Biophysicist Jeremy England claims that life inevitably came about because of physics—specifically, thermodynamics. Life, therefore, isn't an accident. It was the inevitable consequence of disorder and order.
England says that because of the second law of thermodynamics, the universe is heading towards a state of disorder. In this state of disorder, everything is the same, no matter the arrangement of their parts. Physicists call this state “maximum entropy”, where there is a balance between all things in an energy level.
There are ordered things with low entropy—things that will change if their atoms are rearranged. According to England, the balance of energy on planets is in such disarray that that atoms reassemble in order to deal with the chaos. When the atoms reassemble themselves, they form what we call life.
England used computer simulations to examine what happens when chemical compounds and atomic particles are in an environment much like that of the young Earth's.
Computer Simulations of the Origin of Life
These simulations have produced two significant studies on the topic. For the first study, England used 25 different chemicals, each interacting with the others in particular ways. This was a “soup” of chemicals, and energy sources facilitated chemical reactions in the soup. A web of chemical reactions formed, and it evolved toward a “fixed point”. This is the final state in which the reactions were steadier than before.
For the second study, England created a simulation with a system of atoms. These atoms interact with each other, just as the chemicals in the first simulation interacted. The sun was the energy source in this simulation. England found that the atoms rearranged themselves and increased their absorption of energy by forming and breaking atomic bonds. The system then became more efficient in handling the flow of energy.
Thus, according to these findings, all that's needed for life to exist are chemicals and a source of energy. According to England's hypothesis, the formation of life is inevitable because it's a definite and natural effect of thermodynamics and systems out of a state of equilibrium.
Criticisms and Steps Forward
These findings, and England himself, have gained praise as well as criticism. One particular but significant criticism is England's lax definition of what life is. Of course, defining life isn't that simple. There are, for example, differing opinions on what the essence of life is. Other biophysicists suggest that England's findings may be a part of the story of how life came about, but it may not be the whole story.
Other experts also think that the next step for England's hypothesis is to make the simulations and findings less abstract. One way to do this is to use the conditions that may have been present in tidal pools and volcanic vents early in Earth's lifetime. This way, the more abstract aspects of the simulations would have actual, concrete manifestations.
England's simulations may still have quite a way to go, but experts say that he's likely to be on the right track. In fact, these studies may be the groundwork for another addition to evolutionary theory that's as significant as Charles Darwin's findings.
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