Entropy, Evolution, Information (Entro, Evo, Info)

How is entropy relevant to human affairs? Life and happiness depend on an infinitesimal sliver of orderly arrangements of matter amid the astronomical number of possibilities. Our bodies are improbable assemblies of molecules, and they maintain that order with the help of other improbabilities: the few substances that can nourish us, the few materials in the few shapes that can clothe us, shelter us, and move things around to our liking. Far more of the arrangements of matter found on Earth are of no worldly use to us, so when things change without a human agent directing the change, they are likely to change for the worse. The Law of Entropy is widely acknowledged in everyday life in sayings such as “Things fall apart,” “Rust never sleeps,” “Shit happens,” “Whatever can go wrong will go wrong,” and (from the Texas lawmaker Sam Rayburn) “Any jackass can kick down a barn, but it takes a carpenter to build one.”


One reason the cosmos is filled with so much interesting stuff is a set of processes called self-organization, which allow circumscribed zones of order to emerge.5 When energy is poured into a system, and the system dissipates that energy in its slide toward entropy, it can become poised in an orderly, indeed beautiful, configuration—a sphere, spiral, starburst, whirlpool, ripple, crystal, or fractal. The fact that we find these configurations beautiful, incidentally, suggests that beauty may not just be in the eye of the beholder. The brain’s aesthetic response may be a receptiveness to the counter-entropic patterns that can spring forth from nature


Once self-organizing processes of physics and chemistry gave rise to a configuration of matter that could replicate itself, the copies would make copies, which would make copies of the copies, and so on, in an exponential explosion. The replicating systems would compete for the material to make their copies and the energy to power the replication. Since no copying process is perfect—the Law of Entropy sees to that—errors will crop up, and though most of these mutations will degrade the replicator (entropy again), occasionally dumb luck will throw one up that’s more effective at replicating, and its descendants will swamp the competition. As copying errors that enhance stability and replication accumulate over the generations, the replicating system—we call it an organism—will appear to have been engineered for survival and reproduction in the future, though it only preserved the copying errors that led to survival and reproduction in the past.


Information is what gets accumulated in a genome in the course of evolution. The sequence of bases in a DNA molecule correlates with the sequence of amino acids in the proteins that make up the organism’s body, and they got that sequence by structuring the organism’s ancestors—reducing their entropy—into the improbable configurations that allowed them to capture energy and grow and reproduce.

Information is also collected by an animal’s nervous system as it lives its life. When the ear transduces sound into neural firings, the two physical processes—vibrating air and diffusing ions—could not be more different. But thanks to the correlation between them, the pattern of neural activity in the animal’s brain carries information about the sound in the world. From there the information can switch from electrical to chemical and back as it crosses the synapses connecting one neuron to the next; through all these physical transformations, the information is preserved.


Human intelligence remains the benchmark for the artificial kind, and what makes Homo sapiens an unusual species is that our ancestors invested in bigger brains that collected more information about the world, reasoned about it in more sophisticated ways, and deployed a greater variety of actions to achieve their goals. They specialized in the cognitive niche, also called the cultural niche and the hunter-gatherer niche.14 This embraced a suite of new adaptations, including the ability to manipulate mental models of the world and predict what would happen if one tried out new things; the ability to cooperate with others, which allowed teams of people to accomplish what a single person could not; and language, which allowed them to coordinate their actions and to pool the fruits of their experience into the collections of skills and norms we call cultures.15 These investments allowed early hominids to defeat the defenses of a wide range of plants and animals and reap the bounty in energy, which stoked their expanding brains, giving them still more know-how and access to still more energy. A well-studied contemporary huntergatherer tribe, the Hadza of Tanzania, who live in the ecosystem where modern humans first evolved and probably preserve much of their lifestyle, extract 3,000 calories daily per person from more than 880 species.16 They create this menu through ingenious and uniquely human ways of foraging, such as felling large animals with poison-tipped arrows, smoking bees out of their hives to steal their honey, and enhancing the nutritional value of meat and tubers by cooking them.

Energy channeled by knowledge is the elixir with which we stave off entropy, and advances in energy capture are advances in human destiny. The invention of farming around ten thousand years ago multiplied the availability of calories from cultivated plants and domesticated animals, freed a portion of the population from the demands of hunting and gathering, and eventually gave them the luxury of writing, thinking, and accumulating their ideas. Around 500 BCE, in what the philosopher Karl Jaspers called the Axial Age, several widely separated cultures pivoted from systems of ritual and sacrifice that merely warded off misfortune to systems of philosophical and religious belief that promoted selflessness and promised spiritual transcendence.17 Taoism and Confucianism in China, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism in India, Zoroastrianism in Persia, Second Temple Judaism in Judea, and classical Greek philosophy and drama emerged within a few centuries of one another. (Confucius, Buddha, Pythagoras, Aeschylus, and the last of the Hebrew prophets walked the earth at the same time.) Recently an interdisciplinary team of scholars identified a common cause.18 It was not an aura of spirituality that descended on the planet but something more prosaic: energy capture. The Axial Age was when agricultural and economic advances provided a burst of energy: upwards of 20,000 calories per person per day in food, fodder, fuel, and raw materials. This surge allowed the civilizations to afford larger cities, a scholarly and priestly class, and a reorientation of their priorities from short-term survival to long-term harmony. As Bertolt Brecht put it millennia later: Grub first, then ethics.19

When the Industrial Revolution released a gusher of usable energy from coal, oil, and falling water, it launched a Great Escape from poverty, disease, hunger, illiteracy, and premature death, first in the West and increasingly in the rest of the world (as we shall see in chapters 5–8). And the next leap in human welfare—the end of extreme poverty and spread of abundance, with all its moral benefits—will depend on technological advances that provide energy at an acceptable economic and environmental cost to the entire world (chapter 10).

Entro, evo, info. These concepts define the narrative of human progress: the tragedy we were born into, and our means for eking out a better existence.


Folksonomies: enlightenment science fundamentals basics

 Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress
Books, Brochures, and Chapters>Book:  Pinker, Steven (2018227), Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, Retrieved on 2018-07-27
Folksonomies: enlightenment humanism