Reasons to Believe

Does Dissipation-Driven Theory Explain Life’s Origin?

Starting about 50 years ago, the origin of life became a showstopper for atheists. For example, over the past 35 years I have had many public debates and dialogues with atheist biologists and chemists. Whenever I brought up the origin of life in those debates, the atheist would do everything he or she could to dodge the issue, or when that was not possible, concede that no reasonable naturalistic explanation for life’s origin exists.

The lack of a naturalistic explanation for life’s origin hasn’t stopped nontheistic origin-of-life researchers from speculating that perhaps one day a naturalistic pathway for life’s origin might be discovered. Some of that speculation has led some physicists and chemists to propose that in certain special circumstances the laws of physics might operate in ways radically different from our normal experience.

The best known example of such speculation has generated considerable concern among Christians, which has prompted many to contact RTB asking for help. That example is a highly technical theoretical model developed by MIT physicist Jeremy England. England is not an atheist. He is an orthodox Jew. Nevertheless, he seems persuaded that the origin of life was a naturalistic event.

England notes that quite frequently when a grouping of atoms is subjected to an external source of energy (e.g. sunlight or a steam vent) those atoms will gradually restructure themselves so as to more efficiently dissipate heat. This efficient dissipation of heat when exposed to an external energy source is a property all forms of life hold in common. Thus, England—and, independently, the physicist Karo Michaelian1—leap to the conclusion that given sufficient time, a combination of thermodynamics and a persistent external energy source will transform a clump of atoms into a living organism. In the technical science magazine Quanta, England was quoted as saying, “You start with a random clump of atoms and if you shine light on it for long enough, it should not be so surprising that you get a plant.”2

England also notes that under special circumstances, thermodynamics can transform a disordered inanimate system into a highly ordered inanimate system. Some examples would include the generation of snowflakes, crystals, sand dunes, and vortices. As England and many other scientists before him have demonstrated, all that is necessary to create local order out of local disorder is to generate much more disorder than the laws of thermodynamics would normally predict for the immediate external environment to the local order. As long as the total entropy or the total measure of disorder increases for the system or volume as a whole, none of the thermodynamic laws are violated. Once again, England leaps to a conclusion: Since every organism generates order out of disorder by increasing disorder in its external environment, and since such order out of disorder occurs in several inanimate systems, thermodynamics and inanimate systems, given sufficient time, will create life.

I call England’s conclusions leaps since his deductions are based on just two properties of living organisms. All organisms do much more than just efficiently dissipate heat to their external environments and generate local order from local disorder. In their efficient dissipation of heat all living organisms produce work. Inanimate systems may efficiently dissipate heat but they do not produce work that reliably drive machines. Likewise, all living systems not only generate local order but also extremely sophisticated local complexity. Snowflakes, crystals, sand dunes, and vortices manifest high degrees of order but very low levels of complexity.

Another critical difference between inanimate systems and living organisms is that living organisms can maintain efficient dissipation of heat and the generation of order for long periods of time. For inanimate systems the combination of efficient heat dissipation and order is short-lived. To put it another way, living organisms can maintain systems that are far from thermodynamic equilibrium for relatively long periods of time. Some systems designed and built by humans can do this as well. However, inanimate natural systems cannot.

In addition to the two properties listed above, all living organisms possess the following set of properties:

  1. Multiple membranes designed to protect molecules inside the membrane capsules from destructive external phenomena
  2. Pore systems strategically embedded in the proteins designed to import critically needed external resources and to export waste products and components that are damaged beyond repair
  3. Machines and factories that process energy to perform specific, directed work tasks
  4. Repair machinery inside all the membrane capsules designed to maintain all the life-critical systems for relatively long time periods
  5. Transportation arteries and transport vehicles inside and outside the membrane capsules
  6. Capacity to efficiently store energy for future use
  7. Capacity to generate voluminous and complex information
  8. Capacity to reliably preserve voluminous and complex information
  9. Capacity for self replication
  10. Capacity to sense and adapt to external conditions

