Thermodynamics of evolution and the origin of life

Vanchurin, Vitaly, Yuri I. Wolf, Eugene V. Koonin, and Mikhail I. Katsnelson. “Thermodynamics of Evolution and the Origin of Life.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 119, no. 6 (2022).


We outline a phenomenological theory of evolution and origin of life by combining the formalism of classical thermodynamics with a statistical description of learning. The maximum entropy principle constrained by the requirement for minimization of the loss function is employed to derive a canonical ensemble of organisms (population), the corresponding partition function (macroscopic counterpart of fitness), and free energy (macroscopic counterpart of additive fitness). We further define the biological counterparts of temperature (evolutionary temperature) as the measure of stochasticity of the evolutionary process and of chemical potential (evolutionary potential) as the amount of evolutionary work required to add a new trainable variable (such as an additional gene) to the evolving system. We then develop a phenomenological approach to the description of evolution, which involves modeling the grand potential as a function of the evolutionary temperature and evolutionary potential. We demonstrate how this phenomenological approach can be used to study the “ideal mutation” model of evolution and its generalizations. Finally, we show that, within this thermodynamics framework, major transitions in evolution, such as the transition from an ensemble of molecules to an ensemble of organisms, that is, the origin of life, can be modeled as a special case of bona fide physical phase transitions that are associated with the emergence of a new type of grand canonical ensemble and the corresponding new level of description.

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