A reader whose email I’ve lost (sorry) sent me a link to this provocatively titled article from ozy.com: “Jeremy England, the man who may one-up Darwin.” Well, I had to look that up, for I’ve seen claims of one-upping Darwin many times in my career, but I’ve heard a lot lately about this England fellow. Only 33, he’s the Thomas D. & Virginia W. Cabot Career Development Associate Professor of Physics at MIT. The buzz about him, as detailed (or rather, sketched) in the ozy.com piece, is that he’s supposedly developed a theory that explains the origin of life from physical principles. But what that theory is seems so arcane, and buried in hard-to-read papers, see below, that I haven’t been able to understand it, and thus can’t judge it.
Now explaining the origin of life, or “abiogenesis,” would be great, though we almost certainly won’t know if such theories describe the way life actually started, but that doesn’t make England a substitute for or equivalent to Darwin. Not that Darwin was right about everything—he got genetics wrong, for instance—but Darwin’s 1859 book was so comprehensive, so correct in the main, that unless someone proposes an entire new theory of evolution, they won’t be be entitled to the monicker “the next Darwin”.
Nevertheless, the best summary of England’s theory for the layperson that I’ve seen is given in the Times of Israel (England is an Orthodox Jew and spends a lot of time studying the Torah, trying to reconcile it with modern science). England’s theory is apparently based on the self-organizing properties of molecules:
For instance, plants are structured in such a way that they are great at absorbing energy from sunlight. Monkeys are good at finding bananas and eating them.
England says that if you take a system containing a tremendous diversity of molecules, then add an external energy source, the molecules will start to arrange themselves in a shape that resonates with their environment.
How does this happen?
The famous video of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse, and the way a glass breaks when an opera singer reaches a certain pitch, are both examples of the physical phenomenon of resonance, where the shape of object or vessel will affect the pitch that it wants to vibrate at.
“If particles are in the right shape they will move and wiggle a lot with their environment. If they’re in the wrong shape they won’t wiggle so much.”
Any given system, says England, is constantly fluctuating a little bit and changing its shape, even if this is happening very slowly — for instance, water wearing away at rock or the motion of a glacier.
“A system is capable of shifts in its shape but often slowly enough that you’re not keeping track. It will make lots of different random moves but if I am poking at it or singing at it or blowing at it, the system makes a little hop then another random little hop then another, and this is happening at the molecular level.”
England says there’s a bias in how these hops happen.
“The hops you’re less likely to undo are the ones where you get pushed harder by the environment. The most durable changes in shape happen when the system is shaped to be good at getting pushed on by the environment.”
Did you understand that? I didn’t, either. But I haven’t read the papers, so I can’t really judge (there’s also a lecture on YouTube that doesn’t enlighten me much), and just maybe the theory is so complicated that it can’t be explained properly to the layperson. I’ve put some of England’s papers on the topic below (with links) in the hopes that readers who understand these things can see how revolutionary his hypothesis is. He’s certainly received publicity and encomiums for it.
The ozy.com article, however, doesn’t shed much light on England’s new idea. The paragraph in bold below, for instance, seems misleading, as if there’s a huge problem in explaining why organisms that “thrive in the same environmental conditions” aren’t identical. But whales and phytoplankton have very different ways of life, and evolved from very different ancestors. England’s problem seems to be that organisms that live in the same general habitat should, according to modern evolutionary theory, be identical. But “the same general habitat” is not identical to “the same ecological niche.”
England didn’t begin with number-crunching, though. During his postdoc research on embryonic development, he kept coming back to the question: What qualifies something as alive or not? He later superimposed an analytical rigor to that question, publishing an equation in 2013 about how much energy is required for self-replication to take place. For England, that investigation was only the beginning. “I couldn’t stop thinking about it,” he says, his normally deep voice rising until eventually cracking. “It was so frustrating.” Over the next year, he worked on a second paper, which is under peer review now. This one took his past findings and used them to explain theoretically how, under certain physical circumstances, life could emerge from nonlife.
In the most basic terms, Darwinism and the idea of natural selection tell us that well-adapted organisms evolve in order to survive and better reproduce in their environment. England doesn’t dispute this reasoning, but he argues that it’s too vague. For instance, he says, blue whales and phytoplankton thrive in the same environmental conditions — the ocean — but they do so by vastly different means. That’s because that while they’re both made of the same basic building blocks, strings of DNA are arranged differently in each organism.
Now take England’s simulation of an opera singer who holds a crystal glass and sings at a certain pitch. Instead of shattering, England predicts that over time, the atoms will rearrange themselves to better absorb the energy the singer’s voice projects, essentially protecting the glass’s livelihood. So how’s a glass distinct from, say, a plankton-type organism that rearranges it self over several generations? Does that make glass a living organism?
I don’t get what’s revolutionary here. Overall, I think that England’s theory is based on life originating by the self-organization of molecules that will almost always occur under Earthlike conditions. The self-organization bit isn’t new, but the inevitability may be. And then I see some criticism of Darwinian evolution that makes no sense at all. So, I’ll reserve judgement about the Second Coming of Darwin until the experts have weighed in on England’s work. If you’ve read his stuff already please weigh in below.
- Perunov, N. and England, J. L., “Quantitative Theory of Hydrophobic Effect as a Driving Force of Protein Structure.”Protein Science, 23, 387 (2014).
- England, J. L., “Statistical Physics of self-replication.” J. Chem. Phys., 139, 121923 (2013).
- Perunov, N., Marsland, R., and England, J. “Statistical Physics of Adaptation“, Phys. Rev. X, 6, 021036 (2016).
- England, J. L. “Dissipative Adaptation in Driven Self-assembly.” Nature Nanotechnology, 10, 920 (2015)