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ID’s Top Six — The Origin of Information in DNA and the Origin of Life

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Editor’s note: In the past we’ve offered the top 10 problems with Darwinian evolution (see here for a fuller elaboration), and the top five problems with origin-of-life theories. But somehow we neglected to offer a parallel listing of the top evidence supporting intelligent design. Many different sources pointing to design in nature could be adduced, but we decided to distill it all down to six major lines of evidence. Sure, five or ten would have been more conventional, but when did ID advocates start playing to expectations?

So here they are, their order simply reflecting that in which they must logically have occurred within our universe. Material is adapted from the textbook Discovering Intelligent Design, which is an excellent resource for introducing the evidence for ID, along with Stephen Meyer’s books Signature in the Cell and Darwin’s Doubt.

3. The Origin of Information in DNA and the Origin of Life

The laws of the universe are necessary for life to exist. But they aren’t sufficient to explain how life arose. The origin of life requires a massive infusion of information, which can only be explained by intelligent design. Stephen Meyer’s book Signature in the Cell puts it best:

Hume’s objections to the classical design argument fail to refute the argument of this book for several reasons. First, we now know that organisms come from organisms, because organisms possess information-rich macromolecules and a complex information-rich system for processing and replicating the information stored in those molecules. Thus, [Hume’s] argument that uniform experience suggests that organisms necessarily arise from an infinite regress of primeval organisms (or an eternally self-existent one) fails. Repeated experience about the origin of information-rich systems suggests two possibilities, not one. Either information-rich systems arise from preexisting systems of information via a mechanism of replication, or information-rich systems arise from minds. We have repeated experiences of both. Even so, our experience also affirms — based on cases in which we know the cause of such systems — that systems capable of copying and processing other information ultimately arise from intelligent design. After all, the computer hardware that can copy and process information in software originated in the mind of an engineer.

Beyond that, advances in our understanding of planetary and cosmic evolution have ruled out the possibility that biological life has always existed, either on earth or in the cosmos. At some point in the remote past, the conditions on earth and in the larger cosmos were simply incompatible with life. The big-bang theory alone implies that the cosmos itself is finite. Thus, scientifically informed people generally don’t argue that biological life always existed or even that it always existed on earth. The question is whether life originated from a purely undirected material process or whether a mind also played a role. Between these two options uniform experience affirms only the latter as an adequate cause for information-rich systems capable of processing and copying information. Since we know that organisms capable of reproduction constitute information-rich systems, a Humean appeal to uniform experience  actually suggests intelligent design, not undirected processes, as the explanation for the origin of the first life.

Second, the contemporary case for intelligent design (such as the one made in this book) is not an analogical argument, even though many interesting similarities do exist between living organisms and human information technology. If, as Bill Gates says, “DNA is like a computer program,” it makes sense, on analogical grounds, to consider inferring that DNA also had an intelligent source. Nevertheless, although the digitally encoded information in DNA is similar to the information in a computer program, the case for design made here does not depend upon mere similarity. Here’s why.

Classical design arguments in biology typically seek to draw analogies between whole organisms and machines based on similar features present in both systems, reasoning from similar effects back to similar causes. These arguments are a bit like those sixth-grade math problems in which students are given a ratio of known quantities on one side of the equation and a ratio of an unknown to a known quantity on the other and then asked to “solve for x,” the unknown quantity. In analogical design arguments, two similar effects are compared. In one case, the cause of the effect is known. In the other case the cause is unknown, but is presumed to be knowable because of the alleged similarity between the two effects. The analogical reasoner “solves for x,” in this case, the unknown cause.

The status of such design arguments inevitably turns on the degree of similarity between the systems in question. If the two effects are very similar, then inferring a similar cause will seem more warranted than if the two effects are less similar. Since, however, even advocates of these classical design arguments admit there are dissimilarities as well as similarities between living things and human artifacts, the status of the analogical design argument has always been uncertain. Advocates argued that similarities between organisms and machines outweighed dissimilarities. Critics claimed the opposite.

But the DNA-to-design argument does not have an analogical form. Instead, it constitutes an inference to the best explanation. Such argument do not compare degrees of similarity between different effects, but instead compare the explanatory power of competing causes with respect to a single kind of effect.

As noted, biological information, such as we find in DNA and proteins, comprises two features: complexity and functional specificity. Computer codes and linguistic texts also manifest this pair of properties (“complexity” and “specificity”), what I have referred to throughout this book as specified information. Although a computer program may be similar to DNA in many respects and dissimilar in others, it exhibits a precise identity to DNA insofar as both contain specified complexity or specified information.

Accordingly, the design argument developed here does not rely on a comparison of similar effects, but upon the presence of a single kind of effect — specified information — and an assessment of the ability of competing causes to produce that effect. 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.

(Signature in the Cell, pp. 384-386)

Here, Stephen Meyer summarizes his argument: