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Life as “self-perpetuating information strings”?

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No, we didn’t come up with that phrase but it is certainly worth considering, considering almost all alternatives. If you doubt that, see “Maybe if we throw enough models at the origin of life… some of them will stick?”

From Quanta:

The polymath Christoph Adami is investigating life’s origins by reimagining living things as self-perpetuating information strings.

Life, he argues, should not be thought of as a chemical event. Instead, it should be thought of as information. The shift in perspective provides a tidy way in which to begin tackling a messy question. In the following interview, Adami defines information as “the ability to make predictions with a likelihood better than chance,” and he says we should think of the human genome — or the genome of any organism — as a repository of information about the world gathered in small bits over time through the process of evolution. The repository includes information on everything we could possibly need to know, such as how to convert sugar into energy, how to evade a predator on the savannah, and, most critically for evolution, how to reproduce or self-replicate.

Will this promising direction continue or descend into mere Darwinism, aka magic? From the interview:

But where did that first bit of self-referential information come from?

We of course know that all life on Earth has enormous amounts of information that comes from evolution, which allows information to grow slowly. Before evolution, you couldn’t have this process. As a consequence, the first piece of information has to have arisen by chance.

A lot of your work has been in figuring out just that probability, that life would have arisen by chance.

On the one hand, the problem is easy; on the other, it’s difficult. We don’t know what that symbolic language was at the origins of life. It could have been RNA or any other set of molecules. But it has to have been an alphabet. The easy part is asking simply what the likelihood of life is, given absolutely no knowledge of the distribution of the letters of the alphabet. In other words, each letter of the alphabet is at your disposal with equal frequency.

So an alphabet arose by chance? Why did it never happen again?

The deck, we are told, was stacked. On the other hand:

There are an extraordinary number of unknowns. The biggest one is that we don’t know what the original set of chemicals was. I have heard tremendous amounts of interesting stuff about what happens in volcanic vents [under the ocean]. It seems that this kind of environment is set up to get information for free. It’s always a question in the origins of life, what came first, metabolism or replication. In this case it seems you’re getting metabolism for free. Replication needs energy; you can’t do it without energy. Where does energy come from if you don’t have metabolism? It turns out that at these vents, you get metabolism for free.

So why don’t volcanos ever work that way now?

At least Adami is on the right track in focusing on understanding information, not chemistry, as the key driver. Too bad it goes downhill from there—but that is where we are right now.

See also: Self-organization: Can we wring information from matter — shake the bit out of the it?

With Enceladus the toast of the solar system, here’s a wrap-up of the origin-of-life problem


What we know and don’t, know about the origin of life

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