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Meyer, Isaac: Is Information in DNA “Abstract”?

Image credit: Brian Gage.

The American Scientific Affiliation is an association of Christian scientists who are not on the whole supportive of scientific arguments for intelligent design. Physicist Randy Isaac, the ASA’s executive director emeritus, wrote a critical review for the ASA’s journal of our recent book The Mystery of Life’s Origin: The Continuing Controversy, and he conducted a quite interesting  online discussion on the subject. He spotlighted Walter Bradley (co-author of the original book, The Mystery of Life’s Origin) in the conversation, as well as philosopher of science Stephen Meyer and physicist Brian Miller who both contributed chapters to the substantially updated edition, to which I wrote the introduction.

An Idiosyncratic Criticism 

I found Dr. Isaac’s criticism to be idiosyncratic. His central contention turns upon the question of whether the information stored in DNA is “abstract” in nature.

The information is not encoded in an abstract code but in a code embodied in a biomolecular system. It is indeed a true code, but it can function only in its physical embodiment and not in a symbolic form. As humans, we represent and model this information symbolically, but its specificity can be determined only in nature in its physical form. No intelligence is required.

It’s not abstract, he says, because the arbitrary code only functions if the organism “survives and can reproduce.” The origin of life therefore does not give scientific evidence of design, which would only be afforded if the code were abstract. While affirming creation and the existence of an “intelligent designer,” Isaac concludes that “Origin-of-life research offers no compelling apologetic either for or against a Creator.” 

This is odd because as Dr. Meyer answers, other abstract codes — such as the English language — can have very real survival functions. For example, if you cry out “Fire!” in a burning building, and because of that people in the building are able to make their way out in an orderly manner and thereby survive, this does not undercut the obvious fact that the word “fire” is an instance of abstract linguistic coding. Nothing about the four letters — f, i, r, and e — has any physical connection at all with a state of combustion.

Not Peculiar to Intelligent Design

The observation about DNA is not peculiar to ID proponents, says Meyer. Instead, it 

goes back to the sequence hypothesis of [Francis] Crick in 1957, 1958 where he realized that the nucleotide bases in DNA are functioning just like alphabetic characters in a written language or digital characters in a section of machine code, which is to say that they are not conveying information in virtue of their physical properties or their chemical properties but rather they’re conveying information in virtue of their precise arrangement in accord with an abstract symbol convention.

This seems pretty clear. In any event, it was gracious of Dr. Isaac to invite Meyer, Miller, and Bradley on to answer his critique. There is no little dramatic tension, in fact, as the conversation starts out very genially but becomes politely contentious about 43 minutes in. It’s good to see important ideas tested by thoughtful critics. The exchange is worth watching in full.