Building on the foundational work of British naturalist Charles Darwin, who revolutionized scientific thought with his 1859 “On the Origin of Species,” a team of nine scientists and philosophers have put forth a groundbreaking new law of nature. This law goes beyond the confines of biological evolution, encompassing phenomena observed in atoms, minerals, planets, stars, and other cosmic entities.
The proposition, which centers on the idea that complex natural systems gravitate towards states of increased patterning, diversity, and complexity, seeks to position evolution as a universal process. “This isn’t just about living organisms,” said Robert Hazen, a mineralogist and astrobiologist from the Carnegie Institution for Science and co-author of the study. “We’re witnessing evolution in numerous systems, living and non-living alike.”
Published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the research is named the “law of increasing functional information.” It suggests that evolving systems, whether living organisms or celestial bodies, emerge from myriad interacting components, like atoms or cells. Processes such as cellular mutation pave the way for a multitude of configurations. However, only configurations that fulfill a particular function are naturally selected and perpetuated.
While current scientific laws address familiar phenomena like motion, gravity, and electricity, Hazen notes a glaring gap. “Our existing laws don’t explain why the universe continually leans towards greater diversity and complexity at atomic and molecular scales,” he remarked in Reuters.
Elaborating with the example of stars, Hazen pointed out that only hydrogen and helium dominated the initial post-Big Bang stellar generation. These first-generation stars synthesized around 20 heavier elements, including carbon and oxygen, in their fiery cores. Upon their explosive deaths, the remnants gave rise to subsequent stars, producing almost 100 more elements.
Similarly, on our home planet, the evolution of living organisms led to crucial milestones, like the emergence of multicellular life. Hazen elucidated this by posing a hypothetical scenario of innumerable atomic or molecular configurations. “A mere fraction of these configurations serve a purpose,” he said, “and nature invariably leans towards these functional arrangements.”
To bolster their theory, the authors identified three universal selection concepts: an entity’s inherent resilience, the sustainability of processes that promote evolution, and the rise of new traits adaptive to environmental changes. Biological manifestations of this theory are evident in organisms’ evolving abilities — from swimming and walking to cognitive developments in species like humans.
Emphasizing the importance of their research, Michael Wong, the lead author and a planetary scientist at the Carnegie Institution, said, “Our paper offers a function-centric view of the cosmos.” Jonathan Lunine from Cornell University’s astronomy department and a co-author added, “Understanding such a law could reshape our perspective on cosmic evolution and even predict the evolutionary trajectory of systems, such as the chemistry on Saturn’s moon Titan.”
As the scientific community dives deeper into this proposition, the implications of this universal law could reshape our understanding of evolution in its broadest sense.