Darwinism of the Inanimate

Cosmic VarianceBy Sean CarrollFeb 14, 2012 7:41 PM


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Via Laura Hollis at the Twitter machine, here's an interesting paper by chemist Addy Pross. The author tries to extend the idea of Darwinian natural selection to the realm of inanimate objects.

Toward a general theory of evolution: Extending Darwinian theory to inanimate matter Addy Pross Though Darwinian theory dramatically revolutionized biological understanding, its strictly biological focus has resulted in a widening conceptual gulf between the biological and physical sciences. In this paper we strive to extend and reformulate Darwinian theory in physicochemical terms so it can accommodate both animate and inanimate systems, thereby helping to bridge this scientific divide. The extended formulation is based on the recently proposed concept of dynamic kinetic stability and data from the newly emerging area of systems chemistry. The analysis leads us to conclude that abiogenesis and evolution, rather than manifesting two discrete stages in the emergence of complex life, actually constitute one single physicochemical process. Based on that proposed unification, the extended theory offers some additional insights into life's unique characteristics, as well as added means for addressing the three central questions of biology: what is life, how did it emerge, and how would one make it?

It's a paper by a chemist, published in the Journal of Systems Chemistry, but doesn't seem to require much in the way of specialized knowledge in order to read it, have a look. The central idea seems to be something called "dynamic kinetic stability." A stable system is one that doesn't change over time; a dynamic-kinetically stable system is one that doesn't change in some particular features, but only by taking advantage of some other kind of change. The water in a river flows, but what we think of as "the river" remains fairly stable over time; an organism metabolizes, but maintains its structure for an extended period; individuals within a population come and go, while the population itself can be stable. I'm very sympathetic to these kinds of ideas -- they are reminiscent of Chapter Nine of From Eternity to Here. But my first impression is that the synthesis is going in the wrong direction. Biological organisms are made of the same kind of atoms as everything else, subject to the same kind of rules, so it's not surprising to think that their evolution should be described by a theory that also applies to inanimate objects. But (maybe this is my physicist's bias showing) I would tend to reserve "Darwinism" for actual biology, and instead try to develop a general theory of the evolution of complex structures and information that reduced to biological Darwinism in the appropriate circumstances. I'm willing to be talked out of it, though. Thoughts? Especially from anyone familiar with the relevant chemistry or biology?

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