Have thermodynamic questions?
Inception: 12/18/05
Institute of Human Thermodynamics

In thermodynamics, thermodynamic evolution is the energetic study of the mechanism of evolution, specifically chemical evolution, molecular evolution, and human evolution, as these processes relate to the flux of heat or thermal energy traversing from the sun. From a thermodynamic point of view, any thermodynamic system containing a set number of atoms and molecules set out of equilibrium as in via thermonuclear reactions, combustion reactions, etc., will continue to evolve until that point in time at which thermal equilibrium is reached.  Accordingly, the plethora of life’s forms, comprising a set number of atoms and molecules, are structural entities found within the following thermodynamic system:
:: Thermodynamic Evolution ::

System / Equilibrium Type Debate
Second Law Paradox
Fundamental Evolution

See also
External links

An article on Thermodynamic Evolution.

At the IoHT, our focus is to bring forth understanding and theoretical advance in the field of human thermodynamics; hence, if you have prevalent questions then email us.

In this direction, as it is generally agreed that both life and non-life obey the laws of thermodynamics, there has been a push in recent years to explain the energetics behind chemical evolution of life.  This line of research defines thermodynamic evolution.  The two major points of debate, as to a thermodynamic explanation of evolution, in this direction have to do with the question as to which equilibrium type and which system type best model the finite details of the evolutionary process.  In thermodynamics, there are various types of equilibrium systems, as non-equilibrium or punctuated, etc., (see: definitions of equilibrium), and various types of systems, as open, closed, or isolated (see: thermodynamic systems). 

The essence of this debate, generally, can be traced to Ilya Prigogine's 1977 Nobel Lecture: "Time, Structure, and Fluctuations".  Before this lecture, it was generally regarded that classical thermodynamics, as based on fundamentals of steam engine theory, would eventually account for the energetic aspects of evolution.  Classical thermodynamics, itself, was born with the publication of Sadi Carnot's 1824 paper On the Motive Power of Fire.  Soon thereafter, the first and second laws of thermodynamics were formulated.  By 1880, scientists, such as Herbert Spencer and Ludwig Boltzman, had declared that the evolutionary process, both biological and social, ascribe to and are hence regulated by the laws of classical thermodynamics; essentially, according to these scientists, the struggle for existence is the struggle for available energy and resources.  For example, in Spencer's own words:

"Evolution is a change from a less coherent form to a more coherent form, consequent on the dissipation of energy and the integration of matter."   

What Prigogine did, so dramatically, in his Nobel lecture, and books to follow, was basically to define equilibrium structures to be things such as "crystals", i.e. non-moving entities, and to define non-equilibrium structures to be things such as "people", i.e. moving entities.  He then when on to openly declare that the basic tenets of classical thermodynamics are of no use in the study of evolution and that only non-equilibrium thermodynamics explains evolution.  These statements, to this very day, are accepted by many as scientific fact.

In the introductory section to this famous lecture, Prigogine reminds us that thermodynamic equilibrium is characterized by the minimum of a thermodynamic potential, one such as the Helmholtz free energy, i.e. systems at constant temperature and volume:

F = U – TS

Or one such as the Gibbs free energy, i.e. systems at constant pressure and volume:

G = H – TS

Prigogine then asks: “Are most types of ‘organizations’ around us of this nature?”  According to Prigogine, the answer is no: “It is enough to ask such a question to see that the answer is negative.  Obviously, in a town, in a living system, we have quite a different type of functional order.  To obtain a thermodynamic theory for this type of structure we have to show that non-equilibrium may be a source of order.”  On these suppositions, Prigogine goes on to declare that irreversible processes may lead to new types of dynamic states of matter, which he calls “dissipative structures”, and that furthermore, in time, it will be the robust theory of non-equilibrium thermodynamics, rather than equilibrium thermodynamics, which will eventually explain the evolution and formation of complex living structures.

