A Thermodynamic Interpretation of History
CHAPTER 1: The Material Meaning of History

1. The Material Meaning of History
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copyright © 1999 by Lawrence C. Chin. This work may not be copied or translated in part or in whole without the written consent of the author, except for short excerpt in relation to review or research and when proper reference is given.

Introductory Remark

The material meaning of history in contrast with its spiritual meaning: the material interpretation of world-history vs. its “spiritual” interpretation, and this material meaning of history harmonizing with (specifically) the material meaning of the Universe: The possibility of a “thermodynamic interpretation of history”.

There are various approaches to defining “history”. What makes history as such? The simplest and the most superficial view consists in seeing history as beginning with the invention of writing. A “deeper” way of defining history – and this is the “spiritual” interpretation of world-history, with the “spiritual” meaning of history – will have it like this: history began when people noticed the existence of history, which “event” (the event that marks the beginning of history) is in any case coterminous with the invention of writing. With, that is, historiography. The origin of this “historical consciousness” lies in the so-called Ecumenic Age, or the Axial Period of humanity (approx. 500 BC – 500AD), during which Entschlossenheit was achieved in various centers of Eurasian civilizations. The philosophia of Greece or Christianity are phenomena of Entschlossenheit because therein the totality of life (Heidegger’s Ganzseinkoennen) is constituted through the directing of the whole life’s resource toward a single point (the Infinite; whether as Agathon or Theos), with the consequence of the unity of Gewesenheit (The Past), Gegenwart (The Present), and Zukunft (The Future). In Eric Voegelin’s term, this phenomenon – the noticing of history, or the underlying Entshlossenheit – is that of differentiation of consciousness in which Reality becomes transparent for its own structure – specifically, for its directional, eschatological transfiguration. Here the invention of writing does have some sort of significance as the decisive moment of history:

“When the primary experience of man’s existence in the cosmos [oikoumene-okeanos] has dissociated into the opacity of concupiscential expansion [the building of ecumenic empires: the Persian, Macedonian, and Roman] and the luminosity of spiritual consciousness… Only the triad of ecumenic empire, spiritual outburst and historiography expresses equivalently the structure in reality that has been compactly expressed by the oikoumene-okeanos symbolism.” (The Ecumenic Age, p.308)

In contrast to this “spiritual” interpretation of history the more usual approach of defining history is to view it as, in the foreground, the series of the rise and fall of those large-scale human associations called “nations”, “civilizations”, etc ., and as, in the background, the gradual advancement of humans’ ability in exploiting nature to further their survival or “living-standard.” Herein belong the terms “bronze-age”, “iron-age”, “industrial revolution”, “the invention of this and that by this and that nation or people” etc. The main thread of the present discussion, a thermodynamic view of history, is the “thinking” on/of history within this perspective.

Within this perspective, let’s try to speak the meaning of history, that is, the “material” meaning of history. (Human) history displays the trend toward ever-enlargement and intensification of the civilizational interaction field until today’s global cosmopolitanism; history (prehistory may be included herein too) shows the magnificently adventurous career launched by Homo sapiens sapiens on earth, their ever more efficient and luxurious consumption through ever-increasing exploitation, manipulation and control of their environment that has resulted in today’s dangerously massive population and impending disastrous environmental degradation. I will call this sort of world-history the history of (generalized) bio-power, from a generalization of Foucault’s bio-power (see below). I want to point out that the essence of Foucault’s bio-power (“faire entrer la vie et ses mécanismes dans le domain des calculs explicits et faire du pouvoir-savoir un agent de transformation de la vie humaine” [Histoire de la Sexualité, p.188; "to have life and its mechanisms enter the domain of explicit calculation and to make power-knowledge an agent in the transformation of human life"] in order to maximize human production and consumption) which Foucault has identified as emerging at the dawn of European modernity to create today’s modern, technological world of ours, is nothing quite novel in the history of the Homo species on Earth. Evolutionary biologists have at least frequently stressed on the “external” aspect of bio-power as the mark distinguishing “man” from other creatures with which he forms insignificant continuum if consideration bears only on morphology. E.g. Dobzhansky: “while all organisms adapt to their environment by changing their genes, man alone adapts mainly, thought not exclusively, by creating the environments that suit his genes.” (Evolution, p. 452)

Can this long history of the Homo species’ bio-power (some 2 million years of attempts to control themselves and their environment to further their survival) find a place within a context of a still larger history, still more comprehensive process? Can the history of bio-power of the Homo species be part or continuation of a still more comprehensive process or history? How about locating it within the entire history of the Universe? To this end we would need to identify a certain direction, a definite meaning for the unfolding of the Universe with which the “material” history of the Homo species identified above as “bio-power” would harmonize. How about then the very arrow of time as such definite direction of unfolding?

The Material Meaning of Life

The harmonization of the “material” history of the Homo species with the arrow of time, i.e. with the (material) structure of the Universe, is, presently, the means by which we shall arrive at a “deep” material meaning of History within which much of the phenomena signifying “modernity” will become intelligible. I will make the connection between Time and Material History, however, by first setting forth the material meaning of Life in general, all within the context of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. That is to say, the thermodynamic meaning of Life.

Firstly, the fundamental meaning of time, the definite direction for the Unfolding of the Universe. Time could be defined ultimately as the movement of heat from the hotter place to the colder place, or equivalently as the progressive disintegration of (heterogeneous) order into (homogeneous) disorder of randomly moving particles (Time as Entropy-Increase or the Second Law of Thermodynamics). Without the flow of heat time would have no meaning. Time is fundamentally the phenomenon of the unwinding or disintegration of the (formerly arrived at) differentiation-of-the Universe-into-structures.

Now within this fundamental structure of the Universe, within the context of this Second Law of Thermodynamics, Life, this extreme instance of naturally occurring order, once was for many a paradoxical, i.e. nature-contradicting phenomenon. In this discussion of the changing relationship between Life and the Second Law of Thermodynamics we shall follow David J. Depew and Bruce H. Weber’s Darwinism Evolving. First they describe the early, uneasy relationship between the two in the nineteenth century:

“Whenever we look in nature, we see complex physical, chemical, or biological systems in which matter tends to organize itself into complex patterns and structures. It does this in the face of the dissolution that is ultimately guaranteed by the second law of thermodynamics…” (p. 459)

“…Indeed, the advent of thermodynamics in the mid-nineteenth century was generally perceived to be so contrary to what Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection required as virtually to refute the latter. Darwin’s theory implied the possibility that systems could increase in complexity, even while denying that such increases were necessary. The second law, on the contrary, seemed to imply that as entropy increases to a maximum, the energy differences in the universe will smooth out until no more work is possible. Heterogeneity, structure, and life itself do not seem able to follow this arrow of time.” (p. 460; emphasis added)

“From a thermodynamic point of view, a view presumably more basic than the biological one, the universe appeared to be running down toward a state of maximum entropy, while living systems seemed to maintain and even increase their order and organization. So deep was this tension felt by later nineteenth-century intellectuals and artists…. The tension between a physics that ran down and an evolution that was assumed to progress was another reason that many late nineteenth-century evolutionists preferred spiritualistic theories of evolution to any sort of selective theories; it did not seem that nature could do this on its own.” (p. 460-61)

But the resolution of this apparent tension between Life (and all other types of order in general) and the second law in the twentieth century is, in addition to validating the theory of evolution, to provide us also with the meaning of Life and order in general. From which we will derive the material meaning of Life, and from that, the material meaning of History. Depew and Weber expose the resolution thusly:

“Considerable sweetness, as well as light, was at last thrown on this subject in a seminal little book that appeared in 1944, What is Life? by the quantum physicist Erwin Schrödinger. The problem is not as bad as it seems, Schrödinger argued. The second law requires only that the universe as a whole must show an increase in entropy. Eddies of order, or what Schrödinger called “negentropy,” could be sustained in the great flow of ever-increasing entropy. Accordingly, a living cell, an organism, even an entire ecosystem, might maintain its internal structure if it could be coupled to its surroundings in such a way that the entropy of the environment remains greater than the internal “negentropic” decrease within the boundaries of the system in question. This could happen only so long as the system remained far from equilibrium…

