Origin of life, design & thermodynamics

Paul Brown (pdb@novell.uidaho.edu)
Wed, 19 Mar 1997 19:14:25 PST8PDT

Paul (earlier):
>Are you saying that thermodynamics (e.g. entropy, energy) is no
>problem for the process of evolution once life is started, but
>conceding that it is a problem in the origin of life? Are you trying
>to make a distinction between how the origin of life might be
>influenced by chemical thermodynamics in a different manner than the
>process of evolution? If so, how so, and if not, why go to the
>trouble to make the distinction?

>Pim: No. I do not see any reason why it would be a problem one way or
>another ? The distinction is to separate evolution from a process
>irrelevant for it. Evolution does not care how life came about it
>only addresses the evolution of this life <g>. But neither
>>abiogenesis nor evolution violates any laws of thermodynamics.

This is sort of what I thought you were saying. At this point, at
least, I guess I have to disagree with much of what you have said on the
subject. I think I would make a distinction between how
thermodynamics affects the origin of life and how it affects the rest
of the evolutionary process. Although I do not think the
thermodynamic problem is the only problem in the origin of life (it
may be relatively minor in the overall scheme of things), I think that
chemical thermodynamics does indeed pose a problem for those wishing
an entirely naturalistic (theistic, atheistic) or materialistic
(atheistic) explanation for the origin of life. I don't use the term
"violate," just problem.

>Pim: The point I think is that the second law of thermodynamics is
>not violated by evolution and also not by >abiogenesis. Both involve
>chemical reactions for instance.

Well, yes, both certainly involve chemical reactions. But this rather sidesteps
the issue of thermodynamics applied to chemical systems. If I can use
a literary allusion, chemical reactions are not all equal. Some are
more equal than others. The main point of chemical thermodynamics is
to predict whether a reaction will have a tendency to proceed in a
certain direction or not. The problem arises, of course, when
reactions don't have a tendency to proceed in the direction one wishes
them to. Such is the case concerning the origin of life. There are
too many unfavorable reactions to ignore.

Some previous post by Pim addressing Steve Jones:
>Complexity and order does not happen in spite of the 2nd law of
>thermodynamics but because of the second >law of thermodynamics. What
>is special about the 'complexity' in living things. And what makes
>you believe that the complexity is specified in advance ? >The
>increase in complexity and organization of systems due to far
>equilibrium thermodynamics is also an observed fact. Now the
>question is does this apply to biological systems ? And the answer
>should be simple, why not ? After all these are similar chemical
>systems ? DNA is a dissipative structure, the energy >ADT/ADP pathway
>is a dissipative structure at far equilibrium. Prigogine shows how
>systems far from equilibrium evolve elaborate structures: patterns of
>circulation in the atmosphere, formation and propagation of chemical
>waves, aggreagation of single celled animals.

Why yes, as a matter of fact I do believe the complexity of living
things is special, or different than non-living things like patterns
of circulation in the atmosphere, propagation of chemical waves, or
aggregation of single-celled animals. Living systems are
self-reproducing, coded, information systems, for starters. So I
suspect (on at least a couple of grounds) that what you are thinking
of as a thermodynamic explanation may not significantly apply to
biological systems.

There are several other things that should be addressed, but I'm sure
I've more than primed the pump and these things will come up again.
Regards to all, Paul
Paul D. Brown
Dept of PSES, Ag Sci 242
University of Idaho
Moscow, ID 83844
Phone: 1 (208) 885-7427 or 885-7505
e-mail: pdb@uidaho.edu