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Did Life Begin as Information?

21 minutes reading time

When it comes to facing the question of life’s origin, everyone has a different opinion. In ‘The Mystery of Life’s Origin’ I argued that common ideas of biochemical evolution are deeply flawed and inadequate as explanations for the origin of life. But now I will argue for a more plausible solution to life’s origin, so sit back and let’s unravel the mystery.

How did life come from a lifeless world?

This is a question of controversy and debate because the answer has massive implications. To what or whom do we owe our existence? To know where and what we came from, what caused us, has everything to do with who we are, and who we are has everything to do with how we ought to live. Religion, morality and responsibilities lie in the balance.

One method to understand our origin is to understand life as it is today, what requirements are necessary for life to exist, and then use cause-and-effect relationships to determine how life may have come to exist in the past.

The complex requirements for life

The human body is an incredibly complex system made up of living cells. Even the tiniest of bacterial cells, weighing less than a trillionth of a gram, is like an entire factory containing thousands of extremely delicate pieces of molecular machinery. So the simplest cells available for us for study are not simple at all.

Now to build the most basic form of life, a ‘simple’ bacteria, starts with four classes of compounds that must be available on a presumed prebiotic earth: nucleotides, carbohydrates, proteins, and lipids. James Tour, a leading synthetic chemist who is arguably best trained to critique origin of life research, explains that at present, scientists have no idea how to build these four classes of molecules. But even if we had those four classes of molecules, we still have no idea how to assemble them into the simplest of bacterium.

Maybe this illustration will help explain: imagine a new car, with its thousands of intricate parts, bolts, cables, fabrics and every other component that makes up the vehicle, all separated and laid out neatly and in order on the floor. Think about the sheer number of parts. Imagine trying to put this all together without any instructions, and that you’re not a mechanic. Could you figure it out? Unlikely. 

Now imagine that all these parts have been muddled around disorderly, and then imagine that all these parts are spread over at different places in the country, in fact, imagine that you also have no tools – no spanners, nothing. Could you assemble the car? Not a chance. 

Now constructing the simplest cell is miles more complex and intricate than the car, and nature had no instructions on how to assemble the first cell, and as nature is mindless chemicals have no desire to assemble into something living, so how this all happened in the first place is really a mystery.

car parts

But things get even trickier…

Protein and the DNA molecule 

Let us start with a better understanding of just one of these required compounds: proteins. Proteins are made out of sequences of amino acids. There are 20 amino acids. If you imagine the protein as a word, the amino acids are the letters to that word. Most of these are not three letter words we are talking about, the majority of these “words” (proteins) are between 100 to 200 letters long. Now if you had a single amino acid in the wrong place, the whole word becomes nonsense; the protein can’t function.

Now the amino acids can’t order themselves into the correct sequence on their own, they need to be told where to go, and this is where DNA comes in.

DNA is a long molecule with a double helix structure. It resembles a spiral ladder made up of molecules called nucleotides, and the order of these bases is what determines DNA’s instructions. For example, just as the specific arrangement of two symbols (0 and 1) in a software program can perform a function within a machine, so can the precise sequencing of the four nucleotide bases in DNA perform a function within the cell. So DNA is in effect a chemical code that contains the instructions for commanding amino acids to align correctly to form proteins, which are highly specified and complex structures in themselves.

This all suggests that the origin of the chemical code (DNA) is vital to understanding life’s origin. The information or coding contained in DNA that corresponds to the sequence of the nucleotides is essential to the entire discussion of life’s origin. The sequence of the nucleotides is the blueprint of life, since the code defines the operating system for the construction and functioning of cells. 

Therefore, you could rightly argue that the information which drives the entire organisation of life is even more fundamental than the matter upon which it is encoded. In other words, biology, that pulsating mass of plant and animal flesh, is conceived by science today as an information process. At its most fundamental level, biological life is a product of information – encoded along strands of DNA. Our bodies are a matrix of biological code. As computers keep shrinking, we can imagine our complex bodies being numerically condensed to the size of two tiny cells. These micro-memory devices are called the egg and sperm. They are packed with information. This is an exciting intellectual development because it means that the nature of biological information can be explored using the concepts and results of information theory.

All this has led some scientists to believe that the foundation of life starts somewhere in the DNA, that the answer to our origin lies here.

