An article in Rawstory that was picked up from an article in Quanta magazine introduces the work of Jeremy England, a young MIT professor who’s proposed a theory, based in thermodynamics, showing that the emergence of life was not accidental, but almost inevitable. The Rawstory article pitches the story as something that is going to anger Young Earth Creationists even more than Darwin’s theory of evolution did.
Darwin’s model of evolution seemingly removed the need for the special creative acts of God by postulating a stochastic method that operates only according to the natural laws of physics, chemistry, and biology. No special intervention by God was necessary, even in the production of humans. Darwin’s theory has been interpreted by many to mean that humans are not the special creation of God, but only another form of animal life which theory is backed up by dispassionate scientific empiricism. According to Creatonists, by providing a naturalistic explanation of biological origins, evolution promotes atheism. As Richard Dawkins said, in the Blind Watchmaker: “Although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist”.
When Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, he avoided conjecture about the origin of life and said: “… it is no valid objection that science as yet throws no light on the far higher problem of the essence or origin of life”. As can be seen on the TalkOrigins Index of Creationist Claims, this lack of empiric explanation has allowed Creationist speculation to flourish that here, at least, one can see the very hand of God at work, no other explanation is possible. But as the Quanta article points out:
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.
The ironic thing here is that if England’s theory works out, it will show that thermodynamics drives evolution, starting even before life itself first appears, with a physics-based logic that applies equally to living and non-living matter. This is ironic in that many Creationists argue that evolution, and especially the origin of life is a violation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. But, as the TalkOrigins Archive notes:
Creationists thus misinterpret the 2nd law to say that things invariably progress from order to disorder. However, they neglect the fact that life is not a closed system. The sun provides more than enough energy to drive things. If a mature tomato plant can have more usable energy than the seed it grew from, why should anyone expect that the next generation of tomatoes can’t have more usable energy still?
So, evolution is no more a violation of the Second Law than life itself is. If England’s theories are upheld, then life itself may be an inexorable tendency of the universe. The Rawstory article ends with this:
Creationists often cast themselves as humble servants of God, and paint scientists as arrogant, know-it-all rebels against him. But, unsurprisingly, they’ve got it all backwards, once again. England’s work reminds us that it’s scientists’ willingness to admit our own ignorance and confront it head on — rather than papering over it — that unlocks the great storehouse of wonders we live in and gives us our most challenging, satisfying quests.
I would agree, and to my way of looking at it, England’s work doesn’t make God less necessary, but as Jim Kidder puts it in his review of this article:
This is yet another instance in which the existence of God cannot be tested one way or the other but the evidence makes the YEC position harder to maintain.
Also, I would say it is not clear in any sense why the “necessity” of life would obviate the need or existence of God. It is a category error to presume God is some entity or being in this universe. I think England’s work can imply, or at least not contradict, a belief system which posits that God interpenetrates every part of the universe and extends, timelessly (and, presumably, spacelessly) beyond it. Life is necessary because God is necessary, and He is Life.
43 thoughts on “Is Life Inevitable?”
I do not need to work the equations that physicists work, so I do not need to understand or even have an opinion about them, but their equations make real world and testable predictions that can be measured as evidence for the proof of their assertions and the validity of their math and method. While it’s true that the difficulty of imagining something does not mean it doesn’t in some way exist, it also doesn’t mean, in the absence of supporting or corroborating evidence, that it does exist. “I AM WHO I AM” (a text which has been variously translated by scholars) does not seem to me to mean “I am being itself” — I see no connection. If you tell me that, though I don’t see it and no one can explain it to me, and there is no corroborating evidence for it, there nonetheless is a connection, I have to wonder how you came about that opinion and why I should share it.
I have always had problems with the idea of a fourth spatial dimension which was is some way perpendicular to every point in three dimensional place, yet I have heard that physicists require several such dimensions for their equations. The difficulty of imagining this does not mean it doesn’t in some way exist.
Almost from beginning to end, the Bible, and the histories of both Judaism and Christianity, have been one of rejection of polytheism, and by certain implication of pantheism as well. If we and everything are God, then why would we need a savior? As a pantheist you might say we were our own saviors, but the very idea that something was wrong in our relationship to God, and that the result was the pervasive presence of evil/sin in the world, would be absurd. For pantheism, both we and the world are exactly as should be, and nothing is wrong at all, except perhaps for the lack of perception of the oneness of all things, which requires only a minor adjustment, but certainly not the Incarnate God dying on a cross to save humankind and the world. Perhaps your professors could’ve been less strident, and more irenic, but when someone claiming to be a Christian teaches pantheism as part of Christian belief, they are teaching a heresy that makes the Incarnation and Passion of Christ unnecessary.
