Jeremy England: the next Charles Darwin?

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.”

Ergo, life. (See another description of the theory here.) The novelty of England’s theory appears to reside at least partly in his claim that it makes the origin of life nearly inevitable.

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.

Here are four seemingly relevant papers linked to England’s MIT webpage:

91 Comments

  1. GBJames
    Posted September 12, 2016 at 9:10 am | Permalink

    sub

  2. Merilee
    Posted September 12, 2016 at 9:16 am | Permalink

    Sub

  3. Gasper Sciacca
    Posted September 12, 2016 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    Interesting that you mention opera singers breaking a glass by singing at the same pitch as the resonance of a delicate wine glass. The acoustical consulting firm I worked for was hired by Maxwell Tape in the early 70s to do just that. The reason: their ad agency Leo Burnett of Chicago had this crazy idea for a commercial. In our research, we were unable to break a glass no matter what opera singers did. We hired opera singers from Lyric of Chicago but with no success. Even with amplification no one could break the glass in our tests. However, one singer was able to do it (with amplification) and that was Ella Fitzgerald. The reason: even more so than opera singers she could sing the EXACT pitch necessary to match the resonance of the glass.

    • Flemur
      Posted September 12, 2016 at 10:48 am | Permalink

      A “rock singer” breaking glasses w/o amplification, plus slow-mo of glass vibrations:

      Article:
      http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/fact-or-fiction-opera-singer-can-shatter-glass/

      • GBJames
        Posted September 12, 2016 at 11:27 am | Permalink

        This is very cool. Thanks.

      • Heather Hastie
        Posted September 12, 2016 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

        +1!

    • David Klotz
      Posted September 12, 2016 at 11:53 am | Permalink

      That doesn’t surprise me at all about opera singers not being able to break the glass. They are trained, and it seems especially sopranos, to sing with vibrato, which means that they essentially oscillate around the desired pitch. Thus, they are only on the resonant pitch for maybe a few tens of milliseconds at a time before moving off (higher or lower) at a steady rate. With some singers the variation can be as much as a half-tone above and below. Ella sang without vibrato, I’m sure, producing a consistent pure tone.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted September 12, 2016 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

      Interesting that you mention opera singers breaking a glass by singing at the same pitch as the resonance of a delicate wine glass.

      Didn’t the Mythbusters and their three lead eyebrows do this a decade or so ago – and again they needed to go to the outer reaches of music to find someone who could do the stunt.
      Hmmm. Wondering if you could make a “wine glass” (other drinkable beverages are available) with the surface tension of a “Prince Rupert’s Drop”?
      (WordPress or my connection just did nasty things. Expecting double-posts.)

    • Posted September 12, 2016 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

      Oh, yeah. “Is it real, or is it Memorex?”

      /@

  4. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted September 12, 2016 at 9:32 am | Permalink

    Got a busy day today, so I cannot look at the links until much later. But I hope he is not really saying that assembly of biomolecules is based on harmonic vibrations. Maybe that was a distant analogy.
    As for the problem about whales and plankton living in the same environment: that one seems explainable regardless of ones’ theory. Bacteria evolved in a world without eukaryotes. When eukaryotes evolved, they could not directly occupy the niche of bacteria, but had to scale up to live in the next larger niche, and so on. Baleen whales evolved in a world with krill, and so they were selected to be big filter feeders of krill since there is a lot of that.

  5. Somite
    Posted September 12, 2016 at 9:33 am | Permalink

    This seems like a more convoluted description of teleonomy that Addy Pross described in “What is Life”. No great shakes here and certainly no replacement for Darwin.

    • Posted September 12, 2016 at 9:55 am | Permalink

      Yes, Pross’s book was important in helping me understand that biological evolution is simply the result of initial chemical evolution based on similar processes, and that the border between “life” and “nonlife” is a purely subjective one.

    • James Walker
      Posted September 12, 2016 at 10:09 am | Permalink

      My thoughts exactly. Pross’s book suggests that life is pretty much inevitable given certain conditions. *And* that Darwinian-style selection takes place with replicating molecules.

