EVOLUTION INSTALLMENT TWENTY FOUR

Chapter Nine (Continued)

Life as Information and The Second Law of Thermodynamics14

Recently we saw a newscast in which the public was invited to participate in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence by spokespersons for the SETI program. It seems that, despite the massive investment the program has made in hardware, including its giant radiotelescope array and the vast computational equipment, nothing can beat the human eye and mind in differentiating a possibly intelligent signal from space from all the radio noise. The problem is that even though astronomers have identified the most likely stars out there for supporting life, there aren’t enough employees available to analyze the multitude of signals that the equipment is capable of collecting. Hence, the SETI15 people have placed data on the Internet that allows the public at large, hopefully amateur astronomers for the most part, to help out in the search.

Too bad that these SETI spokespersons simply don’t sit down for a chat with Stephen Meyer or William Dembski or Michael Behe, or, in fact, with any of a growing host of cutting-edge investigators into DNA and associated microbiological artifacts of life. They’d find that if they’d look in the opposite direction they’d have all the evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence that they could process, right up close and personal, for the notions that these investigators are coming up with to get their arms around what they see in their microscopes are precisely what the SETI investigators are searching for.

In speculating how we ourselves might employ this basic element of life, we have naturally extracted the essence of what DNA represents: pure information. Philosopher/Mathematician William Dembski came to that same conclusion several years ago, and successfully applied the principles of information science to life itself and from that synthesis developed the first principles of an exciting new mathematical discipline centered on the information-richness of life. In his book Intelligent Design, Dr. Dembski develops a theoretical model for naturalistic evolution in terms of the operation of chance on natural laws. He then develops a means of scrutinizing a living system to distinguish a naturalistic process from the input of design. He does so by means of a flowchart that he labels an explanatory filter16. If, in this flowchart, a system is observed to be ‘contingent’, which means that it is capable of forming a variety of equally probable patterns, then its examination passes down to the next criterion; otherwise, the pattern is taken to be a predetermined necessity, like the formation of crystals, and the design hypothesis is rejected for this system. The next criterion is complexity. If the system is sufficiently complex, then its examination passes down to the third criterion; otherwise, its existence may be ascribed to chance and the design hypothesis is again rejected. The third criterion is specification. If the system exhibits the quality of specification, meaning that it serves to fulfill an identifiable and useful function, then it may be considered to have been brought into existence through design; otherwise the design hypothesis is again rejected. In all cases where the design hypothesis is rejected, the existence of the object is ascribed to a naturalistic process, either necessity or chance.

Like Behe did with his analysis of human/malaria warfare, Dembski then continues to flesh out the practicality of this model by placing the complexity criterion on the firm footing of mathematical probability theory. In doing so, he transforms the expressions dealing with probabilities into information-theoretical terminology, in effect equating probabilistic odds to bits of information. Having performed that translation, Dr. Dembski offers a quite generous cutoff point of 500 bits of information which, he assumes with considerable justification, would be acceptable to all reasonable people. A system so complex as to represent over 500 bits of information, he claims, can exist only by the aid of design. He inserts the value of 500 bits of information into his complexity criterion, thus reducing its evaluation to a straightforward and repeatable computation.

Dembski pursues the issue of complex specificity by noting that naturalistic evolution can be expressed as the operation of chance on natural laws. He applies his contributions to information theory to the development of an information-theoretical proof of the inability of chance acting on laws of nature to create complex specified information. He formally states it as his Law of Conservation of Information14 as follows: “Natural laws are incapable of generating complex specified information”. He states three corollaries as immediate consequences of this law: “1) The complex specified information (CSI) in a closed system of natural causes remains constant or decreases. 2) CSI cannot be generated spontaneously, originate endogenously or organize itself . . .3) The CSI in a closed system of natural causes either has been in the system eternally or was at some point added exogenously. . .4) In particular any closed system of natural causes that is also of finite duration received whatever CSI it contains before it became a closed system.”

While Dembski’s Law of the Conservation of Information appears more akin to a version of the First Law of Thermodynamics (conservation of matter and energy) than the Second Law, its corollaries are actually closer to the Second Law. One controversial argument between design advocates (and their predecessors, the creationists) and evolutionists was the use of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which stated in one version that all natural processes tended to disorder. The design advocates (including us) would periodically trot out this energy-based law as a proof that the order intrinsic to life represented a reversal (and violation) of the Second Law. The evolutionists would consistently respond to this charge by declaring that the Second Law applied only to closed systems. Open systems, they claimed, permitted the input of energy (such as radiation from the sun), which negated the effect of the Second Law. While we recognized this as somewhat of a red-herring argument, we didn’t come up with a clearly-stated refutation. The beauty of Dembski’s expression of the Law of Conservation of Information is that if the evolutionists try to evoke the possibility of an open system, the immediate implication of the external input of information is the presence of a Designer.

