From this 2014 article in Quanta magazine by Natalie Wolchover there is a quote from a physicist with an intriguing idea about evolution:

“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.”

Jeremy England's idea is that the attributes associated with life have a lot to do with absorbing and dissipating energy. He insists he is not saying Darwin is wrong, and that his thermodynamics-based idea in some sense subsumes Darwinian evolution.

(The Quanta article links to a recent paper of England's which is somewhat technical, but deals with bacterial replication and thermodynamics. I include the link to give a sense of his ideas in his own words.)

My question is whether his idea, taking it at face value, might furnish a better explanation of something already explained in Darwinian terms or fail to account for some detail of current evolutionary theory?

So if someone had a lot of examples of different aspects of evolution s/he might be able to say, "Here is a situation in which the thermodynamics do not work out as England suggests but which is explained in evolutionary terms," or conversely, "Here is something contrary to evolutionists' expectations that seems to be pretty well explained by the thermodynamics." I suspect that there are several candidates and England's paper gives a hint in one direction.

Thanks for any insights.

Some helpful reading:

  1. Thermodynamics, Enrico Fermi (1936) [Dover reprint].
  2. Understanding Thermodynamics, Ness (1969) [Dover reprint].
  3. What is Life?, Schrodinger (1944).
  4. Entropy Production..., Crooks (2008).
  5. Schneider and Kay, Life as a manifestation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, Math. and Computer Modeling 19 (6-8): 25-48 (1995).

The last paper is a very readable and non-technical introduction to this topic. If one works through the equations in Chapter 7 of Ness and ref. 4 the idea should be quite clear. Basically, systems (both nonliving and living) which are at some remove from equilibrium devise ways to dissipate energy that involve a decrease in entropy, increasing the entropy of the surrounding system.

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    $\begingroup$ The paper seems interesting. Thanks for sharing. I'll read it and get back :) $\endgroup$
    Jun 10, 2014 at 6:53
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    $\begingroup$ that article is has quite many technical details that i am not aware of.. it would take me an entire day to read through it :P $\endgroup$
    Jun 10, 2014 at 8:08
  • $\begingroup$ it is taking a lot of time for me too.. it is fully in thermodynamics jargons... but one of the references is good and I am reading it. It is called Handbook of Stochastic Methods $\endgroup$
    Jun 10, 2014 at 15:50

1 Answer 1


Getting long for a comment

I can only comment that evolution does not proceed towards thermodynamic optimum. Adaptation is thermodynamic optimization but evolution is directionless. Otherwise the extant species would not suffer from tradeoffs (which they have even in their usual habitat). Establishment of a self replicating cell may be thermodynamically driven and given the conditions, irreversible; macroscopic evolution is like die roll where some states are randomly⁺ selected and eliminated.

⁺Not really random but a complex non-linear function which seems unpredictable

You can imagine a chamber with particles exhibiting brownian motion. Assume that particles have a random size distribution (lets say they are crystals of different topologies). Now if you keep a separator with few holes wide enough for a just one particle of a given size to pass. Then you'll end up getting only few particles of a narrower size distribution on the other side. This no way ensures that these were the most thermodynamically stable particles.

  • $\begingroup$ I added a ref. to the question which I think is very helpful. The thermodynamic idea is almost certainly correct. The only question is, how does this idea relate to the idea of evolution when both are addressing the same local situation. Taking the physics idea as stated it can't be completely inconsistent with evolution. The two will point in the same direction most of the time. The question is, when might one do better than the other and why? Your example appears designed to show the two ideas are incompatible but if you read ref. 4 this seems... Quixotic. $\endgroup$
    – daniel
    Jun 14, 2014 at 2:20
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    $\begingroup$ I am sorry.. I was a little occupied with other things.. give me some time to think over it.. this is an interesting concept and I have also myself thought occasionally about thermodynamic explanation of evolution. I just echoed in the example what some "experienced" people told me. I'll get back on this. $\endgroup$
    Jun 16, 2014 at 7:49

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