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted September 12, 2016 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

      I also liked that book for its emphasis that life is based on chemistry that does not go to equilibrium. That was the 1st time I encountered that interesting idea.
      He poo-pooed ’emergent properties’, however, and that is something that I am very fond of. Still, I liked the book overall.

    • Posted September 12, 2016 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

      Damn. That book’s been sitting on my shelf too long.

      But, at a high level, this doesn’t seem different in principle form what Alex Roenberg wrote about the thermodynamic inevitability of life in The Atheist’s Guide to Reality or what Prof. Brian Cox described (something to do with energy “waterfalls”, iirc) in The Wonders of Life.

      /@

      • Posted September 12, 2016 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

        *from

      • peepuk
        Posted September 13, 2016 at 9:18 am | Permalink

        Probably I don’t understand what you are saying, but Rosenberg doesn’t say that evolution is inevitable; he’s actually arguing for exactly the opposite:

        “The second law makes the merest sliver of an adaption just barely possible. But it makes no guarantees.”

        (starting lines from Chapter 4; IKEA didn’t make natural history: good design is rare expensive and accidental.)

        • Posted September 13, 2016 at 10:12 am | Permalink

          But later in the chapter, “The second law’s demand for persistent increase in entropy makes natural selection the only game in town.”

          /@

    • Mark Joseph
      Posted September 12, 2016 at 7:59 pm | Permalink

      Well, I see everyone has beaten me to it, but let me at least add weight of numbers. Pross’ book is excellent for showing how considerations of kinetic selection and increasing dynamic stability (the central concept of systems chemistry, if I’ve understood it correctly) lead to the assembling of life from non-living constituents. Highly recommended to all.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted September 12, 2016 at 10:09 pm | Permalink

      I’ll echo the recommendation of Pross’ book, with one caveat: at several points he lapses into a breathless, Buzzfeedy sort of prose style, telling us how amazed we’ll be at what he’s about to say next. This gets annoying after a while, particularly if you’ve already guessed what he’s going to say next.

      That aside, though, the importance of chemical disequilbrium and dynamic stability is well argued.

  6. W.Benson
    Posted September 12, 2016 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    I think the statement about crystal glasses rearranging their atoms ‘to’ make themselves more resistant to breakage is untrue. Certainly the shock absorbers on my car do not get better and better the more I use them. All of this self-organization stuff to explain why the world has come to be so wonderful seems suspiciously like Fine-Tuned Universe Theory, with tuning built in by ID at the atomic level. It is unfortunate that London has been unable to explain his ideas more clearly.

    • eric
      Posted September 12, 2016 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

      I agree with your very last comment because the parts of England’s ideas that Jerry quotes are not very clear.

      My initial thought is that he was saying something more tautological. Like: heat a bunch of chemicals and they’ll spontaneously react to form molecules that are stable under hot conditions. But even with this charitable interpretation, I’m not sure how you get to ‘life inevitable.’ I’m pretty sure that under early Earth conditions there were many ways CHON atoms could spontaneously form stable molecules that were not self-replicators (Methane being a pretty obvious example). So as far as I can tell he hasn’t bridged the gap from “it could have taken place” to “I know why it took place.”

  7. Hempenstein
    Posted September 12, 2016 at 9:54 am | Permalink

    Sounds like someone who’s convinced he can solve it by thinking. Jack Szostak’s been running actual experiments for a good while (in non-evolutionary time) and hasn’t solved it yet, but he has made considerable progress.

    My money’s on Szostak & his successors.

  8. Dean Booth
    Posted September 12, 2016 at 9:59 am | Permalink

    In ancient astral worship and astrology, resonance was the primary means by which the heavenly bodies could affect the sublunary world. Plato and others use the resonance of lute strings as a basic metaphor. In sympathetic magic, using scorpion-like objects (e.g., images and plants) to cure a scorpion sting was thought to be most affective when the Scorpio zodiac was ascendant (?) because that was when the resonance was highest,

    Perhaps besides reading the Torah, England has also been studying Kabbalah magic.

