A New Physics Theory of Life

Jeremy England

Katherine Taylor for Quanta Magazine

Jeremy England, a 31-year-old physicist at MIT, thinks he has found the underlying physics driving the origin and evolution of life.


Why does life exist?

Popular hypotheses credit a primordial soup, a bolt of lightning and a colossal stroke of luck. But if a provocative new theory is correct, luck may have little to do with it. Instead, according to the physicist proposing the idea, the origin and subsequent evolution of life follow from the fundamental laws of nature and “should be as unsurprising as rocks rolling downhill.”

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.

Kristian Peters

Cells from the moss Plagiomnium affine with visible chloroplasts, organelles that conduct photosynthesis by capturing sunlight.

“You start with a random clump of atoms, and if you shine light on it for long enough, it should not be so surprising that you get a plant,” England said.

England’s theory is meant to underlie, rather than replace, Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, which provides a powerful description of life at the level of genes and populations. “I am certainly not saying that Darwinian ideas are wrong,” he explained. “On the contrary, I am just saying that from the perspective of the physics, you might call Darwinian evolution a special case of a more general phenomenon.”

His idea, detailed in a recent paper and further elaborated in a talk he is delivering at universities around the world, has sparked controversy among his colleagues, who see it as either tenuous or a potential breakthrough, or both.

England has taken “a very brave and very important step,” said Alexander Grosberg, a professor of physics at New York University who has followed England’s work since its early stages. The “big hope” is that he has identified the underlying physical principle driving the origin and evolution of life, Grosberg said.

“Jeremy is just about the brightest young scientist I ever came across,” said Attila Szabo, a biophysicist in the Laboratory of Chemical Physics at the National Institutes of Health who corresponded with England about his theory after meeting him at a conference. “I was struck by the originality of the ideas.”

Others, such as Eugene Shakhnovich, a professor of chemistry, chemical biology and biophysics at Harvard University, are not convinced. “Jeremy’s ideas are interesting and potentially promising, but at this point are extremely speculative, especially as applied to life phenomena,” Shakhnovich said.

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.”

Courtesy of Jeremy England

A computer simulation by Jeremy England and colleagues shows a system of particles confined inside a viscous fluid in which the turquoise particles are driven by an oscillating force. Over time (from top to bottom), the force triggers the formation of more bonds among the particles.

At the heart of England’s idea is the second law of thermodynamics, also known as the law of increasing entropy or the “arrow of time.” Hot things cool down, gas diffuses through air, eggs scramble but never spontaneously unscramble; in short, energy tends to disperse or spread out as time progresses. Entropy is a measure of this tendency, quantifying how dispersed the energy is among the particles in a system, and how diffuse those particles are throughout space. It increases as a simple matter of probability: There are more ways for energy to be spread out than for it to be concentrated. Thus, as particles in a system move around and interact, they will, through sheer chance, tend to adopt configurations in which the energy is spread out. Eventually, the system arrives at a state of maximum entropy called “thermodynamic equilibrium,” in which energy is uniformly distributed. A cup of coffee and the room it sits in become the same temperature, for example. As long as the cup and the room are left alone, this process is irreversible. The coffee never spontaneously heats up again because the odds are overwhelmingly stacked against so much of the room’s energy randomly concentrating in its atoms.

Although entropy must increase over time in an isolated or “closed” system, an “open” system can keep its entropy low — that is, divide energy unevenly among its atoms — by greatly increasing the entropy of its surroundings. In his influential 1944 monograph “What Is Life?” the eminent quantum physicist Erwin Schrödinger argued that this is what living things must do. A plant, for example, absorbs extremely energetic sunlight, uses it to build sugars, and ejects infrared light, a much less concentrated form of energy. The overall entropy of the universe increases during photosynthesis as the sunlight dissipates, even as the plant prevents itself from decaying by maintaining an orderly internal structure.

Life does not violate the second law of thermodynamics, but until recently, physicists were unable to use thermodynamics to explain why it should arise in the first place. In Schrödinger’s day, they could solve the equations of thermodynamics only for closed systems in equilibrium. In the 1960s, the Belgian physicist Ilya Prigogine made progress on predicting the behavior of open systems weakly driven by external energy sources (for which he won the 1977 Nobel Prize in chemistry). But the behavior of systems that are far from equilibrium, which are connected to the outside environment and strongly driven by external sources of energy, could not be predicted.

David Kaplan, Tom Hurwitz, Richard Fleming, and Tom McNamara for Quanta Magazine; music by Podington Bear.

Video: David Kaplan explains how the law of increasing entropy could drive random bits of matter into the stable, orderly structures of life.

This situation changed in the late 1990s, due primarily to the work of Chris Jarzynski, now at the University of Maryland, and Gavin Crooks, now at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Jarzynski and Crooks showed that the entropy produced by a thermodynamic process, such as the cooling of a cup of coffee, corresponds to a simple ratio: the probability that the atoms will undergo that process divided by their probability of undergoing the reverse process (that is, spontaneously interacting in such a way that the coffee warms up). As entropy production increases, so does this ratio: A system’s behavior becomes more and more “irreversible.” The simple yet rigorous formula could in principle be applied to any thermodynamic process, no matter how fast or far from equilibrium. “Our understanding of far-from-equilibrium statistical mechanics greatly improved,” Grosberg said. England, who is trained in both biochemistry and physics, started his own lab at MIT two years ago and decided to apply the new knowledge of statistical physics to biology.

Using Jarzynski and Crooks’ formulation, he derived a generalization of the second law of thermodynamics that holds for systems of particles with certain characteristics: The systems are strongly driven by an external energy source such as an electromagnetic wave, and they can dump heat into a surrounding bath. This class of systems includes all living things. England then determined how such systems tend to evolve over time as they increase their irreversibility. “We can show very simply from the formula that the more likely evolutionary outcomes are going to be the ones that absorbed and dissipated more energy from the environment’s external drives on the way to getting there,” he said. The finding makes intuitive sense: Particles tend to dissipate more energy when they resonate with a driving force, or move in the direction it is pushing them, and they are more likely to move in that direction than any other at any given moment.

“This means clumps of atoms surrounded by a bath at some temperature, like the atmosphere or the ocean, should tend over time to arrange themselves to resonate better and better with the sources of mechanical, electromagnetic or chemical work in their environments,” England explained.

Courtesy of Michael Brenner/Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Self-Replicating Sphere Clusters: According to new research at Harvard, coating the surfaces of microspheres can cause them to spontaneously assemble into a chosen structure, such as a polytetrahedron (red), which then triggers nearby spheres into forming an identical structure.

Self-replication (or reproduction, in biological terms), the process that drives the evolution of life on Earth, is one such mechanism by which a system might dissipate an increasing amount of energy over time. As England put it, “A great way of dissipating more is to make more copies of yourself.” In a September paper in the Journal of Chemical Physics, he reported the theoretical minimum amount of dissipation that can occur during the self-replication of RNA molecules and bacterial cells, and showed that it is very close to the actual amounts these systems dissipate when replicating. He also showed that RNA, the nucleic acid that many scientists believe served as the precursor to DNA-based life, is a particularly cheap building material. Once RNA arose, he argues, its “Darwinian takeover” was perhaps not surprising.

The chemistry of the primordial soup, random mutations, geography, catastrophic events and countless other factors have contributed to the fine details of Earth’s diverse flora and fauna. But according to England’s theory, the underlying principle driving the whole process is dissipation-driven adaptation of matter.

This principle would apply to inanimate matter as well. “It is very tempting to speculate about what phenomena in nature we can now fit under this big tent of dissipation-driven adaptive organization,” England said. “Many examples could just be right under our nose, but because we haven’t been looking for them we haven’t noticed them.”

Scientists have already observed self-replication in nonliving systems. According to new research led by Philip Marcus of the University of California, Berkeley, and reported in Physical Review Letters in August, vortices in turbulent fluids spontaneously replicate themselves by drawing energy from shear in the surrounding fluid. And in a paper appearing online this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Michael Brenner, a professor of applied mathematics and physics at Harvard, and his collaborators present theoretical models and simulations of microstructures that self-replicate. These clusters of specially coated microspheres dissipate energy by roping nearby spheres into forming identical clusters. “This connects very much to what Jeremy is saying,” Brenner said.

Besides self-replication, greater structural organization is another means by which strongly driven systems ramp up their ability to dissipate energy. A plant, for example, is much better at capturing and routing solar energy through itself than an unstructured heap of carbon atoms. Thus, England argues that under certain conditions, matter will spontaneously self-organize. This tendency could account for the internal order of living things and of many inanimate structures as well. “Snowflakes, sand dunes and turbulent vortices all have in common that they are strikingly patterned structures that emerge in many-particle systems driven by some dissipative process,” he said. Condensation, wind and viscous drag are the relevant processes in these particular cases.

“He is making me think that the distinction between living and nonliving matter is not sharp,” said Carl Franck, a biological physicist at Cornell University, in an email. “I’m particularly impressed by this notion when one considers systems as small as chemical circuits involving a few biomolecules.”

Wilson Bentley

If a new theory is correct, the same physics it identifies as responsible for the origin of living things could explain the formation of many other patterned structures in nature. Snowflakes, sand dunes and self-replicating vortices in the protoplanetary disk may all be examples of dissipation-driven adaptation.

England’s bold idea will likely face close scrutiny in the coming years. He is currently running computer simulations to test his theory that systems of particles adapt their structures to become better at dissipating energy. The next step will be to run experiments on living systems.

Prentiss, who runs an experimental biophysics lab at Harvard, says England’s theory could be tested by comparing cells with different mutations and looking for a correlation between the amount of energy the cells dissipate and their replication rates. “One has to be careful because any mutation might do many things,” she said. “But if one kept doing many of these experiments on different systems and if [dissipation and replication success] are indeed correlated, that would suggest this is the correct organizing principle.”

Brenner said he hopes to connect England’s theory to his own microsphere constructions and determine whether the theory correctly predicts which self-replication and self-assembly processes can occur — “a fundamental question in science,” he said.

Having an overarching principle of life and evolution would give researchers a broader perspective on the emergence of structure and function in living things, many of the researchers said. “Natural selection doesn’t explain certain characteristics,” said Ard Louis, a biophysicist at Oxford University, in an email. These characteristics include a heritable change to gene expression called methylation, increases in complexity in the absence of natural selection, and certain molecular changes Louis has recently studied.

If England’s approach stands up to more testing, it could further liberate biologists from seeking a Darwinian explanation for every adaptation and allow them to think more generally in terms of dissipation-driven organization. They might find, for example, that “the reason that an organism shows characteristic X rather than Y may not be because X is more fit than Y, but because physical constraints make it easier for X to evolve than for Y to evolve,” Louis said.

“People often get stuck in thinking about individual problems,” Prentiss said.  Whether or not England’s ideas turn out to be exactly right, she said, “thinking more broadly is where many scientific breakthroughs are made.”

Emily Singer contributed reporting. This article was reprinted on and

Correction: This article was revised on January 22, 2014, to reflect that Ilya Prigogine won the Nobel Prize in chemistry, not physics.

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  • I believe England has discovered a door and is just beginning to step inside the room. I agree somewhat with Louis’ comments. I would call the process, Energy Force constraints.

    Imagine trying to isolate the “energy force” dissipation source impacting a lab experiment when this dissipation driver takes a direction of its own choosing without any clues as to why.
    ps….are we talking the probabilities of the dead /live cat again.

  • The theory for the origin and evolution of life as presented above and accredited to Jeremy England is not new. It was published by myself in 2009, K. Michaelian, arXiv:0907.0042 [physics.gen-ph]
    and again in 2011, K. Michaelian Earth Syst. Dynam., 2, 37-51, 2011
    The observation that under a generalized chemical potential material self-organizes into systems which augment the dissipation of that potential should be accredited to Ilya Prigogine, “Introduction to Thermodynamics of Irreversible Processes”, John Wiley Sons Inc., 1968. I have written a number of other papers on the thermodynamic dissipation theory for the origin of life, including an explanation of homochirality. These papers are freely available by searching for my name “Karo Michaelian” on ResearchGate. I welcome Jeremy’s contribution to the effort to understand life from a thermodynamic perspective.

  • A more direct access to the above mention article is;
    Best regards, K. Michaelian.

  • “a heritable change to gene expression called methylation, increases in complexity in the absence of natural selection”
    – I disagree with that statement. Methylation is definitely under natural selection. IMHO, methylation epigenetics is nature’s way of overcoming the long generation period of DNA replication.

  • What am I missing? Isn’t this the same as Ilya Prigogine’s “dissipative systems” and a good deal of subsequent chaos theory?

  • “You start with a random clump of atoms, and if you shine light on it for long enough, it should not be so surprising that you get a plant,” Seriously??? it reminds me of Stanley Miller back in 1953, this sounds nice but its far away from being true. Great Mathematician Harold Morowitz after a long and exhaustive mathematical and statistical study computed that merely to create a bacterium would require more time than the universe might ever see if chance combinations of its molecules were the driving force, spontaneous emergence of single cell organism from random coupling of chemical is as Sir Freud Hoyle said “such an occurrence is about as likely as the assemblage of a 747 by a tornado whirling through a junkyard”. Thermodynamics tells us that all nonmanaged, or random, systems ALWAYS pass to a state of greater disorder. Disorder is the statistical trend of nature simply because for any given collection of atoms the number of disorderly combinations is vastly greater than the number of orderly combinations.

  • I read the paper based on the press release, and then the paper, and to be honest I found this argument really unconvincing as it depends on a fallacy:

    Essentially, the author claims that the most efficient way to increase entropy in a large system is to populate it with self-replicating long-lived subsystems. Each subsystem is a low entropy state, but is very efficient at creating entropy in the rest of the system.

    I might believe these statements for bacteria, as large organisms such as ourselves, elephants or whales are clearly irrelevant for the total entropy production of the earth.
    However, this is irrelevant, for there is no principle that says “entropy should be created as efficiently as possible”.

    Entropy should increase on average, that is a corollary of the principle that all macrostates increase. Statistical mechanics itself, with no further assumptions, has nothing to say at how entropy increases. That varies from system to system, and needs to be calculated from microscopic theory. For some systems (“semiclassical” ones) this works, but for most systems doesen’t, and certainly a system with many entropy maxima and fluctuations between them (the protein folding problem , for example), this should not be the case.

    Equations such as (6)-(8) in the paper look very much like those of the Metropolis algorithm, widely used in Montecarlos. This algorithm is guaranteed to get at the right minimum, but (and this is something stressed to all students doing computational physics) one should be careful not to confuse “montecarlo time” and “real time”: Running the montecarlo gives you the finish, but not how the system gets there.

  • Could this be the force behind emergent behavior, such as a disorganized warm ocean-atmosphere system producing a highly organized hurricane?

  • I agree with some other contents that this research direction is far from new. We ahve been working on similar directions in our group, with the cosmologist and astrobiologist Paul Davies. This is a very active area, and it’s pretty silly to focus on this one latecomer.

  • I should also point out that these kind of arguments are not really qualitatively different than what ecologist Ramon Margalef used to talk about in the 90’s.

    I’m generally upset about the pedestal this piece of press puts this relatively average article.

  • ^ Except of course that he is not showing that ‘most likely state II is proven to be self-replication’ (which is what you are implying). It simply uses eq. 8 to establish that the entropy cost of self-replication is low enough to be feasible (i.e., so that the more flexible thermodynamic bound is not violated) in a variety of systems.

    In fact eq. 8 does not have that information– it requires that we have (carefully) decided what transitions to measure a priori. (The same holds true of the usual Second Law by the way. There is always the implicit axiom that our microstates exist in some preexisting space to be counted by a partition function.)

  • Around 1950 in a lecture at UCL on biochemistry I heard of a theory proposed by a Russian to the effect that energy will be diffused at right angles to the direction of its flow. This brought to my mind convection currents, and that such processes would induce the emergence of organized forms of matter that would more effectively dissipate that energy.

  • I enjoyed reading the cogent comment of Mr. Giorgio Torrieri. It is indeed true that entropy tends to increase in a closed system as per second law of thermodynamics. However, by trapping energy in the form of information , complex adaptive systems such as life , indeed if anything retard the flow of energy into its ultimate destination of maximal entropy in our closed system,”The universe” although living matter dispenses a large part of the energy captured in its organized matter as heat, a good portion of energy is trapped in its information networks a part of its structure. ultimately, in due time this energy also joins the broader entropic ocean,the universe but later. All this is succinctly elucidated in the first chapter of the book comprehensive theory of evolution ,Thermoinfocoplexity, A new theory (Amazon 2013 ). The math in the first chapter describe a progressive , scale free ,micro state, macro state in the emergence Of complex adaptive systems.

  • Nice article!
    But there’s one little mistake: Ilya Prigogine won the nobel prize for chemistry not physics;)

  • I like this theory – something I can work on. Darwin theory of evolution always felt incomplete – like something hidden or missed. My thoughts are that both theories will compliment each other once proven. Love science.

  • I don’t see the difference.

    just restating thermodynamics, with different words

    biologists & system theorists have said this for decades;

    is a math equation different from a logical or linguistic equation?

  • If the hypothesis be verified, then Darwinism would have a major problem. For Darwinism presupposes that all of life has a single origin. The hypothesis, however, allows for, indeed makes plausible, multiple origins. But if life has multiple origins, then what explains the same molecular structure across all of life? What explains the fine-tuning of the universe for life?

  • 1. Isn’t it counterintuitive to say that the most ordered physical structures we know of come about because of a law saying disorder always increases?
    2. Isn’t saying that structures that absorb and dissipate heat in a highly efficient way will arise because they have a survival advantage a little like saying that if there is enough demand for the process, a way of spinning gold out of straw will surely be found?

  • If life is the thermodynamically preferred state, then why death? Doesn’t the transience of life and universal, permanent death directly contradict this model? Barring death, wouldn’t have people thought of something like this before?

  • Clay mineralogists and Metamorphic petrologists are unlikely to be surprised by this idea. “’It is very tempting to speculate about what phenomena in nature we can now fit under this big tent of dissipation-driven adaptive organization,’ England said. ‘Many examples could just be right under our nose, but because we haven’t been looking for them we haven’t noticed them.’” Try, just right under our feet. It will be interesting to see who picks up this ball…unfortunately, it must be someone other than me, someone actually working in a thermo lab.

  • don’t forget to add the development of sentience as another contributor to increase in order, possibly even as important as life itself.

  • This looks like a lot of hand-waving to me. Cell membranes, enzymes, DNA, ribosomes, ATP, etc etc do not just pop together because energy gets added. People like him are begging the question.

  • I agree that this appears to be yet another stab at a new law of thermodynamics to explain self-organization. Perhaps this is different and will be proven correct. As recognized by Prigogine, however, any proposed law will run into conflict with physics until physics and irreversibility can be reconciled. For anyone interested, I offer this reconciliation at

  • Aren’t those some ideas from Fearful Symmetry: Is God a Geometer?, a book by Stewart Ian and Golubitsky Martin?

  • Usually the comment section is full of idiots arguing back and forth. I was expecting the usual Creationism vs. Darwin/Science/Physics/Chemistry, but these are great. Looks like chemists and scientists debating and what not… Actual sources being cited. What if the whole internet was like this?

  • with all due respect to the previous commenters who point out “similar” theories that have come out prior to this one, these early theories are all basically musings written in prose that lack the kind of mathematical rigor this scientist is applying to formulate and tackle the stated question. i don’t think anyone is surprised that people have generally pondered repeated patterns in nature and their connections to the laws of thermodynamics, etc. i’m sure darwin wasn’t the first to notice that monkeys defecate in the same manner as humans. that didn’t make these early observers of the natural world trailblazers in biology.

  • Giorgio Torrieri: “I might believe these statements for bacteria, as large organisms such as ourselves, elephants or whales are clearly irrelevant for the total entropy production of the earth.”

    Except, humans prove to excel at dispersing energy. We even go as far as to dig up clustered energy sources (carbon, oil) and burn them large scale across the planet. We even cause global warming to further increase entropy 🙂 I’d say we are masters of energy dispersion.

  • There is nothing new here. It’s been obvious for a long time that living organisms consume more energy than non living things and the fact that they obey the laws of thermodynamics falls in to the “duh!” category. It should also be no surprise that given enough time, molecules in a closed system will organize themselves to reduce available energy. Perhaps what is new here is the added concept that they will organize in such a fashion as to reduce available energy at an ever increasing rate.

    That obviously puts humans at the top of the evolutionary food chain. We have mastered the ability to consume massive amounts of available energy and at an ever increasing rate. Of course any closed system eventually reaches maximum entropy and becomes as lifeless as the dust under our feet.

  • But if the principle can apply to lots of systems, including non-living ones (“England argues that under certain conditions, matter will spontaneously self-organize. This tendency could account for the internal order of living things and of many inanimate structures as well. ‘Snowflakes, sand dunes and turbulent vortices all have in common that they are strikingly patterned structures that emerge in many-particle systems driven by some dissipative process,’ he said.”), it’s pretty plain this fact may be true, but it’s not a distinguishing characteristic of life. In other words, there’s much more to reality than we can capture in an equation, a formula or a sentence. Physicists are always forgetting this simple fact that every poet knows.

  • so if the sun and ocean were essential for creating life (in the example mentioned by the scientist) then how did the sun and ocean get created?

  • leila is correct. It’s one thing to make a claim. It’s another to support it with equations that allow for empirical scrutiny.

  • ““He is making me think that the distinction between living and nonliving matter is not sharp,” said Carl Franck”. Brings to mind the oft debated quote in Luke 19:40 “I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.”

    I am looking outside my office window now with a possible answer to a question I always ask: How do the trees know how to space their branches for optimal sun exposure for leaves yet to come. Benoit Mandelbrot said “So the goal of science is starting with a mess, and explaining it with a simple formula, a kind of dream of science.”

  • “…on the emergence of structure and function in living things, many of the researchers said.”

    Anthropology punts the ball back to physics. (Franz Boas, “Father of American Anthropology,” having been a physicist himself.)

  • Love the article.
    As far as I know, Prigogine was a chemist and not as said: “In the 1960s, the Belgian physicist Ilya Prigogine made”

  • @Josh, my thoughts exactly.

    Could Quanta magazine do a piece on how they receive such a high level of commentary? It is like being able to attend the conference at which the research is presented, but without the travel arrangements and lost wages.

