Does Weinersmith get the same spam I do?

Or maybe he just reads my mind.

Because there’s been a fresh new wave of people raving at me about Jeremy England, Jeremy England, the Man Who May One-Up Darwin. No, He Won’t, and I Don’t Get It.

It’s not to say that England’s work is wrong, or terrible — it’s a lot of math that basically says that matter responds to energy fluxes to minimize the dissipation of its structure. I kind of feel like I’m being ordered to celebrate that someone has discovered entropy, and that it applies to biochemistry, and I’m supposed to be surprised. I’ve written about England before.

My main source of bafflement right now is what triggers writers to gush so about this guy. He writes obscure, difficult stuff with no apparent, immediate application to evolutionary biology, but every few months someone decides he’s a phenomenon.


  1. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    from the link:

    “People think of the origin of life as being a rare process,” says Vijay Pande, a Stanford chemistry professor. “Jeremy’s proposal makes life a consequence of physical laws, not something random.”


    England’s idea may sound strange, even incredible, but it’s drawn the attention of an impressive posse of high-level academics. After all, while Darwinism may explain evolution and the complex world we live in today, it doesn’t account for the onset of intelligent beings.

    disagree. While Darwin may not have been able to lay out every single step in the process, the general outline accounts for the rise of intelligence quite adequately.
    And though two blockquotes above, they were originally contiguous. Objection being,: there is too big a step from the first part to the second part to be reasonable. The rise of life from inanimate molecules vs rise of intelligence in existing lifeforms out of competition, are not even in the same category and cannot be mixed into analogies. Sorry I’m attacking the author, not the subject. I guess that’s a variation of ad hominem fallacy.

  2. Funny Diva says

    Wait, Whut?
    “Jeremy’s proposal makes life a consequence of physical laws, not something random.”?
    So…up until Dr English’s Big Revelation we were all in doubt that “life is a consequence of physical laws”?
    And all this time we’ve all believed that “physical laws” have nothing to do with “[stochastic] random” processes?

    I haz a confuzed. Nice job, Stanford Chemistry Professor.

    I get why you say you don’t get it, PZ!

  3. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    re 3:
    think teleological: that the physical laws, when analyzed in sufficient detail, will produce life, inevitably, (without all that randomness bogosity that Darwin resorted to).

  4. moarscienceplz says

    Eat some more Doritos, Max.

    And thus a new internet meme is born:
    “The Earth is 6000 years old, because Bible!” Eat some more Doritos, Max.
    “The Quran accurately describes embryology!” Eat some more Doritos, Max.
    “The government has plans for a car that runs on water, but they keep it secret!” Eat some more Doritos, Max.

  5. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    re @5:
    “The government has plans for a car that runs on water, but they keep it secret!”
    I think you are behind the times. The DARPA just announced (for the Navy) that they were able to convert seawater into gasoline-equivalent (for I.C.E. etc) using renewable power (nuclear, the primary option) for the mere cost of little more than $3/gallon (eventually).
    seriously. not being satirical. I saw this announced on Gizmodo or Jalopnik a couple days ago.
    I have been waiting for “see I told you so” from the conspiracyloons who fail to look at current gasoline being less than $3/gal, so seawatergasoline is not a bargain.

  6. Funny Diva says

    slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) @4

    nope, I’m still getting why PZ says he doesn’t get it! (that lots of people think this is supposed to be some sort of paradigm-smashing new revelation)
    because given enough “randomness bogosity”, yeah, life is inevitably produced. We just happened to have ended up here/now to live/observe the results of a particular long chain of said bogosity. Things could have gone differently at any number of places…
    but maybe there’s a bunch more sophistimacated theo, I mean teleology in the linked article that’s not coming through. I’m sure that must be it, right?

    teleoloical, schmeleological! it’s still rock’n’roll philosophical wanking to me!

    what you said! given this definition of teleological argument

    * much too long; really didn’t read

  7. says


    Ya, there’s no logical links between any of those quotes. “Rare” does not mean “random with no physical law”, and I don’t see what any of it has to do with intelligent beings (as opposed to bacteria or even vegetables).

  8. consciousness razor says

    think teleological: that the physical laws, when analyzed in sufficient detail, will produce life, inevitably, (without all that randomness bogosity that Darwin resorted to).

    Teleological laws would be ones that are in place in order for specific things to happen, like the existence of life, intentionally by a god for example. It’s hard to see how you could have something similar like something in the future “pulling” things in a certain direction, without attributing it to a person behind the scenes (but maybe that’s a possibility, and if so it shouldn’t be confused with backward causation). In general though, the “causes” (or laws, conditions, whatever) are there for a particular effect. The idea isn’t just that they’re there and so is the end result; it’s not just that they are but that they are meant to be. There should be a reason for everything, the thinking goes. When you ask about physical laws, the reasoning about that isn’t expressed as an explanation of how things got to be that way, but more like a reason why those particular laws are the way they are: because life should exist or is supposed to exist and those laws make that possible (or perhaps inevitable).

    That’s very different from “merely” saying there are laws that would produce life inevitably (which is also not a very easy claim to defend). If things just can’t be any other way, that’s one obvious case in which such things would be inevitable, because it simply means unavoidable. That wouldn’t mean there’s some kind of telos toward which things are aiming, that things are for something else, that somebody intends it, designed things for that purpose, has a goal in mind, etc.

  9. Phil Crawford says

    re: slithey tove
    so that would be a car that runs on hydrogen? cool, not the same

  10. Rob Grigjanis says

    Yeah, the “one-up Darwin” is the kind of hyperbole bullshit that seems to permeate our “Looking For The Next Great Thing/Shiny Object This Morning” media culture. And some of the England quotes look a bit well over the top, so maybe he and Tegmark have the self-promotion thing in common.

    Still, I think it’s worth looking at what he actually did.

    I kind of feel like I’m being ordered to celebrate that someone has discovered entropy, and that it applies to biochemistry, and I’m supposed to be surprised.

    He hasn’t discovered entropy. He starts from the observation that simple thermodynamic arguments needn’t apply to living systems since they are not in thermodynamic equilibrium. So he comes up with a generalization of the Second Law applicable to systems that involve self-replication. And that leads to a more precise statement of the physical restrictions on such a system. That’s all in this paper, and there’s nothing about inevitability in it. You can celebrate that or not, but it looks like some kind of progress to me. Don’t know what he’s done since then.

  11. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    re seawater fuel:

    Essentially, on a very basic level, what the Navy is doing is extracting CO2 and Hydrogen from the seawater, and then recombining it into hydrocarbon chains, and then liquefying that (via a metal catalyst) into synthetic fuel. The type of synthetic fuel that can be made can vary, but jet fuel (similar to diesel) and petroleum-type fuels, like what was run in that little model plane, and, yes, that same sort of fuel could potentially be run in your normal old gasoline car with minimal or no modifications.

    If this seems suspiciously too good to be true, it’s not — there is a cost here, and that cost is energy — it does take a lot of energy to do these conversions, which utilize around 23,000 gallons of seawater to make one gallon of fuel. Even so, it’s a use of energy that makes a lot of sense — a ship with an onboard nuclear reactor (like, say any aircraft carrier) easily has the capacity to use the process to make fuel for its own aircraft, which solves a vast amount of supply-chain issues.

    The Navy is saying they feel that the system could be commercially viable in 7-10 years or so, and resulting fuel would cost between $3-$6/gallon, which is not bad at all, really — that’s essentially on par with current costs for fuels we pull out of the ground.

  12. F.O. says

    The hype is strong in this one…

    The author doesn’t understand a fuck about evolution.

  13. Dark Jaguar says

    Ah yes… rationalwiki… I visited there to find useful analysis and found nothing but a collection of our memes. It seems to take itself about as seriously as transformerswiki. I suppose that has it’s place, and some of those entries are good catharsis, but I really wouldn’t mind a more serious take on the topics at hand. I… you know, just don’t want it bad enough to actually do anything about it.

  14. stephenmurphy says

    PZ nails it (and indeed nailed it during the previous call-out). This sort of ‘Eureka’ moment keeps reoccurring like a bad time loop script from sci-fi. Thermodynamics driving a gradient which can then reinforce self-organization and life is not new or anything but inevitable based on the math and physics – it is probably a necessary condition for life but does not explain it beyond being one factor that facilitated life forming. Amusingly (or not) some of the ID crowd tends to then use that as proof of a designer, as regulars know well so the original article’s idea of ‘creationists shaking in their boots’ was wrong in that regard as well. Now some of my colleagues are interested in knowing if thermodynamic theory and measurement can be used as proxy variables for various environmental and specifically biological phenomena and they’ve long since passed the whole ‘wow, thermodynamics is so awesome’ moment. But there is a strong teleological streak is some of the therm crowd at that.