Darwinism of the Inanimate

By Sean Carroll | February 14, 2012 8:41 am

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?

  • Ben

    Creepy stuff! It made me shudder reading the quote. All this eternity talk is so heavy.

  • http://sandwalk.blogspot.com Larry Moran

    Most evolution (by far) takes place via the fixation of nearly neutral alleles by random genetic drift. The terms “Darwinism” and “Darwinian Theory” are outmoded and have been for half a century.

    “Evolution” is NOT synonymous with “Natural Selection.” I don’t think the author understands that very important point.

    What Is Evolution?
    Random Genetic Drift
    Why I’m Not a Darwinist
    Michale Lynch on Adaptationism

  • aew9

    It might be worth mentioning Zurek’s Quantum Darwinism here. Everyone’s aboard the Darwinian beaglewagon.

    Perhaps, a negative result would do some good : “a general theory of non-evolvability of such and such complex structures”

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    The purported separation of “biology” from “physics” and “chemistry” is quite the straw man, IMO. It’s like evoking Cartesian dualism in the theory of mind to justify ones work in neurocognitive science, as if that’s really a serious debate any longer except among philosophers. The problem isn’t this made-up disciplinarian divorce, the problem is that life’s origins on Earth is largely a historical problem, not a theoretical one. One can dream up all kinds of plausible scenarios for the emergence of life in almost any environment that provides energy and can accommodate complex chemistry. I wouldn’t be shocked if all of those proposals are fundamentally correct in that they could be, and perhaps have been, realized on some planet somewhere in the known universe. And the histories of those biomes will also obey the fundamental law of Natural Selection, the only “theory of life” that can possibly matter. It’s just inevitable, and natural selection IS inevitable to anyone who thinks about it hard enough. As inevitable as E = mc^2 given c as a universal constant.

    As for the rest of it, the author seems to be fixated on an aspect of what we define as “life”, i.e. the ability to maintain homeostasis. So, great, one can imagine a self-sustaining reaction with properties such that environmental perturbations become less important. The process is driven by a putative attractor, I guess, being thermodynamical, i.e. something that probably must maximize entropy. In the author’s model, this system approaches optimal DKS through imperfect replication, but I could also imagine a system that changes at pace with the environmental changes it induces without any replication. I don’t see why replication is essential UNLESS a necessary ingredient is complexification, which there is no proof for, just inference.

    Replication IS essential if one wants to define something as “life” however, because homeostasis, replication, and evolution are what you should see when you look up “life” in the dictionary (any good dictionary, anyway). You look at other definitions, like “self-organization”, evoke some of the same concepts, and ignore “life” (such as that definition is) entirely, if you like. In that regard, this study doesn’t seem terribly original.

    Also, it’s a discussion of the physics and chemistry of life’s origins that contains one mathematical equation and zero chemical equations. I guess I’d be more impressed if this paper were harder for me to understand.

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  • http://broadspeculations.com Jim Cross

    I am always a little leery of papers that begin with “Toward”. These papers seem to promise more than they deliver. Nevertheless, the article is really great and definitely hits a lot of big issues from a unique perspective.

    Regarding your perspective, Sean, I am slightly confused. You say:

    “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.”

    Do you really mean “evolution” or do you mean the “origin of life” should be described by a theory that also applies to inanimate objects? Or, do you really mean both?

    Since the article tries to combine origin and evolution conceptually as part of the same process, your idea, if I understand it,would mean replicative systems would need to exist in some way embedded in inanimate matter or would somehow be derivable from inanimate matter. Certainly a very interesting thought and one which would constitute a general principle of self-sustaining forms and patterns with underlying materials changing.

  • Gizelle Janine

    “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.”


    Awesome post. You can see connections in almost any branch of science in comparison to other branches. I’m a firm believer in combining theories that just make sense, regardless of what branch of science you choose to make common sense of with whatever other branch of science.

    Example: I see no problem in finding theories or papers that just fit together when talking about physics in comparison to biology, or even phliosophy, which is a science in inself, just indirectly speaking. It’s how I make sense of things in this universe, cause and effect can be applied to anything. It takes common sense to know when to jump out of familiar clothes and think in abstract terms based on solid laws like statistical mechanics, which is about as solid as a bulletproof window. I think this is something physicists need to accept in order to progress anything as far as something like a serious, complete understanding of laws of physics, and generally science, with a resolution. I mean, books are numbered for a reason, right?