    I was at a local cosmology lecture last night. It is typically attended by professional researchers, former researchers, amateur hobbyists, and lay people like myself and my son who are there just because we’re fascinated by the topic. Some of the best questions were from old-timers who spent a career on the topic but no longer actively involved, and some were from pre-teen kids.

    A great Q&A session is just as helpful in allowing me to fully appreciate the subject matter as the presentation itself.

    Thanks also to the commentators who provided references. I just added a half dozen quality articles on this topic to my reading list.

    Back to topic, does this theory depend on high energy gradients? If so, I wonder, given that we have still have regions of earth immersed in extreme energy gradients, then as Daniel Guerriere says: “But if life has multiple origins, then what explains the same molecular structure across all of life? ”

    I also wonder what is the connection or reliance if any between these dissipative systems theories and the availability of negentropy.

  • I think the reason for high quality comments is due to the title of the article, some articles titled to attract users regardless of their background and aim at quantity rather than quality and background of readers, its obvious common and uninterested individuals won’t come here to discuss physics theory and thermodynamics or such specialized issues, I hope to see such articles even more

  • Just to add another source for those interested, this sounds similar to the ideas discussed in the book “What is Life?: How Chemistry becomes Biology” by Addy Pross.

  • Leila please read the books “into the cool ” by Schneider etal, “information theory of evolution by John Avery ,2003 ,also 2012 and my own book ” a comprehensive theory of evolution 2013 ” before making a not true statement that the previous authors had not have mathematical treatment or rigor of mr. England . Both you and mr. England benefit by reading the writing of these eminent scholars(present author excepted) which are mathematically truly rigorous. When and if this necessary reading is done it will become clear that the encounter of sun,s photons and matter in converting energy to information inbeded in the structure of molecules or more complex matter,life, John Avery shows with rigorous math that at 298.15 kelvin(room temperature) 1 jule will produce 56.157 bits of informatin(entropy change). In my book,( a comprehensive theory of evolution) on page45 , chapter one the concept of retardation of flow of entropy thru living matter in the form of captured Gibbs free energy is rigorously and mathematically presented . Therein the confusion regarding whether life increases or decreases entropy flow has been clarified with the conclusion that life retards the flow of energy into entropy universe. This issue has been confusing to many scientists including Mr. england but was resolved after detail personal communication with John Avery and its math and assumptions are clearly discussed in the comprehensive theory of evolution, ( Thermoinfocomplexity ) book, chater one. The debate is not about priority of credit (who cares, we will all join the ocean of universal entropy soon) . The debate is about the truth of physical evolution.

  • Ok, perhaps he was being glib but if “shining light” on a rock were enough to make a plant, Mercury and Venus should be teeming with life. Methinks that Mars has been there long enough to have at least grown some moss–according to the theory. It’s more likely that he wants to believe something and this theory will simply serve as his very own “cosmological constant.”

  • This is a very amazing discovery if proven true.

    I am a Ph.D. student in physics. I just wanted to say that what he proposes does not run into any conflict with the existing law of thermodynamics. The existing law of thermodynamics only applies to systems in equilibrium that many people are familiar with (increases in disorder (entropy) etc). They all have one fundamental assumption: that the system is already in equilibrium. Non-equilibrium systems are not very understood at all. Non-equilibrium statistical mechanics is a huge open question in physics. Its why we don’t understand every day things such as underwater bubble formation. Because such phenomenon can only happen under non-equilibrium conditions.

    The Earth is certainly not an equilibrium system, we take in energy from the sun the day and emit our entropy at night to the emptiness of space. If this proves to be correct it will be a huge in the step of understanding non-equilibrium systems.

  • This made me think of Into the Cool as some others have noted but there are probably a number of others.

    However, I think there is a missing piece in these theories- information. Living systems accumulate and preserve information. Information allows reproduction, evolution, and even metabolism.

  • I agree with the many responders that these ideas are not new at all (such as I can tell), including to this systems ecologist. Indeed Ecologist(s) Ramon Margalef discussed this and so did Howard Odum in a way that is far more satisfying to me (although perhaps not as elegantly written as some). Life does not dissipate energy just to do that; it is a necessary requirement for building structure, capturing more energy than that required for maintaining that energy and for energy acquisition, and propelling one’s genes into the future. (“Evolution is an existential game, the object of which is to keep playing”: Ecologist L B Slobodkin). Hurricanes too feed on the free energy of warm water to maintain structure which can capture more energy in a positive feedback. These are very old ideas. There continues to be confusion between mathematical and scientific rigor. They are (generally) different issues. Newton and Maxwell were lucky: The rest of us have to struggle with the more mathematically recalictrant leftovers.

  • Read: Walter M. Elsasser, Reflections on a Theory of Organisms.
    After reading it, you will reconsider your premises. The echo-chamber of science produces many formal proofs, but not yet the theory of life.

  • Some explanation of the origin of life — no mention of the genetic code, no chemistry, but only physics. You can’t explain the origin of life with just physics.

    See my explanation of why this supposed “breakthrough” falls short.

  • For those of you who doubt that Dr. England has produced something new, please read his recent publication in J. Chem. Physics:

    If you bother to read this publication in a well regarded journal, you will see that he has offered a valuable framework for conducting future research about thermodynamic constraints on biological processes. This doesn’t mean, of course, that other authors haven’t offered similar thoughts in a less formal way.

  • M Mahin –

    Pretty much agree.

    I think this needs to be looked at as a sort of companion piece to Tegmark’s Consciousness as a state of matter

    So these are in some ways very different but I think there is a connection.

    Tegmark tries to derive consciousness from physics as this tries to derive life from physics. Tegmark, however, skips life in his states of matter going pretty much from solid, liquid, gas to computation.

    In fact, I think there is very much a direct connection. Consciousness arises from life as an advanced form of information processing that first arose in life – an evolutionary development from more primitive life processes.

    The missing factor in both is information. But there seems to be some relationship between information and energy in that as more advanced organisms are more intelligent – can process more information, have more throughput, and hold more information – they also dissipate more energy.

  • This idea is not new. Perhaps the equations shed some new light and allow for empirical predictions. See the following book: Brooks and Wiley, Evolution as Entropy, U Chicago Press (1986, 2nd edition 1988)

  • Some similar ideas have been advanced by chemist Addy Pross.

    This introduces and goes into depth about a concept known as dynamic kinetic stability.

    This paper goes more into depth about the relevance of dynamic kinetic stability to biology.

  • On the face of it this would seem to be a simplistic mathematization without ecological phenomenological grounding. “You start with a random clump of atoms, and if you shine light on it for long enough, it should not be so surprising that you get a plant,” Well not quite but living systems do produce more entropy, as do complex thermodynamic systems in general. I discuss naturalistic teleology in the Introduction to this book, in the section, “Turing Gaia” : There are some mistakes in the article, e.g., the conflation of “closed” and “isolated” systems. Eric Schnedier and I even discussed life as primarily a metabolic and thermodynamic system, stabilized by genetics, at MIT, at the Joseph Keenan conference organized by Hatsopoulos. There are three stages of a scientific theory. 1) You are dead wrong, 2) You are right but it’s trivial, 3) You are right and it’s important and we knew it all along. Welcome to stage three haha If you are really interested in this subject, please read Into the Cool; Eric D. Schneider collects great data about how more complex ecosystems (e.g., rainforests are better energy dissipators than old growth fir forests which are in turn better dissipators of energy than newly planted forests, grasslands better than cities and so on); we also have a chapter on the origins of life. Global warming can be looked at as literal biospheric dysfunction as heat remains closer to the complex system’s surface, impairing its function. And if you are interested in naturalistic teleology, I discuss it in detail in several places in . Notice also this paper, “Life as a Manifestation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics,” which precedes England’s would-be pride of place in this area by some years: What is different about Schneider’s work is the careful application of nonequilibrium thermodynamics to living systems.

  • A very interesting and exciting idea of energy dissipation. Its good to see the definitions of energy transfer from external to internal and vice-versa, getting clearer. Looking forward for this experiment.

  • These mathmateical rules for all or any potential life are great but they only seem to apply to one tiny planet in one tiny galaxy. However, if the laws of physics are truly universal as most of us believe to be the case, why then are there no other life forms as of yet discovered except on earth? Wouldn’t this spontenaiety theory create life in abundance around the universe, the mathmateical probabilites would have to be all aligned somewhere just like they have been here on earth. How can this theory hold true if it does not apply outside of our great little planet?

  • “We can show very simply from the formula that the more likely evolutionary outcomes are going to be the ones that absorbed and dissipated more energy from the environment’s external drives on the way to getting there”

    This, IMO, is the core of why all this is a completely theoretical exercise and not (as it has been reported elsewhere) “proof that life is inevitable” or even “as unsurprising as rocks rolling downhill”. In a non-evolutionary system, there is no selective pressure for the “best” dissipation outcome that they have calculated. The system can simply continue to heat up, like Venus, until it reaches its own equilibrium without life. Even if simple self-replicating molecules form, they may develop into life merely by the fact that they reproduce and start to evolve, but the fact that they disperse energy from the planet better does not help them “outcompete” other molecules on the planet.

  • Like Mr. Mahin states it might be ages till they find ‘The’ reason for the origin of life and the complexity of DNAs, but what I love about this article is that it opens up the thought that origin of life is not just a random and lucky lighting strike in the primordial soup. Whether this theory proves itself accurate(wholly or partly) remains to be seen, least it has opened up a line of thought which is scientifically valid rather than depending on sheer chance.

    And so enjoyed the comment section! 🙂

  • One comment that comes back is: if life has several origins, what explains the common molecular foundation of all currently known life?
    One answer to this could be: perhaps there is no other choice… or at least not one that can adequately compete. I have the feeling that we sometimes tend to forget that the “dominance of the best replicator” is unescapeably fundamental, not a law we invent to explain observations but a logical consequence of limited resources.

  • I am interested in the ability of archaic life and it’s ability to use calcite to redistribute energy. The cases of extremeophiles in both caves and deep ocean environments as well as in the fossil record show that calcite has been used for numerous uses by early life forms.The tendency of many calcite salts to be easily mutable into more or less energy conservative forms is unique due to the ability of calcite to be able to take over 500 crystal forms. The helical forms are very interesting too because they could perhaps have a role in the formation of our helical genetic bases. This is not my area of study but it has become very interesting in light of this research and I would like to hear any ideas on this from any who may have related information.

  • I may be missing something here–I’m sure that I’m missing a lot of things here–but this sounds like good old-fashioned spontaeneous generation. And if this happens, then why isn’t it happening now? Or is it? Why isn’t this the normal way for new life-forms to appear here?

    Still, interesting.

  • I’m surprised that in all this discussion there was not one instance of the word that for centuries has demonstrated these very principles: crystallization. The formation of a crystal involves gaining local order at the expense of surrounding disorder.

    The secret with life is not this process, because without the producer of the gain benefiting from the imbalance, there can be no selection for improvements, and reversibility is unavoidable. The critical step in establishing life was the formation of a shell between inside and outside, so the inside could capture the benefits of the process while expelling the waste, and could accumulate the raw materials without the risk of losing them to the disorder. Everything prior to that step was chemistry; everything after that step was biology.

  • If this theory is true that life evolves to disperse energy more efficiently, then a glass of pond water or sea water should dissipate energy and reach thermodynamic equilibrium more efficiently and quickly than a glass of distilled water, because the former contains life.

    Does that make sense?

    I wonder if that is a measurable test that would constitute proof of England’s theory.

  • “One comment that comes back is: if life has several origins, what explains the common molecular foundation of all currently known life?”

    One answer could be extinctions. Those species alive today represent a miniscule fraction of those that have lived.

    Why isn’t it happening today? I’ll leave that one to better brains.

  • Just to say that the sentence about methlylation is not from me. Although methylation is a fascinating and complex epigentic phenomenon, I think that the propensity for methylation can be under selection. So it is not a good example of something that natural selection can’t explain.

    That being said, it is an interesting example of how heredity is more complex than the old textbook pictures.

  • hooray for Josh’s comment: the first comments section I’ve seen in years that is on-topic all the way thru, regardless of your opinion about it’s correctness or currency..

  • Intuitively, this makes a lot of sense to me. A simple example comes to mind- the formation of ice crystals with the consequential release of energy.

  • If life can be formed by continually putting energy into a system then Mercury & Venus should have more life on it than the earth.

  • Hat’s off to the author; this was one of the most interesting things I’ve read online in a long time – including the complete thread of comments, which on the whole pays fine respect to constructive debate and the scientific method. I wish I had something smart to contribute, but all I can give is my gratitude.

  • I met Prigogine at a physics conference in 1977. I don’t think he’d have minded if someone said he worked on physics problems. That said, I’m not convinced that Harold Morowitz’s calculation about spontaneous emergence of a bacterium (if he actually did such a calculation) has much bearing on the paper discussed here, and BTW, Harold was a biophysicist who as I recall—but cannot confirm—received the first biophysics PhD. He would probably not agree with the characterization of himself as a great mathematician. I’m guessing what’s new in England’s work is that he differs with previous authors about reaction rates. He probably does not claim that the idea that energy flowing through a system tends to organize it, a phrase I heard from Morowitz and Prigogine independently, is original to him.

  • This is a nice job of quantifying the direction and flow rates of entropy generation in far-from-equilibrium systems. That’s what much of physics is about- quantizing physical behavior so that we can use our best mathematical tools to predict the behavior of those systems in time.

    Interesting (to me) is that the principal that systems evolve to maximize the rate of entropy production was also foreshadowed in a recent book published by a Duke engineering professor: Adrian Bejan; “Design in Nature”; anchorbooks (2012).
    He terms this principle the “constructal law”, and generalizes to any system in which “flow” is present…heat flow, mass flow, information flow and also, presumably, the flow of entropy.

  • The observed scale invariance in atmosphere and ocean can be linked to entropy production, via the thermodynamic formalism of statistical multifractality. Appealing to the molecular dynamical emergence of organized fluid flow from a randomized molecular population (Alder & Wainwright, Phys Rev A, 1, 18-21 [1970]) leads to the idea that natural selection is a property inherent in molecular populations, and therefore operates on all scales (Griffith et al., Accounts of Chemical Research, 45, 2106-2113 [2012]). The most energetic molecules have negative entropy and produce organization, while the larger number closer to average are responsible for dissipation and allow the maintenance of an operational temperature in non-equilibrium systems. For a definitive account of atmospheric scale invariance, see “The Weather and Climate: Emergent Laws and Multifractal Cascades”, Lovejoy & Schertzer, 2013, CUP, ISBN-13: 9781107018983. Weather and climate are, and must have been in the Archaean, prime agents of natural selection.

  • Much of this reminds me of some of the implications of Stephen Wolfram’s reproducing pattern theory expounded in “A New Kind of Science.” Do you see any connection?

  • A quote in the opening paragraph of Natalie’s article really hit me: “…the origin and subsequent evolution of life follow from the fundamental laws of nature and ‘should be as unsurprising as rocks rolling downhill’.”

    I’m a philosopher and not a physicist or chemist, so most of England’s theorizing is beyond me. However, I get the gist of his theory and, as others have noted, it stimulates thinking.
    In our philosophy discussion group (an Ayn Rand group), we’ve been debating whether consciousness is material or non-material. I say that nothing exists but matter, which includes electro-magnetic fields, light waves, etc.. Consciousness is not something which emanates from the electro-chemical activity of the brain, but rather, consciousness IS this electro-chemical activity.
    Matter, after billions of years of evolution, becoming aware of itself in the complexity of the human brain is “as unsurprising as rocks rolling downhill.”
    To those concerned about free will, I say this: in the complex electro-chemical activity of the human brain, matter reaches such a degree of complexity that it escapes being determined or predictable. The essence of freedom is its unpredictability–the unknowability of its future state. (For a fine discussion of the brain’s activity and free will, see E.O. Wilson, “On Human Nature, Chp. 4, “Emergence,” where Wilson discusses the brain’s “schemata” and “feed-back loops.” )

  • I find simple thermodynamic theories of life rather disappointing. They appear like a naive explanation of living things by saying that they are not really living, just being similar to tornados, monsunes, the Great Spot on Jupiter, or computers keeping low entropy and dissipating heat. But the fact that some systems conform well to certain laws can hardly explain the existence of such systems or their nature. This is a kind of manipulation, because we had been surprised by seeing those things and could not have predicted their existence.

    The problem with such theories may be that the most likely random transformation of an ordered system is usually its destruction. As regards stones rolling downhill, they are soon stopped, or just remain there finding no path down, or their path is uninteresting.

    Some theories say that life must exist because carbon atoms tend to form complex molecules. We may speculate that rational and intelligent systems must spontaneously appear throughout the Universe just because the best use of the laws of logic gives the best chance of persistence. Is it true, or are we still missing some very deep key points?

  • Does this indeed “liberate biologists from seeking a Darwinian explanation for every adaptation” or is it rather a new way to think of fitness? And it is interesting to think of it in terms of the ubiquity of convergent evolution to similar pressures, as well as possible ramifications for xenobiology.

  • I’ve been looking at England’s theory. I haven’t quite figured out whether it’s completely trivial or actually saying something useful. The equation appears to be correct though. One way of interpreting it is just that the entropy generated by creating molecule(s) B from molecule(s) A, minus the entropy removed by the reverse reaction B to A, must be greater than or equal to the entropy from releasing the appropriate amount of free energy into the heat bath at the current temperature. That’s pretty much a no-brainer, since no reaction can be greater than 100% efficient. (Note, however, that the forward and reverse reaction rates are in general not the same except at equilibrium. The equation is true even very far from equilibrium.)

    Now, whether you can go from that equation to his broader claims that more efficient reactions out-compete less efficient reactions in the Darwinian sense, is I think less clear. It appears to require additional assumptions, which he doesn’t really make explicit. It may be true, but it’s not as obvious.

    I would thank previous commenters for their many excellent references. The Michaelian paper seems to be mainly a historical survey of previous work, and doesn’t contain any equations. I haven’t had time to read most of the others yet.

    John Avery’s Information Theory and Evolution (2nd ed. 2012) is a good solid introduction to this area of inquiry. One nice nugget of wisdom from it is that the natural unit of temperature is “energy per bit of entropy”. This means that the unit of England’s $\beta=1/T$ is “bits of entropy per unit of energy”. The equation is easier to understand dimensionally that way.

  • Thanks for this! With all due respect to some of the forerunners I have had time to check and some comments here of “what is new”, this is quantitative work derived directly from earlier work on non-equilibrium thermodynamics (NET).

    And it ties nicely in with Russell et al work on alkaline hydrothermal systems and how such disequilibrium system as life arises out of them due to NET. However, they argue convincingly (to me) that the metabolic bottleneck isn’t disequilibrium and dissipation as such, but the increased dissipation that comes from positive feedback in “Atwood engines” of dissipating free energy (disequilibrium) flows (free energy conversion, FEC, engines).

    More precisely, the simplest such FEC engine of electron bifurcating metal atoms that we still see in the core enzymes of the metabolic UCA. [“Turnstiles and bifurcators: The disequilibrium converting engines that put metabolism on the road”, Branscomb and Russell, Biochimica et Biophysica Acta (BBA) – Bioenergetics, Volume 1827, Issue 6, June 2013, Page 806.]

    The thermodynamics of replicators may or may not supplement the metabolic achievement, but the result favoring RNA primacy is suggestive so far.

    And here I always claimed that entropy has nothing to do with life as such, since the entropy produced by evolution during selection at each generation is miniscule compared to the entropy produced during organism growth. And if snow flakes can grow, so can cells. But England turns that around to face me. =D

  • @Diego, Travis, Glen: “Thermodynamics tells us that all nonmanaged, or random, systems ALWAYS pass to a state of greater disorder.” “maximize the rate of entropy production”.

    It is exactly the opposite that people all the way back to Boltzmann has noted. Nitpick: In very constrained systems when entropy increases order does too. It is facile, but not correct, to say that entropy = disorder.

    If you read England’s talk, he derives from the 2nd law that “driven stochastic evolution” of systems will necessitate terms (system parts) of order, durability, dissipation and fluctuation. [slide 47] The kicker is that if you have low activation barriers (so not far from equilibrium) you favor disorganized states. But if not, you favor increased dissipation and, with the exception of freak fluctuation events, that is achieved by order and durability. Without even having replication or selection getting into play! [slide 48]

    Biological evolution just happens to be a most effective process, as he also discuss. He shows actual experiments that seems to test his hypothesis too (“resonant adaptation”).

  • @Giorgio Torrieri: I have to read the paper, but in his talk England doesn’t seem to claim that is the only way. [And see IL’s comment.] Slide 51:

    “No doubt, self-replication is a way to make this work because discrete exponential growth reliably causes lots of dissipation

    But it seems like we expect to see organization that is ‘adapted’ from an energetic standpoint emerge on its own, even without heredity and selection, and just from underlying Newtonian/Hamiltonian mechanics”.

  • @Beatrice: Evolution has been well tested for 150+ years. It is still the reigning contender. England may complement the current theory, in the same way genetics did.

    @Daniel Guerriere: It is well known for 150+ years that Darwin never “presupposed” anything and explicitly stated that possibly there were many, or one, original ancestor.

    But FWIW Theobald showed from the replication process that there were only one universal ancestor population in our case, with a likelihood > 10^2000 against many UCAs. (Nature 2010). It is the best observation in all of science!

    Note that protocells could still originate multiply times, since early evolution was likely communal. It was the surviving replication process that bottlenecked this, either by allowing lineages to diverge or by killing of alternate lineages. This is long known. (See Joyce et al.)

    @FrankNorman, M Mahin: “do not just pop together because energy gets added.”

    More precisely, becase free energy (disequilibrium) gets added. Yes, the evolutionary seed may, see Prigogine and Russell et al verification in a previous comment of mine. England assumes evolution is one way to realize his theory.

  • The author writes:

    ‘Eventually, the system arrives at a state of maximum entropy called “thermodynamic equilibrium,” in which energy is uniformly distributed.’

    One of the most pervasive and difficult to displace misconceptions about Entropy is that the distribution of energy in a system at thermodynamic equilibrium is a uniform distribution. It is not: the distribution is the Boltzmann distribution, and follows exp(-kE). It is a very easy trap to fall into, because it seems obvious, simple, and easy to understand: but it’s not what happens in reality.

