I suppose I should publish something every once in a while to show that I’m still alive. So …
Why life? Why is our little speck of the universe teeming with complex things that move, reproduce and evolve, all in apparent opposition to the entropic laws that push the rest of the universe closer and closer to a dull, cold uniformity? The secular, scientifically minded among us deny that there is any cosmic teleology which places life on a pedestal, but there’s no denying that living things are quite different from everything else. Life is dynamic and proactive, in stark contrast to the passive and reactive clumps of matter which characterize everything else. Having rejected the élan vital, what is left to explain this dichotomy?
In his 2012 book “What is life?”, Addy Pross offers us ‘dynamic kinetic stability‘ to answer the titular question. Upon reading that compact and clearly articulated text, I was smitten with the idea. But I was also left wanting more. If there is an alternate form of stability that stands in opposition to the stability realized in thermodynamic decay, does it exist on its own as some sort of new law, or is there another explanation for it?
In 2016, Nick Lane published “The Vital Question” to explain the energetic underpinnings of life and it’s advance into greater complexity. I came away with the image of life as an engine for the burning of fuel, and it occurred to me that perhaps Pross’ dynamic kinetic stability is not in competition with thermodynamic decay, but is rather a duplicitous aid to the cause.
Life perpetuates states of low entropy with seemingly reckless disregard for the second law. Or so it wants you to think. Yes, the astounding ordered complexity of living things is, by definition, a low entropy state. But look at what that living thing is doing. It is consuming, transforming and destructing the world around it. Energy is being burned at a rate far beyond that which occurs in its lifeless surroundings. At the micro level, entropy has been lowered by the presence of life, but at the macro level, life is an insatiable engine for the increase in entropy as it proliferates throughout the world it inhabits – even as selection favors the growth of populations and optimizes that which, in isolation, increases entropy at the highest rates.
So is that it? Did life arise, and persist against the pull of entropy at the micro scale, because it wielded a remarkable power to accelerate thermodynamic decay at the macro scale? Could it be that entropy, the universal law of death and decay, is in fact also the cosmic teleology which has brought us life? It seems plausible to me. Of course, I could be wrong – and none of this explains how we got into that low entropy state in the first place.