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Entropy in Jack London’s “White Fang”

April 2012
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“Henry, squatting over the fire and settling the pot of coffee with a piece of ice, nodded. Nor did he speak till he had taken his seat on the coffin and begun to eat.” –Chapter 1

In Jack London’s White Fang, the second law of thermodynamics reigns king. Life is an entropic struggle, a struggle against entropy, a struggle for survival. It is the struggle of  highly organized systems battling against the universal process of entropy, which is the tendency for all things to disorganize and dissolve. Indeed, this is much the reason why Schrodenger called life negative entropy.

The concept of entropy rests squarely on the second law of thermodynamics, which states that, in a closed system, heat cannot transfer from a cooler body to a warmer one. If, for example, we pour hot water into a bucket of ice, the heat will transfer to the ice. The ice will absorb the heat, and the hot water will cool, until all that is left is water of one temperature.

Ice is more organized an less random than is  water. By adding the hot water, the ice becomes a liquid, and the whole system thereby increases its overall level of entropy. It is less organized than before, more random.

Though we have looked at the bucket as if it were a closed system, a bucket is not a closed system. No system is closed, except the universe itself. The heat of the hot water disorganized the ice, and the temperature equalized; but, assuming the room still cooler than the water in the bucket, this process towards equalization will continue, until at last, at some moment ages and ages hence, the universe itself will disorganize to a state of perfect simplicity, utterly undifferentiated — Nothingness.

But until that happens, particular systems can increase in complexity. But this increase in complexity is finite, and the overall level of entropy is toward perfect and simple equilibrium. For example, we can build a freezer, and make ice cubes. But to make these stable little cubes, we must burn, perhaps, coal, and by the time we have ice cubes, there is less overall structure in the universe. That is, we lose energy and heat in creating the ice cubes. Simply feeling the warmth behind the freezer can confirm this. There is much more heat behind the freezer than was extracted from the water to decrease its randomness and make it stable ice.

Our flesh is like the ice, and the life we eat is like the coal. Turning plants and animals into complex proteins adds to to level of entropy in the universe. That is, though we ever evolve into more complex structures, we have to disorganize other structures, and the over all level of entropy is always increasing. Life struggles to maintain itself, as against the flow of a great cosmic glacier.

We can think of the earth as a single system, finite but not self-contained. The earth itself can increase in complexity, but the universe as a whole will move towards disorganization and extinction. The sun radiates energy as its entropy increases. The heat of the sun moves out into the cold, black deep. The earth absorbs some of that heat. Plants gather light, and photosynthesize it, gaining the energy to fold matter into complex patterns. Rocks and dirt also absorb the heat, just as ice will absorb heat. But the earth will not hold the energy if the adjacent system is cooler.

During the day, the earth gains energy, but it is only day on one side of the earth. On the dark side, energy radiates out into the dark deep. Indeed, even where it is dawn, the earth still loses energy. It takes several minutes for the light of day to reverse the trend, and for the sun to reverse the process, which is why the coldest time of day is just after dawn.

In what London calls “the savage, frozen-hearted Northland,” the dawn comes late in wintertime, and the sun replenishes adds very little energy to the system during the day, so that in the winter, there is more loss than gain. Then, life is most cruel, most hungry, most  savage.

In the savage, frozen-hearted Northland, every calorie matters. Negative entropy, like a freezer, needs energy to organize. A mouthful of food is the difference between motion and absolute stillness. In this frozen-hearted Nothland — in this bucket of ice —  we meet two men and their six dogs, who depend absolutely on adding energy to their own negatively-entropic system in order to counter the entropy, and keep from melting, like so many ice cubes, into their environment, into the belly of the universe, and becoming indistinguishable from it.

In order to keep from death, these men must keep an orderly and calculated system, which is symbolized by the circle of safety around their campfire. The campfire itself symbolizes their complex intelligence, and also the process which Heraclitus described thousands of years ago, when he called the universe by the metaphor of fire.