  • While England’s research may point the way to specific mechanisms for increasing order in disordered systems and may thus play some upstream role in the reproduction of macro-molecules, it doesn’t address the critical role of “functional” information in both the origin of life and its continued enrichment through evolution. By functional information I mean something more than just repeated patterns of inorganic or organic molecules, but rather patterned information in one component of a living system that is homologous to patterns in one or more other components in the system. This type of information is the basis for message transmission and feedback loops between components of a living system and thus the synchronization of all of the subsystems that comprise it. The classic (oversimplified) example is

    … Transcription factors–>DNA–>RNA Polymerase–>Spliceosomes–>mRNA–>Nucleotide triplets–>RibosomestRNAAmino Acids–>Polypeptides–>Folded Proteins/Enzymes–>Transcription factors …

    That all of these subsystems somehow evolved in tandem and have highly coordinated functions in the metabolism and reproduction of living organisms is truly astounding. IMHO this type of information system depends on much more than the principles of thermodynamics and is the great unexplained mystery of Biology. While England’s work may be relevant to this at some level, I don’t believe that it begins to explain this central problem.

  • The term “RibosomestRNAAmino Acids” in my previous post should read “Ribosomes–>tRNA–>Amino Acids”

  • England’s notion puts Darwinian takeover, chaos theory, Jarzynski and Crooks’ formulation, Nobel Laurate Ilya Prigogine’s behavior of open systems, Boltzmann probabiliy all together.
    We have to test and gather data and to run experiments on living systems to support to understand life from a themodynamic perspective.

  • Interesting stuff, but not biology.

    Biology, life, is not just replicating matter. Rather it is replicating coded information.
    As long as information is not included, this is merely physics devoid of any biology, and irrelevant to solving the origin of biological systems.
    This is in no respect whatsoever a precursor of a living system. Science, in the first place biology, has to deal with the information content of biosystems. Denying or ignoring that life is based on information, is denying or ignoring science facts.


  • Re: “ [group of atoms] will often gradually restructure itself in order to dissipate increasingly more energy.”
    Could the above read: Groups of atoms when steadily absorbing energy from an external source at a more rapid rate than their environment (e.g. an immersing fluid) will be restructured or reorganized by that energy in a manner that will dissipate the energy as heat to their immersing fluid (or intimately contacting substance) at a higher rate than their original structure allowed.
    RE: “Scientists have already observed self-replication in nonliving systems.”
    Given that many now question the meaning of “self” in humans, let alone animals or inanimate things, would it not be prudent to delete “self-“ from “self-replication”?

  • In weak criticism of Granite Sentry, you state ” . . . there’s much more to reality than we can capture in an equation, a formula or a sentence. Physicists are always forgetting this simple fact that every poet knows.” I demur, to the extent that unexplained does not mean unexplainable. You seem to be saying that knowledge and its interpretation cannot advance past what we now know and accept. I suggest that Dr. England’s scientific progeny will, perhaps only a few tens of years from now, smile indulgently at your statement.

  • It would seem that the same logic supporting the assertion that life occurs spontaneously as a result of the thermodynamic imperative of entropy would mean that at least some “living” things should be immortal. Or, put another way, what is the thermodynamic causation for death of the living things that successfully contribute to entropy?

  • In defense of my work, and that of many others, and particularly of my paper entitled “Thermodynamic Dissipation Theory for the Origin of Life” (arXiv:0907.0042[physics.gen-ph]2009; Earth Syst. Dynam., 2, 37-51, 2011), I would have to disagree strongly with the comment of Howard A. Landman (Jan. 27, 2:03) that my paper is “mainly a historical survey of previous work”. The introduction is certainly such, as should be the case in all papers, but if one bothers to read the remaining 8 sections, one would discover that it presents a detailed theory for the origin and early stages of the evolution of life as governed by the general non-equilibrium thermodynamic principle of structuring driven by dissipation. The paper first presents an explanation for the spontaneous formation of dissipative structures under a generalized thermodynamic potential, referring the reader to the original ideas of Boltzmann and rigorous demonstrations which go back to the 1930´s through to the 1960´s with the work of Lars Onsager and Ilya Prigogine and their groups. England has provided a tentative statistical mechanics version of dissipative structuring, but a statistical version of a general principle concerning entropy production rates, rather than entropy, is what is really needed. Here there are earlier statistical results which do consider entropy production rates, e.g. R. Dewar, J. Phys. A, 36, 631-641, 2003, although the verdict is still out on the validity of these results.
    My paper then goes on to give empirical evidence for increases in the entropy production of the biosphere and its components over time in its interaction with the solar environment and relates this to Onsager’s principle (Onsager, Phys. Rev., 37, 405–426, 1931) of coupling of irreversible processes when this coupling augments the global entropy production (see also Morel and Fleck, J. Theor. Biol., 136, 171–175, 1989 and K. Michaelian, Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci., 16, 2629-2645, 2012). I provide a physical explanation for the proliferation of RNA and DNA and other pigments in the Archean environment using a non-linear non-equilibrium thermodynamic result, similar to what Prigogine derived for a product catalyst in autocatalytic chemical reactions (see K. Michaelian, J. Phys. Conf. Series 12/2013; 475:012010 and J. Theor. Biol., 237, 323-335, 2005 if you must see equations Howard Landman … I hope, however, that you don’t rest relevance from “On the Origin of Species” because of its lack of equations!).
    Later in the paper, I provide a mechanism for enzyme-less replication of RNA/DNA based on the dissipation of UV photons of around 260 nm, where RNA and DNA absorb and dissipate efficiently, on a gradually cooling sea surface at a temperature slightly below the denaturing temperature of strands of RNA/DNA ~70-80°C (a process similar to PCR which I call UVTAR — UltraViolet and Temperature Assisted Replication). My article also suggests a mechanism for the homochirality of RNA/DNA based on asymmetric (morning-afternoon) circularly polarized photon-induced denaturing of these molecules (see also K. Michaelian, Nature Precedings (2010) ) and suggests how information became encoded in RNA/DNA through the affinity of the aromatic amino-acids to their DNA anti-codons, suggesting that these amino-acids may have acted as antenna molecules to augment RNA/DNA – amino acid complex photon dissipation). Any theory purporting to describe the origin of life must necessarily explain homochirality and information accumulation. My student Norberto Santillan and I have obtained preliminary experimental evidence for the first part of the enzyme-less replication, the UVTAR mechanism suggested above, that of photon induced denaturing (see K. Michaelian and N. Santillan, “Fundamentos Termodinámicos del Origen de la Vida”, available on ResearchGate).
    With Oliver Manuel, we have shown how the thermodynamic dissipation theory for the origin of life places constraints on the solar model (K. Michaelian and O. Manuel, J. Mod. Phys, 2, 6A, 587-594, 2011). With Alex Simeonov we have shown how dissipative pigments have appeared over the evolutionary history of life following the evolution of the solar spectrum at Earth’s surface (A. Simeonov and K. Michaelian, to be available shortly from ResearchGate). Finally, the example of population dynamics given in England’s paper was treated by myself under a non-equilibrium thermodynamic formalism in 2005 (K. Michaelian, J. Theor. Biol., 237, 323-335, 2005.). Here, a plausible thermodynamic fitness function for selection was shown to be the ratio of global dissipation of the system over the change of entropy of the system, i.e. diS/dt/|deS/dt – diS/dt|, which selects highly dissipating systems with the stability of the stationary state. It is important to remark here that on the real time scales of biosphere evolution it is the whole system, biotic plus coupled abiotic irreversible processes, that is being thermodynamically selected, not the individual living entities. With Vasthi Alonso we have studied the thermodynamic stability of such systems under perturbation (V. Alonso and K. Michaelian, J. Mod. Phys, 2, 6A, 627-635, 2011).
    Finally, many of my students have contributed importantly to this work on the thermodynamic dissipation theory for the origin and evolution of life. Some of the most related thesis that should be mentioned are by Julian González, Vasthi Alonso, Noemi Hernández, Patrcia Jacome, Jessi Gatica, and Norberto Santillan. These thesis can be accessed directly from the central library at the UNAM.
    As you can see, we have an extensive research program on this subject involving many researchers which goes back at least 12 years. That we present merely “a historical survey of previous works” on dissipative structures is a completely unfair caricature of our work. While we are on the subject, as other contributors to these comments have pointed out, there is a long list of workers to whom credit should be given with respect to the association of life with dissipation and thermodynamics. Some of the most important works that come to mind (I’m sure I am forgetting others) are Boltzmann, Onsager, Prigogine, Nicolis, Babloyanz, Wicken, Zotin, Ulanowicz, Lloyd, Pagels, Swenson, Morel, Fleck, Kay, Schneider, Dewar. The references to these works can be found in our articles or by doing a Google search.
    The journalistic report in Quanta on the paper of England has given public exposure to these ideas and that is a good thing. Papers of this kind are usually rejected by the traditional origin of life journals, principally because of a general lack of appreciation for non-equilibrium thermodynamics. That is now starting to change and we must be grateful for the publicity, but, at the same time, it is important to be fair in attributing credit where credit is due. It represents, after all, many years of hard work performed by many generations of scientists throughout the world on this subject.

  • Doc:

    While I agree that just because a phenomenon is currently unexplainable doesn’t mean it that it always will be, I would hope that Dr. England’s scientific progeny will hold their indulgent smiles until the solution is actually in the bag. We can never know in advance whether “hard problems” will ultimately be explainable. This is example of what Alan Turing called the “halting problem”

    It is not unreasonable therefore to consider the possibility that a given problem cannot be solved, or can only be solved after paradigm shifts of the sorts that we saw with the advent of relativity and quantum mechanics. My sense of Dr. England’s discovery is that it is well within the comfort zone of the current biological paradigm for life’s origin, as resulting from a long series of physio-chemical reactions slowly occurring over billions of years (hence all the encomium in response to his finding). This has been the consensus of many of the greatest scientific minds since the emergence of the “Modern Evolutionary Synthesis” in the first half of the 20th century, and which was apparently confirmed in 1953 with the discovery of the structure of DNA. However the discoveries of molecular biology over the succeeding 60 years have not been kind to this synthesis, and in the consensus of many others it is in a shambles (this statement may strike some as outlandish, but I’m afraid I’ll have to leave it to our readers’ curiosities to validate or disprove it for themselves). Suffice it to say IMHO that a paradigm shift in this area will probably require the death of the current generation of evolutionary biologists (see Thomas Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”) and the rise of their scientific progeny, who will not likely remember Dr. England as the next Charles Darwin, if they remember him at all.

  • It would interest me, how does the work of Jeremy English tie up with the following:
    Carl Woese published in 2004 in the journal „Microbiology and Molecular Review“ an article „A new biology for a new century“. There he described 3 phases of the evolution: predarwinian, Darwinian and postdarwinian era.
    We have here the so-called Woesian revolution (changed perspectives of the origin of the eukaryotes) and the discovery of Dimitar Sasselov, professor for astronomy at Harvard Univ. who is the director of the multidisciplinary „Harvard Origins of Life Initiative“.

  • Mr Seeley:

    I am a curious reader and follower of science, but not a scientist. My training is in social science, namely in the formulation and assessments of urban policies, and I stay away from disciplines I’m not qualified to comment on. What I can do, however, is see and evaluate macro positions assumed by recent knowledge, as such positions are subsumed by all phases of inquiry. Your paragraphs are well received and enjoyed, but I submit that the long history of the pursuit of knowledge is, a bit like the stock market, upward, and builds (as Isaac Newton offered) upon the shoulders of giants.

    It is immense fun for me to read the proponents of one position or another in fields I haven’t studied since sophomore biochemistry, and that was, indeed, a long time ago. Judging, however, from the great advances in virtually every field (my own notwithstanding), It’s pretty difficult to admit of very many insoluble problems.

    Additionally, I hardly think Dr. England would describe himself as earth-shaking as Darwin. Who is. As for me, I side with Edward O. Wilson’s famous ant, encased in lucite with a banner protruding, which says, “Onward and Upward!”

  • I did not see gravity mentioned in the above comments, so I’ll ask this. What is gravity’s effect upon the systems described by Jeremy England? Is the life-spawning “heat bath” that Jeremy describes most often created in a gravity well? Is there evidence that any other attractive forces encourage self-organization? Some physicists might be able to quickly tell me whether organized atomic and sub-atomic structures dissipate energy more readily than would a sea of their smallest components?

  • Great fan fiction!

    PS: “The reason that an organism shows characteristic X rather than Y may not be because X is more fit than Y, but because physical constraints make it easier for X to evolve than for Y to evolve.”

    I wonder what Louis’ definition of fitness is. Because my definition of fitness includes thriving better under physical constraints, and thus evolving easier under physical constraints.

  • The description of the process and the mathematics associated with it is a bit too general to provide insight into the detailed processes of life. Protists like Euglena and Volvox are more prolific and better at harnessing vast amounts of energy near the ocean’s surface through photosynthesis, so why go to all of the trouble to eventually make itself into a something like a tree? I rather think that the process is driven by other forces more compelling than simply to “dissipate energy”, or even competition with other individuals for energy from the same or even a different source. Is there an expression for the maximum efficiency of such a system, or does the environment impose its own or other limitations? Why would efficiency (such as in the thermodynamic sense) be the ultimate goal of life? It doesn’t even explain the reason for the near infinite variety of snowflakes, does it really?

    Mathematics is just another symbolic language that human beings have created to communicate with each other. It is entirely possible to scribble out as many kinds of silly ideas using math as it is in any other human language. More’s the pity, many people can’t tell the difference, in any language. But by all means, keep trying.

  • Daniel Guerriere wonders:

    “If the hypothesis be verified, then Darwinism would have a major problem. For Darwinism presupposes that all of life has a single origin. The hypothesis, however, allows for, indeed makes plausible, multiple origins. But if life has multiple origins, then what explains the same molecular structure across all of life? ”

    Well wonder no more, here is an explanation. One minor correction: Darwin never presupposed that all of life had a single origin, that came later under what was called neoDarwinism. An explanation for the biological unities is that horizontal gene transfer is the agency that maintains unity. As is described in papers 1, 9, and 15 at:

    and an attempt to describe this to an interested lay audience at:

  • What a great article, and a powerful and important idea. The study of this idea is long overdue.

    It strikes me that it is a variant on the ideas of H. T. Odum as described by his former student Charles Hall (“Maximum Power: The Ideas and Applications of H. T. Odum”, Charles A. S. Hall, Ed., University Press of Colorado, 1995). Odum came to believe that all ecosystems self-organized to use (consume or dissipate) energy at a maximum rate. In Darwinian terms, the organism that garners the largest share of the available flow of energy will out-compete the others at the same trophic level, so those mutations that enable higher rates of consumption of energy, in every generation, and at every trophic level, have competitive advantage. Ultimately, as the ecosystem approaches a stationary state far from equilibrium (one of Prigogne’s dissipative structures) it reaches a state of maximum power.

    I also see this as closely aligned, intellectually, with the concept of the Maximum Entropy Production Principle, as discussed by Martyushev ( ) and many other places on the web.

    I, personally, also believe that it can be used to explain why the modern global economy has evolved over time to be such an exceedingly wasteful engine of ecological destruction, consuming mass and energy at ever higher rates, until we reach a maximal rate of consumption. Unfortunately for us, the Earth’s resources are limited, and our consumption rate is now largely supported by extraction of immense quantities of non-renewable energy resources. Charles Hall’s concept of EROI, and the rapidly declining value of this indicator for all modern fossil fuel resources, tells us that the end is coming too soon. This can only end badly for us. I believe it is absolutely critical that we come to understand this phenomenon much better, and understand its implications for how we live and organize ourselves.

  • Similar ideas have been floating around for decades, but it is hard to get this stuff published in physics journals. I’m glad to see Rod Swenson mentioned, and Arto Annila at University of Finland has done much work in this area as well. I am pleased that others such as Karo Michaelian are familiar with the development of this area and have made their own contributions.

    I have used this idea since 2001 for modelling history and economics, using the name “Principle of Fast Entropy” or “e th Law of Thermodynamics” since it drives exponential growth. One way to word the e th law is that “an isolated system will tend to maximize its rate of entropy production.”

    Nevertheless, I prefer alternative wording: “an isolated system will tend to maximize its achievement of thermodynamic potential”. (People hate entropy but love achievement and potential).

  • This is really interesting. Once this is researched more, I wonder how it could be applied to cell behavior…specifically related to tumor growth, etc. If cell behavior can be linked to resonance, there could be some exciting new fields of medicine open up?! Or am I totally mis-understanding the implications of this?

  • The theory indicates that life is more likely to form? In this case would life which exists on earth now have been enriched by multiple starting points? I guess life being depleted by competing starting points is as likely as life being enriched.

    Is there a way to determine life starting points? Is there any indication that there have been multiple starting points. I am guessing that no one ever checked because we all believed that life is a unique occurrence.

  • Interesting and wonderful article. Fun thought: Are stars living things? They are an assortment of atoms that have assembled themselves (low entropy) by the force of gravity and use that force to disperse/convert nuclear energy into its surroundings (higher entropy) with light and heat. They reproduce themselves- ejection of planetary nebula seeds and induces further star formation.

  • I see Rod Swenson has been mentioned, I would like to point out that there is a group at the University of Connecticut following up on his work, closely related to England’s. They call their project “Physical Intelligence” and for a short time were funded by DARPA before DARPA became convinced the goals of PI were too lofty.

    In 2012 they published their perspective over a couple of special issues in the journal Ecological Psychology:
    Special Issue: On Intelligence from First Principles I: Dissipative Structures, Impredicativity, and Intentional Dynamics
    Special Issue: On Intelligence from First Principles II: Information Perspectives, Formalizing Autocatakinetics, Physical Pattern Formation, and Plant Perception-Action

    I think this is a good entry point into these theories, since this group contains psychologists in addition to physicists (and others), so some of their writings are perhaps a bit more accessible than those in a more purely physical traditional.

    In any case, I am excited to see the same insights happening elsewhere, and I hope to see more collaboration in the future between these various groups.

    Disclaimer: I am a Ph.D. student in Ecological Psychology at UConn, however I don’t work on the Physical Intelligence project myself.

  • In my opinion, life was brought to our planet. Meteor or other method. At this point its a guess.

  • This sounds really similar to an idea I read in a book: _Design in Nature: How the Constructal Law Governs Evolution in Biology, Physics, Technology, and Social Organization_ by Adrian Bejan which ultimately came down to flow dynamics, too. So I agree, the idea is not really new. But we all stand on the shoulders of giants, right?

    I do applaud Dr. England for being true to the scientific enterprise and giving us a testable hypothesis. At a minimum, it’s an intriguing conceptual framework. At least at the chemical level where proto-life merges into life. I am still struggling to see how this would really apply for large-scale (meaning multicellular) organisms.

    I don’t think I can agree that a self-replicating configuration of atoms like a plant should be better at dissipating energy than a random compilation of the same atoms. Isn’t the whole idea of photosynthesis that plants use solar energy to build carbon-based molecules to _store_ energy? I would think plant life will retard the dissipation of energy over longer time frames than an inert grouping of similar mass which will simply reflect or radiate the energy away. But again, that’s the great thing about this kind of work; we can actually test it!

  • – I don’t think we have, as yet, evolved the intellectual brainpower to understand the origin of life. It’s like trying to explain differential equations to a frog. There is something that, as humans, we cannot yet see.

    Professor of biophysics Arto Annila (Univ. of Helsinki) has developed a partly similar evolution theory as Dr England. Both are based on Prigogine and second law of thermodynamics. Annila has however discovered an universal formula wich contains the principle of least action (de Maupertuis) too ( Proc.R.Soc. A (2008) 464, 3055-3070).

  • Since all “living” things are physical, the fact that they follow laws of thermodynamics is not surprising. All physical things should, whether they are alive or not. This does not explain the evolution of “life”, which is not even defined here. I am a neurosurgeon having studied biology and living things for decades, yet have never found a satisfactory definition of “life.” One of the questions raised above asks if stars are alive. By biological criteria, no, because they are not made of cells and all living things are typically defined to be made of cells. By that definition, viruses are not alive also, because they are not made of cells. They just cause changes in living things. Before we talk about the evolution or origin of life scientifically, it would be best to define what we mean by “life.”

  • Wonderful discussion!

    @Jim Douthit: in the complex electro-chemical activity of the human brain, matter reaches such a degree of complexity that it escapes being determined or predictable.

    It’d be great if the transition to self-consciousness could be more quantifiably related to the “2ed Law.” This inter-disciplinary forum would be a perfect “ideation factory” to accomplish this.

  • This theory begins with a major presupposition. The theory begins :

    “You start with a random clump of atoms…”

    You’re presupposing the existence of the atoms which have no reason to be presupposed. How did the atoms come into existence out of nothing in the first place to create life?

  • I’m so glad the connections got made between Mr. England’s work and Non-Equilibrium Thermodynamics (NET).

    I’ve read Into the Cool: Energy flow, thermodynamics, and life by Schneider and Sagan – which was a wonderful introduction to the subject. These others papers are also good

    Kay, J. J., & Schneider, E. D. (1994). Embracing complexity: The challenge of the ecosystem approach. Alternatives, 20(3), 32-39.

    Schneider, E. D., & Kay, J. J. (1994). Life as a manifestation of the second law of thermodynamics. Mathematical and Computer Modelling, 19(6-8), 25-48. doi:10.1016/0895-7177(94)90188-0

    But personally I found Supply Side Sustainability by Allen, Tainter and Hoekstra far more compelling – since it worked through NET not only in the natural sciences (physics, chemistry, biology, ecology) but into the social sciences too (history, sociology, economics) and then into management.

    I have short summary of this book (and the key paper) some may be interested in here:

    Allen, T. F. H. (2003). In Hoekstra T. W., Tainter J. A. (Eds.), Supply-side sustainability. New York City, New York, U.S.A.: Columbia University Press.

    Allen, T. F. H., Tainter, J. A., & Hoekstra, T. W. (1999). Supply-side sustainability. Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 16(5), 403.

  • But I have a question for the community: who is continuing the work on Non-Equilibrium Thermodynamics (NET)? Who are the current leaders in the this field?

    For example Dr. Brian Cox appears to align with in Mr. England in his excellent recent BBC Series the Wonders of Live, but is all this work now dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s of NET – or is their still yet fundamental work to confirm of falsify? Who is doing this important work?

