The World as a Non-Equilibrium System
Now, we will examine the consequences arising from the fact that most systems are open to change and evolution. A non-equilibrium system is one in which the workings of the system have been influenced by exchanges of energy-matter on a large scale, a system the function and emergence of which have in fact been brought about by such exchanges. Such systems tend to be the rule in the natural world. Genuine stasis in nature is rare. The interaction of physical forces is such that it has produced a Universe that is in ceaseless motion and constant transformation. Moreover, right from the beginning of the Universe (or its current iteration), imbalances and asymmetries have existed, as we have already noted. And the process described by the Second Law of Thermodynamics (see pp. 74- 75) is moving the Universe toward entropy. That process has created localized, temporary structures, such as the Earth—and us—that will ultimately not survive. The whole Universe constitutes a huge, non-equilibrium system, and most of its smaller components, like our humblingly tiny planet, are non-equilibrium systems as well, systems operating within the overall system. Non-equilibrium systems are therefore dynamic in the true sense of the word.
Non-equilibrium systems maintain themselves through constant influxes of energy, or objects passing through them with sufficient momentum. They can take unexpected turns as the various elements within them undergo changes. (See the chapter entitled Self-Organization and Emergence.) These changes are not usually expressed in neat, smooth progressions. As an example, the evolution of life on Earth, as we will see, was not a steady, unbroken march from the first life forms to the “highest” life form (us). There were many, many twists and turns in the story, including five major mass extinctions (and some lesser extinctions as well). The entire biosphere of the Earth is therefore a non-equilibrium system. Life itself, as a phenomenon, is a non-equilibrium system. For a living thing, total equilibrium equals death. (There must, of course, be a reasonable equilibrium for the maintenance of internal synergies.) Being alive is something governed by processes, not fixed and unchanging internal statuses. Evolution is the epitome of a non-equilibrium system. Had life been in perfect stasis 3.8 billion years ago, none of us would be thinking about these issues now.
Why does life seem to exist in a continuous state of transition and instability? Because the very “stuff” out of which it is composed is capable of such dramatic changes. The DNA that carries the instructions necessary for the construction of life forms is capable of an incredible number of different configurations. It is as variable and changeable as anything we know of. It has been sufficient for the evolution of billions of species of animals and plants in the Earth’s history, some 99.9% of which are now extinct.
And in order for life on this planet to evolve, there had to be not only chemical non-equilibrium, represented by DNA’s variability, but also tremendous non-equilibrium in the environment in which DNA operated. The Earth has always been such an environment. It is the interaction of these two non-equilibrium realms that has brought about the astounding varieties of life forms on this minute world. The Earth has been changing constantly since it first formed about 4.6 billion years ago. It has experienced the movement of tectonic plates and the attendant upheavals and submergence of land, and the associated phenomena of volcanism, and earthquakes. It has experienced huge fluctuations of climate, caused by changes in the dynamic, non-equilibrium state star around which it orbits, the vast changes wrought by volcanic eruptions of inconceivable intensity, the disruptions caused by objects from outer space crashing into the planet and wreaking havoc, and the perturbations of the Earth’s rotation. The poles of the magnetic field that blankets the Earth have shifted repeatedly. Changes in the location of land relative to the equator or the geographic poles, combined with shifts in the Earth’s climate, have brought about massive changes in the quantity, distribution, and variety of animal and plant life on the Earth’s surface. (See the section of this book entitled Consciousness and the Natural World, in a later volume, for a fuller discussion of these matters.) In short, this planet has been and is ceaselessly turbulent, active, changing, dynamic, and evolving. There is nothing static about the Earth on which we evolved and presently live. When the Earth becomes a simple and relatively stable object, it will be a dead one.
If we had the power to conceptualize it, we might see the operations of nature in a particular area as a time-lapse video. At one speed we would see large changes, perhaps, in the distribution of plant life or the migratory presence of different animals over a period of 1,000 years. But changes in the geological structure of the Earth wouldn't be evident unless we sped the time-lapse video up tremendously, to the point where changes in flora, fauna, climate, and human activity would be only a blur. Only then would the tremendous difference in the tempos of various levels of change be evident. It is as if this world is operating in a variety of different time frames, each one connected to the others but still going at its own distinct pace, an Earth-bound form of relativity in action.
