New Criticals

So to assess the possibilities for producing configurational entropy, you need an idea of the possible number of molecules a given set of simpler molecules might form if provided access to a stable energy gradient. As we discussed last time, the possibilities for organic molecules are endless, and philosophy of biology literature is riddled with examples of simple calculations demonstrating ridiculous statistics, even if life made a new organic molecule every nanosecond it would take 1000 times the age of the universe to make them all and so on. So this aspect of configurational entropy production is an enabling factor for life: Given a stable external gradient and a basis set of molecules capable of being chemically rearranged, molecular complexity will spontaneously increase. Complexity (or just molecular variety if that’s less confusing) is the raw material for functional information but complexity and information are not synonymous. Information is molecular complexity coupled to a functional relationship with a dissipative flow. Life requires information, not just complexity. So the next question is “under what conditions can molecular complexity be utilized as functional information?”

To answer this question we must understand that pathways of dissipation are constrained by the chemical possibilities of a system. Imagine a pot of water on a stove. You heat it. The water molecules wiggle more vigorously. When they wiggle with more energy than the energy in the hydrogen bonds holding them together, they fly off into the gas phase and we say the water is boiling. The phase change occurs as a way of dissipating the energy input from the stove. Why doesn’t it do something more interesting? Because it’s just pure water and changing phase is the only thing it can do to dissipate potential. But if I have an ensemble of organic molecules in water, and maybe even with some oil around too, then it becomes more likely that the components of the system have more options for dissipation. Instead of a pure compound changing phase, the system can dissipate the input energy by doing some chemistry also. As molecular complexity increases, it becomes more and more likely that at least one molecule in the system is catalytic. This means that it will greatly accelerate the rate of one or more possible chemical reactions in the system.

Once a system possesses a catalytic capacity, it is no longer required to evolve deterministically to the lowest energy state it can occupy, because there is no guarantee that the process being catalyzed leads to the most stable configuration of the atoms involved. For a system with no catalytic properties, it is certain that its final state (which might take it a very long time to reach) will have the lowest internal energy possible and this corresponds to the system having dissipated as much potential as it possibly can.