Win Wenger: Toward a General Theory of Systems

After I posted about Jeremy England’s theory of the origin of life, a friend pointed me to the writings of Win Wenger, specifically a 1979 monograph titled “Toward a General Theory of Systems: One Man’s Window on Our Universe.”

England’s theory is based on thermodynamics and focuses on the ability of living things to absorb energy and then efficiently disperse energy back into the environment as heat. Win Wenger is not nearly so specific, but his ideas are similarly based on thermodynamics and propose a mechanism for complex systems to spontaneously arise in seeming contradiction to the 2nd law.

I’ll summarize Wenger’s monograph with some direct quotes and some paraphrasing.

“A system is the interaction between two or more things. There are only so many classifications of ways to be a system. Everything in our experience is comprised of such systems, each of which is one or a combination of those few ways to be systems.”

These are strategies a system might employ to resist the tendency toward dissolution:

  1. Running away
  2. Rigidity
  3. Redundancy
  4. Reproduction
  5. Reduction (simpler systems have fewer things to go wrong)
  6. Redirection (divert attacks onto something else)
  7. Negative feedback (homeostasis): dynamic stability, goal-homing
  8. Selection process

Selection is the “Maxwell’s Demon” that acts to reduce entropy, increase order, and concentrate energy.

Negative feedback is apparently one of the strongest strategies, since all surviving systems manifest it.

“We can expect any chaos to clot itself up toward some kind of order” using these strategies.

The continued existence of such ordered systems depends on a supply of elements that the system can feed on. That supply is found in the chaos, the soup enriched by failed systems.

Entropy, as a selection among systems, replenishes the soup.

The thermodynamic tendency toward disintegration exerts a selection process driving toward more sophisticated forms of order. Hence, we can expect that the very law that drives the universe as a whole toward greater entropy will tend to drive the evolution of ordered systems. These systems will necessarily employ some of the strategies listed earlier (including reproduction) to avoid their own demise, leading eventually to living things.

“At every point of the range from complete chaos to complete order, the universe is constrained to move toward this dynamic order/disorder equilibrium.”

“During stable conditions, the specialized tend to crowd out all but the most competent of the unspecialized.” This is because highly specialized creatures are extremely adept at exploiting the conditions they have adapted to. But during rapidly changing conditions, and especially sudden catastrophic changes, generalists have an advantage because they have a wider range of strategies for survival.

Intelligence makes us generalists – it provides the ability to cope with a wider range of circumstances. So repeated catastrophes will tend to select for greater intelligence. The history of our planet includes a number of worldwide catastrophes. One example is the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, believed to have been caused either by an asteroid colliding with the earth or a sudden bout of extreme volcanic activity. So the evolution of highly intelligent creatures like ourselves may have been inevitable given the series of catastrophes our planet has undergone.

Whatever faces us in our own personal lives, or collectively as the human species, is comprised of systems and metasystems, which follow those same few strategies to avoid being “returned to the soup.”

Google+ is an Antisocial Network

I’ve been on Google+ since it began, and check in there occasionally, but I’ve never really warmed up to it. I haven’t taken the time to analyze why that is, but I think Chris Abraham nails it in an article on Biznology. He calls Google+ an antisocial network.

His summary:

While there may be a subculture of Google+ zealots who treat Google+ like a forum instead of a social network, the majority of people who love Plus are using it, according to Michael Reynolds, as a “source of content, inspiration, and communication” – more like a reader, a place to keep up with mentors, creators, influencers, and thought leaders. For most, Google+ is an antisocial network.

He makes these key points about what Google got wrong:

  • It was not grown organically. Instead, Google foisted itself on millions of users of other Google services.
  • There’s little guidance for newcomers.
  • You have to spend a lot of time sorting everyone you know into circles.
  • It’s hard to understand what circles are and how to use them.
  • There’s no way for other social apps like Instagram to automatically post to your Google+ wall.
  • There’s no good way to invite friends to Google+.

There are those who love Google+ as a way to keep up with their favorite thought leaders without much distraction. But there’s very little interaction going on there. It doesn’t feel like a community.

