The guy to watch. There’s a young (31-year-old) MIT assistant professor of physics who may have discovered, via theorizing about thermodynamics and entropy, a supplement to natural selection, showing the origin and evolution of life to be, not a difficult climb up Mount Improbable, but an unavoidable tumble down Mount Inevitable. His name is Jeremy England, and my guess is that, if his theory pans out (yes, it’s testable), he’s heading for, at minimum, a Nobel Prize, and, at maximum, household familiarity (literally on a par with Darwin).
I’m not exaggerating. You may be hearing a lot more about this guy over the next couple of years. A whole lot more. A profile on him is in Quanta Magazine (see here), and numerous of his colleagues shower him with unusually high praise. Here are three of them being quoted in the profile:
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. […]
“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.”
Did you catch that? Jeremy England is super-smart, his colleagues take him seriously, and he may have discovered, not an “underlying principle driving the origin and evolution of life,” but the underlying principle. In other words, he may have discovered a theory that unifies molecular evolutionary biology, non-organic chemistry, and physics.
Not bad before the age of 35.
Put another way, we’ve known for over 150 years that evolution is true (the cosmos is vastly old and plants and animals change over time) and that natural selection is a driver of evolution. Charles Lyell, Charles Darwin, and 20th century geology and biology got us this far. But England may have found something even more fundamental to evolution than natural selection; something that drives development, not just in living things, but in non-living things, moving dead matter in the direction of life, and life in the direction of ever more efficient processing of energy through its systems. Here’s how England puts it: “Darwinian evolution [is] a special case of a more general phenomenon.”
The new idea. What is this new idea? Dissipation-driven adaptation, or dissipation-driven adaptive organization (you pick). The energy surrounding a clump of atoms puts those atoms under formative pressure–selective pressure–to conform with its direction (which is toward ever greater entropy). Just as the good Marxist follows the money surrounding a situation, a good piece of matter follows the entropy. Entropy is the other key thing, alongside natural selection, that relentlessly drives matter toward self-organization and replication. Beauty wants to be replicated, and so do efficient systems for channeling entropy.
Another way of putting this: garbage in, garbage out; energy in, entropy out. Watch the face and ass. At a clump of matter’s points of reception and expulsion, can it be a cipher to the imperatives of energy dissipation more efficiently and elaborately than another clump of matter? If so, it wins the selection game and will show up with greater frequency over time.
Here’s how this is explained in the profile:
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 [… According to England,] “We can show very simply from the formula [of Jarzynski and Crooks] 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.
Making the idea simple. Jeremy England’s idea may sound a bit complicated, but (if I’m understanding his idea correctly) it can be put in simple terms: Clumps are the key. If you’re a configuration of atoms–a clump of matter–in the path of a heat source, and you efficiently incorporate and slough-off the heat coming your way–in other words, if you facilitate maximal entropy creation through time–you’ll go on existing longer than if you don’t do this efficiently. Clumps of matter, from snowflakes to proteins, are like well-oiled revolving doors, taking in and spitting out the energy that comes their way as they pass through time. They look improbable, but actually there’s no improbable climbing and a lot of probable dropping through space and time that is generating them. Think of Alice falling down the rabbit hole. That’s all of us. Our patterns channel energy as it moves from low entropy to high. It’s the price clumps of matter–nonliving and living–pay for ongoing existence.
This means that, despite all the work that is going on in a cell, it’s not ultimately a river flowing uphill against the natural inclinations of normal physics, but something going with the cascade of greater entropy in the cosmos. Life is not a freak (a kangaroo among the beauty, as Emily Dickinson once called herself). Life is not just The Seven Dwarfs resisting entropy locally through work (“Hi ho, hi ho, it’s off to work I go”), but also the Three Stooges (reacting efficiently to each strike of energy so as not to break from contact with it). Curly doesn’t resist Mo’s ear tugs or bops to the belly, but goes with them.
So the better you are at going with the heat (eating it at the front end, channeling it through your system, and dissipating it out your rear) the more likely your pattern-type will survive and replicate itself. Here’s another way that the profile puts it:
Popular hypotheses [for the origin of life] 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, […] 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 […] 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.
“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. […]
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.
Matter, in other words, is adaptive to energy. Energy puts evolutionary pressure on matter. From so simple a beginning–random clumps of atoms in a bath of dissipating energy–comes things like leaves (if given enough time).
What is a leaf? A leaf is a light catcher; a light processor. It captures light energy like an ad captures the eye of one’s desire. You move toward the ad because it entices you with the promise of giving you what you most want, quickly and efficiently. Likewise, a leaf is a channel for getting the solar radiation where it wants to go (toward ever greater entropy). It channels that solar radiation through its clump of matter (as a sail catches and tacks against the wind). The leaf assists its own preservation, and its tree’s reproduction, by going with the entropic flow of the world. It follows the path of least resistance, not the sharpest climb. England puts it this way: “A great way of dissipating more [heat] is to make more copies of yourself.” In other words, if you’re going to be a clump of matter (and not nothing at all), energy will favor your sort of clump of matter insofar as you channel its heat efficiently, and if you can make copies of your efficient self, all the better. You can go on doing it longer. The sorts of clumps of matter that channel heat with the greatest entropic pay-off will be the sorts that tend to survive and be around (because they give energy what it wants–more entropy, quicker).
What about Darwin? Here’s the implication for Darwin:
“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.
Another researcher, Mara Prentiss, is also reported in the profile as contemplating tests for Jeremy England’s idea:
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.”
The correct organizing principle. Wow. There it is. The whole evolutionary shebang.
Not just an idea, but math. It should be emphasized that what England has put forward is an idea that he has formalized into a mathematical formula, which means that it can be used to make predictions (and be subject to rigorous real world testing):
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. […]
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.”
Dissipation-driven adaptive organization. Remember that phrase. It may become as familiar as “natural selection” is today. And other science blood hounds are sniffing down this same trail, which mean that we may be on the verge of an evolutionary theory of everything:
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.
What does all this mean for evolution skeptics? If Jeremy England’s idea pans out, it means they’re done. (They’re already done in serious academic circles, but now they’ll really be done.) England is poised to go down in history as the 21st century guy who put the final stake in the heart of anti-evolutionism. Evolution will be shown to have a dual engine: natural selection and dissipation-driven adaptive organization. It’s one thing to have fights over what’s in the biology textbooks; another over what’s in the physics textbooks.
How about God? England’s idea isn’t so bad for a deist God. How clever She is to have generated a cosmos so gorgeous and complex from a cascade of dissipating energies. (An impressive feat; I certainly couldn’t have done it.) But no freaks. No flukes. No spooks. Just a low-entropy symmetry broken open, like an egg, at the Big Bang. “Let the yolk spill where it may!” as opposed to “Let there be light!” Blake put it this way: “Eternity is in love with the productions of time.” If God exists, so, apparently, is God.
Jeremy England is pretty much under the cultural radar at the moment. This is all I could find, for example, at YouTube that includes him. But when you hear his voice in this podcast, realize that you may well be hearing the voice of the Darwin of our age.
UPDATE: A more recent Jeremy England YouTube.