New Criticals

But more about that later. The point is I’m going to try and lay out some philosophical issues in science related to the emergence and evolution of life. My goal, which is stated easily enough, is to demonstrate that life is natural. Offhand, this hardly sounds like a radical hypothesis. In what sense could life possibly be “unnatural”? By natural do you mean something other than merely “not supernatural”?

So first and foremost, I don’t believe in a supernatural intelligence of any kind. I doubt that this shocks anyone but I want to put it out there upfront because what comes next may sound a bit religious to people, members of the scientific community in particular, who are committed to certain notions about objectivity. Let me also add that I believe the importance of intelligence in nature is vastly overestimated by we few members of the lineage of life which happen to possess it. “We” here refers to animals, not merely humans. I suspect the great majority of animals are every bit as vain and infatuated with their powers of deduction as are humans. Most things clever enough to survive consider themselves clever enough.

Demonstrating, however, that life is natural means more than simply asserting that it is not a product of design. It means affirming, unflinchingly, that life arose and evolved as a consequence of more general physical dynamics that unify all natural phenomena. More concretely, I want to show you how the forces or “interactions” of nature conspire with the laws of thermodynamics to set the stage for the emergence and differentiation of life. To make my intellectual commitments clear from the outset, I should say that my perspective is informed by the history of non-equilibrium thermodynamics and that I am essentially recapitulating the views of Ilya Prigogine, Alfred Lotka, and most importantly, Jeffrey Wicken, among others. Anyone familiar with the literature on this subject will also be aware that these names represent one side of an ongoing debate in theoretical biology between what I might call the thermodynamic-organismic perspective and what has been termed, since the advent of molecular biology, Neo-Darwinism. This debate is old and subtle enough to deserve at least its own post; for now it must be sufficient to note that my perspective is biased, that I’m quite aware of it, and that I welcome any supporters of the neo-Darwinian tradition, with which I am in respectful disagreement, to offer a critical view should I lapse into too heated of a diatribe (although I find it hard to understand why a blind reproductive mechanism absurdly spat into the world by pure historical contingency would lapse into diatribe or, for that matter, exist at all).