A few weeks ago, one of the top science research journals, Nature, published an article titled, “Assembly theory explains and quantifies selection and evolution.” The title and featured image of organic chemistry molecules may instantly deter many users. But this piece, receiving over 300 quote tweets that ranged from confusion to accusations of creationism ideology, threw evolutionary biology twitter in an uproar.
As a twitter passerby and proud EEB major I was instantly intrigued: How could a tweet with that seemingly dry title and a featured image of organic chemistry molecules cause so much controversy from scientists? Did a creationist article really get published from a top journal? There was only one way to find out: I had to read the article.
Reading the article, I was met with one of the most bizarre abstracts I have ever encountered, with the ambitious beginning line: “Scientists have grappled with reconciling biological evolution with the immutable laws of the Universe defined by physics.” It does not take a scientist to recognize the wrongness of this sentence. Evolutionary theory has never been in direct tension with physics. Moreover, referring to physical laws as “the immutable laws of the Universe defined by physics” semi-invokes elements of intelligent design, which is a broad set of beliefs which contend that the ‘complexity’ of the universe can only be explained by a creator. Anything reminiscent of intelligent design sets off alarm bells in evolutionary biologists’ heads. The title of a Nature news release written by one of the article’s reviewers, How Purposeless Physics underlies Purposeful Life, further solidified some scientists’ apprehension. Any discussion of life having purpose is redolent of an intelligent design argument.
Some twitter users/scientists also accused one foundation responsible for funding the paper, the John Templeton Foundation, of having a history in the past of propagating intelligent design arguments. Though the foundation may be spiritually-adjacent in much of its purpose, the extent to which it has affected research is up for debate. However, for many, the uncomfortable funding and strange wording solidified the notion that the paper was peddling creationist ideology. But ignoring the dubious wording and precarious funding of the piece, was the actual science and conclusion in support of creationism?
To answer this question, we have to dive into the weeds of a mathematical modeling paper, which is no easy task even with standard scientific journal writing. We can do what one twitter user suggested and look at the first sentence of the conclusion for a hint of what the authors claim to have done:
“We have introduced the foundations of [Assembly Theory] and how it can be implemented to quantify the degree of selection found in an ensemble of evolved objects, agnostic to the detailed formation mechanisms of the objects or knowing a priori which objects are products of units of selection.”
Still, this sentence does not reveal what situation it is trying to model. Let me provide a hypothetical. Imagine if I were throwing books on the ground in a bunch of different orientations. Eventually, if I throw enough books on the ground at varying orientations, I may produce a free-standing tower of books. If I continue to do this, I can produce more standing structures; however, due to the laws of physics, free-standing structures are a subset of all possible book assemblies. If we look at all the different book ‘towers’ produced after I finish throwing books, we will probably then see multiple ‘copies’ of convergent book structures that allow for free-standing. Similar to how one may see an abundance of a certain expressed trait that increases fitness (because of natural selection), we will see an abundance of certain similar ‘assemblies’ that lead to book free-standing-ness.
This mathematical model aims to quantify how much “selection” has occurred by focusing on the number of similar book structures and the minimal number of steps to produce such a book structure. However, this process of “selection” in assembly theory is not natural selection. Both processes produce repeatable, observable characteristics, but natural selection is a biological process in which these characteristics are differentially transmitted across generations due to environmental pressures, while “selection” in assembly theory refers to ability for such forms to be produced and replicated under similar conditions. The authors do not acknowledge the differences between the two ‘selective’ processes and actually go so far as to provide a completely incorrect definition of natural selection: “in evolutionary theory, natural selection describes why some things exist and others do not.”
This slippery language that the authors use in regards to these critical biological processes certainly did not earn them any grace among evolutionary biologists. It perhaps would not be a surprise then to know that the two authors who wrote the manuscript, Sarah I. Walker and Lee Cronin, are not biologists, but instead a physicist and a chemist respectively.
My theoretical ‘book space’ is instead more analogous to a soup of molecules bouncing about and eventually creating complex molecules. Accordingly, this framework represents a very specific step in evolutionary history, where there was no life, only a “prebiotic soup” that eventually led to the creation of foundational organic molecules such as polypeptides or strands of RNA. You would be forgiven for missing the utility of this framework in regards to the emergence of complex life, as the paper fails to mention any explicit link towards biology.
This paper embraces the notion that complex structures which underlie complex life can be generated by random soup of molecules, which is entirely in tension with creationist ideology. There is no single person assembling objects for a desired ‘purpose,’ instead these objects emerge organically and have no assigned purpose. So no, the paper is not creationist.
Still, how this paper with its simple biological misconceptions passed through peer review in one of the top science journals is a mystery. Many of the replies chalked up the paper’s publication to the privileges and connections that established scientists on the paper had. “What bothers me the most about this paper is just how blatantly it shows how rigged the system is. 99.99% of us would never get even a second glance if we submitted the same paper to nature (much less pass review)” as twitter user @gallina_ciega stated. The controversy over this journal then morphed into blame on one particularly connected scientist in the paper, the senior and principal investigator: Leroy Cronin.
Leroy (Aka Lee) Cronin is a chemistry professor at the University of Glasgow, who had the honor of receiving most of the backlash on the day of the fateful Nature article drop. In addition to having been the principal investigator, Cronin was one of the two individuals who wrote the manuscript of his paper. He also has a history of making self-important claims similar to his paper on twitter, for example: “I’m building a chemical consciousness from the ground up. It’s the only way to understand what is going on with human consciousness” and “Trying to be a philosopher is harder than it looks.” These factors in combination with his activeness of twitter, Cronin was an obvious twitter scapegoat, with one prominent science communicator on twitter, Dr. Adam Rutherford, noting, “The introduction is worse. Oh wait. It’s Cronin. That figures.”
Cronin, seeing the criticism of his paper on twitter, doubled down on the writing in the paper, tweeting, “I personally like the way the paper was written & we went through 120 versions optimizing, simplifying, & trying our best to communicate. The work is across at least 5 disciplines & fairly new, so we did our best to be balanced but to write something like this is hard.” Of course, science communication is difficult, but that is no excuse for writing misconceptions in the abstract and introduction of a science paper.
Nonetheless, on November 1st, Cronin reversed this approach and published an article on iai’s website providing a more accessible explanation of Assembly Theory without his other authors. This piece still includes broad claims such as, “something is fundamentally wrong with our current view of reality,” but does more precisely describe the specific history-of-life problem that Assembly Theory aims to address: “If we go far enough back in time, the first primitive living systems must have arisen from simpler prebiotic chemistry. But how could animate complexity appear without evolution already operating?” Despite these clarifications, the twitter discourse surrounding assembly theory had since dissipated by that point, and the piece received little engagement as a result.
The Assembly Theory uproar has fizzled out, with only a subset of chemists or evolutionary biologists still invested in the framework, but the public indignation mirrored the general course of twitter drama in a central way: there was public outrage over a subset of a larger piece in which one particularly outspoken twitter individual became perceived as entirely responsible for. Academics may appear to be above the cycle of twitter drama, however, this saga demonstrates how many academics are entrenched within twitter to the extent that this online forum becomes a part of the scientific process. Moreover, the universal uproar this piece caused among those scientists also highlighted how writing that so badly conveys the questions, scope, and concepts that the paper is attempting to illuminate can inadvertently appear to support an ideology that, in reality, is vastly opposed to its findings. At the end of the day, Nature did not publish a creationist paper, but Nature did publish an evolutionary biology paper written by non-evolutionary biologists who did not seem interested in actually understanding, well, biology.