Biosphere Research Institute

Media Meet


PRESS RELEASE:  MAJOR ANNOUNCEMENT - DISCOVERY OF UNIFIED THEORY OF LIFE. 

release date: 11th January, 2013

Alternative headlines:

Life’s a gas...or at least it behaves like one.

Scottish institute claims explanation of everything.

The cosmic origin of golf and just about everything else.

Feature writers: Has the meaning of life finally been discovered?


Advanced notice: Journal publication date: 10th February 2013.

For interviews/photo opportunities contact Dr Keith Skene on (0044) (0)1307 818539 or at krskene [at] biosri.org

The Biosphere Research Institute is an independent research institute and think tank, based in Letham, Angus. Its aims are summarised at: http://www.biosri.org/index.php?p=1_12

Marc Bolan sang that life’s a gas, in the classic song of the seventies, and new research from the Biosphere Research Institute in Angus, Scotland points to the same thing.  Just as gases expand to fill an empty space, so life expands into available opportunities.  Scientists at the Institute, an independent research centre and think-tank focused on planetary sustainability, have just released their findings (in a leading journal published by Elsevier) examining how ecosystems work (Online version now available from the publisher at http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0304380012005583, journal publication date on 10th Feb. 2013, in Ecological Modelling Volume 250: 287-293, advanced full text available from Dr Keith Skene at krskene[at]biosri.org). 

Recently, it has been acknowledged that everything from atmospheric circulation to earthquakes and from linguistics to macroeconomics follows the same pattern, called the maximum entropy production principle (MEPP).  The MEPP states that these systems have the tendency to do something extraordinary: they convert useful energy into less useful energy, meaning that less and less useful energy is available.  So the universe is gradually becoming more and more "tired", and less capable of doing anything. Eventually it will reach a state called equilibrium, which basically means it is so tired that it falls asleep.

 Now we are told that life itself follows this same principle.  Whether it is a forest, a lake or Mediterranean shrub land, the driving force that leads to change is the same: a journey towards a common destination, and shared by many other systems.  The new paper presents a single equation that represents this universal process. Lead investigator, and Director of the Biosphere Research Institute, Dr Keith Skene, originally from Armagh in Northern Ireland, says “What we have uncovered is an equation that represents a unified theory of Biology. It unlocks our understanding of the natural world, and points towards thermodynamics as the directional arrow, the driving force of the Biosphere.  Life, in effect, is one giant chaos maker”. 

Not only does the paper explain why sand dunes eventually become forests (or, with a little human intervention, the finest links golf courses in the world), it also accounts for why we have to weed our gardens. Skene explains “Your garden is just like a sand dune: it wants to become a forest.  The processes driving the arrival of weeds, which we attempt to hold back as gardeners, are driven by universal laws of thermodynamics. So we are really acting like king Canute, except that rather than trying to hold back the gravitational pull of the moon and the sun, it’s the fundamental set of universal laws of thermodynamics that we lock horns with!”

In a similar way that gases diffuse into space, driven towards a state of even spread (equilibrium), or a drop of ink diffuses in a glass of water until it is evenly spread, the same forces drive ecosystems to generate more and more entropy.  The way that they do this is by becoming more and more complex.   Thanks to the sun, energy flows through the biosphere, and the more energy that flows through it, the more entropy or "tiredness" is generated.  This demand for more and more entropy by the universe (the second law of thermodynamics) has led to increasing complexity through time (evolution).  The more complex an organism is, the more entropy it produces, and the more energy it requires. So a demand for chaos at the universe level drives increasing complexity on our planet.

Perfume does not naturally go back into the bottle, and the ink does not naturally form a concentrated drop in the glass.  And so life does not produce less and less entropy.  The direction is towards equilibrium in the universe.  The entropy machine that is the biosphere becomes more complicated as it converts more energy into less useful states, but this complexity reaches a limit, which is what ultimately results in the maximum limit of entropy production.  Just like a building can only be built so high before falling over, so life can only become so complex. And after disruption, such as mass extinctions or more localized disasters, the Biosphere rebuilds its capacity to generate entropy.

However this work goes far beyond ecosystems.  Skene explains that the equation provides a basis for understanding human behaviour and its repercussions upon the biosphere, explaining population dynamics and evolution itself.  “Life cannot fall under the tutelage of the laws of thermodynamics for only some of its activities. Rather, all aspects, both temporally and spatially must emerge from the conversation between matter, energy and thermodynamics.  This will demand a re-consideration of how life evolved and how our activities impact upon this energetic relationship”

WHY IS THIS SO IMPORTANT?

