The Nature of Irreversibility in Complex Systems
A frequent complaint of CONservatives, both white and non-white, is that things were much worse in the “old days” and people should just “suck up” and slave away. This particular view might superficially appear to have merit because many conventional indices of life quality have improved over the 60 years. However a deeper examination of the entire issue of reveals something that most people, including all CONservatives, are not capable of comprehending. Let me use an example from another branch of knowledge to explain what I am alluding at. And yes, I have previously written about some other aspects of this issue- Irreversibility in Complex System: 01 and Evolution is Driven by Attrition not Optimization: 1.
Consider the evolution of life on earth. While mineral-eating anaerobic unicellular life probably evolved with a billion years of the earth’s formation, complex and differentiated multicellular organisms don’t appear till almost 600-700 million years ago. So why did evolution on earth slow down for almost 3 billion years, only to speed up in the last 600-odd million years? Understanding the overall mechanism of this phenomena is relevant to why established equilibria often hold for a long time only to fall apart in an irreversible manner.
It comes down to an increase in the range of possibilities for complex systems and therefore a much broader spectrum of outcomes, including those caused by emergent interactions.
A simpler way to see it goes something like this- In the beginning there was no life, very few complex organic molecules (if any) and the environment was unlike anything we can imagine. Once proto-life/life evolved, or was seeded from outside the earth, things changed a bit- but not by much. The first forms of unicellular life were still dependent on extracting their energetic needs from minerals, and therefore were likely rather slow growing- but they did not have an option. Gradually the amount of life and its complexity increased to the point where some organisms start using the sun for photosynthesis- but with a chemistry very different from present day plants and algae. While many of these biological reactions generated oxygen, most of it reacted with minerals that could be oxidized rather than accumulate in the atmosphere. The concentration of atmospheric oxygen started increasing only after all exposed minerals that could be oxidized were oxidized.
Once things reached that point, a unicellular biochemistry built around oxygen became a viable proposition, as did the most common type of photosynthesis. However the oxygen concentration in the atmosphere was still not high enough to allow complex multicellular life as we know it today. Slowly the atmospheric oxygen concentration increased to the point where the amount dissolved in shallow water was enough to support true multicellular life- albeit bizarre looking species with peculiar physiology. Then we had a super ice age which put an ice sheet over most of the world for a few million years and somehow the end of this era and the beginning of the Cambrian era (about 540-550 million years ago) was linked to a resurgence of life and the appearance of organisms that are somewhat familiar to us. Of course it took a few million years after that for the first fish to appear, a hundreds million more for the first amphibian and then maybe 50-60 million years for the first reptiles. All of your reptiles, dinosaurs, mammal-like reptiles, mammals, birds etc evolved within the last 300-odd million years. What we commonly think of as living occupies lies than 8% of the time life has actually existed on earth.
So what is the purpose of this longish description of the evolution of life on earth? and what is its relevance to the topic of this post?
Well.. for once even watching something for 3 billion years is inadequate to predict what will happen in the next 600 or 300 million years. It is hard to extrapolate the present based on the past, even if you were watching it for 3 billion years. There is however an even bigger issue which I have hinted to in a couple of my older posts.
While every change was due to the unforeseen consequences of what occurred before it, it did something odd to the palate of possibilities. While change created new possibilities in one metaphorical direction, it also closed down links to the dominant ways of the previous era. Once oxygen became more than a trace atmospheric gas, the whole ecosystem that had generated was quickly driven to niche status. Anaerobic mineral-eating microbes went from being ubiquitous to niche rather quickly and all microbes which anoxygenic photosynthesis which had dominated the worlds oceans also suddenly became a niche. Similarly whatever caused the super ice age about 650 million years ago, basically trashed the majority of the bizarre animal life that had evolved before it. Sponge like half-plant/ half-animal organisms might have existed for 200 million years before that event- but they are gone. Closer to our era- a host of life forms from birds with true teeth, flightless monster birds, giant marine reptiles, super sharks are gone.
I could go on, but do you understand what I am trying to get at? Permanent changes in the basic rules and possibilities in a given system due to the unintended consequences of actions from the previous era can screw up what used to be the optimal way to do things. When conservatives talk about returning to some era in the past, they cannot seem to understand that whatever occurred in that era set things in motion which caused the demise of that era and its future non-viability. Changes that occurred in the 1940s and 1950s gave you the 1960s and 1970s, while simultaneously making it impossible to go back. For better or worse, we are stuck with the world we live in today.
While things can be changed, it is not possible to direct the overall direction of change towards the past. You cannot undo a complex system that has crossed certain points without trashing it to the point of destruction.
What do you think? Comments?