Exploring Life: Combining Ideas from Ecology, Business, and Evolution

Jenn Hoskins
21st January, 2024

Exploring Life: Combining Ideas from Ecology, Business, and Evolution

Image Source: Natural Science News, 2024

Ever wondered what makes life tick on our blue planet? Sure, we all understand that life is this enthralling, complex dance of various organisms from tiny bacteria to colossal whales, but what lies beneath this intricate mosaic of living beings? Scientists have been pondering over this for ages and if you're the kind of person who reflects on such profound questions, then buckle up—the intersection of system theory and thermodynamics might just offer some exciting insights! Now, let's take a step back and think about life. What really is life? It's a seemingly simple question that has baffled philosophers and scientists alike for centuries. Some say life is just a series of chemical reactions, while others believe it's something more, something inherently systemic and organized. To really dig into these questions, we've gotta get cozy with some fundamental concepts. The Earth is basically a mega-complex system full of living things all interconnected and powered by energy. So, if we want to decode the mysteries of life, we cannot do it in isolation—we need to consider Earth as an entire system. System theory and thermodynamics are like the Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson of science here. They work together to investigate the evolution, function, and direction of life on Earth, peeking into its past and maybe even predicting its future. The researchers at the Biosphere Research Institute in the United Kingdom have been delving deep into this topic. They start by mulling over what life really means. Are we talking about a cell, a hummingbird, or a rainforest? Maybe it's all of these and none at the same time. To put it straight, defining life is one tough cookie. Now, let's talk about energy because, at the end of the day, that's what keeps the whole show on the road. Our planet is a powerhouse—quite literally. From the molecules that make up our cells to the ecosystems like forests and coral reefs, there's a constant hum of energy exchange and transformation. When you break it down, thermodynamics is essentially the study of energy flow and transformation. It tells us that nothing comes for free—there's always a trade, an energetic cost to every process. And in this grand theater of life, system theory is like the play director—it examines how individual parts interact to create a functioning whole. These researchers have been trying to bend their heads around how living systems self-assemble and self-organize. We're talking about a level of independence and autonomy, where systems can adjust and react to changes in the environment. It's kind of mind-boggling; you have simple components that, when combined, create something completely new and more complex. This is what scientists call 'emergence'. Life is also surprisingly unpredictable and doesn't always follow a straight line, which is a cool twist to the story. There's feedback at play—imagine you're whispering sweet nothings into someone's ear in an echoey cave, and your own words come back to haunt you. Well, that's feedback in a system for you! Also, things aren't always geared towards the best possible outcome. Sometimes, it's about just being good enough—what science nerds would call 'sub-optimality'. Now, hold on tight as we jump into something really powerful—entropy. It's a concept in thermodynamics that measures disorder, but in the context of life and Earth systems, it's about the natural drive toward spreading out energy evenly. Believe it or not, this idea of entropy spills over into understanding why living things might act the way they do. Altruism, where one organism helps another at its own expense, and intricate relationships between organisms, like mutualism (scratch my back and I'll scratch yours) or even antagonistic ones (more like 'I'm gonna eat you'), fall into this category. And just when you think it couldn't get any more captivating, there's this theory—maximum entropy production. It's a bit of a mouthful, but it suggests that life could be all about distributing energy as evenly as possible, which might explain some classic patterns we see in ecology. For example, there's this thing called the intermediate disturbance hypothesis that says a certain level of disturbance in an ecosystem can actually lead to greater diversity. It seems counterintuitive, but this harmony of disturbance and diversity might all be due to the drive for maximizing entropy. The implications are huge. If science can really nail down this relationship between system theory and thermodynamics, it could mean unraveling the tempo and direction of evolution itself. It's about understanding the why behind life evolving in a certain way and predicting the changes we might see as our environment continues to transform. In short, this fascinating blend of system theory and thermodynamics is offering a fresh lens to look at life on Earth. From the evolution of single-celled organisms to the complexity of ecosystems, this perspective is helping researchers to not only grasp but also anticipate the intricate dance of life. It's a bit like finding a hidden blueprint to the workings of nature, one that is constantly being drawn and redrawn as life adapts and evolves. So next time you're out there hiking in the wilderness or even just lounging in your backyard, remember that beneath every leaf, under every rock, there's a whole universe of energy and systems interacting in the most extraordinary ways. Welcome to the never-ending puzzle that is life on Earth!



Main Study

1) Systems theory, thermodynamics and life: Integrated thinking across ecology, organization and biological evolution.

Published 18th January, 2024


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