16 May 2018

Review of Karo Michaelian's Thermodynamic Dissipation Theory, PART 2. Darwin and Natural Selection

Karo Michaelian
'Thermodynamic Dissipation Theory
of the Origin and Evolution of Life',
12th printing, March 2017
In my first blog about Karo Michaelian's Thermodynamic Dissipation Theory I discussed his claims about the effects UV light on life and the inefficiency of photosynthesis. In this blog I discuss his views on the Darwinian theory of evolution.

Will to survive

Two striking criticisms are: the "will to survive" and the "tautological definition of fitness".
The "will to survive" occurs at least 17 times in his book. It must be crucial for his argumentation. Here a few examples:
  • "Traditional evolutionary theory based on an implicit metaphysical "will to survive" of the individual and the tautology of "survival of the survivors"  has little explicative value." (p. xxvi)
  • "... do not have a mysterious "will to survive and proliferate" as the Darwinists are obliged to see it." (p.129)
  • "The implicit and unjustified assumption of the "will to survive" in the Darwinian theory can now be replaced with an explicit and physically founded "will to produce entropy" (colloquially speaking)". (p.139).
Michaelian never gives a reference for the "will to survive". Charles Darwin did not use the "will to survive" in any of his books, articles and published manuscripts. This can be easily checked:
  1. Go to Darwin Online website 
  2. Go to Advanced Search
  3. type in the field Full Text: "will to survive" (or: "drive to survive", "survival instinct")
  4. Identifier: empty *)
  5. Results: No hits
*) If desired a search can be narrowed to The Origin of Species [1st ed.] by typing F373 in the field Identifier, etc. No identifier means all his published works. See for identifiers this page.

So, the conclusion is straightforward: Michaelian accusation of a mysterious, metaphysical will to survive is not based on Darwin and therefore does not need to be replaced by anything. Furthermore, the 'will to survive' is not present in any Evolution textbook [4]. See for an overview of 36 evolution textbooks my website. Any textbook of the last 35 years is good enough for this purpose.

Ironically, his theory is explicitly teleological and metaphysical. In 19.3 he rejects the standard view in science that 'Life has no Purpose' (p.291). According to Michaelian life has a purpose. But the "will to produce entropy" is just as metaphysical as the "will to survive". Really surprising for a scientist practicing the most exact of all sciences: physics.

Survival of the survivors tautology

The "survival of the survivors tautology" occurs at least 9 times in his book! It must be an important part of his argument.
Freeman & Herron
Michaelian notes that philosopher Karl Popper pointed out that "survival of the survivors" is a tautology and later Popper changed his views on Darwinism somewhat (see footnote on page 266 of Michaelian's book). Sadly, all of this is outdated and irrelevant because in Evolutionary biology fitness and natural selection are defined and used in a non-tautological way. Again pick up any of the evolution textbooks of the last 35 years. The tautology is refuted in one of the oldest Evolution textbooks I have on the shelves: Minkoff (1983) Evolutionary Biology. Minkoff defines natural selection as the "differential contribution of heritable variations to the next generation" (page 82). This blog post is not the place to explain the theory of natural selection. An excellent discussion of the testability of natural selection can be found for example in Freeman and Herron (2007) Evolutionary Analysis [1].

Sadly, the tautology problem is a well-known creationist objection to evolution. In the classification of Mark Isaak (2007) The Counter-Creationism Handbook it is listed as Claim CA500 (page 32) or see the TalkOrgins website. The father of the Intelligent Design movement Phillip Johnson didn't  miss the opportunity to use the tautology to make a fool of Darwinists (my review).

Remarkably and inconsistently, elsewhere in his book Michaelian knows very well the non-tautological definition of fitness and natural selection (chapter 19 section 8 'Evolution through Natural Selection', page 299) and even mentions antibiotic resistance as an convincing example of natural selection. But that's the only example he thinks exists. He needs one consistent view throughout the book, getting rid of views that contradict each other. If he wants to criticize a theory, the first thing is to know the subject in the same depth as the experts [2]. It seems that Michaelian wants to discredit natural selection as much as possible in order to clear the way for his own thermodynamic selection.

