Paul Davies on the Origin of Life as an Information Problem

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The Guardian features an interesting article by Paul Davies: “The secret of life won’t be cooked up in a chemistry lab: Life’s origins may only be explained through a study of its unique management of information.” Davies writes,

The origin of life is one of the great outstanding mysteries of science. How did a non-living mixture of molecules transform themselves into a living organism? What sort of mechanism might be responsible?

A century and a half ago, Charles Darwin produced a convincing explanation for how life on Earth evolved from simple microbes to the complexity of the biosphere today, but he pointedly left out how life got started in the first place. “One might as well speculate about the origin of matter,” he quipped. But that did not stop generations of scientists from investigating the puzzle.

The problem is, whatever took place happened billions of years ago, and all traces long ago vanished – indeed, we may never have a blow-by-blow account of the process. Nevertheless we may still be able to answer the simpler question of whether life’s origin was a freak series of events that happened only once, or an almost inevitable outcome of intrinsically life-friendly laws. On that answer hinges the question of whether we are alone in the universe, or whether our galaxy and others are teeming with life.

Most research into life’s murky origin has been carried out by chemists. They’ve tried a variety of approaches in their attempts to recreate the first steps on the road to life, but little progress has been made. Perhaps that is no surprise, given life’s stupendous complexity. Even the simplest bacterium is incomparably more complicated than any chemical brew ever studied.

But a more fundamental obstacle stands in the way of attempts to cook up life in the chemistry lab. The language of chemistry simply does not mesh with that of biology. Chemistry is about substances and how they react, whereas biology appeals to concepts such as information and organisation. Informational narratives permeate biology. DNA is described as a genetic “database”, containing “instructions” on how to build an organism. The genetic “code” has to be “transcribed” and “translated” before it can act. And so on. If we cast the problem of life’s origin in computer jargon, attempts at chemical synthesis focus exclusively on the hardware – the chemical substrate of life – but ignore the software – the informational aspect. To explain how life began we need to understand how its unique management of information came about.

Read the rest here!

16 Replies to “Paul Davies on the Origin of Life as an Information Problem

  1. 1
    bornagain77 says:

    As to:

    “A century and a half ago, Charles Darwin produced a convincing explanation for how life on Earth evolved from simple microbes to the complexity of the biosphere today, but he pointedly left out how life got started in the first place. “One might as well speculate about the origin of matter,” he quipped.”

    Though I certainly don’t find anything ‘convincing’ about Darwin’s ‘explanation’ for how all life on earth diversified, let’s, instead of focusing in on Evolution’s dismal failure to explain even trivial amounts of the massive integrated levels of functional information in life, focus in instead on Darwin’s quip: “One might as well speculate about the origin of matter,”

    Logical Proofs of Infinite External Consciousness – January 18, 2012
    Excerpt: (Proof # 2) If you believe in the theory of Quantum Mechanics, then you believe that conscious observation must be present to collapse a wave function. If consciousness did not exist prior to matter coming into existence, then it is impossible that matter could ever come into existence. Additionally, this rules out the possibility that consciousness is the result of quantum mechanical processes. Either consciousness existed before matter or QM is wrong, one or the other is indisputably true.

    Double-slit experiment
    Excerpt: In 1999 objects large enough to see under a microscope, buckyball (interlocking carbon atom) molecules (diameter about 0.7 nm, nearly half a million times that of a proton), were found to exhibit wave-like interference.

    Does the atom have a designer? When science and spirituality meet – LAKHI GOENKA an Engineer – May 2012
    Excerpt: Atoms are machines that enable the physical, electromagnetic (including light), nuclear, chemical, and biological (including life) functioning of the universe. Atoms are a complex assembly of interacting particles that enable the entire functioning of the universe. They are the machine that enables all other machines. It is virtually impossible to explain the structure, complexity, internal dynamics, and resulting functionality of the atom from chance events or through evolutionary mechanisms. The atom is a machine that provides multiple functions, and every machine is the product of intelligence. The atom must have a designer.

    The complexity of computing the actions of a ‘simple’ atom, in detail, quickly exceeds the capacity of our most advanced supercomputers of today:

    Delayed time zero in photoemission: New record in time measurement accuracy – June 2010
    Excerpt: Although they could confirm the effect qualitatively using complicated computations, they came up with a time offset of only five attoseconds. The cause of this discrepancy may lie in the complexity of the neon atom, which consists, in addition to the nucleus, of ten electrons. “The computational effort required to model such a many-electron system exceeds the computational capacity of today’s supercomputers,” explains Yakovlev.

