far from equilibrium (bifuractions)
A Prigogine-style bifurcation diagram depiction of systems far from equilibrium, which in (a) split into two stable states, at a certain distance from equilibrium, and where in (b) the slightest tremor triggers many splittings. [10]
In thermodynamics, far-from-equilibrium is a type of dynamic equilibrium in which the state of a system is constantly changing with time due to an external energy (or matter) input. The term was coined in the 1970s by Belgian chemist Ilya Prigogine and modeled on the phenomenon of Bénard cell formation. [1]

The general term far-from-equilibrium stems from the 1970s work of Belgian chemist Ilya Prigogine and is primarily based on the phenomenon of Bénard cell formation, where hexagonal convection cells spontaneously form in viscous mediums, such as silicon oil, when placed on a hot plate and heated past a bifurcation point into the turbulent flow regime. In a loose sense, according to Prigogine, far-from-equilibrium states of systems, are those subjected to flows of matter and or energy, in the non-linear (i.e. turbulent) regime, wherein the system can lose its stability and evolve, being driven by internal fluctuations, into one of the many states available to the system. [2]

Humans | Pro-view
In the 1970s and 80s, through the publications of Prigogine and his associates, the term “far-from-equilibrium” was parlayed over into the social sciences as the supposed type of equilibrium in which human life exists. In the 1989 book Exploring Complexity, Prigogine and Greek-born Belgian physicist Grégoire Nicolis, for instance, state as a matter of assumed fact that: [3]

“Our everyday experience teaches us that adaptability and plasticity of behavior, two basic features of nonlinear dynamical systems capable of performing transitions in far-from-equilibrium conditions, rank among the most conspicuous characteristics of human societies.”

Through the very popular spreading of this assumed equivalence of life being in the far-from-equilibrium range, in spite of the fact that the majority of biospheric life exists in Carnot cycle like heat engine state of solar diurnal contact, rather than continuous heat contact (as with Bénard cells), the view of human life in the far-from-equilibrium range is common. In the 2008 book Far from Equilibrium: Essays on Technology and Design Culture, authors Sanford Kwinter and Cynthia Davidson tell us: [4]

Life is a case of maintaining a very delicate structure—ourselves—a significant distance from equilibrium at nearly all times, and at others—in order to evolve, grow and invent—very far from equilibrium indeed.”

These types of statements, however, make little sense from the point of view of Gibbs free energy transformations, which is the dominant term in biochemical thermodynamics, in which, during each daily heat cycle, separated biological systems evolve unto configurations typified of minimal Gibbs free energy. [5] The term is even used in economic thermodynamics and war thermodynamics. In the 2007 book Age of Fallibility, author George Soros states, for instance, states that the expression "far-from-equilibrium conditions" can be applied to political and social situations. Soros argues that “in financial markets, far-from equilibrium conditions prevail often, but by no means all the time.” In respect to World War Two, Soros states that Jews during the 1944 Nazi Germany occupation of Hungary, faced with daily extermination, were in a far-from-equilibrium condition. As another example, the collapse of the Soviet empire, according to Soros, was a “far-from-equilibrium process par excellence.” [6]

The term “far-from-equilibrium”, being generally ill-defined concept and, in biological and human spheres, a huge extrapolation away from Bénard cell fluid dynamics, has met with questionable objection in recent years.

American sociologist Thomas Fararo, in his 1992 book The Meaning of General Theoretical Sociology, for example, warns his readers not to mix up the far-from-equilibrium Prigoginean thermodynamics interpretation of equilibrium and structure formation with the standard sociological one.

In 1977, the year of Prigogine’s win of the Nobel Prize for his work in thermodynamics, particularly in reference to his far-from-equilibrium theory in biological evolution, Russian physical chemist Georgi Gladyshev outlined his own thermodynamic evolution theory (hierarchical thermodynamics), in opposition to Prigogine’s, in which life processes are said to evolve in the “quasi-equilibrium” range. [7] In 2005 commentary on Prigogine’s far-from-equilibrium second law of thermodynamics logic for use in modeling biological evolution, Gladyshev stated: [8]

“Many works on nonequilibrium thermodynamics, especially the thermodynamics of systems that are far from equilibrium, remain a faint future hope ... some of these works, we daresay, are near ‘mathematically trimmed’ fantasies useless for real life.”

In 2005, authors Eric Schneider and Dorion Sagan ask, in question of the term far-from-equilibrium: [9]

“Is life a far-from-equilibrium system? If so, how far are organisms from equilibrium? And what does this phrase mean? In fact, the term far-from-equilibrium may be more applicable to backfiring engines than smoothly running life-forms.”

