What is life and how did it originate?

This is one of the all-time great questions of science, not to mention religion. So it takes a lot of gumption for a 33-year-old assistant professor at MIT to wade into the debate with a novel answer, one that he says doesn’t necessarily discount religious belief. Although his theories are far from proven, Jeremy England, who also happens to be an Orthodox Jew, is making waves with a bold hypothesis to explain how random molecules bumping into each other might turn into the precursors of life.

According to England, under the right conditions, a random group of molecules will self-organize in a way that allows them to more efficiently use energy in their environment. Over time, the system could improve its ability to absorb energy, becoming increasingly lifelike. Nor is it an arbitrary process, but an inherent bias of the physical world, to form such self-organized systems.

“If we start with something that’s not alive,” England told The Times of Israel, “and I make available some source of energy in its environment, there might be some tendency within the system to develop an improving ability to absorb that energy.” Over time, he says, “it may come to exhibit strikingly lifelike behaviors.”

Right now this is just a theory, but England and his team are developing ways of testing it in simulation that will help them design good experiments in the future.

“We’ve made progress, but we have a long way to go,” said England.

What is life?

What is life, and how does it differ from things that are not alive?

Most of us have a working definition of life, says England, a sense of what is and isn’t alive, even if we can’t define life precisely.

“Trees are alive, fish are alive, clouds are not and rocks are not,” he says.

One of the properties that the things we call alive have in common is that they are “well suited at absorbing energy from their environment and then releasing that energy as heat. That’s something that living things do and they do it in ways that are much more skillful than non-living things.”

For instance, plants are structured in such a way that they are great at absorbing energy from sunlight. Monkeys are good at finding bananas and eating them.

England says that if you take a system containing a tremendous diversity of molecules, then add an external energy source, the molecules will start to arrange themselves in a shape that resonates with their environment.

How does this happen?

The famous video of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse, and the way a glass breaks when an opera singer reaches a certain pitch, are both examples of the physical phenomenon of resonance, where the shape of object or vessel will affect the pitch that it wants to vibrate at.

“If particles are in the right shape they will move and wiggle a lot with their environment. If they’re in the wrong shape they won’t wiggle so much.”

Any given system, says England, is constantly fluctuating a little bit and changing its shape, even if this is happening very slowly — for instance, water wearing away at rock or the motion of a glacier.

“A system is capable of shifts in its shape but often slowly enough that you’re not keeping track. It will make lots of different random moves but if I am poking at it or singing at it or blowing at it, the system makes a little hop then another random little hop then another, and this is happening at the molecular level.”

England says there’s a bias in how these hops happen.

“The hops you’re less likely to undo are the ones where you get pushed harder by the environment. The most durable changes in shape happen when the system is shaped to be good at getting pushed on by the environment.”

Why is this important?

Edward J. Larson, a Pulitzer-Prize winning historian of science, told The Times of Israel that if England could demonstrate his theory to be true, “his name would be remembered, he could be the next Darwin.”

But that is a big if.

The second law of thermodynamics states that systems progress in the direction of increasing disorder or entropy, notes Larson.

“Energy shouldn’t self-organize; it should go the other way. Darwin’s big breakthrough was that natural selection permits situations that will allow increasing organization, and that doesn’t really counter the law of thermodynamics because you already have life. What Darwin could never do, and never tried to do, was explain how life began. Once life began, Darwin had a theory of how you could form new species, but Darwin didn’t do anything at all with the origin of life.”

For over a century, scientists have been trying to come up with hypotheses as to how life could emerge from random molecules. Some say it happened when lightning passed through organic molecules, while others say life forms were brought to earth by comets, “but nothing has been proven or established yet.”

Larson describes England’s theory that molecules might self-organize along the principles of resonance as “clever,” and says that if he could prove it, it would be “a tremendous discovery” that he would expect to see published in the pages of leading peer-reviewed journals like Nature or Science.

“Those publications have authority. People wait to see things published there.”

England says there is in fact a peer-reviewed theoretical piece coming out in Nature Nanotechnology next month, as well as another piece that is still under peer review, and a simulation study for which his team is just now completing the manuscript and will soon submit.

The implications for faith

According to Larson, a theory about how molecules self-organize into life would be much more attractive to atheists than to religious believers.

“One of the problems atheists still have is, ‘OK, where did life come from?’ If you take Darwin, supplemented by the work of the neo-Darwinian synthesis and most recently the web-of-life theory of gene flow, you can say, OK, we don’t necessarily need God to be the origin of species. But religious people could still say that God created life itself and the laws of the universe.”

Ed Larson (CC BY-SA fourandsixty, Wikipedia)

Ed Larson (CC BY-SA fourandsixty, Wikipedia)

Larson says that if England’s hypothesis were proven, it could push religion back still further.

