Fuel Cuts, Part 2: Entropic Life and Survival of the Fittest

May 28, 2019

Nancy Lee Roane

Written by Cory Knudson

This essay is the second to a four-part series on the social dimensions of energy use. Here is the introduction by editor Nancy Lee Roane.


“Waiter, my soup is cold!” Unless you've unknowingly ordered gazpacho, this complaint can be explained by the tendency for hot things to reach room temperature as their heat—their thermal energy—dissipates. What the cold soup on the table tells us is that in any given system matter and energy tend to spread out to wherever they have access, going from areas of high concentration to areas of low concentration until the system reaches equilibrium. In physics, the word used to describe this process is entropy. The second law of thermodynamics states that entropy tends to increase over time, and the astrophysicist Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington once said that this law “holds supreme position among the laws of nature.” For many, the second law of thermodynamics foretells the demise of all things, spelling out the inevitable heat-death of the universe as the matter and energy congealed in stars, planets, and other celestial bodies—so many bowls of soup on so many astral tables—break apart and spread out to fill all space.

Photo of the galaxy.
Film still from “Nostalgia for the Light,” directed by Patricio Guzmán. Courtesy of Icarus Films. http://icarusfilms.com/if-nost


But what if the second law of thermodynamics can explain origins as well as ends? In 2017, physicist Jeremy England published the results of two experiments supporting his hypothesis that the origins of life can be explained by what he termed dissipation-driven adaptation. England’s experiments follow the work of twentieth-century physical chemist Ilya Prigogine, who contended that when an energy source pushes a system far from equilibrium, the particles in that system would tend to self-organize into increasingly complex structures so as to dissipate more and more energy and thus increase the entropy of their surroundings, following the second law of thermodynamics. Prigogine would win the Nobel Prize in 1977 for his work on dissipative structures, but his findings would not be drawn out to their full implications until recently, when England’s work and subsequent experiments in self-organizing nanosystems would increasingly support the argument for a generalized “physics theory of life.”

This theory transforms how we understand the emergence of life on earth. Once seemingly the result of, as Natalie Walchover puts it, “a primordial soup, a bolt of lightning, and a colossal stroke of luck,” complex biological structures now seem like so many increasingly high-powered furnaces converting energy into heat-waste as lavishly as possible. Thought of as self-organizing dissipative structures, life on earth starts looking like it follows from the basic laws of nature in a way that, according to England, “should be as unsurprising as rocks rolling down a hill.” The fundamental idea, England says, is that “you start with a random clump of atoms, and if you shine a light on it for long enough, it should not be so surprising that you get a plant.”

Photo of flowering trees.
Film still from “The Strange Disappearance of the Bees,” directed by Mark Daniels. Courtesy of Icarus Films. http://icarusfilms.com/if-bees


England has been nicknamed the potential “next Darwin,” though he makes clear that dissipation-driven adaptation does not replace so-called natural selection. It rather reveals that “from the perspective of physics, you might call Darwinian evolution a special case of a more general phenomenon.” “General” here should not be taken lightly—the field of non-equilibrium thermodynamics, after all, encompasses almost all systems found in nature. Recognizing the basic tendency toward dissipation therefore makes it possible to think not only of rocks rolling down a hill and plants photosynthesizing light-energy along the same thermodynamic continuum, but of all earthly entities and processes as partaking of the same energetic movement. Of course, though, to reorient our view of the proliferation of complex biological structures as based on dissipating rather than maximizing energy entails a complete restructuring of the way we think about life. What are the implications of thinking about life itself as a product and process of wasting rather than (or at least rather than just) accumulating energy?

French philosopher Georges Bataille could give us somewhere to start. Writing in the 1930s and 40s, he argued against understanding life as primarily a process of maximizing energy that tends toward increasing efficiency. For Bataille, this notion - at the core of both classical economics and Darwinian evolutionism - was a “restricted” understanding of the movement of energy, limited to the logic of the capitalist market and the “survival of the fittest.” In its place, he proposed a “general” view which encompassed “the study of the movement of energy on the surface of the globe” in its entirety. From this perspective, he argued, energy is, in the end, always in excess, and the primary problem faced by organisms from cells to human beings to nation-states is not so much how to stockpile as how to expend reserves of it. Going against the predominant ideas about the economy (and even life itself) in his time, Bataille argued that the logic of energy isn’t to endlessly accumulate, but to dissipate.

That Bataille seems to have formulated a way of thinking about society in concord with non-equilibrium thermodynamics is no accident. Many of his ideas were honed in conversation with his longtime friend and collaborator, Georges Ambrosino, one of France’s most prominent physicists. Ambrosino was a contemporary of Ilya Prigogine—the progenitor of the theory of dissipation-driven adaptation—as well as a colleague of Louis de Broglie and Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, who in the 30s and 40s were developing their theories of entropy and dissipative structures that form the foundations of England’s recent insights. Bataille’s particular contribution was to bring what would come to be termed dissipation-driven adaptation into the study of how humans function socially.

Photo of the vast night sky.
Film still from “Nostalgia for the Light,” directed by Patricio Guzmán. Courtesy of Icarus Films.


So, pursuing a certain rapprochement between Bataille’s thinking about the “movement of energy on the surface of the globe,” its relation to non-equilibrium thermodynamics, and England’s recent reorientation of the evolution of complex biological life seems like a fertile nexus of inquiry. While much environmentalist literature today, for example, is concerned with curbing energy waste and stockpiling as ruthlessly as we can, rethinking energy in terms of waste, as somehow necessarily wasteful, will present us with novel ways of considering what sustainability might look like moving forward. For Bataille, continuously deferring dissipation whether at the physical, personal, or social level does not make it go away, but rather merely bottles it up until it is forced to express itself in catastrophic fashion, like a sealed soup thermos heated up until it explodes.

Living in the shadow of the atom bomb, Bataille and Ambrosino wondered whether nuclear war was just a catastrophic expression of our tendency to waste when it has been repressed for too long. Today, we might fruitfully wonder whether the similarly (if less immediately spectacular) expression of thermodynamic heat-death embodied in climate change amounts to the same kind of thing. Consciously taking charge of our dissipative tendencies—finding ways to let off steam, as it were—that do not result in environmental degradation might be a better approach to a sustainable future than expecting people to become hermetically sealed little soup thermoses. Taking a creative rather than merely reductive approach to dissipation, in the end, might just keep us from exploding.

Bio: Cory Knudson is a Doctoral Candidate in the Program in Comparative Literature and Literary Theory at the University of Pennsylvania. He also writes for Full-Stop.