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SPONTANEOUS ORDER, EVOLUTION, AND NATURAL LAW

From the conception of the second law as a law of disorder, the active, epistemic or psychological dimension of the world was seen not only as "infinitely improbable", but working in direct opposition to the second law. Likewise, the progressive ordering that characterizes terrestrial evolution as a whole came to be viewed as a process of the ascendancy of increasingly more improbable forms. The active striving of living things captured in the fecundity principle, came to be viewed quite literally as an active struggle, a battle, in Dennett's terms, against the second law, against the otherwise supposed universal laws of physics, and with this, the Kantian Darwinian tradition of radically separating living things and their environments appeared to have a principled grounding in physics. Where the "dead" mechanical world of Newton was just passive with respect to dynamically ordered states or the intentional dynamics of living things, the laws of physics were now thought to be working relentlessly against them. Living things were seen, in effect, as in the business of fighting the universal laws of physics.

Ronald Fisher, whose crucial role in the implementation of the Darwinian revolution during the first part of this century has already been noted, wrote that "entropy changes lead to a progressive disorganization of the physical world...while evolutionary changes [produce] progressively higher organization" (Fisher, 1930/1958, p. 39). Given the view of the second law of thermodynamics a law of disorder, it is "no surprise," in the words of Levins and Lewontin (1985, p. 19), "that evolutionists [came to] believe organic evolution to be the negation of physical evolution." The next section offers a brief review of the new understanding which, in effect, turns the old idea of the second law as a law of disorder on its head. Rather than being anomolous with respect to physical law or universal principles, spontaneous ordering, the intentional dynamics or active striving of living things captured in the fecundity principle are now seen instead as a direct manifestation of them. This view dissolves the incommensurability between the otherwise incommensurable "rivers" and with it the ground of Cartesian theories in general and the anomolies that grow from it.

The Law of Maximum Entropy Production or Why the World is in the Order Production Business

An understanding of the nomological basis for the world as active and end-directed was the great achievement of the classical statement of the second law of thermodynamics, but the direction of the end-directedness, particularly in light of Boltzmann's interpretation, appeared to be directly opposite the end-directedness found in psychology and biology-opposite that which is characterized by autocatakinesis, or the river that flows uphill. The problem was partly put aside in the middle of this century when Bertalanffy (e.g., 1952, p. 145) showed that "spontaneous order [or autocatakinetic systems]...can appear in [open] systems" (systems with energy flows running through them) by virtue of their ability to build order through the dissipation of potentials or energy gradients. Following Bertalanffy, and along the same lines, pointing to the balance equation of the second law, Schrödinger (1945), in a distinctly Heraclitean vein, popularized the idea of living things as streams of order which like flames are permitted to exist away from equilibrium because they feed on "negentropy" (potentials) in their environments. These ideas were further popularized by Prigogine (e.g., 1978) who called such systems "dissipative structures".

Schrödinger's point was that as long as living things like flames (and all autocatakinetic systems) produce entropy (or minimize potentials) at a sufficient rate to compensate for their own internal ordering, the dynamical reduction in entropy that characterizes their ordered persistence away from equilibrium, then the balance equation of the second law would not be violated. Thus dynamic order, or autocatakinesis, can arise spontaneously from the Bertalanffy-Schrödinger Prigogine perspective without violating the second law, and living things, on this view were thus permitted to exist, as it became popular to say, as long as they "paid their entropy debts." This worked for the classical statement of the second law per Clausius and Thomson, but on Boltzmann's view such "debt payers" were still infinitely improbable. Living things, and a fortiori evolution as a planetary process as a whole, were still widely held, as Dennett's view shows, to be infinitely improbable states struggling against the laws of physics. Bertalanffy (1968) considered the resolution of this problem to be one of the most fundamental to all biology, and Lorenz (1973), one of the founders of evolutionary episemology, wrote that the aspect of life "most in need of explanation, is that, in apparent contradiction to the laws of probability, it seems to develop from... the more probable to less probable, from systems of lower order to systems of higher order."

Return to the Balance Equation of the Second Law-Making the Implicit Explicit

Boltzmann's model works with certain simple near-equilibrium systems such as the ideal gas in a box he developed it from, but the world is not a near equilibrium system nor a gas in a box, and spontaneous ordering, rather than being "infinitely improbable" is ubiquitous and not just for living systems. In fact, studies of simple physical systems (without genes, brains, or other "makers") such as the well-known Bénard cell experiment show that beyond certain critical thresholds Boltzmann's hypothesis fails, and order emerges not infinitely improbably but with a probability of one, that is, every time, and as soon as it gets the chance (for detailed discussions of the Bénard experiment discussion see Swenson, 1991a, 1991b, 1992; Swenson & Turvey, 1991). Indeed, this is just what the present biogeochemical record now suggests about the evolution of life on Earth in general. The remarkable work done in recent decades on the pre-Phanerozoic has provided a picture of evolution on Earth as a unitary planetary process where order emerges as soon as minimum magnitudes of critical thresholds are reached (e.g., the origin of life, not after some long lifeless period, but as soon as the Earth had cooled sufficiently after its formation so that its oceans would not evaporate, or the levels of order that arose when critical minimal levels of atmospheric oxygen were achieved, the Cambrian 'explosion' being the most well-known case). What is the universal basis for this "urgency towards existence", as Leibniz (1697/1969, p. 487), put it? Why does order arise whenever it gets the chance? Why, in effect, is the world in the order production business?

The answer to the puzzle follows from two main facts, the first is discovered by returning to the balance equation of the second law and to the insights of Bertalanffy and Schrödinger. Bertalanffy's and Schrödinger's point, to restate, was that as long as an autocatakinetic system produces entropy fast enough to compensate for its development and maintenance away from equilibrium (its own internal entropy reductions), it is permitted to exist. Ordered flow, in other words, because it must pull in sufficient resources and dissipate them (minimize potentials) to satisfy the balance equation of the second law, must function to increase the rate of entropy production of the system plus environment-that is, whenever order emerges entropy production must increase by a concomitant amount. This makes an important point implicitly that now will be stated explicitly: To satisfy the balance equation of the second law ordered flow must be more efficient at dissipating potentials than disordered flow, and it follows from this that the more order produced, the faster potentials are minimized, and this brings us to the second and final piece of the puzzle.

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