A group of scientists and philosophers have proposed a new law that governs the evolution of all living and non-living things. They argue that they are subject to the "law of increasing functional information". Wtf is that?
Researched by: Nirmal Bhansali & Aarthi Ramnath
First, wtf is a law of nature?
Since time immemorial, humans have been trying to make sense of our universe—trying to figure out why things happen as they do. Philosophers and later scientists began actively looking for these universal laws in the 17th century—which gave us Newton’s laws of motion—which included gravity. That law applies equally to the Moon as it does to an apple—because they both have mass. Gravity explains why the apple dropped on Newton’s head—and why the Moon orbits around the Earth.
The law of natural selection: proposed by Charles Darwin in the mid-1800s is another such law—which revolutionised our understanding of the world. It claimed that all creatures produce more offspring than can survive. Those with traits best equipped to survive pass on their genes—which determines how that species evolves. But if you alter the environment, then the traits required to survive also change or evolve. Here’s a simple example:
If a creature with poor eyesight happens to produce offspring with slightly better eyesight, thanks to random mutations, then that tiny bit more vision gives them more chance of survival. The longer they survive, the more chance they have to reproduce and pass on the genes that equipped them with slightly better eyesight. Some of their offspring might, in turn, have better eyesight than their parents, making it likelier that they, too, will reproduce.
We explained this in greater length in this Big Story.
A missing law: A group of scientists and philosophers claim that they have discovered a missing law—which explains the evolution of all systems:
Wong and colleagues say that prior to their work there was no law of increasing complexity, despite many living and nonliving systems evolving over time to display greater diversity, distribution or patterned behaviour.
It all started with discussions between a mineralogist and an astrobiologist—who were trying to account for “the emergence of dazzling new configurations in so many natural systems.” Sound a bit abstract, but consider this example:
In stars, for instance, just two elements—hydrogen and helium—were the main ingredients in the first stellar generation following the Big Bang about 13.8 billion years ago that initiated the universe.
That first generation of stars, in the thermonuclear fusion caldrons at their cores, forged about 20 heavier elements such as carbon, nitrogen and oxygen that were blasted into space when they exploded at the end of their life cycles. The subsequent generation of stars that formed from the remnants of the prior generation then similarly forged almost 100 more elements.
Similarly, living organisms on Earth too evolved toward greater diversity and complexity. What missing law could account for this pattern?
The gang of nine: Now a group of nine scientists and philosophers have proposed a new law of nature—arguing that that Darwinian version is just “a vibrant example of a much broader phenomenon, one that appears at the level of atoms, minerals, planetary atmospheres, planets, stars and more.” Think of it as an umbrella-like law—of which natural selection is just one instance.
The law of ‘increasing functional information”
Yes, that’s a real mouthful—and the theory encompasses many complex details that we don’t have the expertise to understand—let alone explain. But here’s the gist of it.
One: All things evolve—not just living things on Earth. So there is a law that governs their evolution—which applies equally to stars, minerals, hurricanes—as they do to plants, fish or humans. According to the authors:
The Universe generates novel combinations of atoms, molecules, cells, etc…Those combinations that are stable and can go on to engender even more novelty will continue to evolve. This is what makes life the most striking example of evolution, but evolution is everywhere.
Two: This law applies to all “systems”—living and non-living—which are formed of building blocks like atoms or cells. These building blocks interact with each other and are subject to natural processes—eg. cellular mutation—that generate many different “configurations.” So we end up with lots of different kinds of minerals or species etc
Three: Of the many possible configurations, only a fraction will survive. They are all shaped by selection pressures—much like the Darwinian law of ‘survival of the fittest’. In this broader law, this is called “selection for function.” Survival is just one kind of function. As one of the researchers explains:
Imagine a system of atoms or molecules that can exist in countless trillions of different arrangements or configurations. Only a small fraction of all possible configurations will 'work' - that is, they will have some useful degree of function. So, nature just prefers those functional configurations.
Four: There are three kinds of selection pressures that govern how any of these systems evolve: static persistence, dynamic persistence, and novelty generation. So wtf does that mean?
Static persistence is about stability. So any function that is stable is primed to survive—like the earliest minerals in the universe. They endured because they represent “particularly stable arrangements of atoms.”
Dynamic persistence means that not only do these arrangements endure over time, they can also interact in different ways to produce lots of different permutations. Example: genetic mutations that drive biological evolution.
Novelty generation is the most interesting. This is when life “learns a new trick”—and is rewarded for it. This is apparent in history of biological evolution:
Life's evolutionary history is rich with novelties – photosynthesis evolved when single cells learned to harness light energy, multicellular life evolved when cells learned to cooperate, and species evolved thanks to advantageous new behaviours such as swimming, walking, flying, and thinking.
This is also how humans evolved by diverting from chimpanzees—developing a bigger brain and the ability to walk upright.
Point to note: The researchers make it clear that they have not discovered a law that upends our understanding of how the universe works. Rather: “Our proposed law works in concert with all of the other laws of nature that we have articulated so far, and adds something new to it.” OTOH, critics say there is nothing new here. The tendency towards greater complexity is not remarkable—and does not need a new law to explain it:
Given an immense amount of space and time, and the laws of physics and chemistry, an expanding variety of materials, environments and structures will emerge in the inanimate world. But I don’t see that this need be a manifestation of any new underlying principle analogous to the role of Darwinian selection via inheritance in the biological world.
Why this matters: We’re not exactly sure. But here are some of the use-cases suggested by the authors. If all systems are subject to this law, we could predict how planetary systems could evolve elsewhere—for example, on Saturn:
The significance of formulating such a law is that it provides a new perspective on why the diverse systems that make up the cosmos evolve the way they do, and may allow predictions about how unfamiliar systems—like the organic chemistry on Saturn's moon Titan—develop over time.
The lead authors claim we may even be able to predict AI systems evolve:
Now that we're entering this brave new world of AI, a law of functional information, or how information influences physical systems, might be really important in understanding how these artificial intelligence systems will end up evolving and interfacing with us and how they're going to influence society.
That may be reassuring to pundits making doomsday predictions about the rise of AI:)
The bottomline: It all sounds very interesting—but we’re not entirely sure what it means for the progress of science. Guess we will have to wait until other scientists actually use this law in their research.
For the easiest takes on the new law, we recommend The Guardian and Reuters. But Science Daily and Interesting Engineering have the most details. Vice spoke to some of the lead scientists—and has their perspective. You can read the original paper here. We looked at the theory of devolution—and therefore also evolution—in a two part series. Part one looked at the original Darwinian theory—and its own evolution towards greater complexity—it’s not quite as simple as we think. Part two looked at the future of human evolution—which is both scary and fun.