  • This is great, I feel like I have been thinking this for quite some time, but hadn’t the scientific education enough to make anything of it. Everything is all apart of an intelligent design, wether you believe that design was created or naturally occurring. Physics, Chemistry, Biology, all of these branches of science are still just our definitions used to communicate what we have learned about reality, but the reality never changes. If we already had the answers, it would be like a palm thump to the forehead like “that is so simple!” (not that I am saying it is easy). Everything is the same, maybe expressed differently at times, but the more we zoom out the easier it is to see this. I’d suspect that the grand cosmos and even beyond our universe there are similar systems at work to the ones we have already uncovered. Evolution was good, but if this theory can be used to more accurately predict reality, it wouldn’t surprise me. There could be scales of reality below even the smallest quantum mechanics we know of, that have been building up to create this reality, which in turn is apart of something even much greater. Everything is relative. It is our responsibility as living beings to keep expanding our existence and knowledge and dissipate it across the universe until we can truly understand.

  • If I understand this correctly , inanimate matter exposed to light , under the right or probable circumstances causes or makes it possible for systems to evolve to a point at which they can absorb and dissipate energy efficiently enough to evolve to ever increasingly complex systems . Would this process be one of necessity or probability , but each following a physical law ?

  • I am not a physicist, but I have enjoyed the discussion. The most interesting questions for me are:
    Is life required to produce consciousness, or can a machine or supercomputer that can pass a Turing test achieve consciousness?
    Is consciousness an “all-or nothing” phenomenon, or are there gradations?
    From all I have read, consciousness seems to require both access to (sensory) inputs from the external environment as well as models of that environment coded in a form of memory. Additionally, the conscious portion must have an underlying subconscious support that filters and determines what aspects of the world reach consciousness.
    Life as I understand it involves both the replication of coded information, as stated above, but also an ability to maintain an energy gradient such that energy flows through the system and never reaches an equilibrium state.
    It would also seem to me that the evolution of consciousness is more likely determined by it’s Darwinian advantages than energy dissipation constraints.
    Overall, I’d say that based on what I’ve read, the evolution of matter and life can be best described as the sum of interaction between both the Darwinian and the energy dissipation hypotheses, as applied to the raw materials (i.e. environment) under consideration. Thus, radically different forms of life or organizations might occur depending on the environmental constraints. Our Earth has a particularly favorable environment for what has evolved here, not unexpectedly.

  • this “new theory” is indeed mainly the theory of “maximal entropy production” already proposed in 1922 by Alfred Lotka and more particularly developed by Rod Swenson in the nineties on the basis of Prigogine’s work before its “demonstration” by Roderick Dewar in 2003, even if the demonstration is not perfect. It was also developed by many others including Kleidon and others mentionned in the comments. The is also a very intersting book (in French) by the astrophysician François Roddier called “Thermodynamique de l’évolution” which is largely based on the MEP law and goes quite far in its biological and ecological implications, including in the evolution of human culture
    Often useful to make some literature review before claiming to have made a “great discovery”

  • here the link to a short animation movie explaining the maximum entropy production principle ,available since about 3 years :
    and its complement explaining how difficult are paradigm shifts … Enjoy !

  • Such civil and intelligent discourse!? Is this truly still the Internet?

    As a lay person with an insatiable information addiction, especially when physics are involved, I find this article very intriguing. Perhaps it even offers a solution to Fermi’s paradox in that a self inflicted nuclear war of extinction would dissipate a significant amount of energy. Judging from humanity’s own propensities for war and my predictions on man’s demise, this may be the natural endstate for sentient life thus in the same breath demonstrating that life is common and also why the sky is so quiet.


  • Great article about a potentially wonderful idea. Only one question: where is the formula? I didn’t see in the article (maybe I overlooked it). HELP!!!

  • Hi..I am at the end of the line, but I have a few things to say….I agree with most people, that at least as this work is presented, it is an expansion of the ideas of Prigogine, which is fine. (And other theories). However, there is a utter confusion between ensemble properties and the nature of the components of that ensemble. The principles mentioned here concern the optimization of thermodynamic stability far from equilibrium; but where to the molecules come from ? the amino acids, the nucleotides, lipids, sugars, etc ? the notion that “rna is a cheap building material” totally misses the point….RNA is thought to have evolved because it has the chemical property to cut and edit itself. It is difficult to reverse engineer the origin of life…we only have what worked. It seems to have happened slowly..the earth is thought to be 4.6 billion years old, with the evidence of earliest life forms 3.8-3.48 billion years ago. The rest of the time we went from bacteria to men…how the building blocks and the self replicating systems arose is still a mystery. But say that the earlies lifeforms has the right thermodynamic properties….it still took ~ 1.5 million years to evolve simple prokarotes, 1 billion for primitive eukaryotes, and 1.55 billion years to get primates….the evolution of biological systems is very slow…

  • I was wondering on how complex carbon based chemicals started replicating…I was not believing that RNA and DNA can replicate by themselves…suddenly while working on other issues…I realised thermodynamics!! I googled if anyone has done work on this or thought about it before and found this article.
    I appreciate the work and my intution says that we will be able to find thermodyanmic condition for creation of life from chemicals!!

  • the late theoretical physicist my father Dr James Paul Wesley wrote a book called ECOPHYSICS that was published in the 70’s which provided an “ecophysical definition of life” based on the laws of thermodynamics. this book was very detailed and contained a great deal of mathematics to support the same ideas seen here, but further it applied those ideas to the evolution of technology as well as biological life.

  • Does life equal dynamical equilibrium systems that can sense net perturbations from their equilibrium states? Life also senses and recruits molecules/energy from the environment into its coupled dynamical systems.
    Therefore what is missed? -Well the thermodynamics of these systems explains the change of state, but not how they got there (by what path), nor how they might be maintained (by oscillating reactions?). Differential equations describe the rate of change in these systems, but not the net change into new dynamical equilibrium states. Therefore there exists an in between area that requires a better understanding.
    A physical example of this is a simple, two-pan balance. A balance in perfectly horizontal equilibrium with masses on each side can be shifted or perturbed by the addition of an asymmetric force in the form of an additional mass or an external force on one side of the balance. These perturbations can shift the equilibrium position of the balance either temporarily via an oscillation around its original equilibrium or permanently to a new position of equilibrium whereby the balance is shifted. The thermodynamics or differential equations describing such a system as a simple balance misses an essential physical property of this system – its net change. This is fundamentally how living systems sense and respond to changes in their environments (see: Weber’s Law Modeled by the Mathematical Description of a Beam Balance, Mathematical Biosciences 122: 89-94 (1994) (’s_Law.pdf )).
    The net changes within their coupled dynamical systems are embedded within the framework of their organized states, which may propagate these net changes to other parts of these networks, thereby prompting these networks to change. As a simple example, two or more coupled chemical equilibria could be shifted by a net change (Le Chatelier’s principle) that could be propagated from one to the other (ie. as occurs in cellular receptors, such as the G protein-coupled receptors -see: Molecular dynamics of a biophysical model for beta-2-adrenergic and G protein-coupled receptor activation Journal of Molecular Graphics and Modelling 25: 396-409 (2006) ( )).
    Several good points were made previously in this comments section (which is one of the best discussions that I’ve seen anywhere). The fact that other planets in our solar system are bombarded by energy and have similar chemical constituents suggests that life on earth is unique or at least at a more advanced stage of life than the other planets. What might account for this? Could it be that there is a certain resonance within and among these coupled equilibrium systems that enhance their expression? One possible guess is that there are certain cycle-resonances among these coupled systems that best match the cyclical changes of the surrounding physical systems. Once these physical and chemical systems are aligned, they may evolve into more complex systems through periods of repeated iterations. (This suggests that one should study the synergies between and among coupled chemical/physical systems to observe how they might evolve.)
    After all, we have reached the point where we can breakdown living systems into their basic chemical/molecular components and reassemble them as new living systems (Dr. Venter’s work on artificial life).
    This suggests that we’re beginning to understand the fundamental chemical/molecular foundations for life. This is truly an exciting time.

  • Am an old timer not computer savvy who stumbled upon this wonderful discussion. Dr.
    England seems to have missed out on the work at Santa Fe institution, especially that
    of Stuart Kauffman. Somewhat surprising.

  • The picture I’m getting these days is that, at all scales, matter organizes to channel flows of energy. Just finished the wonderful book by Alexei Kurakin, “The Self-Organizing Fractal Theory as a Universal Discovery Method: The Phenomenon of Life,” in which he makes the chemical case for flow. Adrian Bejan makes, primarily, an engineering case for it in, “Design in Nature How the Constructal Law Governs Evolution in Biology, Physics, Technology and Social Organization”–although the book does get bogged down in quite a bit of tedium. I also loved Eric Schneider and Dorian Sagan’s, “Into the Cool: Energy Flow, Thermodynamics and Life.” It appears to me that thermodynamics, since it does control the flow of energy, would be the “big” prime mover. While I agree with many others that this is not a new line of thinking, since Ilya Prigogine had already set this ball in motion some time ago, if Jeremy England has come up with an equation that can map this and, therefore, get the concept into the good graces of the establishment–well, bless his soul!

  • The discussion is more than wounderful . I enjoyed it so much . My comments are : – England considered that the essence of life is ” replication ” i.e once matter is continuously replicating ,it can be considered life . Replication is only one of the characters of life . crystals are replicating but are not considered living at all . The idea of energy dissipation and conservation can’t by itself explain the vast compexity of life structure and function , in all stages life has passed through . for example the evolution of multicellularity , the evolution of sex , the evolution of ” consiousness .

  • This is an area that interests me but I confess my level of understanding does not reach that of some of the other posts but I think that it is important to clarify some things. There is the requirement of the state or situation in which the early progenitor to the protocell arose. This is where the concepts of England and others regarding entropy must be invoked, if not later to describe ecological systems. The original state was a physical state and not a biological one until life prevailed and as such must obey all known physics rules. However the possibility exists that early organisms may have initially overcome some of the constraints of the physical universe, or at least to minimise them.

    I have been greatly perturbed by the constant use of “equilibrium” forest ecosystems etc. and it is very difficult going from the molecular (such as Jason Fordham above describing Boltzmann), to the macro level of organisation of microbial communities or forests. Thanks for all the links by the way although noone mentioned Harte’s or Ichuru Aoki’s books, but Kauffman was mentioned who described the possibility that dynamical non-equilibrium systems could be stable, which seems to me a better description for forests. Whatever consensus is eventually reached the molecular to the ecosystem level should be consistent in the final thesis. Except that we all know that Einstein/gravity and the quantum world aren’t that consistent! So do we have to await the outcome of those investigations before we assign Boltzmann to the wider world of soil bacterial communities? It seems to me that until physics resolves that dilemma it will be quite plausible to differentiate macro and micro systems as Mikoman suggested above, especially in the biological world which attempts to control the physical (albeit with various success levels).

    The new theories of life based on entropy could be maligned, but then that is what was done to the chemical theory of life 50 years ago I heard. Some of the posts above note that there is a chemical and physical state or condition which occurred when life first arose. This is very important and Richard Lanzara made good points about coupled physical and chemical systems. Biology is a third system that interacts with the physicochemical surroundings, and very often overcomes or utilizes them or improves conditions for its own purposes. Of course it must ultimately be accountable to physics processes such as entropy and this may indeed be a driving factor in the organisation of some or most ecosystems and communities, but perhaps not in ways proposed.

    There is still the problem of the original and yes I heard the word sentient, organism.
    Much investigation has been done on chemical factors involved such as the ATP system and H systems, and also on heavy metals, so that early organisms could have arisen primarily in response to chemical factors. The fundamental nutrient requirements of nascent life really needs to be clarified before we can make any estimates regarding chemical equations etc. and thus energy and entropy. The truth is we don’t have THE equation or cycle involved really, although everyone acknowledges that RNA was involved very early in the piece.

    Personally I think the entropy outcomes of the ADP/ATP system which is shared by all lifeforms is important. Back when life began I don’t know if you’d be able to call the first precursor of the protocell an “ecosystem”, so we are definitely not very much at the macro level there. My view is that it probably arose as a chemical system under a membrane, say strung between two rocks, which became so coordinated that it eventually acted as one. Water readily forms a filmy membrane between surfaces. However one is a lonely number, so that if a number of such chemical “bubbles” existed and they began to “trade” scarce nutrients with each other, perhaps you do have a nascent ecosystem, perhaps some kind of efficiency is involved, and did someone mention necessity?? So what nutrient was missing on the rockfaces of volcanic vents that starving semi-alive bubbles would need that may instigate trading?

    The other thing I found interesting I owe to good old Lehninger I think who describes in his biochem books the HUGE AMOUNT OF energy that plants have to deal with. And strangely enough not only photosynthesis, but the entire mitochondrial and ATP system is set up to deal with exactly what the article described, dissipating energy, but not in the sense proposed. The problem is too much energy. If our cells dealt with all the energy we give them in one hit they would die. Plants cannot deal with the amount of solar energy provided daily, so deal with it in a stepped process, as animal cells do in mitochondria. Do two of the most major biology energy production systems ultimately produce a net entropy or not?

    One thing I do agree on is that after the nascent filmy bubble of chemicals coalesced and later formed a protocell complete with RNA, they were no longer, I’m sorry, physical in the true sense of the word. That is why I do not worship crystals, even if you do. Because they are just solid objects. I really have trouble with the split in science where entire systems are studied by either physical scientists or biologists and never the twain shall meet. This is most noticeable in carbon chemistry where in spite of the urgency of the matter, some see the problem as a purely physical/chemical study, and others are only interested in microbial or plant production systems. Any theory that proposes to describe life cannot be a purely physical theory, because then it is about a rock.

    Lifeforms are not purely physical objects, they are indeed sentient. Even the most primitive bacteria has sophisticated responses, and one of these is to move away from the pipette- to survive. What rock does that? It is as though life is a response system, a response to the physical environment, a way of overcoming it. Which by the way is why it is so dangerous to degrade the biosphere, because the physical environment will take its planet back with no “by your leave” for any of us. Only by maintaining biosphere resilience can we avoid its worst excesses, and even then not always, such as in the case of earthquakes etc.

    So if life is seen as a response system, perhaps its function is to diminish entropy, not increase it, but as I do not know the results of the entropy production in the ATP or photosynthesis systems which would give a clue, I can’t be sure. Thus self-organisation in a community or ecosystem would be in order to decrease entropy found in the physicochemical surroundings, and this could be seen as a form of efficiency.

    In that type of scenario, organism death would be when the (body) system can no longer provide a response (literally) and when in fact entropy does increase. However this is simplistic because apostasis (cell death) appears to be some sort of necessary component of bodily systems so that cell growth (cancer) can actually cause illness and death.

    My final thought is that Einstein’s E=mc2 leaves out entropy, and that there is a second term giving a different equation which probably includes the circular/squared term but also an exponential one representing demise. That would give you energy and matter as well as decline and destruction, all of which are represented in the Universe and on this planet. That is, especially when watching the lion killing the buffalo, I can’t see how other than with trophic energy explanations (which was an important addition above) anyone can see too much order in that.

  • If it is true that chemical systems will as claimed here, progress towards more energetically dissipative states, that would be a real finding, let alone one that’s relevant to the origin of life. There are really two responses I can think of, one chemical or ‘experimentally’ based, the other is more theoretical. If the paper’s theory holds, then I would expect to see some new chemistry presented, at a very basic level. Chemical systems that tend to dissipate heat are known as chemical systems, that is what molecules do when they combine. Exothermic or endothermic etc. If a system will become complex because it tends toward a dissipative one, then my question would be, OK are the molecules of DNA and proteins in an organism at the most dissipative level? Because, intuitively I’d say they’re not. And that’s because they are not at their lowest energy state possible, meaning no more energy can be absorbed, and thus maximum energy would be dissipated. The second point, is theoretical. In short, the paper begins with the premise that reversing entropy is like “unscrambling eggs,” and we all have an intuitive sense of entropy. And yet, we are to imagine that given enough time, or with long enough energy input, the egg will unscramble itself? I wanted clarification on that point, but unfortunately the paper itself, which I’ve read, is unclear on this conclusion. So I’m frankly not really sold on the notion that “if you shine light long enough on atoms, it forms a plant,” which I assume means a thousand million years or so.

  • Ms. Copley,
    If I properly understood your last comment, there is actually plenty of order in a lion killing (eating) a buffalo; i.e., the uptake of essential nutrients by the lion and the continuation of its organization. The buffalo, too, has it’s own energy sources. In fact, how could there be any ecology if there wasn’t such an auto-catalytic cycle occurring amongst all the parts? Just the same, it does seem so very cruel to me, as perhaps it may to you. However, as raw as the whole thing is, I think that the cruelty view is mistaken; that is, there really isn’t a separate lion and buffalo, just the cycle of an evolving universe in the process of becoming aware of itself. Of course, that includes humans feeling repugnance over such apparent barbarity, but humans judge it as such only on account of their increased sentience. The proposal (of the universe becoming aware of itself) might seem too new-agey for most on this forum, but then what theoretical argument can make a good case against it? I realize that it’s not the topic under discussion, but it might help serve to clarify the role of all processes, thermodynamics included.

  • In case readers are interested in more details, here is a link to a video-recorded lecture that I gave in Stockholm in September 2014 on the research referred to in this article:

    Jeremy England

  • So humans are charged by 2LoT to destroy every world that they populate? And as efficiently as possible whilst maintaining their own integrity? We are the most efficient agents of entropy that have yet emerged. The best thermal soup chefs in town. Nothing more. I like that.

  • Regarding the Karolinska talk, what a wonderful exposition! We can see in action the very resonance that Mr. England is describing in his subjective consciousness of it; that is, knowledge itself is a highly efficient entropy producer. Consider all the historical work that has gone into finally bringing us to this point in our understanding, which of course is driven by our need to understand–understanding being such a great dissipater. And what is so groundbreaking is that England’s theory will not only describe life, but all its processes. I can’t wait for these insights to percolate through government, economics, education, social culture, etc. The morass of incongruent, anachronistic belief systems and concepts that mostly serve, at this point, in obstructing energy flow will be seen for what they are. Also, must comment that the guy has heart!

  • Nature always selects the connections that dissipate the most energy (for any given set of conditions within space and time.) To me that explains the entire building process of existence, which could be said to have started with the thermodynamic processes of the subatomic particles as they congealed into atoms. This thermodynamic mechanism has shown us to be infinitely creative; i.e., from an initial environment of hydrogen/helium atoms, gravitational effects create stars and galaxies which create planets which create proteins which create life which creates mind, etc. All of it works to extraordinary perfection in a phase-based manner, although we know that any actual results are statistical, rather than predetermined. My question here is the larger one of, what is It? Of course we need to understand the parts, but the Whole presents itself as requiring an explanation as well. Of course we can imagine that the answer will be a thermodynamic mother lode!

  • In answer to Phil Greenfield’s pessimism, dumping entropy is not the same as destroying the Earth. Entropy is not useless energy but a gradient of concentration/dissipation–it’s all relative. So, yes, we’re increasingly efficient at creating it, but what we’re actually creating is the potential in space for other forms to avail themselves of “our” degraded energy. All free energy emanating from the sun is in various degrees of degradation as it channels through the Earth. So, given that that’s the case, what is so absolutely amazing is that there doesn’t seem to be any limitation to nature’s ability to achieve resonance and thus siphon some of this energy off at various (infinite?) points along this channel. What can possibly be the terminus of this creative niche/ecosystem building process?

  • England’s work is indeed an amazing lens… It needs further investigations to be accepted by Scientists internationally.. Can’t believe Life has a direct link with thermodynamics as England is suggesting..

  • Thanks Caroline for your comments, and I take your point that from the Lion’s point of view, order has increased. However my point, perhaps badly put, was that in order to create such order, a great deal of disorder occurs, i.e. to the Buffalo. Whether it is cruel or not is not relevant to the way the world actually works, and is a value judgement that although I might feel it, I know it has no place whatsoever in how Nature works, so is non-scientific, and actually non-realistic. Nature’s brutality enables natural selection to work, that is reality whether it offends our sensibilities or not, and without natural selection we’d all still be protocells!
    Similarly without decomposition there are few nutrients, so the dissipation of energy occurs in the breakdown of matter which is required for any creation of order in the future. The biosphere is complex precisely because it contains a huge amount of disorder as well as order, involving not only building a trophic order, but breakdown of physical and biotic entities also. Therefore I was responding to the comments from others that this discussion does not involve death, and not only that, but inherent in complexity in the natural world is an immense amount of disorder that occurs well before death e.g. cell apostasis, disease etc.!
    You also speak as you indicated a little esoterically about the universe’s ability to self-observe. The fact that the bacterium can observe its surroundings and instigate a myriad of behaviours to survive is an early indication of this ability, which is heightened as creatures become more complex. However that cannot be extended to the physical universe which does not observe itself, and herein lies the difference between animate and inanimate. The fact that sophisticated organisms now have telescopes to view the universe does not mean at all that the physical Universe can view itself. The human race is a recent organism that has no value in terms of how the Universe operates, and it can operate not only without humans, but any form of life on this Earth. Are you suggesting that if life disappeared, the Universe could still view itself? Observance is a property of life that is not inherent elsewhere in the Universe. The fact that it arose does not suggest that it is an endpoint of development of the Universe, only that it arose! There is no clear step-by-step trend to this enormous phenomenon elsewhere in the Universe, it just seems to have arisen from bacteria onwards only on this planet. Therefore I suggest it is not an inherent property of the Universe, rather a restricted property of Life on this planet.
    But life no doubt conforms to some extent to how the Universe works, except that life seems to be a separate phenomenon that has evolved awareness (and/or sentience) from the bacteria onwards; considerable mobility compared to rocks and the like; the ability to communicate from bacteria onwards; and a replication mechanism which is somewhat sophisticated. These properties are not particularly representative of how the universe works as a whole, and it is the uniqueness of them that makes life a special entity within the universe, and thus I use the word phenomenon to describe it.
    Some aspects of the biosphere may be explained by dissipation of energy, and surely decomposition would be a good place to start for that! This is largely a process that could be described as disorder of matter rather than creation of order, but it creates the platform for the ecosystem to survive, and it certainly would create significant energy dissipation into the surroundings I would imagine. The dualistic nature of processes should not be simplified into the idea that the complexity is based on the creation of order alone in the combined biotic/abiotic system that we call the biosphere.
    That is why I wafted on about Einstein, because inherent in that is the creation of matter from energy, and it is the reverse process, the degradation of matter into energy, that can be important, and I am not sure if perhaps we need further equations to describe that. However it may well be that the dissipation of energy describes it very well, and therefore the process of degradation of matter as in decomposition may fit the mold better than the creation of order does, dissipating much energy!
    The organism is a dualistic system of complexity, and this translates at the macro system into the ecosystem, where degradation is every bit as important as the assembly of order. One could perhaps see oxygen/CO2 cycle in phytoplankton as the production of order by benefitting life, but I am not sure whether net energy is dissipated there. Perhaps the development of chloroplasts and yes, trees, did in fact make that process more efficient. Perhaps the ATP/ADP energy system in bacteria was made more efficient in terms of energy dissipation by the step-down process of energy production in the mitochondria, the development of which Nick Lane points out, is so specialised that it is the reason multicellular life is highly unlikely in the rest of the Universe.
    Personally I certainly applaud Dr. England for establishing a theory for non-equilibrium systems and relating them to life, because if there is one thing that is fairly certain, it is not equilibrium conditions that are maintained in complex biological systems, it is stable, dynamical, non-equilibrium systems (described by Kauffman).
    However there is an extremely important caveat here, biological systems aren’t severely non-equilibrium, because then they become entropic, or subject to random perturbations e.g. in agricultural crops soil carbon levels swing around (no surprise really) seemingly without thresholds. Intact ecosystems must be only slightly or just non-equilibrium and there must be a reason for that. Therefore Dr. England may find levels wherein there is more efficiency than in the completely non-equilibrium system, or at least I would dearly love to see someone test that once this theory is refined further.
    Without recognising this we are probably not talking about intact systems, but disturbed ones such as logged forests or diseased organisms subject to random perturbations and instability, which are truly non-equilibrium. So I hope we don’t just have black and white here, because that definitely won’t go all the way to describe life, which as mentioned above, have several reasons why they DO NOT function like purely physical systems, although undoubtedly obeying physical laws. Lifeforms/systems are not precluded therefore from from showing attributes associated with physical systems, but it is my guess they circumvent them sometimes. The general principles may indeed apply, but there may need to be refinements, and it should be recognised at the very least that only a severely degraded ecosystem is completely non-equilibrium. My question is though is there an advantage to being slightly non-equilibrium compared to being completely non-equilibrium, or completely equilibrium? For example if your temperature never varied would that be good? Obviously if it swung wildly like carbon in agricultural fields, neither would that. Some things seem tightly controlled like pH of blood whereas others seem to be subject to great flux such as cytoplasmic contents. Complete equilibrium in biological systems may however be a myth and some level of disequilibrium may be life’s great trick, but certainly not complete disequilibrium.