So, let’s recap – to build just one of the four primary building materials of life, proteins, we need DNA’s incredibly complex encoding to instruct long and complex strings of amino acids. We need all this complexity to be in place even before we have something called life that can reproduce and evolve. Yet we shouldn’t stop there, things get even trickier…

When DNA isn’t enough

Even with all the complexity and information of DNA, this still doesn’t tell us everything we need to know about life. The human genome, which holds a complete set of DNA, contains roughly 25 thousand genes which is still not enough to account for the incredible complexity of our inherited characteristics. For example, Geneticist Steven Jones said “a chimp may share 98% of its DNA with ourselves, but it is not 98% human, it is not human at all, it’s a chimp.” 

Just when we thought we cracked it, scientists are discovering that there appear to be multiple sources of information even outside the DNA, which have a significant influence on the development and structure of life, to the point that even for the development and activity of a simple protein, other sources of biological information are required. Below are just a few reasons scientists believe there is more to life than just the DNA:

  1. You cannot predict the effect of a gene by analysing its instructions. A single gene, in a cut and paste technique, can edit those instructions to give rise to multiple protein variants. A gene related to the inner ear can result in 576 different proteins. There is also a gene in the fruit fly that is known to give rise to 38,000 different proteins. It’s therefore no longer surprising there can be vast differences between organisms with similar sets of genes.
  1. The precise duplication of DNA is not accomplished by the DNA alone; it depends on the presence of the living cell. It requires certain types of proteins to correct and detect errors in genetic variation. Now all living cells are controlled by the information stored in the DNA, this information is transcribed in a molecule called RNA to in turn create proteins. Now these three types of molecules – DNA, RNA and proteins require the other two, either to put it together or to help it work. For example, DNA holds the recipe for protein construction. Yet the information cannot be retrieved or copied without the assistance of RNA and protein. The old riddle comes to mind, which came first: the chicken (the protein) or the egg (The DNA)? So maybe DNA didn’t create life, maybe life created DNA..
  1. When proteins are made they fold into a precise three-dimensional structure; otherwise they would remain inactive. Now the strange thing is that you can have two proteins which have the same amino acid sequence and yet one is dangerous and infectious while the other is normal and healthy, which suggests that the folding of the structure partly depends on something outside of its particular sequence of amino acids.
  1. DNA does not by itself direct how individual proteins are assembled into larger biological systems or structures. There are other sources of information in life (known as epigenetic information) that must help arrange individual proteins into systems of proteins, systems of proteins into distinctive cells types, cell types into tissues, and different tissues into organs and organs into plants and creatures.

What does all this tell us? There’s more to life than just what’s found in the DNA. It’s complicated. Extremely. Our lives are built upon an incredibly complex database of functional information, with multiple sources of biological code fully interacting with one another.

The one question behind the origin of life

To understand the origin of life, we must boil our exploration down to this one question: how did all this information, all the instructions and code, along with the mechanisms for its translation, originate? The problem of the origin of life is basically equivalent to the problem of the origin of biological information. I like how mathematician Douglas Hofstadter put it – 

“A natural and fundamental question to ask on learning these incredibly, intricately interlocking pieces of software and hardware is: ‘How did they ever get started in the first place?’… From simple molecules to entire cells, it is almost beyond one’s power to imagine. There are various theories on the origin of life. They all run aground on this most central of central questions: ‘How did the Genetic Code, along with the mechanisms for its translation, originate?’”

Explanations for the origin of biological information

We have set the question, now it’s time to address it. How does nature produce such biological information all by itself in a prebiotic world? This is the central question facing origin-of-life research. 

There are two widely-held views, one emphasising chance and the other necessity.

Emphasising chance

The most popular naturalistic view about the origin of life is that it happened exclusively by chance. For example, Biochemist George Wald, argues that “time is in fact the hero of the plot…  Given so much time, the impossible becomes possible, the possible probable, and the probable virtually certain.

When we consider the vastness of time and the vastness of space, this proposition can initially seem sensible. However, when we start to absorb the sheer astonishingly complex pre-requirements for life, even the vastness of space and time appears to be too small.

Most serious origin-of-life researchers now consider “chance” an inadequate causal explanation for the origin of biological information, since many calculations have been made to determine the probability of functional proteins and nucleic acids self-assembling at random, and they don’t look plausible. Various methods of calculating probabilities have been offered by Morowitz, Hoyle and Wickramasinghe, Cairns-Smith, Prigogine, Yockey and, more recently, Robert Sauer. For the sake of argument, these calculations have often assumed extremely favourable prebiotic conditions, much more time than was actually available on the early earth, and theoretically maximal reaction rates among the constituent parts of proteins, DNA, or RNA. Such calculations have invariably shown that the probability of obtaining functionally sequenced biomacromolecules at random is “vanishingly small,” to the point that long waiting periods and huge material resources become irrelevant.

