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Courage, Courtesy, and the Origin of Life — Congratulations to Physicist Jeremy England

David Klinghoffer

Masks, social distancing, ratting on nonconforming neighbors, inscrutable authority, the threat of unemployment — these are hallmarks of the COVID crisis. But they were all somehow oddly familiar to proponents of intelligent design, and other skeptics of scientific materialism, when the virus came along. 

In academia, these skeptics are the modern lepers, avoided as unclean by any self-protecting scientist. To keep from being infected by the taint, six feet of distance is hardly sufficient. Better make it six miles. Always, the scientific establishment seeks to maintain a sterile environment, cleansed of Darwin doubters, by the threat of being snitched on to the authorities and tossed out of your job. You may recall the cases of Scott Minnich, Richard Sternberg, Günter Bechly, Eric Hedin, David Coppedge, Caroline Crocker, Martin Gaskell, and others. Evolution skeptics on campus, no fools, have learned to keep their masks on.

As Yale’s David Gelernter has said of Darwinism, to challenge it is to “take your life in your hands.” To answer the challenge substantively in debate, or even to provide a forum for discussion, is almost an equal risk.

A Rare Critic

So it’s the very rare critic of design thinking who has the guts to meet skeptics head-on. Given that, physicist Jeremy England, a Principle Research Scientist at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and the journal Inference merit a major shout-out and warm congratulations. As Discovery Institute physicist Brian Miller described here the other day, Dr. England got together with him virtually in the pages of Inference to explore their disagreements about the origin of life. That is a very big deal.

It’s not without precedent. Recently on the U.K. program Unbelievable?, host Justin Brierly gave a forum to James Tour, a Rice University synthetic organic chemist and scathing critic of OOL theories, to debate with critic Lee Cronin, a University of Glasgow chemist. Brierly had previously hosted Stephen Meyer in a discussion with U.C. Berkeley paleontologist Charles Marshall, and Douglas Axe with University of Southampton chemist Keith Fox. But encounters like these are not the norm. Most evolutionists prefer to shelter in place.

Fluctuation Theorems

In the exchange, Brian Miller goes first. He critiques some of England’s work exploring the possibility that the origin of life might be explained on the basis of the physics of thermodynamics (the study of energy and heat exchange). England has used new theorems in thermodynamics, called fluctuation theorems, to analyze how systems behave far from equilibrium as energy passes through them. He has suggested that these theorems may hold promise for understanding how life first self-organized on the basis of physics alone. Miller responds to this idea in the Inference exchange. He offered a less technical overview here at Evolution News:

He [Jeremy England] purportedly developed a “physics theory for life” based on what are termed fluctuation theorems. His research was portrayed by the media as holding the key to solving the mystery of life’s origin.

My article demonstrates that the fluctuation theorems actually prove the exact opposite. Namely, systems driven far from equilibrium also tend to move toward greater entropy, and they tend to release heat into the environment. The origin of life requires the reverse: energy must be extracted from the environment in such a way as to raise a local collection of molecules’ free energy and, in the process, assemble them into a highly specified, low-entropy state.

England doesn’t buy it. His response is courteous (citations deleted):

In his statement above, Brian Miller thoughtfully expresses the view that this way of thinking has not made much progress so far. In the course of making this case, he says a great many things that are true. He gives a fair, high-level account of some recent progress in thinking about nonequilibrium statistical mechanics. It is true that fluctuation theorems have opened the door to proving general relationships between dissipation and fluctuation that hold far from thermal equilibrium. It is also true that I have proposed a way of manipulating one of these results into a form that reveals part of the thermodynamics of lifelike self-organization. My interlocutor has to be given tremendous credit for engaging with the right equation in the right paper, which has sadly turned out to be an uncommon feat among those reacting skeptically to the idea of dissipative adaptation. 

A wonderful writer, he concludes:

In the end, the most important thing to emphasize is that the time has come to start being empirical in this research. Back-of-the-envelope calculations of prohibitively great improbabilities like the one quoted from Morowitz in this piece’s partner have been around for a while. They invariably rely on straw-man assumptions. Let it be granted, once and for all: waiting for a thermal fluctuation at thermal equilibrium to slap together a living organism is not going to work.

So what? The first equation mentioned in my response implies that if scientists actually intend to compute the probability of forming a live cell, they should have to specify how long it takes while making reference to kinetic factors controlling the rates of reactions and to the amount energy absorbed and dissipated per unit of time by the system. If this sounds horribly complicated, it is. It should bring a humble understanding that such probabilities are unlikely to ever be computed accurately. Instead, our window onto thermodynamics should spur new empirical investigation. The theoretical relationship between probability and dissipated work is a thread that if pulled harder may yet unravel the whole tapestry. Coming into view is a gray spectrum of increasingly complex fine-tuning distinguishing the dust of the earth from life. Already, examples exist of structures that can form rapidly at high energy and low entropy and last for a long time, so long as they are fed with more energy of the type that generated them. That may not be life, but it surely is reason to hold back grand declarations about what is likely or impossible until we have better explored a new frontier.

Mistaken Identity

This is all doubly fascinating because of who Dr. England is, a star scientist but more than that, a very interesting person. As a star at MIT, he somehow got knighted by atheists as their champion against God. A headline from Salon in 2015 proclaimed, “God is on the ropes: The brilliant new science that has creationists and the Christian right terrified.” This was bizarre because England, supposedly making religious believers run scared, is himself an Orthodox Jew who has contributed reflections on Jewish theology to Commentary Magazine.

In his novel Origin, mega-bestseller Dan Brown subsequently picked up England to serve as whatever you’d call the opposite of a deus ex machina — a scientist descending in a machine to dispel the Creator — a use of himself with which England took issue. I wrote about the book, which pushes atheism and assisted suicide, here back in 2017:

What follows is a spoiler, so be warned: At the climax, Brown recounts the contents of a splashy video by atheist computer savant and “futurist” Edmond Kirsch, supposedly demonstrating that England in his research has explained how life originated through the laws of physics alone. This echoes a claim about Dr. England made by some journalists, which we’ve addressed before.

England himself protested last week in a well-timed Wall Street Journal article, pointing out that he himself is a religious believer, an Orthodox Jew, and that the physics of life’s origin presented in Brown’s book is a vacant space: “There’s no real science in the book to argue over.”

It would be absurd for me to try to render a judgment as to who “wins” in the Miller-England matchup. You should read it yourself. The most important thing is just showing up, and what that demonstrates: that there is something of profound substance here to discuss. That was evident when the original edition of the the Ur-text of intelligent design, The Mystery of Life’s Origin (recently republished in a greatly expanded edition), was published in 1984. As James Tour, Brian Miller, and others have testified, it remains the case today. 

Image: Jeremy England lectures in Stockholm, via YouTube.