a : the degradation of the matter and energy in the universe to an ultimate state of inert uniformity.
b : a process of degradation or running down or a trend to disorder.
Every single day, 7.4 billion human beings wake up with the same singular purpose.
To stave off entropy for one more day.
Even if we intend to end our lives or sow societal chaos, we need the world to behave in order to do it. Our particles must remain organized for long enough for us to control our bodies and minds to do the things we intend. The structure of the world around us must maintain. The biological systems of the people we want to experience what we want them to experience must react the way they’re supposed to.
There must be order.
The world is a living, breathing, evolving tribute to the share we’ve taken from our ultimate foe of entropy. Nature obeys the second law of thermodynamics that says that all closed systems move towards entropy. Billions of years ago, something somewhere opened the system and put a thumb on the scale though. Order, in its most basic form, ensued. Whose thumb and how is as much a question of religion as it is science. But things eventually began to organize.
The organization is never permanent though. Entropy always wins in the end.
If you care to test it, you need only to build a house of cards in your living room and see how long it stays a house of cards. There are many more ways to organize the cards into something other than that house. And only one way for it to be that house. There aren’t enough controls in place to keep the cards where they need to be and in no time, entropy wins. All that’s left is a flat pile of cards; the natural destination of disassembled parts.
The scale knows no limits. There are many ways for the particles of a star to be arranged for them not to be a star. And only one for them to be one. Stars are more fragile than we might think. Eventually they all collapse in on themselves. Entropy wins.
It’s more obvious with life. There are many ways for the particles of any of us to be arranged for any of us to not be alive. And only one way for us to live. Eventually we lose the ability to draw energy from the world around us to keep them organized. Then we die and turn to dust—a pile of disorganized particles.
There are also many more ways for the human brain to be arranged for it not to be a normal, functioning human brain. And only one way for it to function correctly.
For 99.9 percent of our existence, humans have lived within a narrow band of experience. We ate the same things. We lived in the same environments. We evolved accordingly.
When we mastered fire and began to cook our food, human evolution invested our newfound efficiencies in digestion into our brains. The result was bigger humans with bigger brains. About 50,000 years ago, the first cognitively modern humans appeared. For 49,700 those years modern humans lived in a world where we ate food that included only that food, the nights were lit only by fire and information was transmitted physically. There was not a single object created whose complexity was beyond the reach of an individual human.
Today the world is very different. Three centuries after the start of the industrial revolution, I sit typing this essay on a computer that requires the full intellectual capacity of a hundred humans to build and the physical materials of a dozen countries.
I can say the same thing for most of the things I used today; my car, my phone, my television, my dishwasher.
The energy and effort of mankind to organize the world around us by adding complexity instead of simplifying is the ultimate fleeting victory over entropy. The impacts that has had on us though, are less understood. The Flynn Effect tells us that our collective IQ’s are increasing generationally. In 1950, the average human IQ was 15 points lower than today. The gains are in “fluid” intelligence, those abilities required to solve abstract problems. The abstract complexity of our world is impacting the wet organ in our head within the scope of decades.
The physical complexity of our environment, where we encounter countless chemicals, energy waves and sensory inputs that we never have before is lesser understood. Astronaut Scott Kelly altered the gene expression of his DNA 7% simply by spending a year in low earth orbit. It’s not unreasonable to think that the world we live in today, while staving off entropy in the areas we’ve invested our collective energy, would require additional energy to be expended to stave off entropy from its effects on something so complex and malleable as the human brain.
There are after all, many ways for the particles of a human brain to be arranged for it not to be a normal functioning human brain.
Today, 1 in 68 children in America are diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorder. 1 in 42 boys are diagnosed. There has been a 100% increase in the rate of diagnosis since the year 2000.
In my house, that rate is one in three.
As both the father of an autistic child and a deep believer of Bayesian logic, I am aware of the implications of and contributions to that statistic. I understand the impact of the broadening of factors for diagnosis, the access to special education and healthcare services the diagnosis enables and the increased awareness from helicopter parents that are overly concerned. Scientific approaches to quantify these impacts show that the majority of the increase comes from these externalities—sixty percent to be exact. Which means that the skeptics are right.
The statistic is overblown.
The way that saying 200 people died in an airplane crash when it in fact was 120 is overblown. The story is still the plane crash.
In a time when medicine is exterminating illnesses and lengthening the lifespan of our species dramatically, the number of children in developed countries suffering from autistic spectrum disorders is increasing dramatically. The story is the increase.
We don’t know exactly why it’s happening. Theories are developing. Some are outlandish or dangerous to public health. Others show promise. But a smoking gun eludes us. We absolutely know what is happening though. Anyone who spends time around children on the autistic spectrum can tell you what’s happening. Their brains don’t follow the same order ours do. Some functions do what others are supposed to. Some don’t work at all. They are, for lack of a better phrase, in a state of disorder.
They’ve lost some of the battle with entropy that other children did not.
Those that live in the world around them have lost some of the battle with entropy that others have not as well. My family is one of them. Tolstoy’s homage to entropy in his opening line to Anna Karenina holds up.
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
There are many ways for five people to be organized that don’t make them a healthy family. And precious few that do. When it comes to autism, the only way anyone gets by is with support. If anyone tells you otherwise, they’re selling something.
My wife and I are not.
In 2016 we started a non-profit corporation called Care For Us. We provide free therapeutic support to families with special needs children, autistic or otherwise. We don’t and never will charge a cent for anything.
This is out story.