  • Gizelle Janine

    Additionally, Sean…

    Are you shocked when people say they think the universe is finite? That just f**ks my s**t up in a bad way, personally… it’s not a belief I hold, just a serious issue I have with some people in the scientific community.

    I feel it’s defeating the point of finding resolutions to anything when the amount of observable stars in the sky are not even close to the amount that exist factually in the universe, and some we’ll never reach OR see in our lifetime. And that’s painfully obvious. To ignore it is pure stupidity and voluntary ignorance on many people’s part. That’s just me, though. :/

  • http://evolvingthoughts.net John S. Wilkins

    The question of whether something can be subjected to natural selection (taking Larry’s point above) depends upon whether it can make copies that are some degree better than chance like the initiating system. Chemical selection (SELEX) is a case of this, and so if the structure of the initiating molecules result in something that is very like themselves through whatever catalytic and other reactions they initiate, and there is the requisite variation in physical properties, selection can occur in a chemical reactor (a “chemoton”, to use Ganti’s term).

    I and my coauthors discuss this in our paper in the current issue of Biology and Philosophy:


  • http://biologyfiles.fieldofscience.com/ Emily Willingham

    I always wondered about the question of why life is so prevalent here, why nature seems to select for life itself to the extent that it turns up in places where its existence seems untenable at best. Once it caught on, that whole self replication thing seems to have stuck around and really taken off. Is there some physical world advantage, advancement/enhancement/acceleration of processes, that life enhances somehow?

    On a less late-night navel-gazing note, this quote– “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”–seems to be a misrepresentation of current understanding of abiogenesis and evolution, describing them as “discrete.” I don’t think that’s the current view (?) and excludes recognition of grey areas between them. I am not aware of there being an argument against this being a continuum.

    As for “Darwinian,” that’s usually reserved for use by anti-science IDers, creationists, and other people who don’t understand evolutionary biology very well and like to call real scientists “Darwinists.” It has been co-opted into other fields such as economics, which goes to show that it’s not entirely a new concept that frameworks other than life can evolve or be under the influence of natural selection and that the focus of “Darwinian” evolution hasn’t been “strictly biological” for a long time.

    From the paper: “Darwinian theory lies at the very heart of modern biology, and rightly so. As Dobzhansky [7] famously noted: ‘Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.'” The Dobzhansky quote doesn’t specifically refer to Darwin but to evolution itself. Dobzhansky himself was instrumental in bridging the molecular/chemical (i.e., genetics) and the “Darwinian” as part of the modern synthesis.

    Further, the terminology used here is just not appropriate, and it’s incorrect to assert that “Darwinian theory” is at the heart of modern biology. It’s not. In fact, the entire section called “Unification of abiogenesis and evolution” seems to be a rather shallow treatment and glosses over all of the existing research addressing what the author poses as an “unresolved” and “vexing” question: “how did the extraordinary microscopic complexity of the simplest living system emerge in the first place?” The rest of the paper is predicated on this concept of a discretizing of the “chemical” and the “biological” phases of life–aren’t we still in the chemical phase?–even though there are the fields such as biochemistry and synthetic biology that have long bridged the two.

    The introduction frames the alleged central question using three papers, but the newest of these is eight years old.

    Finally, the paper concludes with, “Darwin’s contribution to modern scientific thought is profound and irrevocable. It has forever changed man’s view of himself and his place in the universe. By demonstrating the interconnectedness of all living things, Darwin brought a unity and coherence to biology that continues to impact on the subject to this day.”
    Darwin didn’t actually bring the unity and coherence, although he certainly helped. The descriptions of Darwin’s influence and interpretations of the meaning of his work in this paper are all overblown and misapprehended.

    “But a paradoxical side product of that extraordinary contribution with its specific focus on living things, was that it resulted in a distancing between the biological and the physical sciences, one that continues to afflict the natural sciences.”
    I’ve thought that the trend was to interdisciplinarity and to less discretization of these fields… we have biophysics, biochemistry, astrobiology, synthetic biology, etc. And biologists don’t ignore the non-living environment *at all* in evolutionary and ecological considerations. They are considered to be very important.

