Evolution in the News - March 2019
by Do-While Jones

The Secret of Life

Paul Davies claims to have found “life’s secret ingredient.”

Six weeks ago Paul Davies wrote an article for New Scientist in which he claims to have found “life’s secret ingredient” and presented “a radical theory of what makes things alive.” 1 He made some excellent points. He began that article by saying,

THERE is something special – almost magical – about life. Biophysicist Max Delbrück expressed it eloquently: “The closer one looks at these performances of matter in living organisms, the more impressive the show becomes. The meanest living cell becomes a magic puzzle box full of elaborate and changing molecules.”

What is the essence of this magic? It is easy to list life’s hallmarks: reproduction, harnessing energy, responding to stimuli and so on. But that tells us what life does, not what it is. It doesn’t explain how living matter can do things far beyond the reach of non-living matter, even though both are made of the same atoms.

The fact is, on our current understanding, life is an enigma. Most strikingly, its organised, self-sustaining complexity seems to fly in the face of the most sacred law of physics, the second law of thermodynamics, which describes a universal tendency towards decay and disorder. 2

It is difficult to define life, as we noted years ago in a previous newsletter.3 Davies has noted a key identifier. Dead (inanimate) things always tend toward decay and disorder in a natural attempt to find the lowest energy state. Walls naturally fall down—they don’t naturally build themselves. Dead bodies obey the second law of thermodynamics and decay—but living bodies grow and reproduce, becoming more complex, apparently violating the second law.

Living things don’t actually violate the second law because the second law applies to a closed system, in which no heat (that is, energy) flows in or out. If you examine the complete system consisting of the living thing and the environment in which the thing lives, energy flows from the environment into the living thing, and the overall distribution of the energy in the living thing and the environment is less segregated, in accordance with the second law.

Imagine an ice cube in a glass of hot water. The ice will melt and the water will cool until all the water in the glass will be the same temperature. A glass of warm water will never naturally change into a glass of hot water with an ice cube in it—unless a conscious entity (like Maxwell’s demon) makes it happen by using directed energy.

The existence of a link between information and physics dates back 150 years, to a thought experiment by physicist James Clerk Maxwell. Maxwell imagined a tiny being, later dubbed a demon, who could perceive the individual molecules of a gas in a box and assess their speeds as they rushed about randomly. By the nimble manipulation of a shutter mechanism, the demon could accumulate the speedy ones in one place and the tardy ones in another. Because molecular speed is a measure of temperature, the demon would have used information about molecular speeds to establish a temperature gradient in an initially uniform gas. This disequilibrium could then be exploited to do work. 4

It is an undeniable fact, established by years of experimental verification, that energy must flow from a high energy state to a low energy state to get work done. A cuckoo clock stops running when the iron pine cone gets as low as it can get. You have to pull the chain to raise the pine cone into a higher potential energy state to create a disequilibrium for energy to flow to make a cuckoo clock work.

Davies said,

Like life, Maxwell’s imaginary demon seems to violate the second law of thermodynamics. But on careful examination it doesn’t, so long as information is treated as a physical resource – an additional fuel, if you like. … For that reason, many scientists recognise the equation “life = matter + information”. 5

That’s so close. I would say, “life = matter + motivation” because information, by itself, doesn’t do anything. There is information in a book—but that doesn’t matter if nobody reads the book. There is information in the DNA molecule—but that doesn’t matter if there is no cellular process that decodes the DNA molecule and acts upon that information for some purpose.

Everything done by every living thing has a purpose. There is a reason why living things reproduce, harness energy, and respond to stimuli, and so on. It is all part of a plan. A seed germinates, sending roots down and a stalk up, for a reason. That reason is to produce more seeds. Even Richard Dawkins recognized the existence of “selfish genes” forty years ago. 6

The Problem is Purpose

The problem with the theory of evolution is the fundamental assumption that things evolved for no reason. Evolution is based upon the false belief in purposeless increase in complexity.

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1 Paul Davies, New Scientist, 30 January 2019, “Life’s secret ingredient: A radical theory of what makes things alive”, https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg24132150-100-lifes-secret-ingredient-a-radical-theory-of-what-makes-things-alive/
2 ibid.
3 Disclosure, September 2005, “One Million Dollars!”
4 Paul Davies, New Scientist, 30 January 2019, “Life’s secret ingredient: A radical theory of what makes things alive”, https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg24132150-100-lifes-secret-ingredient-a-radical-theory-of-what-makes-things-alive/
5 ibid.
6 Dawkins, The Selfish Gene: 40th Anniversary Edition, https://www.amazon.com/Selfish-Gene-Anniversary-Landmark-Science/dp/0198788606/ref=sr_1_1?crid=3SM33N4WABC9&keywords=dawkins+selfish+gene&qid=1552058748&s=gateway&sprefix=dawkins+selfish+%2Caps%2C327&sr=8-1