2016 : WHAT DO YOU CONSIDER THE MOST INTERESTING RECENT [SCIENTIFIC] NEWS? WHAT MAKES IT IMPORTANT?

Associate Professor of Psychology, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; Co-author (with Daniel Wegner), The Mind Club
We Are Not Special

“Then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.” –Genesis 2:7

We humans have always been convinced of our own specialness, certain that we sit at the center of the universe. Not long ago, people uniformly thought themselves to be God’s favorite creation, placed on a newly created Earth, which was orbited by all other celestial bodies. We believed that humans were fundamentally different from other animals, and possessed intelligence that could never be duplicated. These ideas made us feel comfortable and safe, and so were easy to believe. Unfortunately, they were wrong.

Copernicus and Galileo revealed that the Sun—not the Earth—lay at the center of the solar system, Charles Lyell revealed that the Earth was much older than previously thought, and Darwin revealed that humans were not fundamentally different from other animals. Each of these scientific discoveries—especially evolution—are interesting because they challenge the presumed specialness of humans.

Of course, even if people are just apes with large frontal cortices, at least we can claim humans are part of a very special club: that of living creatures. We can marvel at the beauty of life, at the diversity of plants, and animals, and insects, and bacteria. Unfortunately, one recent—and very interesting—theory undermines the specialness of all life.

The MIT physicist Jeremy England has suggested that life is merely an inevitable consequence of thermodynamics. He argues that living systems are simply the best way of dissipating energy from an external energy source; bacteria, beetles and humans are just the most efficient way to use up sunlight. According to England, the process of entropy means that molecules that sit long enough under a heat lamp will eventually structure themselves to metabolize, move, and self-replicate—i.e., to become alive.

Granted, this process might take billions of years, but—in this view—living creatures are little different from other physical structures that move and replicate with the addition of energy, such as vortices in flowing water (driven by gravity) and sand dunes in the desert (driven by wind).

Not only does England’s theory blur the line between the living and the non-living, it also further undermines the specialness of humanity. It suggests that if humans are especially good at something, it is merely using up energy—something we seem to do with great gusto. This kind of uniqueness hardly warms our hearts, but questioning the specialness of humanity is exactly what makes this science interesting.