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

by and Carl Wieland

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. England himself, although he is also an Orthodox Rabbi, functions for all practical purposes like a materialist.

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.

Published: 17 January 2015

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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