Social Entropy

Noah Smith points us to “the derpiest thing ever posted on the internet” — a reflection on the history of empires and the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Strictly speaking, probably not the derpiest thing ever posted; the internet is old, and vast, and strewn with some truly derpy things. But even under a charitable reading: yeah, pretty derpy.

The Second Law — the entropy of isolated systems either remains constant or increases over time — offers an irresistible temptation to the kind of person who might want to take Grand Ideas of Science and apply them to complex social phenomena. (I’m totally that kind of person, so I know how they think.) Entropy is roughly “disorder,” and all we have to do is look out the window/internet to see disorder running rampant all around us. So people from Henry Adams and Oswald Spengler to Thomas Pynchon and Norbert Wiener have suggested (with different degrees of seriousness) that maybe the social chaos around us is merely the inevitable outcome of some grand dynamical principle.

The post in question, at a blog called finem respice that is fond of referring to itself in the third person, takes a slightly different angle than usual. The insight is not that things fall apart and the centre cannot hold, but that things are falling apart faster and faster.

Sadly, long-term, the battle against entropy appears to be a losing one. In weaker moments the always philosophical finem respice reader might be reduced to despondency when realizing that while reading this piece the heat radiated by the brain creates more entropy than the reading creates order. In effect, and with apologies to Jim Morrison, “No one gets out of here cohesively.”

To finem respice‘s way of thinking, there is good reason to believe in “social entropy” as well. Not only this, but its rate of growth seems to be increasing. Of the 50-70 empires that dominate the study of history, it is suddenly striking to realize that, generally speaking, the more modern the empire, the shorter its lifespan.

Sweeping ideas from physics offer wonderful metaphorical inspiration, and even occasional precise insight, into the kinds of messy situations one typically cares about in the humanities and social sciences. Still, a little care is called for, and what we have here is kind of an absence of much care.

The biggest problem is the one that creationists always make: neither the biosphere nor our social environment is anything like a closed system. Yes, the entropy you are generating while reading this blog post is greater than the hoped-for order created by your comprehension of a new text. But that’s true of the universe, not of your brain all by itself. The Earth radiates lots of high-entropy radiation into space, but its own entropy can easily decrease. It’s not just allowed — it happens quite readily. Order is spontaneously generated in subsystems as the larger world increases in entropy. The plain evidence of history would seem to imply that this kind of tendency is especially prominent in the social context. The Roman/Persian/Chinese empires were not actually preceded by even earlier empires that lasted ten times as long. Even aside from the limitations of borrowing ideas from physics and applying them outside their circumscribed domains, this kind of idea would seem to be flatly contradicted by the evidence.

Which is a shame, because there might very well be something interesting to say about the changing cohesiveness of nation-sized institutions over time, and there may even be ideas from physics that could help. It does seem sensible to claim that the pace of all sorts of changes has picked up over the last few hundred years, even if “entropy” isn’t at all the right concept to reach for here. It’s the self-organization part, as well as ideas from complexity and network theory, that can be really helpful. This is the kind of thing that reformed physicist Geoffrey West has been studying with (seemingly) great success.

So it’s not at all derpy to take ideas from physics (or any other field) and let them prod you into new insights in other fields. It’s just doing it in a sloppy way that grates. Derpiness, like entropy, tends to increase, but that doesn’t mean we can’t resist.

  1. Excellent.

    Also note the selection bias inherent in evaluating past empires.

    Also note the fuzzy definition of empires…the British and Japanese monarchies have lasted many centuries…

    Also note that quite a number of well-known ancient empires lasted incredibly briefly…Alexander the Great…Sargon of Akkad…the Achaemenid Dynasty…the Qin Dynasty…etc. ad infinitum. “Finem respice” simply ignores these.

    Thank you, Sean Carroll, for performing this admirable duty of derp demolition…

  2. I have long been fascinated by the implication that the order we observe in society must be offset by an increase in disorder elsewhere. For example, the order we observe in industrial societies is (in part) made possible by using up the stock of order that we have in ancient hydrocarbons. What happens when that stock is exhausted? Many claim (and I tend to believe) that technological advance will lead to substitutes. But technological advance is just an expanding stock of ideas that makes use of knowledge about how the universe works that makes it possible for use to exploit another stock of order.
    It seems that technological advance staves off entropy in our little corner, but how? is it just the increase in universal entropy that must result from heat radiated by the brain of a genius who conceives of a new way of utilizing existing order in nature?

  3. Noah– I was going to talk about selection biases etc., but for once I resisted the urge to ramble too far away from the central point.

    Also: in the first version of this post I mistyped “Henry James” for “Henry Adams.” Apparently my brain only has room for one late-nineteenth-century writer named Henry who is part of a famous family.

  4. Fascinating post. What lessons do Geoffrey West’s findings bring us? Could similar constraints on the patterns that our conscious awareness creates mean that human intelligence is limited? Might it be possible that once a sentient species unlocks the secrets of natural determinism, their cognitive/behavioral capacity for creating individual and social/cultural meaning begins to deteriorate toward a catastrophic nihilistic ending? Past success does not guarantee future results. We can’t innovate our way out of evolution forever.

  5. I’ll regard Sean Carroll as a reliable authority on questions of physics again, only if he explains how the many-worlds interpretation can make sense in a relativistic universe, given that wavefunctions are always associated with particular time-slicings. (The point being that if you reify wavefunctions – as is necessary in order to find Everett worlds inside them – then you also reify the particular foliation on which they are defined, which is contrary to the spirit of relativity.)

  6. There is an interesting book, The Upside of Down by Homer-Dixon, in which he leads a related though somewhat less simplistic argument, based on increasing complexity and increasing susceptibility to shortages in energy supply. He’s not a physicist, so it’s a verbal argument, but I think there’s something to it. The book is really well written too, I can recommend it.

  7. Karl Popper would probably not approve. But at least this isn’t some silly marxist attempt to apply science to society, and in fact, ironically, society probably has some symptons of increasing entropy since people have free-will so society is like a fundamentally random system (at some level), whereas Sean believes the 2nd law arises purely from deterministic laws (and initial conditions). That is, we don’t have Loschmidt’s Paradox, since people interacting satisfy the “molecular chaos” requirement.

    erm, but maybe that’s a bit derpy too 🙂

  8. Obviously, interaction between clever scientists (and similar) isn’t consistent with “molecular chaos” (otherwise we’d have no technological progress) – unless perhaps it’s in the bar after the conference.

  9. It may appear to be chaos, but it’s chaos with a purpose, from a Christian point of view, while the evolution of man appeared to be chaotic it resulted in us, and we are yet to know the final end point.

  10. I don’t think the post is so derpy. I don’t think it makes a compelling argument, but I don’t think it abuses any scientific principles either. What it says about entropy (the physical kind) is basically correct. The rest of it is an attempt to do what Sean says is okay, i.e., using some physics idea as an inspiring metaphor (so it doesn’t matter whether human history is a “closed system,” etc., since it’s just a loose comparison at that point). The metaphor doesn’t really work and the historical/sociological analysis is shallow, but that doesn’t offend me as a physicist. I’m not sure why the post is supposed to seem so bothersome.

  11. I’m with Student. The post sucks for other reasons, but it doesn’t seem to abuse any physics since they are used purely metaphorically.

  12. Student: it actually does matter if something is closed or not. It’s actually like, one of the most important things to think about when observing a system…

    Student 2: …

  13. I enjoy your website but i really wish i could watch most of your videos on my iphone. Im able to view West’s video but not the ones of you speaking. Could you please fix this if possible? Thanks!!