It might be easier to imagine still pictures of the world at various points in its development over time, perhaps at intervals of 100 million years. The differences among the various images in the very earliest epochs of the Earth’s existence might not be very notable, but as the Earth’s development accelerated, they would become enormous, even-mind-boggling. The biggest contrasts would of course be between the most ancient period of Earth’s existence and the contemporary world. The Earth of 4.5 billion years ago was so alien to our experience, so lifeless, and so violent that we wouldn't be able to find much in it that was familiar at all. Just as in the case of the time-lapse experiment, we would we get some idea of how incredibly dynamic this planet actually is. We, with our severely limited life spans, don’t see this. We may know it in the abstract intellectually, and yet, at a fundamental level, it is yet another of the hidden realities in which we live.
Surrounding us, immersing us, operating around us, through us, and by us, are self-organizing and emergent phenomena, the physical forces, the unseen miniature universe of particles that also behave as waves, particles which comprise all things, the multitudinous laws of nature operating by the arcane rules of mathematics, random events caused by the action of probabilities unfolding in chains of unintended consequences, creating synergies and synergies-of-synergies built on a mass of feedback loops in a physical world of shapes, patterns and cycles creating and expressed by a world of interrelated systems. How could such a world be anything but a non-equilibrium system?
Non-equilibrium systems are usually studied by those in the natural sciences. But I think the concept of non-equilibrium can be extended to the whole of the human experience, both in the past and in the ever-changing present. Even in the earliest days of our genus’s experience, humans were in all probability restless animals. They certainly lived in highly dynamic environments. We would call their lives uneventful in comparison to the sometimes harrowing pace maintained by so many in the modern world, but they faced possibilities far harsher and grimmer than most in the modern world will ever confront. The means by which they confronted these grim realities was the phenomenon of consciousness, the product of brains large enough in absolute size, brains large enough relative to the over-all size of the human body, and most crucially, brains densely wired enough with clusters of neurons that acted synergistically to create internal realities that those neurons could never have created on their own. Our ancestors’ perception of the world was subjective, even though they believed it to be objective. Most of them probably believed that the world they experienced was exactly as it looked, sounded, felt, tasted, and smelled. Our ancestors were, in all likelihood, what we call naïve realists. It was with this profoundly limited and subjective perception of the world that they attempted to deal with variables that were already interacting, even in the prehistoric era, in complex and incomprehensible ways.
The density and interconnectedness of variables grew as our ancestors created, over very long periods of time, complex societies. Once these societies reached a tipping point of complexity, synergistically-driven realities engulfed their members. As societies clashed with one another, traded with one another, learned from each other, and/or interbred with each other, the complexities and synergies grew apace. Our ancestors often confronted situations that were so desperately complicated or gravely threatening that they were forced to act—they were forced to do something—in the face of them. The question, therefore, wasn’t simply, “What’s happening to us?” The more urgent question was, “What are we going to do about it?” The responses to the world they gave—based on partial knowledge, incomplete understanding, or even complete misunderstanding—shaped the lives of those that came after them, or sometimes even guaranteed that there would be no one who came after them, at least in that part of the world. What our ancestors from 2 million, 200 thousand, 20 thousand, two thousand, or 200 years ago did about their situations started chains of unintended consequences that are still manifesting themselves and intertwining with each other today, at this minute, right now. And the decisions they made were the products of brains that had not evolved to fully comprehend physical reality, a reality in which brains were simply one of the forms by which that reality was represented and expressed.
It has often been said that civilization is a thin and fragile veneer covering the baser human impulses, and there is abundant evidence from history to support this observation. Human behavior can be brutal and chaotic in the aftermath of both natural and human-made disasters. The most vicious human tendencies often emerge because of the primacy, in most humans, of the sheer will to survive, a will that can quickly trump all other values. It is the terrifying ease with which human behavior can descend into barbarism that is the most potent force for disequilibrium in the human world.
Individual parts of the overall human community can fall into disaster and chaos, but the size and geographic distribution of the total world community usually guarantees that the species as a whole will survive. There was a major exception to this when the human race was almost extinguished and survived largely by retreating to southern Africa between 164,000 and 123,000 years ago, (see p. 355) but since that time, humanity has occupied a sufficiently diverse set of environments, spread out over a wide enough geographic area, to ensure that no pandemic, no war, no massive storm, no earthquake, no tsunami, no volcanic eruption, or no famine, however devastating, can carry all of us away at once.
