“Missing” Law of Evolution Offers Clues to Complex Evolving Systems Throughout the Universe

A team of researchers says that a “missing” physical law may be required to help account for phenomena in our universe that contribute to the evolution of various systems.

Although we often think of evolution solely in relation to the biological theory involving the development of organisms proposed by Darwin, evolving systems occur in various systems throughout our universe. However, some of these evolving systems cannot be easily accounted for with existing physical laws.

Now, a research team has proposed that a potential “missing law” could be the solution that may help resolve such phenomena.

This notion formed the basis of a new paper by the team that appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences earlier this month.

Looking back and acknowledging how past discoveries of physical laws often relied on observations of phenomena that differ widely in our universe but often share common conceptual equivalencies, the team began looking for such continuity between different kinds of evolving systems.

“We suggest that all evolving systems—including but not limited to life—are composed of diverse components that can combine into configurational states that are then selected for or against based on function,” the authors state.

In evolutionary theory, natural selection describes the process governing how species adapt to their environment over time. Extending this concept beyond biology, selection could also be a factor that drives a wide range of other phenomena in our universe.

“A pervasive wonder of the natural world is the evolution of varied systems, including stars, minerals, atmospheres, and life,” the researchers write in their paper.

For instance, the earliest minerals found on are planet display a remarkably stable atomic arrangement, which provided the basis for the generation of minerals that followed, some of which helped give rise to life on Earth. Thereby, the evolution of living organisms and the development of minerals share a unique continuum, further displayed in the use of minerals by organisms in their evolutionary production of bone, shell, and other substances.

Looking further into the cosmos, elements like hydrogen and helium, which formed the earliest stars in the universe, facilitated the production of nearly 20 heavier chemical elements. From there, the next generation of stars gave rise to nearly 100 more elements that are now present in our universe.

In their research, the team identified three primary attributes where conceptual equivalencies occurred between various evolving systems. The first involves systems that form multiple components that can attain a large variety of configurations; second, these systems are subject to processes that generate multiple configurations; and third, these configurations appear to be selected preferentially in accordance with their function.

The research team, thereby identifying the primary sources of selection in their study as static persistence, dynamic persistence, and novelty generation, argues that a new “time-asymmetric law” can be envisioned that dictates how information in a system should increase over time when it is subjected to selection based on one or more of these functions.

“Accordingly, we propose a ‘law of increasing functional information’,” the team concludes, which they define as follows: The functional information of a system will increase (i.e., the system will evolve) if many different configurations of the system undergo selection for one or more functions.

Jonathan Lunine, the David C. Duncan Professor in the Physical Sciences and chair of astronomy in the College of Arts and Sciences at Cornell University, called the paper he and his team co-authored “a true collaboration between scientists and philosophers to address one of the most profound mysteries of the cosmos: why do complex systems, including life, evolve toward greater functional information over time?”

Wong, Cleland, Lunine, et al., published their research article, “On the roles of function and selection in evolving systems,” in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) on October 16, 2023.

Micah Hanks is the Editor-in-Chief and Co-Founder of The Debrief. He can be reached by email at micah@thedebrief.org. Follow his work at micahhanks.com and on Twitter: @MicahHanks.