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Long Story Short: The Origin of Replication and the Information Sequence Problem

Image source: Discovery Institute.

The latest installment of Long Story Short, in its series on the origin of life, is “Challenge to Origin of Life: Replication.” The video provides an erudite but also funny critique of prominent ideas about how the first self-replicating molecules arose. 

As an undergraduate at UC San Diego, I attended a seminar taught by Stanley Miller, the famous chemist who put origin-of-life research on the map by producing amino acids under what we once thought were early-earth conditions. I’ll never forget what Miller said in that seminar: “Making compounds and making life are two different things.” He was right. You can make all the molecules you want, but if there is no system of replication, then they are just inert chemicals. According to most origin-of-life theorists, it is this step from non-replication to replication that constitutes the origin of life itself. But how easy is it to bridge this great divide? That is the question that our latest Long Story Short video explores.

The primary model that the video investigates is the most prominent one in the field: the “RNA World” model. It’s not hard to find critiques of this idea. The video focuses on a fantastic paper by Nobel Prize winner Jack Szostak titled, “The eightfold path to non-enzymatic RNA replication.” Szostak offers eight strong critiques of the RNA World model. Watch the video to get the full story!

An Even More Fundamental Critique

To the video’s argument I would add one other critique. It’s even more fundamental: How do you get the information needed to specify a hypothetical self-replicating molecule in the first place? This is sometimes called the information sequence problem. As my co-authors and I explained in Discovering Intelligent Design

In the absence of a mechanism for the origin of life based upon DNA and proteins, materialists have devised a theory that another molecule, RNA, could have formed a precursor to DNA-based life.

In living cells, RNA serves as an information-transportation molecule. The transportation involves complicated processes called transcription and translation to convert the information in the genome into physical parts of the cell — proteins.

During translation, another molecule called transfer RNA (tRNA) ferries needed amino acids to the ribosome so that the protein chain can be assembled.

Since RNA can both carry information and perform a few cellular functions, materialists reasoned that perhaps it solved the chicken-and-egg riddle. This hypothesis is known as the “RNA world.”

Proponents of the RNA world hypothesis are at the forefront of modern origin-of-life thinking. They generally claim the RNA world began when a self-replicating RNA molecule appeared by pure chance. While speculation abounds, this is the most popular theory about the origin of life today. In the introduction to a recent Scientific American article, the editors boldly stated:

“[S]tudies have supported the hypothesis that primitive cells containing molecules similar to RNA could assemble spontaneously, reproduce and evolve, giving rise to all life.”

Makes it sound easy, doesn’t it? However, there are major problems with the RNA world hypothesis, any of which could derail the theory.

1. RNA can’t form without intelligent design.

RNA has not been shown to assemble in a laboratory without the help of a skilled chemist intelligently guiding the process. Robert Shapiro, professor emeritus of chemistry at New York University, has critiqued the efforts of those who tried to make RNA in the lab: 

“The flaw is in the logic — that this experimental control by researchers in a modern laboratory could have been available on the early Earth.”

2. RNA can’t fulfill the roles of proteins.

Despite some claims to the contrary, RNA molecules do not exhibit many of the properties that allow proteins to serve as worker molecules in the cell. While RNA has been shown to perform a few roles, there is no evidence that it could perform all necessary cellular functions.

3. The RNA world can’t explain the origin of information.

The most fundamental problem with the RNA world hypothesis is its inability to explain the origin of information in the first self-replicating RNA molecule — which experts suggest would have to have been between 200 and 300 nucleotides in length.

How did the nucleotide bases in RNA become properly ordered to produce life? There are no known chemical or physical laws that can do this. To explain the ordering of nucleotides in the first self-replicating RNA molecule, materialists have no explanation other than chance. The unique RNA sequence required for replication represents complex and specified information (CSI). The odds of specifying 250 nucleotides in an RNA molecule by chance alone are as follows:

This sequence contains too much CSI — and the probability is too low — to be produced by unguided natural processes. Robert Shapiro puts the problem this way: 

“The sudden appearance of a large self-copying molecule such as RNA was exceedingly improbable.… [The probability] is so vanishingly small that its happening even once anywhere in the visible universe would count as a piece of exceptional good luck.”

ID theorists refer to this obstacle to materialism as the information sequence problem. This is a major obstacle for any materialistic hypothesis of the origin of life.

Needed: Intelligent Design

Since an input of massive amounts of information is necessary for any origin of life model to succeed, we argue that this requires intelligent design:

Other than intelligent design, any model for the origin of life — whether the RNA world hypothesis or some other theory — will stumble over the origin of information. According to materialists, information arose in the first life due to sheer chance. But the odds of producing such ordered information by chance are impossibly low…

So how does information arise? The past two chapters have shown that life is based upon:

  • A vast amount of complex and specified information encoded in a biochemical language.
  • A computer-like system of commands and codes that processes the information.
  • Molecular machines and multi-machine systems.

Where, in our experience, do language, complex and specified information, programming code, and machines come from? They have only one known source: intelligence.

Even the best efforts of ID critics cannot escape the fact that intelligence is required to solve the information sequence problem.

For the full set of references from “Challenge to Origin of Life: Replication,” see here.