earth from space
Theory currently being tested says life on Earth evolved out of necessity. Nasa Earth Observatory

God has been "put on the ropes" by a theory that suggests life emerged from more simple non-living systems out of necessity rather than being accidental.

MIT professor Jeremy England put forward his theory based on thermodynamics in 2014 and was highlighted in an article by Quanta. It was revisited by journalist Paul Rosenberg writing for Salon, but it has seen a resurgence in public duscussion after the article was reposted via the website of famed atheist Richard Dawkins.

England derived a mathematical formula that explains why living things are better at capturing energy and dissipating it as heat than inanimate clumps of carbon atoms. It suggests that when a groups of atoms is being driven by an external source of energy – like the sun, for example – then it will eventually restructure itself to become more energy efficient.

"It doesn't mean we should expect life everywhere in the universe ... But it does mean that 'under certain conditions' where life is possible — as it is here on Earth, obviously — it is also quite probable, if not, ultimately, inevitable," Rosenberg wrote.

john Mason
Life was not accidental, England's theory says. Getty Images

"Indeed, life on Earth could well have developed multiple times independently of each other, or all at once, or both. The first truly living organism could have had hundreds, perhaps thousands of siblings, all born not from a single physical parent, but from a physical system, literally pregnant with the possibility of producing life."

He said that if England's theory pans out, it would rebuke creationists who believe thermodynamics disproves evolution – showing instead that it drives it. "You start with a random clump of atoms, and if you shine light on it for long enough, it should not be so surprising that you get a plant," England said.

While the theory remains unproven, ideas about how to test it are being put forward, the Quanta article notes. Carl Franck, a biological physicist at Cornell University, told the magazine: "He is making me think that the distinction between living and non-living matter is not sharp. I'm particularly impressed by this notion when one considers systems as small as chemical circuits involving a few biomolecules."

Rosenberg notes: "Whether or not England's theory proves out in the end, he's already doing quite a lot to build that bridge between worldviews and inspire others to make similar efforts. Science is not just about making new discoveries, but about seeing the world in new ways — which then makes new discoveries almost inevitable. And England has already succeeded in that.