Bio-analog dissipative structures and principles of biological behavior

Benjamin De Bari, Dilip K. Kondepudi, Ashwin Vaidya, James A. Dixon

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The place of living organisms in the natural world is a nearly perennial question in philosophy and the sciences; how can inanimate matter yield animate beings? A dominant answer for several centuries has been to treat organisms as sophisticated machines, studying them with the mechanistic physics and chemistry that have given rise to technology and complex machines. Since the early 20th century, many scholars have sought instead to naturalize biology through thermodynamics, recognizing the precarious far-from-equilibrium state of organisms. Erwin Bauer was an early progenitor of this perspective with ambitions of “general laws for the movement of living matter”. In addition to taking a thermodynamic perspective, Bauer recognized that organisms are fundamentally behaving systems, and that explaining the physics of life requires explaining the origins of intentionality, adaptability, and self-regulation. Bauer, like some later scholars, seems to advocate for a “new physics”, one that extends beyond mechanics and classical thermodynamic, one that would be inclusive of living systems. In this historical review piece, we explore some of Bauer's ideas and explain how similar concepts have been explored in modern non-equilibrium thermodynamics and dissipative structure theory. Non-living dissipative structures display end-directedness, self-maintenance, and adaptability analogous to organisms. These findings also point to an alternative framework for the life sciences, that treats organisms not as machines but as sophisticated dissipative structures. We evaluate the differences between mechanistic and thermodynamic perspectives on life, and what each theory entails for understanding the behavior of organisms.

Original languageEnglish
Article number105214
StatePublished - May 2024


  • Dissipative structure
  • Non-equilibrium
  • Self-organization
  • Theoretical biology
  • Thermodynamics


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