The Entropy of Entropy: Are We Talking about the Same Thing?

In the last few decades, the number of published papers that include search terms such as thermodynamics, entropy, ecology, and ecosystems has grown rapidly. Recently, background research carried out during the development of a paper on "thermodynamics in ecology" revealed huge variation in the understanding of the meaning and the use of some of the central terms in this field-in particular, entropy. This variation seems to be based primarily on the differing educational and scientific backgrounds of the researchers responsible for contributions to this field. Secondly, some ecological subdisciplines also seem to be better suited and applicable to certain interpretations of the concept than others. The most well-known seems to be the use of the Boltzmann-Gibbs equation in the guise of the Shannon-Weaver/Wiener index when applied to the estimation of biodiversity in ecology. Thirdly, this tendency also revealed that the use of entropy-like functions could be diverted into an area of statistical and distributional analyses as opposed to real thermodynamic approaches, which explicitly aim to describe and account for the energy fluxes and dissipations in the systems. Fourthly, these different ways of usage contribute to an increased confusion in discussions about efficiency and possible telos in nature, whether at the developmental level of the organism, a population, or an entire ecosystem. All the papers, in general, suffer from a lack of clear definitions of the thermodynamic functions used, and we, therefore, recommend that future publications in this area endeavor to achieve a more precise use of language. Only by increasing such efforts it is possible to understand and resolve some of the significant and possibly misleading discussions in this area.


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