But England says his theory is agnostic on such religious questions as whether life has meaning or purpose.

“We know what it would mean to be good at absorbing energy from an external drive,” says England. “But I don’t have a model of what that external drive is, if that external drive is also random. Physics can’t tell us whether we’re here for a reason or not, or if the way things are is chosen and influenced or whether it’s all random.”

Physics can’t make the opposite claim either, that the universe is arbitrary, England says. Interestingly, England himself is an Orthodox Jew.

A homecoming

England says his mother was born in Poland in 1947 to Holocaust survivors. His father was a non-observant Lutheran. Raised in a nominally Jewish household in New Hampshire, England didn’t take much interest in Judaism until he went to Oxford University for graduate school.

(Oxford University image via Shutterstock)

(Oxford University image via Shutterstock)

“When I was an undergraduate at Harvard there were faculty members like Ruth Wisse and Alan Dershowitz who extracted a price from people who were too sloppy in the way they defamed the Jews and Israel on campus. But Oxford was a cold shower in comparison. A lot of people had angry and hostile things to say about Israel. It made me want to know how I felt.”

England decided to visit Israel for himself. He describes the experience as a “powerfully compelling experience of coming home.”

He studied Hebrew, Judaism and Torah, and soon found himself becoming more religiously observant. At the same time, he wasn’t willing to jettison what he knew to be true from science.

“I wasn’t going to reject science as a way of understanding some things about the world that are true, but I also was going to take Jewish tradition very seriously.”

How contradictions make you smarter

England says it was this frame of mind that has ultimately made him a better scientist.

“When you encounter a contradiction or something that seems really difficult and you’re forced to work very hard to resolve it, without simply getting to ignore or reject one side of the contradiction, it’s very productive.”

According to England, we can use different languages to talk about the same things, and each language serves a different purpose.

‘If we see the world as a world where Jews are going to act a certain way and keep mitzvot, that world should not be described first and foremost in terms of electrons and protons and DNA. It should be described as being about light and dark, land and sea, men and women, fish and birds and plants. Those are the basic categories on which everything else is built. You have to talk about the world in a certain way when calling a nation to a certain shared compact in their behavior.”

On the other hand, “I definitely don’t want to be misunderstood to be saying my scientific ideas come from the Torah, that the Torah is somehow a trove of scientific information and should be mined as such. That would be a foolish way to read the Torah, and would make me a very bad scientist.”

Why we confuse scientific models for reality

Any scientific theory, says England, is just a model that helps you describe or predict a subset of observable reality. A lot of people become so impressed with the model they use it to explain everything. For instance, Darwinism doesn’t mean there is no such thing as love or altruism, and that our sole purpose in life is optimizing fitness.

(Charles Darwin image via Shutterstock)

(Charles Darwin image via Shutterstock)

“I think I would liken it to someone who takes a black and white photograph of a rainbow and say there’s no such thing as color. Or they say, look at all that I have understood about this rainbow. I have its shape, there are parts of it that are darker and lighter, I can show you how it’s positioned with respect to the sun and clouds, but there’s something missing that from the fullness of our own experience is obvious.”

England says he understands the appeal of totalizing theories.

“It’s very tempting to want the world to be fully comprehensible. We have an aesthetic desire to see complete perfection as well as an existential fear of the unknown or the unpredictable.”

In fact, England says this point is made brilliantly in Tanach (the Hebrew Bible).

“When it says God said let there be light, the point is that the light by which we see the world comes from the way we talk about it. And we have choices to make about how to talk about the world. A second and related point is that when you look at the Tower of Babel, God doesn’t want us to only talk about the world one way.”

“You start with a tower and one language, and at the end of the day it doesn’t stay that way and that’s because God doesn’t want it to be that way. From the standpoint of Tanach it is a sort of inevitability of social physics that when you start with one language you end up with many languages, and the reason is because the world is too complicated to capture with one. And there’s something missing from your account of it once you are limiting your description in that way.”

There is a clear lesson in this Biblical story that’s applicable to physics, he says.

“Realizing there are many languages for describing the world helps us do better science, by helping us keep our modeling assumptions clear. Living things are interesting in their own right, totally independent of physics, but if you want to you can also ask about the physical properties of living things, and whether there’s anything distinctive about them that originates in the type of physical laws we assume they obey. That physical perspective on the biological world has been the inspiration for the new research that we’re doing.”

Science historian Larson says that England’s ideas are ambitious, but warns that we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves.

“Science operates in a reserved way,” he says. “We don’t throw out ideas we haven’t proven yet. Until something is published in a peer-reviewed journal, it’s not science. But personally I hope he does prove it. I would love to see this question answered.”