Torah and the Thermodynamics of Life: An Interview with Jeremy England
We frequently hear from theologians who reckon with the relationship between religion and science, but it is less common to hear from accomplished scientists on the subject. I spoke with Jeremy England, a research scientist whose work on the origins of life has led some to speculate he might be the next Darwin. This acclaim has resulted in England being described in a recent Dan Brown novel as “the toast of Boston academia, having caused a global stir,” though as England, who is an observant Jew, was quick to point out in The Wall Street Journal Brown misunderstood the implications of his research for religion. I had an opportunity to ask him about his work as a scientist, his Jewish commitment, and how those two reinforce one another.
Jeremy, I’m going to begin by asking you to give us a sense of your research. You study situations in which matter that is not alive suddenly begins to exhibit characteristics that are life-like. So, for example, I might imagine I have a pot of molecule soup (not alive), and then some energy acts on the soup, and suddenly instead of molecules milling randomly around in my pot, I have them acting in ways that are more organized and, well, life-like. So, here’s my first question: What does it mean for a bunch of molecules to suddenly act “life-like”?
Well, there isn’t any one thing that is life-like behavior. There are lots of things. For example, one thing that living things do is self-replicate—they make copies of themselves. Another thing that they do is respond to their environment over time in a way that seems like it’s implicitly making predictions about the likely future of the environment—so they act like predictors of their world. They also overcome challenges to gain access to sources of energy in their environment that are not easily accessible. Those are all different things, but they are all life-like. Another way to say this is that it’s about the emergence of fine-tuning to the environment.
You are a physicist, working at the molecular level, making measurements. But you are also exploring the development of life. You sometimes describe some of your work as translation between biology and physics. Why is that?
This idea of translation between two different scientific fields was actually, in many ways, born out of my study of Torah. Around the time of my postdoc I was thinking about parashat Bereishit (Genesis). One thing you can pull out of the opening passage in Bereishit is that the process of creation of the world is part and parcel to the way we talk about it. The light by which we see the world comes from the way we talk about it—that is true for Ha-kadosh baruch hu and it is true for us because we are b’tzelem Elohim [created in the image of God]. That idea really helped me clarify my own thinking—the understanding that biology and physics are different languages for talking about the world.
Why are biology and physics different languages (since they’re both sciences and, to some degree, experimental)?
There is no such thing as physics without measurement of physical quantities. You go to the world with a yardstick, a chronometer, scales of some kind and you’re trying to assign numbers to the world in certain ways and make theoretical claims about predictable relationships between those numbers that express themselves in mathematics. If you’re not doing that, you’re not doing physics.
Biology is inherently, at its inception, nonquantitative. You can be quantitative now in biology research, but at the end of the day, the empirical science of what makes something alive, or what helps something to survive or not, or helps something reproduce or not—those are qualitative judgment made by the observer.
I’ll give an example. In the tradition physicists have of endangering cats in their thought experiments, if you took a cat to the top of a building and threw it off, you could ask how fast it’s moving when it hits the ground or you could ask whether the cat is alive afterward. And while it is the case that whether the cat is alive strongly depends on how fast it’s moving when it hits the ground, asking how fast it’s moving is not the same thing as asking whether it is alive—and it never will be.
Does your work require us to rethink the boundary between that which is alive and that which is not alive?
I don’t have an agenda to change the way we use the word “alive.” We basically know. Fish are alive, rocks are not alive. Border cases, like viruses (an example used by Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen), don’t eliminate the reality of a well-defined category. The possibility of moving the boundary is fascinating to people because it could change our relationship to things on one or the other side.
That question has in fact always fascinated. I think about the otot [signs] given to Moshe Rabbeinu [Moses], which can be read in many ways. One of the things that they definitely all are about is the boundary between life and nonlife. You start with this living tree or plant, the sneh, which is encased in a fire that does not consume it, which is this kind of contradiction. It should be on the brink of falling apart and turning into smoke, but it lives. And then turning a stick into a snake is turning something that is not alive into something that is alive. Moshe’s tzara’at [skin diseasef] is a disruption in the very boundary of a living thing, an instability in that boundary, and it is a kind of thing that references the boundary between life and death. And the last, which is most clear of all, is that you take the water and dirt of the Nile and you get dam, blood, the sine qua non of life, and it comes simply from the combination of things you don’t think of as being alive.
I should probably mention that I actually just struck a deal with Basic Books to write a book about my research for a trade audience that will interweave a close reading of Moshe’s encounter with the burning bush with a careful rumination on the boundary between life and nonlife.
Do you ever get tired of being asked how it is possible to be a serious scientist and a religious person at the same time?
I don’t get tired of it because I understand where the question comes from. There are lots of Jews who are very observant and religious in many senses of the word who are also highly technically educated and find modern science very credible. But I think that one has to raise the question of how that level of intellectual comfort is achieved.
One possible way that it can be achieved is by creating a kind of divided mind—there’s how they live at home in their traditions and in the community they want to be a part of. And then they can also go to their job and do this other thing, and they’re not looking for a coherence between those two ways of talking.
