Systems Science 4 — Energy Flow, Emergence, and Evolution
In the last post in this series, I introduced the notion of organization as a fundamental concept in systems science. A key question in science in general and in systems science in particular is where does organization come from? How does the world we see today, with life and all the complexities of climate, oceans, mountains, and mineral deposits within the crustal layer of the earth, come to be?
Some Ontological Considerations
What exists? What makes up the Universe? Heavy questions. But in one sense we have a glimpse of a possible answer. In one sense all that exists is energy! Even what we call matter is really just concentrated energy (see Mass-energy equivalence, E = mc2). A question I've always had is what does the concentrating? Perhaps there is a universal attraction principle that counters the tendency for energy to fill space (the universality of the Second Law of Thermodynamics?) Gravity might just be one, perhaps the ultimate, form of attraction that draws all energy to a point where energy is turned into mass as might have been the case when the material universe formed in the Big Bang. Who knows? Cosmologists and physicists are still puzzling over the origin of the universe. They are a lot smarter than me.
But I think it curious that the only thing that might actually constitute reality is this ephemeral yet very real stuff called energy. I suspect it means something profound, but can only muse over it for now.
Somehow, some of that energy got concentrated into bits that took on mass and something that we think of as solidity, at least the particles of the universe seem to have unity, to be things. There is another particle-like manifestation of energy in the form of force mediators. From bosons (forces) to fermions (matter) the universe seems to be comprised of bits using other bits to talk to one another in such a manner as to cause changes to occur. There are lots of 'kinds' of these bits and lots of potential interactions between different kinds of bits. There are, for example, six different 'flavors' of quarks and these flavors are properties that give different combinations of quarks (which make up composite particles like protons) different behaviors as systems.
So a reasonable starting place for ontological commitments seems to be that what exists is energy and its various manifestations of bits (matter and forces). The energy is known by what it does.
This leads me to a fundamental observation about what IS in the universe (with implications for what can be known — epistemological commitments). Bits interact according to a priori rules regarding how their properties couple. Quarks, for example, exchange gluons (physicists are a whimsical lot when it comes to naming things!) that essentially bind them in various groupings to form the so-called elementary hadrons (protons, neutrons). But, importantly, these composite particles are not some statically fixed thing. The binding and resulting particles is a dynamic process. Fermions interact with other fermions. Combinations of fermions interact with other unitary or combined fermions (e.g. hadrons with hadrons or hadrons with leptons, etc.). These interactions appear to be the interface between what we know as real (matter and energy) and the underlying realm of pure energy. Who knows?
My point is not to get stuck in the arcane world of quantum mechanics as it is to point out that at this most fundamental level of reality, it isn't what matter IS so much as what matter DOES that counts. What exists is not just stuff, but the processes by which stuff interacts with other stuff. Systems, for all we might claim about their boundaries, in reality are just processes in which the internal interactions between components (particles for instance) are stronger and more numerous on average than their interactions with the so-called external environment. In other words, systems are processes that tend to form boundaries by virtue of cohesion resulting from strong internal interactions among components.
In Fig. 1 below this idea of components, different types of components and different interaction potentials is depicted. A component, in Fig. 1A has a set of intrinsic properties such as mass or volume along with one or more potential to interact with other components (an inert component, e.g. neon gas atoms would have no lines sticking out but would still have intrinsic properties that would make it interact dynamically with other components — like smashing into them!). The combination of intrinsic properties and interaction potentials constitute the component's "personality". In Fig. 1B different component types can interact according to shared potentialities. There is also a matter of strength of interaction. Some forms might be strong (solid line) and others might be weak (broken lines) with respect to those components' other interactions with other components. For instance, the link between component b and component d is weak and could be broken by d, for instance, being pulled away by some other component that tends to form a stronger interaction with it. Thus these interactions are dynamic and relate to the amount of energy that 'resides' in them.
Figure 1. Components of a system are of many types, each with its own personality. The latter is the set of interaction potentials that the component "offers" to the world about it (various lines sticking out of the component in A). It can also include intrinsic properties (e.g. mass, volume, etc.) that make it behave differently from other components embedded in the same fields (e.g. gravity). B depicts various component types with realized and near realized interactions (matching line types).
