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Regardless of whether the system is living or nonliving, when a novel configuration works well and function improves, evolution occurs. Credit: Neuroscience News

Unveiling Nature’s Missing Law: Evolution Beyond Biology

Scientists from top institutions describe a groundbreaking discovery: the “missing law of nature”. This law reveals that evolution isn’t limited to living entities but extends to all complex natural systems, from atoms and stars to minerals.

This “Law of Increasing Functional Information” posits that if configurations of any system undergo selection for a particular function, evolution happens. Such a discovery reframes our understanding of the universe, from the origins of life to the properties of stars.

Key Facts:

  1. The new law recognizes evolution as a feature of all natural world’s complex systems, not just life.
  2. Systems, both living and nonliving, evolve when a configuration enhances function.
  3. This law complements existing laws, like the 2nd law of thermodynamics, by focusing on the increase of functional information in evolving systems.

Source: Carnegie Science Earth and Planets Laboratory

A paper in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences today describes “a missing law of nature,” recognizing for the first time an important norm within the natural world’s workings.  

In essence, the new law states that complex natural systems evolve to states of greater patterning, diversity, and complexity. In other words, evolution is not limited to life on Earth, it also occurs in other massively complex systems, from planets and stars to atoms, minerals, and more.

Authored by a nine-member team — leading scientists from the Carnegie Institution for Science, the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and Cornell University, and philosophers from the University of Colorado — the work was funded by the John Templeton Foundation.

“Macroscopic” laws of nature describe and explain phenomena experienced daily in the natural world. Natural laws related to forces and motion, gravity, electromagnetism, and energy, for example, were described more than 150 years ago. 

The new work presents a modern addition — a macroscopic law recognizing evolution as a common feature of the natural world’s complex systems, which are characterised as follows:

  • They are formed from many different components, such as atoms, molecules, or cells, that can be arranged and rearranged repeatedly
  • Are subject to natural processes that cause countless different arrangements to be formed
  • Only a small fraction of all these configurations survive in a process called “selection for function.”   

Regardless of whether the system is living or nonliving, when a novel configuration works well and function improves, evolution occurs. 

The authors’ “Law of Increasing Functional Information” states that the system will evolve “if many different configurations of the system undergo selection for one or more functions.”

“An important component of this proposed natural law is the idea of ‘selection for function,’” says Carnegie astrobiologist Dr. Michael L. Wong, first author of the study.

In the case of biology, Darwin equated function primarily with survival—the ability to live long enough to produce fertile offspring. 

The new study expands that perspective, noting that at least three kinds of function occur in nature. 

The most basic function is stability – stable arrangements of atoms or molecules are selected to continue. Also chosen to persist are dynamic systems with ongoing supplies of energy. 

The third and most interesting function is “novelty”—the tendency of evolving systems to explore new configurations that sometimes lead to startling new behaviors or characteristics. 

Life’s evolutionary history is rich with novelties—photosynthesis evolved when single cells learned to harness light energy, multicellular life evolved when cells learned to cooperate, and species evolved thanks to advantageous new behaviors such as swimming, walking, flying, and thinking. 

The same sort of evolution happens in the mineral kingdom. The earliest minerals represent particularly stable arrangements of atoms. Those primordial minerals provided foundations for the next generations of minerals, which participated in life’s origins. The evolution of life and minerals are intertwined, as life uses minerals for shells, teeth, and bones.

Indeed, Earth’s minerals, which began with about 20 at the dawn of our Solar System, now number almost 6,000 known today thanks to ever more complex physical, chemical, and ultimately biological processes over 4.5 billion years. 

In the case of stars, the paper notes that just two major elements – hydrogen and helium – formed the first stars shortly after the big bang. Those earliest stars used hydrogen and helium to make about 20 heavier chemical elements. And the next generation of stars built on that diversity to produce almost 100 more elements.

“Charles Darwin eloquently articulated the way plants and animals evolve by natural selection, with many variations and traits of individuals and many different configurations,” says co-author Robert M. Hazen of Carnegie Science, a leader of the research.

“We contend that Darwinian theory is just a very special, very important case within a far larger natural phenomenon. The notion that selection for function drives evolution applies equally to stars, atoms, minerals, and many other conceptually equivalent situations where many configurations are subjected to selective pressure.”

The co-authors themselves represent a unique multi-disciplinary configuration: three philosophers of science, two astrobiologists, a data scientist, a mineralogist, and a theoretical physicist.

Says Dr. Wong: “In this new paper, we consider evolution in the broadest sense—change over time—which subsumes Darwinian evolution based upon the particulars of ‘descent with modification.’”  

“The universe generates novel combinations of atoms, molecules, cells, etc. Those combinations that are stable and can go on to engender even more novelty will continue to evolve. This is what makes life the most striking example of evolution, but evolution is everywhere.”