Sadly, his criticism of natural selection and fitness are targeted at wrong and outdated views of evolution. Natural selection is in biology what the Second law of thermodynamics is in physics. Natural selection does not and cannot contradict thermodynamics or any other physical law. That would be a miracle. Natural selection assumes every possible physical, cosmological, chemical and geological condition. It is in this extended environment that natural selection operates and has operated since the origin of life.

There are however conditions where natural selection overrules thermodynamic selection in the sense that a flying bird overrules gravity. In general: when an organism is excellent in thermodynamic dissipation (entropy production) and survives to old age in good health, but has zero offspring, its excellent characteristics will not be inherited. And that's the end. That's where natural selection overrules thermodynamic selection.
If an organism with low dissipation (entropy production) produces more offspring than an organism with high dissipation, and this dissipation property is at least partly genetic, then the frequency of this property in the population will increase. Non-random representation of genetic differences in future generations is called natural selection. Natural selection (and a view other principles in population genetics such as drift) is sufficient to explain the properties of organisms given their environment.

gliding storks gain height for free (source)
see stunning beautiful video (16 secs)

There is a deep problem with thermodynamic selection. If thermodynamic dissipation means using and wasting as much energy as possible, then thermodynamic selection is refuted. In the animal world there is a rule of thumb: if you waste energy you are a loser [3]. A good demonstration of the principle is the seasonal migration of birds. Like sailplanes, hang gliders, para-gliders, European storks use rising air (thermals or ridge lift) to gain height (see picture). The storks subsequently glide for free downwards and forwards to travel a great distance and locate another column of rising air to gain height again. Of course they could simply use muscle power to travel in a straight line to their destination, but that would be very costly energetically. That would be stupid. Energy is not for free. Birds  do not fly "to benefit entropy production". They would not make the thousands of kilometers of their seasonal migration. The migration of birds has been compared to the Olympic Games because of the high physical demands of a non-stop flight for thousands kilometers. Especially in birds but also in planes, the need to be as lightweight as possible is easy to understand. One could store as much fuel as possible, but that increases weight and that is a disadvantage. The point is to store just enough energy and use it efficiently. That is: don't waste energy. The anatomy, physiology and behavior of birds is organized around this principle. And that refutes the idea that dissipation (entropy production) is maximized.

The problems with KM's view are connected to the question what life is. In contrast to free-floating molecules (pigments) in solution, cells and organisms are almost by definition not directly governed by physical forces. Bacteria, plants and animals do not spontaneously arise from abiotic materials under the influence of physical forces. Proto-life could. The big difference is that life contains inherited structures that harness energy from the environment. Metabolism is under genetic control. These structures make life to a large extent autonomous. Life is not at the mercy of thermodynamics. Molecules are. Bénard cells, Belousov–Zhabotinsky reaction, etc. are spontaneous, dynamic, temporary structures exclusively governed by physical forces. Life enjoys a structural permanence not present in dead non-equilibrium thermodynamic systems. It doesn't make sense to say that organisms are controlled by a 'local thermodynamic flow'. Energy (food) has to be actively searched, captured and digested. So, one cannot extrapolate from the fundamental molecules of life ('UV pigments') which obey the laws of physics and chemistry, to cells and organisms. Organisms circumvent the laws of physics in ingenious ways. Drop a dead bird, and it falls to the ground in agreement with the law of gravity. Drop a living bird and it flies away. That's life.

I think the value of Karo Michaelian's theory is in the application to single molecules especially at the origin of life, and the origin and replication of DNA. But there is more. KM has more ideas than a whole team of experts can evaluate. He has a list of no less than 16 paradigms in need of reform (chapter 19). Among them The RNA world hypothesis, Metabolism or Replication first, The Last Universal Common Ancestor, The Great Oxygenation Event, the Hydrothermal Vent Origin of Life, Pigments provide photo-protection, Photosynthesis is optimized in nature, and Panspermia. Additionally: homochirality (chapter 14). So, it is clear that he is far more than 'just another critic of evolution'. I personally like original writers the most. Right or wrong. It is intellectual entertainment. And yes, while reading, thinking, and writing, the brain produces a lot of entropy.


