WASHINGTON, July 19, 2012 — In the 87 years since the Scopes ‘Monkey’ Trial surprisingly little has changed. Of course evolution is now taught in our schools, but the divide between creationism and evolution still looms large.
The most visible battles continue to be fought in the courts, although the tables have been turned; creationists are now forced to sue for the right to have their beliefs taught in the schools. Perhaps even more telling of the enduring divide is an astonishing statistic brought to light by recent polls which suggest that almost half of adult Americans still don’t accept evolution.
For its part, mainstream science remains intolerant of creationism, both as a literal interpretation of Genesis and in its modern guise as intelligent design. Indeed, it recoils from the merest suggestion of purpose in evolution as if it had been scalded.
And yet … and yet … it doesn’t have to be this way. There are many Christians who not only accept evolution, but celebrate it. From the other side of the divide there are also scientists who see in evolution a clear direction or purpose.
In bridging the divide there are two men of particular importance. One is the Jesuit priest Teilhard de Chardin, and the other is the Russian chemist Ilya Prigogine. Taken separately their works are significant – indeed Prigogine won a 1977 Nobel prize for his; taken together they are more than that - they are two sides of a profound synthesis that could yet change the world.
With telling symmetry both de Chardin and Prigogine were inspired by the French philosopher Henri Bergson. Bergson is the author of Creative Evolution (1907), in which he put forward the concept of élan vital. Élan vital, he said, was the hidden force in the universe “which is responsible for self-organization and spontaneous morphogenesis.”
De Chardin described Bergson’s concept as the “catalyst of a fire which devoured already its heart and its spirit.” Prigogine was hardly less effusive: “I still remember the spell L’Évolution Créatrice cast on me” he recalled during his Nobel Prize lecture.
For de Chardin, élan vital was the key that enabled him to reconcile Darwin’s theory of natural selection with a universe that he saw progressing toward “ever greater complexity and centricity.” In de Chardin’s paradigm natural selection was not merely random change, but propelled by élan vital it was random change that presented chances for matter to combine in stable and coherent aggregates. The context was everything.
Humans occupy a special place in de Chardin’s vision by dint of our consciousness. Our consciousness, he said, was the absolute cutting edge development in the ongoing progression of the universe. He predicted that in time this layer of consciousness, which he called the ‘noosphere’, would also develop greater and greater coherence, until it eventually reached a point of perfect unity that he famously described as the Omega point - a time at which the universe would have progressed to Christ.
“Man is not the center of the universe as once we thought in our simplicity, but something much more wonderful - the arrow pointing the way to the final unification of the world in terms of life. Man alone constitutes the last-born, the freshest, the most complicated, the most subtle of all the successive layers of life” (The Phenomenon of Man 1955).
Teilhard was obviously not adverse to concepts and language that would make most scientists wince. He did not, however, have his head in the clouds - far from it. He was a respected geopaleontologist and had been part of the celebrated dig that discovered the remains of Peking man on China’s wonderfully named Dragon Bone Mountain.
He was also well enough versed in physics to know that any theory of increasing complexity must be reconciled with the laws of thermodynamics, and in particular the so called Second Law.
The predicate of the Second Law is the relentless increase of disorder (or entropy) within any given system. For example, if you drop a sugar cube in a cup of coffee, there is only one way it is going to go: It can only ever dissolve and spread evenly through the cup; it is never going to reconstitute. In other words the system moves toward its maximum state of disorder.
Taken to its logical conclusion, the Second Law dictates that the universe must finally come to rest as a uniform soup of matter with a temperature just above absolute zero. This is the end of all things – a place where there is nowhere left to fall.
Apparently no one told this to the universe. What we see is not a breaking down but a building up: increasing complexity is in truth, evident everywhere. Over the eons a chaotic universe has ordered itself into swirling galaxies, burning suns, and attendant planets. Here on earth the progression is no less marked as matter has steadily climbed a ladder toward ever greater complexity or order. The rungs are clear to see - atoms took a step upward by ordering themselves into molecules; they in turn integrated to form compounds; which in turn begat virus like organisms; which in turn evolved or integrated into single celled organisms; which in turn evolved or integrated to form multi-celled organisms; and finally we have seen the evolution of societies of multi-cellular organisms such as ants.
