We can expect some strong creationist reaction to something we found in the Daily Mail, the UK’s second biggest-selling daily newspaper. The tabloid’s headline screams: Life on Earth wasn’t down to luck, its development was as inevitable as ‘rocks rolling down a hill’, claims physicist. Here are some excerpts, with bold font added by us:
It has often been said that one of the reasons we are yet to find life elsewhere in the universe is that it is rare; most think the development of life on Earth was a fluke. But one of the most prominent young physicists in the world has claimed otherwise, saying that he thinks life is as inevitable as inorganic matter. The bold new theory suggests that atoms, when subjected to energy, will always form some form of life – and it may mean we are part of a universe teeming with other organisms.
What? There was no need for an intelligent designer? This is an outrage! Then they say:
The theory has been presented by 31-year-old physicist Dr Jeremy England from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is regarded as one of the most promising up and coming scientists in biology; a few years ago he was named in the Forbes Rising Stars of Science list. And now in a series of talks he has been giving to various universities, he says the origin of life ‘should be as unsurprising as rocks rolling downhill,’ …
Dr. England is a physicist, not a biologist, but that’s okay. No field of science is isolated from the others, and none can violate the laws of nature — which creationists insist is the case with the origin of life. Here’s the Wikipedia writeup on Jeremy England, which doesn’t say very much, and this is his page at MIT: Jeremy L. England. Let’s return to the Daily Mail:
He has recently published a paper further explaining the research along with two of his colleagues.
This is the paper to which they refer: Statistical Physics of Adaptation. It’s a preprint at arxiv.org, a 24-page pdf file which you can read without a subscription. We continue:
Dr England’s idea is based around entropy; namely, energy spreads out or dissipates over time. For example, a cup of coffee left in a room will eventually reach the same temperature as the room itself. … Based on this, Dr England suggests that when atoms are supplied with energy, in certain conditions they will always eventually give rise to life. ‘You start with a random clump of atoms, and if you shine light on it for long enough, it should not be so surprising that you get a plant,’ he said.
Uh, we could use a bit more on that point. Here it comes:
The reason for this, and the underlying aspect of his theory, is that while all matter – from rocks to plants – absorbs and dissipates energy, life is much better at redistributing it. This means that, taking the coffee cup example but this time using molecules swimming in an ocean, the atoms will reorganise themselves into life because it is better at dissipating the energy in the water.
Maybe so. We seem to dissipate a lot more energy than rocks do. Moving along:
Dr England stressed that his theory is not meant to counter Darwin’s theory of evolution, natural selection, but rather compliment it. ‘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,’ he said.
Well, that could explain the appearance of a particular mutation, but its selection is a different issue. Anyway, here’s another excerpt:
Speaking to MailOnline, Dr Seth Shostak, Director of the Centre for Seti Research, said: ‘One of the outstanding problems in science these days is the origin of life. … He explained that if getting life started required very special conditions, then it would ‘imply that we don’t have much company in the cosmos.’ He continued: ‘If Dr England is correct – that biology is virtually a certain consequence of self-organising principles that would apply on any world – then we are most certainly not alone.’
There’s more in the article, and in the links we provided. We don’t yet know what to make of this new idea, but we’re certain that it will provoke a creationist frenzy. If England is correct, the intelligent designer is as useless as Apollo’s sun chariot. This should be fun.
Copyright © 2014. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.
I am not sure that I completely agree with Dr England: life tends to store free energy and release it slowly, rather than immediately accelerating an increase in entropy. Nevertheless, it seems that he might be referring to the origin of life (the Daily Wail is not a reliable source), in which case his hypothesis is well worth consideration.
I have to agree, although perhaps not for the reasons England cited. I think of it in terms of enthalpies of reactions: once energy is supplied, some kind of organization to give the best thermodynamic sink is inevitable. Molecules will organize into other molecules, which ones being guided by the equilibrium and rate constants of the reactions. It’s the laws of thermodynamics, there is no way out.
Creationists have never grasped the principle that chemistry is not random, and that self-organization guided only by thermodynamics and kinetics is universal. That’s all chemicals do, actually.
Life is chemistry.
The Daily Mail article states
Really? Compliment it? How? By siddling up to a volume of Darwin’s Origins and cooing, “My dear T of E, you look simply ravishing in that green diagonal-wave-grain cloth octavo edition!”
…Or is the Daily Mail just being its usual sloppy and useless self?
And in my own sloppy and useless fashion, I have omitted an html tag thingy in previous post.
Apologies, O Powers that Be.
[*Voice from above*] It seems to be caused by remorse, due to the hopeless bungling of your brief encounter with Olivia.
But you know, I’m not sure that “life” would have been the ineveitable consequence. It would wholly depend on the suite of atoms available, the environments they were in, what frequency and intensity of energy they were exposed to, and when.
