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Origin of Life: Jeremy England’s Search for a Natural Explanation

Image: Jeremy England lectures in Stockholm, via YouTube.

Yesterday I began reviewing physicist Jeremy England’s new book, Every Life Is on Fire: How Thermodynamics Explains the Origin of Living Things. The book, as I said, is a profound treatment of its subject. Our views only diverge on the question of how the escalators/engines and the information required for life could have arisen. England proposes that energy sources and natural processes on the early Earth caused escalators to spontaneously emerge that directed matter to coalesce into a nascent cell:

The energy flowing from the driving force powers an exploration of the space of possible configurations where the matter makes little local moves that change how its constituent parts are assembled relative to each other. If the interactions among the particles give rise to enough novelty through combinations of collective physical properties, then each small rearrangement can lead to changes in how the external drive energy gets absorbed, both in terms of how much energy flows and in terms of the kinds of motion the energy flow activates. As time passes, the system visits more and more states, and eventually it encounters an opportunity to settle into one that is exceptionally good at allowing the matter to stay in the same shape despite the constant physical insults it sustains from the external drive. This success at remaining stable in one particular shape or group of shapes is the result of energy absorption that is either sufficiently low, or powers motions that are exceptionally well matched to the assembled structure in ways that keep it from falling apart. Either way, by subjecting inanimate matter to patterned external drives, we ultimately expect to see the spontaneous emergence of a structure with energy flow properties that seem fine-tuned and special compared with those of a random rearrangement of the same building materials.

To summarize England’s proposal, the flow of the right energy through a chemical mixture on the early Earth could have caused the matter to rearrange itself in just the right configurations to harness and direct the driving energy in just the right manner as to organize and maintain cellular structures and biologically relevant reactions. 

England supports his proposal by citing experiments and simulations that demonstrate systems self-organizing in response to supplied energy in ways that exhibit interesting behaviors (here, here). Some of these behaviors even have similarities with the characteristics of life noted in my article yesterday. One experiment immersed colloidal spheres in a solution and exposed the spheres to blue-violet light that drove self-propulsion. The spheres were also subjected to a magnet field. The combination of the light and the field directed the spheres to self-organize into dynamic crystalline arrays.

The Design Inference

England is honoring the rules of the mainstream scientific academy, so he is only considering natural explanations for life’s origin. Within this constraint his proposal is quite reasonable. In contrast, I have the freedom to consider explanations beyond solely natural processes. Within this expanded philosophical framework, the conclusion that life is designed by an intelligent agent fits the evidence far better. 

I have detailed previously how the experimental studies England cites to support his model all required carefully designed engines/energy converters and highly specified experimental design instructions (i.e., information) to achieve interesting results (here, here). Comparable energy sources and constraints would not have existed on the early Earth. Equally problematic, the interesting behaviors resulted from natural processes directly connected to the physical and chemical properties of the objects under study, the constructed environments, and the energy sources. For instance, in the aforementioned experiment the light and the magnetic field directly interacted with the spheres in such a manner as to steer the formation of the crystalline arrays.  

In contrast, the energy sources on the early Earth have no direct connection via any natural law to nearly any life-relevant molecular structures, chemical reactions, or physical processes. Candidate energy sources include electrical discharges, heat, radiation, proton gradients, moving mica sheets, shock waves, and high-energy chemicals (here, here, here). They will directly generate some higher-energy compounds such as formaldehyde and acetic acid, but the energy sources and their immediate products rarely if ever naturally couple with anything biologically useful. The flow of these energy sources through an ancient pool of chemicals might self-organize the molecules into some interesting structures or demonstrate some intriguing dynamic behavior, but such products would have little resemblance to life.  

As I mentioned, in life complex molecular machines harvest available energy sources and then transform the energy into energy-currency molecules such as ATP. Then, other machines direct the energy from the breakdown of these molecules to target reactions and processes. The information in the proteins and DNA directs the mass and energy via machinery independently of the actions any natural process would otherwise perform. 

Cellular operations are “taken out of the hands of chemistry” and instead directed according to engineering principles and constraints determined by the functions the cellular equipment was designed to accomplish (here, here, here). These functions include information processing, error correction, sensory analysis, construction and assembly of complex machines, and many more. This list demonstrates such clear evidence of foresight, coordination, and goal direction that the conclusion of design should be self-evident to anyone who truly desires to follow the evidence where it leads.

A Final Chapter

If I had written this book, I would have concluded with a final chapter that began with a verse from the book of Genesis:

And God said: “Let the earth put forth grass, herb yielding seed, and fruit-tree bearing fruit after its kind, wherein is the seed thereof, upon the earth.” And it was so.

Genesis 1:11 (JPS)

The study of biology does not represent a field of science comparable to organic chemistry or geology. It instead represents the study of the design masterpieces of a creator who shaped matter according to the words (i.e., information) he pronounced. Those from a different philosophical framework might not connect the designer with the God of Jewish and Christian tradition, but they still should, based on the evidence, recognize that information is the foundation upon which life is built. Only within this framework can biology be properly understood, and only with this understanding can research progress unhindered.