This is a book about ‘life’, that which animates particular organic structures, organisms, absent from other ‘structures’ which remain fixed, but for the physical and chemical forces which wear them down. From our human perspective, this sets ourselves, and all other living things, apart from the inert, nonliving, matter that comprises our world and the universe. England, as a physicist, sees the world of nature and all matter within it, differently than most of us. Science has demonstrated that the universe tends to operates under consistent ‘laws’. Organisms, while a special ‘class’ of matter, are still of matter composed of the same atoms joined together in complex macromolecules not found outside of organisms, which are in fact created within organisms. They occupy a different section along a continuum defined by energy, a ‘family’ of complex, shared organic structures. This complexity of structure goes to determining their functionality. Function increases and diversifies as complexity increases, capacities are expanded and the flow of energy through them becomes an effective and sustaining agent in their ‘being’ and evolution. His view is consistent with the many other physicists who have looked into life and view it as an inevitable outcome of the processes, energies and materials that comprise Earth’s particular corner of the universe. Earth appears to be a relatively rare occurrence, but it is extremely doubtful that it is a singular one. Given the particular mix of ‘ingredients’ and energies here, matter has come together over the course of over 4 billion years to form life as we know it because it could and whatever is possible/probable tends to happen with a degree of frequency. Particular patterns precede those to follow, not necessarily determining them, but increasing the likelihood that they will. The flow of energy through matter tends to ‘favor’ a range of outcomes. Those outcomes tend to favor the next, building from one ‘success’ to the next.
Many of these patterns and energy flows occur at molecular levels well below our ability to observe and measure. These patterns are not generally obvious to us. Our perceptions are shaped by our beliefs about the world. We tend to ‘see’ what we expect to see, not necessarily what is there. We shape our perceived world into the commonly shared story that has been passed on to us. Our particular indoctrination, our educations, all go toward determining what we see, then we take our experience and use it to reinforce that understanding. In a sense we ‘choose’ our reality. From the moment we each open our mouths or put word to page, we do this. Our language and knowledge limit us. It requires that we distill our perceptions, our experiences and our understanding into a comprehensible form. We are then limited by our biases, our language, what we already ‘know’. We are all at a ‘remove’ in this sense, apart from the world in which we live, although we are intimately immersed in it. As ‘western’ people we tend to see ourselves as separate from it. In actuality, we can never be so. England looks into this question of what life is by taking our modern and still developing idea of ‘thermodynamics’, our study of energy and the way that it ‘works’ on the stuff of the universe, on matter, as his way into this ‘story’. Energy is transformative. Matter, is arguably, a particular expression of energy. One can be translated into the other.
England is a theoretical physicist. You will not find in this book a detailed explanation of the living organism or even a detailed description of the flow of energy through one. Thermodynamics and his idea of dissipative adaptation are larger concepts that can give us a framework for understanding the bigger picture of an almost unfathomably complex topic. England joins with those today who would argue that any living organism is not so much a thing as it is a process, in a state of continuous change, a process which both follows a probable, understandable, path, and is itself a part of the larger/longer process of evolution, of becoming, building on itself and life’s many patterns, as it moves ahead through time toward something unknowable to us. We exist from moment to moment, a ‘response’, one of a particular and massive set of more or less likely probabilities, each which influences what will follow, within a universe of definable ‘law’. Here England gives us an intellectual framework for understanding the processes at play in this process of living. Living organisms are conductors of a continuous flow of energy through them from outside and back after it has degraded. This flow of energy acts in very particular ways on the molecules, cells, tissues and organs of an organism…until it no longer can. An organism, is in a sense, a conductor, a channel through which energy flows from a higher, more available state, to a lower, less available state. Energy drives them, permits them and enables them so that they are in this sense ‘self’ sustaining…as long as the energy flows and the organism can maintain the integrity of its structure at all levels.
The following is an extensive quote from his book: Every Life is on Fire: How Thermodynamics Explains the Origins of Living Organisms, pp. 113-116.
“…a plant—for example—has to be thought of as holding steady on a steep [energy] hillside in a constant state of free fall. Much like the chemicals in a battery powering a flashlight, many molecules in a plant are constantly undergoing reactions that convert them into other, lower-energy forms. At the same time, randomizing thermal fluctuations are taking the specially ordered components of each cell that have been assembled in a particular fashion and wreaking havoc with them, either through chemical damage or via larger-scale physical rearrangements. In permanent darkness, a plant is therefore on a slow road to death, for dying in physical terms is nothing more than sliding downhill in a variety of chemical and physical ways. Of course, plants can survive just fine for a while in the dark, but not forever. [Animals, for the most part exist in a much more precarious balance requiring much higher energy flows for a given mass.] Eventually, the twin tendencies to lower energy and higher disorder that are required by the fall to thermal equilibrium will win out, and the pile of matter that was originally a live organism will start to look less and less like one.