The dynamical nature of interactions (e.g. chemical bonds or emotional attachments!) involves process. Things change when the component bits are moving around. Later we will see that energy is involved in several important ways in these dynamical aspects and cannot be taken for granted in our ontological commitments. In Figure 2, below, we see that a system unity can be formed by the fact that internal interactions between certain component types are generally stronger than interactions between them and components that are floating around in the environment. This situation creates an effective barrier or boundary that gives the system its property of unity. The barrier can have various degrees of 'solidity'. It can be porous or impermeable to some or most other components in the environment depending on the specific geometry of the internal organization and the strength of the internal interactions.
Figure 2. A system is a process composed of many kinds of components with different "personalities" and that interact with one another in different ways. When the stronger internal interactions (solid lines connecting shapes) give rise to cohesion, a system boundary or effective barrier (broken circle around the cluster of nodes) is created establishing a unity. External to this unity are myriad components and other systems, some of which might interact more weakly (broken lines) with components within the unity through the (semi-) permeable boundary.
Permeable boundaries mean that new components can enter into the system and form interactions with the resident components. It is even possible that some components migrate in while others (even of the same type) migrate out. Our bodies, for example, are in a constant state of flux with respect to the atoms and molecules that make us up.
Thus far I have been describing very general principles of organization using abstract concepts of components, interactions, boundaries, and systems. I started out talking about quantum particles like fermions and intimated that these represent, as far as we know, the lowest (smallest) level of energy/matter differentiation and creation. Those particles and energies 'start' the process whereby more complex systems become composed by interactions forming systems (like atoms) that, in turn, have their own unique properties and personalities vis-a-vis one another. This is what we mean by emergence (later). Atoms emerge from the interactions of various fermion types.And this in turn provides new opportunities (thanks in large measure to the Pauli Exclusion Principle) for new personality types, new interaction potentials, and, thus, new more complex combinations of atoms with one another. Chemistry is born, and the rest is history!
I would like to argue that the principles of component interactions and energy flows (to be covered below) are the main operatives in the 'condensation' of systems and the emergence of levels of complexity that obtain. Those new levels, themselves, have new interaction potentialities as we will see. And so long as energy flows from the base upward and through systems at any level, emergence of newer levels of organization and complexity will continue. These alone, however, are not the whole story of emergence and complexity. The weaker interactions between a system's internal components and components in the environment are just as important. Part of this is also due to energy flow. And part is due to the interaction potentials themselves. What we are talking about here is that system condensation will occur only if the interactions with the environment are such that the condensation is 'favored'. In other words, the component interactions in the environment are the other major contribution to the success of failure of a system to obtain and remain stable over some time scale of interest. The environment selects for or against system maintenance by virtue of these interactions. This is what we call universal evolution. And no theory of emergence can be complete without taking selection mechanisms into account.
One additional note on ontological matters. I will cover this in a future post but mention now that there is another aspect to existence that in deeply related to the matter/energy duality and that is the information/knowledge duality. Information and energy have a deep relationship as does matter and knowledge. Explaining these relationships will require an entire future installment. I hope you can be patient till then!
We humans are obsessed with the concept of origins. Perhaps because once upon a time we, as individuals, didn't exist and then, there was that magic moment when sperm met egg and voila, we started down the path toward personhood. Or, for those less inclined to think about prenatal states, when we are born into the world, we gain instant semi-autonomy. We are always thinking about beginnings. First kiss, first sex, first job, etc.
But is there really anything new under the sun? I submit that in a very real sense everything is just an elaboration of a core pattern, variations on a theme, so to speak. That pattern is basically one of disorganized agglomerations of bits of matter shuffling about due to the flow of energy, interacting according to binding and repulsion rules (also due to energy), and forming structural/functional organization that leads to seemingly new phenomena. But at a higher level. The higher level interactions constitute the emergence of what, to an observer outside the system, looks like something new. Atoms combined to form molecules, even in space and especially in molecular clouds forming around new stars. Molecules combined to form more complex molecules often following new binding rules. And on the surface of Earth, probably in the forming seas, some molecules exhibited a clever trick. They could catalyze their own construction! Autocatalysis is associated with the emergence of life.
