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British naturalist Charles Darwin presented his theory of evolution in the 1859 book On the Origin of Species. He proposed that biological species change over time by gaining traits that help them survive and reproduce.

Now 164 years later, nine scientists and philosophers propose a new "law of nature" that includes the biological evolution described by Darwin. They say Darwin's theory is a striking example of a much larger happening that appears at the level of atoms, minerals, planetary atmospheres, planets, stars and more.

"We see evolution as a universal process that applies to numerous systems, both living and nonliving, that increase in diversity and patterning through time," said Robert Hazen. He is a mineralogist and astrobiologist at the Carnegie Institution for Science based in Washington, D.C. Hazen is a co-writer of the scientific paper describing the new law in the publication Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The scientists propose a rule called "the law of increasing functional information." It holds that evolving systems, biological or non-biological, always form from several interacting building blocks like atoms or cells. The process, they say, creates many different combinations. Evolution happens when these combinations are subject to selection for useful functions, or purposes.

"We have well-documented laws that describe such everyday phenomena as forces, motions, gravity, electricity and magnetism and energy," Hazen said. "But these laws do not, individually or collectively, describe or explain why the universe keeps getting more diverse and complex at scales of atoms, molecules, minerals and more."

For example, scientists say just two elements, hydrogen and helium, made up the first generation of stars following the Big Bang at the beginning of our universe about 13.8 billion years ago.

That first generation of stars created about 20 heavier elements such as carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen in their centers, or cores. These elements exploded into space at the end of the stars' life cycles. The following generation of stars that formed from parts of the first generation then similarly created almost 100 more elements.

But Hazen said only a small number of all possible combinations would "work." They have some useful level of function. So, nature just prefers them, he said.

Hazen added that "function" might mean that a collection of atoms makes a stable mineral crystal that can survive, or that a star keeps its active structure, or that "a life form learns a new 'trick' that allows it to compete better than its neighbors," Hazen added.

The writers proposed three universal ideas about selection: the basic ability to last; the lasting nature of active processes that may enable evolution; and the development of new qualities as an adaptation to an environment.

The scientists said some biological examples include organisms developing the ability to swim, walk, fly and think. Humans developed after their ancestors evolved from chimpanzees and gained traits including upright walking and increased brain size.

Michael Wong is the paper's lead writer and an astrobiologist and planetary scientist at the Carnegie Institution. He said, "I think this paper is important because it describes a view of the cosmos rooted in function."

Jonathan Lunine is chair of Cornell University's astronomy department. He is another of the paper's writers. He said the new law explains "why the diverse systems that make up the cosmos evolve the way they do."


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