NONZERO  THE LOGIC OF HUMAN DESTINY  By  ROBERT WRIGHT
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PART I: A BRIEF HISTORY OF HUMANKIND

PART II: A BRIEF HISTORY OF ORGANIC LIFE

PART III: FROM HERE TO ETERNITY

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Seventeen

THE COSMIC CONTEXT

The atom is a pattern, and the molecule is a pattern, and the crystal is a pattern; but the stone, although it is made up of these patterns, is just a mere confusion. —Aldous Huxley

 

One of the most influential science books of the twentieth century was an ultra-slim volume, written by the physicist Erwin Schrodinger, called What Is Life? Published in 1944, it helped inspire James Watson and Francis Crick, among other future eminences, to study life's hereditary material.

So what is the answer? What is life? There are questions I don't purport to answer in this book, and that is one of them. But briefly pondering it will help answer some questions that are central to this book. For example: Why is it one book, instead of two? Aren't organic evolution and human history sufficiently different to demand separate treatment?

Early on, I claimed that the answer is no—that the two processes naturally constitute a single story. This claim of unity has several dimensions. First, the claim is that the two processes have common dynamics; "evolution" isn't just a catchy metaphor for cultural change; at some basic level, cultural evolution and biological evolution have the same machinery. Second, they have the same fuel; the energetic interplay between zero-sum and non-zero-sum forces has been similarly pervasive in the two evolutions. Third, the two processes have parallel directions—long-run growth in non-zero-sumness, and thus in the depth and scope of complexity. Indeed, organic evolution, given long enough, was very likely to produce creatures so complex, and so intelligent, as to be capable of sponsoring cultural evolution—a cultural evolution that would then naturally extend evolution's general drift toward deeper and vaster complexity.

All of this is what the next three chapters are about—showing that, on a number of grounds, it makes sense to see all of history since the primordial ooze as a single creative thrust. But the first step toward doing that is to get clear—or, at least, clearer—on what was so neat about the primordial ooze in the first place: What is life?

THE SPIRIT OF THE SECOND LAW

Schrodinger saw life against the backdrop of the second law of thermodynamics. The second law (in case your mastery of thermodynamics has decomposed over time) is the one that sounds so depressing: entropy—disorder—grows inexorably; structure decays. The logical culmination of this trend is a day when all molecules are randomly distributed. No planets, no stars—nothing but sameness; the universe, as if it had been run through an unusually large Cuisinart, will be a vast puree.

The process is observable even in smaller spaces, and over a shorter time frame, here on earth. Pour cream in coffee, and the initial distinctions in color, texture, and temperature fade, as does the motion created by the pouring. Generally speaking, Schrodinger observed, systems left alone for very long will become motionless and of uniform temperature; eventually, "the whole system fades away into a dead, inert lump of matter."

What makes life so strange is its seeming exception to this rule. Unlike cups of coffee, organisms preserve distinctions—between kidneys and stomachs, between leaves and stems. "It is by avoiding the rapid decay into the inert state," Schrodinger wrote, "that an organism appears so enigmatic."

What's the trick? Is life defying the second law of thermodynamics? No. The process of living, like all other processes, raises the total amount of entropy in the universe, destroying order and structure. Ever compare a five-course meal with the ensuing excrement? Something has been lost.

Obviously, something has been gained, too. The growth of an organism creates new order and structure. But on balance, says the second law, the organism has to consume more order than it creates. And so it does. The key to staying alive (Write this down!) is to hang on to the order and expel the disorder. As Schrodinger put it, "the essential thing in metabolism is that the organism succeeds in freeing itself from all the entropy it cannot help producing while alive." So order grows loally even as it decline universally...

[SNIP]

An excerpt from Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, By Robert Wright, published by Pantheon Books. Copyright 2000 by Robert Wright. More excerpts are available at www.nonzero.org