“One of those who has explored how entropy increase and order go hand in hand in systems stabilized away from thermodynamic equilibrium is the Russian-born physical chemist and Nobel laureate Ilya Prigogine, who has worked primarily in Belgium and the United States. In Prigogine’s view, the second law is not just consistent with evolution, as Schrödinger maintained. It helps explain it. [emphasis added]… Many systems that show nonlinear dynamics are, or are closely linked to, systems that are stabilized far from thermodynamic equilibrium. They can be so stabilized because they are open systems: They maintain their internal structure by pumping energy and matter into themselves, using it to form and maintain structure and do work, and then dissipating it in a more disordered or degraded state to their surroundings. Open systems include things as different from one another as tornados, cells, organisms, ecological communities, and economic systems… It is precisely by building internal structure that open systems pay their debt to the second law. That is because structured pathways are often the preferred means for dissipating degraded energy. [emphasis added]. Prigogine calls these dissipative structures. Dissipative structures in effect collapse energy-matter gradients. If the gradient were not replenished, the structures themselves would collapse. A cell deprived of nutrients dies. Given the continued availability of gradients, however, dissipative structures have various sorts of abilities to pull in the resources they require for their maintenance, producing in consequence a steady state that remains far from thermodynamic equilibrium. The inherent tendency of open systems to increase, even to maximize, their dissipative rate or some other similar quantity [so as to increase the overall entropy of the Universe] is, accordingly, linked to the capacity of such systems to build better dissipative pathways in the form of more efficient internal structures. To the extent that dissipative structures can be influenced by selection, there will be selection pressure for them to do just this, and to do it better than other dissipative structures that are competing for resources with them.”(p.460-61)

Voilà, thus is explained evolution which throws out gradually and continually ever more efficient consuming and defecating organisms – until us humans – or what the phenomenon of Life is.

“Dissipative structures are usually built up by some form of self-organization. We can take it for granted, therefore, that some of the energy that a dissipative structure captures is used to build structure within the system itself, in effect, creating an internal sink and facilitating increased entropy production in the external sink. That is what environmental degradation is. It is a big problem because it is an indispensable condition of Life itself [both emphasis added]” (p.462)

Life is a form of open, dissipative structure. We are advancing toward the (material) essence of Life as dictated by the second law of Thermodynamics or Time. That is, Life is demanded by the second law as the preferred structured pathways for energy-dissipation or entropy-increase. How order such as Life, whose essence or nature, whose “truth” lies in entropy-increase preferring a structured pathway, emerges in the natural course of things (i.e. flow of energy to reach equilibrium), is further elucidated by Depew and Weber:

“Convection cells are…a good place to begin thinking about dissipative structures. They were first studied in a classical experiment conducted by Henri Benard in about 1900. A contemporary version of this experiment involves heating a thin layer of oil from the bottom (source) and keeping the top of the liquid in contact with a transparent cooling plate (sink). As the temperature from below rises, more energy flows into the system. This is reflected in a higher kinetic energy of the liquid’s molecules and a larger difference in temperature or thermal gradient across the liquid. The result is increased energy flow through the system and increased dissipation of energy, or entropy production, to the sink. At a critical size of the gradient, or the thermodynamic force field, when the effect of viscosity is exceeded by heat transport, the intensified random motion of the molecules becomes insufficient to dissipate the energy flux. Large-scale macroscopic streams of hot liquid then flow to the top, forming convection cells that are observable because of the different index of refraction between the hotter and cooler liquid. We observe convection flows when we do something as ordinary as boil a pan of water. The honeycomb pattern we see toward the bottom of the pan is the result of coupling buoyancy, thermal diffusion, and viscous forces, creating a macroscopic structure that is perceptible because it is at least 100 billion times the scale of molecular dimensions in water itself. Self-amplification like these are “circularly causal” in the sense that they take the form of an autocatalytic cycle, in which the incipient formation of structure – here a convection cell – reflexively reinforces the formation of more of the structure until the system settles down to a new steady state….

“When a system is stabilized far from equilibrium, there is a thermodynamic potential, which, like an electrical potential, provides the drive to move the system to equilibrium… For the system to reach equilibrium, however, the thermodynamic potential must have a pathway of change. Henceforth we will term this a kinetic pathway. In an electric circuit, no current will flow through a wire unless the switch is closed to complete the circuit, even though there is an electromotive potential. If the circuit includes a motor, the electric potential can be converted into mechanical work. If there is a short circuit, the electrons will move down the path of lower resistance, that is, the most favored kinetic pathway that happens to be available. Something like that is true for thermodynamic systems as well as for electric ones. In systems maintained far from equilibrium, the state of equilibrium is denied to the system as long as energy is provided by the source. We can say, then, that the input of energy either drives the system away from equilibrium or, when the gradients become large enough, that the system is “constrained away from” the normal kinetic paths that would otherwise lead it to equilibrium. If they are physically available to the system, new kinetic pathways will be accessed, which, in forming autocatalytic structures, provide novel and more efficient paths toward equilibrium. Like Sisyphus forever rolling his stone uphill but never achieving his goal, equilibrium will not be reached as long as an energy gradient is maintained.

