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"Missing Law of Nature" Proposes How Stars and Minerals “Evolve” Over Time

A view of the Milky Way above a mountain range.
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An interdisciplinary study, drawing on expertise from fields including philosophy of science, astrobiology, data science, mineralogy and theoretical physics, has identified a previously overlooked aspect of Darwin’s theory of evolution. The research extends the theory beyond the traditional confines of biological life, and proposes a universal law applicable to an array of systems such as planetary bodies, stars, minerals and even atoms. The paper unveils what the authors term “a missing law of nature” that encapsulates an inherent principle shaping the evolution of complex natural systems.

The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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The new work details a “Law of Increasing Functional Information” – the tendency for systems composed of a mix of components to evolve towards increased complexity, diversity and patterning. The law is applicable to any system characterized by a multitude of configurations, living or non-living, where natural processes engender a plethora of arrangements, yet only a select few persist through a process termed “selection for function”.

Finding function

Co-author 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, said that the paper was “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?"

The additional theory applies to systems, like cells or molecules, which are composed of parts that can be rearranged repeatedly by natural processes. While these phenomena can produce endless variation in structure, only a handful of these configurations tend to endure – the law terms this “selection for function”. Darwin’s law looked at a purely biological form of function – survival and reproduction. The new study suggests that this view can be widened to include other types of function. The third, termed “novelty”, embodies the propensity of evolving systems to venture into unprecedented configurations, occasionally culminating in novel characteristics.

Star power

The authors also draw parallels between biological evolution and the evolution of stars and minerals.  Primordial minerals, they suggest, represented particularly stable atomic arrangements that then laid the groundwork for subsequent mineral generations and, subsequently, the emergence of life. The example of star structures shows how the tendency towards function can build complex systems – the earliest stars, which were created just after the Big Bang, were composed of only two elements: hydrogen and helium. These were then built on to create the more than 100 elements that make up our periodic table today.

“If increasing functionality of evolving physical and chemical systems is driven by a natural law, we might expect life to be a common outcome of planetary evolution,” concluded Lunine.

Reference: Wong ML, Cleland CE, Arend D, et al. On the roles of function and selection in evolving systems. PNAS. 2023;120(43):e2310223120. doi:10.1073/pnas.2310223120

This article is a rework of a press release issued by Cornell University. Material has been edited for length and content.