Archive for August, 2009

Cultural Evolution: Energy and Information

I looked in to Robert Wright’s Non-Zero:  The Logic of Human Destiny, which has an appendix explaining “What is Social Complexity?” as a phenomenon of cultural evolution “calibrated in terms of energy” (344).   Then I flipped to chapter 17, “The Cosmic Context,” which takes up the question of life and claims that evolution “isn’t just a catchy metaphor for cultural change; at some basic level, cultural evolution and biological evolution have the same machinery” (243).  He shows how societies are similar to organisms in their conversion of energy into more and more complex structures, and he then relates energy and information, asserting that “though both information and energy are fundamental, information is in charge.  In human societies, energy (and matter, for that matter) is guided by information–not the other way around” (247).

He finds a “further analogy between organisms and societies” in considering this relationship between energy and information:

It isn’t just that in both cases energy is marshaled in a way that sustains and protects structure.  And it isn’t just that this marshaling is always guided by information.  It is that *it is the function of the information to guide the marshaling.* (249)

He concludes that

In societies, in organisms, in cells, the magic glue is information. Information is what synchronizes the parts of the whole and keeps them in touch with each other as they collectively resist disruption  and decay. Information is what allows life to defy the spirit, though not the letter, of the second law of thermodynamics. Information marshals the energy needed to build and replenish the structures that the entropic currents of time tirelessy erode. And this information isn’t some mysterious ‘force,’ but, rather, physical stuff: the patterned sound waves that my vocal chords send to your ear, the firing of neurons in a brain, the hormones that regulate blood sugar, the cyclic AMP molecule in a bacterium. Information is a structured form of matter or energy whose generic function is to sustainand protect structure. It is what directs matter and energy to where they are needed, and in so doing brushes entropy aside, so that order can grow locally even as it declines universally–so that life can exist. (250)

This makes me think of a previous blog entry which mentions a book called The Bit and the Pendulum:  From Quantum Computing to M Theory–The New Physics of Information, which posits that information is a physical thing just as real as energy and matter, as well as Stuart Kauffman’s Reinventing the Sacred, which also speaking of linking matter, energy, and information.  Kauffman sees “agency, value and meaning” (the title of chapter 6) at all levels of life, from single-celled creatures to human beings, and these agents, at whatever level, are what require and act upon information:  “information requires an *agent, a non-equilibrium self-reproducing system doing work cycles,* to *receive* the information, *discriminate* it, and *interpret and act* on it” (96).

Both Wright and Kauffman start with Schrodinger’s What is Life?, and both speak of purposeful behavior as fundamental to life:  for Wright, it is the “logic of human destiny” that he speaks of in his sub-title.

For the study of energonomics, this notion of information therefore asks us to consider how memes (ideas, concepts, information) steer cultural evolution, thereby channeling energy into more and more complex structures.


26 August 2009 at 10:47 pm Leave a comment

August 2009
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