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Evolution as Biological Thermodynamics


By Brandon Keim February 13, 2008 | 1:56:45 PM Categories: Evolution

When Guy Hoelzer runs computer simulations of organisms living in the modeling equivalent of a featureless plain, he sees them break into different species -- even though there's no reason for natural selection to take place. That preliminary but tantalizing finding hints at some larger phenomenon driving the mechanisms of neoDarwinian evolution. Hoelzer thinks the phenomenon is self-organization: combine energy with complex networked interaction and order will emerge. In the abstract of "On the logical relationship between natural selection and self-organization," published in 2006 in the Journal of Evolutionary Biology, he described natural selection as "a mechanism that coordinates the coevolution of species in an ecosystem to effectively capture, process and dissipate solar energy into the earth's shadow ... an emergent process founded on the same thermodynamic imperatives that are thought to underlie all self-organization." I came across that paper while researching an upcoming article on the application of complexity theory to evolutionary biology, and was fortunate enough to interview Hoelzer. (Another interview, with microbiology titan Carl Woese, came out in Wired Science yesterday.) Here's what he said:

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The idea of self-organization as a natural engine of activity seems like a relevant thing for evolutionary biology. But at least in this country, I detected a large resistance to this idea from evolutionary biologists devoted to exploring Darwinian theories of evolutionary biology and adaptation. I never saw them as being in conflict -- but that was the feedback I was getting. In the paper we explored the relationship and came to conclusion that Darwinian natural selection is a mechanism of self-organization in the biosphere. We saw these concepts as tightly linked: the idea of natural selection embedded within self-organization. The way I think about it in the biological sense is from thermodynamic point of view, which is the same way chemists think of self-assembly in molecules. It's a somewhat outcomedriven process: the precise mechanisms that get you to that outcome are less fundamental than the outcome achieved. You're maximizing the rate of entropy production and so on. In a biological system, if the function is to break down gradients and increase the rate of entropy production, natural selection is an effective evolutionary way to get there. It coordinates the ecological roles of species such that the ecosystem persists and processes a great deal of energy.
EDITOR: Betsy Mason | email

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11/02/09 10:29 PM
EDITOR: Betsy Mason | email STAFF WRITER: Alexis Madrigal | email | Twitter CONTRIBUTOR: Brandon Keim | email | Twitter CONTRIBUTOR: Clara Moskowitz | email CONTRIBUTOR: Aaron Rowe CONTRIBUTOR: Michael Wall CONTRIBUTOR: Adam Rogers

This particular perspctive works at all scales. That in fact is part of the idea here: to extend thermodynamic thinking up to the scale of ecosystems and the biosphere. It's not inconsistent with the Gaia idea. I'm doing some very early research at the single-species level, where I'm doing computational modeling of population genetics. It involves a different approach from traditional mathematical modeling: it allows us to spread a population across a large [and uniform] space in the computer model. One thing I find is that as mutation occurs in the system, it drives genetic divergences in a spatially localized way. I get spacial selforganization. One sub-species dominates in one place; a different sub-species in another place. If I allow genetic incompatibilities to evolve through mutation, we get speciation. Speciation is a process of self-organizaiton of the gene pool; in this case, it's not driven by adaptation to environmental conditions. It's as if -- to put in teleological language -- its as if these populations are inherently, internally, a machine of diversification that creates types that are spatially localized. If you add environmental variables, does it chage? It's early in the project -- but I want to address that. There's no doubt that environmental variation will impact the process, but I doubt that it will overwhelm it. I think this internal dynamic, which is a matter of selforganization, is omnipresent and universal. I see it as physics -- my own point of view is that chemistry is a subset of physics, and biology a subset of chemistry, so these scales of organization of matter are all aspects of self-organization and driven by physics. What are the drivers? From a thermodynamic perspective, if you have a dynamical system composed of lots parts, it seems to rather generically have this tendency to self-organization. That builds higher levels of organizations, from (perhaps) strings to subatomic particles up to macromolecules, to biomolcules, cells, multicellular organisms, species, ecosystems and so on. I think there's quite a wave of work being done in this area that may not be appreciated by some evolutionary biologists until it's washed over the field. I think we'll wake up one day and turn around and say, "Wow! We lived through a revolution in our thinking of evolution. We won't realize until it's done. But I don't see ideas about self-organizing complex systems as competing with our traditional Darwininan evolution, but extending them and putting them into a thermodynamic context. I'd hope that my colleagues would see this as a point of view for deepening understanding.

