Liberty Matters

Spencer’s Cosmology


Spencer’s theory of social evolution is grounded not just in biological evolution but in an even broader physical theory according to which the inherent “instability of the homogeneous[134] drives a universal tendency of “transformation of the homogeneous into the heterogeneous.”[135]  This approach, which might seem to defy the second law of thermodynamics, can easily make Spencer look like a crackpot.
It’s worth noting, then, that Harvard astrophysicist David Layzer has defended a strikingly similar approach.[136]  Noting the apparent conflict between the second law of thermodynamics, with its prediction of increasing disorder, and our observation of an apparent increase of order in the formation of galaxies, solar systems, and biological species, Layzer suggests that rather than assuming that this growth of order is being compensated for by a greater increase in entropy elsewhere, we can reconcile the predicted growth of disorder with the observed growth of order by taking into account the expansion of the universe. 
Since the growth of entropy in a system involves matter distributing itself ever more evenly among the possible states of that system, it follows that if the system is expanding (as the universe is), the number of possible states can increase faster than the rate at which matter is filling them, so that while entropy is increasing, the gap between states filled and states fillable – i.e., order – may increase still faster. In other words, all that the second law predicts is that in the contest between entropy and order, the amount of territory conquered by the forces of entropy will always increase – not that the percentage of territory will necessarily do so. Of course, given a fixed territory, an increase in amount means an increase in percentage (and a corresponding loss for the forces of order); but in an expanding territory we no longer have a zero-sum game, and it is possible for entropy’s domain to increase even as its share of total territory available decreases. And this, Layzer suggests, explains the growth of order in the universe: the universe expands more quickly than its matter can spread out, so we get “clumps,” i.e., stars, and the ongoing temperature disequilibrium between stars and nonstars allows energy to keep flowing from the former to the latter, generating work.
I have no idea whether Layzer is right about any of that; such questions lie far beyond my area of competence.  My point is simply that an approach broadly like Spencer’s has been defended comparatively recently by someone widely regarded as reputable.
[134.] Herbert Spencer, First Principles, 2d ed. (London: Williams and Norgate, 1867), ch. 19. "The Instability of the Homogeneous"</titles/1390#Spencer_0624_620>
[135.] First Principles (London: Williams and Norgate, 1867), ch. 15. "The Law of Evolution continued" </titles/1390#Spencer_0624_549>
[136.] See, e.g., David Layzer, “The Arrow of Time,” Scientific American (December 1975), pp. 56-69;  <>; Layzer, Cosmogenesis: The Growth of Order in the Universe (Oxford University Press, 1991). See also Bob Doyle, “David Layzer,” The Information Philosopher (2009) <> and, relatedly, Doyle, “Ilya Prigogine,” The Information Philosopher  (2013) <>.