Re: Evolution and Thermodynamics

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Posted by Chris Bauch ( on December 06, 2002 at 12:41:31:

In Reply to: Evolution and Thermodynamics posted by Nick Stone on December 04, 2002 at 22:50:33:


People have written entire books on complexity and how to define it, so whether humans are more or less complex than '100 kg of amoebas' depends partly on your definition of the term.

Having said that, there are good definitions and bad definitions. Furthermore, everyone has an intuitive idea of what the term means. For example, a car is more complex than a hammer, according to most people. It is difficult to define compexity without getting into a circular argument, but what the various definitions of complexity seem to have in common is that, according to them, complex systems are constituted by many interacting factors which all have a role in working together to produce a result that is difficult to infer from the constituent factors alone. Something is 'complex' if it is hard to understand, due to the many issues which must be taken into consideration in order to make sense out of the observed behavior. A car is complex because the many component car parts combine in mysterious ways to produce speed, sound and motion. An eye is complex because of the incredible amount of cell differentiation and interacting layers of tissue that are necessary for it to work.

Tied in to this definition of complexity is the idea of layers of organization. For example, if we look at a car just in terms of its parts, it is a very simple system. We can understand individually what a fuel line does, what brake pads do, etc. However, the combined result is understood in terms of speed, mileage, etc, and the relationship between the individual car parts, and the higher level concepts of speed and mileage, is hard to understand unless you have a degree in engineering!

With biological organisms it is the same. If we consider individual cells of the human body, they are not much more complex than your average amoeba. However, taken together, the human cells work in harmony to produce a combined result which can be called 'happy' or 'fast' or 'tall' or 'russian' or 'humble', etc. This cannot be said of '100 kg of amoebas' because 100 kg of amoebas is still just 100 kg of amoebas.

In biological organisms there is more than just two layers of organisation. The history of evolution suggests that simple bacteria combined together and became part of the 'body' of more complex, eukaryotic cells. These simple bacteria specialized and were essentially subsumed into the next layer of organisation, the eukaryotic cells. These eukaryotic cells in turn became part of multicellular colonies, which in turn developed into distinct creatures such as plants and animals. The cells became highly specialized. So an animal has several layers of organisation more than a bacterium, and can meaningfully be called more complex than a bacterium because the whole is indeed more than the sum of its parts.

So the amount of complexity on the planet is indeed increasing over time. This is not to say that evolution is a ladder leading from least complex to most complex. Rather, complexity can be seen as an epiphenomenon which depends on a less complex stratum. The reason that evolution is not a ladder is simple. Dinosaurs were the most complex organisms on the planet 70 million years ago, but an asteroid killed them and spared simpler bacteria. The bacteria were more fit than the fast, strong dinosaurs! So evolution is not a ladder leading to greater complexity. However, over time, we see a greater diversity of organisms with more levels of organisation, and hence one can meaningfully say that complexity is increasing in the world.

The reason why humans are the most complex organisms on the planet is that we have an extra layer of organisation. Each human is part of a completely new layer of organisation called 'society'. In a sense we are highly specialized 'cells' in a complex societal organism. Naturally, other animals also have societies (examples include whales and chimpanzees). However no animal takes it to such a high degree of specialization and intricacy as humans do. Although one can find humans that make a living exploiting one tiny aspect of their potential (e.g. basketball playing, foot surgery, being a hermit), the diversity among humans is greater than among chimpanzees, for example, all of whom must be good at gathering food and fighting and are hence relatively unspecialized.

This way of thinking about complexity is compatible with what Abdu'l Baha says about the four kingdoms. Accoding to Abdu'l Baha (or I should say Baha'u'llah), minerals are subsumed by plants are subsumed by animals are subsumed by humans. The procession from bacteria to eukaryotes to multicellular colonies to animals to societies is essentially the same process of developing layers of organisation, but re-expressed in modern terminology. The purpose of spirituality is to make sure we live together in peace, like the different parts of the same body operating in harmony with one another, each part according to its unique capacities and roles (another apt and relevant metaphor from the Writings), and hence we are developing the next level of organisation in the long history of life on this planet. Having said that, we should remember that complex human societies rest upon more basic strata of organisation (remember the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs), and that our efforts to build a spiritual society are simply an extension of a historical evolutionary trend towards greater complexity. This, I feel, should be a source of both humility and a source of inspiration as to our unique role here.

More later on the quantum stuff, and other issues...


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