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If this interests you, be sure to check out the Carl Woese interview. Another Woese tidbit: he called evolution a variation on the second law of thermodynamics, of the progress from high to low universal energy, to a point where even atoms fall apart. Maybe that's not what's going to happen, he said: maybe "the universe is going to decay into all these wonderful sculptures." When would it stop, I asked? "When does an algorithm stop?" replied Woese. "Certain algorithms continue to change in their state. They go on and on. You wouldn't ask when an algorithm has run its course. Evolution is like that." Image: The current evolutionary stage of our Charles Darwin Photoshop Tennis Contest See Also: A Brief History of the Superorganism, Part One A Brief History of the Superorganism, Part Two Thoughts on Ants, Altruism and the Future of Humanity Is Homosexuality an Evolutionary Step Towards the Superorganism? Honeybee Weapon in War on Cancer Life's Complexity Began With Poop Complexity Theory Takes Evolution to Another Level Science Journalism 2.0: Pop the hood on Wired Science....

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Very interesting. And it dawned on me how this applies to a basic genetic algorithm; there's no sense of geographic locality. One individual mates with another purely on a probability proportional to fitness. Anyone know of a GA variant that takes into account this sort of thing? Posted by: Xeno | Feb 13, 2008 12:53:05 PM

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I am a little confused on how a thermodynamic system can favor self-organization. Isn't entropy always positive? Posted by: Steven Selverston | Feb 14, 2008 4:46:25 PM

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I've run across this self-organization stuff before. There's some interesting things in it...but several weird comments made that make me a tad leery. "exploring Darwinian theories..." Modern evolutionary biologists have moved well beyond Darwin. Genetic drift and mutation deal with genetics: a concept that Darwin was unfamiliar with. Every time I see "Darwinian" used, I get a tad nervous... "a variation on the second law of thermodynamics" We're not in a closed system, we're in an open one (we continuously get energy from the Sun). I'm not sure how exactly this is different than the good ol' regular second law. As far as I understand things, order comes about from chaos in open systems all the time--snowflakes, minerals, hell even solar systems. I'm confused why he wants to put things in teleological language. That just pisses people off. And finally, I'd be very surprised if environmental variation doesn't overwhelm this supposed additional evolutionary force. But hey... it would be interesting to see. Posted by: katie | Feb 15, 2008 9:14:05 AM

I've run across this self-organization stuff before. There's some interesting things in it...but several weird comments made that make me a tad leery. "exploring Darwinian theories..." Modern evolutionary biologists have moved well beyond Darwin. Genetic drift and mutation deal with genetics: a concept that Darwin was unfamiliar with. Every time I see "Darwinian" used, I get a tad nervous... "a variation on the second law of thermodynamics" We're not in a closed system, we're in an open one (we continuously get energy from the Sun). I'm not sure how exactly this is different than the good ol' regular second law. As far as I understand things, order comes about from chaos in open systems all the time--snowflakes, minerals, hell even solar systems. I'm confused why he wants to put things in teleological language. That just pisses people off. And finally, I'd be very surprised if environmental variation doesn't overwhelm this supposed additional evolutionary force. But hey... it would be interesting to see. Posted by: katie | Feb 15, 2008 9:15:06 AM

I'm a student of biology i want to understand biology especially levels of organisation properly from the begining thank you Posted by: Siphosenkosi Myende | Feb 28, 2008 11:16:06 PM

