The universe contains “many evolving systems, and we do not seem to have a law of nature that adequately describes the reasons for the existence of these systems.”
Scientists have discovered a “missing law” of nature that may explain the evolution of evolving systems in the universe, including stars, chemicals and life, a new study reports.
The so-called “law of increasing functional information” predicts that all evolving phenomena are subject to natural processes that prioritize important functions such as stability and novelty, allowing systems to evolve with increasing order and complexity. This unique approach may help explain why a variety of cosmic processes evolve over time, from stars that are more chemically enriched than their predecessors to life forms on Earth that are more biologically complex than their ancestors.
Our Universe still remains a mystery to us, but scientists have been able to make several key observations about its properties. For example, Isaac Newton’s laws of motion describe the interactions between objects and physical forces, and the laws of thermodynamics reveal the behavior of temperature, energy, entropy, and other physical quantities over time. In addition, the basis of modern life sciences is the theory of evolution created by Charles Darwin, who introduced concepts such as natural selection.
Now scientists led by Michael Wong, an astrobiologist and planetary scientist at the Carnegie Institution for Science, have put forward a new law of nature that attempts to explain evolving systems using a dimension of complexity called functional information. The researchers developed “a potential ‘missing law’ by searching for equivalence between evolving systems” and “proposed that all evolving systems – including but not limited to life – are composed of a variety of components that can be combined into configurational states and then selected for or against them based on function,” it says researchpublished in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“We see so much richness and complexity in the universe, so many evolving systems, and yet we don’t seem to have a law of nature that adequately describes why these systems exist,” Wong told Motherboard.
“This work, and the reason I’m so proud of it, is that it really represents a connection between science and the philosophy of science that perhaps offers a new perspective on why we see the things we see in Universe,” he added.
The new study emerged from informal conversations between Wong and senior author Robert Hazen, a mineralogist and astrobiologist at Carnegie and a leading authority on mineral evolution. Over the years, the pair have often speculated about the possibility of a “missing law” of nature that could explain the emergence of dazzling new configurations in many natural systems, such as living organisms or the recombination of minerals.
Wong and Hazen brought together experts from diverse backgrounds in science and philosophy to address this question by searching for universal characteristics of natural systems that evolve over time. The group identified three key characteristics of such systems: static persistence, dynamic persistence, and novelty generation.
Static stability suggests that evolving systems, by definition, must be stable enough to undergo evolutionary change over long periods of time. Dynamic stability is the ability to produce many different permutations, be it the genetic mutations that determine biological evolution or the diverse properties that appear in different minerals. Novelty generation is a selection pressure that favors systems capable of inventing entirely new functions.
Taken together, these characteristics paint a portrait of evolving systems in which functional information, a measure of increasing order and complexity, increases over time in a “time-asymmetric” process.
“Currently, the only time-asymmetric law of nature is the second law of thermodynamics, which simply describes how closed systems move toward equilibrium toward increasingly higher entropy,” Wong explained. “I think this law alone cannot sufficiently explain the richness and complexity that we see in the universe and in our daily lives.”
“What we propose does not contradict this law of thermodynamics,” he added. “The law we propose works in harmony with all the other laws of nature that we have formulated to date, and adds something new to them.”
In addition to laying out the basic tenets of the new law, Wong and his colleagues suggest that empirical support for their work could be found in the strange topography of Saturn’s moon Titan, in the emergence of modern human societies, or perhaps in artificial intelligence (AI) technologies.
“As we enter the bold new world of artificial intelligence, the law of functional information, or how information affects physical systems, may be really important in understanding how these artificial intelligence systems will evolve, interact with us, and how they will impact on society,” Wong said.
“It’s very speculative because who knows what’s going to happen in the next few years in terms of AI?” – he continued. “But I think information is certainly at the heart of it all, and trying to understand the legitimate nature of information can help us make sense of what’s happening in our society as we embrace, work with, and experience this AI revolution.”
The team hopes the new research will spark discussion in various fields about the possibility of new, overarching laws governing evolving systems. Although the researchers primarily looked at stellar, mineral, and biological systems, they suggested that similar forms of evolution could exist in a variety of unexpected contexts in our universe.
“For us, evolution is not limited to biological evolution, which of course is a prime example, but we can see evolution in a wide variety of physical and chemical systems,” Wong said.
The next step will be to work with “specialists in computer science, ecology, developmental biology, or even medicine and pharmaceuticals to try to understand how this law might apply to other systems, both natural and artificial,” he concluded.