This evolution of matter from simplicity to complexity is sometimes called holism or teleology and has been recognized before – indeed it inspired Bergson’s élan vital, and is obviously central to de Chardin’s vision. However the existence of a hierarchy of order in the universe is hotly contested; and it does bring squarely into view the conundrum presented by the law of entropy – specifically how it is completely at odds with an evolution toward increasing order. It is to de Chardin’s credit, both as a religious man, and a man of science, that he not only recognized the contradiction, but that he sought to reconcile it:
“We envision as the basis of cosmic physics the existence of a sort of second entropy (or “anti-entropy”) bearing, as the effect of chances taken, a part of matter in the direction of increasingly higher forms of structurization and centration” (Transformation and Continuation in Man of the Mechanism of Evolution, 1951).
However it was to fall to Ilya Prigogine, with his training in physical chemistry and statistical mechanics, to establish the validity of this “anti-entropy.” At the time of De Chardin’s death in 1955, Prigogine was only just beginning to publish the theories that were to culminate in his breakthrough, but the baton had been passed.
The solution to the conundrum lay in what Prigogine called “non-equilibrium” systems. In language that is at first as daunting as de Chardin’s, Prigogine explains his theory:
“To obtain a thermodynamic theory for this type of structure we have to show that that non-equilibrium may be a source of order. Irreversible processes may lead to a new type of dynamic states of matter which I have called ‘dissipative structures’” (“Time, Structure and Fluctuations”, Nobel Lecture, 1977).
It is actually stunningly simple: Because the earth, which has very little of its own energy, is open to the vast energy of the sun (i.e. it is a “non-equilibrium” system), there is a transfer of energy to the earth. This energy causes matter on earth to jostle together in what amount to a myriad of tiny experiments. The result of these experiments is that some pieces of matter will “stick” together. The law of entropy (i.e., “irreversible processes” - the dissolving of the sugar cube is irreversible; it won’t reconstitute) then breaks the majority of these conglomerations back down into their constituent parts.
However, some of the combinations will be stable enough to avoid breaking down - one example might be the combination of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. The energy from the sun will then cause continuing “experiments” to be carried out with these larger stable combinations, causing still larger combinations to form, and it is axiomatic that the ones that can resist entropy will survive.
Given enough time this concept can account for the emergence of biological systems – conglomerates of matter that have arisen with such ingenious entropy resisting traits as reproduction and adaptive variation. Prigogine calls these organizations “dissipative structures” because they are ultimately using, or dissipating the sun’s energy in order to withstand entropy.
Perhaps in a nod to de Chardin, Prigogine’s discovery became known as the Second Path of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, or Negative Entropy for short; and Prigogine won the 1977 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for it. De Chardin would undoubtedly have been very pleased.
I have talked of the symmetry between Prigogine and De Chardin – in many respects they are two sides of the one coin. However, in a bitter irony, the symmetry extends to both being remorselessly assailed for their views. “It is difficult today to give an account of the hostility that such an approach was to meet,” Prigogine wrote in his autobiography.
Looked at with the perspective of time, there is a disturbing similarity between the efforts of the scientific and religious communities to almost will their respective troublemakers out of existence. P. Hohenberg, a physicist regarded as an expert in the fields of statistical mechanics and pattern formation, made the following extraordinary comment: “I don’t know of a single phenomenon his theory has explained.”
In a perverse way we should be thankful for comments like this: They are so excessive they shatter the veneer of reasonableness behind which prejudice likes to hide – they give the game away.
Although easier to identify as intolerance, the opposition de Chardin met was just as determined: He was censored and condemned by his church, which forbade the publication of much of his work, and at one point even effectively exiled him from his homeland of France.
Why progress that should be celebrated is instead attacked is a question for the ages.
Fortunately the inherent profundity in the works of Prigogine and De Chardin was recognized by enough people for them to survive, and in turn inspire others. As an example, the man credited with synthesizing evolutionary theory with genetics, Theodosius Dobzhansky, refers to de Chardin as “one of the foremost thinkers of our time.”
Similarly a more contemporary wave of scientists such as the Australian biologist Jeremy Griffith and English Templeton Prize winning physicist Paul Davies preach a debt to Prigogine for his influence on their theories - theories that attempt to breathe new life into the study of biological systems.
In the end though, the question we are left with is why these ideas have been consigned to the fringes. Perhaps, as I am suggesting, the answer lies in our own prejudices rather than the ideas themselves. If so, then we need to examine our own condition and ask why, because to paraphrase Benjamin Disraeli’s famous expression, stalled halfway between ape and angel is no place to stop.
This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ WashingtonTimes.com. Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.