By pitting himself against the founders of classical thermodynamics, Prigogine's dissipative structures theory, over the last thirty years, has essentially functioned to split the thermodynamics community in half: one side favoring the non-equilibrium model and the other side favoring the the equilibrium model.  As an example, John Avery, in his 2003 book Information Theory and Evolution, states: "the seeming contraction between the second law of thermodynamics and the high degree of order and complexity produced by living systems has its resolution in the information content of the Gibbs free energy that enters the biosphere from outside sources (equilibrium thermodynamics)."  In contrast to this, John Corlett in his 2003 book: Mapping the Organizational Psyche: A Jungian Theory of Organizational Dynamics and Change, states: "by the concept of dissipative structures from thermodynamics, states arise in which the human psyche is pushing toward a bifurcation (non-equilibrium thermodynamics)."    
External links

■  Molecular Evolution Table
■  Thermodynamics of Biological Evolution - ''Journal of Theoretical Biology'' (1978) 75, 425-441.
■  Hierarchical Thermodynamics - Georgi Gladyshev's "Gibbsian" thermodynamics of evolution. ''Institute of Chemical Physics'' (RAS).
■  Thermodynamics in Human History - a philosophical / thermodynamic analysis of human history.
■  Gradient-based Thermodynamics - a near-equilibrium "Progogine" thermodynamic website on evolution.
■  Evolutionary Neuroscience - a 2nd Law article on neurological development - ''Human Nature Review'' (2003) 3, 440-447.
■  Physical Biology - a University of Michigan "Center for Study in Complex Systems" [CSCS] recommended-reading list.
■  Thermodynamics, Evolution, and Behavior - Rod Swenson, Center for Ecological Study, University of Connecticut.


■ Adkins, P. (1984). The Second Law. New York: Scientific American Books.
■ Avery, J. (2003). Information Theory and Evolution. New Jersey: World Scientific.
■ Bennett, C. H. (1990), July, Complexity, Entropy, and the Physics of Information. "How to Define Complexity in Physics, and Why." (pages: 137-148), Addison-Wesley, ISBN 0201515067, [PDF]
■ Bennett, C. H. (1985). Emerging Syntheses in Science. "Information, Dissipation, and the Definition of Organization", (pages: 297-313), Addison-Wesley, Reading, Massachusett, ISBN 0201156865, [PDF]
■ Gladyshev, G. (1987). Thermodynamic Theory of the Evolution of Living Beings. New York: Nova Science Publishers Inc. ISBN: 1560724579
■ Haynie, D. (2001). Biological Thermodynamics. (textbook). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
■ Perrot, P. (1998). A to Z of Thermodynamics (dictionary). New York: Oxford University Press.
■ Prigogine, I. (1984). Order out of Chaos. New York: Bantam Books.
■ Schneider, E. & Sagan, D. (2005). Into The Cool - Energy Flow, Thermodynamics, and Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
■ Schrodinger, E. (1944). What is Life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[1] Kaufmann, W. (1994). Universe (textbook), 4th Ed. New York: W.H. Freeman & Co.
[2]  Margulis, L. & Sagan, D. (1997). What is Sex. New York: Simon & Schuster.
[3] See: Prigogine's [Nobel Lecture],(1977).
[4] See: Gladyshev's [Hierarchical Thermodynamics], (1977).
[5] See: ''Journal of Entropy'' [Article] [1999].
[6] McFadden, J. (2002). Quantum Evolution: How Physics' Weirdest Theory Explains Life's Biggest Mystery. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. ISBN: 0393323102
See also

Chemical evolution
Biological thermodynamics
Molecular evolution
Quantum thermodynamics
Second law of thermodynamics
Fundamental evolution

In recent years, many have made attempts to formulate a quantum mechanics based variation of thermodynamic evolution.  For example, in 2005 the British mathematician Roger Penrose reasons, in his chapter "The Big Bang and its thermodynamic legacy" (book: The Road to Reality), that the concept of entropy is not an 'absolute' notion in present-day theory.  As he states, however, there is a possibility that it might acquire a more fundamental status in the future.  For this quantum physics would certainly be needed to be taken into consideration.  His fundamental particle variation of the second law states, assuming a positive cosmological constant, that:

"Entropy per baryon tends to increase
relentlessly and stupendously with time"

These, however, are only speculations and it remains to be seen as to which thermodynamic theory will hold in the long run.
From a thermodynamic perspective, the second law of thermodynamics is seen as a principle of evolution, i.e. according to thermodynamicist Pierre Perrot author of the A to Z Dictionary of Thermodynamics.  From this law, we are told, in the general sense, that:
From a particle physics perspective, organisms are variations of bound state structures comprised of nuclei, electrons, and photons ‘forced’ to evolve owing to electromagnetic energy release emanating from solar thermonuclear reactions internal to the sun where hydrogen [H] converts to helium [He] releasing photons in the process, as shown below: 
Second law paradox

Aside from this divisional debate as to which branch of thermodynamics governs evolution; there is also the “second law paradox” which questions the universal tendency for disorganization in isolated systems as contrasted with the universal tendency for organization in evolving systems. 

