A City Farm, New York (image: Mary Nimmo Moran/Smithsonian)

Things fall apart. That’s a coarse interpretation of the wisdom contained in the second law of thermodynamics: Entropy increases over time. And yet, human societies have gotten ever more intricate, moving from small hunter-gatherer bands to a worldwide society with megacities. This paradox is fundamental to understanding human history, but historians have largely ignored it, instead focusing on particular, consequential personalities and events. 

A March 15–17 working group at SFI aims to change that, drawing together historians, physicists, biologists, anthropologists, and computer scientists to analyze history in a whole new way. “We’re going to bring the tools and spirit of complex-systems science, along with SFI’s spirit of boldness and lack fences, to tackle human history,” says Kyle Harper, a Fractal Faculty member and historian at the University of Oklahoma.

If entropy is disintegration, its opposite is information. An approach from statistical physics — information theory — offers a useful lens on biology: organisms store information about the external environment in their genomes and continuously perform computations to stay away from thermal equilibrium. 

This workshop aims to bring this same lens to history. Modern societies will be viewed as a kind of supercomputer running “algorithms” acquired over the course of our history – how to turn grass seeds into edible calories; how to combust fossil fuels to do work; how to synthesize reactive nitrogen. These algorithms are the key to controlling energy flows — keeping the system out of thermal equilibrium and thus escaping the trap of the second law of thermodynamics. 

From this perspective, human history is a series of information revolutions that created energy revolutions: fire, tools, agriculture, writing, money, empiricist science, fossil fuels, synthetic chemistry, computers. Each revolution has created an ever larger and more complex system, always under constraints, competing with dissipation.

“I think this could be a new and fundamental way to think of the place of human culture in the physical universe,” Harper says.

Read more about the working group, The Interactions of Information and Energy Propelling Human History