The Cosmic Context (A Brief History of Organic Life)

The atom is a pattern, and the molecule is a pattern, and the crystal is a pattern; but the stone, although it is made up of these patterns, is just a mere confusion. . . .

—Aldous Huxley

One of the most influential science books of the twentieth century was an ultra-slim volume, written by the physicist Erwin Schrodinger, called What Is Life? Published in 1944, it helped inspire James Watson and Francis Crick, among other future eminences, to study life’s hereditary material.

So what is the answer? What is life? There are questions I don’t purport to answer in this topic, and that is one of them. But briefly pondering it will help answer some questions that are central to this topic. For example: Why is it one book, instead of two? Aren’t organic evolution and human history sufficiently different to demand separate treatment?

Early on, I claimed that the answer is no—that the two processes naturally constitute a single story. This claim of unity has several dimensions. First, the claim is that the two processes have common dynamics; "evolution" isn’t just a catchy metaphor for cultural change; at some basic level, cultural evolution and biological evolution have the same machinery. Second, they have the same fuel; the energetic interplay between zero-sum and non-zero-sum forces has been similarly pervasive in the two evolutions. Third, the two processes have parallel directions—long-run growth in non-zero-sumness, and thus in the depth and scope of complexity. Indeed, organic evolution, given long enough, was very likely to produce creatures so complex, and so intelligent, as to be capable of sponsoring cultural evolution—a cultural evolution that would then naturally extend evolution’s general drift toward deeper and vaster complexity.

All of this is what the next three topics are about—showing that, on a number of grounds, it makes sense to see all of history since the primordial ooze as a single creative thrust. But the first step toward doing that is to get clear—or, at least, clearer—on what was so neat about the primordial ooze in the first place: What is life?


Schrodinger saw life against the backdrop of the second law of thermodynamics. The second law (in case your mastery of thermodynamics has decomposed over time) is the one that sounds so depressing: entropy—disorder—grows inexorably; structure decays. The logical culmination of this trend is a day when all molecules are randomly distributed. No planets, no stars—nothing but ameness; the universe, as if it had been run through an unusually large Cuisinart, will be a vast puree.

The process is observable even in smaller spaces, and over a shorter time frame, here on earth. Pour cream in coffee, and the initial distinctions in color, texture, and temperature fade, as does the motion created by the pouring. Generally speaking, Schrodinger observed, systems left alone for very long will become motionless and of uniform temperature; eventually, "the whole system fades away into a dead, inert lump of matter."

What makes life so strange is its seeming exception to this rule. Unlike cups of coffee, organisms preserve distinctions—between kidneys and stomachs, between leaves and stems. "It is by avoiding the rapid decay into the inert state," Schrodinger wrote, "that an organism appears so enigmatic."

What’s the trick? Is life defying the second law of thermodynamics? No. The process of living, like all other processes, raises the total amount of entropy in the universe, destroying order and structure. Ever compare a five-course meal with the ensuing excrement? Something has been lost.

Obviously, something has been gained, too. The growth of an organism creates new order and structure. But on balance, says the second law, the organism has to consume more order than it creates. And so it does. The key to staying alive (Write this down!) is to hang on to the order and expel the disorder. As Schrodinger put it, "the essential thing in metabolism is that the organism succeeds in freeing itself from all the entropy it cannot help producing while alive." So order grows locally even as it declines universally.

Still, if life doesn’t violate the letter of the law, it violates the spirit of the law. To read the second law, you wouldn’t expect these islands of structure to arise and persist. Yet the islands not only persist; they grow, by virtue of a crafty trade policy: import structured things (five-course meals) and export less structured things.

How, exactly, does importing structure help life preserve its own structure? What life is mainly after isn’t structure in some generic sense, but rather structured energy. After all,everyday experience shows us that if energy is to be of any use, it has to be in structured, concentrated form. The heat in a campfire’s embers can be used to boil water, but only because it is concentrated in the embers. Once the second law has done its work, and all the embers’ heat has diffused into the air, the energy, though still around, is of no use. The key to exploiting energy is to get near a nice, distinct package of the stuff and then capture some of it as it degrades into more entropic, less useful form. It is this captured energy that life uses to build and replenish its structure, to arrange matter into distinctly ordered form and keep it there, notwithstanding the universal tide of entropy.

Thus, when you eat a hamburger, you are ingesting structured, hence usable, energy. This structured energy was donated by a cow, which got the energy from grass, which in turn got the energy from sunlight, which carried the sun’s energy to the Earth in concentrated little packets. At every link in this chain, the total amount of entropy in the universe grew, and the total amount of usable energy dropped, along with the total amount of order. Still,here on planet Earth, more and more usable energy was crammed into small organicspaces, and the total amount of order grew, folded into more and more complex forms.


