Sean Carroll at Cosmic Variance on Entropy and the Meaning of Life:

We know that entropy increases as the universe evolves. But why, on the road from the simple and low-entropy early universe to the simple and high-entropy late universe, do we pass through our present era of marvelous complexity and organization, culminating in the intricate chemical reactions we know as life?...

...In ordinary statistical mechanics, we say that high-entropy configurations are more likely than low-entropy ones because there are simply more of them. But that logic doesn’t quite go through if you can’t get to the high-entropy configurations in any straightforward way. Nevertheless, a sufficiently complicated system can bounce around in configuration space, trying various different possibilities, until it hits on something that looks quite complex and unlikely, but is in fact very useful in helping the system as a whole evolve to a higher-entropy state. That’s life (as it were). It’s not so different from other cases like hurricanes or turbulence where apparent complexity arises in the natural course of events; it’s all about using up that free energy.

The experimental biochemist in me says that all of this is so far removed from what I can study using real organisms in the lab, but I do love this stuff - life as entropy management. To be serious science, this has to do more than just sound good; you have to be able to formulate this in terms of very well defined (preferably quantitative) concepts, go do experiments, and actually learn something specific about cellular systems. How do we integrate all of the great concepts related information and entropy and complex systems that researchers in statistical mechanics have developed over the past century or so, with the biology that's studied at most lab benches? Watson and Crick and the other great scientists from the Golden Age of molecular biology changed the way every biologist thought about their own work. So far, the science of complex systems can't make the same claim.

Sean points to some interesting work done by Eric Smith at the Santa Fe Institute on the thermodynamics of natural selection. Many a would-be theoretical biologist has sunk in these waters, but these papers look like fun, and at some point, I hope, someone's going to make some real progress in this area.

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