Aside from the probability of amino acids self-assembling into 150 part protein strings by chance alone, the probability that the resultant protein strand will actually be functional is about 1 in 10164. This means that for each functional sequence of 150 amino acids, there are 10164 other non-functional sequences of the same length.

To put that into perspective, the number of events that could have taken place in the observable universe, since the origin of the universe, stands at roughly 10139 (This is calculated by multiplying the number of elementary particles by the number of seconds since the big bang, then multiplying this by the number of possible interactions per second). This means that the probability figure of producing a single 150-amino acid function protein by chance vastly exceeds the most optimistic estimate of the probabilistic resources of the universe (10139). It is unreasonable and perhaps lazy to invoke chance or “it just happened” as an explanation for the origin of biological information.

Natural selection has no power here

Now, of course, theories of evolution do not rely exclusively on chance as a mechanism. Natural Selection is a factor of evolution that compliments chance. But this is irrelevant because the origin of life deals with prebiotic conditions. Natural selection can only interfere when there’s something functional to select, but the origin of life deals with the first functional living structure, before this there isn’t such a thing as a selective advantage available. Evolution starts when the first cell has formed. The Darwinian mechanism may operate when life is already going, but it can’t explain how life starts in the first place. It may attempt to explain how life changes but not how the first cell came to exist.

Cells are the smallest known pieces of biology that are capable of independent reproduction and therefore the simplest units that can evolve by conventional natural selection. Natural selection occurs when living things compete, so if natural selection only occurs once you have living things, it does no good to invoke natural selection to explain where those living things came from in the first place. Natural selection is only initialised once a replicating system occurs, so “prebiological natural selection” is a contradiction in terms. This is problematic because even the simplest self-replicating cell-like entities seem to be far too complicated to arise without the guiding hand of selection.

To put things into perspective, the Australian biologist Michael Denton gives an illustration where he compares a ‘simple’ cell to a huge automated factory the size of a large city. He writes:

“On the surface of the cell we would see millions of openings, opening and closing to allow a continual stream of materials to flow in and out. If we were to enter one of these openings we would find ourselves in a world of superior technology. We would see endless highly organised corridors and conduits branching in every direction away from the perimeter of the cell, some leading to the central memory bank in the nucleus and others to assembly plants and processing units. The nucleus itself would be a vast spherical chamber, inside of which we would see all neatly stacked together in ordered arrays, coils of chains of the DNA molecule. Yet the life of the cell depends on the integrated activities of tens and probably hundreds of thousands of different protein molecules which are complex pieces of molecular machinery in themselves.”

You can very quickly lose your mind in the complexity of just the cell – it’s a masterpiece. Based on probability theory, there is no hope of a cell randomly forming. Mathematical results have shown that the complexity of the biochemical world could not have originated by chance even within a time span of billions of years. 

The Nobel Prize-winning chemist Ilya Prigogine put it this way: “The idea of spontaneous genesis of life in its present form is therefore highly improbable.” Although “highly improbable” really is an understatement.

Emphasising necessity

Because of the increasing disillusionment with the role of chance, the view has arisen that life was somehow the inevitable outcome of natural laws over vast spans of time. That life was somehow the result of the inherent properties of matter. This idea is called ‘self organising scenarios’. 

In the late 20th century researchers began to look for self-organisation laws and properties of chemical attraction that might explain the origin of the specified information in DNA and proteins. Rather than invoking chance, such theories invoked necessity. This posits that the origin of life is not just possible but inevitable. Some suggested that simple chemicals possessed “self-ordering properties” capable of organising the constituent parts of proteins, DNA, and RNA into the specific arrangements they now possess.

It’s true that there are some self-organising properties between various amino acids; that is, certain amino acids do form linkages more easily with some amino acids than with others. Nevertheless, such differences do not correlate to actual sequences in large classes of known proteins. In the case of DNA, this point can be made more dramatically. 

Consider for example, what would happen if the individual nucleotide bases (A, T, G and C) in the DNA molecule did interact by chemical necessity (along the information-bearing axis of DNA). Suppose that every time adenine (A) occurred in a growing genetic sequence, it attracted cytosing (C) to it. Suppose every time guanine (G) appeared, thymine (T) followed. If this were the case, the longitudinal axis of DNA would be peppered with repetitive sequences in which C followed A and T followed F. Rather than a genetic molecule capable of virtually unlimited novelty and characterised by unpredictable and aperiodic sequences. DNA would contain sequences of repetition and redundancy. DNA would have no information content. Thus, “self-organising” bonding affinities cannot explain the sequentially specific arrangement of nucleotide bases in DNA.

