Life = Disequilibrium

Comparing a guppy to a lump of coal and a room full of air illustrates one of the key characteristics of life itself. You could say disequilibrium is our raison d’être, at least in terms of biochemistry.

Suppose you are the guppy. If you came into perfect equilibrium with your environment, you would altogether cease to exist. The systems that are madly at work right now to keep you breathing and metabolizing are vigorously staving off the relentless forces of equilibrium for as long as they can. Life, the energy that holds your entire molecular structure together, is your stand against equilibrium. All the little bits of matter that make you a living organism are constantly being pulled towards disordered chaos, but so far you’ve managed to hold it all together.

If the tables were turned — if equilibrium were on our side — our biological existence would simply last forever. Instead, like a seed finding traction and nutrients in a crack of concrete, our existence is one of challenging the insurmountable problem of equilibrium for as long as possible.

What makes life special is not that we will one day ‘conquer’ equilibrium once and for all, but that we replicate ourselves despite the odds. If you pull up that little plant growing in the crack of concrete, another one will replace it. All around us, life is looking to take root, ready to pounce on any opportunity to exist, and ready to thwart equilibrium for just a little longer.

What makes you different than a rock?

If you, a guppy, and a rock were picked apart, piece by piece, you would both be little piles of atomic dust. Yet even though you are made of the same base materials when picked apart, you appear remarkably different in your present compositions as ‘rock’ and ‘guppy’ respectively.

So what makes something ‘alive?’ On first examination, the most obvious difference is that you and guppies can do things. While the rock just sits there — motionless unless kicked, rolled, or throw — you can move yourself and transport things. But to pinpoint the essential difference between you and rock, we must explore your greatest dissimilarity: you have a metabolism, the rock does not. The word metabolism comes from the Greek metabole, meaning ‘change’. To be alive requires an on-going exchange of resources between you and your environment. Life is give and take. The fundamental difference between you and the rock lies in your respective interaction and relationship with energy.


Cite this page:
Shelley, James. (2020). 'Life = Disequilibrium' (in System Thinker Notebook). Originally published on August 5, 2020. Accessed on September 25, 2020. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Permalink: https://jamesshelley.com?p=17031
Additional reference and meta data:
This page a subsection of 'Air, Guppies, and Carbon' in the System Thinker Notebook manuscript.