1. It sets out a new understanding of the process of succession, identifying the second law of thermodynamics as central to how ecosystems function

Ecological succession is central to understanding the functioning of ecosystems.  This in turn lies at the heart of understanding and modelling how our activities will impact upon ecosystems, and, in particular, ecosystem services.

Ecosystems are units of biological diversity and play a central role in both the cycling of material and the flow of energy through the biosphere.  Ecosystems form the context within which individual species exist, including humankind.  Furthermore, the sustainability of the environment in which we exist can only be achieved within healthy, functioning ecosystems.  Therefore any attempt at understanding how we can live in a sustainable way must be grounded in our understanding of ecosystem function.  Importantly, ecosystems provide essential services that contribute massively to our survival, and these services are threatened when ecosystems fail to function properly.

Ecosystem services consist of:

  • Supporting services such as nutrient cycling, oxygen production and soil formation. These underpin the provision of the other ‘service’ categories
  • Provisioning services such as food, fibre, fuel and water
  • Regulating services such as climate regulation, water purification and flood protection
  • Cultural services such as education, recreation, and aesthetic value.

Costanza et al. (1997) estimated that, while global Gross National Product was equivalent to $18 trillion at that time, the contribution of “free” ecological services (not shown on any business ledgers) was calculated to be about $33 trillion—almost twice as much as the human economic activity, as measured by GNP. Thus the economic significance of ecosystems makes research into their health and functionality of the utmost importance, given their primary role in sustainability. Damage to ecosystems has significant financial implications. It has been estimated that  the cost of European over-fishing amounts to £2.7 billion/year  (Crilley, 2011), the cost of eutrophication represents  $2.2 billion/year(Dodds et al, 2009), while the cost of global warming is $3-12 trillion/year (Stern, 2006).  These economic consequences have meant that governments have been forced to take environmental degradation seriously, at global, regional and national levels.  

Skene states: "Basically, you can’t heal the patient until you know how they work. That’s why this paper is so important.  It provides us with an understanding of the physiology of the ecosystem, while providing a way of measuring how well our conservation approaches actually do, something up to now that has not been possible."


2. It provides a way of measuring ecosystem function in an empirical way, using SI units, thus allowing us to determine the impact of our activities, both in terms of damage and conservation, upon ecosystems. 

Entropy can be measured, and its units are watts per metre squared per kelvin (Wm-2K-1).  Being able to measure entropy means that we can compare different management approaches and actually evaluate the impact at this fundamental level.  We can also explore how our activities impact upon the biosphere in numbers, not at a structural level alone (such as species richness) but at a functional level.  Ultimately, sustainability emerges from a properly functioning biosphere, not from the structural details that emerge from such function.  As we see across the history of life, structures come and go (such as trilobites and dinosaurs), but functioning is restored every time. Thus it is ecosystem function, driven by thermodynamics, that is most important.

 

3. It provides an equation which applies to every level of organization, from cells to biomes, thus representing a Unified Theory of Biology (UTB).

The logistic model of entropic output presented here for ecosystems applies equally to population growth (where carrying capacity should be replaced by maximum entropic output, Smax), developmental biology, species distribution, organism growth and evolution, thus tying together all of these fields of biology in one theory.  The UTB states that each level of organization within the biosphere develops and functions so that over time, a maximum level of entropic output is achieved within the context of the other levels. 

 

4. This UTB operates at both temporal and spatial levels, and is fundamental to the energetic theory of evolution, wherein increasing entropy within the DNA code (due to accumulation of random mutation) drives increasing entropic production within the biosphere through exploration of energetic space by molecules, organisms, populations, ecosystems and biomes.

 

5. This paper allows us to understand the importance of energy in terms of our activities, wherein the key concern should not be the colour of the energy, whether it is black, blue or green, but rather what we do with that energy.  Ultimately life is like a giant multi-armed see-saw. Generating too much chaos destabilizes the see-saw on which we all sit. Fundamentally, it is the energetic relationships of the biosphere which underlie any possibility of sustainability, and only by understanding that life is a thermodynamic outcome can be have any hope of finding answers to the many serious issues effecting us.

Related sites:

Biosphere Research Institute: www.biosri.org

Ecological Modelling: http://www.journals.elsevier.com/ecological-modelling/
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Biography of Keith Skene
PHOTO: The lead author and his son on the multi-armed see-saw at fairytale glen, Aberdeenshire. By Mrs M.E. Skene

PHOTO: Chaos makers: live firing range off the coast at Cape Wrath, Scotland. By Dr K.R. Skene