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Out of Control
Chapter 21: RISING FLOW

Heat was a profound puzzle in the early 19th century. Everyone intuitively knew that a hot object cooled to its surroundings and a cool object likewise warmed up. But a comprehensive theory of how heat really worked eluded scientists.

A real theory of heat had to explain some weird happenings. Yes, a very hot object and a very cold object in a room would converge to the same warmth over time. But some objects, like a basin of ice and water mixture, would not warm up equally fast as the same basin of all ice or all water. Hot things expanded; cold things contracted. Motion could disappear into heat. Heat could spark motion. And when certain metals were heated, they gained weight, so therefore, heat had weight.

The early explorers into heat had no idea that they were investigating temperature, calories, friction, work, efficiency, energy and entropy -- all terms they were to invent later. For many decades no one was sure what it was they were actually studying. The most accepted theory among them was that heat was an all-pervading elastic fluid -- a material ether.

In 1824, the French military engineer Carnot (rhymes with Godot, the tardy lead in Samuel Beckett's play) derived a principle that later became known as the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Roughly paraphrased it goes thus: all systems everywhere run down over time. Together with the First Law (that energy is conserved overall), Carnot's Second Law was the key framework in the following century for understanding not only heat but most of physics, chemistry, and quantum mechanics. In short, the theory of heat undergirds all of modern physical science.

Biology, however, has no grand theory. The joke currently making the rounds of complexity researchers is that biological science today is "Waiting for Carnot." Theoretical biologists feel equivalent to the 19th-century thermalists just before the advent of thermal dynamics. Biologists talk about complexity without having a measure for complexity; they hypothesize about evolution without having a second instance of it. That reminds them of discussing heat without having the concepts of calories, friction, work, or even energy. Just as Carnot framed physics by his overarching law of heat death and plunge to disorder, some theoretical biologists hope for a Second Law of Biology, which would frame the overarching tendency of life to find order amid disorder. There is a touch of satire within the joke, because in Beckett's notorious play, Godot is a mysterious figure who never shows up!

The search for a Second Law of Biology, a law of rising order, is unconsciously behind much of the search for deeper evolutions and the quest for hyperlife. Many postdarwinians doubt that natural selection alone is powerful enough to offset Carnot's Second Law of Thermodynamics. Yet, we are here, so something has. They are not sure what they are looking for, but they intuitively feel that it can be stated as a complementary force to entropy. Some call it anti-entropy, some call it negentropy, and a few call it extropy. Gregory Bateson once asked: "Is there a biological species of entropy?"

This quest for the secret of life is not usually made explicit in scientists' formal papers. Yet in conversations with them late at night, this is what many of them feel. They allude to a vision only half-glimpsed. Each sees a different part, like the blind men patting an elephant. They hunt for cautious scientific words to cover their beliefs and hunches. The vision they hint at, I synthesize thus:

From the crack of the big bang a hot universe runs down for ten billion years or so. About two-thirds along into its history something clicks, and an insatiable force begins hijacking the slipping heat and order into local areas of higher order. The remarkable thing about this hijacker is that (a) it is self-sustaining, and (b) it is self-reinforcing: the more of it around, the more it makes of itself.

Two currents were thus born out of the white flash. One current runs downhill all the way. This force begins as a wild hot party and fizzes out into silent coldness. This dive is Carnot's depressing Second Law, a ghoulish rule if there ever was one: all order will eventually succumb to chaos, all fire will die, all variety goes bland, all structure will eventually extinguish itself.

The second current runs in parallel, but with opposite effect. It diverts the heat before the heat disperses (since disperse it must) and extracts order out of disorder. It borrows the failing energy and raises the ante into a rising flow.

The rising flow uses its short moment of order to snatch whatever dissipating power it can to build a platform upon which to extract the next round of order. It saves nothing and spends all. It invests all the order it has to amplify the next round of complexity, growth, and order. In this way it taps chaos to breed antichaos. We call it life.

The rising flow is a wave: a slight rise amid a degrading sea of entropy; a sustainable crest always falling upon itself, forever in the state of almost-toppled.

The wave is a moving edge throughout the universe, a thin line between the plunging sides of chaos. One side slopes away to frozen gray solidness, the other slips into overexcited black gaseousness. The wave is the eternally moving moment between the two -- the eternal liquid. The gravity of entropy cannot be defied; but as the crest forever falls, biological order rides it down like a surfer.

The order accumulated by the rising wave serves as a plank to extend itself, using energy from outside, into the next realm of further order. As long as Carnot's force flows downhill and cools the universe, the rising flow can steal heat to flow uphill in places, building itself high by pulling on its bootstraps.

