(All life comes from life).
Being an analog human in a digital world
When Watson and Crick discovered the structure and information-bearing properties of DNA, they solved one mystery, the secret of how the cell stores and transmits hereditary information. However, they uncovered another mystery that remains with us to this day. This is the DNA enigma— the mystery of the origin of the information needed to build the first living organism. The growing awareness of the reality of information within living things seems to make the comprehension of life easier.
We live in a technological culture, we buy information; we sell it; and we send across the world through wires. We devise machines to store and retrieve it. We pay programmers and writers to create it, and enact laws to protect the “intellectual property” of those who do. We not only value information, but we regard it as a real entity, on par with matter and energy.
Living systems also contain information and depend on it for their existence, which makes it possible for us to understand the function of biological organisms by reference to our own familiar technology. Biologists have also come to understand the usefulness of information for the operation of living systems. After the early 1960s, advances in the field of molecular biology made clear that the digital information in DNA was only part of a complex information-processing system, an advanced form of nanotechnology that mirrors and exceeds our own in its complexity, storage density, and logic of design.
Over the last fifty years, biology has advanced as scientists have come to understand more about how information in the cell is stored, transferred, edited, and used to construct sophisticated machines and circuits made of proteins. The importance of information to the study of life is perhaps nowhere more obvious than in the emerging fields of genomics and bioinformatics. Over the last decade, scientists involved in these disciplines have begun to map— character by character— the complete sequence of the genetic instructions stored on the human genome and those of many other species.
With the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2000, the emerging field of bioinformatics entered a new era. Francis Collins, scientific director of the project, described the genome as a “book,” a repository of “instructions,” and the “book of life.”[i] The Human Genome Project, perhaps more than any discovery since the elucidation of the structure of DNA in 1953, has heightened public awareness of the importance of information to living things. If Watson and Crick’s discovery showed that DNA stores a genetic text, Francis Collins and his team took a huge step toward deciphering its message. Biology has irrevocably entered an information age.
The reality of information within living things makes life seem more mysterious. For one thing, it is difficult to understand exactly what information is. The elusive character of information— whether biological or otherwise— has made it difficult to define by reference to standard scientific categories. As evolutionary biologist George Williams notes, “You can speak of galaxies and particles of dust in the same terms because they both have mass and charge and length and width. [But] you can’t do that with information and matter.”[ii] A blank magnetic tape, for example, weighs just as much as one “loaded” with new software— or with the entire sequence of the human genome. Though these tapes differ in information content (and value), they do not do so because of differences in their material composition or mass. As Williams concludes, “Information doesn’t have mass or charge or length in millimeters. Likewise matter doesn’t have bytes…. This dearth of shared descriptors makes matter and information two separate domains.” [iii]
Whatever information is— a single thought or the arrangement of matter that brings about that thought— one thing is clear. Humans recognize as information something (ideas or data) that originates from thought— from conscious or intelligent verifiable activity. A message received by one as an email from another person first arose as an idea in the mind of the other. The software stored and sold on a compact disc or downloaded from the Internet resulted from the specific design of a software engineer. The great works of literature began first as ideas in the minds of writers— Tolstoy, Shakespeare, James Joyce, Homer or Mark Twain. What we understand as information reflects the prior activity of conscious and intelligent persons. What should we make of the presence of information in living organisms?
The Human Genome Project, among many other developments in modern biology, has pressed this question to the forefront of public awareness. We now know that we do not just create information in our own technology; we also find it in our biology— and, indeed, in the cells of every living organism on earth. How did this information arise? In addition, what does the presence of information in even the simplest living cell imply about life and its origin? Who or what “wrote” the book of life.[iv]
The information age in biology officially began in the mid-1950s with the elucidation of the chemical structure and information-bearing properties of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid)— the molecule of heredity. Beginning in 1953 with their now famous communication to the British scientific journal Nature, James Watson and Francis Crick identified DNA as the molecular repository of genetic information.[v] Further developments in the field of molecular biology confirmed this idea and showed that the precisely sequenced bases attached to the helical backbone of DNA store the information for building proteins— the sophisticated enzymes and processes that provide the energy, the waste disposal, basically the “life” of the cells in all living things.
Though the discovery of the information-bearing properties of DNA dates back over a half century, the recognition of the full significance of this discovery has been slow in coming. Many scientists have found it difficult to relinquish an exclusive reliance upon the more traditional scientific categories of matter and energy. As George Williams (himself an evolutionary biologist) notes, “Evolutionary biologists have failed to realize that they work with two more or less incommensurable domains: that of information and that of matter…. The gene is a package of information, not an object. The pattern of base pairs in a DNA molecule specifies the gene. But the DNA molecule is the medium, it’s not the message.”[vi] Yet this recognition begs deeper questions. What does it mean when we find information in natural objects— living cells— that we did not ourselves design or create? As the information theorist, Hubert Yockey observes, the “genetic code is constructed to confront and solve the problems of communication and recording by the same principles found… in modern communication and computer codes.” Yockey notes that “the technology of information theory and coding theory has been in place in biology” from the time that life first originated on earth.[vii] What should we make of this fact? How did the information in life first arise?