“When a system is constrained far from equilibrium, macroscopic order arises not as a violation of the second law of thermodynamics but as a consequence of it… [L]iving systems are virtual paradigms of systems that are constrained away from equilibrium and that pay what they owe to the second law by building internal kinetic pathways that send things in their environment, instead of themselves, to thermodynamic equilibrium.” (p.463 – 64)

Here another comment on the “origin” of order:

“The general point is that, under appropriate initial and boundary conditions, physical systems, such as convection cells or tornados, and chemical systems, such as oscillating reactions, show spontaneously but perfectly understandable self-organizing characteristics. That is why hurricanes, for example, occur during seasons of maximal disparity between the temperatures of tropical and temperate oceans. The structures produced by self-organization keep systems from accessing or overloading the carrying capacity of the kinetic pathways that normally allow these systems to reach their equilibrium attractors. Instead, these systems utilize alternative kinetic pathways that result in the formation of macroscopic dissipative structures. The energy gradients that drive self-organization are a fact of nature from the cosmic scale down to the biochemical scale within cells.” (p.466; emphasis added)

Now is to be given the exact definition of that very special type of order we call “Life.”

“…let us shift from chemical autocatalysis to the autocatalytic aspect of living systems… A cell, or any other biological entity, is an open thermodynamic system that processes matter and energy flowing through it, thereby stabilizing its internal structure and more rapidly increasing the entropy of its surroundings… We are certainly entitled, then, to consider biological systems, from cells to ecosystems, as dissipative structures…

“Clearly, however, living things differ in crucial ways from convection cells and tornados. Although metabolism is a chemical process that exhibits self-organizing properties, we can distinguish it from a BZ reaction, for example, because the information that guides metabolism is internal to the cell. Cells do not have to reinvent metabolic pathways of chemical transformation in each cycle of generation. Instead, they carry within themselves the information that encodes the organization of metabolism and morphology. In particular, they carry a more or less accurate record of the kinds of structures that have in the past been required for the survival and functioning of entities like themselves and for the ability to pass this information along to a new generation [i.e. DNA]…

“This view of the matter allows us to answer Schrödinger’s question, ‘What is Life?’ in a definite way. We assert that a system is alive if and only if it exhibits the structures and behavior of informed, self-replicating, dissipative autocatalytic cycles… [But] a living cell must have a membrane that provides physical phase separation from the rest of the world [separation between order or the alternative dissipative pathways and increased entropy or the end of the pathways]. It is, in fact, across this membrane that the matter-energy flows occur which power metabolism… Call living things, then, bounded, informed, self-replicating, autocatalytic, dissipative structures.” (p.467)

We have arrived at the material meaning of Life. The material meaning of life is the thermodynamic meaning of Life insofar as Life arises under the pressure of the second law of thermodynamics as an alternative, structured pathway of energy-dissipation or entropy-increase accessed by Nature’s seek for equilibrium when the energy-gradient is great and continually present. And Life is special among the structured pathways in that it accomplishes this alternative energy-dissipation by means of (in contrast to other physical and chemical alternative dissipative structures) its bounded, DNA-informed, self-replicating autocatalytic structures.

Why is it called the “material” meaning of Life? It is material in contrast to any spiritual meaning of life as perceived, in ancient times, by the philosophers and, in contemporary times, again by some physicists. For former, the human phenomenon is generally perceived to be the point in the cosmos at which the Divine or the Cosmos becomes transparent to itself or reflexive for itself; and recently physicists have invoked similar meaning for the human phenomenon under the “Anthropic Principle”, that the Universe is structured in such a way that it might finally comprehend itself (become reflexive of itself) through the parts of it that the human brains are. Being the site of the Universe’s reflexivity as the ultimate meaning of human Life is here designated as the “spiritual” meaning of life. The material or thermodynamic meaning of life, on the contrary, says that human Life, and Life in general, is pressured into existence by the Universe (through its second law) for the mere sake of energy-dissipation, that is, consuming and then defecating (so as to increase the entropy/disorder of the environment!). The essential activity of the human masses with which the spiritual and intelligent élite of the human species are most disgusted, i.e. mindless consumption and defecation (which will bring about nothing significant except the extinction-level event, excessive environmental degradation), turns out to be the essential meaning of human Life meant for us by the Universe or its arrow of Time. (And we are given the most complex thing in the Universe, our brain, in order, it seems, to use it [to build tools and machines etc, technology] to help us consume – and hence defecate – more than other species – other dissipative structure types -- , more than ever.) This, until we find a way to insert the spiritual meaning of human Life into the structure of the Universe.