Biochemistry and molecular biology make clear that forces of attraction between the constituents in DNA, RNA, and proteins do not explain the sequence specificity of these large, information-bearing biomolecules. The properties of the nucleic acids and proteins simply do not make a particular gene, let alone life as we know it, inevitable.

Chemical affinities do not generate complex sequences, and so cannot be invoked to explain the origin of information. In the face of these difficulties, others have claimed that we must await the discovery of new natural laws, which we may call “the law of the gaps”, to explain the origin of biological information.

I’m sceptical. Natural laws describe highly predictable relationships between conditions and consequent events, therefore they describe highly repetitive patterns in which the probability of each successive event approaches unity, it’s why laws can often be expressed in mathematical formulas. Yet information sequences are complex, not repetitive. So to say that scientific laws can produce information is essentially a contradiction in terms. Instead, scientific laws describe highly predictable and regular phenomena – that is, redundant order, not complexity like we find in the chemical code of DNA.

In conclusion, unguided chance and necessity do not account for the existence of life with its detailed instructions & database of information. Life cannot have had a random beginning. We just don’t observe materialistic processes to produce anything like the kind of digital or alphabetic information we see in DNA and RNA. Never. Current speculations ignore the self-evident fact that evolution did not produce life in the first place. The reason is that biological evolution, whatever it does, can only get going when life is already present. You cannot explain the existence of something on the basis of one of its consequences.

Running out of naturalistic explanations

In addition to the general categories of explanation already examined, origin-life-researchers have proposed many more scenarios, each emphasising random variations (chance), self organisational laws (necessity), or both. Some of those scenarios purport to address the information problem; others attempt to bypass it altogether. Yet on examination, even scenarios that appear to alleviate the problem of the origin of specified biological information merely shift the problem elsewhere.

Generic algorithms / simulation experiments can “solve” the information problem, but only if programmers provide informative target sequences and selection criteria. In other words, the experiments only work if experimentalists manipulate initial conditions or select and guide outcomes – that is, only if they add information themselves. In any case, all they are doing is presupposing the presence of information in some other preexisting form in order to account for the origin of biological information. The ‘RNA-world scenario’ is a more common approach for solving the origin of life issue, and it’s a fine example of this.

Now, if neither chance nor physical-chemical necessity, nor the two acting in combination, can explain the ultimate origin of specified biological information, what does? Do we know of any cause that can create large amounts of specified information?

I would suggest we do.

Cause and effect

Scientists are like detectives – they infer past conditions or causes from present clues to figure out the best explanation for historical events.

So what are our present clues? Well, actually it’s quite obvious. 

When you read a book, you know that the physics and chemistry of the ink and paper don’t and can never in principle tell you anything about the significance of the shapes of the letters on the page. They only carry the message, they don’t produce it. The shapes and letters demand a totally different explanation in the concept of language – the communication of a message by a person. Biochemist Arthur Peacocke wrote, “in no way can the concept of ‘information’, the concept of conveying a message, be articulated in terms of the concepts of physics and chemistry.” Writing on paper, computer software and DNA all have in common the fact that they encode a “message.” Messages express meaning through language and as far as we can tell, “a message” always originates from the activity of a conscious intelligence.

We all accredit information to an intelligent source. You do, I do. This is our uniform experience.

In recent years NASA (through SETI) has spent millions setting up radio-telescopes monitoring millions of channels in the hope of detecting a single message from intelligent beings somewhere else in the cosmos. If SETI received a signal containing a long sequence of prime numbers they would assume it was a message from some alien intelligence. So, I ask: if we are prepared to look for scientific evidence of intelligent activity beyond our planet, why are we so hesitant about applying exactly the same thinking to what is on our planet? 

Astronomers have not found such information-rich signals from space, but closer to home, molecular biologists have identified information-rich sequences and systems in the cell, suggesting, by the same logic, an intelligent cause for those effects. So why are we so reluctant to consider an intelligent origin for life when we would openly consider an intelligent source from information received from outer space?

Our archaeologists immediately assume an intelligent origin when faced with ordered scratches and shapes on a rock.  Yet when we are faced with the 3.5 billion letter sequence of the human genome and the abundance of information in even the simplest living system, does it speak of an intelligent designer, or does it suggest chance and necessity?

Perhaps an illustration will put things into perspective: imagine you’re in a spacecraft which has crash-landed on another planet. While venturing out into this ‘new’ world you find a neat pile of stones in an ordered triangle. What do you suspect happened? You may reason that this occurred by happenchance, as a result of natural forces and processes, but if you carried on walking and came across a poem written on a rock, you couldn’t say this just happened, you’re looking at literature, creativity, reasoning. There is the mark of a mind. And by the way, if someone printed out the 3.2 billion letters in your genome it would fill a stack of paperback books 200 feet (61m) high.

