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Is Information in DNA “Abstract”? Physicist Randy Isaac Responds

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Photo credit: xaviercanserra, via Pixabay.

Recently Stephen Meyer, Brian Miller, and Walter Bradley interacted in a public video conference with physicist Randy Isaac and other members of the American Scientific Affiliation. The subject was the recent book The Mystery of Life’s Origin: The Continuing Controversy. They discussed the theory of intelligent design, and disagreed on an interesting question. I wrote about it here: “Meyer, Isaac: Is Information in DNA ‘Abstract’?” 

Randy Isaac got in touch with me and offered his own further response, which I’m happy to publish here:

I greatly appreciate and agree with David Klinghoffer’s perspective that “It’s good to see important ideas tested by thoughtful critics.” In that vein, I would like to take this opportunity to further clarify some of my views.

Rather than asking “the question of whether the information stored in DNA is ‘abstract’ in nature” as Klinghoffer put it, my question is whether genetic coding is based on a system which is derived abstractly or naturally, which is a question about the origin of the coding itself. We can all agree that which amino acid is encoded by which DNA code can vary, as seen by the existence of numerous variations on the genetic coding system in nature. But how did the coding system of transfer RNA anticipated by Crick and worked out by Nirenberg and others arise in the first place? Was the coding based on an abstract relationship rooted in an intelligence or was the coding based on a natural origin based on chemistry and historical contingency? 

Steve Meyer has long been an advocate of the view that all complex specified information, and therefore the genetic code, requires an intelligent agent. He justifies the all-inclusive aspect with many examples from human-designed systems but does not state a reason why an intelligence is required. My suggestion is that the reason lies in the way it is determined whether such information is specified rather than random. Simply put, if the determination of whether complex information is specified or not is made by an intelligent agent then intelligence is required but if nature makes that determination, then no intelligence is required.

As an example, how can we determine whether a 10-digit number is a random number or a specified telephone number to call your mother? Nature has no idea. Only an intelligent agent can determine that you wanted to call your mother, that the person answering the phone is she, and therefore the number is specified information. On the other hand, to determine whether DNA information is specified or contains harmful random information, it must be seen whether the host organism can survive and reproduce. If so, it is specified and the information is retained for the next generation. If not, then the information is unspecified and discarded forever. No intelligence is required since nature can wait and see. Even an intelligent agent would need to wait and see. Their intelligence would not be needed to interpret the result.

In the quote from Steve Meyer that Klinghoffer cites, he says “…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.” To my knowledge, no abstract symbol convention ever existed, certainly not prior to Crick and Watson describing the DNA molecule, during the billions of years that life has existed on earth. Only a physical translation convention has been found. Nor has anyone shown a process by which the genetic code or a genomic sequence is compared with an abstract symbol convention and then edited, discarded, or accepted based on that comparison. The precise arrangement of the genomic sequence and the actual genetic code remain highly stable within a genetic lineage not because of their physical and chemical properties, which may have influenced their early development, but because nature has determined they are the specified relationships that enable survival and are therefore retained.

The question of survival and ability to reproduce is vitally important since it retains and replicates the core information necessary to specify another organism. Klinghoffer’s analogy of crying “Fire!” in a burning building to help residents survive refers to a different type of survival that does not retain such information. The analogy has no relevance to the discussion.

I offer these thoughts in the hopes of jointly seeking the truth of important ideas and I look forward to further discussion.

You can watch the whole discussion here: