Book Summary: “Energy: Engine of Evolution” by Frank Niele


Title: Energy: Engine of Evolution
Author: Frank Niele
Scope: 4 stars
Readability: 3 stars
My personal rating: 4 stars
See more on my book rating system.

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Topic of Book

Niele constructs a theory for understanding the role of evolution in Earth’s history and human history.

My Comments

Niele creates an interesting theory. I think, however, Vaclav Smil’s work on energy is more readable and more relevant to modern technology.

Key Take-aways

  • Energy is the driving force in evolution. Natural selection shapes the evolution.
  • Earth’s history can be thought of six different “energy periods.” Each energy period is characterized by a ecologically dominant energy source.
  • The boundaries between energy periods are marked by energy revolutions where new energy sources are found.
  • The Six Energy Regimes were the:
    • Termian (starting with the origin of cellular metabolism about 4.2 billion years ago)
    • Photian (starting with the origin of photosynthesis about 3.8 billion years ago)
    • Oxian (starting with the origin of oxygen combustion of carbohydrates about 2.1 billion years ago)
    • Pyrian (starting with humans domesticating fire about 0.5 billion years ago)
    • Agrian (starting with the Agricultural Revolution about 12,000 years ago)
    • Carbian (starting with the Industrial Revolution about 12,000 years ago)

Important Quotes from Book

The monograph consists of two parts. Part I, the first five chapters, describes a journey through the history of planet Earth along the tracks left by energy. I have melded numerous observations and reflections made by scientists from many different disciplines into a logical narrative. These five chapters correspond with the five successive energy revolutions I discovered during my travel through time. An energy revolution marks the boundaries between energy periods, and an energy period is characterised by an ecologically dominant energy regime.

In my view an evolutionary approach to historic developments, whether centred around living organisms or living organisations such as human societies, can be both powerful and fruitful.

Natural selection is often referred to as “the primary (but not exclusive) agent driving evolutionary change”. However, in the evolutionary energetics approach that I propose natural selection is not a driving force, but a shaping force… while a flow of energy through the structure always drives its evolutionary development. All living structures emerge on the wings of energy flows; energy is the engine of evolution … all evolution.

Living organisms, ecosystems, or human societies can be described as ‘energy-dissipating structures’ in energetics terminology, or as ‘complex adaptive systems’ in the language of complexity science, which reveals relationships between energy, complexity, and evolution. Building on these, I view evolution as the development in time of energy regimes characterised by distinct (coupled and nested) energy-dissipating structures. The evolution of energy regimes is truly Darwinian, as the are historically connected and their development proceeds through a process of descent with modification.

I advance the thesis that Spencer’s maxim ‘survival of the fittest’ also holds for competing energy regimes.

The Staircase of Energy Regimes depicts the six energy regimes of the past and corresponding patterns in their evolutionary trajectories.

The Staircase of Energy Regimes is a conceptual model based on the relationships between energy, complexity and evolution.

Energy is “the capacity to do work” [100a], or the capacity to cause change. For change to occur, energy must transform into another quality.

All living structures exist and grow far from thermodynamic equilibrium; thus every living organism or living organisation, from a microorganism to a human being, or from an ecosystem to a sociosystem, dissipates energy. Life emerges and is sustained on the wings of an energy flow springing from an energy gradient between an energy source and an energy sink; equally, life will become extinct when the life-giving energy

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