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Applying information theory to the origin of life?

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What a novel idea.

Life differs from non-life chiefly in the amount of information it embodies. Not in terms of the sheer randomness of the way it occurs (as in a pile of gravel).

Nonetheless, most origin of life theories that hit the pop science media focus on trying to think up random occurrences that could have somehow happened to result in life.

That’s not just a feature of naturalism in science, it is (supposed to be) a benefit. It doesn’t solve any of the problems, but it is a benefit anyway because it is naturalist.

Anyway, here at The Physics ArXiv is a naturalist approach to information offered by Christoph Adami that tries to incorporate information:

The basis for Adami’s new approach is the idea that life is fundamentally a phenomenon of information. This allows Adami to ignore all the messy details of chemistry and instead consider life’s most basic properties as ones determined by the nature of information and the laws of physics that govern it.

The key idea in Adami’s formulation is that living systems do not exist in a state of thermodynamic equilibrium but somehow maintain themselves in a state that differs from maximum entropy by a deficit that is equivalent to the information they contain. A characteristic feature of living systems is that they can maintain this difference indefinitely.

he big advantage of an information-theoretic approach is that chemistry is taken out of the question. And although it assumes the existence of self-replicating polymers, these need not be chemical at all. The result is a study of the properties of that is satisfyingly mathematical.

It clearly has more potential. “The information-theoretic musings I have presented here should convince even the skeptics that, within an environment that produces monomers at relative ratios not too far from those found in a self-replicator, the probabilities can move very much in favour of spontaneous emergence of life,” concludes Adami.

Yet it never seems to happen in any real-world setting we can observe.

See also: Data Basic for an introduction to information theory


The Science Fictions series at your fingertips (origin of life) for a quick summary on why no other approach to origin of life has gone anywhere (including this one).

Here’s the paper.

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6 Replies to “Applying information theory to the origin of life?

  1. 1
    Heartlander says:

    Both life and information have inherent purpose.

  2. 2
    Mung says:

    I just want to apply information theory to the question of why I haven’t received my copy of Dembski’s new book.

    Any suggestions?

  3. 3
    anthropic says:

    Mung 2, let me join you in your frustration. Originally I thought it was coming out in July and looked forward to it very much.

    The End of Christianity is thought-provoking, and I’m hoping he will develop some of these themes further.

    Anybody know when it will be shipped?

  4. 4
    Andre says:

    It is really good to see that people are recognising Information as the basis of life, ID proponents have said so for years :). Now the good news! He makes a positive claim that information can be generated spontaneously so the burden of proof that it can happen sits with him.

    We are getting somewhere!

  5. 5
    Mung says:

    What does it even mean to say that “information” is the basis of life?

  6. 6
    Eric Anderson says:

    Adami’s approach is to put all this on a mathematical footing. He starts by assuming that a proportion of all molecules of a certain length can act as self replicators.

    Has anyone ever seen one of these alleged self-replicating molecules? I’ve been asking for years if anyone can point me to such an entity and so far all attempts have come up empty.

    The big advantage of an information-theoretic approach is that chemistry is taken out of the question.

    Yes. It is definitely much easier to imagine we have made progress toward explaining the origin of life when we ignore the chemistry. Abiogenesis proponents for decades have been ignoring the chemistry. 🙂

    And although it assumes the existence of self-replicating polymers, these need not be chemical at all.

    Meaning what? That life started with non-chemical self-replicating polymers? What does this even mean? Let’s hope he isn’t just referring back to the Avida in silico “organisms”.

    It will be interesting to see who picks up this ball and runs with it.

    I’m sure that if there is any substance here someone will run with it. One might even be inclined to think that if there were any substance here that Adami himself might run with it, so hopefully we’ll get to see what he comes up with.

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