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Scientists propose expanding on evolution with sweeping new law of nature

[Oct. 17, 2023: Staff Writer, The Brighter Side of News]

The hominin wall at the Natural History Museum of Utah in Salt Lake City. (CREDIT: NHMU/Credit: Mark Johnston)

In the annals of scientific discovery, few theories have caused ripples that resonate as profoundly or widely as the theory of evolution, first introduced by British naturalist Charles Darwin in his groundbreaking 1859 work, "On the Origin of Species."

Proposing a mechanism for the gradual change of biological species over time through the acquisition of advantageous traits, Darwin's theory was nothing short of revolutionary. It provided a foundation for understanding the intricate, dynamic, and interwoven tapestry of life that has been changing and evolving on our planet for billions of years.


Fast forward 164 years from Darwin's seminal publication, and the scientific community finds itself on the precipice of another potentially revolutionary concept. On a quiet Monday that would soon echo through the corridors of academia and research facilities worldwide, a group of nine interdisciplinary scientists and philosophers introduced a bold new law of nature.

This law, while embracing Darwin's theory of biological evolution, extends much further, weaving the evolutionary narrative into the fabric of the cosmos, reaching as far as atoms, minerals, planetary atmospheres, celestial bodies, and beyond.


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The proposed law, known as the "law of increasing functional information," posits a universe where complex natural systems inexorably evolve toward states of heightened patterning, diversity, and complexity.

"We see evolution as a universal process that applies to numerous systems, both living and nonliving, that increase in diversity and patterning through time," explained Dr. Robert Hazen, a mineralogist and astrobiologist with the Carnegie Institution for Science and one of the co-authors of the study published in the prestigious journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


At the heart of this proposed law is a profound synthesis of concepts across disciplinary boundaries. It suggests that all evolving systems, be they biological or non-biological, originate from a myriad of interacting building blocks—ranging from atoms to cells. These systems are subject to processes—such as cellular mutation in living organisms—that generate an expansive spectrum of different configurations. Evolution, then, is the consequence of selection processes that favor configurations providing advantageous functions.

Ten laws of classical physics. (CREDIT: PNAS)

"In our understanding of the universe, we have well-documented laws that account for forces, motions, gravity, electricity and magnetism, and energy," Dr. Hazen elaborated. "However, these laws, whether considered separately or in unison, fall short of explaining the persistent increase in diversity and complexity observed at various scales—from atoms and molecules to minerals and more complex structures."


One of the vivid examples underscoring this principle is the life cycle of stars. Following the Big Bang approximately 13.8 billion years ago, which set the stage for the universe as we know it, the first generation of stars was composed mainly of hydrogen and helium.

The Big Bang approximately 13.8 billion years ago, set the stage for the universe as we know it. (CREDIT: CERN)

These stellar behemoths served as cosmic forges, their core reactions synthesizing around 20 heavier elements like carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen. As these stars reached the end of their life cycles, they scattered their enriched guts across the cosmos, sowing the seeds for subsequent generations of stars. These newer stars, in turn, birthed nearly 100 more elements, further enriching the cosmic milieu.


Parallel to these celestial processes, life on Earth embarked on its journey toward greater complexity, marking significant milestones such as the emergence of multicellular organisms. Dr. Hazen used a compelling analogy to describe this concept: "Imagine a system of atoms or molecules that can manifest in a virtually infinite number of arrangements or configurations. Among these trillions of possibilities, only a minuscule fraction will 'work,' meaning they exhibit some level of function. Nature, it seems, has a preference for these functional configurations."

Imagine a system of atoms or molecules that can manifest in a virtually infinite number of arrangements or configurations. (CREDIT: Creative Commons)

In this context, "function" may refer to a group of atoms forming a stable mineral crystal, a star sustaining its dynamic structure, or a life form adapting a new 'trick' that gives it a competitive edge. "Function could manifest as a mineral crystal's stability, a star's maintained structure, or a life form's adaptation that provides a survival advantage," Dr. Hazen added.


To further delineate their theory, the authors introduced three universal concepts central to their law of increasing functional information: the inherent ability of structures to persist; the perpetuation of active processes that could drive evolutionary change; and the emergence of new characteristics facilitating adaptation to changing environments.

Homo sapiens, which emerged after our ancestors diverged from the chimpanzee lineage. (CREDIT: Creative Commons)

These principles are conspicuously evident in biological systems. Throughout Earth's history, organisms have continuously adapted, developing new capabilities—swimming, walking, flying, even complex cognitive functions. A case in point is our own species, Homo sapiens, which emerged after our ancestors diverged from the chimpanzee lineage, undergoing significant changes including bipedalism and brain expansion.


Dr. Michael Wong, a Carnegie Institution astrobiologist and planetary scientist, and the paper's lead author, emphasized the broader implications of this research: "This paper is pivotal because it presents a cosmos-centric perspective based on functionality. It's not just about what's happening, but about the 'why'—why the diverse systems constituting our universe evolve the way they do."

The organic chemistry unfolding on Saturn's moon Titan is a subject of intense study in the quest for extraterrestrial life. (CREDIT: Stockbym / Adobe)

The potential applications of this law extend beyond theoretical musings, promising practical insights into the evolution of systems we're just beginning to explore. Dr. Jonathan Lunine, chair of Cornell University's astronomy department and co-author, highlighted the forward-looking aspect of this law: "Formulating such a law offers a fresh vantage point for understanding why cosmic systems evolve as they do. It also paves the way for predictive models concerning the development of unfamiliar systems—like the organic chemistry unfolding on Saturn's moon Titan, a subject of intense study in the quest for extraterrestrial life."


As we stand on the cusp of potentially profound scientific understanding, this new law invites us to consider a universe not as a series of disconnected events and entities but as a dynamically interconnected network, a vast evolving cosmos where everything from the smallest atom to the largest galaxy is woven into a single tapestry of existence. In this grand scheme, the law of increasing functional information could serve as a guiding thread, helping us unravel the mysteries of the cosmos—one evolutionary step at a time.

For more science and technology stories check out our New Innovations section at The Brighter Side of News.


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