Life is fraught with chaos and chance

Darwin had demonstrated how order could be wrung from its antagonist—how randomness and chance, when harnessed by natural selection, could create forms of the most startling beauty. Just look at the finely wrought folds of an orchid, or the iridescence of a butterfly wing. The living world seems suffused with patterns.

Ever since Darwin, biology has operated under this delusion of orderliness. Atoms might be entities of randomness, but cells—the building blocks of life—are like Swiss clocks, machines designed in blatant defiance of chaos. In his influential 1944 treatise, What is Life?, Erwin Schrödinger said that living things “produce events which are a paragon of orderliness… The situation is unprecedented. It is unknown anywhere else except in living matter.” For Schrödinger, life’s stealing of neatness out of atomic disarray was its defining miracle; this was what made life living.

But biologists are now discovering that the appearance of order is an illusion. Our molecular world—life at its most basic level—is messy. Inside our cells, shards and scraps of protein float around aimlessly, waiting to interact. There is no guiding hand, no guarantee of exactness. Our atomic stochasticity percolates upward, infecting and influ-encing all aspects of life. Far from being an exemption from the second law of thermodynamics, we are actually its most intricate example. Randomness is writ into our fabric.

More here by Jonah Lehrer in Seed Magazine.