Entropy Rules

The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that the entropy (disorder) of the universe is always increasing, which is why all systems move toward less ordered states unless energy is used in opposition. Life itself can be described as an intricate and complex series of chemical reactions within an organism, which require energy to maintain a steady, ordered state, i.e. life.

Unfortunately (from a purely anthropocentric point of view), entropy ultimately and always wins. It could be argued that human systems also follow the Second Law—not scientifically but conceptually. Families, classrooms, schools, communities and nations move in the direction of disorder and termination without the input of energy. In Savage Inequalities, author Jonathan Kozol has contrasted schools and communities ravaged by entropy (my characterization) with schools having more than enough energy to maintain healthy and desirable steady states.

Kozol has identified East St. Louis, Illinois, and other school systems as examples of what occurs when there are insufficient resources (e.g. community will, leadership, money, able professionals) to direct and apply the energy necessary to maintain or increase the order within school systems. Kozol also describes school systems (e.g. Fairview Heights in Illinois) that are prototypes of systems that benefit from the wealth and persistence needed to defy entropy’s menace. The advantaged citizens living within the boundaries of school systems like Fairview Heights will always have an undaunted competitive advantage over less advantaged neighboring districts, such as Fairview Heights’ immediate neighbors to the west in East St. Louis.

The energy needed to maintain the Fairview Heights system can be purchased with the surplus wealth of its citizens. East St. Louis and the other urban systems about which Kozol reports have no surplus; there is more than likely a deficit. The energy required in places of poverty needs to be extracted from the sinew and will of an unsophisticated populace that needs every ounce of available energy just to survive. Education in such places is damned because the affluent and advantaged have the power and volition needed to oppose policies that would transfer the measure of a community’s energy—wealth—to less prosperous neighbors.

Biologically speaking, there is a powerful selective advantage that accrues to those who conserve energy for their own use, which is why, apart from issues moral and ethical, I find segregation puzzling—regardless of whether it is legislated or maintained via societal norms—because it defies “social entropy” and, therefore, randomness; i.e. diversity. Natural diversity does not require the expenditure of energy because entropy delivers diversity without any effort on any entity’s part; yet, people resist diversity, which begs the question:

Why do people support an anti-entropic system like segregation, one that requires far more energy than would be needed to allow for the random distribution of different races and ethnic groups in and among communities?

Perhaps our aversion to diversity, manifested by the expenditure of limited energy to segregate, is a vestige of an earlier time when our ancestors instinctively battled neighboring clans to acquire and preserve territory for hunting and gathering. Such behavior in our primate cousins remains essential to species survival. Jane Goodall was one of the first, if not the first, to report behavior akin to racism—antagonism directed against an “other” based upon the assumption that one’s own group is superior—in perhaps our closest biological relative, the chimpanzee.

Until 1974, the chimp, as observed by Goodall and her associates, served as a pacifistic model for humanity. In that year, the males of the Kasakela group began a systematic war against a group of chimps that had broken away from the Kasakelans. The only apparent reason for the brutal murders of every male of the splinter group was that each did not belong to the Kasakela clan, which begs the argument that segregation—the systemic manifestation of racism—may draw its power from something deep within our biological nature.

Masked by the apparent need to raise our collective importance above the world of fang and claw, modern humans do not wish to think that significant and collective behaviors are driven by biology. But what better explanation can there be to explain why wealthy and powerful individuals in our country have failed to eliminate the isolation of the poor and disadvantaged, despite essential teachings of America’s dominant religions to which those individuals claim allegiance?

Could it be that the affluent and powerful in our society are waging the same war as did our Kasakelan cousins against an “other” comprised of people who are poor, people with a different skin color, people of a different religion, and/or people who have different sexual preferences?  And although we are usually less physically savage than our primate cousins in waging that war, the results are savagely the same.

There have been times when humans have defied the territorial prerogative and stood for equality, but those events tend to be so rare and so significant as to be considered defining moments in the history of civilizations: the Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence, and the Emancipation Proclamation are three. Brown v. Board of Education and its spawn are such a “moment” in aggregate.

There are many more watershed moments—from the Pharaoh’s’ treatment of Hebrews to Jim Crow, to the treachery in the Balkans and to the brutality of ISIS—that validate how difficult it is for us to accept as equals, or even tolerate the sight of, persons who are different from us.

Ironically, the American institutional emphasis on teaching diversity over the past five decades has exacerbated the problem: identifying and emphasizing differences that typifies diversity programs reinforces our biological proclivity toward segregation. Instead, we should have been institutionalizing programs that provide Americans opportunities to identify and celebrate characteristics common to every subgroup of humanity, characteristics such as the importance of family, the wish to provide a better life for our children, the need to be valued individually and be loved, the need to feel protected and safe, the wish to be treated fairly.

While we are blessed to be inspired by the courage, insights, and persistence of reformers like Kozol, without a massive change brought about by the power of rising generations, reformers’ efforts are likely to prove futile. History teaches that the energy made available to eradicate “savage inequalities” is likely to be far less than the energy human Kasakelans expend to eradicate from their artificial worlds those who are different.

The following from JFK’s Inaugural Address has already been cited by this blog, but it is worth repeating: “If a free society does not help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.” In the context of this post, JFK’s claim might be interpreted in this way:

If the powerful and advantaged in a free society do not share the energy needed to ensure the opportunity for every American to experience “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” entropy will ensure that the powerful and advantaged will not survive the terminal societal chaos that has been the fate of advanced civilizations for millennia.

(This post has been adapted from a chapter entitled Race, Class, and the Second Law of Thermodynamics [p. 103] in Education Follies by Jeff Lee Byrem.)

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