Thursday, December 9, 2004

Serres' open systems and dynamic stabilities

The Origin of Language: Biology, Information Theory, & Thermodynamics by Michel Serres

"Right in the middle of the traditional classification of beings, a classification that no longer makes sense since matter, life, and sign are nothing but properties of a system, we find exactly what I want to talk about: the living organism. Most often conceived of according to the models we have already considered, the organism has been seen as a machine (by figures and movements, or by invariance through variations) from the classical age up to the recent notion of homeostasis. Equilibrium and mobility. It is evidently a thermodynamic system, sometimes operating at very high temperatures, and tending toward death according to an unpredictable and irreversible time (that of ontogenesis), but going up the entropic stream by means of phylogenetic invariances and the mutations of selection. It is a hypercomplex system, reducible only with difficulty to known models that we have now mastered.

What can we presently say about this system? First, that it is an information and thermodynamic system. Indeed, it receives, stores, exchanges, and gives off both energy and information-in all forms, from the light of the sun to the flow of matter which passes through it (food, oxygen, heat, signals). This system is not in equilibrium, since thermodynamic stability spells death for it, purely and simply. It is in a temporary state of imbalance, and it tends as much as possible to maintain this imbalance. It is hence subject to the irreversible time of the second law, since it is dying. But it struggles against this time. We can improve upon the classical formulation of this problem. Indeed, due to the energy and information torrent which passes through the system without interruption, it is henceforth impossible to conceive of it as an isolated-closed system, except, perhaps, in its genotypical form. It is an open system. It should thus be regulated by a thermodynamics of open systems which has been developing over the past ten years and which provides a complex theory for this state of imbalance. In and by this imbalance, it is relatively stable. But here invariance is unique: neither static nor homeostatic, it is homeorrhetic.

It is a river that flows and yet remains stable in the continual collapse of its banks and the irreversible erosion of the mountains around it. One always swims in the same river, one never sits down on the same bank. The fluvial basin is stable in its flux and the passage of its chreodes; as a system open to evaporation, rain, and clouds, it always-but stochastically-brings back the same water. What is slowly destroyed is the solid basin. The fluid is stable; the solid which wears away is unstable - Heraclitus and Parmenides were both right. Hence the notion of homeorrhesis. The living system is homeorrhetic."

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