Scientists have identified a “missing law” of nature that might explain the evolution of evolving systems in the universe, including stars, chemicals, and life, reports a new study.
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, thereby enabling the development of systems with increasing order and complexity. This unique approach could help explain why a host of cosmic processes evolve over time, from stars that are more chemically enriched than their predecessors, to lifeforms on Earth that are more biologically intricate than their ancestors.
Our universe is still largely a mystery to us, but scientists have been able to pin down a few key observations about its properties. For instance, Isaac Newton’s laws of motion describe interactions between objects and physical forces, while the laws of thermodynamics reveal the behavior of temperature, energy, entropy, and other physical quantities over time. In addition, Charles Darwin’s earth-shattering theory of evolution, which introduced concepts like natural selection, forms the backbone of modern life sciences.
Now, scientists led by Michael Wong, an astrobiologist and planetary scientist at the Carnegie Institution for Science, have put forward a new natural law that seeks to explain evolving systems using a measurement of complexity called functional information. The researchers developed “a potential ‘missing law” by looking for equivalencies among evolving systems” and “suggest that all evolving systems—including but not limited to life—are composed of diverse components that can combine into configurational states that are then selected for or against based on function,” according to a study published on Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“We see, in the universe, so much richness and complexity, so many evolving systems, and yet we don’t seem to have a law of nature that adequately describes why those systems exist,” Wong told Motherboard in a call.
“This paper, and the reason why I’m so proud of it, is because it really represents a connection between science and the philosophy of science that perhaps offers a new lens into why we see everything that we see in the universe,” he added.
The new research grew out of informal conversations between Wong and senior author Robert Hazen, a mineralogist and astrobiologist at Carnegie who is a leading expert on mineral evolution. Over the years, the pair have frequently speculated about the possibility of a “missing law” of nature that might account for the emergence of dazzling new configurations in so many natural systems, such as living organisms or mineral permutations.
Wong and Hazen convened experts with diverse backgrounds in science and philosophy to tackle this question by searching for universal features of natural systems that evolve over time. The team identified three key characteristics of these systems: static persistence, dynamic persistence, and novelty generation.
Static persistence suggests that evolving systems must be, by definition, stable enough to undergo evolutionary changes over the long term. Dynamic persistence is the capacity to produce a lot of different permutations, whether that be the genetic mutations that drive biological evolution or the diverse properties that show up in different minerals. Novelty generation refers to selection pressures that favor systems that can invent entirely new functions.
Together, these characteristics paint a portrait of evolving systems that increase their functional information—a measure of their increasing order and complexity—over time, as part of a “time-asymmetric” process.
“Right now, the only time-asymmetric law of nature that we have is the second law of thermodynamics, which simply describes how closed systems move towards equilibrium towards higher and higher entropy,” Wong explained. “I think that alone may not sufficiently explain the richness and complexity that we see in the universe, and in our everyday lives.”
“What we’re offering is nothing that is in conflict with this law of thermodynamics,” he added. “Our proposed law works in concert with all of the other laws of nature that we have articulated so far, and adds something new to it.”
In addition to outlining some basic tenets of this new law, Wong and his colleagues suggest that empirical evidence to support their work might be found in the weird terrain of Saturn’s moon Titan, or in the emergence of modern human societies, or perhaps in artificial intelligence (AI) technologies.
“Now that we’re entering this brave new world of AI, a law of functional information, or how information influences physical systems, might be really important in understanding how these artificial intelligence systems will end up evolving and interfacing with us and how they’re going to influence society,” Wong said.
“That’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 that information is certainly at the heart of that, and trying to understand the lawful nature of information could help us try to make sense of what is happening in our society as we embrace, work with, and experience this AI revolution.”
The team hopes that the new study will spark conversation across fields about the possibility of new overarching laws that govern evolving systems. While the researchers mostly focused on stellar, mineral, and biological systems, they suggested that similar forms of evolution might exist in a wide variety of unexpected contexts in our universe.
“To us, evolution is not limited to biological evolution, which is, of course, a shining example of it, where we can see evolution taking place in so many different physical and chemical systems,” Wong said.
The next step is to work with “folks in computer science or folks in ecology, or developmental biology or even medicine and pharmaceuticals, to try to understand how this law could apply to other systems, both natural and artificial,” he concluded.
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