“What is life?” That’s a question Erwin Schr�dinger tried to answer in an influential lecture at Trinity College, Dublin, in 1943. Last week the same question was addressed to pioneering synthetic geneticist Craig Venter (pictured) on the same stage, with the benefit of six decades of progress in genetics since Watson and Crick unveiled the structure of DNA in 1951. Watson was present at the lecture, according to Claire O’Connell, who reported on the event for New Scientist.
So, what is life from the perspective of a genetic engineer whose team programmed DNA in a computer in the first attempt to build a synthetic organism? Venter told the packed audience in Dublin that life is DNA-software-driven machinery that operates protein robots. Here’s the key passage in the article:
“All living cells that we know of on this planet are ‘DNA software’-driven biological machines comprised of hundreds of thousands of protein robots, coded for by the DNA, that carry out precise functions,” said Venter. “We are now using computer software to design new DNA software.”
That’s a remarkable statement. It has intelligent design written all through it.
O’Connell describes how Schr�dinger realized 69 years ago that a living cell had to carry information. Without knowing the structure of DNA, he envisioned it as an “aperiodic crystal” that could store instructions. She quotes Luke O’Neill, a professor of biochemistry at Trinity and master of ceremonies for the July 12 lecture:
“The gene had to be stable, so it had to be a crystal, and it had to have information so it was aperiodic,” he explained.
“Equally important, Schr�dinger also discussed the possibility of a genetic code, stating the concept in clear physical terms.”
The rest, as they say, is history: DNA did turn out to be aperiodic, stable, and the bearer of a genetic code.
It’s serendipitous that the history of molecular genetics parallels the history of software engineering. Just when Schr�dinger was pondering how cells might store information in a genetic code, software engineers were figuring out how to program the new computers being invented, first the clunky vacuum-tube monstrosities, followed by devices with increasing power and decreasing size as transistors (1947) and integrated circuits (1958) became available.
Software engineers faced the challenges of informational systems: How can instructions be stored and executed to command robotic devices like input-output machines and printers? How can software respond and adapt robustly to changing environments? How can hardware and software be integrated into systems and networks? Simultaneously but independently, geneticists were learning how the newly discovered DNA code stored instructions and executed them, solving the very same challenges. The timing of these discoveries was as uncanny as the similarities between them.
In Signature in the Cell (2009), Stephen Meyer used software as a simile for genetic information, quoting Microsoft founder Bill Gates: “DNA is like a computer program but far, far more advanced than any software ever created” (p. 12).
Venter’s lecture essentially brings the parallel tracks together. DNA is not just like software, he said: that’s what it is. To prove the point, he added, “We are now using computer software to design new DNA software.”
The digital and biological worlds are becoming interchangeable, he added, describing how scientists now simply send each other the information to make DIY biological material rather than sending the material itself.
Today’s answer to “What is life?” therefore, is: it’s software. That’s a very ID-friendly idea, for numerous reasons:
- Our uniform experience with software is that it is intelligently designed.
- Software runs on machines, and machines are intelligently designed.
- Software operates other machines (e.g., robots) that are also intelligently designed.
- Systems of interconnected software and hardware are irreducibly complex.
- Functional systems imply purposefully planned architecture of the whole.
- Software is comprised of information, which is immaterial.
- Information is independent of the storage medium bearing it (e.g., electrons, magnets, silicon chips, molecules of DNA).
- Meaningful information is aperiodic; so is DNA.
- As a form of information, DNA software is complex and specified.
- Epigenetics regulates genetics just as computer software can regulate other software.
- Software can improve over time, but only by intelligent design, not by random mutation.
- Software can contain bugs and still be intelligently designed.
O’Connell told a humorous story that illustrates that last point. When Venter’s team programmed their synthetic organism by running their computer-generated “DNA software” through a bacterium’s “hardware,” it was buggy. They had inserted some text as a watermark, including a quote by late physicist Richard Feynman — but got it wrong. They had to go back later on and fix it.
No one sensible would claim that a mistake in the software by Venter’s team counts as evidence against its being the product of intelligent design, nor should anyone look to dysteleology in life as a disproof of design. Intelligent design theory makes no claims regarding the quality of the design reflected in any phenomenon. It only points to the presence of design.
One might, of course, raise legitimate questions about the wisdom of tinkering with living software. ID theory leaves such questions in the capable hands of ethicists, philosophers, theologians, policy wonks and voters.
Nevertheless, viewing life as software represents a fundamental paradigm shift with profound implications. It’s no longer a Paley-like design argument from analogy, as Stephen Meyer explained in Signature in the Cell (p. 386): it’s an inference to the best explanation based on stronger premises.
The argument does not depend upon the similarity of DNA to a computer program or human language, but upon the presence of an identical feature in both DNA and intelligently designed codes, languages, and artifacts. Because we know intelligent agents can (and do) produce complex and functionally specified sequences of symbols and arrangements of matter, intelligent agency qualifies as an adequate causal explanation for the origin of this effect. Since, in addition, materialistic theories have proven universally inadequate for explaining the origin of such information, intelligent design now stands as the only entity with the causal power known to produce this feature of living systems. Therefore, the presence of this feature in living systems points to intelligent design as the best explanation of it, whether such systems resemble human artifacts in other ways or not.
We might even say now, using Venter’s description, that ID is not just an inference but a logical deduction. Life and software don’t only contain an identical feature, but constitute an identity. They are one and the same.
Image credit: Wikicommons.