Nobel Laurette Szent-Györgyi’s  Syntropy Theory

Jerry Bergman

(Investigator 181, 2018 July)


Introduction

Realizing that entropy is a universal force, Szent-Györgyi pictured the world as a great machine running down. Because the law of entropy would prevent evolution, Szent-Györgyi postulated that there must exists what he called syntropy or “negative entropy” to explain the creation of more complex structures from simpler ones. Downs and Ambrose, 2001, p. 266) This counterforce, Szent-Györgyi argued, must exist in order to explain why “putting things together in a meaningful way…is one of the basic features of nature.” (Szent-Györgyi, 1977, p. 15) As Scaruffi explained, Szent-Györgyi proposed syntropy to explain “a drive towards synthesis, towards growth, towards wholeness and self-perfection.” (Scaruffi, 2003, p. 282)   

Albert Szent-Györgyi was an eminent scientist born in Hungary in 1893. Educated at both the University of Budapest for his M.D. degree, and Cambridge University for his Ph.D. He published his first scientific paper while still a teenager and was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1937 in physiology.

Szent-Györgyi developed his theory after 50 years of research on the problem of evolution. (Szent-Györgyi, 1966, p. 153) The fundamental problem that Szent-Györgyi identified is that there exists a “basic difference between the living and the non-living” world and “as scientists we cannot believe the laws of the universe should lose their validity at the surface of our skin.” (Szent-Györgyi, 1977, p. 15) The contrast between entropy in the non-living world and the living world was described by Szent-Györgyi, namely, the greatest wonder of creation is

a cell, with its astounding inner regulations. Then it goes on putting cells together to form ‘higher organisms’ and increasingly more complex individuals: … At every step new, more complex and subtle qualities are created, and so in the end we are faced with properties which have no parallel in the inanimate world. (Szent-Györgyi, 1977, pp. 15-16)

Syntropy postulates the existence of a force that causes living things to reach “higher and higher levels of organization, order, and dynamic harmony.” (Vargiu, 1977, p. 14) The theory of syntropy was also proposed to provide a source of new genetic variation, thereby solving the problem because evolution “offered no explanation for the origin of the traits that are subjected to evolution.” (Piel, 2001, p. 324)

Szent-Györgyi used his molecular biological research findings to reason about the entropy problem.  His research left him with many questions, such as why are all higher life forms “built of such small units of approximately equal size? ... The electron microscope has revealed a wealth of structure and organization within the cell.” (Szent-Györgyi, 1963, p. 191) He explored how life is able to develop “from the molecular dimensions to the higher sub-cellular and cellular dimensions.” (Szent-Györgyi, 1963, p. 191) To determine this requires exploring the wide gulf that separates life from non-life, “a gulf which also separates molecules from higher structures.” (Behe, 1996)

Szent-Györgyi’s theory of syntropy touches on one of the strongest arguments for Intelligent Design, viz an organ generally is useless until it functions because “survival-of-the-fittest” would select against most all mutations until enough had occurred and until a new, working structure improved the organism’s chances of survival. (Behe, 1996) Szent-Györgyi believed that the Darwinian mechanism proposed to explain evolution will not work because, in order for a biochemical system to function from one evolutionary step to the next, a chain of reactions must occur in a precise order and time, just as the gears of a Swiss watch must, and “if any one of the specific cog wheels in these chains is changed” the whole system will become inoperative. Claiming “it can be improved by random mutation of one link … [is] like saying you could improve a Swiss watch by … bending one of its wheels or axles. To get a better watch all the wheels must be changed simultaneously to make a good fit again.” (Szent-Györgyi, 1977, p. 18)

These mutations would have to be passed on from generation to generation until the set required to produce a survival advantage existed as a unit. (Piel, 2001) Only then could natural selection preferentially select the organism with the new functioning structure. This difficulty is summed up by Szent-Györgyi in a speech that he presented at Columbia University using the example of the red patch located on the beak of herring gulls. This patch is critical for feeding its young. First, the gull goes fishing and swallows a fish. Then when home, the hungry baby gull pecks at the red spot which
 
elicits a reflex of regurgitation in mama, and the baby takes the fish from her gullet. All this … involves a whole series of most complicated chain reactions with a horribly complex underlying nervous mechanism. How could such a system develop? The red spot would make no sense without the complex nervous mechanism of the knocking baby and that of the regurgitating mother. All this had to be developed simultaneously, which, as a random mutation, has a probability of zero. I am unable to approach this problem without supposing an innate “drive” in living matter to perfect itself. (Szent-Györgyi, 1977, pp. 18-19)

For evolution to occur, the normal universal increasing entropy must be overcome.  In the words of Scaruffi, the paradox underlying natural selection “is that on one hand it proceeds in a blind and purposeless way and on the other hand produces the illusion of more and more complex design. This continuous increase in information (i.e., the spontaneous emergence of order) seems to violate the second law of thermodynamics, the law of entropy.” (Scaruffi, 2003, p. 280)

Some force that not only opposes entropy, Szent-Györgyi concluded, must exist to explain the phenomena observed in nature. (Szent-Györgyi, 1977, p. 19) A major concern regarding evolution that Szent-Györgyi wrote about in detail is the enormous complexity of life, beginning his research in histology, the study of tissues:

Unsatisfied by the information cellular morphology could give me about life, I turned to physiology. Finding physiology too complex I took up pharmacology, in which one of the partners, the drug, is of simple nature. Still finding the situation too complicated I turned to bacteriology. Finding bacteria too complex I descended to the molecular level, studying chemistry and physical chemistry. Armed with this experience I undertook the study of muscle. After twenty years’ work, I was led to conclude that to understand muscle we have to descend to the electronic level, the rules of which are governed by wave mechanics. (Szent-Györgyi, 1960, p. 2)

