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Accounting for the Origin of Life, Paul Davies Recognizes the Role of “Software”

Evolution News

Astrobiologist Paul Davies has published a paper that is just shy of a conversion story to intelligent design, though his feet remain stuck in the evolutionary camp.
Arizona State University has a unit called the Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science. Davies is director and, true to the name of the center he runs, some of his ideas have seemed a bit out there (see here, for example). But Davies knows his science and has done profound thinking about the complexity of life. This is clear from the opening sentence of a statement from ASU on his latest work:

One of the great mysteries of life is how it began. What physical process transformed a nonliving mix of chemicals into something as complex as a living cell? (Emphasis added.)

Davies is stunned by what cells accomplish with molecules:

“To a physicist or chemist life seems like ‘magic matter,’” Davies explained. “It behaves in extraordinary ways that are unmatched in any other complex physical or chemical system. Such lifelike properties include autonomy, adaptability and goal-oriented behavior — the ability to harness chemical reactions to enact a pre-programmed agenda, rather than being a slave to those reactions.”

In a new paper in the Royal Society journal Interface, co-authored with NASA postdoctoral researcher Sara Walker, Davies turns the current origin-of-life paradigm upside down. Science Daily sums up up the line of argument succinctly:

New Way to Look at Dawn of Life: Focus Shifts from “Hardware” to “Software”

Sara Walker concedes that life is a product of information:

“When we describe biological processes we typically use informational narratives — cells send out signals, developmental programs are run, coded instructions are read, genomic data are transmitted between generations and so forth,” Walker said. “So identifying life’s origin in the way information is processed and managed can open up new avenues for research.”

But where does software come from? Doesn’t the question open up avenues that lead to intelligent design? Davies and Walker are still trying to wring water from the stone: They want software to emerge by material means — that’s why the question was, “what physical process” transformed chemicals into life.

“We propose that the transition from non-life to life is unique and definable,” added Davies. “We suggest that life may be characterized by its distinctive and active use of information, thus providing a roadmap to identify rigorous criteria for the emergence of life. This is in sharp contrast to a century of thought in which the transition to life has been cast as a problem of chemistry, with the goal of identifying a plausible reaction pathway from chemical mixtures to a living entity.”

Given such observations, how can Davies remain in the materialist camp? He seeks to explain with an analogy that leads to an oil-and-water mix of design and materialism:

“We believe the transition in the informational architecture of chemical networks is akin to a phase transition in physics, and we place special emphasis on the top-down information flow in which the system as a whole gains causal purchase over its components,” Davies added. “This approach will reveal how the logical organization of biological replicators differs crucially from trivial replication associated with crystals (non-life). By addressing the causal role of information directly, many of the baffling qualities of life are explained.”

This idea sounds “Beyond,” all right. The comparison of the emergence of software to a phase transition is completely unknown in software engineering.
What motivated the about-face by Davies? It’s the complete failure of traditional materialist approaches to explaining the origin of life.

For more than a century, scientists have struggled to reconstruct the key first steps on the road to life. Until recently, their focus has been trained on how the simple building blocks of life might have been synthesized on the early Earth, or perhaps in space. But because it happened so long ago, all chemical traces have long been obliterated, leaving plenty of scope for speculation and disagreement.

That’s why Davies and Walker feel that a major shift in thinking is needed on the problem. “Focusing on informational development helps move away from some of the inherent disadvantages of trying to pin down the beginnings of chemical life.” Traditional origin-of-life approaches are dead meat:

“Chemical based approaches,” Walker said, “have stalled at a very early stage of chemical complexity — very far from anything we would consider ‘alive.’ More seriously they suffer from conceptual shortcomings in that they fail to distinguish between chemistry and biology.

So they know they are lost; they’re just not ready as yet to accept an assist from intelligent design. So near, yet so far:

In a nutshell, the authors shift attention from the “hardware” — the chemical basis of life — to the “software” — its information content. To use a computer analogy, chemistry explains the material substance of the machine, but it won’t function without a program and data. Davies and Walker suggest that the crucial distinction between non-life and life is the way that living organisms manage the information flowing through the system.

This approach is exactly what advocates of intelligent design have been stressing from the beginning: information is a fundamental property of the universe. You see this in the documentary Unlocking the Mystery of Life, in Stephen Meyer’s Signature in the Cell, and even the film The Privileged Planet, where Paul Davies made a cameo appearance describing the extraordinary fact that our universe is comprehensible by the human mind.
Don’t underestimate, though, what it would cost Davies to declare in favor of ID. It would mean the end of his prestigious directorship of the Beyond Center at ASU and likely his expulsion from consensus academia. So you will not find any mention of intelligent design in the paper, “The Algorithmic Origins of Life,” which is available on Arxiv. But neither is there much mention of evolution.

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