The Thermodynamic Lifestyle Choice: Do Unto Others– First!

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In their book, Into The Cool, Eric D. Schneider and Dorion Sagan maintain that Life developed as one of  Nature’s ways of alleviating Energy gradients, just as, in a vaguely similar way, Nature creates tornadoes to dissipate air pressure gradients.  To quote the authors’ nice turn of phrase, “Nature abhors a gradient.”

Gradients in Pressure, Temperature, or Chemical concentration naturally lead to Energy flow, say Schneider and Sagan, and these flows in Energy will in turn lead to the creation of complex systems.  These complex systems come whirling into existence precisely at gradient borders with the purpose of bringing different patches of Energy closer to equalization.  And “if conditions are friendly” these systems can sometimes even reproduce.

Many such gradients and their concomitant complex systems exist on Earth, where we are suspended in the midst of an enormous overall energy gradient between the 6,000-degree heat of the Sun and the near Absolute Zero temperature of Space.  Much of Life is concerned with taking advantage of the vast Energy flows produced by such an enormous gradient.

Life, in fact, makes it its business to consume the highly organized Energy of plants and other animals and dissipate their concentrated energy as disorganized waste products and heat.  Like all living beings, we humans maintain our internal organization “at the expense of larger increases in randomness” outside our bodies.  We do our job, Life’s job… we smear out Energy concentrations, bringing localized Energy imbalances a little closer to balance.  Ironically, in order to do this, we have to maintain our own Energy level at high, organized levels so that we may continue to dissipate the other organized, high-Energy organisms around us.  The trick is to get them before they get us.

To maintain the complex systems of you and me, we use the Energy we thieve from our environment and create “internal gradients” within ourselves that produce the Energy flow necessary for us to carry out our metabolic activities and continue our organized state against the onslaught of the OTHER gradient-smashing complex structures surrounding us.  This may sound alarmist, but like they say:  you ain’t paranoid if they’re really out to get you.

The authors of Into The Cool believe that Life had a precursor in self-stabilizing minerals or chemicals that dissipated energy gradients and were capable of a primitive reproduction—not replication via genes as modern life, but merely something more akin to how one ripple leads to another ripple.  Thus, “Life’s Energy-transforming function preceded its genetic means of replication.”

Still today, say Schneider and Sagan, “deep in the chemical cycles of present-day bacteria are metabolic pathways– chemical traces repeating, with variation, the steps by which matter came to life.”

Life, they believe, became ever-more complex in order to better hunt and gobble-up Energy gradients.  “Because access to gradients is improved by improvements in perception,” our authors say, “one can argue that intelligence-increase is an evolutionary tendency.”

The authors quote Szent-Gyorgyi as saying that one of the ways that Life has evolved is that it “has learned to catch the electron in the excited state, uncouple it from its partner, and let it drop back to ground-state through its biological machinery utilizing its excess energy for life’s processes.”  Another nice move was when Life discovered it could snatch photons from the Sun and transmogrify them into the chemical bonds that keep us propped up against the tidal wave of dissolution, bonds such as the Carbon-Hydrogen and Carbon-Carbon bonds of animal bodies.

To put it more generally:  “Organisms continue to exist and grow by importing high-quality energy from outside their bodies.”

About 0.2% of the Energy that strikes the Earth from the Sun is converted by bacteria, plants, and algae into the chemical energy of organic matter.  One of the crucial inventions of Life that enable this Energy-capture, say Schneider and Sagan, is “the ubiquitous lipid cell membrane.”  These membranes are semi-permeable, allowing precious energy inside to do work—but providing a barrier against the decomposing forces of Nature that work to bring the world into thermodynamic equilibrium.  “For living beings,” say the authors, “thermodynamic equilibrium is equivalent to death.”

In other words, when it comes to bringing thermodynamic disequilibrium into equilibrium, it is better to give than to receive.

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