I’ve also heard it but 1) I’m not sure what it means and 2) I’m not sure it means anything. I’m not sure I see the continuity or connection between “God is being itself” and “I AM WHO I AM”. One is a purely philosophical assertion; the other is an affirmation and even exclamation of sovereign, free, and personal identity. They seem very different to me.
“Immanence/panENtheism – everywhere present and filling all things… Yup. No problem whatsoever with that in EO.”
In my evangelical seminary education, I was taught that there is a clear line between God and not-God. Immanence is okay – God ‘is present to’ everything, but not in everything (or everything in him). Any doctrine that blurs that distinction (pantheism, panentheism) is heresy! Heresy I say! With a capital H!
I’ve heard it said that ‘God is BEING itself’ which kind of does go along with
“I AM WHO AM”
I understand the thrust of this observation, but I’ve never quite comprehended what it means when I’ve heard it so many times in the past, or now. If God “nterpenetrates every part of the universe and extends, timelessly, beyond it”, then how can he be said to not exist (to not be) in this universe, as well as beyond it? Oh certainly, he is not just “some entity or being”, we don’t encounter him as any Tom, Dick, or Harry, or some random non-personal object; but it is exactly because he is not identified with any other being or beings that we can rightly say that he has his own being, his own boundaries, as difficult at that may be to square logically with his omnipresence, omniscience, and omnipotence. God has, or has given himself, limitations; the Church has certainly experienced this viscerally in the person of Jesus Christ, or it has experienced nothing. Greek logical and philosophical categories can only take us so far in understanding where this is concerned; we meet God as existent person, within this universe. Do we have any other ground on which we could meet him? Well, if we did, we would meet him there as existent person as well.
I know entropy is what is observed, but if creation is not two-story, as Dana says, and if as a result it is always open to the God who fills it with his presence and energies, then entropy must be a local phenomenon rather than a universal one.
‘conscious’ life . . . . I wonder how much of ‘consciousness’ is a part of all life . . . what does it mean to be ‘aware’, and is our response(s) engendered by our consciousness ‘automatic’ or are they more of ‘free choice’
the plant leaves on my kitchen table grow towards the sunlight . . . to sustain life, yes; as the deep tap roots of some trees grow downward to tap into ground waters
but we ‘humans’, we search for something ‘consciously’ that ‘explains’ the great questions of our existence . . . do we do this also so that we also may be nourished and live ?. . .
the search for ‘God’ is universal
people in all cultures have some semblance of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’
we all respond to love, and even to the representation of it,
even the severely mentally-challenged among us are capable of acts of kindness towards those worse off then themselves
so we want answers, do we ?
Why not just be grateful for the glimpses that keep us going and trusting and hopeful ???
if we acknowledge what we have perceived as ‘grace’, will more be opened to us?
Iain, I can’t speak for the whole universe, but on this little speck of it the default setting seems to be life. At the bottom of the deepest oceans there is life, despite the intense pressure, lack of light and little oxygen. Whether these creatures have “adapted” to their environment or have been specially created (and if created, whether during Six Days or millions of years, which brings us around to the “adapting” question again) there’s no need to rule out God. I agree with you that this appears to be a confirmation of God’s providence. It’s way too creative for anything else.
Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
Every time we make further progress in science it invariably seems to indicate that the Universe is bigger, more complicated and more marvellously suited for and directed at generating life than we first thought. Every closed “gap” to my mind makes the universe more rather than less obviously divinely made.
Asserting that the universe is incapable of by itself fulfilling its purpose of creating life, and instead that it requires some demiurge “God of the gaps” to repeatedly stick his thumb on the scales for it to work properly to my mind is an argument against its creation by God, not for it.
If this discovery proves true, it would be another delightful conformation of the providence of God.
If God created physics and God is Life…
I don’t see the problem.
“The other thought that gives me deep shudders is that life -> intelligence -> industrial civilization -> ecological disaster -> oops, you failed. Given the time window involved, negligible on the cosmic scale, this seems eminently possible.”
AKA the Great Filter. And yes, it is shudder-worthy, especially given our current situations.
