At Dead Voles I’ve been participating in an intermittent multipronged discussion of Terrence Deacon’s 2012 book Incomplete Nature. Deacon proposes a pathway by which life might have emerged in an inanimate universe. Here I have to confess that I don’t quite get two of Deacon’s main points: (1) some kinds of self-organizing systems spontaneously become ends-driven; and (2) understanding how such systems come into being depends not so much on the components of which they’re composed but on the constraints they impose and propagate.
Self-organizing systems seem to counteract the second law of thermodynamics, which specifies that everything in the universe tends toward disorder, or a state of energy equilibrium. However, self-organizing systems, which emerge under far-from equilibrium conditions, actually maximize the rate of equilibration and entropy gain. The organized structure of the system serves to accelerate system-wide expenditure of potential energy. Deacon presents the example of a stream with a boulder in the stream bed. The stream will spontaneously organize a system of eddies and currents around the boulder, seeming to resist the spontaneous downhill movement of the water. However, the eddies actually serve to move the water downstream past the boulder more efficiently than would be the case if the flow were disrupted in a less organized way. Because a self-organizing system is such an efficient entropy-maximizing apparatus, it also tends to self-disorganize. E.g., once the stream wears away the boulder, the system of eddies spontaneously relapses into a smooth flow.
So why would a self-organizing system ever reach the point where it seeks to perpetuate itself? It’s ridiculous to imagine an eddy in the stream trying to keep the boulder from disintegrating, or trying to position more boulders in the stream bed so that more eddies can be born. But living beings seem to do it: they actively seek out nutrients and avoid/repair damage in order to keep themselves alive; and they reproduce in order to make more beings like themselves. Deacon summarizes four ways in which organisms invert the spontaneous order-producing “morphodynamics” of self-organizing systems via “teleodynamics”:
1. Organisms depend on and utilize energetic and material gradients in their environment in order to perform work or to sustain the constraints of their persistent, far-from-equilibrium dynamics, and to maintain constraints that are critical for countering the tendency toward thermodynamic decay.
2. Organisms actively reorganize their internal dynamics and relationships to the environment in ways that specifically counter or compensate for any depletion of the gradients that is necessary to maintain their dynamical integrity and their capacity to so respond.
3. Many organisms have evolved means of gradient assessment and spatial mobility that enable them to anticipate and avoid conditions of depleted gradients and to seek out more optimal ingredients.
4. Organisms and ecosystems evolve toward forms of organization that increase the indirectness of the “dissipation-path length” of energy and material throughput in order to extract more work from the available gradients.
Deacon goes on to characterize organisms in abstract terms:
Living organisms are integrated and bounded wholes, constituted by processes that maintain persistent self-similarity. These processes are functions, not merely chemical reactions, because they exist to produce specific self-promoting physical consequences. These functions are adaptive and have evolved with respect to certain requirements in their environment that may or may not obtain. And these adaptations exist for the sake of preserving the integrity and persistence of these integrated systems and their unbroken chain of ancestral forms for which they are defining links.
Deacon describes at some length how a hypothetical system could organize itself teleodynamically, maintaining ongoing contact with a substrate of energy and material while simultaneously self-constructing a barrier around itself to prevent dissolution. What I don’t get is why such a system would spontaneously organize itself. The best I can figure, extrapolating from Deacon’s discussion of self-organization, is that a teleodynamic system organizes, protects, and replicates itself in order to dissipate potential energy more efficiently than less complex morphodynamic systems, thereby accelerating the general universal tendency toward maximum entropy. It’s certainly the case that I’m using up more of the universe’s potential energy now than I will when I’m dead and all of my metabolic functions have ceased. Maybe that’s the main purpose of my existence: to accelerate the heat death of the universe.
Maybe I’ll write something about constraint propagation later. But it’s 5 a.m. now, time to slow my metabolism for awhile by going to sleep. That way I can recharge myself for another round of energy dissipation, incrementally fulfilling my ongoing mission in the universe.