In a paper England published in the Journal of Chemical Physics he acknowledged that even the simplest living organisms are much more complex and durable than the inanimate heat-dissipation and local-order-generation systems he had suggested might be responsible for life’s origin.3 A key difference is that living organisms are managed and organized, whereas natural inanimate systems are not. The laws of thermodynamics dictate that all nonmanaged, unorganized systems pass into states of increasing disorder and chaos within very short time periods. Consequently, natural inanimate systems, regardless of how long one cares to wait, will never create the highly complex, highly ordered, highly organized and managed work-producing systems of machines and factories that comprise all living organisms.

Some additional points:

  1. Though living organisms dissipate a large part of the energy they capture, much of the energy they capture is utilized to create and store information in its information and computational networks.
  2. Taken to its logical conclusion, the hypothesis put forward by England and Michaelian would predict multiple origins of life at multiple times, including the present time. Such multiple origins are not observed.
  3. Taken to its logical conclusion, England and Michaelian’s hypothesis would predict a wide range of different molecular structures being manifested in living organisms. Instead, biochemists observe remarkably similar molecular structures.
  4. Taken to its logical conclusion, England and Michaelian’s hypothesis predicts that simple energy flows will cause at least some DNA, RNA, proteins, and cell membranes to pop into existence in relatively short time periods. Such outcomes are not observed.
  5. Mars has been around as long as Earth. If England and Michaelian are correct about their hypothesis, Mars should be teeming with diverse and complex life. It is not.
  6. Snowflakes, rock crystals, sand dunes, and vortices never become more complex and more durable.
  7. The physical attributes and history of the Sun places severe constraints on naturalistic models for the origin of life.4
  8. If natural unguided processes can transform natural inanimate systems into living organisms, why, with all their intellect, knowledge, funding, and technology, have biochemists (so far) been unable to create life from nonliving systems? (See Fazale Rana’s excellent book on this topic, Creating Life in the Lab.)

The bottom line is that the biblical creation model for the supernatural origin of life is in no way threatened by the models being proposed by Jeremy England, Karo Michaelian, and, even decades before them, Ilya Prigogine.5 It still stands that no reasonable hypothesis or even a reasonable scenario exists for a naturalistic explanation for life’s origin.

Given the nature of humans to credit the creation rather than God for the miracles they see in the natural realm (Romans 1:18–22), we should expect that scientists and others will continue to speculate unreasonable hypotheses and scenarios for a naturalistic origin of life. Where Christians can be encouraged, however, as Fazale Rana and I documented in the two editions of our book Origins of Life, is that the more scientists learn and understand about life’s origin, the stronger and more comprehensive the case becomes for a supernatural, super-intelligent origin of life.

Endnotes

  1. Karo Michaelian, “Thermodynamic Dissipation Theory for the Origin of Life,” Earth System Dynamics 2 (March 2011): 37–51, doi:10.5194/esd-2-37-2011.
  2. Natalie Wolchover, “A New Physics Theory of Life,” Quanta Magazine, January 22, 2014, https://www.quantamagazine.org/20140122-a-new-physics-theory-of-life/.
  3. Jeremy England, “Statistical Physics of Self-Replication,” Journal of Chemical Physics 139 (September 2013): id. 121923, doi:10.1063/1.4818538.
  4. Karo Michaelian and Oliver Manuel, “Origin and Evolution of Life Constraints on the Solar Model,” Journal of Modern Physics 2 (June 2011): 587–94, doi:10.4236/jmp.2011.226068; Hugh Ross, Improbable Planet: How Earth Became Humanity’s Home (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2016), 93–107, 143–64.
  5. Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers, Order Out of Chaos (New York: Bantam, 1984); Ilya Prigogine and G. Nicolis, Self-Organization in Non-Equilibrium Systems: From Dissipative Structures to Order through Fluctuations (New York: Wiley, 1977).

Subjects: Life in the Lab, Origin of Life, Requirements for Life, Life on Other Planets