    “The disturbing result – despite the enormous contribution of the Darwinian theme, Darwinism remains unable to explain what life is, how it emerged, and how living things relate to non-living ones. The challenge therefore is clear. The scientific goal – the relentless striving toward the unification of science – requires that the chasm that divides and separates the biological from the physical sciences be bridged.”
    No reasonably well-educated biologist would assert that “Darwinism” would explain what life is, how it emerged, or how it relates to living things. Biologists have investigated many other mechanisms and ways of addressing these questions.

    In other words, this entire paper seems to be built around a straw man that itself is constructed from a handful of fragile straws of biological understanding on the part of the author.

  • Brad

    Sean wrote,

    “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.”

    Exactly. Human beings and all life are composed of matter … that just happens to be animate. Matter following physical law, i.e., chemistry, IS Darwinian evolution.

  • http://godsnotwheregodsnot.blogspot.com/ Tatarize

    Evolution has been a functional algorithm in computer science for many decades. I doubt bits of memory are considered alive. Sure, you might be able to apply it to chemistry but the generalization is best done simply at the level of math. And that’s pretty well done.

  • https://plus.google.com/u/0/114865618166480775623 Russ Abbott

    First of all, there seems to be a dispute about what we want the words “Darwinian” and “evolution” to mean. Larry Moran points to two of his posts:

    What Is Evolution? “Evolution is a process that results in heritable changes in a population spread over many generations.”

    Why I’m Not a Darwinist For the same reason you are not a Newtonian, which is not to say that Newton didn’t have some fundamental ideas.

    But I suspect you are not concerned about the use of those words at that level.

    I prefer to think of evolutionary processes as involving diversity, competition for resources (especially energy), and transmission of properties. Given such a general perspective, the notion applies both to biological and non-biological phenomena.

    I would have no problem talking about the evolution of cell phones, for example. Even though cell phones don’t reproduce, cell phone properties are transmitted (by cell phone manufacturers) from one product to the next based to a great extent on competition for marketshare. (Money is a proxy for energy in this context.)

    The paper itself seems somewhat strained–although I can’t say I’ve read it in depth. Pross seems to take “complexification” as a fundamental process: “the biological drive toward greater complexity has its roots in chemistry”. As far as I’m concerned “complexification” is a consequence of the competition for resources. It isn’t something that happens spontaneously in some magical (or non-magical) way. Complexity reflects two things. (a) ways to exploit unexploited niches, where to do so requires specialized machinery and (b) ways to more effectively compete for resources within a niche.

    I’ve used the term “compete,” but that’s really too teleological. Processes that aggregate resources more effectively “win” the competition, but there’s no telos involved.

    None of that is necessarily biological. I don’t know if any of it speaks to your concerns, though.

  • http://www.astro.multivax.de:8000/helbig/helbig.html Phillip Helbig

    Check out Code of the Life-Maker by James P. Hogan for an interesting take on this. (I’ve read most of his earlier books. Some are good, some aren’t. This is one of the better ones, and good even compared to the best science-fiction of all.)

  • ivy privy

    as well as added means for addressing the three central questions of biology: what is life…
    The first “central question” is a matter of definition. Life is whatever speakers of the English language decide it is.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    Exactly. “Life” is a collection of matter behaving in a way that fits a particular definition. So lay out that definition rigorously, and use it consistently. This “animate” vs. “inanimate” stuff is nonsense.

    If you pose the question correctly, natural selection is simply part of the definition. It is, then, BY DEFINITION, fundamental to “life”.

    Therefore, the only interesting question is whether or not natural selection is a relevant process in collections of matter that do not fit all of the criteria that define what we call “life”. The only interesting question is if and how collections of matter that do not fit all those criteria somehow give rise to something that does.

