The Big Game: Thermodynamics vs Evolution

Now I may be just a regular observer, a fan who pays their money to sit there and watch the sport like anyone else, but still, I can remember most of what transpired. At least, the important stuff anyway. As most games, races, or matches tend to start, so too this one began with a bang. A big, deafening bang, but still, this race was taking place across the whole universe, so everyone needed to hear it. We’ll leave aside the fact that at that particular moment, everyone was in precisely the same place (of course, as it’s a race, it would be preposterous to start in different places) and extremely close together, so there was no doubt that anything one heard the others would hear. But the point is there was a bang, and then everything began, including this race.

The 2nd law of thermodynamics (from now,  “thermodynamics”) took an early lead. Having everything neatly and tightly packed together was not a favourable starting point, and so expelling all matter to every corner of the galaxy seemed a good opening gambit. And thus, matter raced away from the starting point, with such a furious pace that it looked for all the world (not that there was a world at that point, but please excuse me this metaphor) like space and time themselves were all bent up in the commotion. However, thermodynamics wasn’t going to have it that easy. This was a challenging course designed to trip up even the most experienced of players. One of the traps was gravity, which started to bring together some of the matter thermodynamics had so vigorously thrust away. Soon clumps of the stuff could be seen floating through space, and some it grew quite massive, with other clumps orbiting around them. This all seemed quite contrary to thermodynamics’ plan; you could almost see regular patterns in the movements of these heavenly bodies! Disastrous!

Thermodynamics was not without its ploys though. Many of these more massive lumps of matter would spontaneously start reacting to their own mass in a quite violent manner. They pretty much went nuclear at their own girth. Many of these large lumps then explored, or imploded if they felt like it, no one really minded which they did, and these vast detonations ripped apart the large lumps and the smaller lumps orbiting them, and all that was left at the end were clouds of matter, nicely evenly distributed, and the reverberating energy of the explosion echoing through the universe. The crowd loved it.

However, not all of the large lumps exploded (or imploded, no one’s judging here) immediately. In some cases, they maintained a surprisingly steady burn, warming the cockles of the smaller lumps of matter flying about them. In one particular example, in a forgotten part of the arena where thermodynamics clearly wasn’t watching closely enough, the distance between a large and small lump of matter allowed hydrogen and oxygen to come together in a quite artful combination, and water appeared, which was jolly handy as everyone was quite thirsty by now after all the action. Furthermore, and in great news for lovers of races involving more than one contestant, the presence of aqua brought our 2nd player into the game. In the water, new and exciting chemicals started bumping into each other in new and fascinating combinations. Quite what thermodynamics would have thought of this is anyone’s guess, but it had no idea; it was far away celebrating the implosion of another giant lump of matter and receiving the adoration of the crowd. But anyway, eventually, against the surface of a rock in some deep pool, on the surface of a small lump of matter in a far corner of the universe, reaction chains started forming loops and feeding into one another. Eventually, these chains started producing enough products that more chains appeared, and before anyone knew what was happening, replicators had formed. This then allowed our 2nd contestant, evolution, to step up.

Unlike thermodynamics, evolution did not begin with a bang, more of a squidge and a squish. An inauspicious start as these things go, and many commentators gave it no chance of progressing. But evolution, ever a tenacious battler (probably due to its rough-tough upbringing), grimly dug in and started refining its replicators. The reaction chains became more efficient, grew in size and complexity, and eventually gained protective covers. Suddenly little blocks of organised living stuff were everywhere, bumping up into each other and their surroundings, occasionally taking a swipe out of each other. Many commentators thought this was a terrible idea, and that all the blocks of matter should work together to combat thermodynamics, but evolution shrugged its shoulders and let them do battle. Soon the lumps of matter started teaming up to engulf smaller lumps of matter, and the eaters and the eaten all grew various devices to aid in the eating or avoid being eaten. It was tremendous sport, with all kinds of tactics being employed by either side. The crowd loved it.

Finally, thermodynamics realised what was going on. Where there had been disorder, there were now many little-ordered blocks carrying out regular reactions, and this really wasn’t what it wanted. But thermodynamics was not without further tricks and schemes. The large lump of matter that was allowing all the water to persist in its liquid state threw out great doses of radiation, scorching and frying the surface of the smaller lump of matter. For a while, this kept evolution’s little creations deep under the water (which made watching the sport quite tricky, and several viewers wrote in to complain about thermodynamics’ tactics, although nothing was ever done about it). But eventually, the sneaky little chemical reactions evolution had set in play threw up a protective gaseous shield around the lump of matter, and the solar radiation weakened. This move heralded as a game changer and was voted by fans (and I include myself in their number) as the play of the aeon for that round.

For a period then the race truly swung in favour of evolution. At least on this particular arena. Throughout the rest of the universe, disorder reigned, and it really seemed like thermodynamics had it all and evolution nothing, but no one was really paying attention, for all the action was on this one little lump of matter, and you couldn’t tear your eyes away from it. Thanks to the protective shield, evolution’s replicators spread across this sphere’s surface, even leaving the water and settling on dry land, which drew murmurs of wonder from the crowd, although evolution remained stoic even in the face of its successes. Replicator joined with replicator, and the complexity of the forms produced spiraled into a dizzying magnitude. Some things absorbed light from the burning lump of matter and turned that into fuel. Some replicators engulfed these light-absorbers and took their energy and molecules for their own! And it didn’t stop there, some even bigger groups of replicators engulfed the engulfers, and took their molecules and energy for their own! It was incredible, it was bloody, and it was exciting to watch. The crowd loved it.

Even though it was ahead in the vast majority of the universe, thermodynamics would not surrender this tiny corner. Some of the collections of particles it had sent flying towards far corners of the universe were now returning in different sized lumps (that gravity again, what a joker). Some of these hurtled towards the small lump of matter teeming with replicators. It was hard to sit there and watch while these balls of rock and ice (the use of solid water some kind of ironic jest from thermodynamics no doubt) approached this one small island of complexity amongst all the disorder. But watch, through our fingers, we did. Boom! Crash! Wallop! Throughout the years and millennia, countless impacts big and small hit home. The extent of the devastation was vast.

Whole empires of replicators crumbled. Everyone has their favourite epoch, and one some nights we sit and recount the wondrous forms that were lost due to these fateful impacts. The many spined, many-legged creatures that crept on the ocean floor. The googly-eyed and long-tusked beasts that floated over them, crunching their shells. Or perhaps the vast scaly replicators that had been so successful, so numerous, so diverse, yet crushed on mass when a particularly large impact thudded home. It was brutal. However, evolution gritted its teeth, kept working, and something always endured. It might be small, ugly, and seeming insignificant, or possessing some weird characteristic, but something always managed to persist in some nook or cranny. And so, from humble beginnings (as if it had ever been any other way), evolution again and again set to work, duplicating, refining, selecting, crafting and combining ever more complex and exciting forms. The pure tenacity was a sight, and even thermodynamics was moved to acknowledge this show of grit and determination. The race continued.

It was at this point evolution made what some commentators consider to be its first real mistake. But I doubt whether evolution was ever thinking more than one step ahead, just doing what works at the moment and thinking about tomorrow when tomorrow came. But anyway, it is easy to see with hindsight this next move may have been a bad one. Or, it could have been a game winner. We don’t quite know yet. Anyway, eventually of all the forms evolution tried, one popped out that seemed to ape its creator a bit. At least, it also created things, and tore them down, and made new, bigger and better things. It was really something. We didn’t know what to think, was this cheating?

The refs let it go, however, so we settled back into our seats to watch. This was when thermodynamics really started to panic. This new form set about transforming the surface of the small lump of matter in all sorts of ways, cutting and scraping and bending and building. Soon curved and chaotic edges became straight, fluid and ever-changing systems become rigid and straightforward, and ordered blocks of molecules quite unlike anything evolution had been able to create appeared all over the place. This caused quite a stir, and even evolution paused for a second during its work to glance at these creations. But it didn’t stop there. Soon this one life-form started sending ordered blocks far away from the surface of the small lump of matter, towards the large burning one, or far away deeper into the universe.

A creeping dread came over thermodynamics. Yes, it held sway over the vast majority of the cosmos, and evolution held this poxy corner. But thermodynamics had tried to shift it from this corner, and it had failed. And now, these replicators and their complexity and order were threatening to start spreading across the universe. What if it couldn’t stamp it out in the new places it reached? Would it slowly lose its grip over the whole universe, and lose the race? Impossible! It had held the lead for so long, to fail now would be a shock, a calamity, the ultimate choke in the long history of chokes.

There was a further twist, however. This new life form didn’t seem so compatible with the rest of life on the small lump of matter. It engulfed them, or shredded them, or poisoned them with its organised blocks of molecules. This seemed terrible, but evolution simply shrugged and carried on. It had lost replicators before, it could deal with losing them again. But then something truly unexpected started happening. The new life-form started altering the gaseous layer surrounding the small lump of matter. Thermodynamics watched this development with interest. We, the fans, the once baying and now quieted masses, all did. The old protective layer, so long the reason the replicators had been able to colonise the small lump of matter, started to erode and dissolve and thin. The temperature at the surface of the small lump of matter began to increase. Perturbed by this, fires and storms raged around the surface of the small lump of matter. Life everywhere was imperiled. Even the new life-form started to suffer. Commentators chattered wildly. Had it brought about its own demise? Had it wrecked evolution’s chances all in one fell swoop? Was this the beginning of the end? Or would it survive and carry the fight to thermodynamics throughout the universe? The crowd held its breath.


Note this piece and its style are inspired by Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics, which I highly recommend you read if you have not

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