Review Of Programming of Life By Donald Johnson, ISBN-10: 0982355467
There are some science writers that quite simply have a knack for combining the detail of their subject of expertise with a talent for exposition that a wide audience can easily understand. Donald Johnson is one of them. After carefully defining the various types of information- functional, prescriptive and Shannon- that information theorists have set out in their realm of study, Johnson takes the reader on a tour of cellular gene expression by focusing on the digital code of DNA. Shannon information, which provides a mathematical measure of improbability without regard to functionality does not help us in the description of life since the digital code of DNA is rich in what Johnson terms “functional prescriptive information”.
While initiatives such as the Origin Of Life Prize have encouraged researchers to find non-super-naturalistic processes that might explain the origins of prescriptive information, no offerings to-date have withstood the test of scientific scrutiny. Indeed all known cases of such information invariably point to the work of a mind. Johnson emphasizes the relevance of probability in his espousal of this inference- the simplest form of life was found to be 10exp80,000 times more likely of having a mindful than a non-mindful source.
Johnson repeatedly stresses how the information content of DNA is analogous to the information carried on a computer disk drive.Within such a schema, each of the enzymes that decode the information can be seen as individual computers that bring `meaning’ to the code through the RNA that is transcribed and the proteins that are translated. 23,000 genes make up the human genome. And the multi-functional nature of these genes in self evident in the way that RNAs are differentially spliced and glued together.
Johnson’s perspective packs a might punch on the evolutionary edifice. Computer simulations and evolutionary algorithms such as MeThinksItIsLikeAWeasel and AVIDA have failed to show how evolution can generate prescriptive information since pre-specified targets, unrealistic protection of replication instructions and unrealistic energy rewards abound in each of these systems.
While the battle over the categorization of junk DNA rages on amongst biologists, Johnson gives us a succinct and well-buttressed view on the subject: “Researchers are discovering that what has been dismissed as evolution’s relics are actually vital for life”. There is no evidence that new prescriptive information can be built up by genetic rearrangements such as transposition, inversion, duplication or point mutation. We can therefore understand Lynn Margulis’ reference to the Darwinian claim as a `half truth’ grounded in religious ferocity. This half truth forms the foundation for Johnson’s final attack as he considers the merits of irreducible complexity and Craig Venter’s recently produced artificial genome. Rather than showing how an organism could arise from scratch, Venter’s enterprising achievement revealed the need for careful engineering of existing parts into a form that could be introduced into an existing organism.
Johnson’s writing style is captivating. The extensive range of resources he draws from only serves to build confidence in the factual accuracy of his case. What a terrific read. Sheer brilliance.