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The Thermodynamics Of An Intelligent Living Universe

By Robert Riversong

22 May, 2011
Transition Vermont

We cannot know, and therefore will likely never know, why the Universe came into existence, whether it has a purpose, and what, if any "thing" preceded it – whether there is a Divine Will or a Cosmic Intelligence "outside" of physical space. But there are some things we now do know.

We know that the universal "big bang" occurred 13.7 billion years ago (though it could have been a "big bounce" following the contraction of another universe). And we know that life as we know it has existed, at least locally, in this universe for roughly a third of that time. Ponder that for a moment. We (the royal "we" as life incarnate) are a third as old as the entire physical universe. You might think we would have matured by now!

Of all the "laws" of nature we've uncovered (or invented), the one that seems most universal is the Second Law of Thermodynamics: that all energetic systems move irreversibly and inexorably toward maximum entropy (molecular chaos) – that the universe winds down. In fact, it is this directional flow of things from order to disorder that gives us the notion of an arrow of time. While this may appear to be a simplification of the infinite complexity of the universe, it is the nature of the scientific endeavor to find simple laws governing complex processes.

The artist and inventor Leonardo da Vinci, who created some of the world's greatest marvels, believed that "Simplicity is the ultimate in sophistication." And the deep thinker Albert Einstein, who contemplated astoundingly complicated theories, told us to "Make things as simple as possible but no simpler."

Thermodynamics, the science of heat, energy, motion and power, was ostensibly begun in a simple way when Otto von Guericke, in 1650, built and designed the world's first vacuum pump in order to disprove Aristotle's long-held supposition that 'nature abhors a vacuum'.

In truth, they were both right. Yes, we have the cleverness and thermodynamic capability to locally and temporarily reverse the flow toward entropy – to create and sustain order – but in the broader scheme of things nature abhors a vacuum. Just ask Alice.

Current cosmology (ignoring such esoteric constructs as string theory or loop quantum gravity) asserts that our universe (perhaps THE universe) began from nothing and expanded into space and time, condensing along the way all the "stuff" that comprises our material realm.

This, as you might imagine, was a highly energetic process. At approximately 1 millionth of a second after the initiating event, the temperature of the universe was about 100 trillion degrees Fahrenheit. At 300,000 years of age, our universe had cooled to a tepid 18,000°F (our sun is just under 10,000°F), and after its first billion years it was dispersed enough to measure 328°F below zero. This morning, the universe measured about -455°F, or about 5 degrees above absolute zero. That's downright chilly.

But we know from the First Law of thermodynamics that energy cannot be either created or destroyed (at least within our universe), so all that big banging heat is still out there, albeit a lot more dispersed. From the moment of inception, the universe set the pattern of dispersing or dissipating concentrated energy into less concentrated forms. This is the process we call entropy, and entropy is also a measurement of the amount of chaos or dissipation at any given moment or created by any given thermodynamic system.

What seems self-evident, both to Heraclitus (who 500 years BCE said "You can never step twice into the same stream.") and to most of us, is that everything flows – the universe is in dynamic motion and nothing stays the same. This is also the normal subjective experience of us intelligent (so they say) primates. To put this simply, that creative genius Buckminster Fuller (inventor of the geodesic dome among many other things) famously said "I am a verb."

In fact, it would be accurate to say that life is a controlled burning, a pattern of energy flow, an open thermodynamic system. OK, let's define some terms. In thermodynamic theory, there are three types of energy-flow systems: isolated (theoretical) systems in which nothing enters or leaves; closed systems which are open to outside energy; and open systems which use both outside matter and outside energy to feed their engines.

As living organisms, we (and all our plant and animal cousins) are throughput systems which utilize external food and fuel – matter and energy – to maintain ourselves, to grow, to reproduce and to provide extra energy for such "frivolous" things as art, song, dance and leisure activities.