Garnetstar: your first post is an excellent summary.
Life may be common in the galaxy. However, intelligent life is likely very rare. In Earth’s history, intelligent life was probably biologically possible for the last 200 million years but has only showed up in the last 100,000. This implies that at any given moment, there may only be one or two sentient races in the galaxy. A very lonely prospect.
I’ll wait for Ham’s exciting reply and his detailed analysis.
Lurker111 says: “This implies that at any given moment, there may only be one or two sentient races in the galaxy. A very lonely prospect.”
Lonely? That would be great! It means that the whole galaxy belongs to us!
One theory of a sudden acceleration of intelligence is due to climate change in the past, leading to the need to adapt to a different climate. Which may increase the number of planets with intelligent life, so maybe not so lonely Lurker111.
Garnetstar: “Life is chemistry.”
Specifically, life is nothing more than a self-sustaining chemical reaction. And once it got started, it kept evolving into a more and more efficient means of dissipating energy. All living organisms do all within their power to bring together the specific chemicals and energies needed to sustain the chemical reaction.
Concerning the loneliness of intelligent life —
Another possibility is that the doomsayers warning us about Artificial Intelligence (Stephen Hawking et al.) are correct — perhaps intelligent life is rare because on the planets where intelligent life had evolved, it was soon superseded by intelligent non-life.
Just a thought to keep you awake at night…
retiredsciguy says: “Another possibility is that the doomsayers warning us about Artificial Intelligence (Stephen Hawking et al.) are correct”
Perhaps wherever intelligent life is evolving, it’s dominated by creationists, so they never progress beyond mud huts and loin cloths.
“There was no need for an intelligent designer?”
How could there be a universe teeming with life without the fine tuning supplied by the blessed Intelligent Designer?
If England is correct, the intelligent designer is as useless as Apollo’s sun chariot.
Why say this as a conditional?
That’s certainly one reason. It’s why Mothra, Godzilla and King Kong will always be fantasy: physical constraints forbid airplane-size insects, forty-story dinosaurs and twenty-five-foot-tall gorillas. The first two would be crushed under their own weight, while the last, although marginally possible in physical terms, would starve to death before reaching maturity (even ordinary gorillas need to spend most of their waking hours eating, and a 25-foot-tall one would be supporting close to 70 times as much bulk).
Not necessarily. Even if life is common, we do not know how often it evolves into technological species, or how often those species avoid destroying themselves; it’s not yet certain that we won’t do so. It does raise the probability, though.
TomS asks: “Why say this as a conditional?”
Perhaps I should have said: If England is correct, not even the Discoveroids could deny that the intelligent designer is as useless as Apollo’s sun chariot.
SC: “Perhaps wherever intelligent life is evolving, it’s dominated by creationists, so they never progress beyond mud huts and loin cloths.”
But would that be considered intelligent life? And following Eric Lipps’ comment, if a technological species destroys itself, could they be considered an intelligent species?
Have they found intelligent life anywhere?
Hey, Tundra Boy! You’ve found it! Right here on our Curmudgeon’s blog.
A “simple” way to think about this is: Life is merely the consequence of the inherent complexity of carbon chemistry.
No other element does what carbon does, chemically. As much as I like science fiction, the evidence indicates that there’s no possibility of silicon-based life. The limitation of silicon’s chemical complexity is well expressed in a piece of tourmaline.
To me, artificial intelligence is a laughable prospect – I’ve never observed a computer that doesn’t freeze up occasionally for no discernible reason.
retiedsciguy: “And once it got started, it kept evolving into a more and more efficient means of dissipating energy.”
I understand this to mean that a basic cell is a low energy system. A bunch of rocks are more likely to be found at te bottom of the hill than half way up it because that is the lowest energy configuration. The rest of the energy has been dissipated; entropy is maximised.
Simarly the molecules in a cell come together because assembled they are in the lowest energy configuration (and the atoms assemble into molecules for the same reason).
However, once evolution starts, other factors are involved. Survival of the fittest is not based on how readily an organism can dissipate energy (until you get to large animals in hot climates, when it will have some significance).
I think what he means here is that some mutation are more likely than others, some proteins easy to build and fold, etc. Evolution is thus partly constrained by the under-liying chemistry.
James St. John, I love those pictures of tourmaline crystals! Thanks.
Quite right that no other element exhibits the bonding characteristics of carbon. It’s peculiarly suited for forming stable, building-block molecules.
But, the particular limitations of silicon chemistry that we see in, for example, tourmaline, are a consequence of strong silicon-oxygen bonds. They form because of our oxygen-and-water-rich environment. In the absence or deficit of available oxygen, one might see quite different predominant structures.