The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible (Arthur C. Clarke's 2nd law)

Wednesday 25 July 2012

A Singular Universe of Many Singularities: Cultural Evolution in a Cosmic Context

Eric J. Chaisson, Harvard University

Nature’s myriad complex systems—whether physical, biological or cultural—are mere islands of organization within increasingly disordered seas of surrounding chaos. Energy is a principal driver of the rising complexity of all such systems within the expanding, ever-changing Universe; indeed energy is as central to life, society, and machines as it is to stars and galaxies. Energy flow concentration—in contrast to information content and negentropy production—is a useful quantitative metric to gauge relative degree of complexity among widely diverse systems in the one and only Universe known. In particular, energy rate densities for human brains, society collectively, and our technical devices have now become numerically comparable as the most complex systems on Earth. Accelerating change is supported by a wealth of data, yet the approaching technological singularity of 21st-century cultural evolution is neither more nor less significant than many other earlier singularities as physical and biological evolution proceeded along an undirectional and unpredictable path of more inclusive cosmic evolution, from big bang to humankind. Evolution, broadly construed, has become a powerful unifying concept in all of science, providing a comprehensive worldview for the new millennium—yet there is no reason to claim that the next evolutionary leap forward beyond sentient beings and their amazing gadgets will be any more important than the past emergence of increasingly intricate complex systems. Nor is new science (beyond non-equilibrium thermodynamics) necessarily needed to describe cosmic evolution’s interdisciplinary milestones at a deep and empirical level. Humans, our tools, and their impending messy interaction possibly mask a Platonic simplicity that undergirds the emergence and growth of complexity among the many varied systems in the material Universe, including galaxies, stars, planets, life, society, and machines.

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