To provide a typical example of misuse of the second law in scientific circles, in her 1997 book What is Sex biologist Lynn Margulis, one of the primary originators of the endosymbiotic theory, declares: "the famous second law of thermodynamics, the Grim Reaper of nature, states that disorder (entropy) in any closed system must increase.”  Her technical mistake here is the misuse of the word “closed system”, implying energy but not matter may cross the system boundary, with the correct word “isolated system”, implying that nothing may cross the system boundary.  In this manner, Margulis connects the Grim Reaper of life with the wrong version of the second law thus stimulating further confusion, and hence a perceived paradox.

There is no apparent paradox, however, for those as fundamentally trained in thermodynamics.  The resolution of this paradox acknowledges that nature seeks to minimize free energy H – TS in open systems, which exchange energy with their surroundings acting as a thermal reservoir, and to maximize entropy S in isolated systems. The paradox arises out of misapplied assumption that all systems are isolated.

Looked at another way, the entropy of the isolated system (e.g. the universe) does increase, just as the second law requires it; however, the paradox resolves because the second law does ''not'' require the entropy of open systems (e.g. lifeforms) to increase. That is, the entropy of the universe tends to increase, however, within this Universe, there are localized decreases of entropy (lifeforms) at the expense of even higher entropy increases elsewhere (e.g. food burning, solar energy generation, etc.), the net effect being an overall increase of entropy of the universe.

As mentioned, one of the most prevalent theories of thermodynamic evolution is the dissipative structure theory developed by the Belgian chemist Ilya Prigogine who followed a far-from-equilibrium thermodynamics route, theorizing that living structures are an evolved form of Bénard cells which formed owing to what are called bifurcations and fluctuations.[3] This line of reasoning is one of the cornerstones of chaos theory.  Prigogine’s most popular work is: Order out of Chaos [1984].

Contrasting with Prigogine, is the Russian physical chemist Georgi Gladyshev who in his seminal 1978 Journal of Theoretical Biology article "On the Thermodynamics of Biological Evolution" argues for a Gibbsian Thermodynamics theory of evolution via what is called the ''law of temporal hierarchies'' which justifies the application of free energy equations of state thermodynamics, i.e. constant temperature constant pressure states, to biospheric processes.[4]  Gladyshev theorizes that living entities are large supramolecular structures governed by the principle that the Gibbs function of formation will tend to a minimum over the course of both ontogeny and phylogeny.[5]  Gladyshev’s most popular work is: Thermodynamic Theory of the Evolution of Living Beings [1997].

Conversely, we may also theorize about evolution from the near equilibrium point of view, as American ecologist and thermodynamic researcher Eric Schneider has done in his 2005 book Into the Cool – Energy Flow, Thermodynamics, and Life where we may argue that living entities are non-equilibrium thermodynamic dissipative structures which form owing to gradient degradation.  Schneider argues that owing to the second law variation of Le Chatelier's principle, because the earth system has a continually existent hot-to-cold energy gradient, living complex structures originate due to the inherent tendency to resist the applied gradient.

As mentioned, one of the first dominate figures to speculate on thermodynamic evolution was the Austrian physicist Ludwig Boltzmann who in 1875 reasoned:

"The general struggle for existence of animate beings is not a struggle for raw materials – these, for organisms, are air, water and soil, all abundantly available – nor for energy which exists in plenty in any body in the form of heat, but a struggle for entropy, which becomes available through the transition of energy from the hot sun to the cold earth." 

This formulation of entropy evolution stimulated further debate which continues to this day.  Building on these concepts, in 1925 the Austrian physical chemist Alfred Lotka published "Elements of Physical Biology" in which he reasoned that life is a dissipative metastable process.  His consensus is such that living matter is definitively an open system, being in a continuous flux, kept from equilibrium by energy provided by the sun.  Lotka argued that the chemical composition of the earth’s surface is in a metastable state not because it had settled to a maximum probability, but because new particles are continuously being added and subtracted. 

