Life’s Ratchet – by Peter M. Hoffmann

Not often does one get to say “interesting book, but very wrong”. What makes this one so special is the marriage of interesting experimental findings with very bad philosophy built on top of those observations. The book makes a case for life being a collection of autonomous machines that “evolved” in the Darwinist style. Some of the arguments are old and some new and possibly original; let’s review the better ones:

  1. “Life is “a game of chance – played … with the rules supplied by physics and mathematics”. Too bad the author does not acknowledge that randomness is a theoretical concept subject to much abuse in the Darwinist thinking. And no one knows where the laws of physics, math, and life come from, or even what they are precisely.
  2. “Entropy can be reduced locally if it is increased globally” Snowflakes form below freezing because the Free Energy of the snowflake drops more than that of a water droplet increasing the entropy of the outside environment more. Just like life, hurricanes are open, dissipative systems even if not alive. But life is better at dissipation because it’s “near-equilibrium, tightly controlled, open, dissipative, complex system”. Good to know the facts, but there is no requirement for anything “better” at dissipation. For sure not on the Moon or elsewhere in the Solar System to the best of our knowledge.
  3. “DNA is more like a cooking recipe” rather than a blueprint because the information in the DNA “is not nearly enough”. “Snowflakes exhibit both repetition and nearly unlimited variety within this basic pattern”. “Lipids form micelles and vesicles suddenly, not gradually because molecules “cooperate”. Yes, DNA is not a blueprint. Like all recipes, organisms need an intelligent “baker” capable of carrying out the recipe. Life is much, much more complex and different than snowflakes, micelles and vesicles with no path from one to the other.
  4. “Molecular storm pushes protein around shaping it in the lowest possible energy state, sometimes with the help of chaperone molecules”. “Nanoscale is special – at nanometer sizes, all energy forms (chemical, electrostatic, mechanical, thermal) are of roughly same magnitude”. “Molecular machines are very efficient, and are subject to incredible (comparative) molecular storms. The entire human body has a budget of 100 watts”. “Molecular motors (kinesin, myosin, dynein) move as Brownian ratchets using the chaos of molecular storms, without which they would not move”. Excellent information. Yet none of these validates the author’s philosophical views as no known machines are self-starter or purposeful.
  5. Re W. Paley: “life is not similar to watches because chance plays an important role”; “Paley would have excluded stars, planets, mountains, volcanoes, weather and pebbles from design (?)”; “a watch reproducing itself acquires an internal purpose and does not need a creator”; “flavobacterium digesting nylon is an example of evolution”; “evolution is true because all organisms are the same – commonality shows common ancestry (?)”; “when it comes to evolution, almost anything goes”; ”evolution is non-random as a collaboration between mutation (random process) and natural selection (necessary, nonrandom process)”. Again, “chance” is unknowable for sure. Paley would have followed the Bible that shows everything is God’s design. It’s a mega stretch to assume replicating machines “acquire a purpose”. Flavobacterium is at best adaptation; evolution would be if the bacteria transmuted into another life form (of non Flavobacterium type). Experimental evidence indicates that ‘sameness’ shows common ancestry while ‘commonality’ shows common design. This is a big problem for the theory: “when it comes to evolution, almost anything goes”. There is no “natural selection” or “artificial selection” for that matter, much less a matching “nonrandom process”.
  6. “Much of the information to shape a protein is not in DNA, but in the laws of physics”; “there’s utterly insufficient information in the DNA to specify an organism”. Yes, it’s absolutely true that the information in the DNA cannot specify an organism. It’s false that the “laws of physics” explain organisms as chemistry is common to all organisms, the environment can vary drastically without affecting the outcome much (homeostasis), and the maternal womb is itself an outcome of a previous development. In addition, a DNA “downgrade” means that it no longer supports the assertion that humans are apes.
  7. “Organisms are emergent phenomena”; “physical law can make a rock, but without information provided by evolution, we cannot make a living being”; “information comes from many sources – evolution, physics, chemistry, and interaction of many complex entities in the living cells”. Except nothing was ever observed to “emerge” or “arise”. It is unclear what biological information comes from all sources cited, aside from the fact that those might be only intermediary steps (something may unite physics and chemistry), and that differential outcomes (as in mammal vs. bacteria, etc.) cannot come from undifferentiated sources such as chemistry and physics that are common to all.
  8. “Evolution acts like a ratchet”; “designed machines are different – they are based on limited properties and are designed to resist extraneous influences”; “an external designer would do best to use evolution to do the work”. We have yet to see how “evolution acts like a ratchet”. Machines do not necessarily resist the environment and most take it into account. For instance, rigid constructions are no longer the norm as these have been replaced with flexible structures protected by dampening mechanisms. Designers would absolutely use evolution if it worked, but they don’t because it doesn’t.
  9. “Reductionism or holism are two sides of the same coin because life operates from molecules to ecosystems”; “the concept ‘cow’ is independent of its constituent particles”. Obviously, any self-imposed limitation in trying to understand a subject is potentially harmful. At the same time, we have to understand how systems interact from the micro to the macro rather than just extrapolating without experimental evidence. The theory of “evolution” is the prime example of baseless extrapolation as reinforced by this book.
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