This theory comes with an intimidating title: "non-equilibrium thermodynamics." Basically, the concept says that under certain circumstances, if energy is passed through a system at a fairly high rate, the system becomes unstable and will actually rearrange itself into an alternate and somewhat more complicated form.
An example is water draining out of a bathtub. Initially, the water molecules merely drop at random down the drain. But toward the end, the exit becomes much more orderly as the molecules spontaneously form a vortex.
"Some scientists have suggested that this tendency for molecules to become more orderly could be an analogy for how nature spontaneously organizes itself under certain circumstances," I said to Bradley.
He was thoroughly familiar with this hypothesis. "The problem is that the level of organization you're talking about is quite low. Even Ilya Prigogine, the thermodynamacist who has speculated about this theory, admitted recently that 'there is still a gap between the most complex structures we can produce in non-equilibrium situations in chemistry, and the complexity we find in biology.37
"He's right. Compare the vortex in a bathtub to the mind-boggling complexity I described in creating living matter and you'll see it's an incredibly big gap."
Other scientists have brought up "equilibrium thermodynamics" as another possible solution. As an example, if water is cooled, it turns into ice. The molecules in ice are more orderly than the random molecules of water. Some have pointed to this as another way in which nature orders itself.
But Bradley discounted this theory for a similar reason. "Again," he said, "you have a very low level of information needed to create ice crystals compared to the high level of information required to order the amino acids to create protein molecules. That's why this theory hasn't caught on, either."
Bradley said there's a significant difference between the "order" found in some nonliving things and the "specified complexity" of living cells.
"Ice crystals have a certain amount of order, but it's simple, repetitive, and has a low amount of information, sort of like filling a book with the words "I love you, I love you, I love you" over and over again. In contrast, the kind of complexity we see in living matter has a high information content that specifies how to assemble amino acids in the right sequence, like a book being filled with meaningful sentences that communicate a story.
"Unquestionably, energy can create patterns of simple order. For instance, you could see ripples on the sand at a beach and know they were created by the action of waves. But if you saw the words, "John loves Mary" and a heart with an arrow drawn in the sand, you know that energy alone didn't create that. That's why the prominent information theorist H. P Yockey has said, 'Attempts to relate the idea of order ... with biological organization ... must be regarded as a play on words which cannot stand careful scrutiny.'"38
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