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Physicist’s ‘breakthrough’ on the origin of life: can thermodynamics of heat dissipation explain chemical evolution?

by and Carl Wieland

Published: 17 January 2015 (GMT+10)

One important proposition that atheists must believe is that life came from non-living chemicals, a process called chemical evolution or abiogenesis. However, the specialists in the area know that they are not even close to solving this problem. So every so often, media headlines trumpet the latest and greatest solution. Readers should take the tacit admission from these headlines: that the suggestions hyped in previous years didn’t solve the problem after all.

A recent attempt comes from Jeremy England, a physicist from MIT. His basic idea is that life is very good at increasing the entropy of its surroundings: life absorbs energy and dissipates it as heat, and this by definition increases the surroundings’ entropy. And of course, if something can self-replicate, then it will generate more energy dissipators.1,2

This has been extensively promoted as a ‘groundbreaking idea’ about why we have life. Despite the hype, this report offers absolutely nothing to explain how life could have evolved from lifeless chemicals; still a massive unsolved hurdle. All they are claiming is that it would be thermodynamically advantageous for the system as a whole, but that is a long way from showing a mechanism by which the huge jump could take place. (This very common evolutionary fallacy is refuted further in Does biological advantage imply biological origin?)

By way of analogy, it might be demonstrable that it is thermodynamically advantageous for cars to appear from random orebodies, with tanks full of fuel, ready to go about dissipating energy into the environment; but if so, showing that would not be the same as showing that such a thing could ever happen unaided.

When it comes to the origin of life, England blithely asserts that RNA is self-replicating. No it is not; in cells, nucleic acids are replicated with complex machinery, one building block (nucleotide) at a time. The usual claim is actually properly called ligation: one length of RNA can catalyze two chemically activated matching lengths of RNA to join together—see Is RNA self-replication evidence for evolution? At least England uses the right term in his scientific paper. But this fails to explain how three matching homochiral strands of a highly unstable molecule like RNA can arise in a primordial soup despite the known chemical hurdles. Even proponents of the ‘RNA world’ admit that it has plenty of holes, but claim that it’s still better than other theories of chemical evolution.3 However, this is just the ‘best in field’ fallacy derived from their a priori commitment to materialism.

This is all tinkering around the edges, avoiding the real issue involved in having chemicals turn into cells by themselves, which is the origin of the vast quantities of programmed information that characterizes life. Some anticreationist voices on the web are making a lot of noise about this alleged ‘breakthrough’, some even constructing a strawman about the inappropriate use by uninformed creationists of the 2LT (unfortunately an accurate criticism, as you will see if you read the book World Winding Down (a layman’s guide to the Second Law of Thermodynamics), checked by highpowered physical scientists including a research professor of physics). They must be hoping that Joe Q Reader won’t notice the glaring absence of actual evidence of a mechanism.

References and notes

  1. England, J.L., Statistical physics of self-replication, Journal of Chemical Physics 139:121923, 2013 | doi:10.1063/1.4818538. Return to text.
  2. Wolchover, N., This Physicist Has A Groundbreaking Idea About Why Life Exists, Quanta Magazine, 8 December 2014; quantamagazine.org. Return to text.
  3. For example, Harold S. Bernhardt (Department of Biochemistry, Otago University, New Zealand), The RNA world hypothesis: the worst theory of the early evolution of life (except for all the others), Biology Direct 7:23, 13 July 2012 | doi:10.1186/1745-6150-7-23. Return to text.

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Readers’ comments

michael S.

I come across the, 'best in field' argument a lot from the evolutionist side.

Is it just me or does the assumption there is a natural explanation for life's origin INCLUDE/REQUIRE macro-evolution to be true?

I think of it like this, although I could be wrong: if we assume life has always been according to kinds (Baramins), then obviously an abiogenesis is impossible. So then IN A WAY, you need macro-evolution in order for there to be an abiogenesis, and you need abiogenesis in order for there to be a macro-evolution.

If you see it that way, it seems a bit circular. At least to me, anyway. I suppose an evolutionist could counter that you don't need a macro-evolution to then happen after an abiogenesis, the forms might go extinct. But nevertheless, all of this ASSUMES that life is completely reducible in it's complexity, surely.
Errol B.
What educated person could possibly doubt such a complete theory? As complete as Anne Elk's (AKA Monty Python) theory on the brontosaurus.
Phil M.
Regarding your statement ”One important proposition that atheists must believe is that life came from non-living chemicals, a process called chemical evolution or abiogenesis”.
That darwinists would call life coming from non-living chemicals a “process” is understandable. They would very much like to view it as an abiogenetic "process" because, from their perspective, it would then be a natural occurrence not requiring the invocation of God. But why CMI is calling it a “process” I don’t understand. Abiogenesis is nothing more than the darwinist’s attempt to concoct an imaginary series of random historical events. However, concocting an imaginary series of chance historical events is not the stuff of science (and nor is it the stuff of history). It certainly cannot be classified as a process.
Without being too technical, although a “process” may be viewed as a predetermined sequence of predetermined events with pre-determined outcome(s), “event” is a term commonly associated with history and “process” (as having implied predeterminations) is a term commonly associated with science.
Jonathan Sarfati
It is common to talk use the term ‘process’ for a proposed mechanism, even if it is hypothetical. E.g. if I were to describe the defunct phlogiston theory of combustion, I could say that according to this theory, burning is ‘dephlogistication’, ‘the process of losing phlogiston to the air until the air became saturated in phlogiston’ so could not support burning or life. Then plants became phlogisticated, the process by which they absorb phlogiston from the air.
Joseph M.
The origin of the first life needs, as a minimum, "life information". "Life information" incorporates meaning and intentional choice (a voluntary law) in order for pre-existing complex bio-machinery (Ribosomes, etc.) to utilize. "Life information" is a combination of information storage (Codes), flow (messages, signals) and processing instructions (translation) where these properties are non-physical but uses physicality/energy/matter as transportation mechanisms as part of its integrated complexity.

Matter and energy follows deterministic laws which knows nothing about 'life information'. No matter how much energy is absorbed and dissipates under the 2LT, without the mechanism to introduce this voluntary law of information then this latest idea is dead.

This mechanism can only be introduced by a top down approach. Only a higher intelligence of a non-physical nature than man (man cannot create himself) has the means to introduce this mechanism. Genesis 2:7, 8, 19 “...And the Lord God formed man…” Genesis 2:7 "...into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul." Job 33:4 "... and the breath of the Almighty hath given me life". Genesis 1:26 "... Let us make man in our image, after our likeness..."
Ken B.
"All things were made by Him, and without Him was not anything made that was made. In Him was life."
Life has a Source and that Source is Jesus. The Source is also Light - "that life was the Light of men" (John's gospel).
Just what a dark world needs. Other 'role models' on offer bring only death (take a look at the headlines). Jesus brings life.
Chandrasekaran M.
In almost nothing to moral Homo sapiens, godless evolution worldview, when did 2LT come into existence? Didn’t it come into existence much before primordial soup pond? So, whatever novel idea evolution scientists come up with, how can it be stronger than 2LT? Doesn’t chemical evolution involve bringing material constructions, like computer hardware, and DNA programs, like computer software, together? In bringing these two together in a functional form, does it require a bootstrapping? Thermodynamics of heat dissipation seems to be an inappropriate tool which is not capable of creating DNA programs and bootstrapping!.

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