Nature is a Transcendence Engine
2.6 billion years ago, the first microbes to test the land turned rock, light, and rain from dangers to delicacies, and turned chemical catastrophes into food, fuel, and shelter. They turned a nothing into an everything. They turned a terrain of tortures into a paradise. Meanwhile, they laid the rock face waste and they laid their waste—their litter, trash, garbage and sewage–all over the place. But that waste was not what it seemed. Yes, it was materialism, consumerism, and throwaway culture run amuck. But it was not a desecration. It was a consecration. It was a new layer of the sacredness we call green. A new layer of that radical act of defiance, that radical reinvention of a poison pill of stone that we call the biosphere. The microbial waste was the first hint of what we’d someday call top soil. It was the first layer of what we’d someday call nature’s resource base. To repeat, it was the first taste of what we’d someday call “earth.” And it was the first layer of something else. It was the first layer of what we’d someday call nature.
All of this came from a race to beat the life and death deadline of the next extinction. To beat the temperature deadline of the next nightfall, the freezing deadline of the next winter, the killing thirst of the next summer heat, the battering of the next rainstorm, the scouring forces of the wind and the caustic deadlines of ice ages, global warmings, famine and drought. All of this came from the race to beat climate change, the race to beat the massive moodswings of mother nature herself.
The bludgeonings nature meted out were not easy to overcome. But there was a danger just as great as earthquakes and climate catastrophe There was the threat from a natural exudation of life itself: pollution. As National Medal of Science-winning biologist Lynne Margulis and ace science writer Dorion Sagan write,
No doubt in the first few million years of life’s tenure, each “famine,”
change of climate, or accumulation of pollution from the microbes’ own
waste gases always extinguished some and probably sometimes almost
all the patches of life on the face of the earth.
What are Margulis and Sagan referring to when they write of the life-extinguishing power of “the microbes’ own waste gases?” And when they say those gaseous wastes extinguished almost all the patches of life on the face of the planet? They are pointing to one of the most extreme examples of air pollution this planet has ever seen. It started with the invention of photosynthesis by cyanobacteria 2.5 billion years ago. The invention that allowed mere bacteria to snag packets of radiation, photons, and use them to turn the wheels of life. With every invention of a new bio-technology comes a problem. Organisms eat the bits of their environment that their new mechanism turns into food. And they excrete what they can’t digest. Often those excretions are a poison.
In the case of cyanobacteria, the new photosynthetic process spilled out a gas that was fatal to most other forms of life. Each bacterium expelled the toxin from its system by farting it out.
Now remember, bacteria are tiny. A single bacterial colony of seven trillion citizens contains more individuals than all the humans who have ever lived. Yet it is only the size of your palm. And it is so thin that you cannot see it. So what’s a little bacterial fart in an atmosphere of 31 sextillion cubic feet. of gas? Nothing. Right? But over the course of the next hundred million years, those bacterial farts built up. Finally, 2.4 billion years ago, the toxic pollution reached a tipping point.
First, the toxic gases sucked up nearly all the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and triggered a global ice age. Nest came something even worse. The toxic farts were so thick in the air that they precipitated one of the biggest species extinctions this earth has ever seen. The waste gases of photosynthetic microbes, as Margulis and Sagan put it, extinguished nearly all of the patches of life on the face of the planet. Bacterial colonies died off left and right. Astronomer Phil Platt calls the result “an apocalypse that was literally global in scale, and one of the most deadly disasters in Earth’s history.”
The name of the gas with which the cyanobacteria were poisoning the atmosphere? Oxygen.
Formally, the oxygen-driven mass die-off is known as the Great Oxygenation Event. But some call it “The Great Oxygen Catastrophe.”
The sins of materialism, consumerism, and waste do not always work out to life’s advantage. Or do they? Margulis won her National Medal of Science award for discovering what some microbes did next. They kidnapped smaller bacteria capable of turning the poisonous gas into a power source. They offered those smaller bacteria a deal—I will give you a safe home with all the food you can eat. In exchange, you will eat this toxic, poisonous oxygen and allow me to use what you crank out as my power source. What did the bacterial kidnap victims use oxygn to crank out? ATP, adenosine triphosphate, the battery pack of life. The new bacterial boarding houses were the ancestors of the cells that would someday make up multi-cellular plants and animals, animals like you and me. They were the ancestors of the trillions of mitochondria energizing you with ATP at this very second.
But please keep this in mind: nature itself invented species extinction. In fact, she used it so often that today, 99 percent of all the species that have ever existed are extinct. And that was true long before the arrival of humankind.
But species extinction has often led to something surprising: radical innovation. Innovation that changes the game. Innovation that demonstrates something basic. Nature is a transcendence engine. She has the ability to utterly reinvent herself. To put it differently, nature’s most potent power is not her ability to maintain a status quo. It is her ability to invent. It is her ability to utterly resculpt the nature of reality.
Nature is not kind. Nature creates disasters. In the early days of life, natural disasters were all over the place. Natural disasters. From earthquakes and volcanoes to this planet’s favorite, climate change. But here’s the trick. More things ran uphill than tumbled down. More things were created than destroyed. A fact that makes a sacred tenet of today’s science untenable.
The holy doctrine I’m referring to is the second law of thermodynamics. The rule of entropy. Remember, the second law of thermodynamics says, “The entropy of the universe tends to a maximum. “ Those are the words of one of the second law of thermodynamics’ founders, Rudolph Clausius in 1865. And what is entropy? Says the Oxford English Dictionary, it’s “the measure of the unavailability of…thermal energy for conversion into mechanical work.” In other words, entropy is the measure of uselessness. And, says Clausius, the universe “tends to a maximum” of uselessness.
The Scientific American adds one more quality to entropy. Entropy, says the Scientific American, is “the most disordered state.” In other words, according to the entropists, the universe tends to a maximum of disorder. The universe tends toward chaos. But 13.8 billion years of cosmic history have proven entropy wrong. ??insert the sugar cube melting in the coffee cup and heat death??
Look at cosmic dust. In the 13.7 billion years since its birth, has cosmic dust sifted randomly through the cosmos like the grains of a sandstorm? Has cosmic dust collapsed in chaos? No. the dust of the cosmos has assembled in galaxies, stars, planets, and ultimately in you and me. Mere dust has assembled astonishments.
In this cosmos, the second law doesn’t work. The invention of new ways to harness energy has been on a constant increase. In fact, seemingly useless energy has been harnessed with each upward step this cosmos has taken. Space, time, quarks, atoms, galaxies and stars all harnessed spills of energy in new ways.
Life harnesses more than just energy. Life even harvests disasters.3.85 billion years ago, when the cosmos invented life, wind, rain, light, and darkness were all dangers But someday liver worts would use wind and rain to spread their spores. Cyanobacteria and plants would use the spill of light from the sun to make sugars. An entire zoo of bacteria would turn the darkness at the bottom of the sea into a pleasure dome. And the first mammals—rodent-like eutherians—would use darkness to hide their movements as they hunted at night for food.
What’s more. This cosmos has a habit of periodically birthing supersized surprises. Time and space, quarks and atoms, stars and galaxies all were shocking amazements when the cosmos first gave birth to them. Life itself is a supersized surprise. And life is a supersized surprise maker. Life is a supersized surprise generator. No, the cosmos is not running down. It never has. It is running up. The law of entropy is nonsense in a self-inventing universe. The law of entropy is nonsense in a transcendence engine.
Which means that science will have to ditch the law of entropy if it’s truly going to understand life. In fact, science will have to ditch entropy if it’s truly going to figure out how this cosmos pulls off its most important trick—radically disruptive invention. Slowly cumulative invention. And giant-jump invention. Mind blowing invention. Unbelievable invention. Science will have to ditch the law of entropy if it’s truly going to understand how this cosmos pulls off her most astounding display of her powers, how she invents herself. Then how she does it again. How she reinvents.
Underlying Clausius’ concept of entropy were two metaphors: the steam engine and the steam engine’s predecessor, the water mill. In the stream that powers the water mill, a current of liquid moves downhill. When it reaches the level of the sea, you can no longer use it to power a turning paddle wheel. But, to repeat, for the last 13.8 billion years, the cosmos has not been running downhill like a stream. It has been running up. What’s worse for entropy, the universe has been building new hills and inventing new kinds of streams.
Then there’s the steam engine. Steam coming from the spout of a tea pot is entropy. It’s wasted energy. But invent the steam engine, and steam can pull a railroad train. The inventors of the idea of entropy looked at the spent gases coming out of the steam engine’s exhaust and concluded it was useless. Then they proclaimed that the entire cosmos behaves like that spent gas. They failed to realize that the steam powering their engine had also been useless just twenty years earlier. They failed to see that a waste is a resource awaiting the harness that will tame it. Entropy is temporary. Entropy is opportunity.
What accounts for this cosmos’ defiance of a law so basic that one of the greats of 20th century science, Sir Arthur Eddington, the explainer of relativity, says,
“If someone points out to you that your pet theory of the universe is in disagreement with Maxwell’s equations—then so much the worse for Maxwell’s equations. If it is found to be contradicted by observation—well, these experimentalists do bungle things sometimes. But if your theory is found to be against the Second Law of Thermodynamics I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation.”
Yes, you will be shamed in science if you admit that the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the law of entropy, is wrong. You will be mocked and scorned if you proclaim that the second law of thermodynamics simply does not fit the universe that’s revealed by a simple timeline of the cosmos, a universe that evolves from the big bang to scientists in lab coats shunning those who dare to say that the Second Law of Thermodynamics is wrong.
But why will you be shunned? Because the scientific community is a club. And clubs have initiation rituals, senseless rites of belonging. For the last 160 years, a key rite in science has been something the White Queen in Alice in Wonderland would have approved of. The White Queen said, “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” Swear you believe in the Second Law of Thermodynamics and you’re in the scientific community. Criticize the Second Law of Thermodynamics and you’re out. Out in “deepest humiliation.”
Then there’s a second scientific mistake it’s time to call out. It’s Pierre Louis De Maupertuis’ law of least action, which, as you already know, says that “Nature is thrifty in all its actions.” De Maupertuis had the backing of Aristotle himself, one of the greatest philosophers of all time,[xii] who said 2,080 Years before de Maupertuis, “Nature operates in the shortest way possible.” Nature does everything by finding the most penny-pinching path. Nature, implies de Maupertuis, is obsessed with energy conservation. Nature is obsessed with thrift. But is she? Apparently not.
How has the cosmos itself given entropy the finger? Through her operation as a transcendence engine. Through her restless, itchy, obsessive, and unstoppable creativity. Through her love for materialism, consumerism, and waste. And soon through her most flamboyant producer of materialism, consumerism, waste and vain display ever, sex.