Some cultural evolutionists have put great stress on the role of energy technology in cultural evolution. That’s not surprising. After all, inherent in cultural evolutionism is the idea that human societies are in some ways like organisms. And, as we’ve just seen, the very essence of an organism is that it captures and processes energy; it uses this structured energy to (among other things) create structured matter: fingernails, fur, bones, beaks, brains—all the things whose ongoing existence constitutes defiance of the spirit of the second law. Certainly a cultural evolutionist can be forgiven for asking: Well, then, can the same be said for a human society?

Pretty much. Like individual organisms, societies convert energy into material structures. Even the simplest hunter-gatherer societies take energy in the form of food and use it to build shelter . A societies get more complex, energy technologies change. Farming replaces hunting and gathering as the source of human energy, and human energy gets supplemented by nonhuman energy—oxen, waterwheels, steam engines. But one thing stays the same; energy keeps getting invested in structure, albeit more complex structure: temples, factories, jetliners. Indeed, even leaving aside all these material accomplishments, the people themselves, in a less concrete but real sense, constitute structures. A marching army, a cheering crowd, even a far-flung corporation amount to coordinated, hence orderly, arrangements of bodies. These human structures, like the nonhuman kind, depend on energy. And—also like the nonhuman kind—they tend to get more complex as cultural evolution advances.

Rather as an organism’s various structures preserve the organism against entropic forces, at least some of a society’s structures protect the society against disintegration. Certainly that’s true of the walls of Jericho, perhaps the oldest living monument to agricultural productivity. Even a chiefdom’s temples—regardless of whether they were tools of oppression and mass control or of benign coordination—were in some sense integrative, keeping a large society ordered, organically coherent. And the corporations that provide a society with food or clothing, as well as the armies that defend it, are there to stave off atrophy or disruption.

The comparison between society and organism should certainly be kept on a leash. For one thing, energy use is less frivolous, more consistently functional, within an organism than within a society. Still, comparing organisms and societies has its payoffs, and justifies some of the attention that cultural evolutionists have paid to energy technologies.

And yet, during part I of this topic, I put most of the emphasis on information technologies. Indeed, I argued that what is commonly called the first energy revolution— the coming of farming—was probably more important as an information revolution; the residential density allowed by farming brought a quantum leap in the size and efficiency of the "invisible brain."

Why my seeming preoccupation with information technology? In part, perhaps, because we’re living in the information age, and, like most people, I tend to see the past in terms of the present. But there is another reason for treating information with respect. Though both information and energy are fundamental, information is in charge. In human societies, energy (and matter, for that matter) is guided by information—not the other way around.


One of the first cultural evolutionists to emphasize this fact was Kent Flannery. Even in fairly simple hunter-gatherer bands, he wrote in 1972, there are often "informal headmen, who collect and distribute knowledge about which groves of edible nuts have been thoroughly harvested, which canyons currently have high concentrations of game, and so on."

At higher levels of social complexity, too, information is running the show. Chiefs give signals that channel human energy into the construction of temples. They give signals that determine how many spear should be made and when the spear hould be carried off to war. And they do all this only after receiving signals about the state of things in the world.

Ancient states also processed information—often in bureaucratic form—to process energy and matter. So too with modern markets; the invisible hand, as we’ve seen, is utterly dependent on an invisible brain, a decentralized system of data processing. All told, Flannery argued, "one of the main trends" in cultural evolution is "a gradual increase in capacity for information processing, storage, and analysis."

Does the comparison between organism and society hold up here, too? Do plants and animals process information to process energy and matter?

Yes, all living things do. Even the lowly E. coli bacterium does. When in an energy-poor environment, it synthesizes a molecule called cyclic AMP that then binds to the DNA, prompting the DNA to initiate the construction of a flagellum, a tail that whips around, sending the bacterium wimming off until it finds energy-rich environs. The cyclic AMP molecule is a kind of symbol, whose meaning is rather like the meaning of a hunter-gatherer’s report to the headman that the local nut groves are barren. And the DNA that responds to the symbol by triggering the construction of a tail is rather like the headman who assimilates the evidence of scarcity and suggests that the band relocate.

The word "meaning" isn’t meant loosely here. Charles S. Peirce, founder of the philosophy known as pragmatism, believed that the "meaning" of a message is the behavior it induces, behavior appropriate to the information the message carries about the state of the environment. In this sense, a cyclic AMP molecule has genuine meaning. It leads to behavior (relocation) appropriate to the information conveyed (a local energy shortage).

