Natural Selection as a Ratchet Effect

Today Hanna Newcombe is probably the most respected peace researcher and activist in Canada. Born in Prague, she came to Canada as a refugee from Hitler and earned a doctorate in chemistry, marrying another chemist, Alan Newcombe, whom she persuaded to switch careers to peace studies. They ran the Peace Research Institute Dundas from the basement of their bungalow and gained international admiration. Hanna kept writing brilliant essays on an amazing array of topics — from cosmology to theology to Gaia to enzymes — without bothering to publish them. Alan died several years ago and Hanna now lives in a retirement home, but she continues to write. This is her most recent essay. Two years ago she was awarded the Order of Canada. We have been building a web site to make available all her numerous essays. Please have a look at the collection and, if you think they are as creative as we do, mention them to your friends. This modest woman deserves wide recognition!

By Hanna Newcombe

“We climb Mount Improbable by using the ratchet effect.”

A friend once asked me how biological evolution (and embryonic development) can happen, being against the second law of thermodynamics, which requires movement from order to disorder, toward greater entropy.

I said, “Something weird happened on this planet, and maybe on this planet only.”

But my friend insisted, “Nevertheless, it happened, so it requires an explanation.” I was stumped and have wondered about it ever since. How do we climb Mount Improbable against the laws of nature?

Finally it came to me. We use the ratchet effect, which permits only forward movement and applies a brake against backward movement.

A ratchet works like the toothed wheel in the escapement of a watch, allowing time to move only forward, not backward. Or it works like the toothed rail on a mountain-climbing railway, going up in spite of gravity. I once tried it in a car, stepping with my right foot on the starter instead of the accelerator and then with my left foot on the brake. It moves forward only in little jumps using electrical energy, not tapping gasoline energy. Not very quick, not efficient, but it moves only forward. It is a ratchet.

Any partly ordered pattern can move in two directions. Either to less ordered patterns, which would be breakdown, or to more ordered patterns, which would be breakthrough. A breakdown is very much more ordered (frequent) while breakthrough is very rare, but this climb to less probable structures is what constitutes climbing Mt. Improbable.

In evolution, natural selection loads the dice against entropic degradation (breakdown) by making the degraded patterns less viable (survivable) by natural selection, and favoring the (much rarer) breakthrough by making it more viable. Natural selection works like a ratchet, against breakdown. Genetic mutations are usually harmful, rarely beneficial. Yet we climb Mount Improbable with their help, while preserving the law of entropy. Natural selection is cruel, but effective.

It should be possible to make a calculation, using statistical mechanics (the micro-version of thermo-dynamics) of how much time it would take for evolution by natural selection to reach the present state. It is a very slow process, but we may find the approximate time. If this agrees with reality, it should prove the soundness of this theory. The agreement would need to be only an order of magnitude.

Where is human evolution headed in the future? The great philosophers, sages, scientists and artists like Socrates, Jesus, Buddha, Rousseau, Einstein, Newton, Freud, Goethe, Schiller, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Shakespeare, Mozart, Beethoven, etc. did not seem to be favored by natural selection. Mozart died young; his baby suffered a crib death. Goedel and Turing committed suicide. Yet French philosopher and scientist Teilhard de Chardin traced the development from Alpha to Omega in the mental realm, the noosphere. Perhaps, in addition to the push of the ratchet in the bodily realm, there is a pull forward in the mental or spiritual realm. Teilhard, the Christian theologian, certainly thought so. But I cannot speculate any further. I am beyond my brain power already. Let us hope (and work) that point Omega is reached before human extinction occurs.

Hang on to life, since once you let go, there is no way to return. Omne vivum ex vivo (“all life comes from life”) as proved by Louis Pasteur. There is no spontaneous generation. The original way up may have been unique.

Hanna Newcombe lives in Hamilton.

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2008

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2008, page 26. Some rights reserved.

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