Today’s New York Times science section contains an interview with physicist Sean Carroll, conducted when he went to New York to discuss his new book, From Eternity to Here, on Colbert. I haven’t yet read it, but I certainly will, for I really want to know why time goes in only one direction. Carroll hints at a solution in his interview, but like all good authors he doesn’t give away that solution, which appears to have something to do with entropy:
Q. YOU WRITE THAT THE NATURE OF TIME IS SUCH THAT WE CAN’T GO BACKWARD.
A. It’s likely that we can’t do time travel. But we don’t know for sure. The arrow of time comes from the increase of entropy, meaning that the universe started out organized and gets messier as time goes on. Every way in which the past is different from the future can ultimately be traced to entropy. The fact that I remember the past and not the future can be traced to the fact that the past has lower entropy. I think I can make choices that affect the future, but that I can’t make choices that affect the past is also because of entropy
Carroll is a smart and amiable guy, and gives a good interview. There’s one place, however, where I think he misses the mark. That’s where he discusses the effect of time’s directionality on biology, specifically ageing:
Q. THE CENTERPIECE OF THE RECENT MOVIE “BENJAMIN BUTTON” AND THE ABC TELEVISION SERIES “FLASH FORWARD” IS THE TIME TRAVEL. HOW DO YOU RATE THE SCIENCE OF THOSE ENTERTAINMENTS?
A. Well, the Benjamin Button character ages in reverse. In “Fast Forward” people glimpse the future. These are great story-telling devices.
But the writers can’t resist the temptation to bend the rules. If time travel were possible, you still wouldn’t be able to change the past — it’s already happened! Benjamin Button, he’s born old and his body grows younger. That can’t be true because being younger is a very specific state of high organization. A body accumulates various failures and signs of age because of the arrow of time.
But I don’t think that entropy (at least in bodies) is the only solution here, or even an important solution, for it’s perfectly possible for a body to be immortal, and some plants (and bdelloid rotifers, who appear to reproduce largely asexually) have approached physical immortality. There’s far more to ageing than just “the arrow of time.” Indeed, the inexorable increase in entropy encapsulated in the second law of thermodynamics, a law that holds over the whole universe, is violated locally by two biological phenomena: development and evolution.
There are several theories of ageing. The evolutionary “pleiotropy” theory says that it pays organisms to reproduce earlier rather than later, so genes that enhance early reproduction even if they cause later problems such as tissue senescence will often be favored. There’s also a “physical breakdown” theory: the thousand natural shocks that flesh (or stem) is heir to will eventually wear out an organism so that it simply ceases to be. A variant of this is the mutation-accumulation theory, in which mutations simply accumulate in the somatic (i.e., non-reproductive) tissue over time, and bad mutations that have their effects later in life will be less disadvantagous than those whose effects show up in youth. This could lead to the accumulation of “ageing genes” and hence produce senescence—the physical breakdown of individuals as they age.
There are other theories, too, and they’re nicely summarized in the Wikipedia article on senescence. But I think none of these are solely explained by “the arrow of time” and entropy. If organisms could simply take energy from the environment (ultimately, of course, derived from the Sun’s increasing entropy), it’s possible to repair mutations (this is already done to some extent) or fix bodily damage and prevent ageing. Another way is to reproduce by splitting or by nonsexual reproduction (parthenogenesis), which is practiced by many organisms like the rotifers. Indeed, the fact that an ageing organism can reproduce at all and produce new, non-senescent offspring is evidence against Carroll’s assertion. Reproduction, sexual or otherwise, shows that it’s not entropy alone that causes ageing, for reproduction completely nullifies the ageing process, and, when an old decrepit soul like me produces a child, the increase in entropy is reversed.
Now development and reproduction, as well as evolution itself, do involve a local decrease in entropy. But this doesn’t violate the second law of thermodynamics (i.e., the law that says “entropy increases”) because that law makes a statement about the entire universe, and in that sense is still true when organisms develop or evolve. That’s because, as we all know, biological decreases in entropy that occur when a fertilized egg develops into a more organized adult, or when a replicating macromolecule evolves into a metazoan—come at the expense of an increased entropy of the Sun, whose energy fuels both evolution and development. And as the sun provides energy, it becomes less ordered. Over the whole universe, there is less energy available to do work, and, in the universe as a whole, which is where the second law is meant to apply, entropy increases.
It would be perfectly possible for organisms to evolve self-repair mechanisms that would render them immortal, and many species have gone partway to this end. Salamanders, for example, have evolved the ability to regenerate limbs, and I’ve already mentioned that organisms have evolved complex ways to repair mutations. No matter what theory of ageing you have, it could be reversed without violating the second law of thermodynamics.
This is a roundabout way of saying that ageing is more complicated than Sean lets on. Yes, time’s arrow may be involved in any explanation for ageing (after all, mutations accumulate in one direction over time, and, Benjamin Button nonwithstanding, senescence occurs in only one direction), but I don’t think that senescence is properly explained by saying “being younger is a very specific state of high organization.” Older organisms can produce younger ones, and that itself leads to higher organization over time.
I’m a fan of Sean’s, so this is merely a mild corrective to what I see as a misleading statement about development and, by proxy, about evolution.