    A lot of the distinctions that the author imbues with such mystery are simply not mysterious. They’re not even distinctions in any quantifiable physical or chemical sense, and the reason no one has been able to find such distinctions is because they DON’T EXIST at the level of physics and chemistry. They’re products of complexity. Period. That’s a fertile enough area of fruitful research without all this exhortation to “integrate Darwininan-type thinking into the physiochemical world”. It’s not even a “sweeping assumption”. At least, it’s no more sweeping than assumptions about, say, turbulence, weather, traffic jams, etc. Come on!

  • http://michaeljohnsonphilosophy.com Michael Johnson

    Brad says: “Human beings and all life are composed of matter … that just happens to be animate. Matter following physical law, i.e., chemistry, IS Darwinian evolution.”

    But that can’t be right. The first person to think that everything obeys physical laws probably lived in a cave, and his/ her name wasn’t “Darwin”.

  • Gizelle Janine

    “Exactly. Human beings and all life are composed of matter … that just happens to be animate. Matter following physical law, i.e., chemistry, IS Darwinian evolution.”


    I said the same thing in more words, unfortunatly. You put it perfectly, though. “chemistry, IS Darwinian evolution’ is a classic. It will echo through the ages here.

  • http://broadspeculations.com Jim Cross

    Michael Johnson

    The first person to think that everything obeys physical laws probably lived in a cave, and his/ her name wasn’t “Darwin”.

    Can you explain that a little bit?

    First of all, I tend to think that really not many early humans actually lived in caves. We just happen to find the bones there because they are better preserved. But that is probably another topic.

    The notion that everything obeys physical laws is actually fairly contemporary and restricted to a rather small elite known as scientists but perhaps you are using the term “physical laws” in some peculiar way.

    I think early humans, along with most modern humans, actually think the world is controlled to some degree by supernatural forces.

  • george briggs

    darwins theory has 4 building blocks of DNA for each parent 8 blocks in all. this a sign that evolving life has SU(3) symmetry (the 8-fold way of Steven Weinberg). This is the highwst symmetry in physics, and probably is why no higher symmetry has ever been found and no GUT theory has ever worked out.

  • george briggs

    more on the 8-fold symmetry of evoviing life. there are 8 stable particles of the first generation – electron, up quark, down quark, neutrino and their anti-particles – total of 8 but 4 have been set to zero by our maker. The stable particles may well be immortal, indicating that we have a repeating big Bang this allows us to have an evolving universe and would explain the “fine tuning”of the universe favoring life that we observe.

  • Pablo Damasceno

    Hi Sean, in case you haven’t read Dawkin’s selfish gene yet, in the very beginning he discuss how the “survival of the fittest” is just a particular case of the “survival of the stable” and that because of this, once once ‘machine’ (proteins) were able to self-“reproduce”, they became more numerous and from that evolution just follows. And that is not even HIS idea, coming back from even older times. Take a look and maybe make a post about whether you agree or not, it is really worth reading.

  • Pablo Damasceno


  • Jim Holley

    With respect to Ch. 9, let me refer you to Wallace Stegner’s novel Angle of Repose. Imagine a rock slipping away from some high ledge. It tumbles downhill until it finally runs out of gas and achieves its final resting position: its “angle of repose”, as the geologists call it. Stegner likens this to the life of an emotionally kinetic youthful love that finally reaches a point where it stops evolving. I raise this point because what you are discussing reaches into questions of psychology’s relationship to life as well as chemistry’s relationship to life. The irony for Stegner is that stability is achieved at the expense of evolution. (So that’s why the universe can’t be stable. We wouldn’t be here to observe it if it were.) But to respond to Sean’s question about categorical terms for chemical evolution and the evolution of life, call them what you will. They would only be taxonomic conveniences. There is no bright line between life and chemistry, just as there is none between psychological life and biological life. Everything seeks stability. And as long as there is none to be had, evolution continues. It’s just that chemistry is a little closer than life to being inherently stable. And life is a little closer than psychology, if you get my drift. Which is why we need those categories. For stability’s sake. And may they never stop evolving!

  • george briggs

    A clone has only 4 DNA blocks and biologists say it is a biological “dead end”, but 8 DNA blocks makes it an evovoling entity. We thus have a definate mathematical definition for evolving life, which physicists can latch onto.

