The Thermodynamic Subluxation


The Thermodynamic Subluxation

Energy is the currency of life. Currency – from Latin – currens – to flow. There is a river of life that flows through all things. Learn the principles that form its banks, and become a waterman upon it. 


When DD Palmer introduced chiropractic in the second chapter of his posthumously published last book, he first described the science of ecology, or bionomics, and the intelligent forces of adaptation present within living things.1 Bionomics was an early term for the science that we call ecology today. It is the study of economics as applied to life on planet earth. This might seem a bit odd to anyone accustomed to the practice of chiropractic as the use of spinal manipulation for the relief of back pain or headaches. But to anyone familiar with the holistic approach to viewing human health and potential present in DD Palmer’s writings, this comparison will seem more apt.

Ecology is the study of energy flows through living systems. Chiropractic at its origins could be described as the application of that same field of study applied to human beings. Humans are living systems. They are both ecosystems and members of ecosystems. By number, the vast majority of cells comprising our body are bacterial, fungal and viral. Cells containing human DNA hold the majority in terms of mass only.2 We are mammals interacting with the ecosystems around us as a Hyperkeystone Species,3 a species that drives complex interaction chains by affecting other keystone actors across different habitats. Humans shape the world like no other animal on planet earth. With that power comes great responsibility. Something DD Palmer’s son, BJ Palmer, intuited and described in his Big Idea speech.

Chiropractic Philosophy and Principles

Chiropractic was founded on 33 principles. The first principle, or major premise, which states that: “Universal Intelligence is in all matter and continually gives to it all its properties and actions, thus maintaining it in existence.”, lends itself to vitalistic thinking.4 Vitalism has long fallen out of favor in the scientific community. Chiropractic and ecology were both in their infancy at the same time in history. In the absence of advanced ecological principals and science, explaining the principles of chiropractic with vitalistic language made sense at the time.

This reliance on vitalism has been problematic for chiropractic. Vitalism carries with it a great deal of intellectual baggage, echoes of a magical past where spirits animated matter, and angels and demons were forces of power in the physical world color our perception of the term to the present. This link to supernatural causation gives the opponent of any philosophy with vitalistic underpinnings an opening to proclaim that same philosophy as pseudoscience. Vitalism itself has meant different things over the centuries. From a pre-rational perspective the approach to vitalism is one that claims a vital force comes from outside the body and animates it with life. From a post-rational perspective the vitalistic approach is one that views living systems as a nested hierarchy of wholes, which cannot be separated from body, mind, spirit, self, society, and culture.5

At its core the claim of vitalism, post Cartesian Split, is simply that the origin and phenomena of life are dependent on a force or principle distinct from purely chemical or physical forces. Intuitively this idea is appealing. Life is a mysterious and ephemeral thing. It cannot be quantified. Some chiropractic philosophers have posited that vitalism may not be the best term to describe the origins of the foundational principles of chiropractic. The term carries too much baggage from its pre-rational origins, and newer concepts such as organicism, may provide a better foundation for exploring the principles of chiropractic. Organicism is rooted in the idea that the entire universe and its parts may be viewed as organic wholes nested within wholes. It rejects pure mechanism as the explanation for the emergent properties of biological systems.6

Just as bionomics transformed into the modern science of ecology over the last century by incorporating new ideas and understandings from other scientific disciplines I believe it is essential to re-examine the principles of chiropractic in like manner. One of the branches of science that has shed a great deal of light on the functions of ecology is thermodynamics. Energy is the currency of life. Thermodynamics, being the study of the energy, is intimately tied to the way living systems express. Within the lexicon of chiropractic terms and principles, the term subluxation and its ties to vitalism have been among the most problematic for the chiropractic profession. The purpose of this paper is to explore the chiropractic subluxation from the perspective of thermodynamics and ecology. In turn establishing a modern framework for understanding terms from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Perhaps this exploration will uncover new ground for expanding the application of the art of chiropractic as a holistic health practice founded upon the organizing principles of the natural world.

The Chiropractic Subluxation

Subluxation has been defined as an interference with the transmission of mental impulses, mental impulses being comprised of regulating information sourced in Innate Intelligence.4 Innate intelligence, another problematic chiropractic principle, is a vitalistic term referring to the organizing intelligence of the universe present within living things that maintains them in existence. As vitalism fell out of favor the chiropractic profession began to turn towards what limited science was available to explain the results chiropractors were seeing with patients clinically, in a way that fit the mechanistic paradigm of the 20th century.

The mechanistic, process oriented, Vertebral Subluxation Complex, or VSC, became the new operational definition which replaced the older, vitalistic, Subluxation. VSC is a collection of the signs of progressive spinal joint degeneration: Spinal Kinesiopathology, Neuropathophysiology/Neuropathology, Myopathology, Histopathology, and Pathophysiology/Pathology.7 This model aligned very well with the three step spinal degeneration process as described by Irwin Korr: spinal dysfunction leading to instability followed by a reactionary fixation process. Vertebral Subluxation Complex is essentially a component of Korr’s process which describes the development of age and injury related osteoarthritis of the spine. However, the vertebral subluxation complex as a concept also includes effects upon other body systems, and emotional experiences such as pain.

Something is lost when viewing chiropractic through this purely bio-mechanical model. The results sometimes seen in chiropractic practice can transcend explanation in this framework. Chiropractic applications that appear absurd from a mechanical perspective: tonal techniques, neurologically based “energy” techniques such as B.E.S.T. or the Network Wave from NSA, could benefit from a more mature exploration of the original principles of chiropractic, which have largely been relegated to antiquated historical concepts by mechanistic chiropractors in modern times. What kind of benefits to mankind could be lost if the chiropractic profession becomes completely mechanistic in its approach? What kind of advancements and contributions to the chiropractic profession and humanity might emerge from exploring chiropractic foundations through the lens of ecological and biophysical concepts? It is important that we not limit our scope of practice to the mechanistic model if these other nonlinear, tonal, applications of chiropractic are providing value to the healthcare consumers who choose them.

Thermodynamics of Life

What is the difference between a corpse and a living man? They both contain all the same matter, yet one is alive and one is not. This is a classic example of Socratic inquiry that many chiropractors have used when explaining the concepts of subluxation and innate intelligence to the public. The fundamental question being asked here is “What is life?” Life is a very unique phenomena, thus the strong appeal of vitalistic ideology for those who study biological systems. The emergent properties of life seem to defy pure mechanism. They even appear, at first glance, to violate the thermodynamic laws of physics. These are the laws which describe the nature of energy, the currency of life.

The second law of thermodynamics states that the total entropy of an isolated system always increases over time. Entropy can be thought of as a lack of order or predictability; a gradual decline into disorder. So the idea that a sperm and an egg would unite and develop into an infant that grows into an adult human being appears to contradict this law, until one recognizes that living systems are open systems, meaning that energy can flow through them. Open systems can increase in order and organization by transforming energy gradients from lower to higher entropy. The energy gradients that living things on earth transform are the energy from the sun and the heat and chemical energy from vents on the ocean floor.8

Ecology Thermodynamics and Health

The dissipation of energy gradients creates an evolutionary drive to enhance the organization of these open, living, systems in ways that increase their capacity to transform the energy gradients of the sun and sea vents. life requires a constant flow of tremendous amounts of energy to maintain itself. The interaction between one living thing and another, and yet another still, creates the potential for entire systems of living things to organize into interdependent webs with capacities to transform greater quantities of energy than a single organism. We see the development of trophic levels in ecosystems, of complex food webs, all optimized to capture and transform solar energy into heat. Stated in brief, living systems transform solar energy into forms of energy with higher entropy and this allows them to exist, reproduce and gives them a reason to evolve to do so better.

Without ecosystems, and the terrestrial environments and atmospheres associated with them, solar energy spends very little time on planet earth. In a barren desert solar energy strikes the sand and most is quickly reflected back into the atmosphere. Only a small amount is absorbed and transformed into infrared radiation by the heating and cooling of individual sand grains on the desert surface. In a tropical rainforest a great deal of that solar energy is trapped by plant life and used for evapotranspiration and photosynthesis. The areas of planet earth that receive the most sun also tend to have the greatest abundance and diversity of life. Where the greatest energy gradients are present, the greatest concentrations of thermodynamically dissipative systems, i.e. living things, will be found as well.

This creates a testable hypothesis. To quote Eric Schneider, marine geologist and ecological thermodynamicist, and James Kay, ecological systems engineer, “As ecosystems develop or mature they should increase in their total dissipation, and should develop more complex structures with greater diversity and more hierarchical levels to abet energy degradation.” This can be observed in the process of ecological succession. This process of succession results in systems with the following.

  • More energy capture
  • More energy flow activity within the system
  • More cycling of energy and material
  • Higher average trophic structure
  • Higher respiration and transpiration
  • Larger ecosystem biomass
  • More types of organisms, greater diversity

As ecosystems experience stress, they will often transition to a lower level of thermodynamic transformational capacity. They begin to appear similar to earlier stages in their successional evolution. They shift closer to thermodynamic equilibrium, AKA death. And this is quantifiable in the real world.

When examining two aquatic tidal marshes adjacent to a power generating facility on the Crystal River in Florida, Kay and Schneider were able to explore the difference in energy flow capacity of a healthy marsh ecosystem, and a marsh stressed by hot water effluent from the nuclear facility that increases the water temperature by 6 degrees celsius. Total energy flow through the stressed ecosystem dropped by 21%. Biomass dropped by 35%. There was a 51% decrease in the total number of cycles in the stressed ecosystems food web. Essentially, the stressed ecosystem shrank in its biomass and ability to transform energy. It became a “leaky” system, less able to capture and transform the incoming energy inputs.

Another method of assessing this capacity to thermodynamically transform solar energy gradients is any measuring the difference in black body temperature between the captured solar energy and energy re-radiated by the ecosystem. Given the same input of solar energy, we should be able to predict the most mature ecosystem would have the coldest black body temperature. When comparing a quarry , a clearcut, a Douglas Fir plantation, a natural forest, and a 400 year old Douglas Fir forest, the coldest site was the mature forest and the warmest was the clear cut. When comparing the amount of solar energy degraded by the ecosystems, the quarry degraded 62% of the net incoming solar radiation. The 400 year old forest degraded 90% of the incoming solar radiation.

Radiative cooling by outgoing longwave radiation, OLR, is the primary way the Earth System loses energy. The balance between this loss and the energy gained by radiative heating from incoming solar shortwave radiation, determines global heating or cooling of the planet earth. When outgoing long wave radiation is measured by satellite over different regions of the globe, we find that there is no difference between the Canadian boreal forest in winter and a tropical rainforest. The cloud cover generated by the thermodynamically costly process of evapotranspiration in plants acts as a barrier for the escape of some of this OLR, keeping it active within the ecosystem as an energy source. In turns this allows more complete transformation of the total incoming solar energy gradient.

The greater the number of trophic levels in an ecosystem the greater the potential for energy gradient dissipation. The abundance and diversity of life in the boreal forest is minuscule in comparison to that of the Amazonian, Congolese, Indonesian and Javan rainforests. Yet both ecosystems are fully mature. Both have undergone the stages of ecological succession necessary to transition from a lower to higher level of ability to transform solar energy gradients towards higher levels of entropy. These stages of succession can be likened to the process of evolution itself.8

Evolution and Thermodynamics

Evolution, from this perspective, that one of the primary reasons life exists is to transform energy gradients from higher to lower levels of organization and potential, would be driven by the forces of physics. The selection of organisms would not simply be the result of their ability to survive and reproduce. Rather, the ability for organisms to engage in complex, systemic interactions that increase the ability of the system as a whole to capture and degrade incoming solar energy would provide a driving force most in alignment with the laws of physics that govern living systems. Jeremy England of MIT has derived a formula based on the physics of thermodynamics that shows even non living matter will spontaneously restructure itself in order to enhance its entropy production capacity. Snowflake formation is an excellent example of this.

If applying energy gradients to chemistry causes them to spontaneously organize in ways that enhance their transformational capacities, this may be the driving force that led for the basic building blocks of life, such as RNA, to form. Just as the formation of snowflakes is an example of dissipation driven adaptation that demonstrates that an increase in order in an open system, a water droplet becoming a snowflake through an exothermic reaction, can increase the entropy in the larger system in which that water droplet is nested. DNA and RNA could very well form spontaneously in order to do the same. Once the basic building blocks of life form, this same drive will continue to act in ways that build more and more complex dissipative structures capable of transforming more and more energy.9

An example of this is the process of transpiration in plants. Only 3% of the water used by plants goes to metabolism and photosynthesis. The vast majority is simply lost through the transpiration process, which is not necessary for most plants, which can still grow normally in 100% humidity environments where transpiration would effectively be zero. Transpiration is very energy intensive and places plants at risk for dehydration. If evolution were completely Darwinian in nature, logic would follow that plants which could avoid expending energy and resources for transpiration would be favored.

The first plants to evolve energy and water saving variants on evapotranspiration arrived 32 million years ago through the development of CAM photosynthesis in which the stoma of the plant is closed during the heat of the day and opens at night to take in CO2. The second group of plants to increase their energy efficiency are the C4 photosynthesis plants, which make up only a small percentage of the earth’s plant biomass, and arrived 9 million years ago. The energy intensive, high transpiration, C3 photosynthesis process is used by plants that make up 95% of the earth’s plant biomass. It appears that a greater capacity for dissipation of energy gradients has been evolutionary favored over pure energy and resource efficiency.

As most of the solar energy captured on planet earth is transformed by this process of evapotranspiration, as much as 90%, one might wonder why evolution continued after plants and cyanobacteria. One possible answer is that animal life evolved for the purpose of movement and to enhance the reproductive success of plants and cyanobacteria. Through the development of ecologies that enhance fertility, spread seed long distances, and balance predator prey relationships, etc, animals have been able to enhance the success of plants and cyanobacteria throughout the ecosphere.10 From this perspective, our role as a hyper-keystone species would take this directive of enhancing ecological resilience and botanical biodiversity/abundance quite seriously. It may be that the current increase in mental and physical illness is the result of a mismatch between our actions as a species and our role in the ecological niche.

CNS as a Thermodynamic Regulator
Robert Melamede, a biologist at the University of Colorado, describes how this fundamental drive of physics towards organizing matter into structures that dissipate available energy gradients contributes the origin of life and evolution. He describes six phases of evolution based upon a natural progression through successive stages of complexity of interaction.

  1. Evolution Phase I: The generation of chemical diversity
  2. Evolution Phase II: Dissipative structures first appear
  3. Evolution Phase III: Simple interactions between dissipative structures form
  4. Evolution Phase IV: Complex interaction between dissipative structures form
  5. Evolution Phase V: The cell
  6. Evolution Phase VI: Speciation

In order to increase the capacity to degrade energy gradients, the mass of a dissipative systems must increase. A given system of a certain size can only handle a particular amount of energy without becoming destabilized. In living things, this means that systems allowing energy exchange with the environment must develop. In other words, a mechanism for ingesting and transforming energy and eliminating any leftover waste, hopefully for further thermodynamic degradation by other living dissipative organisms in the shared ecological cycles. These systems are likely represented by the basic digestive and respiratory systems.

As organisms become larger and more complex they need systems to monitor and govern the functions of all the other systems that comprise them. Succession is not simply an ecological concept. Succession could describe this process of increasing thermodynamic transformational capacity through the evolution of biological complexity. Systems for defense, systems for monitoring energy flows and energy allocation, systems for structural repair, systems to synch the flows of energy in the organism to the flows of energy in the environment, must develop as organisms become larger and more complex. The central nerve system becomes the most logical candidate to monitor and regulate the flow of information and energy within the body of organisms which are complex enough to require a nerve system.11

The Autonomic System and Thermodynamic Regulation

The remainder of this theory is available on under the title The Thermodynamic Subluxation: The intersection of Chiropractic and Ecology.

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