Scientists and philosophers have collaborated to present what they argue is a new law of nature: complex systems evolve in similar ways whether or not they involve life. These systems not only become more complex with time, but also achieve greater diversity and patterning. With confidence some may see as hubris, the authors place this as an insight into the workings of the natural world alongside the great descriptions of motion, gravity, and energy developed in the 17th-19th centuries. Like these, they claim to have created a law of nature out of; “Conceptual equivalencies among disparate phenomena.”
Darwin’s great insight was that the evolution of living things is driven by natural selection, with those organisms best suited to survive and reproduce passing on the characteristics that make them successful. According to the new law, something similar applies in systems capable of many configurations, even when they can’t reproduce.
These sorts of systems can be configured in many ways, but not all will prove stable. Certain forms survive, while others change until they also reach a lasting state. “An important component of this proposed natural law is the idea of ‘selection for function,’” said the study's first author Dr Michael Wong of the Carnegie Institution for Science in a statement.
“In this new paper, we consider evolution in the broadest sense—change over time—which subsumes Darwinian evolution based upon the particulars of ‘descent with modification,’” Wong added.
The authors call this the “Law of increasing functional information.”
In traditional evolutionary theory, function means survival and the capacity to reproduce. Wong and co-authors call this “dynamic persistence”, and consider it just one of three forms of function.
Stability, or “static persistence” is an even more basic type of function. For example, atoms or molecules that are stable survive, while those that are not don’t. Just as Darwin showed fitness varies by circumstance, stability is dependent on conditions – molecules that are highly stable at a particular temperature and in the absence of oxygen may be unstable when the heat rises or on encountering air.
The final type of function is “novelty generation”. The abundance of life that surrounds us is a product of several novelties, such as the capacity of cells to cooperate to form multicellular organisms. Non-living things can’t match the diversity of the millions of species known to populate our planet, but the authors note that almost 6,000 minerals are known on Earth, far more than would have existed when it first formed. Most of them are novelties made possible through rearrangements of simpler structures.
“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,” Wong said,
Even in space, the Big Bang produced just three elements, which the first generation of stars converted into around 20, becoming almost 100 after the second.
“We contend that Darwinian theory is just a very special, very important case within a far larger natural phenomenon,” study co-author Dr Robert Hazen of Carnegie Science said. “The notion that selection for function drives evolution applies equally to stars, atoms, minerals, and many other conceptually equivalent situations where many configurations are subjected to selective pressure.”
The authors argue that natural laws arise from observing the patterns among phenomena that have not previously been seen as having anything in common; “For example, falling apples and orbiting moons or hot objects and compressed springs.”
They claim recognizing the law could help us detect life outside the Earth by leading to a better understanding of the dividing line between life and non-life. It could also help predict how AI will evolve, including whether this will be in dangerous directions, and provide insights into how to intervene to make systems shift in the directions we prefer.
The paper is published open access in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.