And I don’t mean to denigrate that, but to me, I don’t want to have a divided mind. It has to be acknowledged that Tanakh is not trying to keep you comfortable with the idea of natural law, it is trying to make you uncomfortable with the idea of fixed, natural laws. That’s at least one current within it. (There are other ones that are countercurrents. There is also the Psalmist’s idea of mah rabu ma’asecha Adonai kulam be-chochma asita [how many are the things you have made, O Lord; you have made them all with wisdom]—the idea that Hashem made everything in wisdom and it has all this natural order and regularity to it. So, there are these currents in tension with one another.) But papering over that tension and saying, “It’s easy, we don’t have to worry about it”—that can come at a cost.
I think it’s also possible to be very committed to Torah in ways that are very authentic and ancient, and still be fully committed to scientific reasoning. I see a lot of people who have a great desire to act on a commitment to Yahadut and their tradition, but they also put a box on it that comes from outside the tradition. That which is kosher according to theoretical physics or biology—that I can think and do. There’s a real, serious danger there, especially in an era when a lot of people are going off the deep end and turning science into not just a way of reasoning about what is predictable about the world, but into a full-blown belief system that has a mystical component to it.
Science is, for some, a religion?
Yes, and it can get very doctrinaire. Here’s an example. Someone might say, “The rules of the universe are fundamentally mathematical and probabilistic. Furthermore, there is a very parsimonious mathematical theory that is the explanation of everything, and we are just trying to refine our understanding of that model. But the universe is mathematical.” That is, in a sense, a mystical claim. It is beautiful and nourishes the souls of people who devote themselves to it. And it’s a very common devotion in my line of work.
But I staunchly reject that way of talking, because I think the laws of physics are human contrivances. And that might sound like a radical statement, but what I mean is that the world has things about it which are predictable, and we can propose to model it, but those models are our constructions. This doesn’t mean they are untrue, but we need to have more humility and say that we simply try to understand what is predictable about the world
I think that the discipline of holding onto Torah and keeping your feet planted there first and foremost and remaining well-fastened in that sense, as Rav Soloveitchik might say, leaves one open to the full depth of scientific inquiry, but also gives one a much clearer and more precise understanding of the potential of that inquiry and also its epistemological limitations.
Tell me about your journey toward becoming a religious Jew.
I was born in Boston and grew up mostly in New Hampshire. My mother was born in Poland right after the war to parents who survived by escaping to the Soviet Union. They came back after the war, got married in Poland, escaped in ’57 to Germany (West Germany) and then they came to the U.S. from West Germany. My mother was 14 when she came to the States.
My dad and mom met through their involvement in radical politics in Boston. It was the 1970s, and they were very secular. My dad’s family are all Lutheran immigrants to the United States. When they married, religion did not figure strongly for either, though my mom had a strong ethnic connection to being Jewish. I grew up with a typical level of exposure to Judaism in a Reform synagogue in a place with not so many Jews. I learned to read Hebrew letters but didn’t know what the words meant. We did something for Pesach and something for Hanukkah but not much else. We never kept kosher. But I had a bar mitzvah.
After college, I went to Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship. It was 2003, the invasion of Iraq had just begun, and there was a great deal of rancorous anti-American and anti-Israel politics in the air. I barely knew anything about Israel, but I was shocked at the level of animosity. I had a very instinctive revulsion to that hostility that came from my mother’s family experience.
At the time, I was left-leaning. It really threw me for a loop to discover, in adulthood, that the vanguard of violent anti-Jewish politics in the 21st century was far more left-wing than right-wing. This revelation turned things upside down for me.
Because I didn’t know anything about Israel, I thought I should start learning. I travelled to Israel and felt more at home there than I ever have anywhere else in my life. I fell in love with the land and the potential it holds for am yisrael. I started learning to speak and read Hebrew and started reading books about Judaism and Israel. I became more immersed in Torah study and found it to be the most intellectually satisfying thing I have ever done.
By the time I was finishing my PhD at Stanford, I was keeping Shabbat and kashrut. The rest has been iterative and incremental, with a great deal of credit to my wife as well. Eleina has had a profound impact on me as someone with whom I could talk freely and fluently about life and the world in the way that takes for granted Hashem’s involvement in everything. It’s always a work in progress. . .
Which books specifically?
The first books that had a major impact were Ruth Wisse’s If I Am Not For Myself . . . the Liberal Betrayal of the Jews, Soloveitchik’s Halakhic Man and The Halakhic Mind, and Jonathan Sacks’s A Letter in the Scroll (though, in the UK, the title was Radical Then, Radical Now). At some point I started listening to a lot of shiurim from Yeshivat Har Etzion available by podcast—a way of learning from Gush [Etzion] at a distant remove. And Daniel Deronda by George Eliot was another favorite along the way.
Does your reading of Soloveitchik inform how you think about Judaism and science?
At a certain stage, the Rav was essential to me as a bridge between the two because he lived and breathed the Brisker tradition of talmudic and halakhic analysis but also had deep training in European philosophy and an exceptionally clear understanding of the epistemological issues in modern physics. He was invaluable to me as a way of understanding the similarity between the development of a halakhic criterion for the accomplishment of a mitzvah and how experimental proxies are selected to stand for the quantities in our physical theories we’d ideally like to measure.
I think, though, that as time has gone on, my sense of what the Torah is driving at has shifted eastward a bit, and I feel a less pressing need to build bridges into the prime real estate of the Western tradition, which prizes objectivity above all. I think there is a lot more epistemic skepticism just below the surface of our most ancient sources and a lot more room to see ultimate meaning in interpretations given to subjective experience. I do not mean to suggest the Rav didn’t appreciate this, but I certainly didn’t when originally reading him.