DNA as information -- a lot of information

paul del signore at Sketches in Sacred Vapor had a very intriguing post entitled "Biology in the Information Age" published on February 26, 2006 (no direct link available). In the post, he sets forth an argument by Perry Marshall where he asserts that he can prove that God exists. The argument is as follows:

Perry Marshall has done some good work in this area discussing this important question. His central thesis is as follows:

1) DNA is not merely a molecule with a pattern; it is a code, a language, and an information storage mechanism.

2) All codes are created by a conscious mind; there is no natural process known to science that creates coded information.

3) Therefore DNA was designed by a mind.

Now, I am not a fan of saying that someone can prove anything because proof is a function of the willingness of the listener to accept the evidence. However, I am very happy to examine an argument to see if it is sound and persuasive to the hypothetical objective observer. What I find interesting is that the arguments seems pretty sound.

Premise 1 is pretty much a given. While I am not privy to the most recent publications in the world of microbiolgy, I don't think there are any molecular biologists who don't recognize that DNA is a code. Consider the following from My Name is LUCA -- The Last Universal Common Ancestor by Anthony M. Poole, Ph.D.:

[A]ll life stores its genetic information on DNA, using a common code which we call the genetic code. The information is stored as packets, called genes -- 'recipes' for making RNA, and proteins. The languages of DNA and RNA are so similar they may as well be called dialects, but both are markedly different from the language of protein. For RNA and DNA, the information-carrying part of both molecules is made up of four bases (analogous to letters in an alphabet) read in a linear fashion, as with written human languages. In RNA, the four bases are A, G, C and U. In DNA, A, G and C are also used, while T is used instead of U. Establishing the evolutionary basis for this change from U to T is not a trivial exercise, and is an interesting problem in itself [Poole et al. 2001]; but in terms of the actual 'language', the difference is as minor as the variant spelling of English words, e.g., 'civilisation' and 'civilization.'

The connection drawn by Dr. Poole from the "information" contained in the A, G, C, and T basis to language is unmistakable. He uses the word "language" to describe the code, and he calls the two languages "dialects". The four bases are analogous to an alphabet. The differences between DNA and RNA languages is as minor as "variant spellings."

Working from the base of Code as the language which transmits the information, the question turns to the complexity of the code. If the code is a few simple words, perhaps we could excuse it as being formed by chance over time. If, however, the code is complex, doesn't that argue for a creator?

Naturally, the code is not only complex -- it is very complex. Origin of Life – Theories and Genetics by T.C. Goldsmith, makes this observation:

The genetic work indicates that the complexity of genetic codes doesn’t track that well with the apparent complexity of the organism and that even very simple organisms have quite complex genomes. The simplest known living thing is the microbe mycoplasma genitalium which causes human non-gonococcal urethritus. This microbe has a genetic code of about 570,000 base pairs. Viruses are simpler but aren’t really "alive" in the sense that they cannot reproduce or grow without using the mechanisms in a living cell to do so. The bacteria e coli has a genetic code of about 5.7 million base pairs.

But e coli and mycoplasma can’t live in the absence of other more complex organisms (e coli lives in animal gut, mycoplasma lives in … well you get the idea). In fact the primordial organism must have been at the bottom of the food chain, capable of synthesizing its own food from non-living material, and living without assistance from any other living organism. It could have possibly been something on the order of blue-green algae which has 3.6 million base pairs in its genetic code and is thought to be about 3.5 billion years old. Mycoplasma, bacteria, and viruses all must have "devolved" from more complex organisms in response to the availability of more complex forms to act as hosts or links in the food chain.

The original organism had mechanisms (ability to grow, reproduce, and evolve) which led to the evolution of the diverse life forms which now exist on Earth and as indicated above this evolution is documented in the genetic codes of organisms now alive as well as in fossil evidence. But under this scenario the original organism would have had to appear by random happenstance aggregation of materials. This is somewhat like believing that because while digging you found a rock that looked like a brick, if you dug long and hard enough you would eventually find something that looked like the Sistine Chapel complete with Michelangelo’s Creation on the ceiling.

If the DNA code is information, how much data do we have? Well, Juan Enriquez in a quote from his book As the Future Catches You -- How Genomics and Other Forces Are Changing Your Life, Your Work, Your Investments, Your World," answers the question this way:

To put the amount of genetic data YOU posses in perspective, consider that your genetic code consists of three billion letters. The code is repeated twice within each cell, and your body has about 50 trillion cells."

[Essentially, YOU walk around carrying 1.5 x 10^23 ("15" with 22 zeros after it, or '150 zettabits') of data. To really appreciate the magnitude of this number, remember that the sequence goes: Kilo, Mega, Giga, Tera, Peta, Exa, Zetta, Yotta.]

So, microbiology looks at the DNA as information and language, and there is an awful lot of it. Moreover, the amount of language in even the simplest cells consists of 570,000 base pairs. Did that come together by accident?

Which brings us to the second premise: "All codes are created by a conscious mind; there is no natural process known to science that creates coded information." Admittedly, this is much more in dispute. But I guess the question is: if all of this information didn't come from a mind, how did it come together naturally? So far, no one seems to have a clear answer to that one.


James said…
BK, I wrote a brief article on this a couple a years back. You might find it interesting:


Note, that I don't think you can use this argument and ID (although you might call this an example of ID, it is completely compatible with fully fledged neo-Darwinism).

Best wishes

BK said…
Thanks for the link. I will look forward to reading it.

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