Entropy Explains How Life Can Come From Randomness

Image: Quanta
Image: Quanta

Scientists are scouring the universe for evidence of extraterrestrial life, but have you ever wondered how life began on Earth? Let physicist David Kaplan explain in the latest installment of Quanta’s “In Theory” video series. Hint: it’s all because of increasing entropy.


As Natalie Wolchover wrote for Quanta last year, an MIT professor named Jeremy England has come up with an actual mathematical formula for how this might happen:

“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.”

Mind. Blown.


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Things like this make me smile and happy. Knowledge always trumps ignorance. I would rather not believe something is true - I would rather know the steps that compose the truth of a thing, so that I may judge for myself the validity of the supposition and come to the correct solution myself.

That’s not to say I won’t play the devil’s advocate. :) But me saying that is more a vulgarity of linguistics than any sort of belief in the divine or infernal.

I will put forth this: we cannot prove what we do not know. But as we know more, we need gods less and less to fill in the gaps. How do I know this? Well, look at the evolution of theism over the millennia.

We went from many, many very human-like gods who exist for specific domains and specific elements of culture and environment to one overbearing deity that more or less encompasses a vast and mostly vague world of selective morality and mostly blind faith.

To extend this to those who service such beliefs: We went from having one or two people in a village who were the keepers of the gods to explain the occasional unexplainable (at the time) event - who otherwise serviced the psychological and emotional needs of the village... to massive organizational constructs of epic bureaucratic composition that exist for the sole purpose of gathering and otherwise cultivating followers for specific reasons and unclear motivations. What is the modern religion if not a resource for leaders and kings to be granted a faithful and mostly obdient source of fodder to augment their standing armies and direct social and economic control?

In many ways, it is what politics wishes it could do, but doesn’t for fear of someone pegging the leader as the problem and removing them. How convenient that in religion the leader is a nebulous deity that is likely so powerful that any particular event at any particular point of history no matter how important or grand (at least on the scale of human history) is rather unnoticable. And by virtue of its nature is, by and far, untouchable by the very masses that imbue said deity with their faith and belief.

How like life it is that we go from simplistic systems easily deconstructed to a complex system so convoluted that it is nigh impenetrable from the outside, yet so quick to form malignancies from within? When you consider the fictions we have constructed about the unknown and unknowable interpretations of our world, it is very easy to see that the same formulae that could show us how life came from chaos can also show us how complex religion springs from simple fears and doubts.

It is and always has been about energy. The more energy in a system, the more likely that system is to react in increasingly complex and unpredictable ways. It explains a lot about us and about life. Art often imitates life. When we claim that “life imitates art” - we are merely flipping the mirror so that we can fool ourselves into believing that we have some direct dictate and control over those things we cannot yet understand. When in reality, it is only through understanding that we gain that modicum of control we have searched so long and so hard for throughout our history. What is so depressing is that so many people claim to want that kind of knowledge - yet so easily flee from the work involved and happily hide behind the coattails of others who claim to “know” for them and ask only their freedom and loyalty in return for the ease of life they offer.

Take a look at the motivational forces coalescing in the world today. We have a vehicle of information and knowledge (the internet) which is reaching ever more remote areas of our planet and giving people the capacity to interact on a global scale. The internet is the latest source of “energy” being injected into our society. And you can see the conservative movements struggling ever more violently to prevent its advance. Everything that seeks to blindly control this more quickly than not finds itself torn apart by the evolving complexity of the systems. Even those who seek to intelligently wield this apparatus find themselves quickly dragged into becoming (at best) a cog in the machine or (at worst) destroyed once their ambition is revealed.

We are on the cusp of a transformation. Only a fool would claim to know what kind of transformation will occur. And only a complete idiot would try to control its path. And only the most crazed and insane would try to stand and bar its path. Yet, we see that happening today.

Its a shame, really. These people will be left behind. How apropos that those most invested in believing they would be chosen for paradise would find that they are the ones who will be forever denied such a future by the mere arrogance of their intractability and their intense desire to maintain some form of status quo and prevent advancement. I cannot help but hope that whatever our civilization becomes, it does not forget these people, and that it does what it can to help them gently into the future that must come. Whatever future that may be. Such are the burdens of growing up - that responsibility requires care and must be granted an opportunity for the equality that they have not earned through effort. Yet - they will limit themselves: for their lack of knowledge and failure to recognize the differences between faith and reason will automatically place them at a disadvantage in a world that will become increasingly more complex and more interconnected than any they can imagine. When you consider how petty their prejudices and how fervent their hatreds, you begin to see how they will never even think to merge with the society that is in the process of evolving.

How utterly ironic that their religion would predict the very thing they wished to experience for themselves, yet their own blind belief and incapacity to take personal responsibility will automatically deny them entrance to the very thing they sought so faithfully. They will forever be “right there” in the midst of a society that they can almost reach out and touch, but will never be able to join. Meanwhile that society will always be there, reaching out a hand to accept them - all the while sadly knowing that even if the distance is so unimaginably short... it might as well be as far from them as the edge of the visible universe is from the Earth we inhabit. We will also know that such a future is, by its nature, not the paradise that these others have sought. Not that those left behind would ever realize or believe it to be so. It will, in fact, be the most difficult undertaking our society has ever efforted, and if we fall during the effort, it may take centuries to get back up again. That said, the risk is worth the reward, even if a large swath of people never realize it nor even understand and appreciate the amount of effort the undertaking will consume.

And for those who wonder how a formula for life has any bearing on our historical religious and social beliefs, one need only observe life to understand that we are so intimately integrated with the processes that drive us, that our society and our culture is as much a product of those complexities as is our very form and being. More so, it shows us that sometimes the most simple of explanations can embody the entire complexity of the life we know. Yet, it shows us that we have so much further yet to go before we can understand the full implications. We are so young and so childish. We know so little that even the most simple of explanations elude us for vast amounts of our history.

Yet we are advancing. Slowly by our standards to be sure, but very quickly by the standards that the universe holds for itself. One day, we’ll know enough and understand enough to knowingly make the next logical step in our social and physical evolution. Until then, we will simply advance at the whims of our own design guiding us down a path of complexity. And when we look back on words such as these, we will laugh at our absurdity and our doubts - for we will have had the wisdom of experience, and the clarity of hindsight to show us where we came from and shine a little more light to where we shall go next.

To the Journey.