  • I am expanding on my last post because I think the article misses a vital part of what life actually does. I will try and give you paras this time, they don’t seem to work well on this site, so it all ran together last time which is awful for reading.

    The question of a community being equilibrium or not is quite different from the question of an organism. It is true that as a whole the biosphere absorbs solar radiation and dissipates it as IR, thus contributing to the entropy of the Universe. But what the natural world does is not to move in the direction that the external forces are pushing them, it is almost the opposite. Otherwise the natural world would not have oxygenated the planet in order that it does not have to respond to an external world dominated by CO2.

    Almost all of the processes found in ecosystems put that ecosystem in a state where it is certainly not in equilibrium with its surroundings, with the driving geological or climatic forces, but rather is somewhat in control of them, so may even reverse the situation where the biota control the geology and the climate to some degree e.g. weathering, forest-atmosphere dynamics etc. This is not the same as the proposal that they are going in the direction of the driving forces, they are not, nor is the ecosystem in equilibrium with its surroundings unless it it is so disturbed that it is virtually finished.

    So this presents something of a dilemma, we have a somewhat non-equilibrium ecosystem that is largely divorced from the prevailing environmental conditions, and largely “running its own show”. A disturbed system however becomes increasingly subject to the tugs of the physical planet. The biosphere is increasingly becoming a more non-equilibrium entity which is subject to the whims of the physical planet, due to humans.

    The intact ecosystem has processes and interactions which override those of the external system and allow it to operate independently. As such it is not “strongly” non-equilibrium, even though one aspect of that may hold true to an extent, which is the solar energy. Even that has been subject to modification by the development of chloroplasts for photosynthesis, in which energy is controlled in a step-down process.

    The situation of an individual organism is that if it is in equilibrium it is dead, its body
    temperature and other processes are the same as the background state. So by definition a living being is non-equilibrium. But again the development of homeostatic temperature control in mammals is a highly sophisticated mechanism to ensure external drivers are not in control.

    It needs to be understood that life has achieved sophisticated mechanisms to override the external physical controls, and in some cases to reverse that situation altogether, thus influencing the climate or other environmental conditions such as nutrient supply, extensively. It is the factor most forgotten in spite of it being common knowledge, in studies of soil carbon and other processes that appear to be physical, but in fact have been taken over by the microbial or other communities. Therefore I would personally say that biota in general DO NOT go in the direction of the driver, unless they are a highly fragmented or disturbed system. Often there is a big rift between the direction of the physical scientists and that of the biological ones too! That absolutely must be addressed in these kinds of communications.

    So when ecologists continually talk about “equilibrium” in forests, I think this is probably not terribly good. It is equally not good when physical scientists describe the biosphere as being physically driven. It hasn’t been for several Billion years.

    Where does this leave the England findings? Those billions of years ago, the system WAS physically driven. The early progenitors of life did not have the sophisticated individual and community mechanisms that enabled them to divorce themselves from the drivers. As such the England approach is probably pretty spot on for the early progenitors of the protocells. But increasingly after that biota became less driven by the physical planet, and more by their own internal machinations, to the point where the physical drivers in fact became driven in many cases by the biota. Interestingly though there does seem to have been developments in both mitochondria and chloroplasts which changed the approach to energy, and this may involve more sophisticated mechanisms to dissipate energy, even if not more of it!

    Therefore one must distinguish the simplicity of the origins from the complexity of the biota from about one Ga onwards when both community and oxygenation were well defined. One must also distinguish the disturbed highly non-equilibrium simplistic ecosystem from the intact resilient, very mildly non-equilibrium one. What applies to the very simplest protocell does not apply to the sophistication of the mammal. Much more work will be needed to determine how complex intact ecosystems and organisms are driven, and their relationship to entropy, in comparison to the simple proto-cell or the highly degraded ecosystem, although some attempts have been made.

    One should not confuse descriptions such as by England for progenitor cells with entropic descriptions of more complex lifeforms or communities such as by Harte or Aoki. This is very important, the controlling processes may not involve the same effects or outputs at all since life has come a very long way from that first protocell progenitor to the point where it controls the planet rather than the other way around. Nowhere is that more obvious than in the negative controlling influence exerted by the human species on the climate.

    Therefore what life actually does is cheat, and manipulate, the system. That is, life on this planet has found a way to operate somewhat independently of the Universe, and not be driven by it, which no doubt is an unique phenomena in that Universe. The only thing that seems to want to reverse that progressive attainment is the human race. The physical processes of the Universe will readily regain control as we stuff the place up.

  • The simple fact that England has developed contrasting system structure formation theory based on energy dissipation from Darwin’s generally accepted theory that creates intense examination is very remarkable in science.
    Having gone through what has been done so far and opinions from other leaders on England’s postulation, a number of questions trigger in mind,notably:
    1) How congruent to energy conservation law is England”s analysis or is it in violation?
    2) Emphasis is system structure arrangement via energy dissipation, what about energy infusing systems from natural state formation? Would there be a contradiction?
    3) How wholesome is England’s new theory when tested from cross-disciplinary fields like reproductive science, chance of sex of a person at formation ,bioengineering applications, other advanced technologies?
    Whatever the case, time and world wide experimentation outcomes across disciplines
    will serve as solid basis for validation of this new theory. We have our hands crossed as we keenly follow intellectual discourse of England’s theory of life formation.

    Martin Atayo

  • Caroline C., I think your difficulty stems from a couple of premises that aren’t very helpful to you here. One is the premise that Life is unique and special. Science no longer supports that view. To be sure, Nick Lane writes very convincingly about mitochondria but he doesn’t get it that life IS complexity and robustness–the antithesis of single ways of achieving a goal. Also, your concept of equilibrium and non-equilibrium seems to be getting you in a muddle. Very simply put, non-equilibrium processes are those that have a source of energy and a sink for waste. It’s the relatively more energetic form of energy at the source that allows work to be performed as that energy is consumed to fuel processes of dissipation. Therefore, non-equilibrium processes always involve energy gradients; it’s these that serve to fuel the entire Earth, radiating the left over heat out into space. The entropy produced by these processes is way more than that produced through the simple radiation of solar energy from the Earth without them. While this process is responsible for creating adaptive structures that may look as though they’ve achieved equilibrium, all such structures are merely holding patterns. The reason these holding patterns look so stable is that they have adapted so well at transducing energy, but that is what they are always doing, moving energy from source to sink–remove the source and none of it would exist. Regarding the esoteric theory about the universe becoming aware of itself, I didn’t say that it “has the ability to observe itself”, per se. The point is not about what humans can see with their telescopes, or any such partial aspect of human experience. It has to do, foremostly, with the idea that, whatever this Universe is, it is one thing. If you follow developments from the Big bang forward you can see the stages that it goes through, each one opening up new rules, new possibility spaces, which is what emergence is. The rules that create stars and galaxies are different than the rules that create RNA, amino acids and proteins, and different than those that create mind, etc. It’s all one thing though, all possibilities inherent from the beginning. The fact that life can perceive visible light, sound waves, odors and senses of touch by converting such signals into electrical patterns in the brain is not the big story. Perception doesn’t have to be something manufactured by the brain. Atoms, molecules, amino acids, proteins, cells; etc., are aware at the level of their own field of action. This field of action carries the same significance at all scales. The entire universe is a scaffolding of participating, self-aware, parts (which reveals androcentrism for what it is–the wish to be special.) Human beings aren’t special and life isn’t special, but I would say that the Universe is special!

  • Thanks for your comments Caroline. It appears I may have misinterpreted your observer Universe to mean the one that is commonly described as the anthropogenic universe, where due to the immense fluke as it were of all these constants and processes eventually leading to the human race perceiving them, the universe may have arisen because of us. That has to be the biggest croc ever, proposed by serious astronomers, and I thought perhaps you might have been arguing that view. Sorry.

    You are also right about my muddle about equilibrium to some extent. That is because the ecological literature tends to talking quite a bit about the equilibrium state of ecosystems, as opposed to ones that are disturbed and thus disequilibrium. I thus decided that there must be a gradient, leading from mildly disequilibrium to strongly disequilibrium to get around what I think is misplaced terminology in the literature, that of the mature “equilibrium” ecosystem. I now realise that I may have not seen this correctly.

    It is now evident to me that an ecosystem in equilibrium with its physical environment is probably almost non-functional, like a dead body, subject to random physical processes, and that a disequilibrium ecosystem is the more stable, functional one. There may be therefore be a gradient from equilibrium (effectively dead) to highly disequilibrium in the evolution of ecosystems. And this also applies to the evolution of the organism. Mind you in growth one goes from the non-existent to the cells to the complex and then to death or non-existent again. What is going on here, is it equilibrium to non-equilibrium and back again?

    Therefore the problem of order arises. A dead body may be like a crystal, with low entropy, in that it has a good deal of order, albeit provided almost entirely by its surroundings. A functioning organism on the other hand, has a high degree of order and complexity, but also a number of processes going in the opposite direction such as apostasis or cell death, which degrade ordered structures, yet it is not controlled entirely by its surroundings and their drivers, but by internal dynamics. Similarly with ecosystems. And then disorder takes over so that it dies and returns to an equilibrium with its surroundings i.e. it ceases to regulate temperature and nutrients and so on.

    The folks that studied fractals in the early days found that order was an emergent property of chaotic systems. Therefore order seems to arise both in highly disequilibrium situations, but also in highly structured, low entropy, equilibrium ones, such as the crystal, or even death. This seems problematic.

    You are right that my interpretations may be a little muddled as I am still feeling my way around the physics of this, and comparing them with the ecological interpretations so far. I still hold that complex ecosystems no longer necessarily go in the same direction of the drivers as simpler ecosystems, which are closer to the equilibrium situation. Not to say that if the Sun disappeared we would be in trouble, but other drivers of possible entropy production/decrease are no longer so much in control of lifeforms e.g. substrates.

    Therefore another issue arises which is that the point of origin of life is closer to the physically-bound situation of a simplistic system, rather than a highly complex organism or ecosystem. Therefore it is actually closer to the equilibrium, rather than disequilibrium situation. I therefore must say that I think there could be a problem with England’s proposal in that regard, at least since the origin of life seems to reflect more the equilibrium rather than disequilibrium system. That is, from the inanimate, or dead organism in equilibrium with its surroundings, arose the animate, or living, which eventually blossomed into organisms and later communities with such complexity on the planet, that life is able to operate well beyond its main drivers, and thus be in disequilibrium with its environment.

    It may be possible that Jeremy England shows us more about how complex systems arise in a disequilibrium condition, than about the far more simplified entities that arose at the dawn of life, largely in equilibrium with their environments. How order arises in chaotic systems is of great interest, so this may be of considerable value. To study the origins of life one needs a very simple system that is very nearly in complete equilibrium with its environment.

    Somehow the same thing happens when ecosystems become disturbed, they become more and more subject to the pull of the physical environment, so that they are driven by random physical processes from the abiotic world, rather than internal processes. This is chaos with the order and complexity removed, for example the web of life disintegrates, but it seems to lead to the same point, that of equilibrium with the external world. Therefore both death and ecosystem disturbance return living systems to the point where they arose, in equilibrium with external physical processes. Otherwise they are not, and are ordered and complex, and this order and complexity seems to arise from chaos and disequilibrium.

    I have thus revised my view of gradients of disequilibrium to one of equilibrium (birth and death; disturbed ecosystems) grading to disequilibrium (order and complexity, organisms and intact ecosystems). Fortunately this is a simpler explanation than I made earlier (sorry about that, work in progress) but it completely reverses the general ecology literature, as well as the outcomes from England’s work.

    Either way the emphasis in ecological literature on equilibrium and disequilibrium probably needs re-appraisal. Systems at equilibrium are generally low entropy. I am suggesting this may be nearly the case for the origin of life, but later on increased levels of entropy or chaos resulted in higher order and complexity, and allowed distancing from system drivers. The ability of life to increase chaos may in fact be its greatest feature.

    This leads me to the view that the ATP system and photosynthesis probably both have net positive entropy. Only further investigations and experiments into chaos theory, non-equilibrium systems and processes such as photosynthesis will tell us more. I therefore predict that England’s research will show us more about the evolution of complex ordered life systems than it will about the simplistic life found at its origins, and that when photosynthesis is finally nailed completely it will prove to be a net entropic process.

    I do understand the input of solar radiation leading to a net entropic output of heat from the planet. And I agree that a good deal of entropy flux is involved with the Earth. But my understanding is that the entropy output is largely due to the temperature difference between shortwave radiation (solar input) and longwave radiation which is much cooler, thus producing more entropy than solar input does. Also although lifeforms are involved in entropy flux, the amounts are much lower than those involved in primarily diffusion but also reflection from my understanding. The net entropic release from the planet is thus largely due to the difference between LW and SW radiation and not due to lifeforms. Sorry I have forgotten the figures and source, but I think that is right. You can have a look at the abstract by Weiss for confirmation ( who gives material entropy as about 3-4% of the total with radiative entropy comprising the rest, although there are many other literature sources e.g. Stephens and O’Brien (

    Life is thus a small pea in the entropy pod. More interesting is what life is doing to produce the entropy it does produce, albeit on a small scale compared to radiative diffusion etc.

  • Caroline C., just a brief response to the doubts you posed concerning MEP as it pertains to atmospheric entropy. While it’s true that not all processes are maximal, such as a humid atmosphere vs. a dry one, averaged over time, everything, abiotic as well as biotic processes, work together to maximize entropy production. See by Tyler Volk and Olivier Pauluis 2010 for a short discussion regarding it. However, they do say towards the end of the paper, “Obviously MEP theory is not going to be able to postulate a single holistic calculation that can simply be applied across the boards of physical-chemical and biological systems.” I say, why not, if space, time and other wide-ranging probabilities can be figured in? PS. While I’m unable to follow the equations I can still follow the drift of this wonderful literature!

  • We recently put our first new research work in connection to this article online at in advance of peer review. This is an exposition of the theoretical argument. The next paper is going to be based on simulations meant to test the main prediction.

  • Though particle physicists can’t claim with certainty to have isolated a truly elemental particle, I personally believe I am more than qualified to speak with profound authority on the subject – because I am one. And so are you.

    “Cogito ergo sum.” (Descartes)

    I think, therefore I am. One must exist in order to experience, and the fact you experience is convincing proof you exist.

    You ostensibly consider yourself to be an existence, else you would call yourself “we” instead of “I”; but what exactly is an existence?

    Since the time of Democritus of Abdera (460-370 BC) it has been postulated the Universe is comprised of particles which – though they may be profoundly minute in nature – are not infinitely divisible. It is inherently logical that before the smallest non-empty set can be assembled, there must exist an individual element with which the set may be populated, a single existence that is not composed of independent parts, an irreducible physical manifestation consisting only of itself. I call this elemental identity an ‘entity’. So far, physicists haven’t been able to find a truly verifiable entity and it is entirely possible they would not recognize one even if they could isolate it.

    The material objects with which we interact in our environment are composites. A chair, for example, is the label we use to conveniently describe a set of parts including a seat, legs, back and arms. If its construction is of wood, then those parts are made of sets labeled ‘cells’ which are comprised of sets labeled ‘molecules’ which are, in turn, formed by sets labeled ‘atoms’, whose protons, neutrons and electrons have been theoretically superseded as fundamental particles by hadron groups populated by even smaller sub-sets of quark and lepton particles and anti particles which, themselves, may or may not be truly irreducible.

    An irreducible physical entity is an existence. Everything comprised of those entities, from a proton to a galaxy cluster, is a composite. An existence is not a composite and a composite is not an existence, they are two mutually exclusive sets – one which, by definition, must be limited to a single element versus one which must not be limited to a single element.

    Your body is a composite – a collection of billions of separate elements or fundamental particles, each with its own individual properties. Each basic particle pre-existed your birth and will ultimately survive your demise. Each has a unique history, a separate location and physical domain. Logically this is a conundrum. How can you be an existence if that manifestation which you consider to be yourself is a composite? Indeed, each existence has a unique identity and a collection of existences will have as many separate, individual identities as there are elements in the set.

    The Pinocchio Hypothesis

    To reconcile this disparity, hordes of scholarly pundits with names basking in beakers of alphabet soup profess that if you toss just the right combination of terrestrial ingredients into a primordial cauldron and stir it really, really hard for a very, very long time, you can produce a composite that thinks, propagates and experiences a single existence with an individual identity. That may sound silly (I call it the Pinocchio hypothesis), but which lowly layman in his right mind would dare contradict an entire horde of scholarly pundits – especially when they are basking in beakers of alphabet soup. So, with an eye of newt and wing of bat, a pinch of this and a dash of that, these pundits explain away this egregious departure from logic by embuing a common natural phenomenon called emergent properties (EP) with extra, more mystical powers, permitting them to cite biochemical evolution as the exclusive source of all life on Earth.

    But even the most tenured of scholars aren’t able to explain the specific mechanics of EP that transform a body with 8×10~27 atoms into a single existence with an individual identity. In fact, there seems to be two distinct factions in the EP camp. The ‘integration’ group assures us without hesitation that some unknown power of unification melds a composite into a single identity and awareness. This faction would have us believe 8×10~27 = 1. On the other hand, the ’emergence’ group tries to convince us 8×10~27 = 8×10~27+1, claiming any sense of self is due to the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. They expect us to believe composites can conjure up a supervening entity, a temporary ego or virtual being with its own separate awareness and identity. In their practice of this mathematical sorcery, proponents of EP are idiomatically reduced to casting the incantations “integrated” and “emergent” because “abracadabra” and “hocus pocus” are currently shunned and disfavored by the orthodox scientific community.

    Hogwarts! If this is science, then Harry Potter is the next Isaac Newton. If you believe you are the corporal product of emergent properties then you are claiming that you are an occurrence and not an existence. Merlin, himself, would have been embarrassed by such magical thinking.

    So what is life?

    To quote Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous character Sherlock Holmes in Chapter 6 of ‘The Sign of Four’, “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” Life is no chemical accident, nor was it conjured into fruition by some benevolent and omnipotent deity. Life is simply the product of a spectrum of undiscovered entities, irreducible elements with the attribute of natural animation that long ago began to manipulate the resources of this planet or ‘wear the mud’ so to speak.

  • Here is the flaw in the second law *as it is applied today*:
    “There are more ways for energy to be spread out than for it to be concentrated. Thus, as particles in a system move around and interact, they will, through sheer chance, tend to adopt configurations in which the energy is spread out.”

    He, and many other scientists, are confounding two forms or entropy:
    1) Entropy of energy (can work be done?);
    2) Entropy of particles (how probable is the configuration).

    The maximum entropy of energy alone occurs when all particles have the same probability of emitting as receiving energy and this in turn occurs when all particles are equally spaced, a highly unlikely configuration except in a rapidly expanding environment, which is no the case on earth.

    The most probable configuration of particles, corresponding to the highest entropy, is when particles are randomly distributed and this occurs at a much lower than maximum thermal entropy.

    Thus the probability that matter will accumulate is much higher (because there are more of these configurations) than even distribution (which is where the maximum thermal entropy occurs).

    And so the second law is preserved, but the second law considers thermal entropy or configuration entropy but not both simultaneously.

  • On England’s theory that systems of particles adapt their structures to become better at dissipating energy.:
    From my understanding in computational chemistry, molecules and system of particles become stable only in their ground state, which implies lowest potential, which in turn implies dissipation of energy as long as they are not yet in their ground state. To achieve this, they may have to ‘try’ anywhere from a few to countably infinitely many conformations taking as little or as much time before they reach the ground state. When I say ‘try’ I mean there are environmental or extrinsic factors or even intrinsic factors affecting what pathways they take to reach their ground state. If the factors affecting reaching the ground state are intrinsic or while extrinsic is produced as a by-product of previous changes such as heat, reaching ground states can be spontaneous and take little time. It can also take as much if the factors are not yet available, hence the systems is stuck in the intermediate states.
    In this sense, England’s theory is nothing new but a restatement of the long time observed phenomena in chemistry.