If the nature of the universe is to create paths for energy to flow from highly organized or concentrated forms to disorganized or chaotic forms, then why (you might ask) are we (and other living things) both highly organized (complex) and persistent over millennia of time? It has been suggested that life is the only anti-entropic tendency in the universe – that somehow we violate the Second Law (that most universal of all scientific principles) with impunity. Ain't so.

Life is a verb. Life is the most effective process toward restoring equilibrium. We go with the flow, but in a very creative way. If the Second Law – the necessary devolution of energy into entropy – is mandatory, and if that law requires a constant movement toward the degrading of energy differentials (or gradients) to the lowest common denominator (or equilibrium), then wouldn't it make sense for the universe to employ clever methods for accelerating the generation of chaos? You betcha! And you're IT.

As something of an aside, the first great American populizer of esoteric Eastern thought, Alan Watts, suggested in his 1966 book, The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, that the whole universe consists of a Cosmic Self playing hide-and-seek, hiding from ITSelf by becoming all the living and non-living things in the universe, forgetting what IT really is; the upshot being that we are all IT in disguise and that our conception of ourselves as an "ego in a bag of skin" is a myth; the entities we consider separate "things" are merely processes of the whole. Interestingly, this exotic philosophical perspective is now the core of Gaia theory, which has become broadly accepted in the biophysical sciences, the basis of epigenetics which postulates that DNA expression is controlled from outside our "bag of skin" by environmental factors, and central to evolutionary biology which notes that the mitochondria in our cells that produce chemical energy were (are?) non-human bacteria. We are as much our environment as our in-vironment.

From the early days of terrestrial existence, once the earth covered itself with oceans and wrapped itself in an atmosphere, there have been a nearly infinite variety of instances of local organization which had the ironic effect of accelerating disorganization around themselves. Such "autocatalytic" (or self-generating and self-perpetuating) processes include whirlpools, cyclones and both atmospheric and oceanic currents, such as the jet stream and the north Atlantic gulfstream. They seem to arise almost magically from nothing and stay "alive" for seconds to eons. It can be said that these were the first forms of "life", except they had not yet learned how to reproduce, which made them vulnerable to "death" when environmental conditions changed. A weather pattern called a cyclone happens when moisture-born energy creates convection currents twisted by the Coriolis effect of a spinning planet into a relatively long-lived and mobile cycling form of highly organized and powerful energy capable of performing intense work, which might appear as the work of destruction to those in its path but is merely the universal work of reducing energy gradients.

The ability for energy to perform work is what is known among engineers as exergy, or highly organized concentrated energy. Exergy is the opposite of entropy, which is disorganized energy incapable of useful work. Exergy can be measured as the intensity of gradients or differentials, whether barometric pressure as in a cyclone, or gravity as in water flowing across a waterwheel, or momentum as in wind turning a turbine, or temperature as in electrical power generators and combustion engines, or isotropic (all-directional) pressure such as in a steam engine, or electrical voltage as in the current that spins a motor. Exergy can also be exhibited in the osmotic pressure that moves nutrients and wastes across our cell membranes, and the capillary pressure which moves ground water as much as 450' up to the leaves of a redwood tree to impel transpiration. Such transpiration fills the sky with moisture which, by surface tension and gravity gradients, forms droplets that fall to earth and which, by chemical diffusion gradients and electro-chemical ion charge gradients, dissolves rock into constituent minerals which forms soil which nurtures the seeds which become giant redwoods which start the cycle all over again.

Gradually and eventually, the imperative of energy and matter (one and the same, according to Einstein) to dissipate into chaos created the driving force for such energetic structures or processes to complexify into more long-lived and efficient gradient-reducing creatures, such as redwood trees. In fact trees, and the forests of which they're resident members, are the most efficient gradient reducing entities on earth. Equatorial rain forests are very cool places.