Like a pyramid scheme, or building a castle in the air, the game of leveraging order as a means to buy more order is a game that's got to keep expanding or collapse. Our collective history as living beings is the story of a trickster who has found a foolproof gimmick and is pulling a fast one -- and getting away with it so far. "Life might be defined as the art of getting away with it," said the theoretical biologist C. H. Waddington.

Perhaps this rather broadly poetic vision is mine alone, a vision which I have mistakenly read into the comments of others. But I don't think so. I have heard strands of it from too many scientists. Nor do I think it is pure mysticism any more than one would call Carnot's Law mysticism. Sure, the story is couched in human hope, but the hope I share is to find a falsifiable scientific law. Although there have been theories akin to the rising flow that were outright vehicles for vitalism, a second force doesn't have to be any less scientific than the laws of probability or Darwin's force of natural selection.

Still, an air of hesitancy blocks the vision of the rising flow. It stirs up larger concerns, chiefly that a Rising Flow implies a directional charge within the universe. While the rest of the universe runs down, hyperlife steadily proceeds in the contrary direction up the universe. Life progresses toward more life, more kinds of life, more complexity of life, more something. At this point skepticism sets in. A modern intellectual detects the scent of progress.

Progress smells of human-centeredness. To some it stinks of religiosity. Among the earliest and most fervent supporters of Darwin's scandalous theories were Protestant theologians and seminarians. Here was scientific proof of the dominant status of mankind. Darwinism offered a beautiful model for the orderly march of insentient life toward the peak of known perfection: the human male.

The continuing abuse of Darwin's theories to bolster racism didn't help the notion of evolutionary "progress" either. More important in the story of progress's demise has been the wholesale downshift of human position from the center of the cosmos to an insignificant wisp on the edge of an insignificant spiral in a dusty corner of the universe. If we are marginal, then what progress can evolution have?

Progress is dead, and there is nothing to replace it. The death of progress is nearly official in the study of evolution, as well in postmodern history, economics, and sociology. Change without progress is how we moderns see our destiny.

A theory of a second force rekindles the possibility of progress and raises troublesome questions: If there is a second law of life -- a rising flow -- what is it flowing toward? What direction could evolution have if indeed it has a direction? Does life progress, or just wander? Perhaps evolution has a mere slope, which shapes its possibilities and makes it partially predictable? Does the evolution of life (both organic and artificial) follow even small trends? Do human culture and other vivisystems mirror organic life, or can one variety progress without the others? Would an artificial evolution have its own agenda and goals completely outside the desires of its creators?

Our first answer would have to be that all progress seen in life and society is a human-induced illusion. The prevalent notion of a "ladder of progress" or a "great chain of being" in biology doesn't hold up under the facts of geological history.

Start with the first instance of life as the initial point. In a visual metaphor, imagine all descendants of that first life forming a slowly inflating sphere. The radius is time. Each creature alive at a given time becomes a spot on the surface of the sphere at that time.

At the 4-billion-year mark (today's date), the globe of life on Earth shows some 30 million species cramming its circumference. One dot, for example, represents humans; another dot on far side of the sphere, the bacterium E. coli. All points on the sphere are equidistant from the first life; therefore none is superior to the other. All creatures on the globe at any one time are equally evolved, having engaged in evolution for an equal amount of time. To put it bluntly, humans are no more evolved than most bacteria.

Gazing at this spherical graph, it is hard to imagine how one spot, the humans, could somehow be the apex of the entire globe. Perhaps any of the other 30 million coevolved spots -- say, the flamingo, or poison oak -- are the whole point of evolution. As life explores new niches, the whole globe expands, increasing the number of coevolved positions.

The globe graph of life quietly undermines the recurring image of progressive evolution: that of life beginning as a blob and climbing the ladder of success to the pinnacle of humanness. That image leaves out a billion other ladders that should be in the picture, including the all-too-common story of life as a blob climbing a ladder-going-nowhere to the pinnacle of a slightly different blob. In nature, there is no pinnacle, just a billion-spotted sphere. It doesn't matter what you do as long as you make it.

Hanging out and staying the same works too. There are many more cases of species who spent their evolutionary time treading water than who spent it transforming radically. The rewards are identical, however. Both Homo sapiens and E. coli are elite cosurvivors. And neither particularly has an advantage over the other in surviving the next million years. (Actually, some pessimists give E. coli 100-to-1 odds on outliving humans, even though E. coli can currently live only in our guts.)