BY FAZALE RANA – AUGUST 14, 2019
Imagine you’re flying over the desert, and you notice a pile of rocks down below. Most likely, you would think little of it. But suppose the rocks were arranged to spell out a message. I bet you would conclude that someone had arranged those rocks to communicate something to you and others who might happen to fly over the desert.
You reach that conclusion because experience has taught you that messages come from persons/people—or, rather, that information comes from a mind. And, toward that end, information serves as a marker for the work of intelligent agency.
Image credit: Shutterstock
Recently, a skeptic challenged me on this point, arguing that we can identify numerous examples of natural systems that harbor information, but that the information in these systems arose through natural processes—not a mind.
So, does information truly come from a mind? And can this claim be used to make a case for a Creator’s existence and role in life’s origin and design?
I think it can. And my reasons are outlined below.
Information and the Case for a Creator
In light of the (presumed) relationship between information and minds, I find it provocative that biochemical systems are information systems.
Two of the most important classes of information-harboring molecules are nucleic acids (DNA and RNA) and proteins. In both cases, the information content of these molecules arises from the nucleotide and amino acid sequences, respectively, that make up these two types of biomolecules.
The information harbored in nucleotide sequences of nucleic acids and amino acid sequences of proteins is digital information. Digital information is represented by a succession of discrete units, just like the ones and zeroes that encode the information manipulated by electronic devices. In this respect, sequences of nucleotides and amino acids for discrete informational units that encode the information in DNA and RNA and proteins, respectively.
But the information in nucleic acids and proteins also has analog characteristics. Analog information varies in an uninterrupted continuous manner, like radio waves used for broadcasting purposes. Analog information in nucleic acids and proteins are expressed through the three-dimensional structures adopted by both classes of biomolecules. (For more on the nature of biochemical information, see Resources.)
If our experience teaches us that information comes from minds, then the fact that key classes of biomolecules are comprised of both digital and analog information makes it reasonable to conclude that life itself stems from the work of a Mind.
Is Biochemical Information Really Information?
Skeptics, such as philosopher Massimo Pigliucci, often dismiss this particular design argument, maintaining that biochemical information is not genuine information. Instead, they maintain that when scientists refer to biomolecules as harboring information, they are employing an illustrative analogy—a scientific metaphor—and nothing more. They accuse creationists and intelligent design proponents of misconstruing scientists’ use of analogical language to make the case for a Creator.1
In light of this criticism, it is worth noting that the case for a Creator doesn’t merely rest on the presence of digital and analog information in biomolecules, but gains added support from work in information theory and bioinformatics.
For example, information theorist Bernd-Olaf Küppers points out in his classic work Information and the Origin of Life that the structure of the information housed in nucleic acids and proteins closely resembles the hierarchical organization of human language.2 This is what Küppers writes:
The analogy between human language and the molecular genetic language is quite strict. . . . Thus, central problems of the origin of biological information can adequately be illustrated by examples from human language without the sacrifice of exactitude.3
Added to this insight is the work by a team from NIH who discovered that the information content of proteins bears the same mathematical structure as human language. To this end, they discovered that a universal grammar exists that defines the structure of the biochemical information in proteins. (For more details on the NIH team’s work, see Resources.)
In other words, the discovery that the biochemical information shares the same features as human language deepens the analogy between biochemical information and the type of information we create as human designers. And, in doing so, it strengthens the case for a Creator.
Further Studies that Strengthen the Case for a Creator
So, too, does other work, such as studies in DNA barcoding. Biologists have been able to identify, catalog, and monitor animal and plant species using relatively short, standardized segments of DNA within genomes. They refer to these sequences as DNA barcodes that are analogous to the barcodes merchants use to price products and monitor inventory.
Typically, barcodes harbor information in the form of parallel dark lines on a white background, creating areas of high and low reflectance that can be read by a scanner and interpreted as binary numbers. Barcoding with DNA is possible because this biomolecule, at its essence, is an information-based system. To put it another way, this work demonstrates that the information in DNA is not metaphorical, but is in fact informational. (For more details on DNA barcoding, see “DNA Barcodes Used to Inventory Plant Biodiversity” in Resources.)