From a thermodynamic perspective, the purpose of life on earth is to reduce the greatest energy gradient in our solar system: the nearly 10,000°F temperature of the sun and the nearly absolute zero temperature of space. Without life, and the atmosphere which oxygen-generating bacteria, algae and plants have created, the little planet we call Earth would be a scaldingly hot piece of rock and would not be doing its entropy-producing job of dissipating solar energy into outer space. But, fortunately for us, the earth was clever enough to collect ice from asteroids, allow the chemical conditions necessary for simple protocellular and then cellular life to generate, fill out an oxygen-rich atmosphere with clouds and ozone to block some of the intensity of the sun, and ever-so-slowly consolidate living systems into multi-cellular communities which became creatures in their own right, and then complexify and diversify such community entities into phototropic plants which can connect soil to air and ground water to weather, and into critters which can ingest plants and their fruits to scatter seeds across the fertile lands while leaving manure behind them, and into the myriad decomposers and recycler organisms that keep the material flows moving in endless cycles of life and death – all the while coming up with tricky things like sex to encourage reproduction and generational longevity. That's one smart Gaia!

When we look back into evolutionary time, what we discover is a continuous, albeit periodically interrupted, process of increasing organization, increasing complexity, increasing diversity, increasing individuation coupled with increasing networking and interdependency, increasingly intelligent self-reinforcing, self-replicating, persistent, energy and material cycling, chaos producing, thermodynamic entities or processes that look like whirlpools, slime molds, bacteria, algae, plants, animals, homonids, societies, economies, ecologies, and a world-wide-web of information exchange. And the function of each and all of these is to more efficiently degrade exergy into entropy by the paradoxical creation of localized, boundaried low-entropy events that have names like Joe and Jane and Fido.

Not only do we "seem to be a verb", but more precisely we are transitive verbs whose job it is to maintain bounded order in order to export chaos into the environment by the alchemical transmutation of energy "gold" into the "dross" of dissipated heat.

This may seem to be an inadequate job description for such "highly evolved" creatures as Homo Sapiens Sapiens, one step below the angels (our hubris has always tripped us up). But there is a bit more to the job description than that. Unfortunately, we seem to have misread it.

If we study the process of embryological development and the growth of an infant into a child and an adult, or we investigate the ontology of an ecosystem from pioneer species to climax forest, or consider the evolution of newly-selected adaptations into stable long-lived species – what we discover are thermodynamic systems which shift from rapidly-growing, quickly-expanding, energy-gobbling entities into more energy-efficient and stable structures that have achieved an optimum balance between low energy and material consumption and the production of maximum external gradient reduction. We call such species or ecosystems "mature". Tropical rain forests are a prime example. And we should call such people and societies and economies "mature" as well. Indigenous hunter-gatherer cultures were prime examples, though there are no such examples in the modern human world.

Another thing we notice about mature and stable ecological systems, whether they be individual organisms or forest ecologies, is that under environmental stress they will devolve to a more primitive form of organization which may be more hierarchical but less efficient with lower levels of diversity and equity and more "leakage" of resources and energy. The same is true of the organisms we call humans and of human society, though within the human culture the stresses can be psychological as well as physical or biological.

When we're taught history in school, the timeline begins with the first civilizations, well into the agricultural "revolution" which changed the face of the earth and humanity's relationship to it. For reasons all too understandable (since our culture believes that the way we live now is the way we were intended to live), we ignore the fact that for 99% of our life as a genus since Homo Habilis walked the earth we lived as a mature thermodynamic process that participated in the broader dissipative structure of the forest ecosystem. Once we began producing "profit" (more food wealth than we could consume), we expanded like a pioneer species within our ecological niches and then like an invasive species across the globe, altering the environment sometimes permanently through deforestation and desertification and the annihilation of local species.

