February 22, 2019

A New Theory of Life

“Living things have puzzled and challenged us since the dawn of our species. Even in the light of our modern scientific understanding, they seem remarkable. A merlin falcon hunting its prey, a hummingbird suspended in the air beside a flower, the self-reproduction of a bacterial cell: all are instances of stunning control and precision. How could anything so complex have originated from inert matter?

For millennia, some of the most brilliant thinkers have attempted to answer this question. Most of them concluded that living things must have been produced by an intentional design process. They were wrong, of course: the theory of evolution by variation and natural selection – Charles Darwin’s momentous leap – shows how those stupendously intricate mechanisms can come about without one. Yet the task of showing how life itself can arise without design is surprisingly vexed.

The very problem Darwin’s theory addresses is ultimately rooted in physics: living things have certain properties that seem to set them apart from other aggregations of inert matter. They have many different subparts – instantiating biological adaptations – all coordinating to some function. That’s the key property: they closely resemble objects that have literally been designed, such as factories and robots. For example, the ciliary muscles and the lens in the eye coordinate exquisitely to permit vision, just like the optical components of a sophisticated camera. In modern biology, this is called the appearance of design – a property described by Socrates and given canonical expression in 1802 by William Paley in his ‘watchmaker’ argument for the existence of God.”

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