Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Life is more than chemistry

In my retirement, I have been studying organic chemistry and how life works. Since I spent 43 years before I retired designing computers and related hardware and software for communicating information, it is natural for me to think of computer hardware and software as analogies to illustrate the general principles of how life works. In the following, I'll explain some of the essentials of life from this point of view, while trying to keep it simple.

Living things are made of more than chemical components, just as a computer is more than hardware. A computer is 'dead' if it doesn't have software -- the information that tells it how to function. Likewise, living things of all kinds -- even bacteria -- need internally stored information to function. So life is made of chemistry and information, just as a computer is made of hardware and software.

Life's information is stored mostly in DNA, and some information in similar structures. There is a mechanism for reading the DNA, interpreting the information to construct proteins and even to control the process. Even the proteins of the reading and controlling mechanisms are constructed from the DNA information. This is like having a CD with all the data needed to construct a computer, including the CD reader, and including the information for making the construction tools and how to use these tools.

In multicellular life, such as animals, the DNA information is actually stored in EACH cell. Imagine a computer where all the information for making and using the computer is stored in each small component (integrated circuit) of the computer!

There is also a mechanism for copying the DNA information onto new DNA media. This is used to make duplicate cells. Again, the DNA includes information for making and controlling the copying mechanism. This is like having a CD copier that can make duplicate CDs.

For all the various forms of sexual reproduction, a more robust copying process is used, one that can merge information from two configurations of the design. This allows a species to adapt to its current environment. The closest that modern computer designs come to this kind of functionality is the kind of redundant design used for computers used in satellite and military applications. These computers are made with many spare components and switches arranged so that if one component fails, a replacement component can be switched in.

But life lacks one function that computers have. CD readers would not be useful unless we have CD writers for putting information on the CDs -- else there would be no information for the CD readers to read. But nowhere in any life-form is there any mechanism for writing (recording) information in the DNA!

In fact, it is not possible by any chemistry to create the information in the DNA, as this would violate information theory. Likewise, it is not possible to design any hardware to create information on CDs. It is possible to design hardware to generate bit patterns (I've done a lot of that), but there is no more information in the patterns than the small amount of information used to make the hardware.

So modern scientists observe that life is full of information, but have no scientific way to explain how the information got there. To understand this conundrum better, imagine the following scenario:

Suppose that a global atomic war destroys most of society, and the survivors struggle to rebuild modern civilization. Apparently all the computers are destroyed, and no one can be found that knows how to design or build a computer 'from scratch'. Then someone discovers a computer manufacturing plant. It has computer-controlled robotic machines that operate and control the entire manufacturing process, turning sand (raw silicon) and various metals and plastics into complete, working computers, and even more robotic manufacturing machines if selected. There are even generators for making the necessary electricity from simple fuel.

The happy discoverers study this autonomous manufacturing plant carefully. They find that all the software is stored on CDs, and there are lots of CD readers and copiers and the facilities for making more CD readers and copiers. But there are no CD writers, nor data for how to make them, not even on paper. The existing software has the flexibility of making different kinds and configurations of computers, but since there are no longer any computer designers alive, there is no hope of making newer computer designs.

As I said, modern scientists have observed that life is full of information, but have no scientific way to explain how the information got there. Now Darwin didn't understand this problem, because he didn't understand anything about how the cell works, let alone that DNA existed. (Cellular life is still not completely understood.) Since Darwin, as the theory of evolution itself evolved, the problem (actually, very many problems) of how to get from non-life to life gradually became more apparent. I have discussed the chemical impossibilities of making life from non-life in other blogs, but here we discuss only the information source problem.

The atheists and humanists saw in Darwin's theory the potential for ruling out God as the source of all things scientific. As more knowledge and understanding of DNA was gained, a mechanism for each species to genetically adapt to changing enviroment became better understood. This mechanism, now known as micro-evolution, has been shown to use selection of existing DNA or loss of genetic information, but never creation of new genetic information. But it is not the same as macro-evolution.