There is a persistent belief among many humans to the effect that the world is unusually volatile or dangerous today. Many humans want to believe that they are living in the most dangerous and dramatic times because it inflates their own sense of personal significance. Many people see the violence and chaos that are such prominent features of life on this planet and conclude that they are living in an apocalyptic era, which causes their estimation of their significance to grow even more. (“To think that I lived to be a part of all this!”) In some ways this seems to be true. It is true that as the human race has grown more powerful and sophisticated, the dangers of uncontrollable non-equilibrium have grown as well. The more human populations are in direct contact with each other through trade and travel, the more our vulnerability to pandemic grows. The more interconnected the world economy, the greater the possibility of world-wide economic crash. The more all-encompassing our communications technology, the more lies, fanaticism, bigotry, and dangerous hatreds can spread. The greater the impact of heavy industry and carbon-based transportation, the more environmental dangers can spread through the world’s atmosphere. And as military technology has grown more destructive, there is a greater chance that the dire consequences of the use of nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons will be felt beyond the immediate zone of their use. In other words, there is now a greater chance that non-equilibrium, even chaos, in one part of the world can spread instability and destruction far and wide. We tend to think of the emergence of a world culture as a generally good development, but as is always the case, it carries with it the potential to unleash a multitude of unintended consequences.
But we shouldn’t fool ourselves: the world has always been either at the edge of chaos or immersed in it. We often think our own era is the nadir of disorder because most of us are unaware of how chaotic and violent the human past has been. But the cold facts are these: there has been no extended period in recorded history without social tensions, widespread discontent, and frequent violence. Upheaval has been depressingly common in our history, as the leaders of various tribes, factions, kingdoms, empires, or nation-states have led or ordered their people into wars or revolts for all kinds of different reasons. Chaos has also been spread by migration, the spread of ideas, natural catastrophes, or the spread of technological innovations that had completely unforeseen impacts. These disruptions intrude on the basic, ordinary, uneventful nature of daily life on this planet and turn lives upside-down. Seemingly unrelated, disparate factors can reach critical mass and manifest themselves at the same point in space-time—and erupt into the worst forms of disequilibrium.
We have seen the strange chain of events that led from the cultivation of the potato in Pre-Columbian Andean culture to the settling of the Irish in 19th century America. But as bizarre and tortuous as that story was, it was not, in most respects, influenced by ideology, although ideological factors played a role in it. But ideology, specifically the religious variety, can combine with the multitudinous variables that influence and comprise a nation’s history to cause complete upheaval. Perhaps the most astounding example of this comes from the history of China in the mid-19th century. It is a story that centers around Hong Xiuquan (born Hong Huoxiu), the leader of China’s terrible Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864), the bloodiest civil war in human history. The story has many threads, and its origin is exceedingly complex. The proximate causes of the conflict arose in the 1830s. The Chinese living in that era were deeply affected by the incursions of foreign merchants into China’s territory (although not all Chinese were overtly hostile to Westerners, by any means) and there was a widespread perception that the governing Manchu/Qing dynasty was weak and ineffectual both in resisting those incursions and in dealing with China’s many internal difficulties.
Southern China in the late 1830s and early 1840s was the epicenter of the turmoil beginning to engulf the country. The confused tangle of events known as the First Opium War was unfolding, turning Chinese not only against British forces but against each other as accusations of disloyalty and treason flew. Complicating this picture were the activities of Western missionaries operating in the Canton region and along China’s south coast. From the early 1830s onward, these dedicated missionaries from Europe or America, along with Chinese who had been converted to Christianity, distributed large numbers of publications proclaiming the asserted truths of the Christian faith (mostly from a Protestant standpoint). Hong, a failed Confucian scholar living in the general region of Canton, was exposed to such ideas, but at first gave them no consideration. Some time later, according to the evidence, Hong fell deeply ill and had a strange dream in which he was taken up to heaven and introduced to a glorious and omnipotent figure, the ruler of heaven, and introduced as well to Hong’s heavenly “brother”. In his dream Hong met many retainers of the ruler of heaven, as well. He was told to do battle against demons, and to change his given name. Upon waking and (eventually) recovering from his illness, he did indeed change his name. Later, during the violence and destruction of the First Opium War in Canton, he was exposed once again to the ideas being spread by the missionaries. He was particularly taken with the words of the Sermon on the Mount, and he was very impressed with the idea of God’s Last Judgment on humanity. He filtered these ideas and teachings through his own deeply aberrant consciousness, and came to the conclusion that the central figure in his dream was actually God, that the brother he saw there was Jesus himself, and that the retainers were the angels of heaven. Convinced, therefore, that he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ, Hong set out on his own evangelizing mission. His followers, known as God-worshipers, came to dominate several areas of southern China. Jesus himself was thought to regularly communicate with Hong through one of the followers thought to have a direct line to Heaven.