One final note. With the understanding of the material meaning of Life, we have pinned down an essential feature of Life, the essential nature of Life, i.e. metabolism as energy-dissipation pathways. This will help dispel any fantastic notion concerning extraterrestrial life-forms or “intelligence”, such as “an intelligent cloud.” Alien Life, insofar as it is “alive,” i.e. dissipates energy, must, before possessing anything such as intelligence (“before” in both the logical and the chronological sense), first have a macroscopic physical “body” containing kinetic pathways, “intelligence” being something secondary added to it in the course of natural selection to enable it to consume “better.” That is, alien Life should not differ significantly from earthly Life. Probably also in the nature of “cell” and utilizing electron-transfer technique within an autocatalytic network to generate the energy it needs to stay “alive.” This is because the energy that stands in need of dissipation must be (of all the four forces of the universe) electromagnetic energy whose “patron” is the photon, whether this energy is coming into the planet as photons from the star, or coming from underneath the planet. Alien life is probably also carbon-based, with the same major elements of earthly organic chemistry as its constituents: oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, phosphorous, etc. This is because of all elements (which are the same for the whole Universe) carbon is the most flexible in forming compound and its interplay with oxygen and hydrogen, etc. the most promising in forming complexity. The formation of self-replicative, chemo-autocatalytic closure (i.e. Life) depends on the flexibility for complexity of organic chemistry that these few elements compose, their ability to generate compounds of different properties but of the same structural composition through different structural arrangement. It probably also depends for its self-replication, growth and functioning on the transfer of genetic information from one complex linear polymer (DNA or RNA on Earth) to another (protein on Earth); the use of DNA or RNA might not be its choice on the information-storage end but it might also depend on amino-acid-based structures on the structural end. Secondly, we should see that there is no essential break between matter “dead” and matter “living”. When the equilibrium-reaching game going on everywhere in “dead” nature swirls into an autocatalytic cycles and acquires informationally self-replicating features for them, certain “parts” of this game are henceforth designated “alive”. (Remember too that the physical constituents of Life, carbon, amino acids and all sorts of organic compound, are merely prevalent matters in dead nature.) Life seems incommensurable with dead matter when seen in isolation and when its history is forgotten, but fits well into dead Nature as soon as one realizes that it is only part of a greater, thermodynamic Whole. This seemingly but illusory incommensurability between Life and dead nature is the source of illusion that fuels such un-spiritual view-point of ourselves and the cosmos as religious fundamentalisms.

The Material Meaning of History

We have just arrived at the material meaning of Life. One sees readily that the material meaning of “Natural History” is also in place (the material meaning of the history of Life, or of biological evolution):

“Natural History” begins with the birth of Life as the thermodynamic Universe “advances” from the linear pathway for entropy-increase to the non-linear, alternative, structured pathway. Its “realm” terminates, or is considered to terminate, at the transition to the next level of entropy-increase, History, that is, the history of that particular portion of Natural History that has transcended mere Natural History to attain to the “next level.” We are of course referring to that portion of the natural world termed Homo sapiens sapiens. We are thus having in mind a three-fold structure of the Universe (see Figure 1).

This is, however, as one should see, the three-fold structure of the material Universe, that is, of the Universe considered in its material aspect. The material Universe consists of the three “ascending” levels: (1) the “dead” Universe with its “stars burning out;” (2) Natural History, or rather the material history of Life; and (3) History as such, or the Material History, that is, History considered in its material aspect. The matter put in this way, we have thus two questions before us: In what sense is the History of human appearance on earth a material history? And: How is this (material) human history one level above (“mere”) Natural History?