Loved your comment, ChrisS
“I think England’s work can imply, or at least not contradict, a belief system which posits that God interpenetrates every part of the universe and extends, timelessly (and, presumably, spacelessly) beyond it. Life is necessary because God is necessary, and He is Life.”
Immanence/panENtheism – everywhere present and filling all things… Yup. No problem whatsoever with that in EO. We also talk about the “energies of God”, which is kind of another way of saying the actions of God the Holy Spirit are not only revelatory of him, but he is actually IN those actions. We can’t meet God (or any other Person) directly, essence-to-essence, nor can we understand who that Person is, and what kind of Person that is, except through that Person’s actions. We meet God (and any other Person) through the energies.
Not only is God Life, but because God is Love, life is engendered (no matter exactly how that happens). My priest once told me something that Fr Stephen would say, too: You exist, therefore God loves you.
Another excerpt from Quanta:
i.e. He’s doing a crossover between three different branches of science (Math/Statistics, Physics, and Biology) and seeing if the interaction between the three has Hybrid Vigor. (Something that gets lost when science fragments into separate branches and never the branches shall meet.)
From the article in Quanta:
If he’s wrong, he’s going to be GLORIOUSLY Wrong.
This guy does NOT think small.
Gould’s essays on the History of Science are full of examples where proving a proposed theory wrong had the side effect of opening up new discoveries. And how Sir Fred Hoyle was famous in his circles for proposing an outrageous hypothesis and daring everyone to “Prove Me Wrong!” which spawned a lot of discoveries in the process of “roving Fred Wrong”.
In a military context, “splashed” refers to the impact/detonation of a warhead on target, as the explosion “splashes” out from its impact point.
This is called “Deep Time”, including the thought-experiments of “fossil civilzations” and “fossil signatures”. John Michael Godier’s YouTube channel has over 200 videos on the subject:
And another YouTuber — “Trey the Explainer” — has done this video re the related thought-experiment of “If there was a dinosaur civilization, how would we know?”
First, a musical interlude from Yorktown circa 1781:
(could only find instrumental; lyrics in description)
Plus, I seem to have guessed right in a series of world-writeup articles I’ve been doing (under my real name) for the online SF game-zine Freelance Traveller. In these, I have been assuming a variant of the Rare Earth Hypothesis where life (as in bacteria) is fairly widespread where you have liquid water and an atmosphere but more complex life is relatively rare. Assuming that some of these microbe-only biospheres have started to metabolize aerobically, this could oxygenate the atmosphere of an otherwise-barren world in a form of “pre-terraforming”, allowing T-formed regions on-world (with transplanted biospheres) on a time scale of centuries instead of millenia.
Actually, I was losing track of which was a reply to what (like the nested SQL IF statements I have to constantly analyze & debug) and thought the EXACT SAME THING was from His Smugness Senecagriggs.
And after 50+ years of experiencing “The dog returns to his vomit, The sow returns to her mire, And the burnt fool’s bandaged finger Wobbles right back into the fire” crossed with “They’ll Know We Are Christians ‘Cause We’re Smug, ‘Cause We’re Smug”, the urge to “choke the stupid out of people” can just get overwhelming. (An urge someone in your profession and position straddling Faith & Science is probably also VERY familiar with.)
This is an interesting idea – that there may be thermodynamically favorable pathways to precursor molecules needed for Life As We Know It, pathways that may indeed be so favorable that a qualified notion of inevitability is at least in the cards. I’ll read up further.
Whatever the merits of this proposal, however, it does, once again, shine a bright light on one of the most confounding aspects of Young Earth Creationism: its almost complete, and seemingly willful, misunderstanding of the Second Law of Thermodynamics.
As a young person, I was exposed to both YEC at church and school, but also to evolution via those durn dinosaur books at the library. There was one additional aspect of my upbringing, however, that I’ve never much heard referenced on this blog: the idea of “Pre-Adamic World”, one somehow addressed completely in the first two verses of Genesis. I’d be interested to know if anyone else had exposure to the theory.
I think Dake of Study Bible fame was its primary exponent. While I’m non-religious today, I have to give ole’ Dake credit for at least giving me an “out” when trying to synthesize the hard-edged YEC I’d hear in one venue with the more credible scientific explanation via evolution I’d hear in another. It gave me some space to think about things, however half-baked the idea may have been from the standpoint of either biblical scholarship or mainstream science. So thank you, Mr. Dake.
It wasn’t until I was in college that I came to really appreciate just how wrong-with-a-capital-R YEC was on the whole Second Law thing. It’s truly astounding.