Energy Flow Through Semi-closed Systems
There isn't anything mysterious about the generation of increasing organization in the universe. It follows necessarily from the nature of matter and energy.
There is a great deal of interest currently in a phenomenon called self-organization, or self-organizing systems. Such systems are said to self-assemble into more complex forms from simpler components. While the notion that there are lawful ways in which components will interact with one another stochastically, and form favored configurations, this is only part of the story. The fact is that nothing gets assembled without the flow of energy from a high potential source to a low potential sink, through the system of components. More complex configurations of matter require binding energy which must be supplied from outside the system.
The general configuration is always the same no matter what level of complexity we look at, from the atomic to the human social. There must be a source of high potential energy on one side and a sink of low potential such that the Second Law of Thermodynamics rules that the energy will flow from the source to the sink in its attempt to find equilibrium. Between lies the semi-open system (it can be effectively closed to matter transfer but must be open to energy flow). Internally, the system must be comprised of myriad types of components with large numbers of many types. For instance the Earth is comprised of most of the atomic elements (up through Uranium) with huge numbers of each type of element — some much more than others, of course. This agglomeration, along with the kinds of possible interactions between the components, constitutes the degrees of freedom of the system. The geometry must be such that the energy flows from source, through the intermediate system, and off to the sink. Finally, at least some of the components must have a capacity to capture some of the energy flow. This can usually be done in thermal modes, i.e. things get hotter and move faster in regions of the energy influx. But it is also necessary that some components are able to store energy in, say, couplings between components, e.g. chemical bonds. The geometry is important. Energy must form a continuous gradient from source input to sink output in order to generate movement and mixing of the components as they form and release bond energy. They must involve physical cycles where the components give off energy at the sink side and are pushed back toward the source side to re-mingle and pick up energy again (this shows up as more metaphorical in human society, but we will see that the principle is being followed none the less.)
The paradigmatic example is life on Earth. Life very much depends on energy flow from the Sun (and to a somewhat lesser degree from geothermal/chemical and tidal sources). The Earth takes in sunlight on the side facing the sun and gives off heat to the night sky and deep space. That the Earth rotates in a diurnal cycle means that all of the planet gets to participate in the energy input and output in a pulsed-like fashion.
Photosynthesis is the main coupling between sunlight (in the visible spectrum) and life as a gigantic chemical process. We have reason to believe that given the starting components on Earth some four billion years ago, that the process of sunlight-driven chemistry, possibly augmented or amplified by sunlight-driven climate causing lightening, led to self-assembly of early constituents of life. Somewhere along the line some molecules, possibly ribonucleic acid (RNA) polymers achieved autocatalysis and began to dominate the other chemical reactions. There is still a large amount of speculation about the origin of life. But the more we are learning about the chemical processes, like photosynthesis, the Krebs' cycle, etc. the more we are beginning to discern the overall pattern of emergence of life from those chemical precursors.
Thus, material systems that start out simple in organization but have high degrees of freedom internally along with rules of combination and interaction among components AND have a stable flow-through of high grade energy, some of which is coupled to chemical and/or mechanical work processes in those components, will undergo complex self-assembly of subsystems over time and new configurations of matter will develop. The degree to which some of those new configurations are stable and interact with one another will determine whether a new level of organization emerges from the component soup. Life was such an emergent phenomenon. Mind and society are also such phenomena. More on that in future posts.
Emergence, then, is just the reorganization of material systems under the drive of coupled energy flows of sufficient power. New subsystems obtain that themselves interact with one another. At the higher level of organization these interactions generally involve seemingly novel energy storage and transfers. But this is only superficially the case. No matter how many levels of complexity obtain, the rules for energy flow and component interaction are fundamentally the same. I will attempt to demonstrate this in specific examples in the future. That demonstration will depend on the promised explanation of the information/knowledge duo and their relationship with the energy/matter duo we've been focusing on here.