Dr. Dembski performs the evaluation as directed by his explanatory flowchart on actual living systems by observing whether they exhibit contingency, then mathematically evaluating the information complexity of the system and by observing whether the quality of specificity is present. If the system passes these hoops, then he concludes that a designer was involved in its existence. He has applied this procedure to several living systems, concluding that some of them exhibit unmistakable evidence of design.

One of Dembski’s major contributions to the issue of evolution’s credibility – or lack thereof – was to establish formal standards and procedures that permitted the quantitative assessment of the theory under the application of actual instances of living systems. Thus, for example, the information content of the DNA molecule could be subjected to numerical evaluation and the results could be compared to pre-established standards which all rational individuals could agree upon. (Evolution, by the way, when subjected to Dembski’s scrutiny of DNA, lost – by a very wide margin.)

Dembski’s work formalizes what many good minds already suspected, most at the level of intuition, but others who had also performed some number-crunching of their own. According to Johnson17, most modern evolutionists, including the vocal Dr. Dawkins, have returned to Darwin’s original speculation that large changes don’t come about in big steps but instead result from an enormous number of very tiny changes. But under a lack of an anticipatory mechanism, that doesn’t solve anything.

“The probability of Darwinist evolution depends upon the quantity of favorable micromutations required to create complex organs and organisms, the frequency with which such favorable micromutations occur just where and when they are needed, efficacy of natural selection in preserving the slight improvements with sufficient consistency to permit the benefits to accumulate, and the time allowed by the fossil record for all this to have happened. Unless we can make calculations taking all these factors into account, we have no way of knowing whether evolution by micromutation is more or less improbable than evolution by macromutation.

“Some mathematicians did try to make the calculations, and the result was a rather acrimonious confrontation between themselves and some of the leading Darwinist at the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia in 1967. The report of the exchange is fascinating, not just because of the substance of the mathematical challenge, but even more because of the logic of the Darwinist response. For example, the mathematician D. E. Ulam argued that it was highly improbable that the eye could have evolved by the accumulation of small mutations, because the number of mutations would have to be so large and the time available was not nearly long enough for them to appear. Sir Peter Medawar and C. H. Waddington responded that Ulam was doing his science backwards; the fact was that the eye had evolved and therefore the mathematical difficulties must be only apparent. Ernst Mayr observed that Ulam’s calculations were based on assumptions that might be unfounded, and concluded that ‘Somehow or other by adjusting these figures we will come out all right. We are comforted by the fact that evolution has occurred.’

“The Darwinist were trying to be reasonable, but it was as if Ulam had presented equations proving that gravity is too weak a force to prevent us all from floating off into space. Darwinism to them was not a theory open to refutation but a fact to be accounted for, at least until the mathematicians could produce an acceptable alternative. The discussion became particularly heated after a French mathematician named Schutzenberger concluded that ‘there is a considerable gap in the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution, and we believe this gap to be of such a nature that it cannot be bridged within the current conception of biology.’ C. H. Waddington thought he saw where this reasoning was headed, and retorted that ‘Your argument is simply that life must have come about by special creation.’ Schutzenberger (and anonymous voices from the audience) shouted ‘No!,’ but in fact the mathematicians did not present an alternative.”

By far the most important contribution of those working in the area of Intelligent Design towards an understanding of the origin of life is their insight that the DNA molecule is nothing more (or less) than a storage medium for the enormous amount of information embedded within it by the pattern of base pairs. It is the information rather than the matter of the DNA molecule that represents the Word of Life. It’s something understood rather well by the ID researchers, but apparently some evolution devotees just don’t get the distinction. We’ll furnish an example in Chapter 10.

Another case in point: the finding of bacteria in Mono Lake, California that is based on a different chemical than the constituents of DNA. We’ll quote the December 2, 2010 article, which we got off the Internet by Googling “DNA in nonlife”:

“Epic Discovery: NASA Finds New Non-DNA Based Life Form – To Be Announced at 2 pm EST

“Hours before their special news conference today, the cat is out of the bag: NASA has discovered a completely new life form that doesn’t share the biological building blocks of anything currently living on Earth in the ancient 800,000 year-old poisonous, arsenic waters of Mono Lake in California. This changes everything in the astrobiology of the Milky Way and beyond: The universe suddenly comes alive with potential life forms in the trillions of possible planets in galaxies known and unknown.