Work in nanotechnology also strengthens the analogy between biochemical information and the information we create as human designers. For example, a number of researchers are exploring DNA as a data storage medium. Again, this work demonstrates that biochemical information is information. (For details on DNA as a data storage medium, see Resources.)
Finally, researchers have learned that the protein machines that operate on DNA during processes such as transcription, replication, and repair literally operate like a computer system. In fact, the similarity is so strong that this insight has spawned a new area of nanotechnology called DNA computing. In other words, the cell’s machinery manipulates information in the same way human designers manipulate digital information. For more details, take a look at the article “Biochemical Turing Machines ‘Reboot’ the Watchmaker Argument” in Resources.)
The bottom line is this: The more we learn about the architecture and manipulation of biochemical information, the stronger the analogy becomes.
Does Information Come from a Mind?
Other skeptics challenge this argument in a different way. They assert that information can originate without a mind. For example, a skeptic recently challenged me this way:
“A volcano can generate information in the rocks it produces. From [the] information we observe, we can work out what it means. Namely, in this example, that the rock came from the volcano. There was no Mind in information generation, but rather minds at work, generating meaning.
Likewise, a growing tree can generate information through its rings. Humans can also generate information by producing sound waves.
However, I don’t think that volcanoes have minds, nor do trees—at least not the way we have minds.”
–Roland W. via Facebook
I find this to be an interesting point. But, I don’t think this objection undermines the case for a Creator. Ironically, I think it makes the case stronger. Before I explain why, though, I need to bring up an important clarification.
In Roland’s examples, he conflates two different types of information. When I refer to the analogy between human languages and biochemical information, I am specifically referring to semantic information, which consists of combinations of symbols that communicate meaning. In fact, Roland’s point about humans generating information with sound waves is an example of semantic information, with the sounds serving as combinations of ephemeral symbols.
The type of information found in volcanic rocks and tree rings is different from the semantic information found in human languages. It is actually algorithmic information, meaning that it consists of a set of instructions. And technically, the rocks and tree rings don’t contain this information—they result from it.
The reason why we can extract meaning and insight from rocks and tree rings is because of the laws of nature, which correspond to algorithmic information. We can think of these laws as instructions that determine the way the world works. Because we have discovered these laws, and because we have also discovered nature’s algorithms, we can extract insight and meaning from studying rocks and tree rings.
In fact, Küppers points out that biochemical systems also consist of sets of instructions instantiated within the biomolecules themselves. These instructions direct activities of the biomolecular systems and, hence, the cell’s operations. To put it another way, biochemical information is also algorithmic information.
From an algorithmic standpoint, the information content relates to the complexity of the instructions. The more complex the instructions, the greater the information content. To illustrate, consider a DNA sequence that consists of alternating nucleotides, AGAGAGAG . . . and so on. The instructions needed to generate this sequence are:
- Add an A
- Add a G
- Repeat steps 1 and 2, x number of times, where x corresponds to the length of the DNA sequence divided by 2
But what about a DNA sequence that corresponds to a typical gene? In effect, because there is no pattern to that sequence, the set of instructions needed to create that sequence is the sequence itself. In other words, a much greater amount of algorithmic information resides in a gene than in a repetitive DNA sequence.
And, of course, our common experience teaches us that information—whether it’s found in a gene, a rock pile, or a tree ring—comes from a Mind.
- “Digital and Analog Information Housed in DNA”
- “Biochemical Grammar Communicates the Case for Creation”
- “DNA Barcodes Used to Inventory Plant Biodiversity”
- “iDNA: The Next Generation of iPods?”
- “Harvard Scientists Write the Book on Intelligent Design—in DNA”
- “DNA: Digitally Designed”
- “Biochemical Turing Machines ‘Reboot’ the Watchmaker Argument”
- “Does New Approach Solve the Origin-of-Life Problem?”
- For example, see Massimo Pigliucci and Maarten Boudry, “Why Machine-Information Metaphors Are Bad for Science and Science Education,” Science and Education 20, no. 5–6 (May 2011): 453–71; doi:10.1007/s11191-010-9267-6.
- Bernd-Olaf Küppers, Information and the Origin of Life (Boston, MA: MIT Press, 1990), 24–25.
- Küppers, Information, 23.
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