Abiogenesis and Information

I was wrong: the new article at the ICR is not what I thought it would be. Instead, it’s called Evolution of Life Research Close to Creation, and is about a paper in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface called “The algorithmic origins of life.” For some other resources on the paper, you can read the press release, an article by the main author of the paper (Sara Walker) on her site, another essay by Walker, this blog post, or the Evolution News and Views post about it. There’s also a video of a lecture by Walker, which I am yet to finish. Please read at least some of those – I’m not going to be able to give you a good summary below, and neither does Brian.

Personally, I don’t know what to make of the paper. For one, it deals with the topic of information in biology. Creationists generally love talking about that, but for some reason I haven’t seen the same from the ICR and thus lack experience here. The paper also sets off a load of red flags in my mind. Perhaps most significantly it seems to endorse the notion of vitalism – one of the above linked essays even begins:

A central challenge in studies of the origin of life is that we don’t know whether life is ‘just’ very complex chemistry, or if there is something fundamentally distinct about living matter.

Didn’t we solve that a hundred years ago? I’m sure we solved that a hundred years ago. There are other issues as well, but I’m out of my depth so it’s hardly worth enumerating them. I could well be completely wrong in my negative impression – one day I hope to know more about the subject.

But we don’t need to wait for that to deal with Brian Thomas’ article.

The first bad, and fairly common, assumption of origin-of-life researchers is that the question can be answered in terms of chemistry. That is, if one can deduce ways in which natural conditions produce life’s chemical building blocks, then this would solve the problem. Not so, says a new paper on the subject, which appears in the Royal Society journal Interface. The researchers wrote,

We need to explain the origin of both the hardware [biochemical] and software [coded information] aspects of life, or the job is only half finished. Explaining the chemical substrate of life and claiming it as a solution to life’s origin is like pointing to silicon and copper as an explanation for the goings-on inside a computer.

With analogies like that it’s no wonder the creationists like this paper. A problem: the ‘biochemical’ aspect deals not just with what life is made out of (the “silicon and copper”) but also the “goings on.” Brian concludes this section by saying:

It is nice that evolution scientists are finally catching up with what creation scientists have long recognized—the origin of life must account for the origin of information.

However, this is not to say that evolution can’t explain “the origin of information” – so far as that is even a meaningful statement. You see, creationists can talk about ‘information’ all they like, but you don’t necessarily need the supernatural (or even anything ‘intelligent’ or ‘designed’) to explain it. Continuing to the second part:

The second bad assumption in the question, “How did non-living chemicals become the first living cell?” is that natural processes alone can explain life’s origin. This stems from religiously-held beliefs, not from scientific observation.

The truth is that unintelligent evolution had no role in the origin of life. In fact, information science and physics have clearly demonstrated that the only way for new information to enter a physical system is from an intelligent source. But in the case of cells, that would have to be God, and God is not permitted in secular scientific discussions.

The claim that intelligence is needed to get information into a system is cited to a creationist publication by Werner Gitt – I get the impression that it’s bogus.

Any way, I need to do a lot of reading on this subject (suggestions?). In the mean time, it seems clear to me that this is not a challenge to evolution – though if true it might change things about abiogenesis and the definition of life. I don’t really know at this point.

6 thoughts on “Abiogenesis and Information

  1. Of course evolution has nothing at all to say about the origin if life but how life expanded and diversified.
    Even if there were absolute proof that the ‘first living cell’ (if that actually means anything) had a supernatural beginning it does not follow that the creation myths are true or that the creator is the god of Christianity or that the universe is 6000 years old or any of the rest of it.
    The definition of life and the point at which non-life becomes life exist where science, philosophy and religion meet. It is an uncomfortable place for anyone who is not content to deal in dogma.

    • Evolution can explain the accumulation of information through the increased complexity of evolved organisms but it can’t account for the information in the first organism. Evolution can’t come into play until you have an organism capable of metabolism and reproduction.

      Now the transition might have been very rapid between non-living/ incapable of evolving and living/capable of it. And perhaps this transition would be a form of early evolution different from evolution as it works today. This would allow perhaps for some accidental combination of chemicals to be able to boot itself up with enough information to form a viable organism with sufficient stability that it could begin to evolve through random mutation. But this transition is precisely the mystery and not explained at this time and the Walker and Davies paper is an attempt to provide a new perspective on how to think about it.

  2. There is a basic conceptual problem with these inquiries into biological information. It is the same ailment that many mathematicians have suffered from over the ages – mistaking the we-generis for the sui generis. Math is an informative and broadly applicable descriptive method, not the secret reality of which the world is an imperfect reflection. Information theory may end up being a useful way to look at biology, but if so, it will still be our translation of the process into terms we can understand and manipulate. To reverse the hardware/software analogy, if I am looking at a landscape on my computer screen, a set of algorithms is translating a description of the scene into a representation that my mind can recognize as a landscape, even the particular landscape in question. I do not think that the algorithms create the landscape depicted, nor do I think that the algorithms somehow inhere in the landscape itself – that they have been lurking there these eons waiting for the advent of software engineers to discover them. If the algorithms can be said to reside anywhere, it is in the minds of the software engineers. To insist otherwise is to make an egotistical error of the sort we are all prone to make, but an error nonetheless.

  3. From what I gather the general thesis is that life is defined as when information influences the chemical structure of the “organism”, rather than vice versa. IIRC, RNA-esque things will emerge from the natural forces which govern the interaction of the molecules which make it up. Life would be when the RNA-esque object influences these molecules, rather than just being a bi-product of them.

    Whilst this seems like a plausible proposition my one concern is whether it is as revolutionary as they. For example, would not replication count as information dictating the behaviour of molecules? Given that existing attempts are trying to understand how replication may have originated it would seems as though their definition is already being examined.

    • Good point, what’s the status of a prion in such a model, for instance? Information can be said to influence a chemical structure in a metaphorical sense only. Information theory may be a useful way to model the behavior of biological systems – we just have to remember that it is a method, not the thing itself, lest we go the way of the ICR (to thoroughly belabor a point).


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