[Editor’s note: The following is part of an interview with Nigel Goldenfeld, director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute for Universal Biology and a physicist at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.]
So how can collective effects in physics inform our understanding of evolution?
When you think about evolution, you typically tend to think about population genetics, the frequency of genes in a population. But if you look to the Last Universal Common Ancestor — the organism ancestral to all others, which we can trace through phylogenetics [the study of evolutionary relationships] — that’s not the beginning of life. There was definitely simpler life before that — life that didn’t even have genes, when there were no species.
It’s in that sense that I think our view of evolution as a process needs to be expanded — by thinking about dynamical systems, and how it is possible that systems capable of evolving and reproducing can exist at all. [..] Why does life even occur? The dynamics of evolution should be able to address that question. Remarkably, we don’t have an idea even in principle of how to address that question — which, given that life started as something physical and not biological, is fundamentally a physics question.
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