Scientists and philosophers identify nature's missing evolutionary law

In a publication that appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a significant standard within the functioning of the natural world is described as "a missing law of nature," marking a first.

The new legislation essentially asserts that states of increased complexity, variety, and patterning are the outcomes of the evolution of complex natural systems. To put it another way, evolution happens not just in life on Earth but also in other extremely complex systems, such as planets, stars, atoms, minerals, and more.

Nine people wrote it: scientists from Cornell University, California Institute of Technology (Caltech), Carnegie Institution for Science, and University of Colorado philosophers.

The "macroscopic" rules of nature explain and characterize everyday occurrences in the natural world. More than 150 years ago, for example, the natural laws of motion, force, gravity, electromagnetic, and energy were explained.

The new work offers a contemporary addition: a macroscopic law that acknowledges evolution as a shared characteristic of complex systems found in the natural world. These systems are described as follows:

They may be repeatedly reconfigured from a wide variety of constituents, including molecules, cells, and atoms.

are susceptible to natural processes that result in the formation of numerous distinct configurations.

Through a process known as "selection for function," only a tiny portion of all these configurations make it through.

Evolution happens when a novel configuration performs effectively and function improves, regardless of whether the system is living or nonliving.

According to the "Law of Increasing Functional Information" by the authors, a system will change "if many different configurations of the system undergo selection for one or more functions."

The concept of "selection for function" is a key element of this suggested natural rule, according to research first author and Carnegie astrobiologist Dr. Michael L. Wong.

Darwin primarily associated function in biology with survival—the capacity to survive long enough to generate viable progeny.

The latest research broadens that viewpoint by pointing out that nature has at least three different types of function.

Stability is the primary purpose, wherein stable configurations of atoms or molecules are chosen to persist. Dynamic systems that have continuous energy supply have also been selected to endure.

The third and most fascinating function is "novelty," or the propensity of developing systems to experiment with novel configurations, which can occasionally result in unexpected new behaviors or qualities.

The history of life is full of surprises: photosynthesis developed when individual cells discovered how to use light energy, multicellular life emerged when cells discovered how to work together, and species advanced due to advantageous new behaviors like walking, flying, swimming, and thinking.

In the realm of minerals, a similar kind of development takes place. Particularly stable atomic configurations can be seen in the earliest minerals. The next generations of minerals, which took part in the beginnings of life, were built on the foundations laid by those primordial minerals. Because life need minerals for its teeth, bones, and shells, the development of minerals and life is interwoven.

In fact, after 4.5 billion years of more complicated physical, chemical, and eventually biological processes, the number of known minerals on Earth has increased from around 20 at the beginning of our solar system to approximately 6,000 now.

The study points out that, in the case of stars, the earliest stars were produced soon after the big bang from just two primary elements: hydrogen and helium. The first stars produced around twenty heavier chemical elements from hydrogen and helium. And by building on that diversity, the stars of the following generation created over a hundred additional components.

"Charles Darwin eloquently articulated the way plants and animals evolve by natural selection, with many variations and traits of individuals and many different configurations," said the research's co-author and Carnegie Science's Robert M. Hazen.

"We argue that within a much bigger natural phenomena, Darwinian theory is merely one extremely unique and significant example. The idea that evolution is driven by selection for function holds true for stars, atoms, minerals, and many other conceptually similar scenarios in which a variety of configurations are under selective pressure."

Three philosophers of science, two astrobiologists, a data scientist, a mineralogist, and a theoretical physicist make up the unusual multidisciplinary group of co-authors.

According to 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.'"

"New combinations of atoms, molecules, organisms, etc. are created by the cosmos. Combinations that are both stable and capable of generating new ideas will keep developing. Life is the most striking example of evolution because of this, although evolution can be found elsewhere."

Among the several consequences, the study provides:

knowledge of how different systems have different capacities for further evolution. There are measurements called "potential complexity" and "future complexity" that indicate how much more complicated a growing system may get.

insights into the artificial manipulation of the pace of development of some systems. According to the concept of functional information, there are three possible ways to accelerate the rate of evolution in a system: (1) by increasing the quantity and/or variety of interacting agents; (2) by increasing the number of possible system configurations; and/or (3) by strengthening the selective pressure on the system (for instance, by increasing the frequency of cycles of heating/cooling or wetting/drying in chemical systems).

a better comprehension of the generative processes that give rise to complex objects in the cosmos, their existence, and the function of information in their description

an awareness of life within the framework of other intricately dynamic systems. Although life and other complex evolving systems have some conceptual similarities, the authors suggest a new line of inquiry for future study by speculating on whether life's processing of functional information is unique (also see https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rsif.2022.0810).

Aiding the hunt for life elsewhere: if there is a demarcation between life and non-life that has to do with selection for function, can we find the "rules of life" that allow us to differentiate that biotic dividing line in astrobiological investigations? (See also "Did Mars Once Support Life? Other Worlds? AI's Assistance Could Let Us Know Soon").

Particularly welcome is a predicted rule of information that describes the evolution of both natural and symbolic systems at a time when concerns about emerging AI systems are growing.

Natural laws, such as those governing motion, gravity, electromagnetic, thermodynamics, and so on, codify the universal behavior of diverse macroscopic natural systems throughout time and space.

In addition to the second rule of thermodynamics, which states that heat always moves from hotter to colder things, the "law of increasing functional information" also indicates that an isolated system's entropy, or disorder, grows with time.