Updated: Nov 27, 2019
But let’s continue with our excursion through scales and layers of existence. Then why or how are flows interesting to us? As we are going to elaborate: flows power complexity. And complexity has emergent properties – where emergent stands for: a property of a system which could not be predicted from the combined properties of its components. Emergent properties usually bring with them new capacities, new degrees of freedom, degrees which escape the initial condition/equation. Thus flows are rich substratas to greater freedom/restriction.
For example, let’s take our flowing water on a gravity gradient. A flowing river allows different molecules to be disolved into the water, and to use the flowing energy of water and sun to organize into macromolecules, and protocells and eventually micro-organism. Such a microorganism is still mostly made of the same water, but the water is confined in a contour where chemistry can be regulated. Let’s fast-forward and we see a fish, still partly made of the same water, but now this water has the means to swim even against the flow. And then a lizard, and suddenly this same water, in a sort of green moving bag, can wonder outside of the mainstream, on land. And growing along the banks multiple networks of roots and branches are extracting water, transforming it into biomass and elevating it high enough that it can evaporate and contribute to wide cycles (circular flows) of water in different phases (liquid, vapour and ice) – a climate – which at the widest scale helps to perpetuate the flows. Water does not only flow down the gradient…it also comes back up to replenish the flow! But clearly the wide whole we are now beholding is not ‘only water’ anymore.
All of what we just described could not happen without the organization of matter into higher and higher levels of organized structures – levels of Complexity. Where each layer emerges over the previous one and presents its own rules of interaction (physics, chemistry, biology). In each level we find different organized patterns (for ex. See figure: atoms – molecules – unicellular life – organisms –ecosystems – planet). To answer the question on flows, flows are interesting phenomena because they power complexity, and by allowing increase in complexity they power the development of higher proportions of freedom/restrictions. At least for a while.
The whole difference between a phenomena that just jiggles around dissipating heat and one that build up into ever more spectacularly unpredictable results might be the setting in place of a gradient.
‘A difference that makes a difference.’
And in this case the difference is biological life. To realize the power of it let’s think for a moment what makes something as big and complex as our planet tick. Earth is a system of finite resources (other than asteroids not much matter goes in and out for now), with a continuous flow of energy - sun radiation. Basically a big marble under a light bulb. It could simply heat up and dry away till disintegration, and it would make perfect sense. Instead, what we see is how one source of energy is being sucked up, transformed, recirculated and redirected, until it powers an enormous number of niche ecosystems nested one within the other and finally radiates back as heat. And on the ride it takes over the wide dynamics of a whole planet so that its finite resources might be continuously replenished along the flows.
Regulating the interaction of energy and matter, to the best of our knowledge, there are two main laws, one assumes that in an isolated system (such as the totality of the universe) energy cannot be created nor destroyed but only transformed, the second one (what is called the second law of thermodynamics) says that in time (long run) energy on the global level is transforming from more ordered (higher quality) kinds of energy, to more and more disordered kinds of energy (heat, just jiggling around). In short, each time you use your energy to do some work (running on a gradient) you lose part of the energy in heat. Our marble planet under the light bulb seems for a brief moment to break the universal tendency towards pointless disorder. Life indeed sets the opposite trend, of more and more organization, with more and more distinct variety, and immersed in such runaway trend we come to life… a grandiose escape, if momentary, from the inevitability of decay.
Some might say it is not a full break-out though, because indeed life is one more extremely efficient way to dissipate energy coherently, which is still in line with the second law on the universal time-scale. And yet, at our scale this is a too general and poor description of life, it doesn’t tell us anything about its diversity, billions of species distributed from the micro to the macro, and their unique if not almost magic rules of interactions. We must look at Life as a new layer of organization, a whole new event of becoming, with its own logic and rules, and its own possibilities of freedom/restriction.
Here is a good point to realize that, while emergent properties clearly bring increase in capacities, and thus increased degrees of freedom, new layers of organization usually bestow as well a whole new set of restrictions upon its components. Think birds flying in a flock, they earn higher probabilities to escape predators, but only as long as they move within the flock’s speed and extent. Looking at biological life, in its vast and flabergasting variety, Darwin realized there is a new law of interaction, and a new set of restrictions, becoming evident at this layer which he called – Evolution. We are not exactly free to do as we please with energy, we need to survive in an environment, and any new change we introduce in the organization needs to be well ‘adapted’ to the environment and the overall network of organisms inhabiting it. Natural selection is the new inescapable order at play.
When we look at the universe from this newly earned standpoint, now we see four main actors, rather than three – energy, matter, rules of interaction and information. Information is paramount here, what keeps this new level in existence is organization, thus a way is needed to maintain and communicate the structure across time – that is what information does. The genetic code – DNA (and not only) is the most clear example of memory which allows the structure of connections to reproduce itself. As humans we emerge in this cosmos – matter, energy, information and evolution. Though, as it is probably already clear,the story is not yet closed upon the curving lines of its meanders. [END OF SECOND PART].
 Complexity describes the behavior of a system composed by many different components, interacting among them and with the environment, in a non-linear fashion (non-predictable), following local rules (no central plan or blueprint can capture the overall behavior).
 We hardly understand the whole of it