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The Progressive
Strangification
of Order
A resource of The Center for Creativity in the Sciences
The tendency for everything in the Universe
to drift toward more and more complex agendas

by Win Wenger, Ph.D.


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Introduction
Before chaos and fractal theory, astronomers used to worry about the "3-body problem." They could calculate nicely for two bodies of any size orbiting gravitationally around a single point, even when one body was much more massive than the other and the common point around which they both rotated was within the one more massive body, as with normal planets and moons, for example. They could not begin to calculate the orbital paths where more than one common point is the center of mass for the system. For triple stars, other multiple star systems, and for planets orbiting these or even merely double stars, they simply threw up their hands.
 

Moiré pattern by Jacob Yerex
"Attractors" — Moiré pattern by Jacob Yerex
 

In chaos and fractal theory — defined by the behavior of systems with more than one center of attraction, each attractor "strange" to the other — we are just beginning to become able to describe such trajectories mathematically, even though we are as yet unable to predict them. Already we have learned that the seemingly eternal arrangement of our own solar system is itself "unstable" in such a manner, producing actual changes in orbits of the planets including that of Earth, over geologic-long eras of time.

(Speculation:   This might well be the driving force causing Earth to evolve ecosystems which maintain our world within biologically acceptable conditions under our 10-mile shell of atmosphere, despite changes in amounts, distribution and direction of insolation and/or of other physical conditions. The "Gaia Hypothesis" on another level?)
These and related matters, in turn, are only a specific instance within a much larger pattern or tendency, which may be described as "negentropic" in nature.

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Wiener's extension of thermodynamics
Norbert Wiener, on the grounds that all information and all structure represent forms of energy, extended the original classical concepts of the Laws of Thermodynamics to describe all forms of energy. In the classical model, one can obtain energy available for work (differentiated, so it can flow between one level and another) only at the expense of energy available for work elsewhere.

His model, though generally accepted, was not popular because it was very pessimistic. Not only would the physical Universe eventually die a "heat death" in which everything in effect became a tepid "luke warm," no areas warmer from which to flow and no areas cooler into which to flow. Said flow is between differences in energy level, just as differences in water level, channeled to flow through the appropriate mechanisms, generate "work" in the hydroelectric sense.

Because all information is energy, all information tends toward its most probable distribution, that of error and meaninglessness. All structures likewise tend to break down and become rubble. This general tendency of everything to break down into lukewarm meaninglessness is, in fact, the tendency found in all arrangements to increase in randomness or in what thermodynamicists call "entropy."

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Early contradictions of entropy
Many theorists were impelled for emotional reasons to look for a countervailing universal tendency, that of negative entropy or "negentropy." Many were arguing a case for "negentropy" before any sound base was found for it.

The emotional and popular thrust toward some sort of belief in "negentropy" was exacerbated by the popular value, in Western culture in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, of a strong belief in "progress," reflecting a succession of technological and scientific advances, economic and social gains characterizing the era, and mixed in with other if somewhat misleading issues such as "white man's burden," Darwinism and Social Darwinism in its various forms.

Our history and anthropology professions and literature to this day carry remnants of this attitude, to the point of reflexively assuming previous generations even in our own society to be relatively naive and even the wise men of the past in various cultures to be relatively simple-minded. (Machiavelli—please hide your head for a few convenient moments...)

Cultural anthropology reflexively dismisses any evidence even that relatively high physical technologies may have existed in previous eras, as well as periods of world-wide commerce long before Columbus or even the Vikings. Anything is reflexively dismissed which does not support the popular notion that we here and now represent the very highest point of human advance thus far, and that the further back one goes in time the more primitive conditions necessarily become.

A less emotional argument, and one of perhaps greater value, was that of biological evolution itself, from which popular forms of Darwinism emerged. In its original form—one which had two major flaws—the matter was simply this:   the geological record showed and shows a successive evolution of life forms in which, taken at least as a most general whole, more complex and sophisticated life forms exist today (including homo sap.) than did hundreds of millions of years ago.

This flies in the face of the universal tendency of everything to degrade toward meaninglessness. Norbert Wiener's response to this is the thesis that it is temporarily possible, from time to time, to isolate localized pools of increasing order within the overall slide toward entropy, but only at the expense of ordered energy from elsewhere (that of our sun, in this instance); and however efficiently or inefficiently this is done, the eventual end result is still that high-entropy blahdom.

The bioevolutionary case grows much stronger when the "survival of the fittest" argument is introduced to account for such overall progress from the primitive to the sophisticated in the geological record. Elaborate life forms sometimes do come crashing, but when "survival of the fittest" is extended by Alexander Cope to include "fittest to survive in both previous and new conditions," in his Law of Survival of the Unspecialized, a very compelling picture emerges in which life forms generally tend to develop more and more complex characteristics in pursuit of marginal advantages.

