Can Order Come Out of Chaos?

There is a new science abroad in the land-the science of chaos! It has spawned a new vocabulary—"fractals," "bifurcation," "the butterfly effect," "strange attractors," and "dissipative structures," among others. Its advocates are even claiming it to be as important as relativity and quantum mechanics in twentieth-century physics. It is also being extended into many scientific fields and even into social studies, economics, and human behavior problems. But as a widely read popularization of chaos studies puts it:

Where chaos begins, classical science stops.1

There are many phenomena which depend on so many variables as to defy description in terms of quantitative mathematics. Yet such systems—things like the turbulent hydraulics of a waterfall—do seem to exhibit some kind of order in their apparently chaotic tumbling, and chaos theory has been developed to try to quantify the order in this chaos.

Even very regular linear relationships will eventually become irregular and disorderly, if left to themselves long enough. Thus, an apparently chaotic phenomenon may well represent a breakdown in an originally orderly system, even under the influence of very minute perturbations. This has become known as the "Butterfly Effect." Gleick defines this term as follows:

Butterfly Effect: The notion that a butterfly stirring the air in Peking can transform storm systems next month in New York.2

There is no doubt that small causes can combine with others and contribute to major effects—effects which typically seem to be chaotic. That is, order can easily degenerate into chaos. It is even conceivable that, if one could probe the chaotic milieu deeply enough, he could discern to some extent the previously ordered system from which it originated. Chaos theory is attempting to do just that, and also to find more complex patterns of order in the over-all chaos.

These complex patterns are called "fractals," which are defined as "geometrical shapes whose structure is such that magnification by a given factor reproduces the original object."3 If that definition doesn't adequately clarify the term, try this one: "spatial forms of fractional dimensions."4 Regardless of how they are defined, examples cited of fractals are said to be numerous--from snowflakes to coast lines to star clusters.

The discovery that there may still be some underlying order—instead of complete randomness—in chaotic systems is, of course, still perfectly consistent with the laws of thermodynamics. The trouble is that many wishful thinkers in this field have started assuming that chaos can also somehow generate higher order—evolution in particular. This idea is being hailed as the solution to the problem of how the increasing complexity required by evolution could overcome the disorganizing process demanded by entropy. The famous second law of thermodynamics—also called the law of increasing entropy—notes that every system—whether closed or open—at least tends to decay. The universe itself is "running down," heading toward an ultimate "heat death," and this has heretofore been an intractable problem for evolutionists.

The grim picture of cosmic evolution was in sharp contrast with the evolutionary thinking among nineteenth century biologists, who observed that the living universe evolves from disorder to order, toward states of ever increasing complexity.5

The author of the above quote is Fritjof Capra, a physicist at the University of California at Berkeley, one of the prominent scientists involved in the New Age Movement, which tends to associate evolutionary advance with catastrophic revolutions. He believes that, in some mysterious fashion, chaos can produce evolutionary advance.

Paul Davies, the prolific British writer on astronomy, is another. He, like Capra, is not an atheistic evolutionist, but a pantheistic evolutionist. He has faith that order can come out of chaos, that the increasing disorder specified by the entropy law (second law of thermodynamics) can somehow generate the increasing complexity implied by evolution.

We now see how it is possible for the universe to increase both organization and entropy at the same time. The optimistic and pessimistic arrows of time can co-exist: the universe can display creative unidirectional progress even in the face of the second law.6

And just how has this remarkable possibility been shown? Capra answers as follows:

It was the great achievement of Ilya Prigogine, who used a new mathematics to reevaluate the second law by radically rethinking traditional scientific views of order and disorder, which enabled him to resolve unambiguously the two contradictory nineteenth-century views of evolution.7

Prigogine is a Belgian scientist who received a Nobel Prize in 1977 for his work on the thermodynamics of systems operating dynamically under nonequilibrium conditions. He argued (mathematically, not experimentally) that systems that were far from equilibrium, with a high flow-through of energy, could produce a higher degree of order.

Many others have also hailed Prigogine as the scientific savior of evolutionism, which otherwise seemed to be precluded by the entropy law. A UNESCO scientist evaluated his work as follows:

What I see Prigogine doing is giving legitimization to the process of evolution-self-organization under conditions of change.8

The assumed importance of his "discovery" is further emphasized by Coveny:

From an epistemological viewpoint, the contributions of Prigogine's Brussels School are unquestionably of original importance.9

Capra elaborates further:

In classical thermodynamics, the dissipation of energy in heat transfer, friction, and the like was always associated with waste. Prigogine's concept of a dissipative structure introduced a radical change in this view by showing that in open systems dissipation becomes a source of order.10

The fact is, however, that except in the very weak sense, Prigogine has not shown that dissipation of energy in an open system produces order. In the chaotic behavior of a system in which a very large energy dissipation is taking place, certain temporary structures (he calls them "dissipative structures") form and then soon decay. They have never been shown—even mathematically—to reproduce themselves or to generate still higher degrees of order.

