The biological world abounds with a diverse array of organisms exhibiting distinct adaptations that enable them to flourish in their particular environments. The Darwinian theory of natural selection has long since provided us with a powerful means to explain the origins of these biological adaptations: common sense dictates that heritable traits that confer an advantage in reproduction or survival on some particular individual will spread through population over time, since that individual will tend to have more descendants than its competitors. Powerful though this account is, it leaves us in the dark about where the first self-reproducing organisms came from to begin with. Our research program seeks to tackle this question by examining the process of evolution from a novel, physics-based perspective. We focus on the physical properties of biological matter, namely the fluxes of energy into and out of the system, and how these flows are related to changes in the system's internal structure. Based on a previous published work, we have developed a new theoretical argument for why adaptations physically like those exhibited by living things should emerge in a general class of nonequilibrium systems, simply as a result of thermodynamic laws. We propose to test this hypothesis using a simulation framework we have developed for studying self-assembly of particles obeying a "toy chemistry." The anticipated outputs will be high-profile peer-reviewed research articles of interest to both biologists and physicists. The broader outcomes are hoped to be both scientific (by spurring new approaches to origins of life research) and cultural (by lending enough philosophical sophistication to how scientists understand the origins of life that it will become easier even for science-minded thinkers to recognize the complementary merits of accounts originating outside the scientific domain).
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