As noted above, the argument is that disorder always increases, full stop, so that evolution is thus thermodynamically impossible. Yet this ignores whether the system in question is closed. The earth isn’t closed, energy pours in from the sun, so the argument is moot. It’s. Just. Wrong. The argument also fails to be applied to any other subject apart from evolution. Life’s persistence, the development of embryos, acorns turning into oak trees, the finishing of unfinished symphonies – all of these should also be impossible for precisely the same reason that evolution is said to be impossible.
This is one of the main reasons that YECs get an eye-roll from mainstream scientists. It’s not that they talk of God. It’s not that they talk about miracles. It’s not even that they don’t seem to have a burning interest in nailing down precisely how old the earth actually is, despite being called YECs!
No, it’s that they either are unable or unwilling to understand basic scientific principles such as the SLT.
Other Creationists don’t fall into this trap, and instead roll with the idea that, as best I can tell, separates matter into two classes: matter that’s not too complex for ordinary processes to produce, and matter that is too complex to have come about naturally and thus required an initial “push.”
What is strange about this dichotomy – and it speaks volumes to just how much EVERYONE accepts most scientific claims – is that nature is still robust enough for these highly complex forms of matter to PERSIST. The Designer-who-shall-remain-nameless-but-probably-looks-a-lot-like-Yahweh is needed to get things going, but not thereafter.
Most people think about this as a God-of-the-gaps argument, and it is. But it’s more than that. It’s an admission that for all the talk of the need for a Creator to explain things, NATURE still lets it all hang around thereafter, no further miracles required. The laws of nature let us stick around, in other words, but apparently don’t let us come about in the first place.
Well, I was getting a little hyperbolic, I’ll admit. Still, Simon Conway Morris has argued that convergence in evolution means things like eyes and wings are not so random as you might think.
NO. IT. WOULDN’T.
Even if life always emerges, afterwards there are too many random factors in play as to how the bush branches.
You’re misquoting Gould like a Ken Hamite.
In his book on the Burgess Shale (where he used the image of the evolution tape re-wound and re-played), Gould was talking about “What if”s once MULTICELLULAR life emerged. (After “sagans” of years of unicellular microbes, which seemed to have appeared shortly after the proto-Earth cooled down enough to have liquid water.) At which point, even though each branch on the path constrains the range of the future branches, there are just too many random factors influencing the mix for it to branch the exact same way into the EXACT SAME THINGS.
Gould’s example in the Burgess Shale was the first proto-chordate, an otherwise-unassuming wormlike creature that had a spinal cord down its length. What made this phylum stand out? Why is it still here (as vertebrates) when dozens of phyla in the Shale went extinct early? Why this proto-chordate? Why the 10% of phyla that survived the first mass extinction? What if there was a different mix of survivors?
If I weren’t posting this on a system other than my home one, I could pull the book from my shelves and cite the title, chapter, and page.
I think it used to be called immanence. Maybe it still is.
If so, it’s been part of Christianity since, well, Judaism before that.
To the best of my knowledge, even Muslims don’t have an issue with it.
You’re more likely to get in trouble saying “at the time of the last Ice Age, 16,000 years ago…”, or if you want to bring down the house everywhere and make everyone furious at you, try “evolution has produced different mating strategies for human males and human females”.
This has been argued over and theorized for the past 60+ years.
Google “Fermi Paradox”.
Or “Rare Earth Hypothesis”.
“Like Theology, Exobiology is a science in search of a subject.”
— Carl Sagan
Or indicates “design by wholesale, not by retail” — setting up all the physics and chemistry and other software ahead of time (before there’s any installed user base or legacy system) with a bias towards the emergence of life.
Ever played SimEarth? Maybe instead of creating everything one-by-one, God just wrote a SimCosmos, booted it up, and watched things unfold until here and there life reached a point where He could interact directly with it
Adam: panENtheism, perfectly respectable for Christians, especially those who lean EO.
Exceptionally delightful! I don’t imagine that ‘the good guys always win’ is a strictly American construct. It is the hope and anticipation of virtually every childhood story and certainly plays into every Hallmark show. It was lamented over, at length, in the Psalms (When oh Lord…?). My guess is that it strikes a chord all over the world. So the conclusion is that life begets life begets life begets life. A fountain of “living” water. While we sometimes do our damnedest to thwart and screw it up, it sounds like the good guys still win. Light shines in the darkness. Life inexorable eventually rises up and it seems it’s built into the very molecules of the universe. Jesus’ word to us is to side with it, walk in it, live in it.