Alex Ryan has a really great diagram for visualizing the interplay between evolution and self-organization: http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2384/2087059813_cb10317d08_b.jpg The formalism behind this can be found in this paper: http://arxiv.org/pdf/nlin/0609011 Posted by: Rafe Furst | Jul 21, 2008 4:31:24 PM

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The Worm-Train Theory Did evolution begin on Long Island? There is overwhelming evidence suggesting that if you incubate three dozen worms in a solution of amino acids and carbon compounds for approximately one and a half million years they will eventually evolve into the Long Island Railroad. The only problem with this theory is that if this were true some species of fish would have a natural tendency to ride the Long Island Railroad. But fish have never actually been observed commuting between Long Island and Manhattan. A group of enterprising archaeologists, however, found the missing link to this apparent puzzle. Digging through the ruins of an old Long Island Railroad yard, they came across a fossil of a fish believed to be extinct for billions of years. In fact, after taking a radiocarbon reading of the fossil and the brown paper bag it was found in, they confirmed that their find dated back to the "big bang," give or take six months. This proves conclusively that prehistoric fish did commute via the Long Island Railroad. Now, the question arises, did prehistoric fish commute on dry land or did prehistoric trains run underwater? No one really knows for sure. But, the famous Dr. Imust Beagenius (pronounced I-must Bea-genius) is grappling with a theory. Dr. Beagenius suggests that prehistoric fish must have travelled on dry land. He points out that extensive laboratory tests show that railroad tickets are not waterproof. There you have it -- a theory which links fish, worms, and the Long Island Railroad. It couldn't be more logical. MORE PROOF Unfortunately, not everyone is that easy to please. There are those who, believe it or not, would demand a more detailed explanation of such a theory, no matter how logical it sounds. "How do a bunch of worms," they would naively ask, "turn into the Long Island Railroad?" In spite of the absurdity of such skepticism, I offer the following evidence which should render this theory proven beyond a shadow of a doubt. Our archeologist friends went back to the same railroad yard and made some more astonishing discoveries. They lined up some of the old cars side by side and noticed how each car was slightly bigger and better developed than the one before it. The car at one end had a highly sophisticated and powerful air conditioning system, while the car at the other end had not even a fan. The only trace of air conditioning found in one underdeveloped car was the fossil of a conductor slapping an old woman with his cap to create some air disturbance. (His cap, incidentally, has been known to be extinct for at least seven and a half billion years. It had no union label.) Then, scientists took a worm crawling in the same railroad yard and put it under a powerful electron microscope. And behold, they made an astounding discovery: A worm's cell magnified three billion times has an uncanny resemblance to a train window (without the shades). It's quite obvious that the evidence presented for the worm-train theory overshadows the somewhat popular but fanatical notion that trains may have been manufactured by intelligent beings. The "intelligent beings" theory would imply a labor union. So far, none of the trains studied showed any traces of major medical benefits, pension funds, or sick leave. How such a ridiculous theory even got started is hard to imagine. So much for this nonsensical "intelligent beings" theory. By now you must be saying to yourself, "Well, the evidence for the worm-train theory is certainly overwhelming. Any idiot can see its scientific validity. But where did the first worm come from?" HOW IT ALL BEGAN I'm glad you asked. The theory widely accepted by the scientific community and also strongly supported by our famous Dr. Imust Beagenius is the "big bait" theory. In the beginning there was a big ball of fishing hooks. Nature found it rather absurd to have so many fishing hooks without worms. In a few short billions of years, worms began to materialize around the hooks. When the first trout started biting, nature found it necessary to produce more worms to keep up with the fishing season. And so, worms began materializing on virtually every hook around the globe. Then, in the off-season, there were more worms than hooks. So, the problem at that point was storing these excess worms. This brought about the invention of the can. So, you see, the worm-train evolution began with the Big Bait. And the Big Bait began with a can of worms. Theories just don't come any better than this. by JoshGreenberger.com Posted by: Josh Greenberger | Jul 27, 2008 1:27:26 PM

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