Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy, Vol 1, No 1 (2005)

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Energy and Semiotics: The Second Law and the Origin of Life

Stanley Salthe


After deconstructing the thermodynamic concepts of work and waste, I take up Howard Odum’s idea of energy quality, which tallies the overall amount of energy needed to be dissipated in order to accomplish some work of interest. This was developed from economic considerations that give obvious meaning to the work accomplished. But the energy quality idea can be used to import meaning more generally into Nature. It could be viewed as projecting meaning back from any marked work into preceding energy gradient dissipations that immediately paved the way for it. But any work done by an abiotic dissipative structure, since it would be without positive economic significance, would also be difficult to mark as a starting point for the energy quality calculation. Furthermore, any (for humans) destructive work as by hurricanes or floods, with negative economic significance, would not seem to merit the quality calculation either. But there has been abiotic work of keen interest to us—that which mediated the origin of life. Some kind(s) of abiotic dissipative structures had to have been the framework(s) that fostered this process, regardless of how it might come to be understood in detail. Since all dissipative structures have the same thermodynamic and informational organization in common, any of them might provide the material context for the origin of something. So we can pick any starting point we wish, and calculate backward what sequence of energy usages would have been necessary to set it up. Given such an open ended project, we could not find an obvious place in any sequence to stop and start the forward the calculation, and so we would need to take it right back to an ultimate beginning, like the insolation of some area, or the outpouring of Earth’s thermal energy. Any energy dissipation might be the beginning of something of importance, and so Nature is as replete with potential meanings as it is with energy gradients.

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