Evolution’s Arc

by Catherine McGowan Russell, 4/27/2020

Does science prove that the universe is random and without direction? Or, does science offer evidence that this universe has a direction?

For years, many scholars, including many evolutionary biologists, like Paleontologist Stephen J. Gould, believed that the universe does not have a direction. 

But is that true?  Is the universe without direction? 

It turns out, more and more evidence shows that the universe does have a direction.  Scientists call this direction by various names, including Evolution’s Arrow, Arrow of Time, or Entropic Time.   Here, I call this direction Evolution’s Arc.

Toward Greater Complexity

For most of human existence,  no one understood the physical laws supporting the direction of the universe. Then, beginning around 200 years ago, scientists began discovering properties of energy that led to the discovery of the Second Law of Thermodynamics.   Basically, this law says that energy flows from areas of high energy to low energy.

Energy Flows

The second law of thermodynamics is one of humanity’s greatest scientific achievements. Its practical application allowed for the invention of better engines.   In a nutshell, this law tells us that energy flows. As energy flows, it gives rise to local pockets of order and complexity.  Eventually, (in a google years (10 raised to the 100) energy will arrive at equilibrium.

More recently, Eric Chaisson has shown that the second law of thermodynamics applies to the whole Epic of Evolution.  Energy flow accounts for the evolution of stars, the evolution of life, and the evolution of societies.

Energy flow drives the future

Eric Chaisson is an astrophysicist and cosmologist who studies energy flow in evolution. He describes energy flow in his 2001 book, Cosmic Evolution: The Rise of Complexity in Nature.   Chaisson shows that all organized systems (ie a rock, your dog, an iPhone)  have energy patterns that characterize their emergence, development, and evolution.

Energy flow is the basis of physical, biological, and cultural evolution.

Over billions of years, energy flow coalesced into matter, which in turn coalesced into stars and planets and into ever more complex molecules.  On Earth, life evolves toward ever greater complexity of cells and organisms.  Complex brains gave rise to greater consciousness and eventually ever greater compassion.   Human culture, over thousands of years, has evolved ever more complex technologies.

Energy flow underlies the evolution of stars and galaxies as well as the evolution of microbes and men.   Energy flow also underlies the evolution of art and culture.     And most importantly for you,  energy flow describes how you will evolve in your life.

Evolution’s Arc moves in a direction toward greater complexity, greater cooperation, greater awareness, and, in this corner of the Universe, toward greater love.

Knowledge Drives Success

If evolution has a direction, so what?  What difference does knowing this make in a person’s life?  It turns out, that the answer makes a big difference.  Knowledge about Evolution’s Arc can make the difference between happiness and sorrow, wealth and poverty, optimism, and cynicism.

Knowledge of Evolution’s Arc informs the decisions of the world’s most successful people.

This knowledge has been the guiding principle in the lives of some of the world’s most successful people.  Evolution’s Arc guides successful leaders,  including Dr. King, and Presidents Obama and Trump.  Evolution’s ArcArc inspires entrepreneurs including Microsoft’s Bill Gates, Amazon chief Jeff Bezos, and Elon Musk.   Explorers, like astronaut Neil Armstrong, based their lives on the foundational truth that the Universe has a direction, and that they are part of it. Creatives, like Steve Jobs, saw his job as “putting a dent into the universe.”

While the truth of Evolution’s Arc is obvious to some people, many other people know that the universe has a long history, but falsely assume it has no particular direction.  Most people assume stars merely appear and then they explode. Species emerge and species go extinct.  Societies rise, societies fall.  It’s all an unceasing, directionless cycle of random events.   What they don’t know is that exploding stars give rise to new elements. Emergent species contribute novel genes to the global gene pool. And good ideas from fallen societies continue to inform modern society.   The old informs the new.  Put another way, “There is no new without the old.”

Many people (including some scientists) don’t know that the universe has a direction. This is changing.  Now, more and more people recognize “Evolution’s Arc.   The pace of change is accelerating.  Goodness is spreading.  Compassion is growing.

“The emergence of organisms who are conscious of the direction of evolution is one of the most important steps in the evolution of life on any planet. Once organisms discover the direction of evolution, they can use it to guide their own evolution. If they know where evolution is going, they can work out what will produce success in the future, and use this to plan how they will evolve.” ~ John Stewart in Evolution’s Arrow
Successful entrepreneurs, effective civil rights leaders, presidents, and financiers all understand Evolution’s Arrow

Successful People Understand Evolution’s Arc

Successful entrepreneurs, effective civil rights leaders, presidents, and financiers all understand Evolution’s Arc.

Knowing that the universe has a direction gave Dr. King the vision that someday, people would be judged on the content of their character and not the color of their skin. Within just a few decades of Dr. King’s speech, people judged the content of Obama’s character and elected the first black president.

President Barack Obama understood that the universe has a direction. This knowledge gave him the Office of President of the United States.  According to President Obama, when he began campaigning, he knew that a person of color would be elected within 20 years.   His election was 15 years ahead of schedule. This rapid pace of improving race relations surprised even him. 

President Donald Trump was also inspired by Evolution’s Arc and the role that the United States plays in this. “The story of our Nation is one of tireless progress toward realizing and defending our founding principles — individual liberty, representative self-government, and equality of opportunity.”

“The arc of our evolutionary history is long.  But it bends toward goodness.”

~ Nicholas Christakis, MD and Author of Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society

While Dr. King, President Obama, and President Trump were inspired by the “moral arc” others, Dr. Chrsitakis noted that the arc of moral history is encoded in our genes.

“The fundamental reason is that we each carry within us an evolutionary blueprint for making a good society.” 
― Nicholas A. Christakis, Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society.

I would go even further and say that the forces of physics and chemistry all work in such a way as to move the universe toward life and consciousness.

While at first, Evolution’s Arc may sound abstract and thus irrelevant, astonishingly, it has huge implications for your life. Once you know that the universe has a direction, you can use this information to create an extraordinary future.

Why the phrase “Evolution’s Arc”?

So why do I not call it the Arrow of Time, Entropic Time, or Evolution’s Arrow? Why am I confusing everyone with yet another term?

“Entropic Time” and “Arrow of Time” are concepts from physics that show how time is irreversible. These are based on the second law of thermodynamics which tells us that energy flows, (ie dissipates.) Evolution’s Arc is based on this physical reality. But Evolution’s Arc also takes into account emergent properties, (like information and value-seeking ) that create life and culture.

Evolution’s Arrow is a book by John Stewart. Like Evolution’s Arc, Evolution’s Arrow is the story of the universe that puts humanity within this context. Stewart’s Evolution’s Arrow is based on the idea that cultures evolve through class struggle that can best be managed via top-down government. Unlike Evolution’s Arrow, Evolution’s Arc is based on the idea that cultures evolve bottom-up through individual liberty, free trade, information flow, and innovation.

Evolution’s Arc is based on the idea that novelty is created via energy flow, information flow, and values pursuit.

To have fun learning about entropic time, check out Tim Blais’ music video: