Is it true that god is on the ropes?
The Christian right's obsessive hatred of Darwin is a wonder to behold, but [...] Darwin also didn't have anything to say about how life got started in the first place -- which still leaves a mighty big role for God to play, for those who are so inclined. But that could be about to change, and things could get a whole lot worse for creationists because 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 necessary. "[U]nder certain conditions, matter inexorably acquires the key physical attribute associated with life," he was quoted as saying in an article in Quanta magazine early in 2014, that's since been republished by Scientific American and, more recently, by Business Insider. In essence, he's saying, life itself evolved out of simpler non-living systems.
The explanation is intriguing:
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. [...]
If England's theory works out, it will obviously be an epochal scientific advance. But on a lighter note, it will also be a fitting rebuke to pseudo-scientific creationists, who have long mistakenly claimed that thermodynamics disproves evolution (here, for example), the exact opposite of what England's work is designed to 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. [...]
Snowflakes, sand dunes, tornadoes, stalactites, graded river beds, and lightning are just a few examples of order coming from disorder in nature; none require an intelligent program to achieve that order. [...] If order from disorder is supposed to violate the 2nd law of thermodynamics, why is it ubiquitous in nature?
The Quanta article will be of little comfort to those invested in the status quo:
England's theory is meant to underlie, rather than replace, Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection, which provides a powerful description of life at the level of genes and populations. "I am certainly not saying that Darwinian ideas are wrong," he explained. "On the contrary, I am just saying that from the perspective of the physics, you might call Darwinian evolution a special case of a more general phenomenon."
The paper "Statistical Physics of Self-Replication" (PDF) opens with this passage:
Every species of living thing can make a copy of itself by exchanging energy and matter with its surroundings. One feature common to all such examples of spontaneous "self-replication" is their statistical irreversibility [and] this observation contains an intriguing hint of how the properties of self-replicators must be constrained by thermodynamic laws, which dictate that irreversibility is always accompanied by an increase of entropy.