Kinetic and Thermodynamic Control in Human Sociobiology: Little Thoughts On Consumption, Labor, and Inequality

I’m looking at a diagram representing the kinetic and thermodynamic control of a reaction. Given starting materials (centered in the diagram), one type of reaction, running to the left, requires less free energy, but it exists in a constant state of slightly higher energy and instability—susceptible to disruption and reversibility. On the other side of this diagram, running to the right, another type of reaction requires a far greater amount of energy and exists in a final state of high stability, lower overall energy—one that is difficult to reverse. Of note, the left side typically happens more frequently and yields a greater amount of product; the right side, not so much.

Figure 6.4 Kinetic and Thermodynamic Control of a Reaction: The kinetic pathway requires less free energy to reach the transition state, but results in a higher energy (less stable) product. Source: Kaplan MCAT General Chemistry Review, p. 197

I can’t help but use this as a helpful micro-model to think about groups of people trying to make their way through the world. On the left includes, but is not limited to, laborers motivated by low wages, being ultra-productive, working odd-jobs at odd-times, and never quite achieving stability—always in a state susceptible to slight disruption. Might that manifest as impulsivity, impatience, and aggression? On the right, you have those who use up the high-yield products from the left, storing ever greater amounts, engineering more ways to release energy from those products at higher levels—to maintain the conditions for extreme stability, irreversibility.

Is finding a way to surf that (uni-)directionality “smarter?” Is the meaning of life to achieve a low-energy, idling equilibrium, where it’s all just finally done? “Retirement?” This certainly confirms the fact that, psychologically, it’s difficult for most to go the other way: to attain wealth and “lifestyle,” but to find it terrifying and humiliating to go the other way. (Why the emotions, though? When does that emerge?) Also, to clarify, not to confound “wealth” with “ultra-wealth,” but simply a state wherein it becomes really hard to give up the stability you’ve acclimated to. It also reflects that, as we get older, our chemistries do fade into a cold, serene void. Even if stable, what is it that keeps us, in old age, so intent on surrounding ourselves quite literally with the warmth to go on?

And these are broad strokes. There must be many coupling and decoupling reactions running in either direction, ending up further to the right or left, higher up and even further below. There are even more relationships between intermediates and products, not to mention the influence of all that is non-biological and chaotic. I guess one final thought here is, it’s always a wonder to watch how life effloresces against the inevitable, so beautifully.

Young Eun bought me a vest the other day, which I’m grateful for. I’m looking forward to keeping warm and healthy this year.