“At their conference today, NASA scientist Felisa Wolfe Simon will announce that they have found a bacteria whose DNA is completely alien to what we know today. Instead of using phosphorus, the bacteria uses arsenic. All life on earth is made of six components: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur. Every being, from the smallest amoeba to the largest whale, share the same life stream. Human DNA building blocks are universal on earth.

“This alien bacteria appears to be completely different. Discovered in Mono Lake, this bacteria is made of arsenic, something that was thought to be completely impossible. Located in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Mono Lake once covered a large part of Nevada and Utah, which would put it among the oldest lakes in North America. At its height during the last ice age, the lake may have been 900 feet deep. While she and other scientists theorized that this could be possible, this is the first discovery. The implications of this discovery are enormous to our understanding of life itself and the possibility of finding beings in other planets that don’t have to be like planet Earth.

“No details have been disclosed about the origin or nature of this new life form. The world will know more today at 2 pm EST at NASA News Conference.”

A companion article modified this data somewhat, saying that the researchers had been working for several years on the Halomonadaceae bacterium found in Mono Lake. Originally, this bacterium had all the usual components of DNA. The researchers starved it of phosphorus, substituting arsenic in its environment, and found that the bacterium was indeed able to ingest the arsenic and continue to live. A glance at a periodic table of the elements shows that arsenic is chemically close to phosphorus with five valence electrons for both. The article expressed doubt as to whether the bacterium was able to replicate itself with arsenic in the locations within the DNA chain instead of phosphorus. Opinions are still divided as to whether the phosphorus replacement extended to the DNA. Nevertheless, it is indeed a remarkable achievement, but the remarks included in the article expressed disappointment. Given the initial hype, they were hoping for more.

Although the actual results were less than the initial claims, it does raise an interesting question: what if the arsenic had actually replaced the phosphorus in the DNA? Would that have demonstrated the creation of a new form of life? Not really, because the essence of the life would be entirely unchanged. While the DNA structure would be chemically different, the pattern of the base pairs would be unchanged. The information that defines this minimally-new bacterium would be identical to that of the old bacterium. Changing the chemical components of the new DNA would be like changing the storage medium from a disk to a flash drive (but not even of that magnitude), but the embedded software would remain unchanged.

Chirality18

As if piling on complexity factors such as modularity and control circuitry to the basic hostility of biological entities to evolution, there’s also the Chirality factor, which adds another dimension of pain to the Darwinian headache. Chirality in living systems isn’t a problem, because the machinery in the body automatically takes care of it. It’s getting from non-life to life that’s the real problem, and it’s a very big one.

Chirality is a property of some chemical structures that describes their ability to come in different orientations. This property applies particularly to some molecules essential to life like DNA, RNA and amino acids, all of which come in ‘right-handed’ and ‘left-handed’ versions with equal probability in nature. The problem is that molecules like DNA must consist entirely of one version or another. Even the inclusion of one component of the wrong chirality is enough to gum up the works.

The DNA and RNA molecules of living systems all have right-handed chirality. On the other hand, the amino acids pertinent to life must all be left-handed. There are 80 unique amino acids, only 20 of which are potentially useful in creating proteins. All of these must be of the left-handed version to actually be useful. The other half of the wrong chirality, as well as the majority of 60 amino acids of either chirality that aren’t useful to life processes, just gum up the works, making it inconceivable that before life began useful proteins could have assembled themselves.

Conclusions and Comments

From the information presented above, it is evident that all life is based on its comment element DNA. Moreover, DNA is unique in that it has two components of very different kinds: the physical DNA molecule and the information embedded in the pattern of base pairs within it. Yet further, the essence of the DNA is the nonmaterial component, the information.

The essence of life, in fact, is that information residing within the pattern of base pairs in the DNA molecule. From the insights that have been presented above and the quantitive data that they have generated in support of the creation stance, the better explanatory paradigm for the existence of this information and the operations that it directs is creation.

This assessment raises enormous problems: it runs counter to mainstream science; by definition it is not a valid scientific theory; and it is perceived as a dead-end notion that discourages further biological investigation.

NOTES:

14. Ibid., pp. 170-179 (Here Dr. Dembski reformulates the essence of the Second Law of Thermodynamics in terms of information theory and justifies its validity. The effect of this is to put to rest the open/closed system controversy, as an open system with respect to information represents the input of intelligence.); Gerald R. Schroeder, The Science of God, Broadway Books, 1997, pp. 96, 97

15. Ibid., pp. 91, 106, 127-131

16. Ibid., pp. 133, 134

17. Phillip Johnson, Darwin on Trial, pp. 38, 39

18.note 2, Chapter 8

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