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Monday, January 4, 2016

Increasing Complexity and More Energy in the Context of Evolutionary Biology

In “the story of increasing complexity and then decreasing complexity,” we find complexity in “privileged localities” where “intense local flows of energy that are dissipated elsewhere, where things are less complex. . . . So increasing entropy in one region seems to allow decreasing entropy—that is to say, increasing complexity—in some very special regions, such as the surface of our Earth.”[1] Differentials in the universe began in the random, unpredictable differences at the sub-atomic level at the very beginning of the Big Bang.  It took 380,000 years for tiny differentials in temperatures and mass-densities to show up in the cosmic radiation background. Since then, much steeper energy-gradients have developed, and these have enabled greater complexity to arise and subsist.
Contemplating the enigma, wherein increased complexity and the associated additional energy required occurs amid a more general entropic process of a flattening out or dispersion of energy in the universe as a whole, can lead to the question of whether the level of complexity now extant in human civilization is a work in progress or a pinnacle. That is to say, will hitherto undiscovered sources of energy boost human arrangements and infrastructure—artifices of human intentionality—to higher levels of complexity? At a much longer temporal scale, will the Milky Way gain in energy and complexity as a result of incorporating a passing galaxy? In both cases, I marvel at the enigma wherein steeper energy gradients serve as more efficient energy conduits on the way to an entropic final destination. 

This history of life on Earth is a tale of increasing biological complexity. A single cell is more complex than is the Sun and our planet. From the Cambrian period, the diversity of plant and animal organisms has expanded so much from the common one-celled ancestor that we can say with Plotinus, "(I)t is a wonder how the multiplicity of life derives from what is not multiplicity, and the multiplicity would not have existed unless what was not multiplicity had not existed before the multiplicity."[2] What we typically forget is that with each increase in biological complexity, more free energy is necessary to sustain it.  
In human history, the capture of energy from the Sun for our species’ use has increased dramatically from the hunter-gatherer days to today. The leap afforded by the Neolithic Revolution, when nomads—taking advantage of “Garden of Eden” conditions—began sedentary, agricultural lives, is dwarfed by the tremendous jump in energy-usage from fossil fuels in the Industrial Revolution. The change in technological and organizational complexity due to the Industrial Revolution far exceeds the increase in complexity that came as a result of the Neolithic Revolution.
Because 95% of our species’ time on Earth was spent in the hunter-gatherer, small clan, social arrangement, the incredible leap in energy usage (now 100 times what is needed for survival, per capita) from fossil fuels whose stored energy far exceeds the potential energy of animals and human labor, and the related leap in complexity in spheres such as business, government, and society (e.g., large cities) during and after the Industrial Revolution makes us fish out of water, evolutionarily speaking. That is to say, natural selection—the mechanism discovered by Darwin whereby a changed environment “selects” mutations that are more favorable to it—has not had enough time to adjust our species to the world that we have created.
For instance, we are “hard-wired” for having contact with up to 150 people because that’s how big clans got during 95% of the time that natural selection has had to fashion our species via incremental alterations or adjustments. We are fish out of water in the cities we ourselves have built. Similarly, natural selection is too long-paced to alter our innate short-sightedness such that we can apply collective learning to obviate the threats to our species’ survival from our energy use, such as in climate change. In short, the increasingly large leaps in the steepness of the energy gradients enabled by our successively rich energy-sources have by now outstripped the energy of our evolutionary biology being able to “catch up.” Put another way, our amazingly complex biology—far from the Cambrian Revolution that led to the diversification of life—is not in sync with the complexity that we have constructed to make our lives easier and even happier.

[1] David Christian, “Big History” Lecture (2015).
[2] Plotinus, The Enneads, III.8[3]10.