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A scientist considers life’s genesis through the physics of Exodus

Every Life is on Fire: How Thermodynamics Explains the Origins of Living Things

Jeremy England
Basic Books
2020
272 pp.
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What is life? Seventy-five years after Erwin Schrödinger took up this fundamental human question (1), another physicist, Jeremy England, offers a bold update. His new book, Every Life Is on Fire, explores the physics of what makes some configurations of matter lifelike and others inert.

England writes sensitively about biological complexity from the molecular to the human scale. He also goes a step further, connecting the thermodynamics of life with meditations on its moral and ethical implications through the lens of the Bible. England is convinced that scientific and humanistic outlooks can inform and enrich each other rather than locking horns in epistemological opposition. If some scientists (not to mention Bible interpreters) find the citation of sacred texts in a scientific work heretical, the book’s lucid explanations of nonequilibrium thermodynamics and biophysics will nevertheless prompt the old question: What about living matter inspires wonder and a sense of greater significance?

Schrödinger famously anticipated the discovery of DNA’s structure, arguing on physical principles that the stability of inherited traits in living organisms requires the existence of an “aperiodic crystal” as the genetic material. While he accepts the importance of molecular genetics and Darwinian evolution, England is more interested in the macroscopic, plainly visible hallmarks of life: self-replication, ordered and functionally specialized structures, and the ability to harness energy sources and to predict and respond to the environment. He argues that each of these capacities can be understood through physical processes that occur in ordinary, lifeless materials when driven by an energy source.

England explains the physics through accessible analogies. Schrödinger’s concept of a crystal evokes stable equilibrium states akin to the surface of a frozen lake. England shows how nonequilibrium systems, like sand dunes piled up by a desert wind or a river network carved by the cyclical flow of water, are better physical analogs for adaptable, robust, and self-organizing living structures.

The book builds up to a discussion of recent theoretical work by England and his collaborators, which argues that matter—living or not—will, in some circumstances, evolve over time to efficiently harness specific environmental energy sources. England’s theory, called dissipative adaptation, does not seek to replace Darwinian evolution. It does, however, propose that at least some distinctive features of life could arise through a nonbiological process of selection. According to this theory, chemical or physical structures that efficiently use a source of energy to reduce disorder without themselves being destroyed are more likely to catalyze the formation and growth of similar structures.

This argument—the most speculative part of the book—leaves open key questions, such as how selection can proceed without a biological mechanism to faithfully encode and reproduce specific structures. It would have been stronger had England included concrete experimental predictions that could falsify dissipative adaptation as a driver of biological self-organization. Still, his framing of non-Darwinian evolutionary processes with the language of nonequilibrium thermodynamics reveals how some remarkable features of biological order can be found in nonliving physical systems.

The distinction between living and nonliving matter is not an outcome of scientific inquiry, it is a conceptual framework that humans bring to our encounters with the world. As such, a preoccupation with the boundaries that define life is shared not only by physicists and biologists but also by those concerned with cultural traditions and religious practices. England uses images of life’s boundaries from the biblical Book of Exodus, where staffs turn into serpents and a bush burns without being consumed, to evoke the fuzzy line between living and nonliving matter. Such references help explain, in memorable and human terms, the physics of this elusive boundary.

It is rare for modern science to engage ancient religious texts; these traditions are more often nonoverlapping magisteria (2), if not fundamentally incompatible. Every Life Is on Fire shows that scripture can enrich our scientific interest in living systems, providing an ethical, moral, and even spiritual context. For the reader willing to brave metaphorical land mines, there is much to be learned by exploring the border regions, whether between physics and biology, between science and religion, or between life and lifeless matter.

References and Notes:
1. E. Schrödinger, What Is Life? The Physical Aspect of the Living Cell (The University Press, 1945).
2. S. J. Gould, Nat. Hist. 106, 16 (1997).

About the author

Mukamel is at the Department of Cognitive Science, University of California, San Diego, La Jolla, CA 92093. Glaser is at the Department of Literature, University of California, San Diego, La Jolla, CA 92093, USA.