Oh, look. The creationists have been routed, and the problem of the origin of life has been solved. Would you like to learn about the brilliant new science that has creationists and the Christian right terrified?
The Christian right’s obsessive hatred of Darwin is a wonder to behold, but it could someday be rivaled by the hatred of someone you’ve probably never even heard of. Darwin earned their hatred because he explained the evolution of life in a way that doesn’t require the hand of God. Darwin didn’t exclude God, of course, though many creationists seem incapable of grasping this point. But he didn’t require God, either, and that was enough to drive some people mad.
Darwin also didn’t have anything to say about how life got started in the first place — which still leaves a mighty big role for God to play, for those who are so inclined. But that could be about to change, and things could get a whole lot worse for creationists because of Jeremy England, a young MIT professor who’s proposed a theory, based in thermodynamics, showing that the emergence of life was not accidental, but necessary. “[U]nder certain conditions, matter inexorably acquires the key physical attribute associated with life,” he was quoted as saying in an article in Quanta magazine early in 2014, that’s since been republished by Scientific American and, more recently, by Business Insider. In essence, he’s saying, life itself evolved out of simpler non-living systems.
Jeremy England may very well be brilliant; I don’t know of any of his work. His big idea, that the laws of thermodynamics drive the existence of life, is pretty much a no-brainer. Everyone who has studied chemistry and biology should have had the principles of thermodynamics drilled into their heads, and the idea that life is a consequence of a kind of thermodynamic drive is fairly widely held — England seems to have added the idea that it is inevitable and ubiquitous to the general concept, but even that isn’t new.
Here’s a good article on the metabolism-first hypothesis for the origin of life, by Trefil, Morowitz, and Smith. It concludes:
In a larger sense, however, the future of the experimental program associated with the Metabolism First philosophy is tied to the development of the appropriate theory, guided by experimental results. The hope is that the interplay of theory and experiment, so familiar to historians of science, will produce a theory that illuminates the physical principles that led to the development of life and, hence, give us the ability to re-create life in our laboratories.
Assuming the experimental and theoretical programs outlined above work out well, our picture of life as a robust, inevitable outcome of certain geochemical processes will be on firm footing. Who knows? Maybe then someone will write a book titled Necessity, Not Chance.
The notion of necessity and physical constraints shaping the organization of life is at least as old as D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson. England may have some productive twists to add to the story, but actually, it seems to fit into a long and already existing tradition within biology.
So the idea is not novel, but note also that the answer is going to be found with theory and experiment. I’m much more impressed with the more detailed analysis of specific abiotic chemical pathways that could produce the energy that led to early life, than I am with theoretical musings about thermodynamics. Both are important, but it’s observation and experiment that are the heart of science.
As for the claim that creationists will be terrified by this discovery…excuse me, but I have to go off somewhere and laugh for ten minutes or so.
Creationists don’t understand thermodynamics. Heck, they don’t understand basic logic. You think an obscure bit of theory by some brilliant wonk, written up in journals they’ll never read? My dog, man, I’ve still got creationists asking me, “If man evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?” and you think they’re going to be stunned into silence by a technical paper in a physics journal on entropy, heat dissipation, and molecular self-organization? Look at England’s paper — it’s got math in it. The only thing that’s going to terrify the religious right is the prospect of reading the thing.
Creationists are always predicting the imminent death of Darwinism. Let’s not emulate them by predicting the imminent death of religious conservatism…and worse, attributing it to one isolated analysis by one guy working in theoretical physics.