give me the awe of understanding over the awe of ignorance every time - Douglas Adams

The Meaning Of Life

The Meaning of Life?

One of the most vigorously enforced laws in the universe is the second law of thermodynamics, which states (and I paraphrase) that the entropy of an isolated system that is not in equilibrium will tend to increase over time. What does this mean and what has this got to do with me you may ask?

Entropy is a word describing the measure of the most obvious and taken for granted phenomena that we see every day. For example, when you make a cup of tea you may add milk or sugar and stir. The result is a cup of tea with milk and sugar nicely mixed. No matter how long you wait the tea, milk and sugar will not spontaneously become unmixed.

Likewise your room does not get tidier and cleaner on its own, it always tends towards chaos. The home you live in will eventually fall to pieces and even the old hills will eventually erode away. This is entropy, the simple fact that all systems tend towards chaos or randomness unless some energy or impetus from outside pushes the system towards order.

Life is perhaps the most obvious example of a force that lowers entropy, where disordered stuff is assembled into more ordered things. A living cell acquires energy from outside in some way that enables the cell to grow and divide. This input may be sunlight, chemicals, other cells or who knows what? The diversity of living systems is just beginning to be understood. The life span of any individual cell is limited, nothing lives forever. Sooner or later entropy in the cell's systems or some external force will cause the death of the cell. The cell breaks apart to perhaps become food for other cells. The individual cell descends into chaos but life goes on. It seems that life has been going on here on planet Earth for a very very long time, so there is something about life itself that is very important for us to understand. How is it that life goes on and survives when chaos and randomness seem to be where the universe is firmly headed. Is there something about understanding the life/entropy balance that we could use as a analogue in our everyday lives? I think there may be!

Any living organism can be viewed as a closed system, but nothing exists in perfect isolation. All living things interact with others of their kind and/or other forms of life. The laws of thermodynamics can also been applied to any living system viewed at any level. Energy in is equal to growth plus energy out. That is in order to grow (in size or order) then more energy must enter the system than is leaving it. This is obvious in the growth of a seed. The seed contains a small amount of stored energy to which is added warmth, sunlight and soil nutrients and time and the result is a larger amount of highly organized material, a flower or a tree for example.

Less obvious perhaps is the application of thermodynamics to social systems. A social grouping whether it is a field of grasses, a herd of wildebeests or human beings can also be viewed is this way. The group is given energy, which allows growth and energy is given out. This of course applies to food converted to growth and movement and excretions, but also to social interactivity. The well ordered group or herd will usually out perform a disordered one. What is the form of energy exchange that bonds groups together? In one form or another I think it could be viewed as giving or sharing. The mother feeds the child they become bonded, the family share food they become bonded, the tribe share language and culture, they become bonded. The more we give the more closely are we bonded together. The universality of sharing food within groups of human beings shows how central and ancient this is to the human success story. It seems to me, that in a healthy society, a person's status is judged by how much they can give not by how much they can own or consume. So viewed with the perspective of thermodynamics the more giving that goes on in a society the more bonding there will be and the more potential there is for growth. We are limited by selfishness and expanded by altruism. A social group where most individuals are able to give more than they get is a group where growth and success are high and entropy is low.

Altruism does not need religious or moral or a supernatural excuse, it is the only sane way to behave. If we humans are to form the universal bond that is a requirement of our long term survival as a species and perhaps fulfil more of our potential we need to give as a matter of course. An ever increasing population divided into groups competing for diminishing natural resources is a road to ruin for all. We need to give if we are going to continue to grow and the more we give the better we will grow. This giving is not just food and possessions but ideas, technology, art, culture and most of all love! And like the old mantra of the environmental movement the way to achieve this is to think globally, act locally.