  • Not new at all. Duke’s Bejan has been stating this Constructal Law since 1996

    Two books – one for laymen , one textbook.

  • Deep Sea Hydrothermal Vents can serve as a perfect example of the theory this scientist is proposing for the origins of life.
    At last someone makes use of the unlimited potential of his own mind which is long overdue.

  • Darwin is to Biology what Newton is to Physics … he explained the mechanics of what’s going on, but not the interesting bits. Biology is still waiting for its Einstein …

  • Oh how cute, another physicist that thinks the line from organic molecules to life is straight and simple. Sure would make complex life a bit more common. What a shame it probably isn’t. After reading the paper, I noticed he doesn’t make much of a case for the commonality of this process occurring on any other planet than ours.

  • I want to reverse the question and ask “if true, wouldn’t a carbon computer architecture be possible to solve intractable problems?” Of course we’ve been here before. Remember proten folding and the prospect of building computational devises out of proteins. But it turned out proteins don’t automatically fold to a minimum, they evolve. And the evolutionary algorithm doesn’t actually find an actual minimum fold, just an approximate. And only for ONE VARIABLE, not a consortium of hundreds of thousands of interdependent systems found in higher life forms. And while those approximate minimum folds could conceivably be found by natural selection in a time frame of a billion years or less, building higher life forms like living cells with the same algorithm doesn’t presently seem to be a reasonable prospect. Am I wrong? Anyway, math books exist that are full of theoretically sound formulas that require quantum computers to actually solve. Could a carbon computer do what a quantum-computational devise might do if one could be built. Stop and think, with so much carbon and so much sunlight going on all around us, big things must be happening right before our eyes, our minds aware. Show me a pair of sissors, and I’ll show you proof man exists. Show me a man, and I’ll show you proof God has hands.

  • Is it really necessary to undertake this sort of tough exercise, which yields non-unique result, just to prove the obvious? Isn’t this another classic case of a physicist trying to solve a non-existent problem, in a way that is difficult to understand?

  • Jeremy England’s theory of life states that,
    “This means clumps of atoms surrounded by a bath at some temperature, like the atmosphere or the ocean, should tend over time to arrange themselves to resonate better and better with the sources of mechanical, electromagnetic or chemical work in their environments,”
    But a certain clumps of atoms have a specific set of properties (Chemical properties such as electronegativity,electropositivity,etc),such that,they have properties which are independent of the conditions of the system it is subjected to. That is,
    say you have a isolated system consisting of Air,Say you subject it to a fixed temperature,pressure and volume. Say you add work into the isolated system. The work here can probably be converted to heat,increase in pressure,decrease in volume,etc,with only one of the probables making the cut. But what is important is the ‘identity’ of the clumps of atoms will remain the same,that is,the external work will not alter the chemical properties of that matter. In addition, the same amount of work can also be recovered,provided there is extra energy provided to get it out of the system.
    A simpler example is a piezoelectric mater,you provide mechanical energy,it will give you electric energy and vice verse,but in the end it will ‘still’ remain a piezoelectric material.
    Besides,smart materials also give expected ‘dissipation driven adaptive organization’.
    And that ‘dissipation-driven organisation’ may be specific to a particular group of inanimate materials,for others it may be ‘absorption-conversion-dependent adaptive organisation’,since not all systems dissipate energy as heat or in any other form.
    Having said that, the theory will enable exploration of behavior of expected property changes in the systems.

  • ‘If England’s approach stands up to more testing, it could further liberate biologists from seeking a Darwinian explanation for every adaptation and allow them to think more generally in terms of dissipation-driven organization. They might find, for example, that “the reason that an organism shows characteristic X rather than Y may not be because X is more fit than Y, but because physical constraints make it easier for X to evolve than for Y to evolve,” Louis said.’

    Biologists already consider physical/functional constraints, within a Darwinian framework. Natural selection acts upon the available (standing or de novo) variation within a population, which does not include adaptations that are physically impossible or evolutionarily inaccessible from the current starting point, and selects against traits where physical/energetic constraints result in a fitness cost outweighing any adaptive benefit. But this work could add A new type of constraint to the list for consideration.

    I’m also interested to see how the biophysicists will separate out the effects of energy dissipation from a general correlation between respiratory/metabolic rate and reproductive output; the energy dissipation taking place as a necessary consequence of growth and reproduction from energy dissipation as a selective driver in itself.

  • @Diego – the argument introduced (see Morowitz calculus) is irrelevant for this theses. Morowitz calculated the probability for RANDOM combination – here we talk about GUIDED combination (by the laws of thermodynamics). If we introduce that in Morowitz calculus, the probability is next to 1.

  • Historical science: come up with a hypothesis, and then experiment in nature to prove it.
    Contemporary science: come up with a hypothesis, and then write a simulation it to prove it.

  • This really doesn’t seem new at all. The idea that life emerged in a context where energy inputs were high and the surrounding bath was low is already integral to all current origin of life models. That’s been obvious for many decades.

    The idea that organization will spontaneously arise under these circumstances is not novel. One obvious instance would be weather. Identifiable patterns repeatedly develop (but do not evolve), due to the energy flux provided by the sun, as governed by well-understood physical laws.

    The theory as described provides no insight into the evolution of systems similar to modern life, as it simply does not address how replicating systems can evolve and change.

    Consider the case of randomly arranged atoms shifting into clusters that more effectively dissipate input energy. To understand if this is evolution, we need to know how the efficient forms are favored over their ‘competitors’. If forms are inefficient at dissipating energy to the bath, they will retain more energy in their internal structure. Eventually, a critical point will be reached at which the cluster will break down due to this internal energy. If the cluster instead randomly reconfigures into a state that dissipates energy well, it will instead survive. This is simply conventional fitness selection, since there appears to be no mechanism by which this new arrangement could be transmitted to other clusters. Sans this transmission, this is not a life-like process, insofar as no self-copies are created.

    The work involving clusters of spheres that induce other clusters to enter similar geometrical structures is clearly closer, insofar as there is a primitive mechanism of transmission. This could account for the formation of unique mineral structures under the conditions described: high energy flux and dissipation to bath. However, it fails to provide sufficient information for complex lifelike processes. Origin of life research already recognizes that such organized mineral structures may have provided the templates and initial catalysts for the production of biomolecules under deep ocean vent conditions: energy flux & surrounding bath again.

    Once biomolecules have accumulated to locally significant concentrations, we must still work to understand precisely how information-dense replicators developed and assumed control over pre-existing chemical replicators to give rise to life as we know it.

    In short, I would be very surprised if any respectable origin of life researcher would doubt that energy fluxes and coupled baths were not involved intimately in the origin of life. This is trivial. The challenge is to understand the underlying chemical processes that could plausibly have driven this complex series of events. I do not understand what this theory adds to that effort. A real resolution to this question will require specific mechanisms, and will function in a conventional region of replication with selection.



  • This makes sense to me! According to this guy’s theory:

    “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.”

    So evolutionary history began with sunlight falling on the earth, and then plants evolved to more effectively dissipate the sunlight. But eventually the plant matter itself became a new energy reservoir, and animals evolved to consume and dissipate plant matter/energy. Eventually there were enough animals that their bodies became a new energy reservoir, and predators evolved to consume animals and dissipate their energy.

    Now, after millions of years, a huge reservoir of crude oil has built up inside of the earth. Dissipating this reservoir requires something far more intelligent than a predator. It requires human like intelligence to dig up and process the oil.

    This explains why dinosaurs had limited intelligence: because in their time there were no crude oil reservoirs to exploit. So increased intelligence would have made them less effective at dissipating the energy sources available at that time.

    This also proves that once all of the oil has been burned up, a zombie apocalypse will be necessary to dissipate human populations from urban centers to the countryside. After that some species will have the responsibility of consuming our bodies to dissipate the energy, which probably explains why we keep dogs and cats as pets.

  • To the naysayers, I think it’s safe to say that we have billions of examples of life at all scales bending in the direction of available sources of free energy, and, also, that this is a totally open-ended, ever-evolving process. That, through infinite rounds of reproduction, extraordinarily complex structures can develop out of this process, which makes each new starting point one of reduced uncertainty, is fantastic, to be sure, but nonetheless will be proved to be explained by the physics of energy dissipation from a source to a sink. That part, for me, is the given of what we can assume at this point. However, my question concerns the what of existence, itself, rather than the how; and contained within the what, the why. With our current knowledge we can make some large scale conjectures about the process as it’s been transpiring on Earth over the eons. For one, we can say that the Earth is self-organizing—that not one thing is exempt from the over-all energy transductions occurring; or, rather, everything is a product of them. And, furthermore, that these processes lay down layers, like floors in a building, each one a configuration that serves a particular stable adaptation. The human mind is like this with the way it recapitulates the reptilian, the mammalian and sapien developments. Everything from atoms to molecules, proteins, cells, etc., etc., are layers, in this regard—and, not incidentally, conscious at the level of their specific range of motion, since consciousness is a function of this very range of motion. So, what is the range of motion of the organizational power of the human neo-cortex, embedded in an environmental sea of energy relationships? Would this understanding, perhaps, help us understand the what of it all? But what if we started from the other end with a hypothesis that the Universe is a flower, in the process of becoming aware of its beauty? That would help us sort out the chaff of confusion and wasted heat of dead-end mental constructs from the wheat of truth—truth, here, meaning ideas that actually serve to connect, conduct and transduce flows of energy rather than obfuscate them. So, how does the hypothesis I just mentioned (which can be taken only as an analogy, obviously), provide clarity in this regard?

  • Actually, if one is speaking about the universe becoming aware of itself, the term “beauty” can only be a crude understatement in attempting to signify what that thing may may be. My main point is that the universe, whatever it is, is a whole; it is the ultimate closed system.

  • There isn’t enough information on conditions of environment(s) necessary for life to be wrought from which to then bring a verifiable set of experiments to test the hypothesis.

    I will suggest people such as England start from the beginning and slowly think forward. Start from the state of the universe, t < 1, with an expanding volume of space and time, and the initial plasma of force/energy. With these three entities realized as the only constituents of the early basketball-sized universe, the question is, what? How did life begin on earth 12-13 billion some-odd years later?

    Excuse me for letting go of your hand, and leaving you now. I have to go do something … .

  • Interesting stuff. Minimizing entropy requires intelligent work. Why organized, living systems require a Creator. This does not mandate the mechanism, progression (evolution, Darwin or otherwise). Just means that without the input of intelligent work, systems randomize and decay into chaos.

  • agreed this isn’t new. but the coffee scenario: the coffee may not reheat on its own. but come the next warm season it would be comparably warmer than it was in the last cold season. furthermore coffee grows mold and the water mostly evaporates and grows mold funguse. the mold itself can get very hot like compost, in a miniturised version, microorganisms.

  • Not at all a scientist, just an ocean-sailing journalist who spends too much time looking at the sea and sky and therefore thinks about stuff like this too much. What a fantastic article and discussion here. I wish I understood more of it, but I am learning a lot, which is the important thing.

    I’m with Beckwith. Great comment!

  • I think that Beckwith is being purposely silly–there’s obviously much more going on thermodynamically than the exploitation of more sophisticated fuel sources. I would say, in particular, the development of mind itself. Mind is the largest generator of entropy yet. It’s the organizer, par excellence, and MEP describes it’s growth and development. The mind is a consuming fire, that keeps getting brighter and brighter. I don’t suspect that anything will fall outside of its understanding given sufficient time. Understanding *is* its range of motion.

  • I mean, isn’t the mind in the numbers-crunching business, similar to the atom crunching that takes place inside of stars? Both emit light as a result of their condensing processes…

  • “You start with a random clump of atoms, and if you shine light on it for long enough, it should not be so surprising that you get a plant,” England said.

    Many people are having trouble with this statement, going so far as to ask “then why is there no life on Mars or Pluto?” The statement gives three variables.

    1) Matter (A random clump of atoms)
    2) Energy (Light)
    3) Time (For long enough)

    I suspect that the answer to your question is the third variable “for long enough.” What Mars and Pluto need is time. Give them a few more billion years. I would point out that the Mars Curiosity Rover recently discovered organic precursors on the red planet.

  • @Caroline Hitch: Yes, Beckwith is obviously being silly. But it’s my kind of silly.

    @Michael: Unless I’m missing something, the reason there’s no life on Mars or Pluto is there’s no heat bath like an ocean or atmosphere in those places to help things along. As I read the article, that is also a key ingredient.

    Questions in my mind: On this planet, what about the ocean and atmosphere themselves, which self-organize into complex weather and ocean-current systems to dissipate heat more evenly around the globe? Is this part of the same process described by England’s formula? Or is it something else entirely? (Remember, this is an ignorant layperson asking this question.)

    Also, what I find most fascinating about all this is that I had always thought of life as being anti-entropic. For example, I seem to remember reading something somewhere about James Lovelock’s work at NASA, when they were trying to figure out what sensors a Mars probe needed to detect life there, and Lovelock’s answer to the question–what do we look for?–was immediate and instinctive: entropy reduction.

    You can tell just by looking at our planet that it is not nearly as entropic as Mars or any other planet in the system. It looks alive!

    My layperson’s take on England’s theory (or whoever really first proposed this) is that self-organization (life and similar systems) is a necessary step on the road to perfect disorganization (entropy) in certain environments (this vaguely described “heat bath”).

    Does that seem reasonable?

    If so, then it’s all about the bath, isn’t it? What is it about the environment that requires life, etc., to help dissipate energy? Is it the atmosphere, which works to hold energy in?

  • Its quite interesting to think that modern science is only beginning to varify an ancient hermetic principle called “The Principle of Gender”. This has been around for thousands of years and even the ancients understood that life was created through the interplay of different forms of energy.

    To use England’s quote:- “You start with a random clump of atoms, and if you shine light on it for long enough, it should not be so surprising that you get a plant,” England said.

    “The part of the Masculine principle (light) seems to be that of directing a certain inherent energy towards the Feminine principle (atoms), and thus starting into activity the creative process.” The Kybalion (1908)

    Come one science… keep up! lol

  • As a mathematician, I was immediately struck by the failure to distinguish between necessary and sufficient conditions. Perhaps the fact that self-replication increases efficiency of a thermodynamic sort is a necessary condition for life to originate and evolve to produce within the time constraints imposed by the life span of a G-star like our sun, but it would be ridiculous to claim that it is sufficient. For sufficient conditions we must turn to biochemistry [which is still in its infancy as far as coming up with realistic scenarios for how life on earth may have originated, given this time constraint] and the laws of chemistry and physics relevant to mutation rates.

    And that is just the beginning. Astrophysics is important for understanding the special conditions in our solar system that made earth hospitable for almost 4 billion years of evolution. The gas giants, especially Jupiter, had to evolve stable near-circular orbits to protect earth from being ejected out of the solar system, and from bombardment by asteroids and comets, like the comet which split into almost twenty large chunks, all of which crashed into Jupiter. In the past year there was a National Geographic feature on the Late Heavy Bombardment apparently being due to a major disruption in the orbits of the gas giants, causing Uranus and Neptune to switch places. Life on earth is generally credited to have started only after that bombardment was over.

  • In response to Peter Nyikos: that’s why we have to go back to the potentials inherent in the initial conditions, i., e., Big Bang or whatnot. As you suggest, the Earth, per se, is highly improbable; however, the ingredients that led the way to it are not, such as the condensation of hydrogen out of the original plasma radiation, the gravitational implosion of hydrogen, the explosion of stars and the generational development of solar systems. These potentials for matter/energy to “build a universe”; i.e., layers upon layers of functional structure that all work together as one whole, is awesome, to say the least. England, et. al., are not going to be able to answer that question, which must refer back to the initial conditions and the question of why. The focus here, as I understand it, is restricted to understanding non-equilibrium thermodynamics at the level of life.

    However, the levels of development (or phases) of the Universe cannot be denied—everything rests on something else. This includes the development of mind. Mind makes the Universe transparent (as the condensation of atoms made the plasma transparent to light.) Obviously, humans didn’t invent this—there is no such thing as “humans”, only processes—thermodynamic processes, at that. I do think that thermodynamics will eventually be able to describe the how of all action, but it’s at a loss to explain the why. At least, as a science, it has the potential to consolidate our thinking about things, enabling us to increasingly discard the many useless fictions that currently pass as reality for humans today–even tho those fictions did arise thermodynamically! That’s why, one *has* to ask, what’s the direction this human/planet/universe going in?

  • I only read some of the comments so this may have been covered (and it was at least obliquely referred to in some of the comments I did read). But as a variant of anthropic reasoning I’d be curious to see how the ability to spontaneously generate complex dissipative structures depends on the fundamental “constants”.

    And I can’t wait for the emotional scene where I give heartfelt thanks to my son for helping me to dissipate energy !

  • Related also is the work by Dutch prof S. T. Bok as described in his 1963 book ‘Het Ontstaan van het Leven’; in which he sketches out the contours of thermodynamic processes as drivers of the development of life.

  • I’m not a scientist, having more of a creative personality, and assume that’s why i find this article loaded with boredom for me. But i went to a lecture he made i Sweden because i wanted to have a sense of how he might express himself and how he thinks. I had a professor in Chemistry that was very interesting but way above my head. I barely survived that class but had a wild ride while i was there.
    It is interesting that England is being pitted against Christianity…how sad. That takes away all the fun of possibly exploring the mental travels of a brilliant scientist…but instead, he will become the “anti-evolutionary icon” and that definitely reduces his stature.
    Even though he is brilliant in his field he is obviously a communicator. In this Sweden lecture, he draws from Nordic theology, and intuition to begin to communicate with his audience. I wonder what people would have said if he had drawn from The Scriptures, which by they way have worn out MANY anvils. Go ahead and try. Don’t wear yourself out.

  • England appears to be continuing down a path that has been prepared by many, only some of whom have been mentioned. Prigogine is the groundbreaker from the 1960s and 1970s. But among the others who took that work and amplified it and extended it into a more practical and detailed exposition of how nonlinear dynamics (far from equilibrium, in the realm of the famous “chaos” or turbulence) can maximize entropy production and thus favor life, Manfred Eigen and Peter Schuster (whose work in developing a real mathematical theory of how self-reproducing organisms could come about, driven basically by this thermodynamic natural selection process) should be mentioned.

    In addition, my former post-doctoral advisor John Ross and students have numerous papers showing the the complex cyclic chemical reactions of biochemistry are better producers of entropy than corresponding steady state reactions (obviously I am glossing over what “corresponding” means, for brevity in a comment!). This is a key step in understanding why life (with its complex cyclic chemistry even in simple bacteria) is so favored.

    So I am glad to hear that England is making progress, and look forward to more; for the public let’s just keep the people in context. Many have helped build this road.

  • Given the right conditions life should arise. Chemically and celestially given the right place, size, and elements life is not spontaneous. Darwin’s theory picks up after life has derived from a single common ancestor and Mendelian Genetics explains how traits are coupled with the chemical working of DNA and RNA binding and gene coding thus, modern genetics. If there is a physics equation that can explain how prokaryote organisms arise on a hospitable planet welcome it with full arms but, do not exclude it from the evolutionary biologists the founders of this science. It is clear the evolution needs RNA and DNA chemicals to proliferate and it is clear that competition fuels adaptation in species.

  • It is interesting theory to explain how atoms organize, evolve, reproduce to cheat on 2nd law of thermodynamics. However, still a long way from explaining how the whole silly life thing started, and what point it became immensely intelligent life. Until someone produces a single cell Amoeba in laboratory, it is not only a hypothesis. I wonder why no-one at MIT or Harvard are even trying to produce simplest of life forms from bunch of atoms.

  • I think most of you guys miss the point of this entirely. What this means, is that life in the universe is guaranteed. Even higher forms.

  • Ah, right. I have a theory too. My theory states that rocks become harder to resist the effects of erosion. Sometimes, just no.

  • A simple way of putting it is that matter organizes in order to move energy through it, creating internal order and releasing heat in the process.

  • Note to Mike: I hate to burst your bubble, but … read on.

    Brandon wrote “If there is a physics equation that can explain how prokaryote organisms arise on a hospitable planet welcome it with full arms but, do not exclude it from the evolutionary biologists the founders of this science”

    Actually, it is not evolutionary biologists, but biochemists, with evolutionary biologists playing second fiddle, and deducers of physics equations playing the role of spectators ready to step in if they detect some error by the players, who are needed to account for the first efficiently self-replicating organism, which might have used ribozymes instead of protein enzymes. In this case, there is still the daunting task of accounting for the thoroughness of the protein takeover, given that as the proto-enzymes start to become specialized, they are perforce more prone to errors than the ribozymes they are slated to replace, and thereby work against the survival of the proto-cells where they arose.

    If there never was a ribozyme, mRNA, tRNA, and DNA based life, then we don’t even have a clue as to how the first prokaryote arose.

  • If this theory gets eventually supported by strong data, it might gives more credibility to the “great filter”, a solution of the Fermi’s paradox stipulating that even if life is prominent in the universe, it always collapse before reaching an advanced stage technology. Facts supporting the possibility of a Universe full of life (like the estimated 10 billions of habitable planets in our galaxy alone) are not necessarily good new for human civilisation.

  • How is this different from Bejan’s Constructal law? It sounds like he’s just repackage a set of old ideas.

  • “I wonder why no-one at MIT or Harvard are even trying to produce simplest of life forms from bunch of atoms.”

    The number of processes that led to the formation of early life forms were happening constantly in the billions, over a relatively large amount of time, compared to the way we experience time.

    Someone at Harvard or MIT would have to be exceedingly lucky to find, much less create a self-replicating form of something we recognize as alive.

