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Information and Life’s Origin — A Retrospective View

Image credit: Brian Gage.

In the late 1980s, I first encountered the science of information theory and its application to theories of the origin of life. My introduction to the subject was a book, Origins and Destiny1, by research scientist Robert Gange. He described the idea of a generalized form of the traditional Second Law of Thermodynamics, based on quantum statistical mechanics. In conjunction with the understanding that the formation of life from non-life constitutes a rise in specified complexity rather than increasing order, this generalized Second Law raised a theoretical barrier against any natural origin of life scenario.

The traditional Second Law of Thermodynamics is viewed as an inviolable arbiter of possible outcomes for all physical processes. In particular, any conceivable proposal for a perpetual motion machine can, without analysis, be rejected based on the Second Law. With regard to the origin and development of life, the generalized Second Law states that any “alleged natural explanation…will be untrue in the same way a patent examiner in Washington, DC, knows an alleged invention for a perpetual motion machine is untrue.”2

A Postdoc Wonders

As a young postdoctoral researcher in physics, I wondered why the quantum statistical version of the Second Law wasn’t more widely recognized as an aspect of physical reality that limited any proposed natural mechanism for the origin of life. However, since the background physics of the generalized Second Law is typically buried in graduate-level texts on quantum statistical mechanics, perhaps its low visibility isn’t surprising.

Since my own physics research trajectory took me from experimental plasma physics to integrated optics to computational nano-electronics, my professional work did not directly intersect with research on the physical aspects of information theory. However, my personal interest in seeing how evidence for intelligent design held up to scientific advances kept my attention focused on relevant developments in cosmology and molecular biology.

In the early 1990s, the graduate library at the University of Washington provided access to research articles by Hubert Yockey on the application of information theory to the origin of life. Noting that “The information content of amino acid sequences cannot increase until a genetic code with an adaptor function has appeared,” Yockey states,

Nothing which even vaguely resembles a code exists in the physico-chemical world. One must conclude that no valid scientific explanation of the origin of life exists at present.3

Unlocking Life’s Enigma

By the mid 1990s, I had read The Mystery of Life’s Origin4, in which the authors distinguish between thermal entropy (related to the distribution of energy in the system), and configurational entropy (related to the distribution of mass — for example, the specific sequence of amino acids comprising a protein). Their analysis of multiple proposals for natural mechanisms to overcome the thermodynamic barrier represented by the high degree of configurational entropy in living systems led them to conclude that all such mechanisms are “clearly inadequate to account for the configurational entropy work of coding.”5

In the documentary video “Unlocking the Mystery of Life,” the premise of intelligent design was cogently defended as an alternative to the shortcomings of naturalism to explain such biochemical enigmas as irreducible complexity and the specific sequences of amino acids comprising functional proteins. The latter example of nature’s inability to increase the information content of a closed system over time led biophysicist Dean Kenyon to disavow his own research, published earlier in his textbook, Biochemical Predestination.

In the late 1990s, my academic schedule allowed me to pursue other source material on the physics of the generalized Second Law, and I obtained copies of two main textbooks on statistical mechanics referenced by Gange. The author of one of these texts gives a fundamental definition of information that emphasizes the relationship between information and the mind:

Information is the entity which makes the difference between knowing and not knowing, between being faced with a number of possibilities and between knowing the one that actually prevails.6

Only in the context of the mind is the difference between knowing and not knowing a meaningful distinction. The author of the other text, Arthur Hobson, affirms that given an initial measurement of a system, predictions of the system at a later time “cannot contain more information (but may contain less information)” than the initial data describing the system.7 This limitation on natural processes, based upon the laws of quantum mechanics, prohibits a system (even the entire universe bounded by the cosmic horizon) from progressing from a state of lower information (pre-life) to a state of higher information (post-life) by any combination of natural forces.

Chance and Necessity

William Dembski affirms the proscriptions of the generalized Second Law by showing that chance and necessity are insufficient to ratchet up the complex specified information (CSI) content of a closed system over time:

What natural causes cannot do, however, is originate CSI. This strong proscriptive claim, that natural causes can only transmit CSI but never originate it, I call the Law of Conservation of Information. It is this law that gives definite scientific content to the claim that CSI is intelligently caused.8

In 2005, while mentoring a senior honors student on a study of the boundaries of science, I read Stephen Meyer’s groundbreaking article outlining intelligent design as a source of biological information.9 Complementing the conclusions of other lines of research, Meyer’s analysis and conclusions added to the scientific literature affirming the validity of the generalized Second Law as a fundamental boundary of nature that disallows an unguided origin of life.

Have the last twenty years produced any experimental research demonstrating how unguided natural processes can successfully produce the complex, specified arrangements of components inherent in functional biomolecules? Any dearth of success in this field is not for lack of trying, nor is it surprising that scientists have not been able to coax even a single biochemically relevant protein into existence from a mix of ingredients likely to be available on the early Earth. 

The Limits of Unguided Processes

A Rice University professor of chemistry, James Tour, who is renowned for his research in synthetic organic chemistry, draws this conclusion regarding any naturalistic origin-of-life scenario:

…the requisite molecules (lipids, proteins, nucleic acids, and carbohydrates) are so unlikely to have occurred in the states and quantities needed, that we could never have gotten to the point of figuring out the genesis of the requisite code or information.10

Unguided natural processes, according to the generalized Second Law, cannot systematically increase the information content of a closed system over time. Since the origin of life, represented by the formation of a single-cell organism, constitutes just such an increase in information, natural processes are not expected to be the cause. Intelligence is the only recognized source of information, as inherent in living organisms. What we know of the laws of physics supports this conclusion.


  1. Robert Gange, Origins and Destiny (Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1986).
  2. Gange, Origins, (1986), 91.
  3. Hubert P. Yockey, “Self Organization Origin of Life Scenarios and Information Theory,” J. Theor. Biol. 91 (1981), 13-31.
  4. Charles B. Thaxton, Walter L. Bradley, and Roger L. Olsen, The Mystery of Life’s Origin: Reassessing Current Theories (New York: Philosophical Library, 1984).
  5. Thaxton, et al, Mystery (1984), ch. 8 (available online: https://www.ldolphin.org/mystery/chapt8.html ).
  6. Amnon Katz, Principles of Statistical Mechanics: The Information Theory Approach (San Francisco: W. H. Freeman & Co., 1967), 14.
  7. Arthur Hobson, Concepts in Statistical Mechanics (New York: Gordon and Breach Science Publishers, 1971), 142-145.
  8. William A. Dembski, “Intelligent Design as a Theory of Information,” (1997); https://www.discovery.org/a/118/ .
  9. Stephen C. Meyer, “The Origin of Biological Information and the Higher Taxonomic Categories,” Proc. of the Biological Society of Washington, 117(2), (2004), 213-239.
  10. https://www.jmtour.com/personal-topics/evolution-creation/.