From Ian O’Neill at LiveScience:
Understanding the origin of life is arguably one of the most compelling quests for humanity. This quest has inevitably moved beyond the puzzle of life on Earth to whether there’s life elsewhere in the universe. Is life on Earth a fluke? Or is life as natural as the universal laws of physics?
Jeremy England, a biophysicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is trying to answer these profound questions. In 2013, he formulated a hypothesis that physics may spontaneously trigger chemicals to organize themselves in ways that seed “life-like” qualities.
Now, new research by England and a colleague suggests that physics may naturally produce self-replicating chemical reactions, one of the first steps toward creating life from inanimate substances.
Aw, not this again. Jeremy England is the Hollywood summer pix idea of what a successful origin of life scientist should be. Assuming that his subject even is a science topic. In that case, in the ongoing war between it just happened and it had to happen, any blip is news.
Under certain initial conditions, he found that these chemicals may optimize the energy applied to the system by self-organizing and undergoing intense reactions to self-replicate. The chemicals fine-tuned themselves naturally. These reactions generate heat that obeys the second law of thermodynamics; entropy will always increase in the system and the chemicals would self-organize and exhibit the life-like behavior of self-replication. More.
What Prigogine said (and many [including England] have repeated), is that for systems that have energy flow through them—think of a pot of water boiling on the stove—the system finds a structure that moves the most amount of heat and entropy the fastest. In the case of the pot, it is convection cells that form spontaneously.
Is this order?
Of a sort–the sort that maximizes disorder. It’s called the Maximum Entropy Production Principle. The “structure” that has England all excited, spontaneously forms to make things disorganized really fast. It’s what designs tornadoes, hurricanes, and mushroom clouds. This is not particularly useful for life, despite many hopeful scientists.
It is, however, useful for science stories at the tag end of the summer.
Also, to say that life somehow organizes or self-organizes is to miss the point. Snowflakes organize into complex patterns too and they don’t seek to avoid the shovel that smashes them. What differentiates life forms is their constant effort to remain in a high state of organization. Perhaps that effort is a driving force behind evolution. But it is treated as if it did not exist or is of philosophical interest only. Anyway, it is too much to recognize, especially for an idle summer’s tale. And maybe too much altogether.
Understanding the origin of life requires understanding the origin of information. But origin-of-life scientists keep orbiting the twin poles of Chance and Law, leaving out any plausible demonstration of how high levels of information can be generated. And why not? Their public is content with elegant, slightly dismissive essays in Quanta, Nautilus, or Aeon, ever hopeful about the ever hopeless.
The question looms: Is origin of life a degenerate science research program? Will the idle tales of Jeremy England and his confreres ever give way to serious investigation of the realities?
Note: Devolution sometimes works for life forms such as parasites, but it depends on other life forms retaining and possibly increasing complexity.
See also: Does nature just “naturally” produce life?
Can all the numbers for life’s origin just happen to fall into place?
Rob Sheldon: Sara Walker is criticizing Jeremy England for the wrong reasons
Chemist James Tour calls out Jeremy England’s origin of life claims – in a nice way
Chemist James Tour writes an open letter to his colleagues
Biophysicist [Jeremy England]: Order can arise from nothing! I have evidence! – Rob Sheldon replies
What we know and don’t know about the origin of life