A multi-disciplinary team of scientists and philosophers have unveiled what they term “a missing law of nature.” This revolutionary concept broadens the scope of evolution, traditionally understood in the context of biological life.
The authors assert that evolution is a fundamental process that extends to all complex systems in the universe — from celestial bodies to atomic structures.
The core proposition of the research is the recognition of evolution as a ubiquitous phenomenon, not confined merely to biological entities but applicable to a vast array of complex systems in the natural world.
The authors introduce the “Law of Increasing Functional Information,” a principle stating that any system, living or nonliving, will evolve if its various configurations undergo a process of selection based on functionality.
The team identifies three primary characteristics common to these complex evolving systems:
The common thread linking these systems is the continuous evolution happening when a novel arrangement enhances function, irrespective of the system’s nature.
Dr. Michael L. Wong, the study’s first author from the Carnegie Institution for Science, emphasizes “selection for function” as the pivotal element of this universal law of nature.
The research builds upon Darwin’s foundational work, where function equated primarily with survival traits advantageous for reproduction. However, the new law proposes a more expansive view, categorizing function into three distinct kinds:
This broader definition sees function not just as a means of survival, but as any attribute that contributes to a system’s ongoing existence, diversification, and complexity.
The paper illustrates this theory using vivid examples from both biological and non-biological contexts. Life on Earth demonstrates an astounding journey of evolutionary novelties. These range from the advent of photosynthesis to the development of multicellular organisms and complex behaviors like locomotion and cognition.
However, the concept of evolution extends beyond organic life. For instance, the mineral kingdom exhibits its evolutionary pathway, where simple, stable mineral configurations have, over time, given rise to new generations of minerals essential for life’s genesis and sustenance.
Earth’s mineral diversity has explosively expanded from a mere 20 to nearly 6,000 known types today. This diversity was driven by increasingly complex physical, chemical, and biological interactions over billions of years.
In the cosmic arena, stars represent another evolutionary marvel. Initially composed of fundamental elements like hydrogen and helium, successive generations of stars have forged a plethora of heavier elements, contributing to the universe’s chemical diversity and complexity.
The research boldly situates Darwinian evolution as a special instance within this expansive natural phenomenon.
“Charles Darwin eloquently articulated the way plants and animals evolve by natural selection,” explains co-author Robert M. Hazen of Carnegie Science. “We contend that Darwinian theory is just a very special, very important case within a far larger natural phenomenon.”
This universal law underscores that the principles driving the diversity of life on Earth apply equally to inanimate systems, offering a profound new understanding of evolutionary dynamics.
The study’s uniqueness also lies in its collaborative spirit, involving philosophers of science, astrobiologists, a data scientist, a mineralogist, and a theoretical physicist. This convergence of diverse academic domains underscores the comprehensive nature of the proposed law.
Dr. Wong encapsulates the essence of their finding: “In this new paper, we consider evolution in the broadest sense — change over time — which subsumes Darwinian evolution based upon the particulars of ‘descent with modification.’”
By recognizing the universal propensity for complex systems to generate novelty, stability, and dynamic persistence, the research redefines evolution as a principle not exclusive to life but as an inherent characteristic of our ever-evolving universe.
This full study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
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