“This universe, which is the same for all, has not been made by any god or man, but it has always been, is, and will be an ever-living fire, kindling itself by regular measure and going out by regular measures.” –Heraclitus

Early in White Fang, when it is dark and hard to see except by the light of the campfire, one of the men goes to feed the six dogs with six fish, but notices that one mouth goes unfed. A dog-like wolf had broken their circle, had acted as one of his dogs, and has stolen some of their energy: one fish. That night, one of the six dogs disappears, is eaten, metabolized, and turned to protein and steaming dung. Thus the circle grows smaller, colder, quieter, with less organized mass and less organized energy.

The dog-like wolf who breaks the line of the camp circle and steals a fish to eat, and who later lures out a dog to eat, is herself a member of another cooperative and organized system — a larger circle, a wolf-pack. This larger circle encompasses this smaller camp-circle, almost as a stomach would enclose its meat. This larger circle is like the belly of the universe itself; it is that which would draw all energy to equilibrium, all movement to stillness, all noise to silence, through its snake-like digestive tract. The circle of life is Ouroboros, the snake consuming itself, forming a circle as it eats its own tail. Life feeds on life.

The hunger and drive to gain energy is a consequence of life’s futile struggle against entropy. Recall that entropy is a measure of the amount of disorder in a system. Now recall our bucket of ice. The bucket of ice had a certain level of organization, and when we added hot water to the ice, the amount of entropy in the system increased. That is, the ice molecules had a certain level of organization and structure. But the energy we added turned the ice into liquid. Liquid is more chaotic than ice. So, the overall state of the system, with the added energy, is more chaotic, less organized, and has more entropy, and radiates heat.

Now think of the wolf as an isolated system, like the bucket itself. This system has a high level of organization. Indeed, it is an organism. The wolf eats meat. The meat is itself highly organized, like the ice. The wolf’s stomach adds acid and churns the meat, which is the equivalent of adding hot water to the ice. The meat digests and changes from a solid to a liquid, or from a lower to a higher entropic state. A byproduct of this digestive process is heat, which is still less organized than liquid.

As digestion continues, the digestive processes transport the nutrients and energy around the wolf’s body, and integrates the energy and nutrients into its own flesh and activity. It reorganizes its meal into its own flesh. The more chaotic and less organized liquid is organized and folded according to genetic patterns. Yet the sum of this process leads to greater, not less, entropy. That is, the wolf itself is not a closed system. The wolf only transforms a part of the meat into a more organized state; much order is lost in the form of heat and stool. The wolf itself is a process is negative entropy; it is creating a high state of order out of disorder; but the whole system–wolf, prey, and environment–has a net gain in entropy. The universe, by a tiny fraction, becomes less organized than before.

Watching the action in the beginning of White Fang, we can see behind the language and action entropy and negative entropy. In terms of entropy, we can see in London’s negative language the process of order moving to disorder. Heat moves to cold, motion to stillness, sound to silence. But complex life, in a futile struggle against this entropic process, must consume energy and other life, like Ouroboros, the snake which forms a circle consuming itself, in order to maintain itself.

As the dogs and men move as an organized unit toward their village, the wolves move as an organized unit in order to consume the meat, which the men and dogs are. As one at a time the she-wolf, with her cunning and highly complex mind, calculates and lures out less complex and less intelligent dogs; as this she-wolf, with her canine theory of mind anticipates the sex the male dogs desire and so lures them out and traps them; as this she-wolf lies to these dogs and makes them her meal, the circle becomes smaller and smaller until only one man and two dogs remain.

The last man’s circle grows smaller and smaller. He chooses, as a last defense, to not burn his fire in the middle of the circle, but to rather make the perimeter itself the fire; and in so doing burns the last of his available wood, disintegrating his circle. When the man is as near to total annihilation as a man can be; when the wolves are charging him from every angle; the man is surprised that the wolves leave their prize behind. The man is saved by another, well-organized circle, which is greater in cunning and available energy than is the wolves’ circle: his comrades.


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