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:
- Running away
- Reduction (simpler systems have fewer things to go wrong)
- Redirection (divert attacks onto something else)
- Negative feedback (homeostasis): dynamic stability, goal-homing
- 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.”