First question. In order to fit in as one portion of the thermodynamic Universe, as part of the story of entropy-increase, the history of human existence on earth has to be seen in the light of how it contributes to the general entropy-increase of the Universe, or to the phenomenon of “environmental degradation.” This is only too easy. Without argument, environmental degradation has been (unfortunately) the too-obvious aspect of human existence on earth in the past 250 years, since the Industrial Revolution. We simply have to trace out the same thing that characterizes the modern age in the time of human existence before it. In fact, we have to interpret the entire series of events that mark out the history of human existence as essentially “advancements” in consumption/defecation (and hence production) rate, in energy-dissipation, in turning the photons/energy from the Sun into random heat. I first discovered the possibility of such “material” interpretation of the history of human existence in Michel Foucault’s concept of “bio-power.” This material interpretation can be accomplished by simply extending the language of bio-power that Foucault used to describe the modern, industrial Europe to the general existence of Homo sapiens sapiens of all time, thereby finding continuity between the “Western Modernity” and the human history before it.

How can human history be seen as essentially (at least in one of its aspect: the material aspect) an entropy-increase process? We may follow the conventional dissection of human history into the three “stages” of progress (industrial: from 1750 A.D. to today; agricultural or the era of food production: from circa 10,000 B.P. or so to 1750 A.D.; and pre-agricultural or –food production, i.e. food-gathering [“hunting and gathering”]: 100,000 B.P. to 10,000 B.P.; we are only considering the history of “our species”, Homo sapiens sapiens) and analyze each as a new form of non-linear entropy-increase that is more efficient or of increased rate than the stage preceding it: each stage as an “advance” in non-linear entropy-increase.1

Just look at the latest. I first “truly” understood the nature of the “Industrial” era when I encountered Foucault’s “bio-power.” In essence, what Foucault meant to say by his concept of bio-power is that what constituted the essence of (European) Modernity – the time of European explosion on the world scene, or what lay at the foundation of the emergence of the Global Community – was the explicit, calculative control (called bio-politics) by the newly emergent “nation-states” of the life-processes of their citizens – calculative distribution and maximization of their labor (productivity), reproduction, and consumption processes (“bio-power”) that greatly enhanced the productivity (power) of the nation, and which was the necessary condition for the (logically and chronologically) subsequent technological revolution, the Industrial Revolution, the new manner of controlling, reshaping and exploiting the environment. The nation-states realized that their power, their key to winning the power-struggles with their neighbors lay in the increased life-processes (consumption and production, and also reproduction) of its citizens insofar as “citizens” were (together with mineral deposits, etc) resources to the state and hence foundation of its power, and so they invested highly in institutions regulating the life-processes of the people within their boundaries (medical and psychiatric establishments, factories, schools, prisons, etc.) in hope of maximizing these processes while keeping them under state’s directional control, i.e. “harvestable”, or exploitable. Before any advancement in technology, there is first the advancement in the (re-)organization of human labor. The newly maximized life-processes then increase concomitantly environmental degradation or entropy-level: debt-paying to the second law of thermodynamics. Incidentally, there was a perfect coincidence between the interests of the nation-states and those of thermodynamic Universe. Incidentally? Or perhaps not at all. The relationship between the apparent, manifest power of the individuals, class or state and the underlying power that is the pressure of the second law will be discussed later. In fact, the coming of the consumer society (the entity that is beyond all doubt the most powerful machine for generating environmental degradation, for entropy-increase, that is.) was made possible by, and actually the consequence of, bio-power. Foucauldian bio-power really means that human beings have organized a “politics” (a whole array of political and medical institutions and policies) to help pay debt to the second law more drastically and efficiently. Until the rise of American ultra consumer society by which we pay the second law debt on a never-imagined scale. (It must be noted that the nineteenth century European bio-power actually gave birth to two “opposite” models of entropy-increasing society: the British and then American type of consumer society, the winner, and the communist type of centralized economy, the eventual loser in the natural selection process of Universe’s equilibrium game.) When we combine Foucault’s story of bio-power with that of the “Industrial Revolution” found in school textbooks we then have a picture of the modern world history as the latest manifestation of the second law of thermodynamics, or the material meaning of modern history, or finally the thermodynamic view of modern history.