  1. Freeman and Herron (2007) Evolutionary Analysis, fourth edition. Chapter 3.2 'Evolution by natural Selection' (p.76-93). They list 4 postulates of natural selection and how each of them is tested. On page 93 under the heading 'Fitness is Not Circular' the tautology problem is discussed explicitly.  Required reading! See homepage of my WDW website and the Introduction page for an overview of Evolution textbooks.
  2. In chapter 19 two sections deal with natural selection: 19.2 and 19.8. These should be severely updated and united in one section. Or deleted altogether. Please note that there is no 'natural selection' in the Glossary of technical terms! So, it is undefined in his book!
  3. "if you waste energy you are a loser" are my words, but something very similar is stated by John Tyler Bonner (2006) Why Size Matters, (p.123-): "There is also a constant selection, no matter what the size, for greater [physiological] efficiency." KM: you should seek a connection with metabolism theory. There has been a lot of research on metabolism rates in the animal world. Interesting theory: Rate of living theory: "Support for this theory has been bolstered by studies linking a lower basal metabolic rate (evident with a lowered heartbeat) to increased life expectancy." So, rate of metabolism is under genetic and evolutionary control, and is not simply dictated by physical laws.
  4. Coincidentally, the first sentence in an article about ribosomes in Science 18 May 2018 reads: "From an evolutionary perspective, life involves two simple goals: survival and reproduction." There is, however, a subtle difference between goal and purpose: goals can be measured whereas purposes cannot be measured. (source) [added 18 May 2018]

15 May 2018

Guest blog Karo Michaelian PART 2: Is photosynthesis inefficient?

[ PART 1 ]

Ok, so why would life develop oxygenic photosynthesis which essentially removed this beautiful source of free energy that was available almost everywhere? This question is loaded because you are still in the Darwinian perspective. Let’s go back to the thermodynamic perspective. As I mentioned above, life has no inherent self interest in existing or proliferating or evolving. What is fundamentally important is photon dissipation. If a series of complexifications of DNA with other fundamental molecules and the UVC light produced pigments in the visible and this permitted dissipation with the longer wavelengths (also dissipative structuring and proliferation, but now in the visible), then that would be great because now photon dissipation is extended to other more intense wavelengths which were always available in the visible. And, if one of these new pigments happened to be the oxygen molecule O2, then better still since oxygen in the atmosphere can dissipate UVC light. Ozone is produced through the UVC dissipative structuring of oxygen. So now the UVC light is dissipated in the upper atmosphere and life dissipates visible light at the surface. Now we start to get improved fidelity of replication on Earth’s surface and protection of delicate amino acid bonding in complex enzymes thanks to oxygen and ozone, and so now life can develop even more complex enzymes and biosynthetic pathways to produce even more pigments which cover ever more of the solar spectrum and produce ever more entropy.

The present biosphere is one great dissipating system with abiotic processes coupled to biotic processes. The only, and therefore fundamental, reason for the biosphere’s existence is to dissipate the solar photon potential (to produce entropy at ever increasing rates).

Photosynthesis at the beginning of life (the dissipative structuring of the fundamental molecules and their proliferation) was obviously connected to photon dissipation (UVC dissipation) as explained above. Photosynthesis today is obviously connected to photon dissipation today (but now in the visible through more complex biosynthetic pathways). The structuring of material, anywhere, at anytime, is obviously connected to the dissipation of a generalized thermodynamic potential, be this the photon potential, a chemical potential, a heat gradient, a concentration gradient, etc. Structuring, e.g. photosynthesis, cannot be separated from dissipation (entropy production). However, my point is that it is not correct to ignore the imposed generalized thermodynamic potential and consider only the structure alone and assign to it an inherent will to survive, to propagate, and to evolve (the Darwinian perspective). From the thermodynamic perspective, it does not make sense to say that biomass production (or reproductive success) is optimized, but rather that the dissipation of the external generalized thermodynamic potential is optimized. If this requires more biomass, then so be it, but this is not always the case, sometimes a simple coupling of different existing biomass is called for (e.g. tryptophan+DNA or the biosphere), or the invention of a new pigment which allows dissipation in a new wavelength region. The Darwinian perspective leads to many inconsistencies and paradoxes. The thermodynamic perspective considering the structure (or process) together with the imposed generalized thermodynamic potential and its dissipation (obtained by that structuring), is the fundamental perspective we should take to avoid problems and paradoxes.