  • The rearrangement, I’m afraid, is not really so much the one described in England’s paper, where atoms spontaneously find new, stable states with each other to dissipate energy, it is the rearrangement of old theories in a preexisting matrix, intent on assailing an insurmountable wall. They purport to find a new order or form, and yet they still suffer the same problem of attempting to show how matter can break physical laws by a process akin to “unscrambling eggs”, which we know is physically impossible. And perhaps more importantly, how will it be possible to find a ‘new’ theory, or to think about the problem in a new way, when the only permissible opinions on the subject are filtered through the same kinds of traditional, academic sources? For example, I cannot publish in a pre-publication archive such as unless I am sponsored by another author. So that practice keeps, potentially, many contrary findings and/or results out of this debate.
    There is a concept, that given great amounts of time, and plenty of iterations (countless), it is possible for matter to self organize and become animate. To me that is the same kind of thinking that could be used to justify perpetual energy. “It will work, if only given enough time.” There is a not so subtle assumption, that the same might be achievable for the 2nd law as the first. The question “is this violating the 2nd law” is not really answered here, but the concept (based on the equations) is that it may be possible given “enough time and iterations.” And yet, just like the 1st law, we realize it isn’t possible to make more energy than we consume, nor is it possible for inanimate matter to violate a diffusion gradient or the passive flow of heat. These laws can’t be broken with more iterations or more time. A new perspective is needed on this intractable problem.

  • To Matthew Kosak, it appears that you’ve forgotten the Sun. No laws are broken and there’s no intractable problem as you suggest.

  • Isn’t a mirror a simple way of diffusing energy into a surrounding bath? By “mirror” of course I mean any highly reflective surface. If Professor England’s theory is right, shouldn’t we be seeing vast numbers of pieces of reflective surfaces all around us?

  • This article includes this quote from Dr. England: “You start with a random clump of atoms, and if you shine light on it for long enough, it should not be so surprising that you get a plant.”
    I keep looking for the place where England explains what he really meant, and I’m not seeing it.
    On the face of it that quote seems to contradict well established experimental science going back almost 200 years that proved that spontaneous generation doesn’t work. The experiments have already been done to test England’s theory, and the results are that no plant results from shining light on random clumps of atoms, no matter how long you do it. You can test this theory yourself very easily. You go borrow some of grandma’s mason jars of canned vegetables. This gives you a starting point with a sealed, sterilized container of atoms mixed in just the right proportions that a plant could spring spontaneously into existence because the material in the jar used to be a plant. Now, set those mason jars out in the sun so the light shines into them. Grandma would not store them that way. She would keep them in the dark. But putting them out in the light does not result in those materials forming newly generated plants. We know what happens instead. The light mostly causes the breakdown of larger molecules. The pigments will fade as the pigment molecules break down. The vitamins will be destroyed. The contents of the jar of vegetables will turn to mush and dissolve into a much more finely and evenly distributed solution of simpler molecules. It doesn’t matter how long a time you give it. That’s why ultraviolet light is sometimes used to sterilize things, because shining light on organic molecules causes them to break down. The same thing will just keep on happening. If theory contradicts experimental science, it’s the theory that is probably wrong. Am I somehow misunderstanding what England is theorizing? Or is his statement above a mis-application of his theory? Or, is the whole thing more in the realm of cold fusion?

  • The argument introduced (see Morowitz calculus) is irrelevant for the formation of ice crystals with the thermodynamic stability far from equilibrium, which are comprised of those entities, from a themodynamic perspective. Minimizing entropy requires intelligent work. Because such phenomenon can only be a purely physical theory, because then it is that more obvious than in the completely non-equilibrium system, or does the hypothesis I just mentioned which can be absorbed, and thus siphon some of whom have been mentioned? At least, as a response to the direction it is almost the opposite. Contemporary science: come up with a hypothesis, and then into management.

    According to new research led by Philip Marcus of the current starting point, which selects against traits where physical/energetic constraints result in a recent book published by myself in 2009, K. Not that my paper is going on thermodynamically than the ribozymes they are not, nor is the ‘identity’ of the universe might ever see if chance combinations of its structure.

  • ““You start with a random clump of atoms, and if you shine light on it for long enough, it should not be so surprising that you get a plant,”

    What happen then if we shine light on a random clump of plants for long enough? What do we get? Is life the most efficient way of dissipating energy?

    If some higher state of dissipation is possible AND if this is the main driver of evolution and life then we should have achieved this long time ago. But we haven’t. Life is a very recent phenomena.

    As important as the end result is the journey to get there. In a sufficient long time ANYTHING is possible including the collapsing of the physical laws itself.

  • It began with amoebas and now human civilization is absorbing heat from the sun and other sources and expelling it at gargantuan rates that rival the size of the rest of the biosphere.

  • England’s theory (derivative) makes sense and perhaps he has made a major contribution of a testable proposal but he seems to describe a particular sub-phase in a grand evolutionary scheme of things. England’s group has outlined a non-Darwinian point of view which I see as valid yet not threatening to Darwin’s work. The reason why I don’t feel Darwin is threatened? Because Darwin accurately describes what is happening in a later phase of the origin of life, i.e. after ‘England’s energy-dissipative process’. It appears there have been inexplicable phases of evolution where myriads of life forms ‘suddenly’ appeared (‘Cambrian Explosion’ ) then seemingly self-filtered to much fewer species and morphologies better able to survive in early earth which they did by more ‘orderly’ progressions which are the pillars of the ‘Tree of Life’ model of phylogenic evolution. This stage-dynamic picture fits a grand picture where evolution includes both England’s and Darwin’s theories (observations). I suspect there are perhaps more sub-phases of the grand picture …tho linked by a common principle of best thermodynamic (energy dissipative) ‘fit’.

  • Could there be a unit for comparing energy dissipation rates of different living (and non-living) things? That will give us a better handle. There will be certainly other actors influencing the dissipation rates of living (and non living) systems; for example, as pointed out above, Euglena and other single cell organisms could be more efficient in energy dissipation, but multi-cellular life nevertheless arose. Therefore, plain energy dissipation alone cannot sufficiently explain the rise of muticellular life.
    One intriguing argument is that if the presence of energy source and a bath certainly leads to atoms organizing themselves sooner or later towards more efficient energy dissipation, then, again, as pointed out above, Venus must have something equivalent to life. And so must all the exoplanets. This “life” need not be carbon based, intelligent or even self-replicating; it only needs to be distinguishable by its ability at better energy dissipation than a “clump of atoms”. May be someday we can deduce the presence of life on exoplanets through these equations of thermodynamics.

  • A fully ignorant article that confuses hypothesis with theory. In science, a theory is a fact. This is a hypothesis.

  • @Matthew Kosak – Well said. Reminds me a novel I read recently where an up-and-coming physicist had her work suppressed by her dissertation committee. Though they broke her spirit a Nobel Laureate is willing to put his reputation on the line and fund her research, breathing life into her hearts desire … with amazing consequences.

  • Ok, don’t laugh but if all this is true, wouldn’t it also be true in all areas of the universe. In theory much older planets must have life forms, certainly plant-life. Romulans, Vulcans, Bajorans, Ferengis_Oh, my! Just some fun here.

  • More efficient energy dissipation as a life generating mechanism is in line with the least action principle (Moroz 2011, The Common Extremalities in Biology and Physics, Elsevier insights) – it is proposed and described in this book and few articles. Biological dissipative pathways emerge as more faster mechanisms of free energy dissipation. Then biological evolution emerges as a hierarchical competition is spectrum of biological (self-reproductive, phase separated processes with information mapping). In terms of physics- the physical action (energy times time) strives to the possible minimum – in this way all biological processes become part of physics. The least action generates biological evolution.

  • Concerning the above comment on photosynthesis: ” The overall entropy of the universe increases during photosynthesis as the sunlight dissipates, even as the plant prevents itself from decaying by maintaining an orderly internal structure” This comment seems incorrect. The excited states of chlorophyll molecules in plant phtosystems are in thermal equilibrium with their thermal bath (stroma, cytoplasm, sovent when isolated). The photosynthetic membranes are also in Thermal Equilibrium with the bath. Thus all heat which is lost during photosynthesis is beween two systems in Thermal Equilibrium. Thus the entropy change is zero.

  • I have not been able to find the original paper but from the article in Quanta I am perplexed.
    It is written that “, it will often gradually restructure itself in order to dissipate increasingly more energy”. By way of an example let us consider the organisation of single and energetically uncoupled chlorophylls into photosystems in which several hundred chlorophyll molecules transfer excited state energy between themselves and to the reactin centre and perform primary photochemistry. The single molecules dissipate 100% of the absorbed energy either as heat or fluorescence. In the photosystem the energy dissipation is almost two orders of magnitude less. Evolution has decreased energy dissipation. Perhaps I have not understood.

  • Entropy change and entropy production is not zero during photosynthesis, except during first quantum mechanical steps that are of very short duration. When electrochemical proton gradient is created, strong enough to drive ATP synthase and ATP synthesis, about 80% of photon free energy has already been dissipated. In terms of organic matter synthesis due to photosynthesis, the efficiency of photosynthesis is quite low. Less than 10% of photon free energy is converted into the free energy of synthesized molecules. These facts are well known to all experts for the thermodynamics of photosynthesis. They seem to favor maximal entropy production principle mentioned earlier. Macromolecules that make photosynthesis possible are however quite complex, even within simplest photosynthetic bacteria, so leaving open the question how they evolved before Life on Earth learned how to use large energy packages coming from Sun. For instance, it is quite possible that ATP synthase rotary nanomotor is considerably older than photosynthesis itself. Anyway, at the present time, photosynthesis is probably the bioenergetic process producing the greatest share of entropy by biosphere.

  • Firstly the comment “Less than 10% of photon free energy is converted into the free energy of synthesized molecules”. It depends on the light intensity. At very low light intensities the quantum efficiency is about 10%, which is not the same as the energy efficiency. About 55- 60 photons are required to synthesise one glucose, so the “photon energy” (for 680 nm) is about 2300 -2500k cal / mole. The energy of glucose oxidation is about 680 k cal /mole. Thus we have an energy efficiency of about 30%. At high light intensities, where kinetic rate limiting steps come into play (which are not of thermodynamic interest), the quantum and energy efficiencies drop.
    Secondly, if the nonradiative dissipation is from a photosystem, or a thyakoid membrane which is thermalised at the stroma or cytoplasm temperature, then there is no entropy change.
    Thirdly, “maximum entropy production” If you wish to consider entropy changes in photosynthesis you must also consider the large entropy decrease of the light field upon absorption of 55-60 photons.

  • To Diego January 22, 2014 at 5:30 pm
    I think you are missing the point. It is not a random assembly of molecules making up a cell ie the 747 junkyard tornado theory. It is the process that occurs as a result of entropy operating in the system. That is; the most efficient way to reach entropy is through the creation of little replicators. I think a good thought experiment is to imagine two systems one where that rule applies and one where it is prevented from applying. The systems which wins the race to entropy is the one that proves the rule

  • The Second Law of thermodynamics has essentially “left the door open” on its broader interpretation as it states the entropy cannot decrease in systems, but it does not specify the magnitude of how much entropy is “allowed”. (see Schrodinger’s “What is Life” 1944). So this has lead to the so-called optimization and maximization theories. However, on the flip side of that coin, there is really nothing about the Second Law that implies that a system must maximize itself, its entropy or the like.. (which I believe would include dissipation). I critique maximal flow theories on with a new theory of “Indifferent Time”.

  • To Matthew Kosak April 24, 2015. In your blogspot you state that forces are always in a state of balance. No, forces are always in the state of acheiving balance. Look at all the possibility spaces that such forces must encounter as they attempt to balance. It’s not like God said that there would be a Night and a Day and then was done with it. Evolution and the exploration of new spaces are real and thermodynamics accounts for it.

  • in high school I read in chemistry that interaction of the molequles is directed to the side of the more endure structures and the more endure structures give in result more dissipation of energy equivalently.
    now is this a new principle!!!
    if you ask a question that why thermal systems between two shapes of the structures do select one with rather dissipation, answer is in high school books that more dissipative one is more endure.

  • To Caroline Hitch, May 2, 2015.
    It is not that I’m saying things are in balance in so much as I say that the force applied is in balance (in the cases mentioned). There is an oppositive force of equal magnitude , I’m making that claim for specific reasons discussed. I should probably state that it applies to the equilibrium condition, though it’s implied when I state ‘normal force’ N-bank. As I diagrammed a bit more clearly: In such a force diagram, we’re not talking about conditions for “all of time” or even 1 billion years, but it is assumed for example, that a book resting on a table is in equilibrium, in an interval (of virtual time), and thus experiences an equal and opposite force pushing back. However, we also know that the third law applies in non equilibrium, the net force does not have to be equal magnitude since it is only proportional to the mass , ball ‘A’ can impose a force, ‘ma’ but ball “B”, a smaller ‘ma’ so the net force might be highly scewed in the other direction, and b will go backwards, hence non equilibrium. But if you notice I am also making the case” for molecular based theory of a macro state, which you’ll notice is being negated by constructal Law and Bejan basically states “it isn’t necessary to consider molecular theory to obtain macro behaviour”, which I paraphrase, but he’s dispensing with particles and I’m showing why that’s wrong.
    But returning to equilibrium condition, let’s assume the river bank is more or less in equilibrium, in this state the force opposing the water is equal and opposite. The interesting notion is the causality of how that equilibrium was achieved. If you consider that the greater source of non equilibrium is the sun, and if we imagine there are packets” of this energy incident on our planet, which translate to the motions of storms and.. rivers then any non equilibrium from that equilibrium state, is thus some unit of that packet, it is not ridiculous to say it is molecular scale, as you’re aware of planetary scale weather theories based on molecular theory, ie how well CO2 absorbs sunlight, or how water dipole effects its heat absorption more than say, co2 (no dipole) or any other gas really. But the big point of my derivation, its implication, is only to state that the non equilibrium is due to these packets- the non equilibrium of the river is caused by Fluxes in these energies, NOT by the river itself, nor by the change in the river bank. There is no such thing as constructal law governing a river as we have just defined the rivers motion as the sum of these “pushes” from the sun, (being counterbalanced by normal forces of the bank and river bottom) so these are as much relevant to the rivers (acting) force than what we observe (on earth),..a river is not a discreet, defined thing in terms of this physics.
    (I should also say that this kind of “being a stickler for precision”, in causality is relevant to the thermo issues here, but also to the problem of equating animate and the inanimate..which you’ll note is assumed in the article above, and by maximal flow laws).

  • Sv writes “if life is the thermodynamically preferred state, then why death?” Death is the equilibrium (in congruence with surroundings) state, whereas life is the disequilibrium state (e.g. warm-blooded with temperature above surroundings). Behzard Mohit notes that entropy tends to increase in a closed system, but life traps energy in the form of information, retarding energy outflow, and thus also entropy increase, into the closed system, which he describes as “the universe”.

    No doubt the principles of this are correct, but S. Sun points out that the laws of thermodynamics apply to systems in equilibrium. In terms of biotic organisms that refers to dead creatures! S. Sun furthermore refers to the Earth as a non-equilibrium system because it takes in energy. But my understanding is that energy input is allowed in an equilibrium system, not that it prevents it from being one, but other things are not. Many refer to the Earth as a closed system since it ONLY has energy input and output! But there is an argument that Earth is an open system as it loses some Hydrogen (although less than other planets which have lost their surface water). It seems we are still arguing the basics in what is the only planet we know we can live on so far. A systems research approach in an international “Biotron” centre is needed to resolve such issues.

    So whether we are talking about an open (Earth) system where the laws do not apply or a closed one where they do for all apparent purposes (excluding space junk!), we are still bound to recognise that at equilibrium, life, the organism, is DEAD. So thermodynamic laws which Sun notes are largely misunderstood for disequilibrium systems are the ones that apply to life, not the known ones for equilibrium systems. Life in fact comes under the umbrella of non-equilibrium statistical mechanics which as Sun refers to it. Jeremy England’s paper refers to statistical physics in its title, thus introducing the non-equilibrium nature of life.

    Dan Karlan comments that the formation of a crystal involves gaining order at the expense of surrounding disorder. My understanding is that a very highly crystalline structure is not only highly ordered, but is at equilibrium with entropy (S) close to zero. Others mention chaos theory in their comments, and here my understanding is that within chaotic patterns that order is seen in some locations in the fractal patterns. Therefore in some cases high order arises from chaos, and also these may be at equilibrium with S~0. Presumably the chaos of senescence results in equilibrium eventually as death takes over in which case nearly all of the energy would probably be outgoing rather than incoming, so I am not sure if S~0 just because something is at equilibrium. A dead body at equilibrium with its surroundings is no longer taking in energy in order to maintain body warmth etc. One must distinguish therefore the formation of a crystal with negative entropy, from the crystal itself with zero entropy at equilibrium; and the living organism at disequilibrium taking in metabolites and using them to create order, in the process releasing some energy, from the dead organism at equilibrium which is losing all its energy.

    The fact that life is in disequilibrium explains why don’t find a forest with trees in rows in a perfect grid, for which a crystal at equilibrium with zero entropy may be a suitable analogy. Therefore it stands to reason that the disequilibrium of life produces at least some entropy, but not that maximised at senescence perhaps. Eventually like with the process of crystal formation, when the process is finalised, the dead body is in equilibrium with its surroundings (e.g. temperature) and it increasingly ceases to even emit energy as it further decays, hence eventually as the process finalises, entropy approaches zero. In the case of the crystal, equilibrium is reached at the final stage of formation of almost perfect order, whereas in the case of the organism it is reached at perfect disorder.

  • Jennings in his comments notes that the photosystem is an example of where organisms can create systems with S~0, which are at equilibrium. However, the photosynthesizing plant or phytoplankton is still overall at disequilibrium with its surroundings or it would be dead. A highly ordered yet highly disordered ecosystem such as a forest is likely to be overall disequilibrium and producing entropy. However it may only be maximising entropy during its decline i.e. due to either senescence or human degradation. There is evidence that disturbed systems exhibit random characteristics and are highly volatile to the outside environmental conditions- that is they are more at equilibrium with their surrounding landscape but also entropic as they lose nutrients, water and soils en masse. It may well be that Life has been able to maintain a low to intermediate rather than maximised entropy production.

    Olelelm says more dissipative structures are more enduring, and other posts said that systems tend to not favour buildup of energy. That is because excess energy can damage the cell as Lehninger pointed out in his biochemistry textbooks. Mohit comments that Life retards energy flow into its maximal entropy destination, so rather than increasing or decreasing entropy it slows its progress down. He notes that although living matter dispenses heat, much energy is trapped in its information networks a part of its structure. This makes sense in terms of senescence as how many would like to hasten the process of degradation and death, leading to releasing all energy back to the environment from whence we came? He did not spell out the advantage of doing that. Travis says it is self-evident that entities that absorb and dissipate heat in a highly efficient way will arise, because they have a survival advantage. But what is the thrust of evidence that natural organisms exist and replicate as they are efficient energy transporters, and slow down maximal entropy release? This dilemma seems to lead back to the concept that evolution is a metabolic rather than replicative process primarily.

    Brandon commented that “competition fuels adaptation”. Frederick Vanhoutte comments that the dominance of the best replicator is a logical consequence of limited resources. Dorion Sagan describes a discussion with E. Schneider (MIT, Joseph Kennan conf.) that life could primarily be a metabolic and thermodynamic system stabilised by genetics. There is some controversy between the metabolic and the replicator models for evolution, and I favour the metabolic one. One must expand these concepts to acknowledge that not only competition but also resources sharing and trading are fundamental to adaptation and even replicator dominance.

    It seems to me that endosymbiosis leading to the cell and eventually multicellularity may not have involved the traditional path of one bacteria engulfing (predating) another giving it access to new organelles, but may have been a long-term relationship which aided nutrient and energy supply for both. Remarkable examples of bacterial communication through microtubules have been found recently. Nutrient trading between single-celled organisms would have been advantageous, rather than getting rid of another organism in order to reduce competition. This would lead to intimate relationships wherein the next step was union= endosymbiosis. Another example is the relationship between plant roots and fungal and bacterial communities in the soil, often based on such trading or “sharing” of resources. Thus plants and their associated communities are selected for adaptations which enhance cooperation for nutrient exchange, and ones that prosper to replicate are those that share not compete.

    Caroline H. cites Volk and Paulius who do not think one holistic calculation could be applied across living (biotic) and non-living (abiotic) systems. Resonanz’s comments were well put but one might assume some thermodynamic consistency across the various stages, from earth’s mainly abiotic conditions forming initial life, to later biotic situations involving protein formation, to eventual complexity of biota? It seems that early life may have been metabolically based, but very quickly RNA evolved as the initial replicator molecule, as what use is feeding and surviving if you are going to die out? And then the endosymbiosis of the mitochondrial organelle led to multicellularity as energy production was no longer limited. So perhaps it is possible that not only is there no thermodynamic holistic calculation between the abiotic or physical world and the biotic or living world, there may not be thermodynamic consistency across the stages of evolution.

    Like Resonanz I feel that Darwin is not threatened by England’s view, although epigeneticists often do deride it as old hat! Resonanz notes Darwin describes a later phase of the origin of life, after England’s energy-dissipative process, which refers to the initiation of life. The initiation of life must be linked to either the metabolic view or the replicator view. That is, food or sex came first. Well, more accurately did metabolism, or the gaining of nutrients/elements from the environment, come before the RNA molecule evolved allowing replication of the protocell? England seems to have linked it to the replicator molecule, which in my opinion may NOT be the initial first step in the origin of Life. Nevertheless it is an important early step. Thus replication may be inevitable, according to England’s or other views, but it does not define life alone.

    Dan Karlan commented that the critical step in establishing life was the formation of the shell. Quite right too. Replication of what if you don’t have an enclosing membrane- a bunch of loose protein molecules?? Furthermore S. Sun refers to underwater bubble formation as an example of non-equilibrium statistical mechanics, which we have not really grasped as we have with the thermodynamics of equilibrium systems. Water or metallically enhanced bubbles seem to me to be a good starting point for some sort of semi-permanent metabolism to arise, that is, a roughly enclosed structure which allows absorption and storage of nutrients. However there is no getting away from the prominence of lipids in membrane formation, and the fact that they are hydrophobic, thus preventing the cell from bursting, allowing osmotic removal of wastes and water, and input of required materials. Therefore rather than start with something that can replicate it might be smarter to look for something that can form lipids. Or at least get a handle on the non-equilibrium fluid mechanics of bubbles.

    Of course it all depends on the location of the origins, with water influx important in the seas, whether at deep-sea vents where bubbles or membranes may form between rocks, or in shallow seas or pools where a “primordial soup” may arise under UV light pressure. Or brought in in the interior of comets! It should be noted that conditions are vastly different in deep-sea vents with no light, very high pressures, high mineralogy and very low temperatures, compared to shallow seas with high UV, low pressure, low nutrient loads, and high temperatures, let alone comets.

