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A Theoretical Biologist’s Mission Impossible: Banish Teleology While Retaining Meaning

Image source: Discovery Institute.

We’ve been following the efforts of University of Ferrara theoretical biologist Marcello Barbieri to make sense of the enormous amount of information in life forms. His 2016 paper proposes to do it in a thoroughly physicalist science environment where life is just chemistry that once happened to swish together in an unusual way. As we have seen (here and here), the project is not going well.

Meaning Cannot Exist in an Intellectually Null Universe

The idea that information is a mere linguistic metaphor that does not really belong in science is popular in biology today. It supports conventional biologists’ greatest intellectual commitment: That Darwinian evolution, by natural selection acting on random mutation, creates the entire complex, specified structure of life in a universe with no underlying intelligence. If so, then information, like consciousness, is an illusory but useful concept.

Barbieri, far from dissenting from his fellow biologists’ fateful commitment to nullity, wants to protect it. He tries to reassure readers that the “life is just chemistry” approach is not really true Darwinism after all. Natural selection, the alleged creative power of Darwinism, does not occur in non-living things, he notes.

In reality, of course, the “life is just chemistry” approach accords brilliantly with Darwinism. It purports to explain the origin of life in a universe devoid of intelligence just as Darwinism proposes to explain its development that way. The reason their approach doesn’t work is that life runs on information, not just chemistry. Barbieri understands that. But information is fundamentally immaterial; it chimes with mathematics and probability rather than chemistry and physics.

Information also conveys meaning, a concept comprehensible only in the context of intelligence. The information of tunes and videos, for example, can be stored in DNA but it can only be understood by the intelligent agents who attach meaning to it. Because Barbieri wants the meaning of information without its immateriality and the many implications that follow, his proposed solution is that the precursors of life acted like… “artifact-makers” — intelligent human agents pursuing a goal. So we are back where we started!

Good Points Trapped in the Wrong Mental Universe

Barbieri’s practical problem is that a popular, dominant idea like “life is just chemistry” need not be proved, only accepted. Big Ideas can be difficult or impossible to disprove even when they defy reality, as that one does. Deplatforming skeptics makes much more sense to opinion leaders. 

Thus, Barbieri’s dilemma is that he understands something he can’t afford to know or follow up on:

We realize in this way that organic information is as real as the copying process that generates it. This in turn means that organic information is essential to describe genes and proteins. To this purpose, in fact, it is no less essential than the physical quantities, and this means that organic information has the same scientific status as a physical quantity. They both belong to the class of objective entities that allow us to describe the world.

We conclude that organic information does not have the status of a derived physical quantity because it cannot be expressed by anything simpler than itself. This means that organic information has the same scientific status as the fundamental quantities of physics. 


These are good points but they are trapped in the wrong mental universe. For example, consider the use of the term “describe,” as in “organic information is essential to describe genes and proteins”… “the class of objective entities that allow us to describe the world.” “Describe” to whom? In a physicalist world, there is no conscious intelligence to describe them to. Consciousness is an illusion that evolved by natural selection because it differentially improved human survival. So what Barbieri is seeking to establish cannot — by definition — be established in a “life is just chemistry” world. And when he goes on to say “All we need to keep in mind is that meaning is a mental entity when the code is between mental objects, but it is an organic entity when the code is between organic molecules,” he is invoking “mental” concepts that cannot really exist.

He seems to like it that way. He wants to banish teleology (purpose) while somehow retaining meaning:

We simply cannot describe the transmission of genes or the synthesis of proteins without their sequences, and we cannot replace these sequences with anything else, which means that using information to describe living systems is perfectly equivalent to using space, time and mass to describe physical systems.

We realize in this way that there is no more teleology in organic information and in the genetic code than there is in the quantities of physics and chemistry. Sequences (organic information) and coding rules (organic meaning) are descriptive entities and are absolutely essential to the scientific study of life.


Of course, the materialist sees through that dodge in an instant and rejects it! Information is not “perfectly equivalent to using space, time and mass to describe physical systems.” It is an admission that all these systems are subject to an immaterial reality.

Riding Two Horses at Once

Fundamentally, Barbieri wants a new paradigm “that fully accepts the implications of the existence of the genetic code” without dispensing with the old one, in which the genetic “code” cannot really exist by definition. But neither he nor anyone else can ride two horses at once. And here’s his real problem: He can’t have an honest discussion of these issues with the “life is just chemistry” advocates for reasons that have little to do with science and much to do with academic politics.

The nonsense will cease eventually. But eventually is a long way off, if Barbieri’s dilemma is any guide. Long before biology comes to terms with design in nature, it may be felled by the growing demand for the rule of private truth over public truth, even in matters of fact. And that rule is quite consistent with the idea that information does not belong in science anyway.

Cross-posted at Mind Matters News.