In the course of wisely relocating, the E. coli belies the old notion that DNA is merely a "blueprint" for construction of the organism. DNA isn’t just data; it is a data processor. Long after a human being has been "built," the DNA in each cell continues to do what E. coli s DNA does: absorb information from its environment (which, in the case of humans, is often other cells) and govern its cell’s behavior accordingly. And, for that matter, during the building of the organism, DNA is processing information about the larger environment and shaping the organism accordingly—adjusting a child’s skin hue to the intensity of sunlight, for example. From birth until death, DNA is brainier than any blueprint.

Data processing permeates even trivial-seeming organic functions. When grass grows upward instead of downward, its cell surfaces have sensed which direction holds more light and heat, and conveyed data reflecting that fact to the DNA, which then deploys signals governing growth. When a broken bone heals, signals must first relay the fact of the injury, and then other signals guide various construction projects, from protective swelling to bone mending.

Even at the level of individual molecules, building and preserving structure in the face of entropy has to involve a kind of information processing, a kind of discernment. The Nobel Prize-winning molecular biologist Jacques Monod observed that protein molecules have the "ability to ‘recognize’ other molecules" by their shape—and thus array themselves into orderly arrangements. "At work here is, quite literally, a microscopic discriminative (if not ‘cognitive’) faculty." This "elective discrimination"makes living things "appear to escape the fate pelled out by the second law of thermodynamics." At all levels of any organism, information guides energy and matter in ways that preserve structure—much as it does in human societies.

There is one further analogy between organisms and societies. It isn’t just that in both cases energy is marshaled in a way that sustains and protects structure. And it isn’t just that this marshaling is always guided by information. It is that it is the function of the information to guide the marshaling. The inter-cellular and intra-cellular messenger systems involved in fingernail or bone construction evolved to guide such construction; they were preserved by natural selection because they helped preserve the core of life’s structure, the DNA. And the same is true of the information-processing system that governs the construction of huts and temples and skyscrapers, and the maintenance of corporations and armies.

I don’t mean that people are genetically endowed with cerebral programs for building temples and running armies. I mean that, more generally, people are genetically endowed with the proclivity to think about building things and orchestrating social enterprises, and to communicate about these projects; and that these genetically based data-processing proclivities were favored by natural selection because they helped sustain DNA, helped keep people alive. Cultural information, like all previous forms of organic information, was created to preserve and protect genetic information.

Viewed against the backdrop of all of life, then, culture was in one sense nothing new: just another data-processing system invented by natural selection to marshal energy and matter in ways that preserve DNA. But it was the first of these systems that began to take on a life of its own, inaugurating a whole new kind of evolution. Natural selection, after inventing brainier and brainier forms of DNA, long ago invented brains—and then finally, in our species, invented a particularly impressive brain, a brain that could sponsor a whole new kind of natural selection.


One of the first cultural evolutionists to emphasize energy technologies was Leslie White. Indeed, some mark the mid-twentieth-century renaissance of interest in cultural evolutionism to the publication in 1943 of his paper "Energy and the Evolution of Culture." White was also among the cultural evolutionists who more or less ignored information technologies. In a way, this is not surprising. His landmark paper came out a year before Schrodinger’s book appeared, a decade before DNA was discerned, and decades before science had truly grasped the pervasive role of biological information in upholding the integrity of organisms. Thus his attempts to import insights from biology into the social sciences met with limited success. He observed that the question "What holds systems together?" is "as fundamental to sociology as it is to biology," but he couldn’t carry the analysis further. Presumably the key was a "force," but in the social sciences we "have no name for this force unless we call it solidarity," and "what its name, if any, is in biology, we do not know."

Well, now we do. In societies, in organisms, in cells, the magic glue is information. Information is what synchronizes the parts of the whole and keeps them in touch with each other as they collectively resist disruption and decay. Information is what allows life to defy the spirit, though not the letter, of the second law of thermodynamics. Information marshals the energy needed to build and replenish the structures that the entropic currents of time tirelessly erode. And this information isn’t some mysterious "force," but, rather, physical stuff: the patterned sound waves that my vocal chords send to your ear, the firing of neurons in a brain, the hormones that regulate blood sugar, the cyclic AMP molecule in a bacterium. Information is a structured form of matter or energy whose generic function is to sustain and protect structure. It is what directs matter and energy to where they are needed, and in so doing brushes entropy aside, so that order can grow locally even as it declines universally—so that life can exist.

Ever ince the primordial ooze, information technology has stayed at the center of the story. From DNA to the brain to the Internet, information processor keep spawning bigger information processor , and being subsumed by them. Life keeps violating the spirit of the second law on a grander and grander cale. Only by seeing this epic story in its full sweep—not just the last 30,000 years, but the previous several billion—can we address the question of whether it had, in any sense, an author.

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