New Criticals

New Insights on Irreversibility


A paper by Jeremy England at MIT made headlines this month with the audacious claim that he had discovered the thermodynamic basis for how life emerged from matter. Reading through the article, one comes away with the impression that this “new” idea is simply that organisms exist because they disperse energy, which is to say produce entropy. Mixis readers will know, however, that the concept of an organism as a dissipative structure is by no means new. For people unfamiliar with the history of the interaction between thermodynamics, biology, and ecology, the names Alfred Lotka, Ilya Prigogine, Harold Morowitz, and Jeffrey Wicken are good places to start. Eric Schneider and Dorion Sagan’s book "Into the Cool" provides an accessible history of many of these ideas, and of course, much to my adviser’s chagrin, there is the stuff I have written while I should have been doing research. All that says nothing about England’s contribution, however, which is real and substantive and so let’s talk about it.