Micro-evolution is a science, but macro-evolution is a theory -- that one species can change into another. The one is like learning how to train an athlete so that he can break world records. The other is like assuming that since records are continually broken, athletes will eventually be able to leap across oceans, given enough time. (You CAN go continually higher even though there is a limit: Stand 16 inches below a ceiling, then move twice as close repeatedly: 8 inches, then 4, 2, 1, 1/2, 1/4, 1/8 ...)

But the problem of the origin of genetic information is a more obvious problem -- so much so that many scientists with little or no religious inclinations have turned to the investigation of "intelligent design" as a way to solve this problem without admitting to the existence of God. Some see "intelligent design" as evidence of a supernatural intelligence (God), but others look for the information source as coming from alien life - from another planet somewhere. But these people haven''t solved the problem -- they have only moved it to another planet. They 'solve' the problem of how life origninated on earth by creating another problem: How did life originate on Planet X?

The problem is that people don't want to believe in a Creator-God, because it is clear that He may rightly define the rules and demand something of us. It is our nature to want to be free and unrestrained. But God will not leave us alone. He reveals Himself by the marvels of His creation. (Would those discoverers of that self-replicating computer-controlled machinery ever think for a moment that it was not designed by intelligent minds?) And furthermore, He has given us His Word, the Bible. Unlike all histories of human origin, that boast of human achievements while glossing over the failures, this one includes all the failures, and more. This Word not only records the past, but includes predictions of the future that have been observed to be accurate. I could go on with more examples, but the point is that God's 'fingerprints' are on His Word as well as His creation. So, as the Bible says, we are "without excuse" for ignoring God:
... what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities -- his eternal power and divine nature --have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. (Romans 1:19-20, from New International Version)

4 comments:

Olorin said...

Always beware of analogies. They must be tested against facts, and none is perfect.

“In multicellular life, such as animals, the DNA information is actually stored in EACH cell.’ One of many ways in which the analogy breaks down.

“There is a mechanism for reading the DNA, interpreting the information to construct proteins and even to control the process.” Another way in which the analogy breaks down. Computer software does not construct pieces of hardware.

“For all the various forms of sexual reproduction, a more robust copying process is used, one that can merge information from two configurations of the design.” Still another way in which the analogy falters.

“This allows a species to adapt to its current environment.” A major difference between computers and organisms, one which the subsequent sentence admits.

“But life lacks one function that computers have. CD readers would not be useful unless we have CD writers for putting information on the CDs -- else there would be no information for the CD readers to read.” How many differences must we name to show that this is a bad analogy to begin with?

“But nowhere in any life-form is there any mechanism for writing (recording) information in the DNA” How about evolution? Point mutations, duplication, transposition, imprinting, methylation,.... And on an on. Then selction weeds out the bad stuff and keeps the good. Another difference from computers.

“In fact, it is not possible by any chemistry to create the information in the DNA, as this would violate information theory.” Hold the presses! A new law of information theory has appeared. But is there any evidence for it? Citations, please.

“So modern scientists observe that life is full of information, but have no scientific way to explain how the information got there.” Your readings in organic chemistry apparently did not include anything on evolution. See the antepenultimate paragraph above.

JC said...

Thanks for your interest and comments.

You're right about analogies. But I don't use analogies for logic, but only to illustrate the concepts, especially for the less scientific reader. So, for example, the fact that the DNA is replicated in each cell is interesting, but not relevant to the argument.

"Computer software does not construct pieces of hardware." You've never heard of computer-controlled machines? I've written software to design hardware, too.

Merging "information from two configurations of the design" is one area where God's designs are more sophisticated than ours; but we are beginning to copy that paradigm.

Computers are made with some degree of adaptibility, to work in an international market, for example; but as I said, not as sophisticated as God's designs.

"Point mutations, duplication, transposition, imprinting, methylation,.... And on an on." Yes, I'm quite aware of all that. These all re-arrange, select, suppress, and/or destroy the information already present, which provide multiple choices from the beginning. Making information from nothing would violate information theory. Computer software can use "genetic algorithms", but that is not relevant, because the analogy is not the argument, as I said.

