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Thermodynamics, Information, and Life Revisited
Part Two -- "Thermoeconomics" and "Control Information"
© SYSTEMS RESEARCH AND BEHAVIORAL SCIENCE 15:453-482 (1998)
"There is measure in everything."
Beatrice (W. Shakespeare),
Much Ado About Nothing
In Part One of this paper, we
critiqued the misuse of key concepts in thermodynamics and information theory in
various disciplines, but especially in relation to theories of biological
evolution. Following a brief introduction to this challenging literature, we
drew a critically important distinction between "order" and the
informed "functional organization" that characterizes living systems.
We then outlined what we believe is the appropriate paradigm for theorizing
about the role of energy and information in biological processes; in essence,
our paradigm is cybernetic. This was followed by a brief discussion of
thermodynamics, with particular reference to its application to biological
processes. Two concepts that are well developed in the engineering literature
but not commonly used elsewhere provide an approach that we believe is both more
rigorous and more readily understood, namely the "control volume"
frame of reference and the concept of "available energy." Both of
these concepts were defined in precise mathematical terms. In Part Two, we
discuss what we call the "thermoeconomics" of living systems -- that
is, a cybernetic and economic approach to analyzing the role of available energy
in biological evolution -- and we relate this paradigm to a distinction that we
draw between various statistical or structural definitions of information and
what we call "control information." We critique information theory and
we define control information in cybernetic terms not as a "thing" but
as an attribute of the relationships between things -- namely, the capacity
(know-how) to control the acquisition, disposition and utilization of
matter/energy in purposive (teleonomic) processes. We also suggest how control
information can be measured empirically, and we propose a methodology for
linking thermodynamics and information theory that contrasts sharply with
existing approaches to this problem. Finally, we argue that in living systems
thermodynamic processes may be subject to certain law-like "bioeconomic"
principles. We also elucidate some implications.
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