What is humanity’s role in the universe? I don’t ask this question as though there is some sort of definite answer sought after for ages only needing decoded from some ancient religious scripture handed down from an omnipotent grand creator. Xenu perhaps? Haha. Don’t sue me you silly Scientologists. What I mean is a story of ourselves. An image, philosophy or set of ideals for which all humankind that uses science and reason to postulate a story of our past present and how that shapes the future. After all, the ability to tell a story seems to one of our most defining features.
I see that story in terms of entropy. That is, after all, the overriding subject of this blog and even though up until now the bulk of witing has been on the subject of vapor compression systems, it is an appreciation of the history of the universe, the Earth, geology, the development of biologic life and most recently, memes and memetic proliferation of information that leads to so many questions as to how entropy played a role in all of these processes. The truth is, in discussions of these subjects, I see the greatest insight by defining them in terms of entropy.
Biologic life, far from being easy to discuss, is often a starting point in thinking about the world in terms of entropy. Life has certainly shaped what was a barren, hostile rock floating about an average star into a warm, moist home for itself and shown to be incredibly resilient to cataclysmic events by being diverse in form and interrelationship. As I understand it, locally here on Earth, life in all it’s stupefying complexity and beauty would appear to be in outright violation of the second law of thermodynamics, but viewed on a solar system scale is quite effective at converting high entropy light rays from the sun into lower entropy infrared heat emitted into the blackness of space. In the process, work can be done such as creating a beautiful butterfly (billions of them) along with the numerous species sharing complex relationships, weathering down a mountain, managing the climate by storing excess chemical energy in carbon deposits in the Earth’s crust, or when homosapiens exert large amounts of energy to construct a pyramid or to re-divert a river for agriculture.
I often wonder if biologic life here on Earth (our only example unfortunately), is little more than a continuation of geologic processes that themselves create complexity where there was uniformity. I’m reading a geology book from the 1940’s and the chapter on chemical and mechanical weathering of rock truly struck me. Briefly, 4.5 billion years ago the Earth was a molten mass of material that very early on was quite uniform. So uniform in fact, that it is nearly spherical. Of course, denser materials sunk towards the center and lighter towards what is now the crust. If that were the end of the story we wouldn’t be here because there would be no iron for hemoglobin, sodium or calcium for neural function and so on. The surface cooled to form a crust and the interior is still molten today. The molten interior is under incredible pressure and sometimes rises near or to the surface carrying with it heavier elements. This material cools to form hard rocks like basalt. Basalt is very tough and long lasting deep underground, but near the surface, rainwater that has picked up atmospheric gases, other substances in the ground including sulpher, can becoming somewhat reactive and will dissolve some of the constituents from the minerals comprising the hard ancient rocks. This can leave high concentrations of metals that don’t normally exist near the surface of the Earth. Further weatherization creates silts and clays of these materials, the foundations of soil. Wind and water erosion leave a rocky landscape similar to what is found from over grazing farmland. It seems as though biologic life stabilizes this process through soil building, solar energy management, pH control of the oceans, maintaining a protective ozone layer and on and on. You can’t talk about the geologic history of the Earth without the biologic history and vice versa.
It appears that over the vast story of the Earth, life tends to gain complexity before being struck down by an asteroid, comet, volcano or solar event and over millions of years may redevelop, but in a different direction, adapting to the environment and adapting the environment to itself.
It has been suggested more than once that not only are we conscious, but the web of life is conscious and perhaps even the universe itself. Another idea I favor is that human beings role in the grand scheme of things, before we gained the social knowledge to discuss our purpose, is to “garden” the planet the way we garden our personal food. Conscious biotic management perhaps. That life is complex for the sake of complexity and it’s that complexity that ensures it’s very survival. Consciousness and self awareness are relative to the time period with which information and complexity can be transmitted or reproduced. Nebalae, star system, planetary, geologic, chemical, single celled biotic, multicellular, complex webs of interrelating organisms transmitting information through millions of years of genetic trial and error; and most recently the accumulated knowledge of several billion creatures able to transmit information without solely relying on reproduction. We have the opportunity, nay, the responsibility to exploit the laws of nature so as to increase entropy creating a more complex universe that is resilient to disaster; one universe (or infinite universes) that are beautiful and productive. I don’t know.
When will we, as a species, grow up and stop separating ourselves from nature, looking to religion for a god, and realize that we really are god and our stream of consciousness is the universe thinking about itself?