Nigel Goldenfeld: We Need a Theory of Life

Nigel Goldenfeld, of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Credit: University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

Nigel Goldenfeld, of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Credit: University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

In this fascinating interview, the Huffington Post’s Suzan Mazur talks with NASA Astrobiology Institute Principal Investigator Nigel Goldenfeld, of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. They discuss the emergence of a new theory of life, the nature of the evolutionary process, the origin of life, and more.

“Our collaborative position was that the Modern Synthesis is simply not enough,” said Goldenfeld, “population genetics is not a full account of the evolution process because it manifestly does not describe evolution before genes, it does not describe evolution before there were species and the lineages. The Modern Synthesis wasn’t designed to do so.

“Let me be more precise about the way in which the new theory emerges. You might say we have to replace Newtonian gravity by a more general theory, and it has been replaced by Einstein’s general theory of relativity. But Newtonian gravity is a perfectly good example of the limit of general relativeity in certain circumstances when the gravitational fields are weak and so forth. So I think that’s what Carl [Woese] meant and that’s certainly what we were working to try and understand. The Modern Synthesis doesn’t address and doesn’t claim to address issues of how do living systems even arise in the first place and how do you account for the very existence of life as a phenomenon.

“So it’s replacement with a deeper level of understanding, but it still allows for the old theory in the situations where the old theory applies.

“The same thing is true of quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics was a complete departure from the world of classical physics, yet when we look at systems on a large enough scale and with appropriate energies, the predictions of quantum mechanics are identical to the predictions of classical mechanics, and we can derive classical mechanics out of some limit of quantum mechanics.

“That more general theory has a different perspective and a different framework. It has that extra level of generality that we can apply to other situations. I think the same will be true with our understanding of living systems.”

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