    The delicate balance at which carbon is synthesized in stars is truly a work of art. Fred Hoyle (1915-2001), a famed astrophysicist, is the scientist who established the nucleo-synthesis of heavier elements within stars as mathematically valid in 1946. Years after Sir Fred discovered the stunning precision with which carbon is synthesized in stars he stated:

    From 1953 onward, Willy Fowler and I have always been intrigued by the remarkable relation of the 7.65 MeV energy level in the nucleus of 12 C to the 7.12 MeV level in 16 O. If you wanted to produce carbon and oxygen in roughly equal quantities by stellar nucleosynthesis, these are the two levels you would have to fix, and your fixing would have to be just where these levels are actually found to be. Another put-up job? … I am inclined to think so. A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a super intellect has “monkeyed” with the physics as well as the chemistry and biology, and there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature. –
    Sir Fred Hoyle, Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics, 20 (1982): 16.

    Sir Fred also stated:

    I do not believe that any physicist who examined the evidence could fail to draw the inference that the laws of nuclear physics have been deliberately designed with regard to the consequences they produce within stars.
    Sir Fred Hoyle – “The Universe: Past and Present Reflections.” Engineering and Science, November, 1981. pp. 8–12

    Moreover different atoms work together, apparently as if designed ‘top down’, for the benefit of biological life:

    “Dr. Michael Denton on Evidence of Fine-Tuning in the Universe” (Remarkable balance of various key elements for life)- podcast

    Further notes:

    Quantum Evidence for a Theistic Big Bang

    The best data we have [concerning the Big Bang] are exactly what I would have predicted, had I nothing to go on but the five books of Moses, the Psalms, the bible as a whole.
    Dr. Arno Penzias, Nobel Laureate in Physics – co-discoverer of the Cosmic Background Radiation – as stated to the New York Times on March 12, 1978


    “Speculations? I have none. I am resting on certainties.”
    Michael Faraday – When asked about his speculations on life beyond death, as quoted in The Homiletic Review? (April 1896), p. 442

  2. 2
    Upright BiPed says:


    15 January 2013 7:48 AM

    This comment was removed by a moderator because it didn’t abide by our community standards. Replies may also be deleted. For more detail see our FAQs.

    Apparently, The Guardian doesn’t like my comment:

    The odd thing is that when you bring up the fact to materialists and reductionists that information processing has specific material conditions which can be coherently understood, they suddenly become anti-observation, and border on being anti-intellectual.

    I’s quite a sight to see

    Perhaps I’ll try again later…

  3. 3
    ciphertext says:

    I suspect that this reference to “information management” and similar statements concerning the topic of management of “information” are being made as a form of “damage control”. The “Design Movement”, if I may call it that, has already leveraged the comparison of particular biological artifacts (e.g. DNA, protein folding) to that of information technology in its discussions of biological origins and evolution (not TOE). The opposition to the design hypothesis has been unable to halt the increasing “credibility” being given purveyors of design hypotheses (whether “front loading”, specifically Christian theological , or other theories) in the popular mindset. Notably, the tactics employed by the opposition have done enough “collectively” to halt the progression, though individually they have exacted their desired toll (i.e. Guillermo Gonzalez denial of tenure, firing of JPL employee Coppedge, refusal to show design friendly programs in government controlled/funded venues). So, the logical next tactic is an attempt to render the opponents “weaponry” as ineffective. Hence we will begin to see that biological systems are naturally efficient at information management, since they would have had to evolve such capabilities to stay relevant in the biosphere.

    This is a dangerous tactic, as I think the general public has an entrenched understanding of information technology systems in general (e.g. computers, internet, networking, communications) as having an existence entirely contingent upon the existence of a mind. Now, the design opponents will need to battle on two fronts:
    1) The established opponent: Design Hypothesis Purveyors.
    2) The ideas and beliefs of the general populace concerning “information”, in general.

    Number two in the list is a much more difficult and much larger opponent to battle. All persons who utilize information technology, either as a consumer or producer there-of, will come to the battleground with an idea that all examples of information technology are created. More importantly, they understand that all technologies were designed by human engineering to solve a problem (mostly to solve problems). Even if the understood “inspiration” for the technology product was a natural phenomenon, the technology is designed, engineered, and built by people or their agents (robotic manufacturing). The design opposition will need to modify the current understanding of “information technology” held by the general public.

  4. 4
    Axel says:

    That seems a very plausible analysis of the straits they now find themselves in. The masters of this World, which was so despised by Christ, are now finding that their ‘noise-machine’ and all its works are losing more and more of their thought-policing control. Shame.

  5. 5
    Mung says:

    Upright BiPed

    Perhaps I’ll try again later…

    Any luck?

  6. 6
    Mung says:

    They don’t call it “the Guardian” for no reason!

  7. 7
    Axel says:

    Unlike its sister Sunday paper, The Observer!

  8. 8
    Axel says:

    I find it fascinating that the saying of a Kabbala sage, to the effect that when a man dies, a whole world dies with him, suggests that the primacy of consciousness over matter was first intuited by him. (Yes, that word! Though used correctly, here, I trust, as ‘infused knowledge’ – when used sanely, i.e. in relation to aspects of reality opaque to the analytical intelligence).

    Maybe when the atheists finally reach the mountain-top and peer over the edge, instead of seeing the theologians and churchmen sitting there waiting for them, and being asked by the latter what took them so long, they will just see a standing stone with the inscription, ‘Kilroy* was here’ – with a little footnote revealing Kilroy’s identity as:

    *’those religious nuts’.

  9. 9
    Axel says:

    BA, you know you pointed out the correspondence of the information carried by photons with the first line of St John’s Prologue: ‘In the beginning was the Word;..’?

    Well, it strikes me that the physical light-spiritual light continuum that I suggested, is indicated by the two ensuing clauses:

    ‘..; the Word was with God
    and the Word was God.’

  10. 10
    Axel says:

    Perhaps I should have written, ‘(quasi)physical light-‘. Somehow, it seems to accord with the Incarnation, and your assertion that we are ‘beings of light’. The mystery of that continuum, in particular.

    ‘Know ye not that ye are gods?’ Branches of The True Vine, the Mystical Body of Christ, united in the Holy Ghost with Christ as our Head, and we the parts.

  11. 11
    bornagain77 says:

    Axel, I would put it more like this, “physical light points us to the higher spiritual light of Christ that we should walk in”

    i.e. To walk in the light of God has a different, higher, meaning than to simply walk in the physical light of this world.,,, I make this distinction because I have seen a few, very smart, people try to make a much more direct connection between physical light and God than is warranted. i.e. Trying to turn physical light into spiritual light if you will through connecting all the the characteristics of light that relate to God. IMO, that endeavor, while interesting, is aiming far too short for what God intended to show us through physical light.

  12. 12
    Axel says:

    Thanks for your feedback, BA.

    To me, it accords with the interface between matter and spirit, provided by Christ in his Incarnation – which would contribute to explaining why the photon is so unfathomably mysterious. Oops. Sorry. Counter-intuitive!

    As you intimated to someone recently, they’ve emerged from a mysterious, presumably eternal, Singularity, outside of time and space, so the issuers of the promissory note are no further forward than Planck would have predicted, with his remark about the atom, you will be very familiar with:

    ‘As a man who has devoted his whole life to the most clear- headed science, to the study of matter, I can tell you as a result of my research about atoms this much: There is no matter as such. All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the particle of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar system of the atom together. We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent mind. This mind is the matrix of all matter.’

  13. 13
    Axel says:

    ‘Oops. Sorry. Counter-intuitive!’

    That’s not a crack at you, BA. Just a shot at the atheists’ Newspeak, which now seems to have become generalised. I know there are plenty of circumstances in which it would be completely appropriate usage of the word, but its a scam they resort to, in order to avoid acknowledging the essential mystery of paradoxes; counter-rational mysteries which happen to express arbitrary truths.

    It doesn’t accord with the infinite epistemic promise of their materialism. It’s all already in the bag. Just a matter of time. Expansive wave of arm at the heavens to young son, etc.

  14. 14
    bornagain77 says:

    “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” -C.S. Lewis

  15. 15
    bornagain77 says:

    Axel, here is an interesting article with ‘that’ word in it:

    Give away your money, feel wealthier? – January 21, 2013
    Excerpt: In all, 559 of the more than 2,000 people surveyed had received a windfall. After excluding three “outliers” who received more than $1 million, the average windfall amount was $1,500. Of those, 99 said they donated about 3 percent of the money to charity.
    Norton asked questions to assess subjective wealth. Even when he compensated for income, donations predicted better feelings of subjective wealth.
    Giving $500, he calculated, has the same effect on feelings of subjective wealth as earning an extra $10,000 in income.
    In related research, Norton found that people who volunteer their time to help sick children or for other charitable pursuits feel they have more time than those who don’t volunteer. The thinking, he suspects, is that if they have time to give away, they must have plenty of time.
    “To me this is interesting because it is counterintuitive,” said James Maddux, professor emeritus in the department of psychology at George Mason University.

  16. 16
    Axel says:

    ‘“To me this is interesting because it is counterintuitive,” said James Maddux, professor emeritus in the department of psychology at George Mason University.…..ppier.html’

    Yes, I can see the validity of the of the term, here, quite clearly, BA. Probably, I suspect, as it’s dealing with human affairs, which are evidently much more abstruse than mathematics and the sciences that rely on it.

    A similar point was made by a spiritual writer in relation to prayer. Spend a little time on it at the beginning of the day, and you will find you have more time available for other things the rest of the day.

    ‘“I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” -C.S. Lewis’

    Wow. That sounds like a sublime, almost scripturally-poetic epigram, seeming to touch on the point I was proposing. Could Isiah have couched it better?

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