Our commonsense reasoning might lead us to conclude that the information necessary to the first life, like the information in human technology or literature, arose from a designing intelligence. However, modern evolutionary biology rejects this idea. Many evolutionary biologists admit, of course, that living organisms “appear to have been carefully and artfully designed,” as Richard Lewontin puts it.[viii] As Richard Dawkins states, “Biology is the study of complex things that appear to have been designed for a purpose.”[ix] Nevertheless, Lewontin and Dawkins, like evolutionary biologists generally, insist that the appearance of design in life is illusory. Life, they say, looks designed, but was not designed by an actual intelligent or purposive agent. Thereby denying the old adage, “If it walks like a duck, looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, it ain’t no chicken[x].”
Evolutionary biologists have a theory that can apparently explain, or explain away, the appearance of design without invoking an actual designer. According to classical Darwinism, and now modern neo-Darwinism, the mechanism of natural selection acting on random variations (or mutations) can mimic the effects of intelligence, even though the mechanism is, of course, entirely blind, impersonal, and undirected.[xi] “Reason,” wrote Darwin “ought to conquer…conquer… imagination”[xii]— namely, our incredulity about the possibility of such happenings and our impression that living things appear to have been designed. According to Darwin, if given enough time, nature’s selective power might act on any variation perfecting any structure or function far beyond what any human could accomplish. Thus, the complex systems in life that we reflexively attribute to intelligence have wholly natural causes.
Darwinian biologists not only affirm that natural selection can produce “design without a designer,” they also assert that it is “creative without being conscious.”[xiii]
As humans, we build houses, high-rise buildings and the roadways to travel between them. We create means to defy gravity and circle the globe on regular flights. Bees make complex hives and communicate to each other the whereabouts of pollen. Ants dig multi-chambered, multistoried nests and build trails from the nest to sustainable food sources. Even orthodox evolutionary biologists admit the overwhelming impression of design in modern organisms. To quote Francis Crick again, “Biologists must constantly keep in mind that what they see was not designed, but rather evolved.”[xiv]
Perhaps more curiously, modern biologists can scarcely describe living organisms without resorting to language that seems to imply the very thing they explicitly deny: intentional and purposive design. As philosopher of science Michael Ruse notes, biologists ask about the “purpose of this” or “the function of that” and discuss whether “this did or did not exist in order to.” He concludes, “The world of the evolutionist is drenched in the anthropomorphism of intention.” And yet “paradoxically, even the severest critics” of such intentional language slip into it “for the sake of convenience.”[xv] Metaphors reign where mystery resides.
The vocabulary of modern molecular and cell biology includes apparently accurate descriptive terms that nevertheless seem laden with a “meta-physics of intention”: “genetic code,” “genetic information,” “transcription,” “translation,” “editing enzymes,” “signal-transduction circuitry,” “feedback loop,” and “information-processing system.” As Richard Dawkins notes, “Apart from differences in jargon, the pages of a molecular-biology journal might be interchanged with those of a computer-engineering journal.”[xvi]
Most of us know roughly what DNA is and what it does. However, could it be that we do not know anything about where it came from or how it was first formed? In our every expanding knowledge and experience, information arises from an intelligent source, and since the information in DNA is “mathematically identical” to the information in a written language or computer code, the suggestion is that the presence of information in DNA pointed to an intelligent cause. if it was the case that evolutionary theory could not explain the origin of the first life because it could not explain the origin of the genetic information in DNA, then something that we take for granted was quite possibly a serious conundrum for evolutionary biologists.
We will continue with the differentiation of “origins science” and “operational science.”
[i] Elizabeth Pennisi, “Finally, the Book of Life.”
[ii] Interview with Williams, in Brockman, ed., The Third Culture, 42– 43.
[iii] Interview with Williams, in Brockman, ed., The Third Culture, 42– 43.
[iv] Dolly Parton Letter 2010 Album ‘To Heaven: Songs Of Faith & Inspiration’ “Book of Life”
[v] Watson and Crick, “A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid.”
[vi] Williams, Natural Selection, 11.
[vii] Yockey, “Origin of Life on Earth,” 105.
[viii] Lewontin, “Adaptation.”
[ix] Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker, 1.
[xi] Mayr, “Darwin: Intellectual Revolutionary.” The effort to explain biological organisms naturalistically was reinforced by a trend in science to provide fully naturalistic accounts for other phenomena such as the precise configuration of the planets in the solar system (Pierre Laplace) and the origin of geological features (Charles Lyell and James Hutton). It was also reinforced (and in large part made possible) by an emerging positivistic tradition in science that increasingly sought to exclude appeals to supernatural or intelligent causes from science by definition (see Gillespie, “Natural History, Natural Theology, and Social Order”). See also Darwin, On the Origin of Species, 481– 82.
[xii] Darwin, On the Origin of Species, 188.
[xiii] Ayala, “Darwin’s Greatest Discovery,” in Ruse and Dembski, eds., Debating Design, 58. As the late Harvard evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr explained, “The real core of Darwinism… is the theory of natural selection. This theory is so important for the Darwinian because it permits the explanation of adaptation, the ‘design’ of the natural theologian, by natural means, instead of by divine intervention” (Foreword, in Ruse, ed., Darwinism Defended).
[xiv] Crick, What Mad Pursuit, 138.
[xv] Ruse, “Teleology in Biology.”
[xvi] Dawkins, River Out of Eden, 17.