The Progressive Strangification of Order

The tendency for everything in the Universe
to drift toward more and more complex agendas

by Win Wenger, Ph.D.
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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.

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.”

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.

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.

Selection Itself as an Entropy Reducer

Here we’re looking not directly at Ilya Prigogine’s Nobel Prize-winning findings that complex systems under some conditions, instead of disintegrating into meaningless rubble, actually explode into higher forms of order. Instead, we go back to the simple example in classical thermodynamics where, by pouring a glass of hot water and a glass of cold water into a bucket, what you have and all that you can pour back into the two glasses is luke-warm water. The hot and cold molecules of water have randomized their distribution.

Only if you have someone or some agency acting as a selective gate, passing hot molecules in one direction and cold molecules in the other, can you restore order—i.e., hot and cold concentrations—to that system.

  • Selection on any basis other than random represents some sort of increase in order—i.e., is negentropic.
  • All the time that bioevolution continued on earth between those times of all-consuming catastrophe, selection was at work on non-random bases and thus did cumulatively point life toward higher orders of sophistication—i.e., negentropically. 99.999% of the time life was evolving on Earth, negentropy therein was progressing.
  • The very fact that there are breaks in that line of progress, from the simpler to the more sophisticated, actually helps make the case since the breaks are the product of catastrophic events whose impact on life forms at the time was essentially random, having nothing to do with the “fitness to survive.” The factors (or descriptive principles) making for “fitness to survive” are, therefore, of greater bearing on the universal case than hitherto suspected.
  • Virtually everywhere, then, that life or life-like phenomena exist, somewhere between the extremes of totally unchanging conditions and catastrophic changes which produce 100% rates of extinction, will be found tendencies to evolve from the primitive to the sophisticated…from elaboration of specialties in one set condition to ability to survive over far wider-ranging conditions….from reflex-moment response to being able to take into account more and more different factors in one’s pursuit of one’s needs and wants—i.e., to becoming intelligent.
    (We are reminded that, yes, we still have the primitive with us: protozoa, slime molds, etc. But these each have limited capabilities and would have to evolve far beyond where they are now for them to start pointing to evolutionary trends. Their continued ubiquity is our guarantee, in a sense, that if we do let some new catastrophe happen to Earth, life will continue and start evolving from some new baseline.)

Some further implication can be sensed in all of this when we put together the tendency of conditions to evolve life into coping successfully with wider and more differentiated sets of conditions. Put that tendency together with several other interesting phenomena—

Evolution of Intelligence

It is apparent that Earth’s is an average or near-average case, in terms of the length of time required for this habitat to develop intelligence; and, from that intelligence, civilization; and, from a run of civilizations, an instance where a civilization actually stayed its hand from self-extinction through one major opportunity, that of strategic nuclear warfare. (No guarantee, of course, that we will also stay our hand on any of the many other opportunities we have for creating a new high-extinction-rate catastrophe.)

Earth can be counted as average not because we are here and therefore where we’re looking from has to be the middle. Rather, periods of many millions of years of unchanging conditions are inefficient in evolution; as are also those catastrophes which undo so much of the preceding sophistication. So out of the huge variety of conditions obtaining throughout the Universe, there have to be settings more efficient or faster in giving rise to these universal tendencies than those of our Earth, just as obviously there must be many, many places even where life is flourishing that must have settings less efficient, slower.

Prevalence of Life

It’s increasingly evident that planetary settings for life, in the physical universe, must be relatively frequent because planets themselves are so frequent. Until a few years ago we had never observed planets even around nearby suns. Now it seems that almost all stars and all types of stars have planets. Even if only one in a thousand can bear life, that means billions of instances even in just our one galaxy, the Milky Way Galaxy, one of the smaller of the billions of galaxies now within reach of our scopes.

(It also appears that most of the “missing” mass or dark matter of the Universe may actually be comprised of planets, ranging from the planetesimal to “brown dwarf,” though most of these are wandering lifelessly in the cold of interstellar space—a marvelous resource for some future technology to develop!)

Nor are we limited to planetary environs as the habitat for life to evolve and flourish. Even within the range of what we recognize to be organic, huge interstellar clouds of organic compounds, each aggregating more mass than the Earth itself, are to be found almost everywhere in space.

Infinitely Evolving

Such abundances, taken together with the tendencies set by evolutionary selection through dynamics which apparently pertain everywhere, and also taken together with the prospect that some habitats evolved life and went on beyond our own present levels long since, mean that we have to look at each of the characteristics which selective evolution necessarily selects for, and examine the case in which that tendency or tendencies may be extended to infinity.

(It seems we might not have to assume God or a god creating the Universe in order to come up with the possibility that, even if the Universe in the beginning did not have a universal being as part of the picture, one emerged long since.)

Take to infinity such tendencies as not only intelligence but the taking into account of more and more factors, and survival over a wider and wider range of conditions — either overwhelming all environments or finding more and more supportive and mutually supportive ecological ways to involve with all environments, and at this late juncture we here still exist! —and the general mutually-supportive tendencies which move specific species from predation and parasitism toward symbiosis. Can this be love? — Or are we a farm, and what’s getting harvested? If we can put aside some old and emotional assumptions and do some fresh thinking on fresh data, we might obtain some useful or even practical insights.