They note that “far-from-equilibrium systems, a phrase that was, to the best of our knowledge, never defined by Prigogine and the Brussels school, seem to occur when sufficient but not excessive energy materially cycles.” In addition, according to Schneider and Sagan, “the tradition in nonequilibrium thermodynamics has been to define far-from-equilibrium events after the first bifurcation.” In respect to life, however, they note that many biological liquid systems operate under equilibrium thermodynamic conditions and that although “life itself seems to be a far-from-equilibrium phenomenon” it is, in reality, a collection of processes and structure, made of constitutive chemical reactions, requiring low activation energies, and that: [9]

“Life is made up of [so] many reactions in the near equilibrium range [that it] may not be so ‘far’ from equilibrium as has been suggested.”

In 2012, American cybernetics theorist David Abel commented: [11]

Chaos theory deals with many self-ordering phenomena that spontaneously move events far from equilibrium. But candle flames, vortices at bathtub drains, sand piles, and hurricanes have absolutely nothing to do with life. If anything, the ‘dissipative structures’ of chaos theory (e.g. tornadoes) tend to destroy life and any other form of formal organization that they encounter. The bottom line is that merely ‘moving far from equilibrium’ is not the key to the life-origin problem as supposed.”

Some, even in the modern day, however, are still so enamored with the unwieldy term ‘far-from-equilibrium’ that arrive at outlandish conclusions; one example being Len Fisher, and his 2009 book The Perfect Swarm, where he happily concludes that humans and societies are so far far away from equilibrium that they are continuously at the edge of chaos. Societies, on average, aside from revolution and war, are not continuously at the edge of chaos as Fisher posits (based on his pied piper adoption of the Prigogine view).

Correct view
Correctly, humans and social systems are not far from equilibrium systems. Although equilibrium is a tricky subject, in overview, correctly, there are many varieties: (a) there are daily equilibrium variations (day heating vs night cooling), (b) the equilibrium = death version, e.g. a dead relationship, such as a marriage or company at the end of its reaction, (c) societal equilibrium variations, e.g. the rise and fall of Rome, and so on.

1. (a) Pacault, A., and Vidal, Christian. (1978). Synergetics, Far from Equilibrium: Proceedings of the Conference Far from Equilibrium: Instabilities and Structures, Bordeaux, France: Springer.
(b) Kondepudi, Dilip and Prigogine, Ilya. (1998). Modern Thermodynamics – from Heat Engines to Dissipative Structures, (section: Far-From-Equilibrium Systems, pg. 409). New York: John Wiley & Sons.
(c) Kondepudi, Dilip. (2008). Introduction to Modern Thermodynamics, (section: Biological Systems, pg. 379). John Wiley and Sons.
2. Prigogine, Ilya (1984). Order Out of Chaos – Man’s New Dialogue With Nature. New York: Bantam Books, Inc.
3. Nicolis, Grégoire and Prigogine, Ilya. (1989). Exploring Complexity - an Introduction, (esp. sect. “Self-Organization in Human Systems”, pgs. 238-42). New York: Freeman and Co.
4. Kwinter, Sanford and Davidson, Cynthia. (2008). Far from Equilibrium: Essays on Technology and Design Culture, (pg. 12). Actar.
5. (a) Haynie, Donald. (2001). Biological Thermodynamics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
(b) Gladyshev, Georgi, P. (1997). Thermodynamic Theory of the Evolution of Living Beings. Commack, New York: Nova Science Publishers.
6. Soros, George. (2007). The Age of Fallibility: Consequences of the War on Terror (pg. 8). PublicAffairs.
7. (a) Gladyshev, Georgi, P. (1978). "On the Thermodynamics of Biological Evolution", Journal of Theoretical Biology, Vol. 75, Issue 4, Dec 21, pp. 425-441 (Preprint, Chernogolovka, Institute of Chem. Phys. Academy of Science of USSR, May, 1977, p. 46). (b) Gladyshev, Georgi, P. (1997). Thermodynamic Theory of the Evolution of Living Beings. Commack, New York: Nova Science Publishers.
8. Gladyshev, Georgi P. (2005). “The Second Law of Thermodynamics and the Evolution of Living Systems”, (section: Phenomenological vs. Nonequilibrium). Journal of Human Thermodynamics, Vol. 1, Issue 7, (pgs. 68-81). Dec.
9. Schneider, Eric D. and Sagan, Dorion. (2005). Into the Cool - Energy Flow, Thermodynamics, and Life, (pgs. 86-87). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
10. Coveney, Peter. (1990). “Chaos, Entropy, and the Arrow of Time”, New Scientist, Sep. 29.
11. Abel, David L. (2012). “Moving ‘Far From Equilibrium’ in a Prebiotic Environment: the Role of Maxwell’s Demon in Life Origin” (§: ‘Far from Equilibrium’ Is Not Unique to Life or the Key to Life, pg. 225, in: Genesis – in the Beginning: Precursors of Life, Chemical Models and Early (editor: Joseph Seckbach) (pgs. 231-36). Springer.

Further reading
‚óŹ Ross, John. (2008). Thermodynamics and Fluctuations Far from Equilibrium. Springer.

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