  9. Ken Kukec
    Posted September 12, 2016 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    Here’s hoping the resonance thing works out better in the long run for life than it did for the Tacoma Narrows Bridge and for the stemware exposed to Ella and Memorex®.

  10. Posted September 12, 2016 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    If I am reading this correctly, it reminds me of and is probably just an extension of Stuart Kauffman’s ideas on abiogenesis and evolution.

    When Kauffman first published his ideas on self-organization and systems, some in the media proclaimed Darwin had been “overthrown” or even “discredited”.

    It turned out there was really nothing all that revolutionary about Kauffman’s ideas and they fit well within the prevailing framework of Darwinian evolution. At least that is my understanding.

    This “overthrowing” of Darwin due to some “revolutionary” new discovery by some maverick scientist is something that seems to happen every few years; once all the hype evaporates, nothing really changes.

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted September 12, 2016 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

      That too is my take on such matters. As for this one, I would need to look more but on principle I would bet it is more smoke and mirrors.

    • Joe Dickinson
      Posted September 12, 2016 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

      Yes, I think Kauffman started out with some useful and interesting ideas, but got carried away to the point of embarrassing hype.

    • eric
      Posted September 12, 2016 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

      Yep. The one true thing about every “Darwin overthrown” headline is that it’s got a pretty good chance of producing profit. Pretty much everything else about such a headline is suspect.

  11. Posted September 12, 2016 at 10:20 am | Permalink

    For what it’s worth, here’s the article that best helped me understand the ideas behind the maths:

    https://www.quantamagazine.org/20140122-a-new-physics-theory-of-life/

    tl;dr it’s about the harmonic structuring of molecules in driven systems (surrounded by a heat bath), to better absorb and release energy. Replication is one good way to dissipate energy.

  12. efctony
    Posted September 12, 2016 at 10:24 am | Permalink

    Inevitability of life would imply that we don’t need the right environment for life to arise (or the environment is almost always right).

    But, were that the case, life would have arisen countless times on earth. Yet we only see one form of life: DNA/RNA life.

    It it were inevitable that life would arise in the first billion years of earth then it would be inevitable that life would arise again in the second billion years, and the third and the fourth. Common ancestry speaks to fact that life didn’t arise more than once: so there must have been something special about the first billion years.

    • Randall Schenck
      Posted September 12, 2016 at 11:04 am | Permalink

      Now that even makes sense to a layman.

    • Derek Freyberg
      Posted September 12, 2016 at 11:23 am | Permalink

      Maybe the something special was simply that it was the first time: once things had got going (to use highly technical vocabulary) in the first round, whatever came along in the second round just couldn’t compete.
      But that is a total WAG from a non-biologist.

    • tomh
      Posted September 12, 2016 at 11:28 am | Permalink

      I don’t see why. Life may have arisen often, only to be eaten by pre-existing life, or not survived for other reasons.

    • darrelle
      Posted September 12, 2016 at 11:29 am | Permalink

      Not necessarily. It is plausible that DNA/RNA based life has simply out competed any other nascent attempts at life that may have occurred throughout the history of Earth.

    • jaxkayaker
      Posted September 12, 2016 at 11:41 am | Permalink

      Besides the fact that existing organisms might consume any newly forming proto-organisms, much of earth is unlikely to permit extensive abiotic polymerization, which is countered by oxidation and aqueous conditions, if I recall biochemistry correctly.

    • Posted September 12, 2016 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

      As far as I know, once the atmosphere and the waters were enriched at molecular oxygen, it became impossible for life as we know it to re-emerge.
      Moreover, even before the Great Oxygenation, life “trying” to emerge anew was presumably eaten away by life already emerged.

    • Posted September 12, 2016 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

      Inevitable, given the right starting conditions – available raw materials, available energy, and so on.

      Then what others have said.

      /@

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted September 12, 2016 at 5:52 pm | Permalink

      What they all said. The biggest threat to life is other life. Hungry other life.

      cr

    • Torbjörn Larsson
      Posted September 13, 2016 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

      Well, the first emergence was special in that it was first. Already Darwin suggested why it would not be surprising to see just one emergence, since it would then use biochemicals as nutrients.

      If that is enough of an explanation remains to be seen, but I haven’t seen any better. Mind also that on modern Earth, after the atmosphere oxygenation, we wouldn’t expect to see any attempts at emergence, since oxygen is so reactive.

  13. Kevin
    Posted September 12, 2016 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    I heard about England a couple of years ago. I watched a couple of videos and thought he was profoundly interesting, but he did not seem to say anything revolutionary. More like, he said all things I felt were obvious and worth saying.

  14. Patrick Laurenti
    Posted September 12, 2016 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    It reminds me the theistic views of biological evolutions of De Duve or Conway-Morris…
    Talking physics to biologist or biology to physicists is a long held method of IDers, teleologists and other crackpots

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted September 12, 2016 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

      But not a reliable indicator of crackpottery. I seem to recall many reputable physicists/biologists did the same. Schrodinger and Crick are the obvious examples that spring to mind.

      cr

      • Patrick Laurenti
        Posted September 13, 2016 at 9:05 am | Permalink

        Of course, but how many Crick, how many Schrodinger, and how many Turing for dozens of crackpots?

        See for instance:
        http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2016/03/11/swirling-twirling-birling-and-going-around-and-around-again/

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted September 13, 2016 at 9:42 am | Permalink

          I’m not sure that FTB and Pharyngula carry a lot of weight around here.

          More to the point, I don’t actually know if anyone’s tried to compile any statistics of the number of ‘genuine’ biophysicists compared with the number of ‘crackpots’. I’d be interested to see. (Of course this would require quite a lot of value judgements in the compiling).

          cr

          • Posted September 13, 2016 at 9:57 am | Permalink

            Isn’t that a logical fallacy? The inverse of the argument from authority. Just because PZ is (allegedly) a dick, doesn’t mean all of his commentary is worthless.

            /@

            • infiniteimprobabilit
              Posted September 14, 2016 at 1:15 am | Permalink

              Looking at PZ’s article, he seems to have identified two, maybe three characters who *might* be physicists and are crackpotty. Which is anecdotal, not statistical. Another logical fallacy.

              cr

              • Posted September 14, 2016 at 2:19 am | Permalink

                Fair enough, but that by no means refutes my comment.

                /@

  15. Posted September 12, 2016 at 10:31 am | Permalink

    “Did you understand that? I didn’t, either. But I haven’t read the papers, so I can’t really judge”

    Me either, and I’m far less qualified to judge. That being said I will anyway, sounds like a bunch of baloney to me.

  16. Paul E
    Posted September 12, 2016 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    If true, will it be a new place for the religious to say ‘god tuned the physical properties that way so that life was inevitable’?

  17. Posted September 12, 2016 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    The fact that he trying to reconcile the Torah with modern science makes me wonder about his preconceptions on abiogenesis.

  18. Billy Bl.
    Posted September 12, 2016 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    I’m convinced that wiggling and hopping are the keys to the origin of life.

    • AdamK
      Posted September 13, 2016 at 8:23 am | Permalink

      Having made close observations of my pets, I concur wholeheartedly.

  19. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted September 12, 2016 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    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…

    HE BLOODY WELL SHOULD! If he can’t this blatant example of teleological cart-before-horse error, then how are we to hope theat he can actually offer us something better?

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted September 12, 2016 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

      I suspect that’s the journo’s wording, not England’s at all.

      Admittedly England’s interest in rationalising the Torah raises doubts, but then Newton notoriously did the same sort of thing.

      cr

  20. Posted September 12, 2016 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    England’s model seems to be a cute, interesting abstract model of Origin of Life. It certainly doesn’t replace anything Darwin said, nor has England claimed that.

    So just more journalistic hype, based on some interesting work but totally distorting its meaning.

    • Posted September 12, 2016 at 11:26 am | Permalink

      Yes, I know that England hasn’t claimed to replace Darwin; it’s the press. Still, it seems that he’s done little to dispel that idea!

      If you know what his theory is, by all means write a precise here!

      • Posted September 12, 2016 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

        A precise précis? 😁

        /@

        • AdamK
          Posted September 13, 2016 at 8:25 am | Permalink

          A precious précis!

          • Wayne Tyson
            Posted September 13, 2016 at 7:06 pm | Permalink

            A precocious pernicious precious precise précis?

  21. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted September 12, 2016 at 11:05 am | Permalink

    This appears to be another episode of “Deep or Derp?” My money is on the latter. It appears he is trying to accomplish chemistry by doing physics.

  22. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted September 12, 2016 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    “Well he’s from MIT, he knows what he’s talking about” -Larry King, to Bill Nye.

    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted September 12, 2016 at 11:41 am | Permalink

      … Should’ve said it wasn’t related to England, but a climate change interview from years ago. Point is the MIT brand is powerful.

  23. Posted September 12, 2016 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    No replacement for anything Darwin wrote – who, needless to say, was agnostic on the origin of life itself.

    The charitable interpretation of what has been claimed seems to be just a version of the “abiotic clay to get chirality” and such.

  24. Roy Black
    Posted September 12, 2016 at 11:53 am | Permalink

    I agree that we have to explain the self-assembly of the molecules that comprise cells, but this is too abstract for me. In concrete terms, the problem is: how did the building blocks of protein, RNA and membranes get together. The lipids in the first membranes actually self-assemble readily in water, as Dave Deamer showed many years ago. More recently, I’ve published in PNAS that the building blocks of RNA spontaneously bind to such membranes (vol. 110, p. 13272). And I extended the concept to amino acids in a just-published paper, Life 6, 33; doi:10.3390/life6030033. So explaining self-assembly of the building blocks of cells may require only high school chemistry, not arcane physics.

    • Posted September 12, 2016 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

      What do experts in your field think about permeability of early membranes?

      • Roy Black
        Posted September 12, 2016 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

        That used to be considered a problem, but Szostak has shown that the simple membranes thought to be primordial are leaky enough to allow diffusion of small molecules in, while retaining larger molecules like RNA.

        • Posted September 12, 2016 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

          I once listened to a lecture about pore-forming toxins and thought that making the membrane permeable to small molecules and ions, which today is done only by toxins, could be a function of earliest proteins.

          • Roy Black
            Posted September 12, 2016 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

            At some point proteins would indeed have assumed this role, but we need to explain how protocells could have functioned before proteins long enough for the task evolved.

            • Posted September 13, 2016 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

              Maybe they did not need to be very long. Gramicidin A is of only 15 amino acids, all of them hydrophobic (and the hydrophobic nature of an encoded peptid can be easily guaranteed by using only G and U in the codons). Well, I know it is not that easy. Gramicidin requires D amino acids to work.

          • Torbjörn Larsson
            Posted September 13, 2016 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

            Actually the problem seems to be to make the membrane sufficiently non-permeable, so that chemiosmosis could evolve. Lane et al showed that it could only happen with semi-permeable cells in an alkaline hydrothermal vent environment. [ http://journals.plos.org/plosbiology/article?id=10.1371/journal.pbio.1001926 ]

            That is why the putative alkaline hydrothermal vent LUCA and its deep vent heritage of metabolism and genetic machinery is so interesting. [ http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/26/science/last-universal-ancestor.html ] You can see that biochemists like Sutherland is tensed by these findings: “But chemists like Dr. Sutherland say they are uneasy about getting prebiotic chemistry to work in an ocean, which powerfully dilutes chemical components before they can assemble into the complex molecules of life.” (Sutherland should know full well that alkaline hydrothermal vent environments *concentrate* organics, and that strand replication has been shown in them. See e.g Russell et al “The Drive to Life on Wet and Icy Worlds”, Astrobiology.)

      • Roy Black
        Posted September 12, 2016 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

        That used to be considered a problem, but Szostak has shown that the likely primordial membranes are leaky enough to allow small molecules to diffuse in, while retaining large molecules like RNA.

  25. Tom
    Posted September 12, 2016 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    When I read an article a few months ago about Mr England I had the (false) impression that he was talking about the initial widespread random binding of a few molecules attracting and accumulating more combinations from the surrounding trillions till some sort of self sustaining order evolved, all this driven by an outside energy source.
    Obviously not so.
    So I don’t understand it either.

  26. Posted September 12, 2016 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    I sent the blurb to Jerry because it was being mocked by leading geneticists on Twitter.

  27. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted September 12, 2016 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    I hope this isn’t a retread of Sheldrake’s “morphic resonance“, but it’s hard to tell from the description.

    • jimroberts
      Posted September 12, 2016 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

      sub

  28. darrelle
    Posted September 12, 2016 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    England’s commentary about his hypothesis in the Times of Israel doesn’t make any sense and sounds wishy-washy to me.

    I recall a paper of his from 2013, mathematical modeling of thermodynamic systems, that caused a stir. His conclusion, based on his math, was that it may be the case that living systems are more efficient at increasing entropy than non-living systems, with the implication that a system with an external source of energy may tend to naturally “evolve” to living systems.

    The math is way beyond my ken, but from what I understand not even his critics have any problems with his math, though they doubt his conclusion. It seems plausible enough to be worth further study. It also is not contrary to what we know of the beginnings of life on Earth, that it seems to have begun more or less as soon as conditions were reasonably amenable (i.e. average surface temperature fell to below cooking levels.)

  29. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted September 12, 2016 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

    I’ve always been more interested in the conflict between religion and the best of modern morality rather than the conflict with science.

    So if England can reconcile the Torah with modern biology, he would still need to explain quite a bit to me,

    • Posted September 12, 2016 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

      + 1. I’ve always wondered why monotheist believers make such fuss about evolution, when I think they should be worried about infectious diseases, predator-prey interactions, deleterious mutations, cancer and other phenomena that cause suffering and early death.

  30. peepuk
    Posted September 12, 2016 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    Inevitable? Currently we have prove that it has happened once in +- 14 billion years.

    Some hypothesis involving self organizing molecules seems not a very risky. Wasn’t it Schrodinger who made a connection between the Second Law of Thermodynamics and the Theory of Evolution?

    • Posted September 12, 2016 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

      Ah, yes. Schrödinger was certainly the inspiration for Prof. Brian Cox’s The Wonders of Life (see above).

      /@

    • Torbjörn Larsson
      Posted September 13, 2016 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

      We can also show that it happened very rapidly, in a locally reducing environment, in the ocean, et cetera.

      But you are right in that England doesn’t pinpoint the circumstances of emergence.

  31. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted September 12, 2016 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

    Reading the thumbnails presented, it sounds very reminiscent of Manfried Eigen’s “self-accelerating hypercycles” theories which I sweated through in the mid-90s. And I don’t think they were particularly new then.

  32. Joe Dickinson
    Posted September 12, 2016 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

    This also is a nice illustration of what creationists don’t “get” about the culture of science when they claim that scientists prop up Darwinian evolution even when they know it’s not true, in service of some vague commitment to atheism. The fact is that every scientist would love to make her/his reputation by “taking down” the biggest possible target. In biology, no one is bigger than Darwin. Accordingly, every few years we we hear from (or about) someone overturning evolution or fixing some fatal flaw. Not one has even come close, and my own feeling is that no one ever will.

  33. Posted September 12, 2016 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    Having read 3 out of the 4 papers now, while the math is really over my head, the gist of the argument is fairly well spelled out. I have a feeling this article is a poor example of science journalism taking England out of context. He makes no grandiose claims in the attached papers and properly hedges his language. He presents arguments and limitations to his models and seems more interested in how the models he and his co-authors are trying to present apply to nano-technology and construction. From a layman’s perspective, the papers seem reasonable, if there are problems with the theories then they are highly technical. England is not, by any means pushing any woo, he is trying to explain self-replication as an operation or consequence of thermodynamics and nowhere in the papers I’ve read claims to be upending Darwin. When dealing with natural selection, I read no inference of teleology and otherwise did not see any imbuing of his religious ideas onto those of his scientific ideas. If anything, the papers presented are about as Darwinian as you can get and are actually rather fascinating.