We don’t even have to go to such ultimate(?) levels to find ourselves neck-deep in some pretty large considerations. And that brings us toward the general situation which the title of this exploration reflects:— the general strangification of everything in the Universe.

Theory of Involvement

When this writer was first pointing out that selection of any kind which is not random will tend toward higher order, he also pointed out that Wiener missed in another serious regard as well. If one begins with the assumption of pure chaotic randomness—the very condition toward which Wiener assumed we were headed—one finds elements in collision or in other interactions.

By high-probability statistical definition, some of these interactions end immediately and those elements go on toward other interactions; some interactions last a while; some interactions last a long while. Thus, even in such absolute chaos, some interactions or systems are selected for in favor of those which continue for some time. Even such absolute chaos, then, has some tendency to clot up toward order, toward some sort of arrangement of longer-lasting interaction-systems.

(All of this was specified in Win Wenger, Civilizations and Other Living Systems [1972, when Prigogene was winning the Nobel for his rather specialized form of negentropy], and in Win’s Toward A General Theory of Systems [1979].)

Among all the different possible longer-lasting interaction systems, those which hit upon replication of themselves from among the elements available in the soup would soon outnumber by selection all other kinds of system and enormously enrich the incidence among which other aspects of selection could be selecting. And so on for all the other various features recognized in the terrestrial instance of bioevolution (and other episodes of evolution including social in its various forms), up to and including Cope’s Law of Survival of the Unspecialized, which gives us the kicking-off point for emergence of intelligence.

This, then, may be regarded as the Specific Theory of Involvement—that, even if starting under initially chaotic conditions, more and more of the elements within the Universe tend to become involved in complex systems defined first by their ability to sustain themselves over a variety of conditions (complex homeostasis), then also defined by other survival-supporting characteristics identified in bioevolutionary example. This is negentropy on a pretty large scale.

Beyond that, we see a truly universal tendency of everything to get caught up in more and more complex arrangements, of which this tendency toward complex homeostasis with other survival characteristics is only one example. Even in classical interference-pattern physics (most of whose usefulness to us may still be ahead of us!), starting with the primitive example of intermodulation between two closely-related tones, even the slightest difference in one tone makes huge differences—but in an orderly, predictable way—in the intermodulant product. That creates “space” or “room” or “opportunity” for many iterative instances to develop.

Moving on to the much more general fractal or chaos theory, where even the slightest, undetectable initial difference makes huge differences in outcome but in ways our mathematics are not yet up to predicting—hence the bit about “butterflies in China creating hurricanes in the Yucatan”—often or even usually with many strange attractors:

  • Everything in the Universe sooner or later gets caught up in one or more of these complex arrangements, complexly homeostatic systems, and reiterative situations, usually in many of these simultaneously, and at various differing levels.
  • Virtually everything around us and in us is caught up in and a member of such complex arrangements, reiterative situations and complexly homeostatic systems. More and more of everything is more and more strangified, responding to more and more differentiated tugs of influence.
  • Civilizations undergoing this increasing mix of emotions, agendas and whatever other factors of influence, consider themselves to have “lost their innocence.” Our failure to comprehend these changes in turn further complexifies matters for everyone else and for ourselves—and our successful understanding of them also further complexifies matters for everyone else and for ourselves, only we get to appreciate it more.—And to have a better chance of numbering ourselves among the survivors.
  • To the extent that we can bring ourselves to understand such reiterative situations, complex arrangements and complexly homeostatic systems, we can better understand and cope with what’s going on.

An example of this last is the Win-Win Finder or “Incentive Equilibrium Analysis” system for creatively solving problems, which assumes that most long-lasting problems and those involving substantial numbers of people are complexly homeostatic systems. Identifying and intercepting the feedbacks by means of which such systems maintain their homeostasis allows one to change—solve—those problem situations with little cost in energy, where conventional solution-seeking methods which ignore and try thus to override those feedbacks, are costly and moreover usually fail. The problem keeps bouncing back into place.


We can now draw a much clearer picture, from the bioevolutionary terrestrial example, of where certain universal descriptive principles are directing the course of events. The scope for action of these principles is comprehensively inclusive. In detail and in general, the considerations thus derived point to very different perspectives from those we grew up with or even those which are mostly held now.

If we can bring ourselves to better understand these principles or mechanisms, a key segment of which is summed up in the descriptions of general systems theory and chaos/fractal theory, we can better understand and cope with what we are facing (and not facing!). One entire CPS process with many applications has already come out of the beginnings of such understanding, but far, far more is there to be found.

Chaos and new higher order are very much descriptive of the phenomenon of creativity itself. Those of us associated with the professional practice of creative method need to comprehend these larger, more universal patterns of the phenomena which we purport professionally to address.

This brief is adapted from notes originally presented at the Extending Program, Creative Problem-Solving Institute, June 24, 1996.

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