john_tooby's picture
Founder of field of Evolutionary Psychology; Co-director, Center for Evolutionary Psychology, Professor of Anthropology, UC Santa Barbara

Falling Into Place: Entropy, Galileo's Frames of Reference, and the Desperate Ingenuity Of Life

The hardest choice I had to make in my early scientific life was whether to give up the beautiful puzzles of quantum mechanics, nonlocality, and cosmology for something equally arresting: To work instead on reverse engineering the code that natural selection had built into the programs that made up our species' circuit architecture. In 1970, the surrounding cultural frenzy and geopolitics made first steps toward a nonideological and computational understanding of our evolved design, "human nature", seem urgent; the recent rise of computer science and cybernetics made it seem possible; the almost complete avoidance of and hostility to evolutionary biology by behavioral and social scientists had nearly neutered those fields, and so made it seem necessary.

What finally pulled me over was that the theory of natural selection was itself such an extraordinarily beautiful and elegant inference engine. Wearing its theoretical lenses was a permanent revelation, populating the mind with chains of deductions that raced like crystal lattices through supersaturated solutions. Even better, it starts from first principles (such as set theory and physics), so much of it is nonoptional.

But still, from the vantage point of physics, beneath natural selection there remained a deep problem in search of an explanation: The world given to us by physics is unrelievedly bleak. It blasts us when it is not burning us or invisibly grinding our cells and macromolecules until we are dead. It wipes out planets, habitats, labors, those we love, ourselves. Gamma ray bursts wipe out entire galactic regions; supernovae, asteroid impacts, supervolcanos, and ice ages devastate ecosystems and end species. Epidemics, strokes, blunt force trauma, oxidative damage, protein cross-linking, thermal noise-scrambled DNA—all are random movements away from the narrowly organized set of states that we value, into increasing disorder or greater entropy. The second law of thermodynamics is the recognition that physical systems tend to move toward more probable states, and in so doing, they tend to move away from less probable states (organization) on their blind toboggan ride toward maximum disorder.

Entropy, then, poses the problem: How are living things at all compatible with a physical world governed by entropy, and, given entropy, how can natural selection lead over the long run to the increasing accumulation of functional organization in living things? Living things stand out as an extraordinary departure from the physically normal (e.g., the earth's metal core, lunar craters, or the solar wind). What sets all organisms—from blackthorn and alder to egrets and otters—apart from everything else in the universe is that woven though their designs are staggeringly unlikely arrays of highly tuned interrelationships—a high order that is highly functional. Yet as highly ordered physical systems, organisms should tend to slide rapidly back toward a state of maximum disorder or maximum probability. As the physicist Erwin Schrödinger put it, "It is by avoiding the rapid decay into the inert state that an organism appears so enigmatic."

The quick answer normally palmed off on creationists is true as far as it goes, but it is far from complete: The earth is not a closed system; organisms are not closed systems, so entropy still increases globally (consistent with the second law of thermodynamics) while (sometimes) decreasing locally in organisms. This permits but does not explain the high levels of organization found in life. Natural selection, however, can (correctly) be invoked to explain order in organisms, including the entropy-delaying adaptations that keep us from oxidizing immediately into a puff of ash.

Natural selection is the only known counterweight to the tendency of physical systems to lose rather than grow functional organization—the only natural physical process that pushes populations of organisms uphill (sometimes) into higher degrees of functional order. But how could this work, exactly?

It is here that, along with entropy and natural selection, the third of our trio of truly elegant scientific ideas can be adapted to the problem: Galileo's brilliant concept of frames of reference, which he used to clarify the physics of motion.

The concept of entropy was originally developed for the study of heat and energy, and if the only kind of real entropy (order/disorder) was the thermodynamic entropy of energy dispersal then we (life) wouldn't be possible. But with Galileo's contribution one can consider multiple kinds of order (improbable physical arrangements), each being defined with respect to a distinct frame of reference.

There can be as many kinds of entropy (order/disorder) as there are meaningful frames of reference. Organisms are defined as self-replicating physical systems. This creates a frame of reference that defines its kind of order in terms of causal interrelationships that promote the replication of the system (replicative rather than thermodynamic order). Indeed, organisms must be physically designed to capture undispersed energy, and like hydroelectric dams using waterfalls to drive turbines, they use this thermodynamic entropic flow to fuel their replication, spreading multiple copies of themselves across the landscape.

Entropy sometimes introduces copying errors into replication, but injected disorder in replicative systems is self-correcting. By definition the less well-organized are worse at replicating themselves, and so are removed from the population. In contrast, copying errors that increase functional order (replicative ability) become more common. This inevitable ratchet effect in replicators is natural selection.

Organisms exploit the trick of deploying different entropic frames of reference in many diverse and subtle ways, but the underlying point is that what is naturally increasing disorder (moving toward maximally probable states) for one frame of reference inside one physical domain can be harnessed to decrease disorder with respect to another frame of reference. Natural selection picks out and links different entropic domains (e.g., cells, organs, membranes) that each impose their own proprietary entropic frames of reference locally.

When the right ones are associated with each other, they do replicative work through harnessing various types of increasing entropy to decrease other kinds of entropy in ways that are useful for the organism. For example: oxygen diffusion from the lungs to the blood stream to the cells is the entropy of chemical mixing—falling toward more probable high entropy states, but increasing order from the perspective of replication-promotion.

Entropy makes things fall, but life ingeniously rigs the game so that when they do they often fall into place.