When we then learned quite recently how to exploit the fossil fuels that Gaia had carefully buried as a means of maintaining the carbon balance and global temperature homeostasis of earth, our ostensibly intelligent species not only exported entropic waste (pollution) at a far greater rate than the rest of the planet's thermodynamic systems were able to absorb and recycle (and tons of petro-chemical wastes that could not be biologically recycled), but we altered the planet on a global scale. By turning natural resources into "commodities" for exploitation and for the satisfaction of artificial wants rather than organic needs, we sufficiently undermined long-stable ecosystems to the point where they could no longer maintain their essential biodiversity and, in so doing, initiated the sixth great extinction of species and the first one in earth's history to be caused by a single (and allegedly intelligent) species. And by returning Gaia's carefully buried carbon to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, we have altered the planet's climate to the point that it will take perhaps a million years to self-correct to an almost certainly higher-temperature homeostasis. Judging by past such extinction "perturbations", it will likely take Gaia 20 to 50 million years to completely recover from our accelerated entropy production, widely dispersed pollution and unprecedented decimation of biodiversity.

This is not the work of an intelligent, mature species. This is the selfish, ego-satisfying behavior of a child or adolescent. Thus, some kind of stressor that was coterminous with the agricultural revolution and then exacerbated exponentially by the industrial revolution has caused a regression to a more primitive form of species organization and behavior. What makes this regression so difficult to stop or reverse is that – in our self-importance, arrogance and hubris – we mistake it for progress and look upon mature Homo Sapiens cultures as "primitive" and "savage".

The one thing that changed in our physical and cultural environment with the agricultural revolution was the introduction of "profit". While all living organisms and ecosystems store energy in the form of bodily carbohydrates and fats, or stashes of nuts and seeds, or the humus and biomass that accumulates over eons of time on the forest or ocean floors, it has always been done in a manner and at a rate which maintains diurnal and seasonal balance and does not exceed the recycling ability of a healthy, mature ecology. This ecological imperative is similar to the Native American philosophy of taking only what you need and considering the next seven generations in all individual and community decisions.

With the unprecedented growth of material "wealth" made possible by the exploitation of "ancient sunlight" in the form of fossil fuels, and the modern economic focus on "profit" rather than simple need, global humanity has further regressed into a highly hierarchical, non-egalitarian, and ecologically-destructive species that has literally changed the face of the earth for what – in our own timeline – may as well be forever. Just as we confuse our current primitive regression for a progressive "enlightened" development, we confuse powerful cultural stressors for personal and social benefits. Among those stressors are severe overcrowding, particularly in urban areas, inequitably distributed essential resources with even more inequitably distributed unessential wealth, and a constant culturally-induced striving for perennially unsatisfiable desires that often conflict with basic bio-cultural needs. The result is the hominid at the end of the evolutionary sequence pictured at the start of this essay.

By thermodynamic measures, we have created – by our unconscious and conscious choices – a highly dysfunctional regressive human ecology. Like the ancient anaerobic cyanobacteria that poisoned themselves by their "waste" production of oxygen as they permanently altered the earth's atmosphere, humanity is permanently altering the earth's atmosphere by its overproduction of waste and poisoning itself (and millions of other species) in the process.

Of course, we don't (and can't) know what our real job description might be. One science fiction writer suggested that, when an alien spaceship crashed on earth eons ago it seeded life so that it would evolve into intelligent complex creatures which would unknowingly make a replacement part for their spaceship so that the long-lived aliens could return home. Perhaps so.

Or, perhaps it's as quantum physicist Erwin Schrödinger speculated in the epilogue to his ground-breaking treatise "What is Life?", in which he attempts to reconcile the notion that the body functions as a mechanism following the deterministic laws of nature with the "incontrovertible experience" of willful control. He wrote, "The only possible inference from these two facts is that I think that I…am the person…who controls the motions of the atoms according to the Laws of Nature… Hence I am God Almighty."

This comports with Alan Watt's notion that we are IT, pretending not to be. In a profoundly unknowable universe, in which we might paradoxically be the universe in its dispersed individuated form, humanity's recent actions don't appear to be consistent with being God Almighty or the infinitely intelligent Universe. But, perhaps it's time that we started acting our age (3.5 billion years as life or 2.4 million years as humanity) and learn – once again – to live within the optimum balance point of the great Second Law.

Robert Riversong is a designer and builder of super-insulated passive solar homes, an instructor in sustainable design, an experiential wilderness guide, rites-of-passage facilitator, and midwife for a new world struggling to be born.


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