The differences between life and non-life, and how life could have evolved, was of such importance to Szent-Györgyi that he once stated he planned to spend the rest of his life working on this problem. Szent-Györgyi explained that the symbol of a specific molecule, such as riboflavin, expressed in the language of classical chemistry, consists of simple geometric figures plus the symbols C, N and H that are as simple as the building blocks of children. (Szent-Györgyi 1963, pp. 193-194) Furthermore, the molecules must properly interact with other molecules that must be “built with the same precision. Our bodies are built of thousands of such different molecules, and chains of molecules… I find it difficult to believe that such an enormously complex system could have been built by blind, random mutation.” (Szent-Györgyi, 1963, pp. 193-194)

The need to develop syntropy demonstrates major difficulties with the mutational-natural-selection evolution model. These difficulties are such that Szent-Györgyi concluded that the currently accepted mechanism of evolution—random mutations—has “a probability of zero” for producing life as we know it. (Szent-Györgyi, 1977, p. 19)

Syntropy, the counter force to increasing entropy, Szent-Györgyi determined was necessary to solve the paradox that evolution proceeds in a blind and purpose-less way which violates the second law of Thermodynamics. (Scaruffi, 2003, p. 280) The main characteristic of evolution, the tendency to decrease entropy—in contrast to the tendency for inanimate matter to increase entropy (total equilibrium or total diffusion, producing a maximum of entropy and a minimum of free energy)—is a major problem. The solution Szent-Györgyi proposed to this problem is that there must exist an “innate force” in all living things that functions to counteract entropy and improve the organism.


Problems with the Theory 

Syntropy theory proposes to account for several major difficulties that Neo-Darwinism cannot explain, but several serious problems have mitigated against the theory’s acceptance. Although the concept of syntropy offers an explanation to some of the problems in the evolutionary model, a scientific hypothesis must be validated empirically before it can be accepted as science. The most critical obstacle to the syntropy theory is accounting for both the cause and origin of this hypothetical internal biological drive that counters entropy. A mechanism must be found to explain the existence of this hypothesized drive. A major problem with the concept of syntropy is it is wholly metaphysical, similar to Henri Bergson’s Creative Evolution.

Szent-Györgyi’s summary of the need for a concept such as syntropy illustrates the difficulties in the current evolutionary model because life “appears to be a revolt against the rules of nature … life is a paradox. It is easy to understand why man always divided his world into ‘animate and inanimate,’ animate meaning ‘a soul,’ the presence of which was needed to explain [the] queer behavior of life.” (Szent-Györgyi, 1972, p. 26)

Szent-Györgyi’s proposal raises many important questions, and the recognition of these is an important first step in revaluating the validity of evolution. Syntropy attempted to respond to the fact that Darwinism “proposed a mechanism for transmutation, involving natural selection of random inborn variations—but this aspect of Darwinism encountered continued objections from scientists for more than a half century. Darwin himself waffled on mechanisms.” (Larson, 2001, p. 90)

Only when a serious examination of these problems is undertaken can we begin to identify concepts that fit the facts better than the current transmutation view that has dominated scientific circles for over a century and a half. Szent-Györgyi recognized intelligent design was everywhere in life and as he aged asked, is the “‘Creator an anatomist, physiologist, chemist or mathematician? My conclusion was that he had to be all of these and so if I wanted to follow his trail, I had to have a grasp on all sides of nature.’ The scientist added that he ‘had a rather individual method.’” (Moss, 1988, p. 3) In his last correspondence with me Szent-Györgyi indicated he has given up trying to solve this problem of entropy and evolution and has moved on to other things.


Acknowledgments I wish to thank several people for their comments on an earlier draft of this chapter including the late Albert Szent-Györgyi, Ph.D.,
and Theodore J. Siek Ph.D., Bert Thompson, Ph.D., and Clifford Lillo, M.A.



References

Behe, Michael J. 1996. Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution. New York: The Free Press.

Downs, Timothy J. and Richard F. Ambrose. 2001. “Syntropic Ecotoxicology: A Heuristic Model for Understanding the Vulnerability of Ecological Systems to Stress.” Ecosystem Health, 7(4):266-283.

Larson, Edward. 2001. Evolution’s Workshop. New York: Basic Books.

Moss, Ralph. 1988. Free Radical: Albert Szent-Györgyi and the Battle of Vitamin C. New York: Paragon House.

Piel, Gerald. 2001. The Age of Science. New York: Basic Books.

Scaruffi, Piero. 2003. Thinking about Thought: A Primer on the New Science of Mind. New York: Writers Club Press.

Szent-Györgyi, Albert. 1960. Introduction to a Submolecular Biology. New York: Academic Press.

______. 1963. “The Promise of Medical Science” pp. 188-195 in Man and his Future edited by Gordon Wolstenholme. Boston: Little, Brown.

______. 1966. “Drive in Living Matter to Perfect Itself.” Journal of Individual Psychology. 22(2):153-162. November.

______. 1972. The Living State: With Observations on Cancer. New York: Academic Press.

______. 1977. “Drive in Living Matter to Perfect Itself.” Synthesis 1, 1(1):14-26.

Vargiu, James. 1977. Editor of Synthesis 1 (Introduction to article by Szent-Györgyi). Synthesis 1, 1(1):14.
 

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