In the thermodynamic perspective, it is not the individual that is being “selected” but rather the global dissipating unit known as the biosphere that is being selected based on its global entropy production in its solar environment. If one individual (or species) replacing another leads to greater global entropy production, then this state is more stable than the previous and will therefore be more probable over long times, but it is not by any means inevitable that the system will instantly move towards that state, much depends on the perturbation and on critical points of bifurcation in this tremendously complex non-linear system. This is not an equilibrium thermodynamic selection in the canonical ensemble in which the most stable (lowest free energy) configuration is most probable, but rather it is a non-equilibrium thermodynamic selection in which the largest entropy producing stationary state is the most probable. In analogy to equilibrium thermodynamics where the lowest free energy state is the most probable, but not inevitable, in non-equilibrium thermodynamics, the greatest entropy producing state is the most probable but not inevitable. For the biosphere, an enormous number of entropy producing stationary states exist, each with its particular value of global entropy production. External or internal perturbations (microscopic and macroscopic) allow the system to continuously explore these states with permanence being related to the states accessibility and non-equilibrium stability or entropy production.

I admit that this may be a bit confusing, even those working on the front-line of non-equilibrium thermodynamics are struggling with the details, but I can get more into it after you post your second blog as I gather it will address non-equilibrium thermodynamic selection in the biosphere.

My students and I have in fact carried out experiments (Michaelian and Santillán, 2014) and one of them is described in chapter 12 of my book. It was designed to test the hypothesis of ultraviolet and temperature assisted reproduction (UVTAR) of DNA. In this experiment we showed that UVC light can indeed denature short (25 bp) segments of DNA. The mechanism by which it does this we now think is related to photon-induced charge transfer among two bases forming a Watson-Crick pair, but this is still under investigation (Reyna and Michaelian, 2018). The other part of the reproduction process, enzyme-less extension has been demonstrated by others; even though it is rather slow it can be speeded up considerably with the simple addition of tryptophan (Horowitz et al., 2010). So putting it all together in a single experiment should not represent a great challenge, however, our progress is slow mainly because we spend most of our time answering curious but difficult referees.

We have, so far, not been able to publish the experiment carried out in 2012 in journals related to the origin of life. The referees tend to belong to mafias which either defend the deep sea hydrothermal vent origin of life theories or the RNA World origin of life theories. They generally consider new theories as being hostile to their own. Our papers are published in European biogeoscience or thermodynamic journals, these tend to be much more open minded than the American origin of life journals. I would ask your readers to consider not confiding substantially more in a scientific work simply because it was published in a particular journal, all it means is that two, or at most three people, did not find your theory overly hostile to their own. I believe that our actual publishing scheme needs an urgent overhaul. I would like to see something like what ResearchGate is proposing, which is along the lines of your blog; researchers publish their papers in an open forum, and allow and respond to criticism openly. The value of beginning to read an article can be approximately ascertained from the number and weight of the recommendations it receives. Unfortunately, our universities and institutes have a dreadful bureaucratic tradition. They would rather go on spending millions of dollars or Euros on subscriptions to journals, or for open access publishing in these journals, in order to obtain a seal of “credibility” from an established editorial house rather than allow universal, free, and rapid access to all new ideas. I think a lot of this has to do with the mafias I referred to above who don’t take kindly to open criticism and want to conserve the credibility of their publishing niche even though the science has moved beyond them.

The history of the association of dissipation with the structuring (or processes) of life go back to only 27 years after the publication of On the Origin of Species when Boltzmann (1886) wrote that “the struggle for existence was not a struggle for raw material, neither for energy, but rather for entropy [production]”. Many scientists have taken up and developed Boltzmann’s insight, from Onsager(1931), Schrodinger (1945), Prigogine(1972), Nicolis (1977), Zotin (1984), Ulanowicz (1987), Morel and Fleck (1989), Swenson (1989), Schneider and Kay (1994), Michaelian(2005), and others I am forgetting (but are cited in my book), and have applied CIT formalism to questions regarding life and present ecosystems. I have cited these authors in my book in both a historical context and in recognition for their contributions to my theory.

