Lee Cronin on Assembly Theory, Origin of Life, Alien Life Artificial Intelligence, and Building a Brain

The Nature paper, published on 2023-10-04, which set off a firestorm of criticism about its view of evolution is “Assembly theory explains and quantifies selection and evolution” (full text at link). Here is the abstract:

Scientists have grappled with reconciling biological evolution with the immutable laws of the Universe defined by physics. These laws underpin life’s origin, evolution and the development of human culture and technology, yet they do not predict the emergence of these phenomena. Evolutionary theory explains why some things exist and others do not through the lens of selection. To comprehend how diverse, open-ended forms can emerge from physics without an inherent design blueprint, a new approach to understanding and quantifying selection is necessary. We present assembly theory (AT) as a framework that does not alter the laws of physics, but redefines the concept of an ‘object’ on which these laws act. AT conceptualizes objects not as point particles, but as entities defined by their possible formation histories. This allows objects to show evidence of selection, within well-defined boundaries of individuals or selected units. We introduce a measure called assembly (A), capturing the degree of causation required to produce a given ensemble of objects. This approach enables us to incorporate novelty generation and selection into the physics of complex objects. It explains how these objects can be characterized through a forward dynamical process considering their assembly. By reimagining the concept of matter within assembly spaces, AT provides a powerful interface between physics and biology. It discloses a new aspect of physics emerging at the chemical scale, whereby history and causal contingency influence what exists.

Cronin argues that assembly theory has deep implications for the origin of life, the prevalence of life and intelligence in the universe, and the likelihood artificial intelligence will emerge from a process not involving the mechanisms of variation and selection performed by biology.