However, conditions change from time to time, and those whose adaptations are mainly specialized, and thus dependent upon the old conditions, tend to lose out. Those whose sophistications allow them to live under the old conditions but also under the new, replace the specialized. Humans in this view are seen as the apex (thus far) of this tendency:  each of our specializations—footedness, handedness, big-brains, and speech—enabled us to live in far wider a range of conditions than what we sacrificed.

This argument in turn gains further force when the observation is added that the same most general conditions which drove evolution here on Earth likely prevail virtually everywhere else that physical conditions permit eventual emergence of complexly self-maintaining, self-reproducing and varying systems.

A generally stable environment in which such forms can flourish and multiply, occasionally shifted by some change in conditions, results in survival advantage of those whose elaborating adaptations allow more possibilities than they sacrifice. This part of the case, in turn, bears directly upon the main modern case for "negentropy," as we shall see below.

Only in the last few years has the original form of this case—life proceeding inexorably toward higher and more sophisticated forms of order—been shattered. We've learned that 67 million years ago, a comet smashed into the planet and destroyed the ecosystem of which the dinosaurs were a part, with tidal waves, world-wide forest fires and blast effect being only the start of a destruction which wiped out of existence 80% to 90% of all the species then living on land, in the sea, and most notably in the air.

(This discovery is reportedly the main factor which prevented us from replicating the same effect by unleashing a nuclear winter, and which eventually helped lead to the end of the Cold War.)
Years of loss of protection by the ozone layer; thousands of years of poisoning of both land and sea from the rotting incinerated remains; thousands of years of disruption of the CO2 cycle via the slow rollover of the ocean waters—this almost unimaginable catastrophe was only one of three, at least, which occurred during the course of bioevolution here on Earth and which profoundly altered that course.

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Negentropy takes a beating
It is in the details of the dinosaurian catastrophe, however, that the original bioevolutionary case for negentropy took its severest beating. Where and when the comet hit made all the difference as to what survived, all over the planet, beyond the immediate impact range. A crash in the sea is far worse than one on the land—so much water-vapor is released (and continues for a while to be boiled off over the hotspot) that whatever isn't washed into the sea by the immediate tidal waves will be so by a succession of Category 5+ hurricanes.

With a landing at the time of spring in the northern hemisphere, species whose habitats were there suffered far worse than those in the southern hemisphere, whose 6-months-later growing season had to cope with only a little of the stratospheric dust pall. All these, and other elements peculiar to each of these extraterrestrial impact catastrophes, have naught to do with "fitness" in bioevolutionary terms. It was a matter of chance, defined by the particulars of the specific catastrophe, as to what species—and what types of species—survived and which did not.

Other discoveries dealt the coup de grace to the original case that negentropy happens because the geologic record shows a progression of life forms from primitive to modern-sophisticated. Many of the dinosaurs—especially the carnivores and most especially the later carnivores—were highly intelligent, though no one has yet voiced the hypothesis that saurian sapiens or even a saurian culture or civilization may have existed before the catastrophe, all signs of which would of course presumably have long since disappeared over 67 million years. Most of the dinosaurs were warm-blooded; some herded; some took prolonged care of their young.

The closer we look at dinosaurs, the more such features we discover. And we had long since assumed that our survival and emergence, and their extinction, were due to our more sophisticated species' developing these features which they presumably lacked.

If that weren't enough, geologists discovered many sophisticated species in their heyday, before the yet earlier catastrophe which cleared the way for the dinosaurs to emerge(!), which had already a remarkable mixture of mammalian and reptilian characteristics, denting still further the simple model of life progressing from amphibian to reptile to mammal to that wonderful apex of all lifekind, us.

In summary to this point, then, the example of life's progression from simple to sophisticated as demonstrating a universal tendency toward negentropy, offsetting Wiener's pessimistic model, took a beating because so much of the course of evolution has happened due to chance event rather than selective "fitness to survive," and because the closer we look at prehistoric life forms the more and higher-order sophistication we discover within them.

Yet overall, it is clear that from pre-Cambrian days to the present, life has progressed from simple one-celled microorganisms to what we have today. (The defining event which ended the pre-Cambrian and gave rise to the Cambrian, by the way, was another extraterrestrial impact and mass extinction.) Some of the specific mechanisms by means of which this progress happened, in those long intervals between the major catastrophes, emerge as descriptive natural principles which point toward similar development everywhere else in the Universe, namely that life of some sort can emerge and persist short of events producing 100% extinction rates.

These natural principles, together with some of the principles of modern systems theory, interference-pattern physics and chaos/ fractal theory, show us an apparently very clear path toward negentropy—indeed, toward universal negentropy on an almost unimaginable scale and comprehensiveness.

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