You mention Jeremy England and I have read his papers, but I do not find anything in them regarding the origin of life. What he seems to be doing in a rather tortured and not so honest way, by using equilibrium statistical mechanics and failing to cite original work, is to proclaim “discovery” of a relation between material structuring and entropy production. However, as I mentioned above, this relation was already worked out many years earlier, starting with Boltzmann (1886) and formally with the founding of CIT theory by Onsager (1931) and Prigogine (1972), and many others have already applied this relation to these aspects of life (see citations above). However, England will not get very far using an equilibrium formalism to treat a system which is certainly out-of -equilibrium. The quote you mention by England comes from a Quanta magazine article in which the author presents England’s (2013) paper on the statistics of replication as a “new physics theory of life”. Frankly, it appears to me to be just poor or sensationalist journalism because the Quanta article has nothing to do with England’s paper and no “new theory” has ever been presented by England. At this risk of sounding pretentious, the article and England’s quote appear to be imitations of my first paper published some 5 years earlier on the subject (Michaelian 2009; 2011), but I leave that up to you and your readers to judge.

I hope I have answered the most basic points of your criticism on your blog, but if not, please don’t hesitate to engage me.

Finally, I hope you will afford me some self- and group-indulgence and allow me to make some publicity as a tribute to the hard work of my collaborator Alex Simeonov, my dedicated students (see the Preface of my book), and myself on the thermodynamics of the origin of life. I think that it is fair for me to claim that our particular contribution has been to emphasize the importance of dissipation specifically to the origin of life itself and I was the first to identify a generalized thermodynamic potential that life may have been dissipating at its origins in the Archean, the UVC photon potential (Michaelian, 2009; 2011), contrary, as you say, to mainstream opinion concerning this light at that time. A student of mine has been working on the general form of this photon potential as derived from the Planck equation for the entropy of a beam of light (Cano and Michaelian, 2018). I proposed that the fundamental molecules of life were microscopic dissipative structures (Michaelian, 2009; 2011; 2016; 2018), and suggested an enzyme-less mechanism based on a dissipation-replication relation that could have bootstrapped early replication of RNA and DNA (Ultraviolet and Temperature Assisted Replication ,UVTAR) which also, by the way, provides a simple explanation for the homochirality of life (Michaelian, 2010). Together with a student, we performed an experiment which has demonstrated the viability of the UVTAR mechanism (Michaelian and Santillán, 2014) and another student has been working on a theoretical explanation of this observed UVC-induced denaturing (Reyna and Michaelian, 2018). I have shown how dissipation could have given rise to the perceived vitality of life, the proliferation of the fundamental molecules (Michaelian, 2013). Together with my collaborator from Macedonia, Aleksandar Simeonov, we have applied these ideas to the other fundamental molecules (Michaelian and Simeonov, 2015) and to the origin of the organic molecules in space (Michaelian and Simeonov, 2017). With other students, we have applied these ideas to information accumulation in DNA (Mejía and Michaelian, 2018), to the origin of fatty acids and phospholipids (Michaelian, Rodríguez and Simeonov, 2018), simple proteins (Mejía and Michaelian, 2018), and to the formation of complexes of fundamental molecules (Michaelian, 2018).

In my future response to your second blog on these themes, I will describe what we have been working on and publishing concerning the relation between Darwinian Theory and dissipative thermodynamics of the biosphere. I thank you and your readers for giving credit where credit is due because what motivates most a scientist is the recognition by his/her peers that he/she has contributed something original to the collective human knowledge. Speaking on behalf of my students, collaborators and myself, our hard work has been more than repaid by your interest and honest recognition of it in this blog. I remain at your service here to discuss any other detail of my book and to address any other doubt or criticism regarding the theory which you or your readers may have.

With my best regards,

Karo Michaelian.