MIT prof Jeremy England has developed a math formula that, he says, explains how life forms, which exceed inanimate matter in capturing energy and dissipating it as heat, can come into existence.
The formula, based on established physics, indicates that when a group of atoms is driven by an external source of energy (like the sun or chemical fuel) and surrounded by a heat bath (like the ocean or atmosphere), it will often gradually restructure itself in order to dissipate increasingly more energy. This could mean that under certain conditions, matter inexorably acquires the key physical attribute associated with life.
This is a “law-based” theory, an approach pioneered by the late Christian de Duve (1917–2013). as opposed to a chance-based theory.
England’s theory is meant to underlie, rather than replace, Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, which provides a powerful description of life at the level of genes and populations. “I am certainly not saying that Darwinian ideas are wrong,” he explained. “On the contrary, I am just saying that from the perspective of the physics, you might call Darwinian evolution a special case of a more general phenomenon.”
The chemistry of the primordial soup, random mutations, geography, catastrophic events and countless other factors have contributed to the fine details of Earth’s diverse flora and fauna. But according to England’s theory, the underlying principle driving the whole process is dissipation-driven adaptation of matter.
He thinks it applies to many instances of self-replication in non-living matter as well, particularly ones that form patterns like snowflakes.
“He is making me think that the distinction between living and nonliving matter is not sharp,” said Carl Franck, a biological physicist at Cornell University, in an email. “I’m particularly impressed by this notion when one considers systems as small as chemical circuits involving a few biomolecules.”
England is currently running computer simulations to test his theory.
Interestingly, biophysicist Ard Louis offers,
If England’s approach stands up to more testing, it could further liberate biologists from seeking a Darwinian explanation for every adaptation and allow them to think more generally in terms of dissipation-driven organization. They might find, for example, that “the reason that an organism shows characteristic X rather than Y may not be because X is more fit than Y, but because physical constraints make it easier for X to evolve than for Y to evolve,” Louis said.
Oh. Do biologists realize a need for such a liberation? Who knew they recognized that it sounds like rubbish?
Interestingly, in the comments, one person claims credit for this idea from 2009 and another explains why it doesn’t work thermodynamically:
Thermodynamics tells us that all nonmanaged, or random, systems ALWAYS pass to a state of greater disorder. Disorder is the statistical trend of nature simply because for any given collection of atoms the number of disorderly combinations is vastly greater than the number of orderly combinations.
See also: We know too many ways life could have got started?
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