While it is easy to visualize low-level components undergoing reorganization into discrete systems that then interact with one another at a new, higher level of organization under the influence of energy flow, this alone does not explain what we sometimes think of as progressive organization as time goes on. Many configurations of components are possible in systems with very high degrees of freedom at the basic constituent level. And, indeed, due to the stochastic nature of energy flows, many, perhaps all possible configurations will arise at various points in time. But not all configurations are stable for the long term. Indeed, configurations should be seen as competing for energy and, as such, only those configurations with most favorable energy storage/usage capabilities will be able to succeed. In other words, the internal milieu of the larger system tends to select for those higher-level configurations that do a better job of using and storing energy. The components from the lesser configurations will disperse according to the entropy version of the Second Law and they are free to become part of new units that may either better compete with the more stable forms or be absorbed by those forms that have the capacity to self-replicate or grow. We are now on the brink of Darwinian evolution as it works in life. This, then, is what I meant by universal evolution. Complex forms are created either by self-organizing assembly as described above, or replicated from previous forms with possible alterations, and then compete for maintenance (and growth) energy. Those better able to use capture and use the energy will survive to the detriment of those that are lesser able. It really is that simple!
There is one more interesting thing about emergent phenomena taking place in large complex (high degrees of freedom) systems. The formation of new complex forms and their subsequent interactions with one another have a certain downward constraining impact on the components making up the system. The existence of a living cell does not change the nature of the atoms that make it up, but it can change the general distribution of said atoms floating about in the medium. A living cell is, in one sense, a highly improbable configuration and concentration of certain atoms (principally the CHNOPS family) compared with a uniform distribution. This fact has been somewhat misinterpreted in the past to mean that life itself is highly improbable, perhaps a one-time event here on Earth. But as we have seen, under the influence of energy flows and self-organization, the origin of life becomes highly probable. It just causes a redistribution of the parts in a way that might fool the naive observer into thinking a miracle has occurred.
That last point raises another issue that is often fought in biological circles and that is one of increasing organization in evolution. Most mainstream biologists fight hard to purge the notion of evolution as somehow progressive. But the obvious fact is that there has been a general increase in the sophistication of plants and animals along many dimensions over the course of evolution on Earth. Animals, particularly, have evolved larger, more complex and adaptively capable brains. Humans are, as far as we can tell, more intelligent than anything that came before. This has to be counted as progress in some sense.
The issue might be resolved by the understanding of emergence and selection based on energy capture and use as described above. This is a purely mechanistic way to explain increasing complexity without resort to an a priori design in the particulars. This is called teleonomy as distinct from teleology, the kind of process that presupposes an intelligent designer. Teleonomy, in this case, only depends on energy flow (meaning that energy sources and sinks exist) and degrees of freedom within the intermediate system. This principle also explains why even while the Second Law extracts its due — the universe tends toward maximum entropy — locally, within the confines of the semi-closed system, order seems to increase. It is organization, the capture and containment of energy (in bonds, etc.) in the more complicated configurations of components, that constitutes the higher order. So long as energy flows, the system will evolve toward a minimum entropy state in which a steady-state dynamic obtains.
We can say that the system is driven toward higher levels of order and complexity by virtue of a universal law of evolution so long as energy flows through the system.
What happens though if energy flow diminishes? That is a question of primary concern to us right now.
The human social system has evolved as a result of increasing energy flows, especially from fossil sunlight gathered and concentrated over millions of years.
The Second Law will not be trifled with. So long as energy flow is either stable (for a long enough time) or increasing the system will be driven to higher levels of organization. When humans started to extract energy flows from long-term stores like wood, mountain rivers, animals, and later fossil fuels, our technologies and societies could expand and use these energies for our purposes. Fossil fuels in particular have allowed a quantum leap in energy flows through human societies, far overshadowing real-time solar (photosynthesis) by many orders of magnitude.
But we are now on the brink of seeing that flow diminish since fossil fuels are a finite resource and our usage has been growing exponentially for the past two hundred years, roughly. What goes up, must come down. If organization increases while a system is undergoing increased energy flux, it will experience disorganization as the energy flux goes down. We, as a system of nature, face just such a decline. Nothing short of a wholly new source of high potential energy can help us avoid this fate. Most people today do not understand this because they have not grasped the nature of systems or applied systems science to the analysis of our situation.
Might systems science provide some ability to solve this dilemma? Possibly. But the solution might not meet current expectations as to what people think needs to be done. The solution must be feasible such that it can actually, physically, be accomplished. Physical reality isn't widely appreciated right now. Otherwise, we wouldn't be in the predicament! Stay tuned.