Thermodynamic flow

In social thermodynamics, thermodynamic flow refers to energy movements to and from individuals in a society. The term “thermodynamic flow” was coined in 1976 by American anthropologist Eugene Ruyle in the development of his social thermodynamics theories. [1] This term, as used by Ruyle, seems to be similar to the term "Gibbs energy flow" as used by used in 2008 by American physical chemistry professor Dilip Kondepudi. [2]

In his view of life, Ruyle states that “all life may be viewed as a continuous expenditure of energy in the pursuit of need-satisfaction.” That “the basic need of all living forms is the continual harnessing of free energy, in the form of food … but all organisms have additional needs which they satisfy through their behavior. Life may be viewed, then, as the continuous outpouring of energy, in various forms of behavior, in pursuit of the satisfaction of the needs of the living organism.” On this logic, Ruyle outlines a theory of social “thermodynamic flows”. In particular, he reasons that these need-based expenditures of energy may be either facilitated or hindered by other members of the population. Specifically:

“The ensemble of social relations in any population may be viewed as a system of thermodynamic flows and blockages.”

In more detail, Ruyle explains thermodynamic flows as such:

“The struggle for satisfaction by individuals occurs within this complex system. Blockages occur when there are scarce resources (food, shelter, sexual partners) and the behavior of one individual reduces the resources available for others, leading to an increase in the amount of energy required for need satisfaction (or to needs going unsatisfied). Thermodynamic flows occur when the energy expenditure of one individual facilitates the need-satisfaction of another. [David P.] Barash (1982: 202) discusses situations in which such cooperative relations are likely to develop: reproduction (including parenting), avoiding predators, gathering food, social facilitation & biologic conditioning of the environment, minimizing competition or competing more successfully, division of labor, and the social transmission of information.”

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1. Toward an Anthropological Marxism (chapter 3) by Eugene Ruyle.
2. Kondepudi, Dilip. (2008). Introduction to Modern Thermodynamics, (section: Biological Systems, pg. 379). John Wiley and Sons.

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