New law of nature provides theory for complexity of the universe

17 Oct 2023

Image: © Tryfonov/

Scientists propose a new law to codify the tendency of systems to increase in complexity, building on Darwin’s theory of evolution.

In a new research paper, scientists have boldly described what they call a “missing law of nature”.

The laws of nature have been developed by scientists over many years to explain universal behaviours in physical systems. These include classic laws of motion, gravity, electromagnetism and energy.

Led by astrobiologist Dr Michael L Wong from the Carnegie Institution for Science, the researchers have proposed an additional law, which codifies the tendency towards increasing complexity of natural (and unnatural) systems through an evolutionary lens.

Extrapolating on the evolutionary theory of the ‘survival of the fittest’, the proposed “law of increasing functional information” states that, “The functional information of a system will increase (ie the system will evolve) if many different configurations of the system undergo selection for one or more functions”.

According to the researchers, in any given system, multiple novel combinations of processes can occur and it is the processes that serve a stable, novel function which evolve and go on to produce further novel functionality. This applies not just to life on Earth but to all complex systems from the atomic to the planetary scale, and potentially even to artificial intelligence.

“An important component of this proposed natural law is the idea of ‘selection for function’,” explained Wong.

In Darwinian theory, the goal or function of evolutionary adaptation is survival. The new study expands on this notion of function to include a selection for stability, novelty and the ability to continue fundamental processes.

“Details vary from system to system, but all evolving systems display the essential characteristics of combinatorial richness and selection for function,” the authors wrote.

“Charles Darwin eloquently articulated the way plants and animals evolve by natural selection, with many variations and traits of individuals and many different configurations,” said Prof Robert M Hazen, a co-author on the study and senior staff scientist at the Carnegie Institution’s Geophysical Laboratory.

“We contend that Darwinian theory is just a very special, very important case within a far larger natural phenomenon. The notion that selection for function drives evolution applies equally to stars, atoms, minerals and many other conceptually equivalent situations where many configurations are subjected to selective pressure.”

A new perspective on diverse systems

The researchers claim their theory could have wide-ranging implications for scientific understanding of the origins of the universe and how it has developed.

“The significance of formulating such a law is that it provides a new perspective on why the diverse systems that make up the cosmos evolve the way they do and may allow predictions about how unfamiliar systems – like the organic chemistry on Saturn’s moon Titan – develop over time,” said study co-author Prof Jonathan Lunine, an astronomer at Cornell University.

In an interview with Vice, Wong argued that in “this brave new world of AI, a law of functional information, or how information influences physical systems, might be really important in understanding how these artificial intelligence systems will end up evolving and interfacing with us and how they’re going to influence society”.

Not everyone in the scientific community is convinced by this overarching theory, however.

“Given an immense amount of space and time, and the laws of physics and chemistry, an expanding variety of materials, environments and structures will emerge in the inanimate world,” astronomer Prof Martin Rees told The Guardian.

“But I don’t see that this need be a manifestation of any new underlying principle analogous to the role of Darwinian selection via inheritance in the biological world.”

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Rebecca Graham is production editor at Silicon Republic