The Origin of Life: A New Theory Based in Physics

Jeremy England, a physicist at MIT, may have found the underlying physics driving the origin and evolution of life.

Physics is definitely not my strong suit. But the questions of how life arose on Earth, and how likely it is that life would arise on other planets, are intensely interesting to me. So in order to enhance my own understanding, and at the risk of getting things a bit wrong, I will attempt to put into my own words – with some paraphrasing from the original article in Quanta Magazine – an explanation of England’s theory.

England’s theory of life is based on the second law of thermodynamics, which is also known as the law of increasing entropy. Entropy is a measure of how dispersed the energy is among the particles in a system and how diffuse the particles are throughout space. Within any system, random motion tends to increase entropy over time as a matter of probability, because there are more ways for particles and energy to be spread out than for them to be concentrated. More ways for them to be disorganized than for them to be organized.

Systems tend to move toward maximum entropy, where energy is uniformly distributed. Think of a room where a hot cup of coffee sits on a table. The coffee dissipates its heat into the air around it, warming the air slightly as the coffee cools, until the coffee and the air are the same temperature. If we consider the room to be a system, we could say the system has reached maximum entropy.

Living things seem to violate this principle, somehow managing to maintain their own organization. How do they do this?

While entropy must increase over time in a “closed” system, an “open” system can keep its entropy low by increasing the entropy of its surroundings. Living things are open systems: they receive energy from an external source, and they dump heat into their environment. The law of increasing entropy is not violated because the dumped heat increases the overall entropy of the universe while the living organism maintains its orderly, low entropy structure.

From the standpoint of physics, the essential difference between living things and inanimate clumps of matter is that living things are much better at capturing energy from their environment and dissipating that energy back into the environment as heat. An example is photosynthesis, where plants absorb sunlight, use that energy to build sugars and support their life processes, and emit infrared light (heat), a much less concentrated form of energy.

Jeremy England derived a generalization of the 2nd law of thermodynamics that applies to any system that is driven by an external energy source and outputs heat into its environment. All living things are such systems. His formula shows that, in his words, “the more likely evolutionary outcomes are going to be the ones that absorbed and dissipated more energy from the environment’s external drives. This means clumps of atoms surrounded by a bath at some temperature, like the atmosphere or the ocean, should tend over time to arrange themselves to resonate better and better with the sources of mechanical, electromagnetic or chemical work in their environments.”

Self-replication is a mechanism by which a system can dissipate an increasing amount of energy over time. As England says, “A great way of dissipating more is to make more copies of yourself.” The self-replication of molecules of RNA, the nucleic acid believed to have been the precursor to DNA-based life, dissipates energy into the environment. England also showed that RNA is “a particularly cheap building material.” (I’m not exactly sure what this means.) He argues that once RNA arose, its “Darwinian takeover” was not surprising.

Besides self-replication, greater structural organization is another means by which systems can improve their ability to dissipate energy. A plant is better at capturing and using solar energy in an organized way than is a clump of carbon atoms. So England argues that under certain conditions matter will tend to spontaneously self-organize. And once you have self-organizing, self-replicating systems, evolution begins, leading to ever more complex self-replicating systems, which at some point we begin to consider living things.

While England’s theoretical results are generally considered valid, his conjecture that his formula represents the mechanism by which life arose from inanimate matter still remains unproven. But other scientists are excited about his theory, and are contemplating ways to test it experimentally.

We are still trying to answer the question of whether life exists anywhere besides our own planet. We’re actively searching for planets that are rather like Earth: not too big, not too small, not too close to their star and not too far away, planets where liquid water could exist. It makes sense for us to focus our search this way, because so far our single example of a planet that harbors life is our own.

But if Jeremy England is correct, it would seem that some form of life could originate under a wide variety of circumstances — perhaps on planets that are much hotter or much colder than ours. Perhaps on planets that have no solid surface, planets that have no water, planets that have very different chemical compositions.

Life could be much more common in the universe than we’ve been thinking.

