Tuesday, January 6, 2015

A New Theory of Evolution That Trumps Darwin?

A new theory of evolution has been advanced by Jeremy England, a young MIT professor who’s proposed a thesis based on thermodynamics, showing that the emergence of life was not accidental, but necessary. In an article in Quanta magazine early in 2014, that’s since been republished by Scientific American and, more recently, by Business Insider, he’s  quoted as saying, life itself evolved out of simpler non-living systems. In his words:

"Under certain conditions, matter inexorably acquires the key physical attribute associated with life,

In a way this touches on the theory of the origin of life, abiogenesis. This is generally distinguished from the theory of evolution which shows how life evolves and speciation occurs.  Creationist Ken Ham’s Answers in Genesis (AiG), after one Cosmos episode on the issue last April, asserted:

"Abiogenesis has never been observed in experimental biology and violates the most fundamental law in biology, the law of biogenesis. Nevertheless, the authors of the review are confident there was a naturalistic chemical origin for life.” [Biogenesis is the natural law that life comes from reproduction by living things].

But curiously, around the same time, a remarkable find was published in The New Scientist (Vol. 209, No. 2794, p. 11), by two investigators: Kunikho Kaneko and Atsushi Kamimura. The pair made a remarkable breakthrough in devising a testable model that was able to replicate the Abiogenesis process. The two basically solved the problem of how a lipid-coated proto-cell can divide into two (displaying reproduction) when the genetic material replicates.

Enter now, Jeremy England. According to the Quanta magazine piece:

From the standpoint of physics, there is one essential difference between living things and inanimate clumps of carbon atoms: The former tend to be much better at capturing energy from their environment and dissipating that energy as heat. Jeremy England, a 31-year-old assistant professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has derived a mathematical formula that he believes explains this capacity. 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 means that “under certain conditions” where life is possible — as it is here on Earth, it is also quite probable, if not, ultimately, inevitable. Indeed, life on Earth could well have developed multiple times independently of each other, or all at once, or both. It does not mean that life is ubiquitous and can emerge on any planet anywhere in the galaxy or the universe. There still remain limiting factors defined by what we call the "habitable zone" around our own star -  which is of specific spectral type (G2).  Thus,  if the same conditions are found elsewhere then Earth-like planets circling other suns would have a much higher likelihood of carrying life as well.  See e.g.


If England’s theory proves to be consistent and is confirmed, it will  be an epochal scientific advance but also be a fitting rebuke to pseudo-scientific creationists. Recall they have long mistakenly claimed that thermodynamics disproves evolution (specifically the 2nd law).  The error of the AiG crowd is two-sided :a) They assumes that evolution means more primitive organisms develop into more complex or organized ones, and, b) They misunderstand the second law (because it refers to increasing disorder or "entropy") as applicable to all living things- hence believe it is impossible they can "evolve" to more orderly, organized forms.

Consider (a) first: At no point and no place do evolutionists claim that more organized forms are the inevitable manifestation of natural selection and adaptation, and represent evolutionary success. What evolution states- which any high school biology student learns -  is that the species which survive best are the most well adapted to their environment.

Thus, the humble cockroach beats just about all other species on Earth for evolutionary success given it's been around for 150 million years. Humans, though much more complex and organized than cockroaches, have only been around in their modern form for barely 1.5 million years, if that. Humans, up to now, have enjoyed  barely 1/100 th the evolutionary success of the cockroach, measured in time!

Now, as to (b), this is a common error of those who've never taken advanced physics, but just read Googled excerpts. It's basically a direct result of misinterpretation of the 2nd law, something I often see from those who've never taken a serious physics course. Strictly speaking,  the law states:

Entropy (the state of disorder) will tend to increase over time in any closed system

This is generally expressed in statistical mechanics terms as:

s = log g

Where 'g' denotes the number of accessible states. In other words, in a closed system we will expect the probability of increasing entropy and that means increasing accessible states.  This was discussed at length when we looked at assorted spin systems (see the posts on 'Order and disorder'  on April 5th and 9th, 2013) and note that higher entropy - as in a state with low excess spin- corresponds to the most probable state. Say a  closed magnetic spin system S(2), has 10 spin ups while S(1) has five, then S(2) has a much higher degree of order (less entropy) than the system S(1). 

The part about closed systems is crucial since it is exactly the part that the creationist-ID crowd omits, which renders their complaints using the 2nd law non-starters. The reason is that neither the Earth nor its biological systems are "closed" systems, hence do not exhibit constantly increasing disorder. The Earth, for example, receives a constant input of radiant energy from the Sun - quantified as some 1360 joules per square meter per second. Plants on the Earth are likewise OPEN to solar energy, and receive it and then use it in the process of photo-synthesis.

Bottom line: Evolution is no more a violation of the Second Law than life itself is.

Germane to the point of England's thesis is that flows of energy — whether from the Sun or some other source — can give rise to what are known as dissipative structures, which are self-organized by the process of dissipating the energy that flows through them. Russian-born Belgian physical chemist Ilya Prigogine won the 1977 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work developing the concept. Common to all the examples is that order can arise from disorder.

In the thermodynamic study of chaos, similar approaches to equilibrium can be examined but permitting far from equilibrium changes. Given the right fluctuations, it’s even possible to generate self-organization from pre-existing chaos.

