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England, Davies: Honesty, if Not Agreement, on the Origin of Life

Brian Miller
Photo: Plant cells, by Hermann Schachner, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.

I recently had the pleasure of watching Justin Brierley facilitate a discussion between Jeremy England and Paul Davies. This episode of the show Unbelievable? was titled “The Origins of Life: Do We Need a New Theory for How Life Began?” 

England is senior director in artificial intelligence at GlaxoSmithKline, principal research scientist at Georgia Tech, and former professor of physics at MIT. We engaged in a fruitful exchange in the journal Inference (herehere) on this same question. Davies is a professor of physics at Arizona State University and the director of Beyond: Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science. Both scientists are not only leaders in their fields and excellent communicators, but they have engaged members of the intelligent design community respectfully and honestly. Of particular importance, their exchange and Brierley’s insightful questions and comments further demonstrate the need for the mainstream scientific community to break free from the confines of scientific materialism. 

Two Enlightening Moments

Two moments in the conversation particularly stood out. The first one occurred after England explained his conjecture that the flow of energy through a chemical system could cause it to self-organize in such a way as to move toward life, including the generation of the required biological information. Brierley referenced my critique that such a fortuitous scenario might seem possible in principle, but it is implausible in practice. He also commented that such proposals naturally lead one to “anthropomorphize the process” where one speaks as if nature wants to direct simple chemicals to move toward life. Previously, I detailed how  theoretical and experimental evidence demonstrates that nature processes always move chemical systems in the exact opposite direction (herehere).  

England responded by stating that the tendency to treat life as somehow a special arrangement of matter defined by meaningful biological information represents our inherent bias, resulting from our familiarity with life’s current characteristics and forms. Instead, “one person’s information is another person’s noise.” In other words, the early forms of nascent cells might appear to us as much more mundane arrangements of molecules. Yet, this assertion completely conflicts with studies of minimally complex cells examined in the light of studies on minimally complex self-replicating machines. 

The confluence of these two streams of research demonstrates that the simplest possible cell that would not spontaneously decompose into simpler molecules must contain the following components:

  • Machinery for energy production and delivery
  • Information repositories and processors
  • Selective gateways with active transport
  • Sensors coupled to signal transduction pathways and signal processing 
  • Actuators that implement instructions
  • Manufacturing and auto assembly processes
  • Automated repair machinery
  • Waste disposal and recycling mechanisms
  • Control systems capable of global coordination

These features directly parallel human engineering, but they must be performed in life at a much higher level of ingenuity and efficiency. The underlying information is easily distinguishable from noise or anything that could ever be generated by any physical process.  

Honesty and Candor

A second notable moment was when Brierley asked Paul Davies about his view that some principle in the universe exists that could generate the required information and move a chemical system toward life. Davies acknowledged that no one knows of such a principle. He also honestly stated that the reason he still had faith that such a principle or process must exist is his unwillingness to consider the possibility of a supreme intelligent agent, as assumed by most world religions, who acts in the world. I deeply respect his intellectual honesty and candor. 

Most critics of intelligent design pretend that they reject the possibility of design in nature based on scientific evidence, when their criticisms in fact reflect that they had made no serious effort to understand the key arguments or the underlying science. In contrast, they assume from the beginning that the arguments must be false and then simply look for some excuse to justify their predetermined conclusion. Such people stand in stark contrast to scholars such as England and Davies who wish to discuss the deepest scientific questions in a posture of respect and honesty.