we don't need to change how we do conservation, we need to change why we do it

The Narrow Way

Ok, in case you thought that last post from Darwin, Dogen, and the Extremophile Choice was too metaphysical, here is the physical prequel:


Our Platonic heritage prompts us to view means and medians as the hard ‘realities,’ and the variation that permits their calculation as a set of transient and imperfect measurements of this hidden essence. But all evolutionary biologists know that variation itself is nature’s only irreducible essence. Variation is the hard reality, not a set of imperfect measures for a central tendency. Means and medians are the abstraction. —Stephen Jay Gould [1]

Gaia theory, by covering over the phylogenic intelligence of evolving ecosystems with the ontogenic lustre of a super-organism, places a spuriously gilded crown upon the head of that which the Greeks knew to be an immortal goddess. Certainly the more popular early versions of the hypothesis, in playing up the image of Earth as organism, glossed over the timeless and global selection pressure that subverts the inevitable decay of sundry mortal organisms (the goddess’s passing improvisations) for it is in the nature of, and in fact it is required of, an organism, that it be subject to irreversible epigenetics, and irremovable mutations.

The fixed genotype of a single organism is a closed system of information, orchestrating a narrow and brutal life that ends, with statistical predictability, in death. Thus death is inevitable simply because (if my own subversive intelligence may recombine terms from Eddington, Boltzmann and Machiavelli) time’s stochastic arrow (entropic probability) points to those ends (easily identifiable macrostates) that can be achieved by the greatest number of means (interchangeable microstates). Here we have not only a physical and a biological, but an ethical slant to a thermodynamic principle; and I propose that the steps in this collision of mathematics and ethics are worth the trouble of following because, like the chicken and egg review, the effort allows us to update another misleading proverb for our post-moralist Darwinian times: it turns out it’s not the goodness of our intentions after all, but their easiness, that “paves the road to hell”. Of course, this update on the wide road to a state of dissipation overseen by the fallen angel of convenience is not meant to imply that, well before Darwin and Boltzmann, many enlightened pagans, and radical Christians, didn’t appreciate that getting to heaven means taking “the narrow way”. [2] Indeed this religious insight is not so much overturned as overlooked by our modern consumer culture.

But perhaps my ‘ethical math’ needs illustrating: Picture life as a game of no-draw poker. In a 52-card deck there are 2,598,960 possible 5-card hands (the microstates). If we’re only interested in the most favourable macrostates (hand ‘types’ that beat, say, a pair) then out of this there are 4 ways to deal a royal flush; 36 ways to deal a straight flush (excluding royal); 624 ways to deal four of a kind; 3,744 ways to deal a full house; 5,108 ways to deal a flush (excluding royal and straight); 10,200 ways to deal a straight (excluding flush); 54,912 ways to deal three of a kind; and 123,552 ways to deal two pair. Now this accounting of our decreasingly preferred, but increasingly likely, macrostates might give us hope, but their 198,180 microstates are less than 8% of those possible! My point is this: our limited interest (ignoring 92% of the hands we can be dealt) defines what we see as one monolithic macrostate of “junk cards”, so ethics comes in because an agent is clearly being very picky. If we must play by the rules of poker it’s convenient for us to overlook the non-interchangeability (each ‘way’ is distinct) of all the 5-card microstates in our macrostate of ignor-ance.

But what if playing by the rules is not our only task? The second law of thermodynamics, as explained by Boltzmann’s Order Principle [3] given above (the outcome or condition with the greatest number of approaches or complexions is the most likely), is a supremely useful tool for predicting what will happen in an agent-free closed system: like an oil spill (it spreads), or like a cylinder of gas (add heat and the pressure and volume change in a useful way). In fact the principle can be applied as easily to a room full of partying teenagers (it gets trashed) as to a game of poker. For that matter, the formula works even better when applied to a whole universe (isolation of galaxies, stars, and planets, and ultimately ‘heat death’). The manifold ways of disorder truly pave the entropic easy way, and the harder we strive for a preferred state, the faster disorder accumulates somewhere because, in an agent-free universe, un-‘wanted’ microstates are always the most plentiful. Disorder is a numerical certainty. We can even say that causality and duration themselves are statistical artifacts when numbers alone break the symmetry of what’s probable and point the arrow of time. The past dissipates into the future, never to return. By the numbers.

So where does agency come in? How does probability become possibility? We know we can’t turn the arrow of time. And we know it’s hard to clean up an oil spill or control our partying friends by assiduously following the rules when others fail to. But this is not what we mean by the narrow way. If human life is more than a game, then perhaps part of our task is to witness this flickering of attention that makes the arrow appear, and responsibility disappear; for then we begin to see how (in the dim light of macroscopic senses or cultural conditioning) the selection pressures in our un-Naturally drifting minds are overlooking the very particularities we must count when we specify our ends—when we recognize, or cling to, those ends as identifiable. An ‘agent of change’ plays with the rules; he pays attention in a way that sees (like Gaia) the non-statistical singularity of every deal (organism), and makes his move so that everyone (co-evolving intelligence) always wins.


1. Gould, 1991, p. 476 from “The Median Isn’t the Message”

2. Kierkegaard, 1958, Discourse IX. ‘The Joy in the Thought that it is Not the Way which is Narrow, but the Narrowness is the Way’. p. 219. “…and far be it for us to help to circulate the lying reports, that little by little it becomes easier on the narrow way, that it is only the beginning that is narrow. The relationship is precisely reversed, it becomes harder and harder.”

3. Stewart, 2013, pp. 197-215. “The traditional thermodynamic quantities, such as temperature, pressure, heat, and entropy, all refer to large-scale average properties of the gas. However, the fine structure consists of lots of molecules whizzing around and bumping into each other. The same large-scale state can arise from innumerable different small-scale states, because minor differences on the small-scale average out. Boltzmann therefore distinguished macrostates and microstates of the system: large-scale averages and the actual states of the molecules. Using this, he showed that entropy, a macrostate, can be interpreted as a statistical feature of microstates. He expressed this in the equation S=k log W. Here S is the entropy of the system, W is number of distinct microstates that can give rise to the overall macrostate, and k is a constant. It is now called Boltzmann’s constant, and its value is 1.38 x 10-23 joules per degree kelvin.”

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