Thermodynamic Life

Thermodynamics distinguishes between open and closed systems. A closed system is isolated from the rest of the environment and exchanges neither light, heat, nor matter with its surroundings. An open system is one in which such exchanges do occur. The second law of thermodynamics states that, in a closed system, no processes can occur that increase the net order (or decrease the net entropy) of the system (see thermodynamics). Thus the universe taken as a whole is steadily moving toward a state of complete randomness, lacking any order, pattern, or beauty. This fate has been known since the 19th century as the heat death of the universe. Yet living organisms are manifestly ordered and at first sight seem to represent a contradiction to the second law of thermodynamics. Living systems might then be defined as localized regions where there is a continuous increase in order. Living systems, however, are not really in contradiction to the second law. They increase their order at the expense of a larger decrease in order of the universe outside. Living systems are not closed but rather open. Most life on Earth, for example, is dependent on the flow of sunlight, which is utilized by plants to construct complex molecules from simpler ones. But the order that results here on

ThermodynamicEarth is more than compensated by the decrease in order on the sun, through the thermonuclear processes responsible for the sun’s radiation. Some scientists argue on grounds of quite general open-system thermodynamics that the order of a system increases as energy flows through it, and moreover that this occurs through the development of cycles. A simple biological cycle on the Earth is the carbon cycle. Carbon from atmospheric carbon dioxide is incorporated by plants and converted into carbohydrates through the process of photosynthesis. These carbohydrates are ultimately oxidized by both plants and animals to extract useful energy locked in their chemical bonds. In the oxidation of carbohydrates, carbon dioxide is returned to the atmosphere, completing the cycle. It has been shown that similar cycles develop spontaneously and in the absence of life by the flow of energy through a chemical system. In this view, biological cycles are merely an exploitation by living systems of those thermodynamic cycles that pre-exist in the absence of life. It is not known whether open-system thermodynamic processes in the absence of replication are capable of leading to the sorts of complexity that characterize biological systems. It is clear, however, that the complexity of life on Earth has arisen through replication, although thermodynamically favoured pathways have certainly been used.

The existence of diverse definitions of life surely means that life is something complicated. A fundamental understanding of biological systems has existed since the second half of the 19th century. But the number and diversity of definitions suggest something else as well. As detailed below, all the organisms on the Earth are extremely closely related, despite superficial differences. The fundamental ground pattern, both in form and in matter, of all life on Earth is essentially identical. As will emerge below, this identity probably implies that all organisms on Earth are evolved from a single instance of the origin of life. It is difficult to generalize from a single example, and in this respect the biologist is fundamentally handicapped as compared, say, to the chemist or physicist or geologist or meteorologist, who now can study aspects of his discipline beyond the Earth. If there is truly only one sort of life on Earth, then perspective is lacking in the most fundamental way.