Among many implications, the paper offers: 

  1. Understanding into how differing systems possess varying degrees to which they can continue to evolve. “Potential complexity” or “future complexity” have been proposed as metrics of how much more complex an evolving system might become
  2. Insights into how the rate of evolution of some systems can be influenced artificially. The notion of functional information suggests that the rate of evolution in a system might be increased in at least three ways: (1) by increasing the number and/or diversity of interacting agents, (2) by increasing the number of different configurations of the system; and/or 3) by enhancing the selective pressure on the system (for example, in chemical systems by more frequent cycles of heating/cooling or wetting/drying).
  3. A deeper understanding of generative forces behind the creation and existence of complex phenomena in the universe, and the role of information in describing them
  4. An understanding of life in the context of other complex evolving systems. Life shares certain conceptual equivalencies with other complex evolving systems, but the authors point to a future research direction, asking if there is something distinct about how life processes information on functionality (see also
  5. Aiding the search for life elsewhere: if there is a demarcation between life and non-life that has to do with selection for function, can we identify the “rules of life” that allow us to discriminate that biotic dividing line in astrobiological investigations? (See also, “Did Life Exist on Mars? Other Planets? With AI’s Help, We May Know Soon”)
  6. At a time when evolving AI systems are an increasing concern, a predictive law of information that characterizes how both natural and symbolic systems evolve is especially welcome

Laws of nature – motion, gravity, electromagnetism, thermodynamics – etc. codify the general behavior of various macroscopic natural systems across space and time. 

The “law of increasing functional information” published today complements the 2nd law of thermodynamics, which states that the entropy (disorder) of an isolated system increases over time (and heat always flows from hotter to colder objects).

About this evolutionary neuroscience research news

Author: Natasha Metzler
Source: Carnegie Science
Contact: Natasha Metzler – Carnegie Science
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: Open access.
On the roles of function and selection in evolving systems” by Michael Wong et al. PNAS


On the roles of function and selection in evolving systems

Physical laws—such as the laws of motion, gravity, electromagnetism, and thermodynamics—codify the general behavior of varied macroscopic natural systems across space and time. We propose that an additional, hitherto-unarticulated law is required to characterize familiar macroscopic phenomena of our complex, evolving universe.

An important feature of the classical laws of physics is the conceptual equivalence of specific characteristics shared by an extensive, seemingly diverse body of natural phenomena. Identifying potential equivalencies among disparate phenomena—for example, falling apples and orbiting moons or hot objects and compressed springs—has been instrumental in advancing the scientific understanding of our world through the articulation of laws of nature.

A pervasive wonder of the natural world is the evolution of varied systems, including stars, minerals, atmospheres, and life. These evolving systems appear to be conceptually equivalent in that they display three notable attributes: 1) They form from numerous components that have the potential to adopt combinatorially vast numbers of different configurations; 2) processes exist that generate numerous different configurations; and 3) configurations are preferentially selected based on function.

We identify universal concepts of selection—static persistence, dynamic persistence, and novelty generation—that underpin function and drive systems to evolve through the exchange of information between the environment and the system.

Accordingly, we propose a “law of increasing functional information”: The functional information of a system will increase (i.e., the system will evolve) if many different configurations of the system undergo selection for one or more functions.

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  1. A good example of this “general evolution” (my term) is how mountain ranges and river systems appear to be optimized for drainage.
    They are! Water follows the best drainage paths, and erosion makes those paths increasingly efficient.
    General evolution not only provides a path to the evolution of life, it clarifies that life is the inevitable, inexorable consequence of general evolution – when conditions are suitable.

  2. A good example of this “general evolution” (my term) is how mountain ranges and river systems appear to be optimized for drainage.
    They are! Water follows the best drainage paths, and erosion makes those paths increasingly efficient.
    This general evolution not only provides a path to the evolution of life, it clarifies that life is the inevitable, inexorable consequence of general evolution – when conditions are suitable.

  3. Hello. Exactly, I also agree with you. Unfortunately, some empty and unrealistic thoughts such as religion and the Bible, etc., affect the work of science and put science under the spotlight. An example of this is the comments of friends below.

  4. It seems to me that when all these processes are considered as a whole the driving source of all these interactions is energy being expended, and we know that in the largest analysis of the universe as a whole the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics tells us that energy is being lost, not gained – the universe is winding downward, toward loss of function, not upward toward increasing functionality;it is decreasing in functional complexity, not increasing. So I’m having trouble understanding how this new ‘Law’ is consistent with the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics.In all of the processes of one entity becoming multiple entities the increasing complexity is downward toward disorder,and,ultimately, complete dissolution, and without a continuing infusion of an appropriate energy,the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics is still prevailing downward toward ultimate loss of function, not gain.

    1. It’s critical to understand that entropy increases in a CLOSED SYSTEM. The universe as a whole is closed, so on average, entropy is increasing. On the other hand, in local systems that have an external infusion of energy, such as the earth gets from the sun, entropy can increase. The earth/sun system sees increased entropy when taken together, but the earth decreases entropy at the expense of the sun. In a few billion years, this will become a problem. There are many such examples of local entropy decreases.