It is in fact not difficult to see the entire span of human existence on earth in terms of progressive advancement in consumption/defecation rate; not difficult to see the various pre-modern (pre-western) types of human social organization (“institutions”: from tribal to civilizational) that set the “double-wise” Homos apart from the previous Homos in terms of advancement in (re-)organization of human labor for purpose of increased consumption (and hence defecation) rate, and all pre-industrial technological revolutions (from Mousterian to Auragnacian stone cultures, to Neolithic revolutions and beyond) in the same light. It is easy to see every “advances” characterizing human existence before the Foucauldian bio-power and the Industrial Revolution as advances in debt-paying to the second law, as manifestations of the second law, of its imperative, i.e. entropy-increase. This is how we shall arrive at the material meaning of History.

Archaeologists of course have no problem in interpreting the advancements in stone technology, from (pre-H.s.s.) Acheulian to (partly H.s.s.) Mousterian to (wholly H.s.s.) Auragnacian, as solely for the sake of consumption-increase or in other words greater entropy-increase. Each advancing level of “technology” brings more food more easily into the mouth, and consequently allows for greater dissipation into more disorderly state as debt paid to the second law. During the paleolithic time various Homo species were competing to do just this, and our species emerged as the one doing this the best and in consequence drove others into extinction. In my view this success should in fact be attributed to that invention that was ours alone: a tightly regulated social organization that regulated who should do what (production), who should marry whom (reproduction), who should eat what (consumption), etc… a social organization that regulated the life processes of its constituent members for more efficient, maximized metabolism of the group. Is not this reminiscent of bio-power? The moieties, incest taboo, cross-cousin marriage laws, etc, that we read in the anthropological literature were the earliest forms of something like bio-power, or bio-politics (not yet explicitly calculative) control by the society over the life-processes of its member. With increase (group) metabolism (in comparison to the earlier Homo species) there was the first signs of environmental degradation (by the tribal people!) that hinted forward in time at the massive scale of today’s environmental destruction. This “tribal,” “pre-“ historical part of human history constitutes here the first portion/stage of History, and the tribal organization is the first collectively “organized” effort (i.e. like bio-politics, the modern organized effort) for 2nd law debt-paying.

Then we come to the second stage, that of “civilization.” Here we see all sorts of things that at first sight are not related to thermodynamic debt-paying. Magnificent constructions, e.g. large tombs and palaces for kings; “artworks” large or small; artistically sophisticated luxury items of comfort (food and drink utensils, sculptures, statues, figurines, etc) for the aristocratic minority. (And of course, military objects.) How to interpret this level of human existence as “advance” in entropy-increase from the previous, tribal level?

The emergence of “signs” that mark the beginning of “civilization”, i.e. the luxury items that have nothing to do with living per se, (all of which can in fact be summarized by the title “art”) signals the beginning of consumer society, for these “useless” objects correspond to the consumer items that drive our full-blown consumer society of today: television, stereos, movies, etc. which too, hold no real relation with living per se. (We will not die in the absence of television or stereos.) The luxury items that mark civilization betray on the one hand the success of food-production (that enough surplus existed to support whole classes of “useless” people producing and consuming “useless” things, the artisans and aristocrats, who did not participate in “making a living” per se) and on the other the harsh exploitation of the primary producers (food-producers) by non-producers “at the top”, i.e. the authoritarian hierarchical society. We may try to understand the whole phenomenon thermodynamically: humans can only consume so much and turn so much into disordered waste. Consumption can be increased (and so dissipation, and so the debt to the second law can be better paid) by enlarging the range of the consumable to include so much luxuries for comfort and so much “art”; and this was realized (when food-production rate of a group had exceeded the consumption rate of the group) through the constitution of aristocracy, the hierarchization of society that marked the transition to civilization. The level of technological development (regarding food production or anything else) and level of social organization of the neolithic, bronze and iron age (the era of civilization) only allowed for so much productivity to enable just a minority of the societal members to enlarge their range of the consumable, to become “consumers” in the modern sense. In any case, (referring to the beginning of Chinese civilization as an example) large amounts of trees were beginning to be cut down to build palaces, etc., copper, tin, and iron ores exploited, soil eroded, organized, large-scale systematic animal raising and slavery were being conducted; a sizable portion of earth’s resources were “dissipated” into disordered waste matter in the Chinese civilizational zone starting from the second millennium BC when the products of transformation did not succeed in finding their way into today’s museums. But the “aristocratic” society represents an advance in entropy-increase/thermodynamic debt-paying, but not the end of the process. There is still a large majority of “commoners” whose consumption rate leaves much room for improvement. That is, their consumption range is also waiting for enlargement beyond the basic necessities of food and shelter. They are waiting for incorporation into the aristocratic life-style: the meaning for their “liberation.” Thus the story finds continuation in the emergence of the next stage of history, the capitalistic consumer society with its production of “useless” entities for everybody to consume (the ideal of large consuming middle-class). At this latest stage, entropy-increase by this alternative pathway of energy-dissipation called Life (with its representative human beings) has reached such height that another self-precipitated extinction of Life similar to the one during the oxygen-crisis 1.5 to 2 billion years ago could be taking place.