Similar to these concepts, in 1944 the Noble Prize winning Austrian physicist Erwin Schrodinger in his famous "little" book ''What is Life?'', postulated in a somewhat riddled fashion that:

"Life feeds on negative entropy." 

Yet, as he states in his endnotes, had he been writing for the physicist rather than the layperson, his focus would have been on the concept of free energy, but judged it too difficult a theme for the general audience.
Generally speaking, in the biosphere, whenever a photon, i.e. a finite quantum of energy, of the correct wavelength absorbs into an atomic orbital, it works to trigger the upward movement of an electron in the correlative outer atomic-molecular shell such that resultantly the molecular structures involved become unstable and begin to move or evolve in time towards more stable arraignments.  From an atomic-perspective, the biosphere is a large collective system or consortium of interacting molecular structures, dynamically evolving according to fundamental quantum-mechanical principles [6].  
Hence, in our solar thermal-system heat moves from hot to cold and the work of "evolution" is extracted in the process.  As an example, when reading an encyclopedia one is probably not reading while on vacation, but rather he or she would be most likely in the process of “work” directed towards some point of focused integration or unification in his or her personal life, i.e. system, and thus indirectly working to “evolve” their small subset of the world.

The series of thermonuclear reactions that produce the photonic energy that drives these evolutionary processes are called the proton-proton chain reactions (above), which produce a total solar power output, called luminosity, of 3.9 x 10E26 watts.  At the earth-space boundary, this electromagnetic energy enters the biosphere at rate of 1,370 Watts per meters squared.[1]  This energy, in combination with uprising geothermal energy emanating from the earth’s core, over the last 4.6 billion years has stimulated the consortium of the 92 natural occurring elements of which the earth system is made to spontaneously synthesize the formation of life, which is generally agreed to have sprung into existence in the form of prokaryotes about 3.85 billion years ago (see: molecular evolution table).[2]
"heat moves from hot to cold
and work is extracted in the process."
The debate itself is deeply entrenched in paralleled logic and far from over.  It remains to be agreed upon as to what type of “equilibrium” process evolution follows.  As there is a continually flux of thermal energy through the earth system, one may argue that life’s processes are continually a great distance from equilibrium.  Conversely, through the study of fossil record, one may argue that life’s processes are punctuated and return to equilibrium in periodic cycles.  Or, as evolutionary change is gradual, one may argue for a near-equilibrium thermodynamic blend of reasoning.

From a biological standpoint, many approximate life to be a loose combination of quasistatic equilibrium, a process in which a system goes through a succession of close to equilibrium states plus punctuated equilibrium, evolution characterized by long periods of stability in the characteristics of an organism and short periods of rapid change during which new forms appear especially from small sub populations of the ancestral form in restricted parts of its geographic range.

A second area of dispute is with respect to the system type of thermodynamic evolution, i.e. “open system” vs. “closed system”, in which biological systems evolve in.  To study evolution from a thermodynamic perspective, a thermodynamic system with a correlative imaginary boundary must be defined.  For example, one may define the Karman line (closed) to be a thermodynamic boundary, or an ecosystem edge (open or closed - depending on time scales) may be defined as a boundary, or the integumentary system (open) can be a thermodynamic boundary.  Thus, as boundary choice, which by definition determines system type, is arbitrary it is a matter of debate as to which type of thermodynamic model is most appropriate:

1. Life evolved via open system thermodynamic processes.
2. Life evolved via closed system thermodynamic processes.
1. Life evolved via far-from-equilibrium thermodynamic processes.
2. Life evolved via near-equilibrium thermodynamic processes.
3. Life evolved via equilibrium thermodynamic processes.
Tell a friend about this page
Copyright © Institute of Human Thermodynamics and IoHT Publishing Ltd.
All Rights Reserved
Know of any corrections, modifications, or additions to this page?
Sign InView Entries
[leave your comments here]
Here, as we see, various authors are using one or the other of these thermodynamic models to explain the energetics of life.  In this direction, three lines of argument have resulted: