Why Salmon Swim Upriver, And What it Can Teach Us

By Neal Hegarty

In school they teach us about Entropy, or more specifically about the second law of thermodynamics, which states that the total entropy or disorder of any system always increases over time. In other words energy always flows down. This law is applicable to everything, no matter how big or small. Your life will end; all your carefully planned endeavours will crumble. Meticulously build a sand castle, come back a few days latter and only a pile of sand will remain. It will never get as complex as when you first built it. The sun will burn out, as will all the other stars in the universe, leaving a vast dark empty nothingness. We know this. In many ways, though not always spoken about it’s a defining ideology of our time. Cynics, atheists and nihilists are most aware of it and like to point it out at any opportunity, there’s no point to anything, we live in a cold indifferent universe and its all coming to an end, so just go along for the ride and don’t take things so seriously. I know this line well, because I was often the one delivering it. But it’s not just the existentialists that are influenced by this feeling. Religious folk across a wide spectrum of belief systems console themselves with the idea of life after death, or with the notion of attaining enlightenment in this life and so entering the realm of ‘deathlessness’. Capitalism, in my opinion the dominant religion of our time, is similarly influenced by awareness of the transience of life. This interpretation of reality seems to say, it’s a terrifying place this world, we are lost at sea and it’s everyman for himself, the only thing that can save you is to accumulate as much as you can, That’ll keep you safe, buy a good long life, and secure a future for your children. Yet no matter how much we buy, how much money we make, how high we build the walls and how much we save it never seems to leave us feeling safe or satisfied.

I believe the reason for this lies, as ever, in the story we tell ourselves. The story of entropy and the second law of thermodynamics is only half the story. The famous physicists Schrodinder, said that life is negative entropy, or that to be alive is to challenge the downward flow of energy. Imagine the universe coming into existence from, as we are told a ‘singularity’. I like to picture a singularity as a seed - a little ball that contains all the energy and information necessary to create a universe. Where that seed came from is another question, but in one moment it bursts open. The second law says that all that energy should rush away, from its highly ordered state as a singularity, to complete disorder, infinite black space. But, so the story goes, that didn’t happen. Something caused energy to dance with energy, like little thermal currents in a river force water back up hill, the energy from this singularity hung around, got slowed down enough to form tiny bits of matter. Matter danced with matter and eventually we got stars. Giant collections of the simplest atoms formed, cooked more complex atoms and exploded. We come from these exploded stars. These giant pressure cookers, turning simple atoms into the complex ones that make up this world, challenging the second law with all their might. That’s syntropy, not entropy, matter becomes more complex, not less complex. Simply by existing and then dying stars create atoms, solar systems and life forms far greater than the sum of their parts. And its not just stars that do this. Everything that lives wants to play this game.

Plants use photosynthesis to trap the suns energy and turn it into complex sugars. Sunlight flowing down hill, is caught, cycled and turned into more complex forms. And so if we look close enough, everything we see is, in its own way challenging the second law. This by extension implies that everything we see is alive; a realisation which in itself has profound implications for the way we see and interact with the world. Is a rock just a lump of inanimate material, or is it an extraordinarily complex arrangement of minerals, which, as they give home to and are broken down by lichens and mosses, themselves become recycled into soil, where they become the primary food source for plants. It’s the dance of life, as energy flows down hill, it dances and interacts with other forms of energy and creates new life, more complex life. Decay and creation are one and the same thing.

And so, to the salmon. All the energy that flowed down hill, rainwater full of nutrients from the forest floors and dead dinosaurs, settles at the bottom of the ocean, never to be retrieved again. Until for some reason, spawning salmon, whose very existence depends on these nutrients, are compelled to undertake a collective suicide mission, to swim from the sea, back up stream, to lay their eggs on the river bed before they die. Anyone who has witnesses such an event will, no doubt have been struck by the sheer scale of the death. Salmon carcasses wash onto the riverbanks, the air fills with the smell of rotting flesh. Bears, birds and other creatures come out to feast, but there is always excess. It seems wasteful, unless you watch closely enough. The salmon’s bodies are the accumulation of millions of years of energy flowing in one direction. Their involuntary journey uphill is just another example of the dance of life. Their dead bodies break down and become food for and endless array of life forms, the salmons journey paves the way for new and more complex life forms to come into existence. We no doubt owe our existence in part to the salmon’s journey.

But what does this mean for us and why am I talking about it? I think the salmon’s journey can show us something deeply profound about the meaning of existence. Being a consumer feels empty because it is empty. Everything that lives wants to challenge the second law by creating new possibilities. We are alive too, and so to the people who say that it is human nature to be greedy and destructive, I say it is the denial of our true nature, which is causing the horrors we see all around us. It is in your nature to create, not to consume. Your life does have a point, a purpose. If the salmon can retrieve all that energy and in doing so create all that life, imagine what you can do with your conscious mind, your opposable thumbs and your ability to cooperate with others. If you feel anxious or depressed with your comfortable life, don’t go to the doctor. You’re supposed to feel this way. It’s the feeling that comes from living a sterile fruitless existence. Just like the salmon, you are yearning to swim back upstream, to take your one precious life and to create something new and beautiful. Tell a story, write a play, build some soil, help a fellow human. Intuitively we all know the difference between fruitful activities and sterile ones. Rationally there is no reason for the salmon to swim uphill, just like there’s no reason why I should plant a tree the fruit of which I may never see. But my soul sings when I do it. What can the salmon teach us about life? Everything. Your life has a purpose, all life does. Find yours, you’ll know it by listening to your heart, not your head. You’ll know it because once you start to dance in harmony with the rest of the universe you’ll feel like your flowing not struggling. Go towards life and the universe will help you, go the other way and things will always be tough. Dance into the unknown, and like the salmon, don’t worry about seeing the results of your endeavours. We have no idea what’s coming next. Its time to let go of our need to know and control; consciousness is frightening, but its time to let go of that fear and become active co-creators and participants in the dance of life.