"A new law of information theory has appeared." Sorry for your ignorance, but I plan to expand on this point in a future blog.

"Your readings in organic chemistry apparently did not include anything on evolution." Please don't get personal. (You risk not getting your comments posted.) What do you know of my reading? BTW, I didn't need to look up antepenultimate in the dictionary.

MyID.rich.php said...

Information theory is one of those things that I've always been meaning to learn a bit more about. However, from what I've read it is really more about understanding the predictability/entropy of a stream of data moreso than any meaning attached to it. In that sense, random mutations essentially create information since they increase the entropy of the genome. Then again, most of what I know about entropy in information theory is from reading about random number generators/ cryptography/ hashes/ etc.

That said, I'm hardly of the mindset that random chance alone is the reason we're all here.

I just think that we do need to be careful about extrapolating too far beyond the limits of the applicability of physical laws. For example, while common sense would not lead one to expect to find a watch build itself out of parts, this is not necessarily forbidden by the second law of thermodynamics either.

Likewise, evolutionists can make similar mistakes when they jump from observations of how evolution can occur today to the conclusion that natural selection alone must be the sole explanation for the diversity of life that exists today.

Science is generally more useful for understanding the present than the past - we just don't know enough about the circumstances around the past to apply the laws of biology/physics/etc as we know them.

In any case, nice to see somebody branching out in retirement. If you ever have any (bio)chemistry questions feel free to ask (I'm Melody's friend Terry's husband, Rich). However, it certainly seems like you've been doing fairly well on your own. :)

JC said...

Hi, Rich,

Information theory is about symbolic (encoded) information, not intrinsic (unencoded) information, that is, information expressed in some kind of language. So language theory is also involved. Rich, you are right: information theory is about the syntax, not the semantics, of the language. Probability theory is also involved, to deal with random errors, and to use the statistics of the language to evaluate the 'surprise effect' of a message, evaluate compression methods, etc. For example, you can gather statistics about the French language by analyzing a bunch of French books and use the statistics to design a compression scheme optimized for French, all without understanding a word of French.

"...random mutations essentially create information since they increase the entropy of the genome." You are repeating a myth created by the evolutionists. I have used information theory for more than 40 years (obtaining more than 40 patents relating to it), and believe me, information never can arise from randomness. Information theory defines perfect randomness as zero information. In the design of information storage and communication systems we are always combating the effects of random changes, which always decreases the amount of information, and never increases it.

You may hear about 'information' such as cloud patterns, being generated from random events, but there is a difference between pattern and information. For example, 10101010101010101010 is 20 bits of symbols, but not 20 bits of information. Depending on the context, it might be one bit of information: "Did the sequence begin with 1 or 0?" or "Did he send the 10101010.. pattern or the 11001100.. pattern?" GPS, for example, uses very long bit patterns to convey very little information: "Which satellite is sending this signal?" (less than 5 bits)

"..while common sense would not lead one to expect to find a watch build itself out of parts, this is not necessarily forbidden by the second law of thermodynamics either." One might argue that the probability of this happening is non-zero. Let's say that the probability is roughly 0.00000..00001. How many zeros are there between the decimal point and the first non-zero digit? Is the number of zeros a 4-digit number?, or 5?, or 6?.. When the probability is so incredibly small, it might as well be zero, especially because the time for the watch to "build itself" is so much longer than the time that the watch can be expected to operate before it rusts away. Some day I may write a blog on "Evolution as a Markov Process" to explain this further.

"..they jump .. to the conclusion that natural selection alone must be the sole explanation.." Most creationists believe that natural selection is God's provision for species to adapt to environmental changes (it's called microevolution), but they don't jump to the conclusion that a sufficient number of small changes can make a completely different species (macroevolution). Try this experiment: Take any sentence in this blog and 'evolve' it by changing (or adding or deleting) one letter at a time, into another sentence. At each step, the sentence must be 'viable' (meaningful). If you are clever, you will be able to make a similar sentence, but never a completely different sentence.