  • Charon

    @6. Jim Cross

    I’m pretty sure that Sean is using the word “evolution” in the physicists’ sense in that quote – all that means is the system changes with time, used for inanimate objects all the time. Although probably it’s intentionally a bit of a pun, with the biological kind of evolution applying to the living objects.

    @19. Jim Cross
    “The first person to think that everything obeys physical laws probably lived in a cave, and his/ her name wasn’t ‘Darwin’.”

    We usually credit Thales. No doubt there were earlier people with this idea that aren’t remembered, but… it was a very unusual and crazy-sounding idea in primitive cultures with no science and long traditions of magic/religion.

  • http://broadspeculations.com Jim Cross


    Thanks for clearing up the obscure (to me at least) “Cave Man” reference.

    If all Sean is saying is that things change with time and are subject to physical laws, that would be a rather tired and uninteresting argument.

    The article is talking about biological evolution which involves species changing with time and is controlled by natural selection. Of course, underlying biological evolution, when it is decomposed, are fundamental physical laws.; but the problem is how to get from the underlying physics to life and biological evolution. In other words, how do you “boot up” life (or mind for that matter, since life and mind are probably closely related) out of inanimate matter?

    The article is trying to suggest an approach but I am not sure how well it succeeds.

    Ultimately it seems to me that they are only two ways of “booting up” life. You either have to assume that the capacity for life, defined as self-sustaining forms persisting by information, is somehow embedded in inanimate matter or new laws come into play when life begins that are not derivable from the underlying physics.

    Probably neither of these options would make Sean or the average physicist happy. The first really implies that the universe is life friendly and leads to the rather absurd, unprovable multiverse concept to explain how we got so lucky. The second means there is something more than physics.

  • Count Iblis

    Jim, the problem of how to “boot up life”, is nothing more than the problem of how to go from a (relatively) thermodynamic stable configuration of matter to one of “dynamic kinetic stability” (as defined in the article) . One idea that was mentioned in an NGC documentary some years ago, was that life or at least the large organic molecules essential for life may have formed inside comets.

    Inside a comet at low temperatures, chemical reactions can be limited between molecules that are very close to each other, forming compounds that at room temperatures would be very unstable. Such reactions can be induced by cosmic rays. Then if the comet is kicked out of its orbit in the Oort cloud, it will periodically come a bit closer to the Sun and move away again. The temperature increase could set free some of the strange molecules that have been formed, most of them will decay but some can react, forming a more stable larger molecule. When the comet moves farther away from the Sun, these molecules become less mobile and can then undergo reactions with other nearby molecules.

    This cycle repeats itself after each orbit, but gradually the comet’s orbit changes and it comes closer and closer to the Sun, which leads to some lof the molecules being formed becoming more and more stable at higher and higher temperatures.

    Some experiments are being formed to test this idea. Dirty snow balls are being put in a deep freeze, irradiated, patially thawed, refrozen, irradiated again etc. etc.

  • http://broadspeculations.com Jim Cross

    Count Iblis

    I am not sure you appreciate the difficulty of reducing life to physical laws.

    The problem isn’t just one of explaining how to go from inanimate to animate matter. Of course, there are a lot of origin theories and and one or more of them will likely to be proven to be the more probable.

    The problem is in reducing the emergent properties of life to simpler physical laws.


  • Tony Cusano

    Using the logic of Sean’s argument, Life takes on a very different definition than that which we perceive. Try defining life in completely abstract terms, as quantum physics does for physical systems. This creates possible interactions within a physical system that are very different from what we would consider to be “life like”. For example, if we look at life as a complex interactive system within the locality of our universe, it is not an entity at all, but merely a reflection of a local cosmic “weather pattern”. It will blow through this part of the universe, and leave no permanent trace of its ever having been here. Like any weather pattern, it may reappear in another location, but it is not a permanent feature there either. That is not to say that life does not involve evolutionary behavior, but rather that evolution is merely a pattern within a pattern, and the real evolution is truly that of the physical system of our cosmos that does not need natural “selection” to define it. It just is.

  • george briggs

    all this does not change the observation that evolving life has SU(3) symmetry and this is why we have 8 stable particles (so we won’t be radioactive)- all very favoral to the existance of life. This has been true for 14 billion years at least.

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  • Luciano

    Pure bullshit.


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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .


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