The enlargement of the range of the consumable especially since the Neolithic Revolution signifies a new stage in the evolution of the thermodynamic Universe: that upon and out of the second level or order of energy-dissipation, the order of alternative thermodynamic kinetic pathways via organic chemistry-based energy cycle which the bio-sphere is, a new, third order of alternative kinetic pathways emerges, based on energy cycle rooted in inorganic or non-living organic chemistry, and which we know as economy. This is how we answer the second question, and will be discussed in detail in the next section.

We have interpreted human history as consisting essentially (again, at least in its material aspect) in a process of ever more efficient thermodynamic debt-paying. This is the teleology of the thermodynamic universe manifested in the human sphere as the Reason (Vernunft) of History. To dissipate more and more: the material meaning (Reason) of History, of the progress from hunting-gathering tribes through agricultural food-production/aristocratically marked society to industrial, consumer mass society. The modern “world system” of today, the global market, the global civilization, the global human interaction field, piling up ever larger amount of garbage and becoming ever more differentiated in labor organization to ever enlarge the range of the consumable, is indeed the culmination point of history (will history be able to continue?), or of Universe understood thermodynamically. There seems indeed to be a direction to History, not a noble one though. Here we have a thermodynamic view of the structure of History. Within this view, we believe, the phenomena of modernity – woman’s rights, democracy, freedom, equality, revolutions and liberations – we are so obsessed with today may at last find their truth, true meaning, i.e. one in line with the largest context possible, the Universe (but understood thermodynamically). With Truth in sight, we may finally awaken from our humanitarian illusion, self-deception: and this is the purpose of this communication.


1. The major "procurement patterns", i.e. ways by which humans, always as a group, exploit the environment to bring food to their mouth and sustain their life-style with the daily necessities proper to their respective procurement pattern, are listed by Daniel Bates and Fred Plog in their anthropology textbook, Human Adaptive Strategies (1991; p. 29):

Although Bates and Plog's classification is logical (synchronic) it in fact corresponds roughly with the chronological (diachronic) development of the human adaptive system. Note that in my trinitarian division, which is just this diachronization, "agriculture" subsumes both horticulture which is its beginning, immature phase (starting at around 12,000 - 10,000 B.P., i.e. the beginning of Neolithic) and intensive agriculture which is its late, mature phase (starting at around 5000 B.P., i.e. late Neolithic and onward). Pastoralism has two forms, "horizontal migration, characterized by regular movement over a large area in search of grass, and transhumance, or seasonal movement between upland and lowland pastures" (p. 110). Originally the animal husbandry on which pastoralism was based was simply part and parcel of the agriculturalist system, which was hence called mixed farming. "Specialized pastoralism, or exclusive reliance on animal husbandry, may have developed from a farming/herding pattern. Changes in agricultural practices, such as the use of canal irrigation, may have pushed grazing lands farther from settlements. The consequent increased demands of both herding and agriculture may have led some families to specialize in agriculture and others to choose herding exclusively. The divergence of strategies may have been encouraged by the failure of irrigation for some groups. Extensive irrigation may cause the water table (the level of water under the earth) to fall, or it may increase the salinity of the soil until crops no longer thrive... Pastoralism is an alternative to agriculture, but it is almost never independent of it. If pastoralists don't raise vegetable foods, they acquire them through trade." (Ibid.) Pastoral nomadism is in fact parasitic on agriculture and only subsists on the peripheral regions of an agricultural system. It only emerged -- i.e. branched off -- from the agricultural system when the latter transited to intensive agriculture, around 5,000 B.P. For this reason, pastoralism does not appear in the trinitarian division of chronology.

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