Archive for November, 2008

The Thermodynamics of Life

I finished reading an important book called Into the Cool:  Energy Flow, Thermodynamics, and Life by Eric D. Schneider & Dorian Sagan.  This book introduces the emerging scientific field of “non-equilibrium thermodynamics” (NET) and, specifically, its sub-discipline they call “the thermodynamics of life” or “biothermodynamics” (i.e. the thermodynamics of biology).  One of its purposes is to correct  a neglect of the physical (that is, the “physics-al”) causes of life, neglect resulting from a primary focus on biological, genetic causes; because Darwin’s concept of natural selection cannot account for some instances of emergent complexity, the “missing link” in their view “is the energy flows studied by NET” (317).  They begin by showing how life-like processes exist even in non-living systems (what Manuel DeLanda has called “non-organic life”), and that the common denominator between such “non-organic life” and “organic life” is the energy flowing through these open systems:

NET systems organized to reduce ambient gradients and funnel their energy into our own growth, we are like nonliving NET systems that increase their complexity in areas of energy flux.  Just as the matter of life (carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur and phosphorous atoms)  has been found distributed throughout the universe, so the process of life (local pockets of increasing organization) is not unique.  We are connected to  other energy-flow systems that have functional organization (302).

After the cursory historical overview of classical thermodynamics and its history, Schneider and  Sagan introduce different physical phenomenon (BZ reactions, Benard cells, Taylor flow, whirlpools, etc.)–what he calls “physic’s own ‘organisms'”–before  launching into a star-to-ecosystem survey of how energy flow organizes organic life.  Evolution itself is invoked as central to this process:  “Selective advantage will go to those autocatalytic systems that best increase energy flow through their system, those that do so better than their competitors” (254).  Such behavior is so pervasive that one scientist, Stuart Kauffman, suggests that the phenomenon deserves to be called the fourth law of thermodynamics, for “the biosphere….is engaged in lawlike behavior of increasing complexity” (91).

All of this points to the growing realization that the origin and sustenance of life in the universe is not a super-natural phenomenon but completely natural.  In other words, “no God need apply”:

Although they may sometimes seem to be organized by an outside force, no ‘agent deliberating,’ as Aristotle put it over twenty centuries ago, is needed. . . . all complex structures and processes, including those of life, come naturally into being. (xvii, 6)

There were times in reading this book that I was reminded of Deleuze’s concept of the “abstract machine,” especially when the authors spoke of how living things link up with each other to exploit energy flows, as in this long passage worth quoting in full:

We, like all living beings, perpetuate ourselves and our communities but never with complete efficiency or total recycling.  We, from the cells within us to the organizations in which we as “individuals” function, are semi-independent thermodynamic systems.  Like all open complex systems, we require gradients.  But since we, like all the rest of life, are open centers of flow, not Platonic ideal forms, we link up in various ways.  Primates, birds, frogs, and aquatic mammals vocalize.  Organisms sense each other molecularly, for example, by smell. . . . Bacteria link up to propel each other, feed with and enter each other, and take in each others’ genes; this sometimes leads to new species.  Dense cell populations become multicellular organisms.  Evolution shows us a nature that routinely flouts taxonomists’ carefully drawn boundaries.  Drawing and shifting, organisms combine to use free energy in increasingly efficient and expansive ways. (146)

Ultimately, this is a book about energonomics (the concept of “managing energy flow”) insofar as it directs us–not only as individuals but also as nation-states–to emulate the wisdom of natural systems:  “To survive sustainably we need to live like climax ecosystems” (296), seeking “a steady state of minimal entropy production” (80).  Doing so will require that we learn the lessons this book has to offer:  the knowledge that life is a manifestation of the thermodynamics of energy flow, and as such should be lived with an awareness of all that this implies.  This book has many lessons and interesting details, so I will likely return to it in future posts.

30 November 2008 at 6:27 pm 3 comments


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