Friction between Hong’s group and the anti-Western, anti-Christian Qing government grew worse and worse. In 1850, tensions erupted into outright war between the followers of Hong and the ruling dynasty’s armed forces. Hong and his followers believed that they were going to establish a “heavenly kingdom” in China. Although Hong never came to dominate Canton itself, his forces captured Nanjing and made it the Taiping capital. Much of southeast China fell under the control of the Taiping, and Hong’s armies even made a serious effort to seize control of northern China. The Qing government, aided by foreign troops, did not finally extinguish the last of the rebellion until November of 1864. By that time, the death toll from combat, disease, and famine had reached 20,000,000—just about equal to the deaths from all causes from all nations in the First World War. (My examination of this conflict, by the way, is taken from Jonathan Spence’s masterful study, God’s Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan.) Why had this happened? Why had disequilibrium swept over so much of China, inflicting such terrible death and suffering? There are several hypotheses that can be offered.
First, the China in which Hong was living and spreading his bizarre ideas was filled with people whose brains already harbored many unusual conceptions about the unseen world of the supernatural, a world filled with demons, devil-kings, gods, ancestral spirits, angels, and other entities. There were both messianic and apocalyptic ideas within many of these minds as well. These people, therefore, already lived in a mental world in which almost anything was possible. It did not take an extraordinary leap for many of them to be receptive to Hong’s ideas, sometimes fervently so. (Many of Hong’s followers incorporated traditional Chinese ideas into their Christian belief system as well, which is perhaps another example of the syncretism that characterizes much of Asian religious practice.) Second, the ideas Hong spread represented a change that many Chinese seemed to feel was necessary in light of the Qing/Manchu government’s many shortcomings (and its endorsement of Confucian principles). Perhaps joining the Taiping Rebellion was more a political than a religious statement for many people. Many of Hong’s followers, therefore, may have had mixed reasons for becoming part of his “kingdom”. Third, the breathtaking sweep of the ideas Hong offered up was no doubt compelling to many. The emphasis of these teachings on the absolute power of God, the inspiring story of Jesus (to whom Hong claimed a direct family tie), and the grim certainty of God’s judgment, all preached with deep sincerity by Hong and his acolytes, must have seemed very powerful to many Chinese on the lower rungs of society. (Hong, by the way, denied both the divinity of Jesus and his own divinity.) And fourth, we note the extraordinary power of an individual living at the right place and right time in human history, a person of exceptional charisma with a message that resonates deeply in countless other people. The sobering fact is that it does not matter how mentally deluded such a person might be. The rise of leaders like Hong is among the rarest of all historical phenomena, but when it happens, its effects are potentially enormous.
In short, the Taiping Rebellion is an example of how humans can be carried away by the power of ideas. The attempt to impose ideas on others, and the attempt to establish societies based on ideologies of all kinds, can easily disrupt even the most stable societies, much less one, like China in the 19th century, that is seething with discontent and hardship. Of all the causes of disequilibrium in this world, few are as dangerous as humans in thrall to a vision that they are determined to realize—at any cost.
Chaos is dreaded by all but the most mentally unstable humans. When predictability, a sense of equilibrium, is pulled out from under them, most humans are lost, and they seek to reassert some semblance of order. A bleak history of our species could be written based on our often excessive and hysterical attempts to do so. Humans have persecuted those in their societies they believed to be a threat to “good order”. They have imposed brutal, draconian laws and enforced them through the indiscriminate use of deadly force. They have demanded absolute conformity to the established social mores of the society. They have clamped down on all “unusual” creative expressions. In short, many humans panic in the face of instability, and lash out at anything in their environment that they believe has contributed to it. In the reaction to perceived disorder, the seeds of new disorders are often sown.