He used the example of small vortices in a cup of hot coffee. A similar example would be the much larger "vortex" in a tornado or hurricane. These might be viewed as "structures" and to appear to be "ordered," but they are soon gone. What they leave in their wake is not a higher degree of organized complexity, but a higher degree of dissipation and disorganization.

And yet evolutionists are now arguing that such chaos somehow generates a higher stage of evolution! Prigogine has even co-authored a book entitled Order Out of Chaos.

In far from equilibrium conditions, we may have transformation from disorder, from thermal chaos, into order.11

It is very significant, however, that all of his Nobel-Prize winning discussions have been philosophical and mathematical—not experimental! He himself has admitted that he has not worked in a laboratory for years. Such phenomena as he and others are trying to call evolution from chaos to order may be manipulated on paper or on a computer screen, but not in real life.

Not even the first, and absolutely critical, step in the evolutionary process—that of the self-organization of non-living molecules into self-replicating molecules—can be explained in this way. Prigogine admits:

The problem of biological order involves the transition from the molecular activity to the supermolecular order of the cell. This problem is far from being solved.12

He then makes the naive claim that, since life "appeared" on Earth very early in geologic history, it must have been (!) "the result of spontaneous self-organization." But he acknowledges some uncertainty about this remarkable conclusion.

However, we must admit that we remain far from any quantitative theory.13

Very far, in fact---and even farther from any experimental proof!

With regard to the claim that the "order" appearing in fractals somehow contributes to evolution, a new book devoted to what the author is pleased to call "the science of self-organized criticality," we note the following admission:

In the popular literature, one finds the subjects of chaos and fractal geometry linked together again and again, despite the fact that they have little to do with each other.... In short, chaos theory cannot explain complexity.14

The strange idea is currently being widely promoted that, in the assumed four-billion-year history of life on the earth, evolution has proceeded by means of long periods of stasis, punctuated by brief periods of massive extinctions. Then rapid evolutionary emergence of organisms of higher complexity came out of the chaotic milieu causing the extinction.

On the one hand, a catastrophic extinction of global biotas might negate the effectiveness of many survival mechanisms which evolved during background conditions. Simultaneously, such a crisis might eliminate genetically and ecologically diverse taxa worldwide. Only a few species would be expected to survive and seed subsequent evolutionary radiations. This scenario requires high levels of macroevolution and explosive radiation to account for the recovery of basic ecosystems within 1-2 my after Phanerozoic mass extinctions.15

Such notions come not from any empirical evidence but solely from philosophical speculations based on lack of evidence! "Since there is no evidence that evolution proceeded gradually, it must have occurred chaotically!" This seems to be the idea.

If one wants to believe by blind faith that order can arise spontaneously from chaos, it is still a free country. But please don't call it science!

REFERENCES

1 James Gleick, Chaos-Making a New Science (New York: Viking, 1987), p. 3.
2 Ibid., p. 8.
3 McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific and Technical Terms (4th ed., 1989), p 757.
4 Stan G. Smith, "Chaos: Making a New Heresy Creation Research Society Quarterly (Vol. 30. March 1994), p. 196.
5 Fritjof Capra, The Web of Life (New York: Anchor Books, 1996), p. 48.
6 Paul Davies, The Cosmic Blueprint (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988), p. 85.
7 Capra, op cit., p. 49.
8 As quoted by Wil Lepkowski in "The Social Thermodynamics of Ilya Prigogine," Chemical and Engineering News (New York, Bantam, 1979), p. 30.
9 Peter V. Coveny, "The Second Law of Thermodynamics: Entropy, Irreversibility, and Dynamics" Nature (Vol. 333. June 2, 1988), p. 414.
10 Capra, op cit., p. 89.
11 Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers, Order Out of Chaos (New York: Bantam Books, 1984), p. 12.
12 Ibid., p. 175.
13 Ibid., p. 176.
14 Per Bak, How Nature Works: The Science of Self-Organized Criticality (New York. Springer-Verlag, 1996), p. 31.
15 Erle G. Kauffman and Douglas H. Erwin, "Surviving Mass Extinctions," Geotimes (Vol. 40. March 1995), p. 15.

* Dr. Henry Morris is Founder and President Emeritus of ICR; Dr. John Morris is President of ICR.

Cite this article: Henry Morris, Ph.D. 1997. Can Order Come Out of Chaos?. Acts & Facts. 26 (6).


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