A new theory linking evolution and physics has puzzled scientists, but does it solve a problem that does not exist?

A new theory linking evolution and physics has puzzled scientists, but does it solve a problem that does not exist?

In October, a paper titled “Aggregation theory explains and determines selection and evolution” appeared in the leading science journal Nature. The authors – a team led by Lee Cronin from the University of Glasgow and Sarah Walker from Arizona State University – claim that their theory is an “interface between physics and biology” that explains how complex biological forms can evolve.

The newspaper sparked strong reactions. On the one hand there were headlines like “A bold new theory of everything could unite physics and evolution.”

On the other hand, there were the reactions of scientists. An evolutionary biologist chirp “After several readings, I still have no idea what (this paper) does.” last He said “I read the paper and feel more confused (…) I think reading that paper made me forget my name.”

As a biologist who studies evolution, I felt like I had to read the paper for myself. Was assemblage theory really the radical new paradigm proposed by its authors? Or was it?Vile wankwaffle“Her critics denounced?

Allegations raise hacking

When I sat down to read the paper, the first sentence of the abstract made me angry:

Scientists have struggled to reconcile biological evolution with the immutable laws of the universe determined by physics.

I had no idea we scientists wrestled with this. I don’t know any biologist who has a problem with the laws of physics or sees any problem in reconciling them with evolution.



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The summary goes on to point out that the laws of physics do not predict “the origin and evolution of life and the evolution of human culture and technology,” and claims that we need “a new approach” to understanding “how diverse and open-ended forms can emerge.” of physics without an inherent design scheme.”

The complaint that biological evolution seems incompatible with the laws of physics, when using loaded terms such as “design blueprint,” is reminiscent of creationist arguments against evolution. No wonder evolutionary biologists’ blood pressure was rising.

As one Nature commentator put it: “Why are there so many creationist metaphors in the first few sentences?”

Biology and physics

Before I go any further, I should point out that I, along with some of the scholars mentioned above, may not fully understand the purpose of this paper. But I have problems with what I understand from it.

First of all, the claim that evolution contradicts the established laws of physics does not seem to be supported.

“Open generation does not fit neatly into the typical frameworks of biology or physics,” the paper says, which doesn’t make much sense.

Micrograph of fluorescent cells
Is there a conflict between biology and physics that needs to be explained?
National Cancer Institute/Unsplash

In the biology model, we understand that there is variation in biological forms through genetic drift, mutation, and selection. Is that Need “To fit the model of physics”, as long as it doesn’t violate any laws of physics?

Another troubling statement: “To understand how diverse and open-ended forms can emerge from physics without an inherent design blueprint, a new approach to understanding and measuring quantum choice is necessary.”

actually? One of the principles of evolutionary theory is that there is no “teleology”—no goal or targeted end point—in this process. So how can there be a “design blueprint”? Why should its absence be explained?

Putting numbers on the possibilities of development

So what is assemblage theory trying to do? According to CroninIt “aims to explain pre-biological selection and evolution”; As such, its goal is a theory that unifies inert and living matter and seeks to explain their complexity or otherwise in the same way.

The paper itself says it is “a framework that does not change the laws of physics, but rather redefines the concept of the ‘object’ on which these laws operate.”

(Assemblage theory) Conceives objects not as point particles, but as entities defined by the history of their possible formation. This allows objects to show evidence of selection, within well-defined boundaries of selected individuals or units.

The “thing” in assembly theory is then what the “laws of physics” operate on. For any object, we can calculate its “compilation index,” a number that measures the complexity of the object’s construction.

Any body that is abundant and has a high aggregation index is unlikely to have arisen by chance, so must be the product of evolution and selection. This in itself is neither problematic nor new – apart from this calculated “indicator”.

How can we know this aggregation index? We calculate the number of steps it takes to build a molecule, for example, or an organ in the body, or an entire organism. The higher the index, the more likely it is to develop.

So assemblage theory is an attempt to measure the complexity of something and its potential for evolution.

Problem does not exist?

Is this useful? It’s hard to say.

For one thing, it implies that there is only one pathway to produce a complex (high aggregation index) organism such as a biochemical molecule, which is simply not the case.

Also, as Another scientist noted:

Obviously, if a molecule is complex and there are many copies of it, it probably emerged from some evolutionary process. Most chemists can detect such states without needing aggregation theory. Although trying to put numbers on it is very elegant.

My own feeling is that this paper is poorly written, as evidenced by the inability of many biologists to understand what it is trying to do, and much of the negative reaction to the work stems from the difficulty of following and using the framework. Phrases that echo creationist talking points.



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As for the aggregation theory itself, it appears to have developed in the context of Cronin and Walker’s efforts to find a general method for identifying signs of life on alien planets, and even creating artificial life. This may be useful in those contexts.

However, as a comprehensive new paradigm that aims to unify evolution and physics, assembly theory seems – to me and many others – to address a problem that does not exist.

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