combining these three mechanisms, nature controls the damage and disorder that Mankind spreads and restores equilibrium to the terrestrial ecosystem.
The role of chance in evolution has long been recognized and increasing structural and functional adaptability has been attributed to random-stochastic processes (such as environmentally-induced genetic mutations). This view, of course, evades the far more important question of why do organisms and species react the way they do to changes in their surroundings?
Earth is a complex, orderly, and open system. If it were an intelligent being, we would have been compelled to say that it had "chosen" to preserve and locally increase form (structure), order and complexity. This would explain why evolution did not stop at the protozoa level. After all, these mono-cellular organisms were (and still are, hundreds of millions of years later) superbly adapted to their environment. It was Bergson who posed the question: why did nature prefer the risk of unstable complexity over predictable and reliable and durable simplicity?
The answer seems to be that Nature has a predilection (not confined to the biological realm) to increase complexity and order and that this principle takes precedence over "utilitarian" calculations of stability. The battle between the entropic arrow and the negentropic one is more important than any other (in-built) "consideration". Time and the Third Law of Thermodynamics are pitted against Life (as an integral and ubiquitous part of the Universe) and Order (a systemic, extensive parameter) against Disorder.
In this context, natural selection is no more "blind" or "random" than its subjects. It is discriminating, encourages structure, complexity and order and rewards cooperation. The contrast that Bergson stipulated between Natural Selection and Élan Vitale is misplaced: Natural Selection IS the vital power itself.
Modern Physics is converging with Philosophy (possibly with the philosophical side of Religion as well) and the convergence is precisely where concepts of order and disorder emerge. String theories, for instance, come in numerous versions which describe many possible different worlds (though, admittedly, they may all be facets of the same Being - distant echoes of the new versions of the Many Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics).
Still, why do we, intelligent conscious observers, see (why are we exposed to) only one kind of world? How is our world as we know it "selected"? The Universe is constrained in this "selection process" by its own history, but its history is not synonymous with the Laws of Nature. We know that the latter determine the former - but did the former also determine the latter? In other words: were the Laws of Nature "selected" as well and, if so, how?
The answer seems self evident: the Universe "selected" both the Natural Laws and, as a result, its own history, in a process akin to Natural Selection. Whatever increased order, complexity, and structure - survived. Our Universe - having itself survived - must be have been naturally selected.
We can assume that only order-increasing Universes do not succumb to entropy and death (the weak hypothesis). It could even be argued (as we do here) that our Universe is the only possible kind of Universe (the semi-strong hypothesis) or even the only Universe (the strong hypothesis). This is the essence of the Anthropic Principle.
By definition, universal rules pervade all the realms of existence. Biological systems obey the same order-increasing (natural) laws as do physical and social ones. We are part of the Universe in the sense that we are subject to the same discipline and adhere to the same "religion". We are an inevitable result - not a chance happening.
We are the culmination of orderly processes - not the outcome of random events. The Universe enables us and our world because - and only for as long as - we increase order. That is not to imply that there is an "intention" involved on the part of the Universe (or the existence of a "higher being" or a "higher power"). There is no conscious or God-like spirit. All I am saying is that a system founded on order as a fundamental principle will tend to favor order and opt for it, to proactively select its proponents and deselect its opponents, and to give birth to increasingly more sophisticated weapons in the pro-order arsenal. We, humans, were such an order-increasing weapon until recently.
These intuitive assertions can be easily converted into a formalism. In Quantum Mechanics, the State Vector can be constrained to collapse to the most order-enhancing event. If we had a computer the size of the Universe that could infallibly model it, we would have been able to predict which events will increase order in the Universe overall. These, then, would be the likeliest events.
It is easy to prove that events follow a path of maximum order, simply because the world is orderly and getting ever more so. Had this not been the case, statistically evenly-scattered events would have led to an increase in entropy (thermodynamic laws are the offspring of statistical mechanics). But this simply does not happen.
It is increasing everywhere, all the time, on all scales of measurement. Therefore, we are forced to conclude that quantum events are guided by some non-random principle (such as the increase in order). This, exactly, is the case in biology. There is no reason in principle why not to construct a life wavefunction which will always collapse to the most order increasing event. If we were to construct and apply this wave function to our world we, humans, would probably have found ourselves as one of the events selected by its collapse.
More traditionally, though, the recent “discovery” (rather, postulation) of dark energy seems to restore entropy on the scale of the entire Universe. Actually, the traits of dark energy (homogeneity, isotropy, lack of interaction with other forms of energy and matter, infinitesimal density, negative pressure) suggest that dark energy, the Cosmological Constant (Lambda) and quintessence fields are merely other names for entropy and are not related to vacuum energy.
Thus, a Big Rip as the outcome of cosmic acceleration would merely be the culmination of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. This is definitely true for our local supercluster. Dark energy also compensates for the entropy gap (between actual cosmic entropy and maximum potential cosmic entropy which grows as the Universe expands): it transforms the whole Universe into a single black hole with an infinite cosmic event horizon.
Epigenetics aside, both the now-discarded strong form of Lamarckism (the inheritance of all acquired characteristics as the sole vehicle of evolution) and Evolution Theory postulate that function determines form. Natural selection rewards those forms best suited to carry out the function of survival ("survival of the fittest") in each and every habitat (through the mechanism of adaptive radiation).
But whose survival is natural selection concerned with? Is it the survival of the individual? Of the species? Of the habitat or ecosystem? These three - individual, species, habitat - are not necessarily compatible or mutually reinforcing in their goals and actions.
If we set aside the dewy-eyed arguments of altruism, we are compelled to accept that individual survival sometimes threatens and endangers the survival of the species (for instance, if the individual is sick, weak, or evil). As every environmental scientist can attest, the thriving of some species puts at risk the existence of whole habitats and ecological niches and leads other species to extinction.
To prevent the potential excesses of egotistic self-propagation, survival is self-limiting and self-regulating. Consider epidemics: rather than go on forever, they abate after a certain number of hosts have been infected. It is a kind of Nash equilibrium. Macroevolution (the coordinated emergence of entire groups of organisms) trumps microevolution (the selective dynamics of species, races, and subspecies) every time.
This delicate and self-correcting balance between the needs and pressures of competing populations is manifest even in the single organism or species. Different parts of the phenotype invariably develop at different rates, thus preventing an all-out scramble for resources and maladaptive changes.
This is known as "mosaic evolution". It is reminiscent of the "invisible hand of the market" that allegedly allocates resources optimally among various players and agents. Martin Nowak, a Harvard professor, argues that emergent cooperation is a fundamental principle of evolution, as basic as natural selection and mutation.
Moreover, evolution favors organisms whose rate of reproduction is such that their populations expand to no more than the number of individuals that the habitat can support (the habitat's carrying capacity). These are called K-selection species, or K-strategists and are considered the poster children of adaptation.
Live and let live is what evolution is all about - not the law of the jungle. The survival of all the species that are fit to survive is preferred to the hegemony of a few rapacious, highly-adapted, belligerent predators. Nature is about compromise, not about conquest.
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