"...science writers Eric Schneider and Dorion Sagan
argue that even from a scientific perspective, life does serve a purpose,
and thus does have a meaning that transcends the self."
In Into the Cool, the authors
unravel the intricacies of cosmology, meteorology, chemistry, ecology
and even the mysteries of human aging in an unexpected but accessible
and entertaining manner. It's all
very simple. It's all very complex. The book careens between
these poles like a pinball in urgent play, until the reader is forced,
willy-nilly, to think in terms of energy flow, gradients, and The Second
Law. This turns out to be something of a delight, like using a
new tool specially sharpened and specifically made for that job that
we all assume when we first ask "why?"
By Tim Cahill,
author of Hold the Enlightenment and Lost in My Own Backyard
January 29, 2005
Scientists explain the meaning of life (and we
don't matter much)A new theory states that it is
entropy which drives evolution to higher levels of complexity—for
the sole purpose of disseminating energy gradients.
Most religions embrace and promote certain notions about
the meaning of life, offering the faithful reasons why we and all other organisms
exist. Indeed, perhaps the fundamental definition of religious faith is the
belief that life serves a (divine) purpose. Science, however, has always given
a resounding "no" to the question "Does life have a higher meaning?"
At least until now.
In a series of lectures and in a forthcoming book, science writers Eric Schneider
and Dorion Sagan argue that even from a scientific perspective, life does serve
a purpose, and thus does have a meaning that transcends the self. They arrived
at this conclusion when trying to reconcile a contradiction that has long puzzled
those who study both biology and physics.
Living organisms obviously embody arrangements of matter into complex structures.
They transform chemicals and, in an orderly fashion, transport and store them
in purposeful ways. Above the level of individual organisms, they form societies
and ecosystems. All of us are familiar with these fundamental biological notions,
and we are all part of these processes. Order seems to be the name of the biological
game, and evolution leads to more complex organisms and more organized structures.
This is, of course, at odds with one of the fundamental principles of physics:
the second law of thermodynamics, which holds that entropy -- the degradation
of all matter and energy in the universe to an ultimate state of inert uniformity
-- increases as a result of each and every process. The more the world develops
the more disorder there will be. Physics even accepts the idea that entropy
defines the direction of time. In the end everything will be broken down and
How do Schneider and Sagan reconcile the contradiction between what appears
true of life—that it organizes matter into increasingly complex creatures
and structures—and the notion that disorder should increase and order
should be lost? Equally important, how can science see any meaning of life
in the reconciliation of that apparent contradiction?
The bottom line is that the second law of thermodynamics rules and that the
existence of life helps increase entropy. In other words, life promotes disorder.
Some might think that this could be true only if the logical end of evolution
and intelligent life were to be a nuclear explosion that pulverized Earth.
But that is not what Schneider and Sagan mean. Instead, they make a distinction
between matter and energy and say that matter organized in structures disseminates
energy gradients faster than randomly distributed matter.
As one example, they consider a phenomenon of which beer drinkers have long
been aware. If you want to empty a bottle of water (or beer) and turn it
upside down, the water will come out in uneven glugs. If you spin the bottle
and create an eddy inside it, the water will flow out much faster and more
smoothly. The eddy in the bottle is a structure in the water. Water running
down is matter losing its potential energy. The structure speeds up the dissemination
of the energy gradient.
Similarly, on a hot day, the air in a forest is cooler
than over adjacent bare lands, thanks to evaporation and transpiration
in the trees. The energy gradient, in this case that of heat, is disseminated
more effectively by the structure of the forest and the life within it.
The more complex the structure the more effective is the energy dissemination.
Populations are better in this respect than single individuals; ecosystems
even more so, and most effective of all—so far—are human high-tech
Thus, goes the argument, the second law of thermodynamics is not contrary to
the existence of life; rather, it is the cause of life. That law drives evolution
to higher levels of complexity and to more sophisticated societies and technologies
for the sole purpose of disseminating energy gradients.
So life, at long last, has a higher meaning in the eyes of science—even
if serving the second law of thermodynamics is not exactly what the religiously
faithful had in mind.
Arne Jernelov is professor of environmental biochemistry,
an honorary scholar and former director of the International Institute
of Applied Systems Analysis in Vienna and a UN expert on environmental