    It should be noted that although UV can stimulate the formation of some building blocks (monomers) for life, high UV can be damaging to cells. Only when photosynthesis arose was the problem of damaging radiation, that is the very high excess of solar energy that cells are exposed to, solved. This happened in photosynthetic bacteria in the sea, more than 1 billion (1 Ga) years after the first cells arose, with evidence here in Australia that that occurred about 3.3 Ga. So it was a long time before unicellular organisms were so worried about cooking that they developed a strategy to overcome it and the problem of food shortages by step-down energy degradation in the photosynthesis process. That tends towards the idea that life developed in the deep sea, and that later on spread to shallow seas.

    The comment by Davor Juretic that 1 Ga earlier than photosynthetic ones, which then caused the oxygenation of the planet, killing off many of the earlier heterotrophic anaerobes. All organisms on Earth use ATP so the big question is whether it is the first molecular system that protocells utilised, that came before RNA and replication. Nick Lane suggested an earlier system may have involved the NAD/NADH system instead i.e. Hydrogen (H) before Phosphorus (P). There is no question the ATP system preceded photosynthesis although the ability to step-down energy in the mitochondria (organelles endosymbiotically enclosed within other bacteria) came after the ability to do so in photosynthesizers. Hence we have in order:
    – production of simple proteins in clusters
    – NADH? for energy or possibly heavy metals
    – ATP for energy
    – membranes probably involving lipids (unicellular marine organisms)
    – RNA (unicellular replication)
    – complex proteins (unicellular more complex organisms e.g. bacteria, Archaea)
    – chloroplasts in marine photosynthesizers (unicellular e.g. cyanobacteria/phytoplankton)
    – oxygen (unicellular)
    – mitochondria (multicellular marine animals)
    – land plants
    – land animals

    So it seems to me that driving the show was the need for H or P to drive energy, followed by the need for enclosing the system in membranes, followed by replication of the nascent unicellular organisms. There is no question that the original membrane-enclosed system had to develop the RNA system for replication fairly quickly afterwards so as not to die out, but it seems likely to me that metabolism to produce energy and simple proteins came first, and that this needed to be in an enclosed system, so lipids were probably present.

    These early steps were followed by the need to increase energy usage without damaging the cell giving unicellular marine photosynthetic organisms, resulting in oxygenation of the planet, and later allowing multicellular organisms to arise. It is anything besides spontaneous generation! But steps that produced processes like the development of DNA replication may very well be explained by simple physics and chemistry processes, until biology took over the planet, well and truly more than 2 billion years ago. Therefore work by England and Lane and others that provides explanations as to these early processes such as replication and metabolism are vital to understanding the early stages of life.

  • Concerning the England paper on self replication: In eukaryotic cells the self replicating structure is the chromosome. This is a huge multicomponent structure which is even visible with the light microscope. During self replication any heat released will be released by the chromosome, equilibrated thermically with the nuclear matrix (bath). Thus heat release by the chromosome will occur at the same temperature as the nuclear bath, which recieves it. The entropy change will be zero.

  • I have many comments to make on the 2013 paper of England in J. Chem Phys. I shall start out with just a couple.
    1. Equation 8, which seems to be tha main equation, seems to have dimensional problems. 1. The first term βΔQ is the phenomenological entropy and has the dimensions of E K-1, where E is energy and K is the K temperature scale. The second logarithmic term is a probability ratio and is dimensionless. The third term, ΔSint is an “entropy” term, but unlike the first entropy term is dimensionless, as it is derived from the so-called “Shannon entropy” which is an information probability. I fail to understand why the authr used the Shannon “entropy” instead of the Gibbs entrpy, which besides having the same dimensions as the phenomenological entropy has been demosntrated to be equivalent to it (Jaynes)
    2. The paper, at least up to where I have arrived , has little to do with “evolution”, but rather to some kind of growth competition. Mutation is considered to be just “another level of complication” and is ignored. Natural selection is probably mostly based on competition, but not always.
    3. The author, every so often, brings into play “photosynthesis. If one considers this process from an entropic point of view one must consider the large entropy loss by the light field upon photon absorption. Photosynthesis does not fit into any of the presented equations.

  • On thermodynamics of life

    Energy dissipates coming from some source, which collides with the dissipating energy from another source, having the same wavelength, doubling the quantum of energy. If this process goes on, the exterior will have greater and greater energy. Alternatively, it could be that excess energy is offloaded by replicating. So, if first RNA of the earth that was formed by organization of small molecules being driven by solar energy was offloaded by replicating into RNA; this process went go on. This so- called dissipation-driven organization could become the essence of life.
    More and more organization means less and less randomness.
    As far as the engine of metabolism is concerned, catabolism leads to dissipation and anabolism leads to greater orderliness. In the dynamic equilibrium between the two opposing forces, life chugs along. A tilt towards catabolism shifts life towards ageing and later on, death. Dissipation of energy that follows death, can again lead to availability of the energy and its movement, collision, organization. In other words the cyclic process of life and death goes on.

  • ¨If England’s approach stands up to more testing, it could further liberate biologists from seeking a Darwinian explanation for every adaptation and allow them to think more generally in terms of dissipation-driven organization. They might find, for example, that “the reason that an organism shows characteristic X rather than Y may not be because X is more fit than Y, but because physical constraints make it easier for X to evolve than for Y to evolve,” Louis said.¨

    This fits nicely into the nature vs. nurture argument, emphasizing the essential role of environment in shaping adaptive characteristics. The only question left is how much of that shaping has taken place over countless generations to form patterns of adaption with variant derivatives, of which we – and all life – are merely a conglomeration of, in many respects.

  • I enjoy that soneone continue in this point where Ilia Prigogine left whit “disipative Structures” I the late 1997.
    Thanks England
    Gerardo Guerra

  • Nice, a big windows for imagination. Will be the increasing human being consciousness part of this energy dissipate model ?

  • I would say that when solving any equation (question) that the simplest formulas usually are the most precise in reaching an answer. Resonance of molecular bonds within carbon compounds are most likely the "giver" of life (in the absence of all reasonably considered) possibilities. The universe resonates with magnetic resonance and in reaching the answer to how life started is probably the closest…In the absence of any other compelling concepts. We can create compounds with well known chemical engineering using heat, ionic bonding and a number of other processes. This usually creates a predetermined set of compounds that can never have life. However, differing resonant frequencies can break / create chemical bonds in ways that little is known about and I believe that complex molecular bonding resulting from resonance in a truly unique fashion has provided the start of life.

  • This statement, “the reason that an organism shows characteristic X rather than Y may not be because X is more fit than Y, but because physical constraints make it easier for X to evolve than for Y to evolve,” has an absurd and glaring internal contradiction: if "physical constraints make it easier for X to evolve than for Y to evolve," then, "X is more fit than Y."

  • The discussions are overwhelming and amazingly varied. I have not read them all but I wanted to say: I read Into the Cool and it made intuitive sense to me, though I am/was a mere molecular biologist. Thus England's (not-quite-original?) contribution here also makes sense from my not all-knowing perspective. I agree with those of you who said the IDEA isn't all that new; whether his math is new, I can't say, but various people have contributed to this forward march and I care less about the precise "who" getting credit on any given day. I left academia because I was tired of the EGOS and their territorial behavior. It's understandable (protecting huge investment) but it gets in the way of an open, truly scientific mind.
    I also read Morowitz's "monograph" Beginnings of Cellular Life, which I found very interesting, perhaps because I have an interest in metabolism and how redundant it is in various life forms. I think that book might answer some questions asked here. (And probably irk others. Ha.) The key to me is the gradient. To have a gradient, a separator is necessary. A membrane fills that purpose.
    And I completely agree with those who say England's (and the others on whose shoulders he stands) premise is NOT anti-Darwin. Darwin's natural selection takes over once the "lineages" of, say, vesicles is going.
    And no, a mirror is not better than life at dissipating a gradient because it reflects too much energy back at once (doesn't use it up in a step-wise fashion as life processes often do). That's all, for now. I'll come back and see if anyone tears me apart. 😉

  • Then why have we not found life anywhere but Earth, yet? Is Earth a Goldie Locks planet? If so, would any and all alien life be identical to ours at the molecular level, and have similar evolutionary outcomes? That is, can we create a new DNA to test this?

  • he's making 2 basic mistakes that basically nullify his entire argument
    1) he's mistaking local minima with absolute minimum.
    it's true that systems can become more complex and ordered by simply following physical laws (life emergence is the ultimate proof of that possibility) but there is a lot of difference between a stack of ordered carbon atoms and a living plant.
    a self-replicating system would indeed help dissipate more heat, but in order for a system to do such a thing it has to decrease entropy locally in another system, which would, by following the same rules, increase the system own entropy, compromising it integrity, and as such might be disadvantages to the dissipation of energy unless a certain average success percentage is reached.
    even then, to go from a simple system that replicates a basic physical phenomenon, to an inherit substance such as genes, would require a lot of accidents that locally would decrease the amount of entropy(i.e. would require energy), and as such could not be a natural result to his equations.
    if he would wish to argue that those accidents are inevitable then I guess he would also argue that we are all doomed and that a vacuum metastability event is going to strike at any moment erasing the universe as we know it.

    2) again with the plant and carbon atoms analogy,
    "A plant, for example, is much better at capturing and routing solar energy through itself than an unstructured heap of carbon atoms"
    it is better without doubt but life is not order and not disorder, you can not quantify living things based on the amount of order/disorder in them, life is so much more…

  • In response to Martha: yes, a gradient. I too got hooked on thinking along thermodynamic lines after reading "Into the Cool." It's intuitive, to me, that metabolism is the driver of life. So, of course, it's the source and the bath, but it's also the electron/proton flow that must evolve out of that gradient in order for life to be powered (the resonance theory proposed here doesn't hit that mark.) I just read Nick Lane's, A Vital Question, and think you'd probably like it as well; an amazing excursion into the origin of life.

  • If you use the conservation laws for "flows" rather than the thermodynamics for "probability", you get a different answer.

  • Not only particles, but it seems that humans in general tend to dissipate more energy when they resonate with a driving force, or move in the direction it is pushing them, and they are more likely to move in that direction than any other at any given moment.

  • Why didn't I think of that?
    I work on photosynthesis, particularly PAM fluorescence. I have long understood that the reason why photosynthesis worked was its dissipation of energy and hence ideas of increasing the efficiency of the light reactions of photosynthesis was basically a silly idea. Very interesting. I hope the maths is better than the irreversible thermodynamics of Katchlsky et al which I could never understand.

  • I assume this theory works elsewhere in the universe. If so, then where is the intelligent life on other planetary systems except Earth. Dissipation-driven adaptation theory is a great way to explain the mistery of life. But it needs a scentific prove that it works in any open system and does not contradict the second law of thermodynamics. Tough

  • "They might find, for example, that “the reason that an organism shows characteristic X rather than Y may not be because X is more fit than Y, but because physical constraints make it easier for X to evolve than for Y to evolve,” Louis said."

    I do not understand why Darwin's idea of "fitness" is so poorly understood among the supposedly scientifically literate. Fitness, as defined by Darwin,

    "Can it then be thought improbable, seeing that variations useful
    to man have undoubtedly occurred, that other variations useful in
    some way to each being in the great and complex battle of life,
    should occur in the course of many successive generations? If
    such do occur, can we doubt (remembering that many more
    individuals are born than can possibly survive) that individuals
    having any advantage, however slight, over others, would have
    the best chance of surviving and procreating their kind? On the
    other hand, we may feel sure that any variation in the least
    degree injurious would be rigidly destroyed. This preservation of
    favourable individual differences and variations, and the
    destruction of those which are injurious, I have called Natural
    Selection, or the Survival of the Fittest."

    Thus, by definition, "Y" is more "fit" than "X" in those circumstances.

  • Is the core of the theory in reality the "Titanic" argument: The greater the number and area of holes in the hull, the greater the energy needed to keep the ship afloat? Thus, the greater the degree of disorganization, the greater the energy turnover needed to keep the components together. Except that someone would order the pumps activated in the case of the Titanic, not in the case of nature. So, the argument seems to be a case of putting the horse before the cart.

  • "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."

    That is a very simplified definition of life. Following this sort of logic one could also say

    "From the standpoint of communication, there is one essential difference between humans and animals: The former tend to be much better at repeating what is said to them." Therefore a parrot is a human.

    A better definition of life would be "anything that reproduces by itself". In this case of course England has not solved the origin of life.

  • All these comments complaining that this could not possibly be the origin of life, or making similar comments (I saw one asking why we haven't found life on Mercury or Venus), yet none of them pay attention to the fact that this work referred to self-organizing systems as a whole, rather than solely about life. This means we arrive at the rectangle does not at all times equal a square argument: self-organizing systems are a result of this theory, and only in specific conditions do they form life.

    Many, many people also took the article's simplified explanations at face value for the actual theory itself, rather than as something meant to get the general idea across as they were meant to be. I swear, a ton of these people in the comments are smart but clearly horrible at reading comprehension.

  • An interesting scientific idea. I believe that the increasing closeness being established between living and nonliving structures might lead to a better understanding of life after death.

  • It is extremely unfortunate that with so much conciousness and cognitive power we are still wasting our precious time in proving that we are not merely a clump of particles. No matter how cleverely we arrange these particles (atoms, photons, bosons, gluons, axions or any other particle of our choice) we would never be able to create conciousness. Neuro-receptors must not be confused with the conciousness; nerves carry information to the conciousness for decision making and then deploy that decision). The only way to solve this mystery is through transcendence. Transcendence is the matter of personal experience. We can't prove it to others because that would interrupt the game.

  • Fascinating theory; however, as with all theories of this type, it addresses – and extraordinarily well – the capability of the matter that exists: matter that had to arrive with the attributes that it has so that thoughtful brains could put together "1 + 1". How did matter get these attributes? Did matter exist before the so-called "Big Bang"? If so, where'd it come from? Did the "bang" give matter the capability? As finely tuned as matter appears to be, may I suggest that a "bang" of the kind touted in theories defies the very laws of existent physics. We're different laws applicable to the pre-bang?

  • Spontaneous reactions occur when Gibb's free energy is negative: dG=dU-dS*T. This is the requirement for negative entropy chemical reactions to be spontaneous. dU must be more negative than dS*T. On Earth, T is typically constant. The Earth's rotational energy is constantly being lost to sending the moon to a higher orbit. The proportion of dU lost from the water and air masses slowing down is a few orders of magnitude greater than the -300 J/k Dan Styer says life is reducing. So life should be a spontaneous reaction based on basic chemistry and the rotational mechanics of the Earth-moon. Two examples of how the lost internal energy results in decreased entropy: 1) Asimov said life could not have moved to land if it were not for the tides. 2) we would not have such easy access to a variety of veins and ores that large industry depends on if it were not for the moon churning the mantle. Also consider how important the seasons are to life and that the Earth is tilted due to the impact that created the moon. The moon, as a distinction from Earth is lower entropy than if they were homogeneous. That negative entropy is being lost as it "fades away" in the distance. If the moon and axis title were suddenly removed, Earth would reach a stable and boring state a lot sooner.

  • I'd like to leave a quote from Neitzsche which I find has a striking parallel.
    “Physiologists should think before putting down the instinct of self-preservation as the cardinal instinct of an organic being. A living thing seeks above all to discharge its strength–life itself is will to power; self-preservation is only one of the indirect and most frequent results.”
    ― Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

  • Every single one of these ideas was outlined in great detail in the Book "Ecophysics" which was written by physicist James Paul Wesley and published in the 70's. all the same conclusions are reached and more

  • I find this really interesting. Could you say that something (umm..) invests energy into making complex and highly structured systems (just a saying) in order to increase the entorpy of the Universe faster ? Humans and other living things increase it faster than a warm coffee reaching thermodynamic equilibrium.
    We are like factories which "produce" (increase) the Entropy.

  • You are correct in your dissipative energy approach (entropy) I have applied similar concepts to markets. The very existence of a stable stock market obeys the same rules. Far from equilibrium is the key to recognize. Markets provide a very intuitive arena for dealing with the math complexities. Not only that, you have a daily experiment going on when ever markets are open and taking data. Hence a fertile arena to work.

    A physicist as well.

  • Stop using the word theory as a synonym for an idea! It's maddening to read about such a fascinating idea being proposed, one that even comes with some cool math, and have it be called a theory. Not every idea in science is called a theory! Be careful with that word please.

  • The notion that all forms of evolution, from simple material forms to complex organic beings, societies, and cultural phenomena, is the consequence of basic thermodynamic principles and obeys simple laws involving the circulation of energy was formulated by Spencer already in the nineteenth century. Dissipation of energy plays an important part in his definition of evolution, which runs thus: "Evolution is an integration of matter and concomitant dissipation of motion; during whivh the matter passes from an indefinite, incoherent homogeneity to a definite, coherent heterogeneity; and during which the retained motion undergoes a parallel transformation" ('First Principles', XVII). Of life he gave a minimalist, structural and ecological definition which favours an evolutionary continuity with non-life, as follows: "life is definable as the continuous adjustment of internal relations to external relations" (IV).

  • Just an observation from an arm chair physicist (who cheers this stuff like I was watching the superbowl) I see a disconnect between what I understood to be the underlying thrust of the theory and a lot of comments. The theory as I understand it attempts to explain how a decent mix of different atoms, in water, entropy would behave as liquids do, there would be dissipation you'd just get more and more averaged muck until everything was exactly the same mix, closed system, but you throw in an external energy source, especially the way the sun works, its goop doesn't exactly mix with our goop but its energy interacts with our goop and you end up with alignments. A more lay persons translation might be to say look at how you can combine certain metals and when you run electricity through them they curve, the structure aligns in a pattern that passes the energy in the most efficient way, in the presence of energy they become more complex NOT less!

    Point being (sorry) he's not really talking about how we went from knuckle dragging to upright, way way more factors than entropy causing that, he's really only talking about the fundamental question of how did we get from random dissipating goop to that very first set of self replicating order? that leap, he's saying can be shown mathematically to be inevitable given the right conditions and enough time. For me, that is mind blowing, the next hop from that to bacteria or algae to me is route 6th grade science but how you got order out of chaos at all to start with? damn if that isn't the biggest question we've ever had in science. And yes, he's standing on a lot o shoulders but as a data analyst I can tell you, ideas take on a power all their own when you can prove them with numbers.

  • @JoseAngel

    "life is definable as the continuous adjustment of internal relations to external relations"

    We really don't know that yet, a rock does continuously adjust its internal structure/relations to external relations. No matter where you drop it in the universe, it will never completely "freeze" 🙂
    So, if that is sufficient to define life, then the Universe in its entirety is alive, which goes beyond Physics, it is Metaphysics …
    Back to the debate, there will always be an issues when you try to describe life, either as a an intrinsic or even as an emergent property of our Universe.
    Time is a big problem here, and time itself is not yet well understood. We now consider alive those structures that we can perceive and measure during our lifespans or at least very closely related to human life span. But we know that is not true, we've only recently been able to discover life forms on Earth that have an age of thousands of years. But even so, this is so small compared to the age of the Universe that would be shameful for us to consider "only" these arrangements/alignments as life. Maybe our planet is a live being that we are just unable to perceive.

    The definition of life is very strongly related to humans and their perception of what they consider "life" and that is in fact "being alive". It is this common sense that gets in our way of considering "a rock" as being alive. And one day, a great scientist that will also have a strong Philosophy, will be able to give a definition to life that is independent of human existence and thus solving the last big struggle of mankind.

  • There is much confusion on this issue, even, as we see here, among physicists.

    It is explored at some length within a wider evolutionary context in my recent book"The Intricacy Generator: Pushing Chemistry and Geometry Uphill". But the following points will, I hope, give you the gist.

    The usual views of the part played by entropy in our universe is in need of drastic revision.

    What we in fact observe, wherever we look, is an increase in chemical and geometric intricacy with respect to time.driven by gravity. Because entropy is an inevitable by-product of this evolutionary process it, too, increases with time.

    For a long time now the prevailing wisdom of physics has had this arse about face.

    Entropy should properly regarded as merely the "exhaust gas" of nature's evolutionary machinery!

    Within biology for instance, organisms and species come and go, a necessary part of the evolutionary machinery, but the network observably survives and becomes ever more intricate, ever further from equilibrium.

    The evolutionary network, extends beyond biology. An evolutionary continuum that can be traced at least as far back as the formation of chemical elements in the stars.

    The oft-repeated myths invoking entropy just do not hold water. The old notions concerning the "heat-death of the universe" have been undermined.

    All our observations, including those of biology, now indicate a universe that is, if anything, "winding up" rather than "running down".

    Here are some essential realisations that will help to dispel confusion:

    Firstly, there is the distinction to be between local and global entropy increases. A point raised by others here.

    Secondly, although an increase in entropy necessarily is associated with the work done in increasing chemical and geometric intricacy it should not be regarded in the context of causation. To aver, as is fashionable in some circles, that evolution is driven by entropy is comparable to saying that your car is driven by its exhaust gases.

    Thirdly, the second law of thermodynamics predicts an overall increase in entropy for spontaneous processes. Whereas the observed universal increase in intricacy is a driven process. Driven, to the best of our knowledge, by gravitation, the motivator of stellar nucleosynthesis . The process which generates nearly all chemistry and ultimately provides the molecular and energetic requirements for biology. In at least one instance :>) And, in the light of current astronomical studies.we can reasonably speculate many more.

    Stars, planets and biological and technological entities are born and die. "Life", in the broader sense of an evolutionary network, goes on.

  • I have thought this exact same thing for nearly 20 years, a conclusion that was easy to arrive at after encountering Odum's Maximum Power Principle:

    It's essentially the same thing being suggested here.

  • I suggest that Terrence Deacon's book, "Incomplete Nature: How Matter Became Mind" might bear on this discussion. Deacon considers thermodynamics extensively. He proposes extra levels of organization between unliving and living matter, including "morphodynamic" forms like vortices, convection cells in boiling thin films, snowflakes, and so on; and he also proposes "autogens': self-organizing simple chemical processes feed each other when conditions are right, producing closed shells with internal structure that spend most of their time in a quiescent state until conditions change. He proposes that such things could save state on long (structural) molecules and eventually evolve into truly living entities.

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