One of the simplest examples of a non-equilibrium system is a simple chemical reaction of the form:

X + 2Y <-> 3Y

X <-> W

where X, Y, W are arbitrary reactants that meet the conditions and the symbol (<->) denotes a two-way equilibrium process. We note here that at equilibrium detailed balance requires (with k1, k2, k3 and k4 the respective concentrations):

k1 xy2k2 y3

k3 y = k4 w

Similarly, a stationary state ‘far from equilibrium’ is disclosed by the concentration equation:

k1 xy2 + k3 y = k2 y3 + k4 w


k1 xy2 + k3 y - k2 y3 - k4 w = 0

Note that in such a state, far from equilibrium, it isn’t necessary for each separate chemical reaction to balance in both directions. Clearly, non-equilibrium discloses aspects of the system that are inhibited when it is at equilibrium.  Prigogine in his monograph 'Order Out of Chaos'  cited the example of  individual tumor cells, for example, emerging from a disordered background (cf. Garay, R.P. and Levefer, R.: 1978, Theoretical Biology, 417, p. 73.) The cell appears as a fluctuation,  and is then able to develop by replication.

In a true sense, then, 
Prigogine’s work laid the foundations for what England is doing today, which is why it might be overstated to credit England with originating this theory. Several commentators at Quanta have pointed this out, noting other progenitors as well (here, here and here, among others).
In a sense then, it may be more accurate to say that rather than Jeremy England and his research group advancing a whole new theory, they are instead formulating an alternative multidisciplinary,his theoretical approach to evolution and abiogenesis. (You can search his research group home page for more.)  As the Quanta article puts it:

Above all, as described on the home page mentioned above, England is involved in knitting together the understanding of life and various stages of life-like processes combining the perspectives of biology and physics:

Living things are good at collecting information about their surroundings, and at putting that information to use through the ways they interact with their environment so as to survive and replicate themselves. Thus, talking about biology inevitably leads to talking about decision, purpose, and function.

Hence, it will be the development of a detailed body of specific mutually interrelated results that will distinguish England’s articulation of his theory from other earlier formulations- that have yet to be cast into a testable research approach. And whether or not England’s approach is validated in the end, he’s already doing a lot to build bridges between worldviews and inspire others to make similar efforts.  As the Quanta article explained:
England’s theoretical results are generally considered valid. It is his interpretation — that his formula represents the driving force behind a class of phenomena in nature that includes life — that remains unproven. But already, there are ideas about how to test that interpretation in the lab. 
“He’s trying something radically different,” said Mara Prentiss, a professor of physics at Harvard who is contemplating such an experiment after learning about England’s work. “As an organizing lens, I think he has a fabulous idea. Right or wrong, it’s going to be very much worth the investigation.”
Those readers who fancy themselves science nerds might enjoy this hour-long presentation of his work


Georgi Gladyshev said...

Hierarchical thermodynamics is “A New Thermodynamics Theory of the Origin of Life”. It was created 38 years ago 10.4236/ns.2015.73013 See:
Georgi P. Gladyshev (2015) Natural Selection and Thermodynamics of Biological Evolution. Natural Science, 2015, 7, 117-126 Published Online March 2015 Pub. Date: March 9, 2015
DOI: 10.4236/ns.2015.73013 http://dx.doi.org/10.4236/ns.2015.73013

Abstract The author of this article proposes that the representation of Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace’s theory on “variation and selection” in the living world is a reflection of the action of hierarchical thermodynamics. Hierarchical thermodynamics is based on the law of temporal hierarchies and on the principle of substance stability. This principle enables the transmission of thermodynamic information between lower and higher structural hierarchies, in both forward and reverse direction: from nucleic acids to higher structural hierarchies and back. The principle of substance stability, in fact, is the main dynamical and thermodynamic mechanism of natural selection. It is alleged that the natural selection of atoms, molecules, organisms, populations, and other hierarchical structures takes place under the action of a variety of internal factors within organisms and the external environmental factors that can be considered as tropisms. Forms (design) of living organisms are formed as a result of spontaneous and non-spontaneous processes that lead to the adaptation of living systems to the environment. The selection is carried out as a result of the impacts of different energy types and the principle of substance stability at all levels of hierarchical structures. Actions of tropisms are presented by various members of the generalized Gibbs equation.

Copernicus said...

Thanks for that information, Georgi!

Georgi Gladyshev said...


Thermodynamics of Aging and Heredity (the origin of life and its development)

A brief review of the author’s works in the sphere of thermodynamic theory of aging is presented. Particular attention is given to justification of the methods of classical and near-equilibrium “dynamic” thermodynamics used to assess the direction and extent of ontogenesis. It is noted that discovery of the law of temporal hierarchies and the substance stability principle made it possible to use quasi-equilibrium thermodynamics to describe aging of organisms and evolution of the living world. The review contains certain examples confirming thermodynamic direction of the origin of life and its development. The author states that supramolecular thermodynamics is the foundation of modern epigenetics. The review shows that the environment affects the composition and structure of the genetic apparatus as well as gene expression through the mechanisms of hierarchical thermodynamics. The author discusses the influence of “nutritive molecules” and other biological substances on tissue composition. It is noted that “nutritive molecules” can have an epigenetic influence on DNA and genetic apparatus as a whole. The author gives recommendations regarding nutrition and use of medicines from the perspective of the thermodynamic theory of aging. Though the author used simplifications and approximations when developing the thermodynamic theory of living beings’ aging, the theory is in agreement with the detected correlation between changes in the specific Gibbs free energy of supramolecular structure formation and changes in the chemical composition of body tissues during aging. The author believes that hierarchical thermodynamics is the foundation of Darwinian natural selection.