Assembly theory explains and quantifies selection and evolution

This may generate some excitement. The authors have come up with a way to quantify the amount of selection needed to create a molecule.

I will comment further after I’ve read the supplementary section.

Assembly theory explains and quantifies selection and evolution

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This appears to be a comment on the above, but I don’t have access.

How purposeless physics underlies purposeful life

Evolution by natural selection peerlessly describes how life’s complexity develops — but can it be explained in terms of physics? A new approach suggests it can.

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I have access to the 2nd one (maybe because the link recognizes that this computer is sometimes on university property)?
Anyway, In perusing the articles, I find myself rather split down the middle. On one side I can see well enough that this stuff is well beyond my pay grade, and so I should be very hesitant to pass judgement on it. On the other side, I am seeing a LOT of hand-wavy modeling done by people who show no signs that they know much about biology, so they are “winging it”. That seems perhaps uncharitable, and maybe I don’t understand it. So I would be interested in learning what other people think.


A recent development on this is that there is a bit of a dust-up on Twitter (X) that the paper is pure B.S., which I find heartening since it felt that way to me. Also it was funded by the Templeton Foundation, which raises some suspicions.

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And here I was getting ready to say something nice to say about it.

After reading the supplement I don’t think it is BS, but I’m not convinced it is useful either, at least not yet. Then my weekend got busy, so I haven’t followed up the references.

The basic framework for the Assembly Index (AI) looks OK to me. The title seems like a grand claim, but if we set biology aside, I think the “explains and quantifies selection” part is OK. If we understand “and evolution” to mean adding more parts as the paper describes, again without biology, that might be OK too.
Can this be usefully applied to biology? I still don’t know.

There is a citation to a paper an algorithmic information theory which I am familiar with (Wallace 1999). I think AI and Minimum Message Length (MML*) are related in how they reduce the data to essential parts.

*MML is an important statistic if you want to make statistical inferences using Algorithmic Information. Nobody does that because it doesn’t work very well, or so I’ve read. I don’t think this bodes well for applications of AI either, but that remains to be seen.

Note: I’m pretty sure Dembski (2005) cited this same paper by Wallace. Dembski didn’t actually use MML, but it would be a wonderful irony if MML or something like it went on to be a key to explaining biological evolution. :wink:

Another citation is to is an article on Constructor theory (Deutsch 2015), which is a topic I’ve been trying to follow. Constructor theory requires enumerating all the states a system can change (or evolve) into, and the AI seems like a step toward doing that.

I will need to look closer at the connection between MML and AI, and the other references. Stay tuned.


So why the fuss? Part of the friction comes from terminology. When Walker and Cronin talk about selection and evolution, they mean something that overlaps but does not coincide with Darwinian evolution by natural selection. That could have been made more explicit – far from ‘explaining’ selection, their paper seems barely even to discuss it in a way evolutionary biologists recognise.

I personally know at least one fantastic scientist who was (and still is) JTF funded, and for that and more basic reasons, I reject these kinds of aspersions. I dislike JTF’s aims and influence but feel strongly that this should not prejudice us toward scholarship that they fund. And besides, one of the best summaries and critiques of the paper, which is straightforwardly critical, comes from a JTF-funded scholar:

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Let’s face it: the abstract was impenetrable and probably doubly so for biologists because it uses some standard vocabulary in a non-standard way. Nature and Science papers are supposed to be decipherable by a science-literate audience in any field. This was at least a major editorial failure. Whether the paper itself makes sense is unknown to me, and that’s part of the failure.


That’s a really good review.

There is also interesting discussion in the comments section at Nature, particularly the comment by “professor_dave”, who seems to have a good grasp of how assembly theory might be applied to detect signs of extraterrestrial life.

Agreed - It’s not a biology paper at all. The abstract is a train wreck.
:steam_locomotive: :boom: :boom: :boom:


I rather like the comments by Kasper Kepp at the end of the paper. He takes it apart rather nicely.

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Lee Cronin weighs-in on Assembly Theory and how he intends to use it.

Assembly Theory as a theory about assemblages of molecules may be correct and useful. But the stuff in the first part of the paper about how physics is somehow in conflict with life is both wildly dramatic and ridiculously wrong. There actually is a whole field called “biochemistry” – and it’s almost 200 years old. And last I heard there was no congtradiction between physics and chemistry.


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