Dogs Are People, Too

In October 2013, Gregory Berns published an article in the New York Times, “Dogs Are People, Too.” From the beginning of the article:

Because dogs can’t speak, scientists have relied on behavioral observations to infer what dogs are thinking. It is a tricky business. You can’t ask a dog why he does something. And you certainly can’t ask him how he feels. The prospect of ferreting out animal emotions scares many scientists. After all, animal research is big business. It has been easy to sidestep the difficult questions about animal sentience and emotions because they have been unanswerable.

Until now.

Berns recounts how he and his colleagues trained dogs to go into an MRI scanner, making it possible to study their brain activity under various circumstances. Then:

Although we are just beginning to answer basic questions about the canine brain, we cannot ignore the striking similarity between dogs and humans in both the structure and function of a key brain region: the caudate nucleus.

Rich in dopamine receptors, the caudate sits between the brainstem and the cortex. In humans, the caudate plays a key role in the anticipation of things we enjoy, like food, love and money. But can we flip this association around and infer what a person is thinking just by measuring caudate activity? Because of the overwhelming complexity of how different parts of the brain are connected to one another, it is not usually possible to pin a single cognitive function or emotion to a single brain region.

But the caudate may be an exception. Specific parts of the caudate stand out for their consistent activation to many things that humans enjoy. Caudate activation is so consistent that under the right circumstances, it can predict our preferences for food, music and even beauty.

In dogs, we found that activity in the caudate increased in response to hand signals indicating food. The caudate also activated to the smells of familiar humans. And in preliminary tests, it activated to the return of an owner who had momentarily stepped out of view. Do these findings prove that dogs love us? Not quite. But many of the same things that activate the human caudate, which are associated with positive emotions, also activate the dog caudate. Neuroscientists call this a functional homology, and it may be an indication of canine emotions.

This is important work, and I very much appreciate Gregory Berns for undertaking it. However, I can’t help feeling that the reason this study is important is that somehow we can’t fully believe what’s plain to see with our own eyes.

Isn’t it odd that we have to put dogs in an MRI machine to prove that they experience emotions much as we humans do, when anyone who has spent time with a dog can easily recognize when the dog is feeling fear, anger, joy, sadness, excitement, boredom, or contentment? We have the innate ability to read the emotional state of other humans. The ways dogs exhibit emotions are similar enough to the ways humans do that it’s quite easy for us to recognize them.

It’s legitimate to be wary of anthropomorphizing animals. Dogs are different from us in ways both obvious and hidden, and we can fall into ascribing human-like motives for their behavior that are far from reality. But we can also make the opposite mistake: assuming that animals are more alien, more different from humans than they actually are. (Unfortunately, there does not seem to be a word for this. Suggestions, anyone?)

Humans and dogs are both mammals. We share common ancestors (perhaps 100 million years ago) and evidence suggests that dogs and humans have co-evolved over the past 32,000 years. Since emotional processes evolved much earlier than the exclusively human neocortex where our rational thinking and planning occur, it would be much more surprising to find that humans and dogs do not share similar emotions than to find that we do.

The Berns study found that the sound of human speech, as well as the sounds of human emotional sounds like crying and laughing, elicited similar responses in the brains of both dogs and humans. This suggests not only that dogs have emotional lives similar to the emotional lives of humans, but that they are very good at tuning into the feelings of their owners. (This is described in more detail in this article at io9.)

Gregory Berns writes:

The ability to experience positive emotions, like love and attachment, would mean that dogs have a level of sentience comparable to that of a human child. And this ability suggests a rethinking of how we treat dogs.

Dogs have long been considered property… But now, by using the M.R.I. to push away the limitations of behaviorism, we can no longer hide from the evidence. Dogs, and probably many other animals (especially our closest primate relatives), seem to have emotions just like us. And this means we must reconsider their treatment as property.

One alternative is a sort of limited personhood for animals that show neurobiological evidence of positive emotions… If we went a step further and granted dogs rights of personhood, they would be afforded additional protection against exploitation. Puppy mills, laboratory dogs and dog racing would be banned for violating the basic right of self-determination of a person.

Human society can be very slow to change. We have not yet even reached a common agreement that all humans are deserving of equal rights and respect, let alone dogs and other nonhuman creatures. But I trust we are moving in that direction.