Codes are the deliberate inventions of intelligent consciousnesses. The genetic code and abundance of biochemical information found within life is only a quandry for those who assume that DNA arose by unguided natural processes. But the suggestion that DNA was created by intelligence is dangerous only to atheism, not to science. A highly recognised computer scientist, Gene Myers, said “What really astounds me is the architecture of life, the system is extremely complex. It’s like it was designed, there is a huge intelligence there, and I don’t see that as being unscientific.”

We can safely affirm that the action of a conscious and intelligent agent clearly represents a known and adequate cause for the origin of information. Uniform and repeated experience affirms that intelligent agents produce information-rich systems, whether software programs, ancient inscriptions or Shakespearean sonnets. Minds are clearly capable of generating functionally specified information.

But the argument goes further: minds are the only known cause of specified complexity (information). We only know information to originate from an intelligent source. There is no known alternative based on our experience of things. Our uniform experience affirms that specified information – whether inscribed in hieroglyphs, written in a book, encoded in a terrestrial radio signal, or produced in an RNA-world “ribozyme engineering” experiment – always arises from an intelligent source, from a mind and not a strictly material process. As Henry Quastler, a leading pioneer in the field of information theory said, “creation of new information is habitually associated with conscious activity.”

So let us wrap up the argument in three points:

  1. Life involves a complex database of functionally specified information sequences in a biological format.
  2. The only cause we are aware and have observed to produce such information, digital or alphabetic, is intelligence.
  3. Theoretical-computer science indicates that unguided chance and necessity are incapable of producing language-like complexity.

Therefore, if we infer past causes from present clues then the logical outcome would suggest an intelligent cause for the origin of life. The properties of life – specifically as they pertain to understanding their origins – are just what we should expect if a purposeful intelligence has acted in the history of life. 

Is inferring intelligent design an argument from ignorance?

At this point most objectors charge that this design argument constitutes an argument from ignorance, that our present ignorance of any sufficient materialistic cause of specified information is the sole basis for inferring an intelligent cause of the information present in the cell. Since we don’t know how specific biological information could have arisen, we invoke the mysterious notion of intelligent design. In this view, intelligent design functions not as an explanation but as a placeholder for ignorance.

It is true that all types of natural causes and mechanisms that we know of fail to account for the origin of biological information from a prebiotic state. Now I agree that this does nothing to prove that intelligence must have caused it, since the inadequacy of one explanation (naturalism) does not provide the basis for the adequacy of another explanation (intelligent design) – that would be sloppy reasoning. But that’s not what’s been said. The argument of intelligent design as the cause of life’s origin is not an explanation from ignorance, because when we do consider intelligence as a cause, we realise that intelligent agents can and do produce information-rich systems. We have positive experience-based knowledge of intelligence as a sufficient cause.

The design inference defended here does not constitute an argument from ignorance but an inference to the best explanation from our current observations. We are seeing that science appeals to personal agency to explain the phenomena of the origin of life, there is in principle nothing unscientific about appealing to personal agency to explain the origin of life. At the very least, such an appeal cannot be faulted as non-scientific on the grounds that it involves an agent-causal explanation.

Now perhaps future discoveries may later show purely physical and chemical causes to generate large amounts of specified information. But that’s a blind leap of faith, which in any case is worse than an argument from ignorance. Right now we only have one known solution that fits perfectly well – intelligent design.

Onto the philosophers and theologians!

To invoke intelligent design as the explanation for life’s origin doesn’t really answer the ultimate question of life’s origin. In fact, it just adds to the question. The question is now not “what” but “who” caused the origin of life?

Science has offered us a reasonable answer to the origin of life – an intelligent source. But the crux is now handed to the philosophers and theologians – what kind of intelligent cause? This is not answerable within science but is the quest of religion and philosophy, so let the quest begin.

Christian scripture affirms what has been revealed in modern science: that information is fundamental to the existence of life. But this is no new idea, it has been around for centuries. In the fourth gospel, John wrote “in the beginning was the word, all things were made through him.” Scripture then also reads “by faith we understand that the universe was formed by God’s word, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.”

The Greek for ‘Word’ is ‘logos’ – a term that was used to describe the second person of the trinity, God, the creator. The term ‘word’ itself conveys to us notions of command, meaning, code, communication – thus information directed by a creative mind. And it’s that mind – the mind of God, which explains our reason for being and brings purpose to our lives. 

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. All things were made through Him. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it. He was in the world, the world was made through Him, yet the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.”

This article contains references to material from John Lennox and Discovery Institute. 

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