I don’t see why:
“Thou who art everywhere and fillest all things
First prayer out of my lips, every morning, along with any other even marginally pious Orthodox Christian.
> The inevitability of life should mean that biological life would be splashed
Yep, but when, and how long does it last. This is the Chronology problem related to finding-ET. Maybe there was a vast space faring civilization… a million years ago, a 100 million years ago, a billion years ago? Maybe they are not around now, in our brief ~5,000 year window of being a technological species.
> Of course that presumes that intelligence and volition would be at least probable
I feel the leap from Life to Intelligence is still very wide under this theory.
> should be positively awash in radio signal
Nah. You need not only Life, but Intelligence, and then particular Technology – that technology requires particular materials. And you still have the Chronology problem.
Also: Maybe whoever is out there simply doesn’t care? Maybe they are delightfully practical creatures more interested in making the trains run on time than staring out at the stars in search of finding other creatures they can never reach?
> disaster -> oops, you failed
Yep. Me, I assume this is true.
> Re-read the last two sentences of my OP, again.
You mean the sentences that contain the precise definition of pantheism: “that God interpenetrates every part of the universe” 🙂
You’re gonna get in so much trouble!
Still, for me the one unanswered scientific question that confuzzles me profoundly is “why are we so apparently alone?” The inevitability of life should mean that biological life would be splashed pretty widely across the cosmos, emerging wherever the conditions were not just favorable, but even marginal.
Of course that presumes that intelligence and volition would be at least probable, but even so, our neck of the woods should be positively awash in radio signals. We should have at least picked up the Fibonacci sequence by now.
The other thought that gives me deep shudders is that life -> intelligence -> industrial civilization -> ecological disaster -> oops, you failed. Given the time window involved, negligible on the cosmic scale, this seems eminently possible. Venus may even be an example.
Eeyore: Come and savor the succulent, juicy, sugar-frosted irony with me. Not only is the God-of-the-gaps-Second-Law-of-Thermodynamics argument against evolution utterly destroyed, if what England postulates eventually pans out, but it is completely turned upside-down. The SLOTDs now proves that, not only is evolution likely, but even the origin of life from non-living chemicals is almost inevitable. YEC minds are blown (except for those, who not only miss the point, but wouldn’t recognize the point if they were IMPALED on it). Added bonus– Stephen J. Gould was wrong, if the evolution tape was re-wound, it would play the EXACT SAME THING. But wait– there’s more!!! It would appear that LIFE permeates the Creation. Re-read the last two sentences of my OP, again.
Difference: the “mathematical abstraction” is falsifiable.
Also: “The formula, ***based on established physics,***…” If you fly in an air plane, use a mobile phone, ride on a train, have an X-Ray or MRI, then you have accepting established physics. You have staked your very life on it.
“””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””” – this can be tested. Experiments related to the ‘natural’ formation of complex amino acids and other protein precursors may already point towards this conclusion.
> It is WAY too early i . . .
Has that ever stopped people? 🙂 Present data on almost anything to a room full of people and you will have that one person: “Is what you are really saying ___insert_extrapolation_of_cosmic_proportions___?”
And when you answer “No” he|she won’t believe you.
> unless you’re still holding to a “God in the gaps”
That is a whole lot of people. And most of those gaps are circa 1965 (or whenever their pastor attended college).
” The Rawstory article pitches the story as something that is going to anger Young Earth Creationists even more than Darwin’s theory of evolution did.”
Nah, didn’t anger me in the least.
Science is still searching for an explanation apparently.
It is WAY too early in the life stage of this theory (pun intended) to get really worked up about it. To quote the source article…
“(H)is interpretation — that his formula represents the driving force behind a class of phenomena in nature that includes life — remains unproven. But already, there are ideas about how to test that interpretation in the lab.”
We’ll see how his theory comes out in the wash. But ultimately, either way, unless you’re still holding to a “God in the gaps” hypothesis, does it even matter?
The fear of discovering an incontrovertible truth that contradicts the supposed truth that you have clung to is a terrible thing. But if God is not in the truth, where could he possibly be? Certainly not in deception and ignorance; such a God, characterized by those things, would be the truly frightening prospect.
“Si comprendis, non est Deus”
I’m not sure that attributing creative power to an mathematical abstraction involves more science than believing in a creator God, but hey, what do I know?