In trying to deal with and manage the various challenges and threats to their well-being humans are faced with, they confront this somewhat jarring reality: None of their solutions to the problems they face is permanent. The problems themselves are usually so complex, they tend to manifest themselves in unanticipated ways through time, or even change their essential character. The circumstances in which problems arise change as well. Moreover, as I noted in the introduction to this work, all human solutions to problems will have unforeseen impacts and will very often tend to cause new issues to arise. For example, the enormous energy needs of the human species were once met almost entirely by the burning of wood, which contributed to widespread pollution and deforestation in many regions. But the introduction of fossil-based products, while easing the demand for wood as a source of energy, caused new forms of pollution to proliferate. The widespread use of nuclear energy has eased the demand for fossil fuels, but the storage of nuclear wastes and the potential for the accidental release of radiation from nuclear plants has presented new issues. And so it ever seems to go in human life. One set of issues is settled; a new set of issues emerges from them. In a sense, nothing is ever definitively over in human life. The participants in an event will all die out eventually; the impacts of the event will live on.
After all great disruptions, therefore, there are attempts made to re-establish equilibrium. More often than not, order is restored, at least temporarily. But the attempts themselves will often either not be long-lived, or will set the stage for new forms of disequilibrium, or both. The unsettling conclusion seems to be that humans simply cannot get a permanent handle on their own affairs. Societies are made up of individual human beings, and people are so complicated and variable, their interaction so complex, and the impact of natural factors on their lives so random, that even the most severely authoritarian attempts to maintain order will eventually crumble. Humans seem to do best in societies that tolerate reasonably wide ranges of human behavior, and which provide for elaborate sets of checks and balances to prevent the excessive accrual of power by any one person or group. But even these rational systems are vulnerable to breakdowns, corruption, crises, external threats—in other words, disequilibrium.
Finally, the individual human life itself is a study in change and the constant threat of disequilibrium. Humans pass through the aging process (to widely varying degrees), and at each stage encounter novel challenges and states of being. Humans are confronted with illness and injury, both of which can strike with great suddenness. People find themselves enmeshed in huge events the causes, scope, and nature of which they do not understand. And the vast majority of humans, with the exception of a relative handful of isolated individuals, must interact with other beings as complex as they themselves are. Usually it takes a hard process of trial and error for them to learn about the (apparent) nature of other people. The seemingly limitless capacity of many humans for deceit and treachery adds a layer of uncertainty to all human interaction, forcing humans to confront the existential question, Who can I trust and to what degree, on a regular basis. Human lives take unexpected courses. People meet strangers with whom they must deal, and face circumstances that they cannot have anticipated. They often have children, and these children grow and develop, becoming their own people with distinct personalities. Even in the millions of traditional rural villages spread across the world, where ways of life are seemingly set in patterns established from time immemorial, there are uncertainties and unexpected challenges people face. As we noted in discussing randomness earlier in this section, humans have often devised very elaborate rules of life in an attempt to minimize the effects of this randomness. But it will assert itself, nonetheless, and chaos is always lurking within its folds. It is true that some humans, in very tradition-bound societies, can reasonably guess the course of their lives (arranged marriage, life in the ancestral hometown or village, fixed religious observances, following the family trade or, if female, assigned to motherhood and household tasks, set obligations to the extended family) but even here the increasingly intrusive outside world is upending these expectations. The truth seems to be this: life is a series of changes, filled with twists and turns, and nothing, absolutely nothing is guaranteed—except for physical death.
Humans find themselves immersed in a Universe, planet, biosphere, and social reality which are all in a state of ceaseless transformation. Their own lives are the product of these transformations, and exemplify them in every way. Most humans, both individually and in groups, struggle mightily to keep their lives stable and headed in the “right” direction. But reality itself is an unending storm, and it will always threaten to overwhelm them. Only by the greatest effort—and more than a little good fortune—can a human hope to live a life where change is manageable. In this world, only the most flexible and adaptable humans survive and prosper. There is no reason to think it will ever be otherwise.