  5. This idea is also evident in scripture the law of progression, call it resurrection, reincarnation, or evolution. The strong and cunning survives and the traits are carried over to a new life religious scholars have know this for millenia. Judeo-Christian, Buddhist, and Hindu among the top ideals of a progression of all things

    1. Hello dear Jack. Religion of any kind is false and unreal and has been rejected from a scientific point of view, don’t try to make proofs and such simulations. I just wanted to share my opinion. Thank you

    2. The 2nd Law of Thermodynamics does not tell us that energy is being lost, rather it is degraded to higher entropy forms – ultimately just heat at very low temperature.

      Complexity and increasing entropy are maintained when you look properly at the “system” and note that the occasional but significant increase complexity does result in increasing entropy on the whole.

      One important example is that sunlight that would otherwise be reflected to deep space is converted to heat by Earth-life.

  6. Nothing new here but the same old wishful thinking renamed! People with common sense have always rejected these “just-because-I-said-stories”. The atheistic materialist are never happy with their alternative reality.

    1. Hello and respect. Forgive my insolence, my friend, but if you believe in God, I must say that you are wrong. Because it is made by the human mind. Thank you

  7. Do you really need to discover this honestly it’s pretty self evident that all complex systems evolve

  8. It the proposed view appears to imply by the use of the word function (that Function is a driving factor for this wider view of the evolutionary processes looking beyond the Darwinian biological meaning). If my understanding of the proposed notion that Function is being worked towards by everything from base elements and minerals to ever more dynamic and novel diverse cosmic processes. It seems to becinsinuating that Function is an objective? A kind predeterminatistic perspective of an universe that is growing and learning to improve itself with this objective called Function. If this is not what is being indicated and I have misinterpreted the narrative then perhaps another word other than Function would be more appropriate.
    However if I have it right?
    Then the insinuations are bold and enticing.
    A kind of intelelent Uiverse that IS the information through which it evolves and learns?
    Didn’t they use to have a word for that? God or religion or something?

  9. Still doesn’t explain why we are here. As it woulda been easier for a universe of increasing entropy to stay a sub atomic soup and not formed complex organized things.

    1. I think it does but I think I understand where you are coming from. You are correct if you are talking about any one particular, simple case. Ex: in chemistry, randomness increases if one complex molecule breaks down into many simpler molecules because the increase in total molecules increases degrees of freedom- each molecule can move in many directions so the more molecules, the more randomness.

      But that is why it is important to view it in terms of the pressure or “function”. The paper is talking more about long-game considerations, not entropy for any one particular transition.

      Examples: Evolution in life: the function or pressure is to reproduce and live. So it was simple at first, but got more and more complex because complex organisms tend to be able to survive better. Some simple organisms still survive perfectly fine like bacteria. It’s not saying everything HAS to be complex- it just tends towards more options, and some of those options are complex. Fish have been found to not survive well if they are smarter than average- too many calories required, so for some situations, complex isn’t helpful. It’s more about variety, like a distribution curve. There’s no direction to it.

      Evolution of rocks: the function or pressure is stability. For instance, rock starts out coming from lava but lava rock crumbles easily and turns to dust etc. It undergoes many transformations from the environment, and the ‘weakest’ tend to degrade and not stick around, but the most stable, like granite sticks around. It would be more favorable for any one rock to crumble and become random dust, or “easier” as you say. Yes, randomness works on any one object, but the authors are talking about long-term trends. It takes energy and pressure etc to make granite (not favorable in short term) but it sticks around a LONG time, so given millions of years, when you walk around Earth, you are more likely to see granite and other things which tend to stick around, not lava rock.

      Evolution of Energy systems: a cloud of gas of hydrogen is very random, and a star is more complex. The energy output of a nebula is very transient, but a star lasts over a billion years and outputs a lot of energy. It takes gravity and basically some outside source for this to happen- (starting the first fusion reaction TAKES energy) so step by step might be using energy or decreasing entropy at any one step. But long term, complexity goes up. The universe exacts lots of changes on something and puts lots of energy and pressure (non favorable or favorable from an energy, or randomness pov), and this produces lots of complexity, and ‘them that lasts, stays’. The final results often happen to be complex, but not always, just lots of options are produced.

      The authors in the paper talk about it in terms of an increase in information also. More variety produces more combinations, which is favorable for randomness.

    2. Maybe that’s the idea. We couldn’t stay stationary from our origin as subatomic particles even now as evolved humans we are constantly searching for more knowledge, questions and answers and more questions. It might take time to find them or not

  10. Good work. I hope you cited “Consilience” by E. O. Wilson as he said this about principles of evolution applying across domains in the physical and social sciences. t

  11. Good work. I hope you cited “Consilience” by E. O. Wilson as he said this about principles of evolution applying across domains in the physical and social sciences. t

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