    Again, I see this as bad journalism rather than bad science, or at least, if it is bad science, then it’s not through any intent by the author to push an ideological agenda. There are huge implications for a fully developed theory along these lines that have direct implications for nanoscale engineering. England is by no means finished with the theory, but he seems to be working in good faith. His religious identity does not appear to be impacting his science in these papers. I don’t see any outside forces being invoked other than optical/thermal energy.

    The papers, while thorough and somewhat long winded, are also highly readable. If I can slog through them and understand at least the basic concepts, then I imagine someone with a background in organic chemistry and micro-biology would certainly be able to understand them.

  34. Posted September 12, 2016 at 10:31 pm | Permalink

    The hypothesis that molecules are just itching to arrange themselves into living forms seems at odds with the fact that, as far as we know, abiogenesis occurred just once on earth.

  35. chrism
    Posted September 13, 2016 at 5:52 am | Permalink

    “It’s like the Tacoma Narrows Bridge.”

    Oh, well, tick abiogenesis off the list then. We have all heard exactly the same degree of detail in explanations of life, the universe and everything from eastern mysticism combined with western crank philosophy. Blavatsky, Ouspensky, Gurdjieff all the way to the Maharaji Ji. Everything vibrates and it’s all in harmony. That lad’s got a bit too much dopamine if he sees connections everywhere. That sort of connectedness ends up in tears and olanzepine.

  36. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted September 13, 2016 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

    I liked England’s paper on RNA, since it predicts why we have an RNA world instead of a DNA world at the root.

    But while I haven’t read the last round of papers, the idea that life would emerge since it tend to expend more entropy is neither new or explanatory. The problem is that it is an unconstrained mechanism, suggesting it could happen in any locale at any time. But that isn’t what we see.

    Good for England if he can make progress on these types of descriptions, though.

  37. Andy
    Posted September 13, 2016 at 9:00 pm | Permalink

    The papers are interesting and, like the other commentators, I don’t see anything outrageous. Although maybe they push the conclusions a little further than justified.
    I can’t quite decide if there’s something profound, or if it’s just stating the obvious.
    His toy example seems to consist of a time varying energy barrier and the usual exponential dependence of rate upon energy difference. Obviously the resulting transition probabilities are not symmetrical, so the outcome depends on how they drive the barrier…
    There might be something novel in how he shows that transitions seem to happen at the point when the most energy is transferred. However, I don’t the field well enough to be sure. A cautionary note is that you sometimes have to be very careful when taking a time average.
    I definitely don’t like his explanation of the nanoparticle alignment. That sort of patterning has been studied and used for many years. I don’t really see that his explanation adds anything beyond confusion.
    Overall, my suspicion is that his work is not wrong, but the novel part is just the interdisciplinarity (if that’s a word).

  38. Wayne Tyson
    Posted September 14, 2016 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    Roy Black
    Posted September 12, 2016 at 11:53 am | Permalink

    I agree that we have to explain the self-assembly of the molecules that comprise cells, but this is too abstract for me. In concrete terms, the problem is: how did the building blocks of protein, RNA and membranes get together. The lipids in the first membranes actually self-assemble readily in water, as Dave Deamer showed many years ago. More recently, I’ve published in PNAS that the building blocks of RNA spontaneously bind to such membranes (vol. 110, p. 13272). And I extended the concept to amino acids in a just-published paper, Life 6, 33; doi:10.3390/life6030033. So explaining self-assembly of the building blocks of cells may require only high school chemistry, not arcane physics.

    It is refreshing to read a post like this, a real kernel of reason admist the chaff of interminable and repetitive chants about monotheists, apologists, and atheists against “religionists” which I tire so much of that I have to depend upon chance to reveal such kernels.

    I would like to see such posts as Blacks include links to the references.

    I continue to struggle to find a way to initiate a supercomputer database and programs to provide the contextual compliment to genomic data that I consider to be the “other half” of the Great Puzzle.

    I wish the (always) Right Honorable Blogger would post more provocative science like this that draw out the best in people like Black. Of which MORE, please!


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